Saturday, July 23, 2005

Shigeo Miki memorial symposium.

I gave a talk in the 14th Shigeo Miki memorial symposium held in Geidai (Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music). I talked about the importance of the unrecallable memories in cognition and life. The theme came from my personal experience.
The anatomist Shigeo Miki (1925-1987) had a huge influence over the students in Geidai with his philosophy of "life memory" combined with a detailed discussion of the anatomical structure of various life forms from the fish to the man. Although I had come across his name in passing on several occasions, I never read his book, and thought that my life and Miki had little in common so far.
Then I suddenly realized that I actually had an opportunity to listen to one of the two lectures that Miki gave in the medical school of the Todai (University of Tokyo). I was 22 then. I was walking with my girl friend in the Todai campus, when I glanced upon this notice of a lecture on the development of human fetus in the womb ("The World of the Fetus", it said). Without much awareness I went into the lecture room. The man in the podium talked about how the prenatal development of the human body went through the various stages that the life followed in the long history of evolution. His enthusiasm was electrifying. When the lecture was over, and the lights were on, there was a huge applause.
Then I noticed something strange. My jacket was
wet on my left shoulder. Turning my face, I discovered that my girl friend was weeping. We went out of the lecture room, into the refreshing breeze of May. I asked her what was wrong. She said, after seeing so many photos of human fetus, she wondered why humans couldn't stop fighting each other.
That was a precious moment in my life, but for one reason or another I completely forgot about it. After almost 20 years, after reading a magazine article on Shigeo Miki I had a most strange feeling. Maybe that particular lecture I attended with my girl friend so many years ago was actually given by Shigeo Miki himself. I made enquiries to Hideto Fuse, professor at Geidai, and he confirmed my speculation was almost certainly true.
The very foundation of how I think about human memory was shaken by this experience. In the many years that I was oblivious of the Miki lecture, I think I was unconsciously influenced by what he said on that particular day. For example, when I went to the island of Bali and sat on the beach at night, listening to the waves gently breaking, there were moments when I thought about how our ancestors came ashore from the sea to the land. When I overheard that somebody was pregnant, I unconsciously reflected on the long history of the evolution of life.
In a silent and profound manner, the lecture by Shigeo Miki left a deep impact on my mind, with the particular memory never consciously recalled

Anatomist and thinker Shigeo Miki (1925-1987)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Roll over the neural correlates

In our lab meeting Thursday I discussed the concept of the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). Proposed in a series of papers by Francis Crick and Christof Koch, NCC has become the central issue in the scientific study of consciousness.
NCC is good in terms of providing lots of stuff to do. With the advancement of the brain activity measurement we are beginning to work out the detailed mapping between the brain's physical activities and our mental activities. There will be things to do for the next 10 to 20 years, at least.
On the other hand, just studying the neural correlates seems like an easy way out, with the heavy stone of the hard problem of consciousness left unturned. The very fact that you can do lots of things along a particular conceptual line is a testimony that it involves much of easy stuff.
In the discussion, I pointed out that the neural correlates as it stands today in neuroscience is not really pursued with logical rigor and relentless will to go to the finish line. The very concept of neural correlates is full of internal problems, which, if examined in detail and logical rigidity, would reveal some astonishing and non-trivial conclusions about the physical foundations of mentality.
Therefore, it is not wise to treat the neural correlates in a light-hearted manner. We need to take the neural correlates seriously.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Kuwahara Moichi's style of comedy.

It was Laurent Anzai Momy who introduced me to Moichi Kuwahara. Moichi produced the mega-hit album by Y.M.O. (Yellow Magic Orchestra) "Zoushoku". Moichi is famous for the "Snakeman Show" series broadcast on radio. Although quite successful, he is a quite unassuming person. After the first encounter, I got to know Moichi quite well, with my particular interest in his style of comedy stimulating a lot of thought.
Yesterday I went to visit the headquarters of his comedy kingdom and had a chat. There is something that Moichi has up his sleeves. In the northern Island of Hokkaido, there is going to be the hugely popular Rising Sun Rock festival. In that festival, Moichi is going to produce the "Black Hole" comedy tent in which there will be some comedy acts as well as other entertainments. I will be featured in the talk show on British comedy with Yasunari Suda, the well-know comedy critic.
I am very much looking forward to the festival. Summer in Hokkaido is something quite special, with long-lasting daylight and beautiful weather. Probably we will have an all-night party after the act.

Moichi Kuwahara, the Comedy King

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Dialogue with Oriza Hirata

I had a dialogue with the famed dramatist Oriza Hirata in the Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo. Oriza is known for such pieces as "Tokyo Note". Our dialogue will be published in the Drama magazine of SPT.
Oriza and I are both concerned with how people from different contexts can try to understand each other. Many people satisfy themselves in staying in one context. Some people are under the illusion that accomplishments made in one particular context automatically translate into something universal. In actuality, relevance in one context does not always travel well in another. In particular, when people from different cultural backgrounds meet, there is a genuine need to go out of your own context and try to extend the self-- a demanding and often failing attempt, a food for the soul even so.
Myself, I would like to go out of my own context. I would like to understand the context in which other people live, to stretch out my short arm and embrace their private worries and ambitions. Without that kind of attempt, life is not worth living.

Oriza Hirata, the Japanese dramatist.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Twenty Whales.

When I am attending a meeting and get bored, I sometimes jot down something on my notebook. Here's the product of love at the latest occasion of boredom. It is called "Twenty Whales". Produced while I was one of the panelists in a symposium held on 8th June 2005.

larger file

The Time Machine.

I dreamt that I was a kid again, traveling with my parents and my sister. After an overnight trip, it used to feel nostalgic to come back home, dropping off the nearest station and walking towards the house. These days are long gone and my parents are getting old. If I could go back to my child days even for a brief moment, I would pay a substantial amount of money.
There is a lot of money to be made out of a time machine. Pity it cannot be built so easily. There are some arguments about whether it is in principle possible at all, including the famous paper by Kurt Goedel. Personally I would bet on its being impossible. If the general theory of relativity predicts that it is possible, then probably there is some flaw in Einstein's model of the Universe.
I accept that time machines are not possible, and I satisfy myself with being nostalgic for the nostalgy I felt as I was coming back home hand in hand with my parents when I was a kid. It is terrible that time never flows backward. Maybe it is a blessing as well.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Nurturing Genius

Summer in Tokyo is sometimes very hot. Yesterday it was almost steaming. I went to Odaiba again to give the blessing of science lecture. On the way, I read Michael Tye's Ten Problems of Consciousness. This book comes with some delightful illustrations. When you are thinking about something as hard as the mind-brain problem, it is good to have this light-hearted divertimento into the picture.
Mr. Eisuke Ito of Gumma University was among the audience. He is only 20, and yet he carries with him journal articles on brain and mind. We had a chat over beer after the lecture, and he was a delightful fellow.
It is a wonderful time we live in, this internet age. In the old days, it used to be that if you wanted to read the papers in the specialist journals you had to go to the university library. You then had to look it up in the huge volumes, ask the secretary for the permission to copy (if at all possible). By the time you got the article, you were quite exhausted. Now, you can just google for the article you desire. Most of the time the researchers have the pdf file ready on the web free of charge. Thus, aspiring young men like Yusuke can get access to the latest in research, time and willingness permitting. Isn't it wonderful? Now we have the ubiquitous infrastructure for nurturing genius. Universities and other elite institutions do not have the privilege they used to have any more.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The blessing of science.

On Saturday, I went to the Mediage museum in Odaiba. Odaiba is the heart of Tokyo waterfront, with the headquarter of Fuji television and several other tourist attractions nearby. The Sony Computer Science Laboratories Exhibition 2005 is currently on, and I was scheduled to give a lecture on "The blessings of science" to the general public.
I started my talk with how observing insects in the nature in my childhood helped me become a scientist. Insects are rich feeders to your brain's emotional system. When you are immersing yourself among the wild creatures, you experience various forms of emotion. Discovering a beetle, you reach for it, and realize that it is actually not a favored species of beetle, but a wild cockroach. You shudder and want to run away from the spot. Sometimes you encounter an elegant butterfly and thank for the passage of season which brought that particular time of the year again. Observing insects and other living things in nature, you go through rich and complex ecology of emotions that has been passed on to us from the ancient time in which our ancestors hunted for food in the wild.
I went on to describe how science is similar to caring for others. If your mind is closed to how others feel, think, and see the world, then your mind is also closed to science. Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravitation because he did not just say "apples fall from the trees anyway. I don't care why". If you put yourself in the position of an apple in your imagination, then all these questions comes into your mind. Why should I fall? Why should I fall with this particular acceleration? If I put myself in the position of the moon, do I have to fall too? Doing a good science is similar to putting yourself in the position of an old woman, a homeless, an infant, a man who has just been made redundant. Science is all about caring for the various things in the universe, and therein lies the greatest blessing of science.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The blessing and closure of language.

I was having a late night (or rather, an early morning) chat with two editors, Takeshi Masuda of Chikuma Shobo, and Kanako Oshima of Gentosha. Chikuma and Gentosha are major publishing houses in Tokyo, and they are both editing my book. At around 2.00 a.m. and after several glasses of beer, I suddenly hit upon an idea that the language game concept of Ludwig Wittgenstein might have relevance to the problem that I have been thinking a lot about recently, i.e., the blessing and closure that the faculty of language bestows on us.
Language makes it possible for us to communicate with each other. At the same time, it forms a closure for those who do not understand that particular language. What I write here does not make any sense for people who do not speak English. If I write in Japanese (which I do a lot) a larger number of people do not have access to the contents.
Isn't language frightening, when you consider both the blessings and closure that it brings. When there was no language, there was no breaking of symmetry. Once there is language, symmetry is lost and you have both blessings and closure. You open your eyes to many people, yet at the same time your mind is closed to others. I am growingly concerned about my own language policy, that's why I write my diary both in English and Japanese, hoping something would happen in my brain to appease the situation.

My diary in Japanese

Friday, July 15, 2005

Who writes the history?

The Chichu art museum on the island of Naoshima is celebrating its first anniversary. The director Yuji Akimoto came to give a lecture in my class at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (Geidai). He showed how the "Art House Project" started with plain ordinary houses on the island. "There was a particular difficulty in starting from the chaotic space that the interior of the abandoned houses presented, and shift to the domain of abstract expression, culminating in the refined art that we find in the Rei Naitoh and Tatsuo Miyajima houses today". Yuji said.
Later in the evening, we had the Chichu Art Museum first anniversary symposium. Michael Govan of DIA art foundations gave a talk. Some audiences expressed concern that DIA is perhaps too much concerned with the promotion of American artists. I thought:It is natural for DIA to be concerned with American artists, since it is based in America. Although Michael stressed that it is not DIA policy to promote only American, there is a natural tendency as anybody can see. The whole question boils down to "who writes history". There is no single authoritative history. If the Japanese art world has been under the shadow of the history of contemporary art as dictated by people in the "mainstream", they have been doing so by their own choice. You can just ignore whatever mainstream framework there is, at your own freedom and at your own risk. Freedom comes with risk.
I enjoyed the evening overall.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Piet Hut's Future of Science.

Piet Hut of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton came to visit us. First we met near Waseda University. Piet gave a guest lecture in the "Introduction to Psychology" course that I have been giving this semester. Piet talked about the "Future of Science". As an astrophysicist, Piet had an unusual approach in the temporal dimension, standing away from the modern history of science and taking a long-shot view of things to come. He talked about two possible scenarios. In one scenario, the progress of science from now on would experience a state of stagnation, with pretty much secrets of the universe already discovered and expressed in science in its present form. In another, which Piet thinks is more likely, we would continue to make progress, so that 100 or 1000 years from now, science as we know it would be changed beyond recognition. Piet was kind enough to visit our lab, and give yet another informal talk. We went to the Toono-Monogatari restaurant in Gotanda and had a chat over beer and sake. A very stimulating day.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Seiji Ozawa's ill-posed problem.

I went to see the rehearsal of Brahms's 2nd concert by Seiji Ozawa. It was interesting to observe how Ozawa tried to overcome the ill-posed problem of conducting the full orchestra, consisting of a million different parameters. What he did was first to vocalize what he sensed with fitting language, and then translate it into appropriate action commands. For example, he talked about "consonants" and "vowels", and asked the violinists to be more outgoing with the "vowels". In terms of specific action, he instructed them to press the bow stronger. Thus, he acted as a transformer of sensory perceptions into motor actions. You need to be a keen appreciator of music as well as a general actionist of instruments in order to be a good conductor.
At the end of the day, with all the skills of perception and verbalizing action commands, it is still an ill-posed problem, conducting a full orchestra. Someone close to the orchestra mentioned that at the moment Ozawa appeared at the podium, the sound changed. That means something beyond a simple controlled action is happening. Perhaps being conducted is like expressing one's heart in the presence of a experienced mentor. If you feel that your mentor is understanding and is attentive to what you say, your words become more expressive, more true to heart, profound. Thus, the ill-posed problem is overcome by the spontaneity of the agents involved.
We all live an ill-posed life spontaneously.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Club culture.

I had a chat with the famed music critic Reiko Yuyama. She gave a few funny tips on which Sushi restaurant to go to in Tokyo. (She recently published a book). Otherwise we talked about the Club culture. I am not a Club fanatic and the exposure to the latest has been scanty and scarce. However, I did notice that there are some fundamental changes taking place.
For one, people do not "show off" any more. A club is not a place to be seen and to see. You have this cozy individuality among the crowd, oblivious of the eyes of the others. It is not something "above" daily life. It is rather a continuation of the every day, with the music not depicting a particular theme or meaning. It is just here and now. The Club is becoming an arena for just being oneself, in the smooth and rapturous flow of sound and beat. People do not differentiate any more, reflecting the "end of history" as such, in which man has struggled to overcome and catch up with the various schisms that existed. Sure, there are some walls still to be overcome, but you want to overcome them in a different way from the past. Maybe there is a quantum jump.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Sunday walk

On Sunday, I went to Heirin-ji temple to take a walk. In the Kanto plane, there are certain types of natural forest where I used to look for insects when I was a kid. I used to collect butterflies, but nowadays I look for all kinds of insects, observe their behavior and habitat. I feel as if I am a bird, looking for food. As a bird, I need to differentiate the species, know their behavior, and taste. Humans do not have a monopoly of natural history. Wild animals have a inherent drive to get to know the environment.
I went to the Gusto restaurant in the evening. I had a stir-fried pork dish. While I was at it, I was struck by the idea that the kind of food I am having daily is very different from what is naturally available from the environment. More oil in it. Therefore lies the reason for obesity. We cannot go back to the natural, but it is good to go back to the past from time to time.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Language policy.

Soon after I came back from my California trip, one phrase started to ring in my head. "Language policy". I did not know where it came from. I just felt that it was relevant to some situations happening to me and the nation. I look up in the dictionary, and I find that it refers to how the government treats the minority languages within its jurisdiction. That is a bit different from what I expected, but related.
You must know that in Japan, nationalistic arguments are on the rise, especially towards the neighboring nations. Every nation has the right to be proud of its history, and is justified to wish for its own welfare. But nationalism is a bit like wishing for the success of yourself and your family. Sure, it is a natural thing, but you hesitate to call it idealism in the modern world. If someone says that his ideal is for his family to be successful, you would think that he is a bit naive and petty. These adjectives are appropriate for some "patriots" that are rampant in the Japanese media. I would not go far as to call them scoundrels, though. Johnson's famous quote is not really appropriate. It is not even their last resort. They are not living a full life requiring one.
In the modern world, in order to have a full life, you need to adapt a good language policy. Since English is the de facto standard, it is easy to have one for native English speakers. They even don't need to have one. I am not a native English speaker, so I will not touch upon non-policies.
What is happening in Japan is a domestication of discourse. The Japanese "patriots" can say what they say in the media, because they are saying it in Japanese. Some of their claims would be unsustainable if expressed in a more international language, as the English. It is like boasting in a family gathering, "the house of the Mogi (that's my family name) is great!" The family members will listen to you, but nobody else.
I am not saying that everyone should speak English. It is something subtler.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Feeding the animals in the craziness zoo in my brain.

Recently my best friend, Takashi Ikegami reminded me about the value of craziness. We must defend it, nurture it, or otherwise we perish.
In Cambridge U.K. (where I stayed in 95-97), they had the one of the world's earliest application of webcam. That was the "coffee maker" camera, where one could always check the amount of coffee left in the pot in the meeting room (The Trojan Room Coffee Machine, Today I checked the site after so many years and discovered that the service has been discontinued. Anyway, that kind of craziness is the hallmark of University campus. We need more of that in our daily life, inside or outside the campus. Takashi sounded as if that craziness is particular to a University campus. Well, that may be true about some universities, but not all of them. There are stuffy professor types, and too serious students as well, you know. To be fair, other institutions are not without their share of whimsical craziness. In the Newton Institute (which is a research laboratory based in Cambridge) there was this huge collection of blackboards everywhere, and people could start discussing (or arguing) anytime they liked, anywhere they preferred, with the aid of the ubiquitous blackboard. There was a blackboard even in the men's room (sorry, I could not check the other one for obvious reasons). So that was crazy, too.
Soon after Andrew Wiles uncovered his proof of Fermat's last theorem, I was using the men's room, and there was this scribble on the blackboard. "I discovered a fatal flaw in Wiles' proof. However, this space is too small to write it". You get the gist of it.
Excuse me, I must finish writing this journal in a hurry, as I need to feed the animals in the craziness zoo in my brain. See you later.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

New year's resolution 2005

Here's my new year's resolution.

Friday, October 29, 2004

SFN 2004 -- A Disneyland for Neuroscientists

The Society for Neuroscience Meeting 2004 in San Diego was again a Disneyland for neuroscientists. There were well more than ten thousand participants. The convention center was full of people migrating from talk to talk, poster to poster, their identity feebly accessible through the name tag on the necklaces, except in these Poisson distribution following cases when somebody happened to be one of your acquaintances.
I awaited eagerly the talk by Wolfram Schultz. In the last few years, his works on dopamine neurons have been increasingly inspiring, in that they address the hitherto unaddressed problems of how to handle uncertainty in a robust way (sometimes branded with the new term "neuroeconomics"). I enjoyed his talk hugely, not the less so as I discovered that his idea of a typical reward for the human brain was a bottle of beer. Wolfram now resides in University of Cambridge, U.K., but is originally from Germany, a country known for the passion of good cold beers.
The Disneyland metaphor that I mentioned above is not a trivial one. Even for a prominent senior scientist like Wolfram Schultz, it is almost impossible to be known to everybody. So everyone remain largely anonymous in the mobbing crowd, with some people preoccupied with a cure for Alzheimer's disease, some with the enigma of the prefrontal function, and yet some with brain machine interface. Nobody is given an ostensibly VIP treatment, lining up at the registration desk, queuing to get a cup of Starbucks. The Disneyland metaphor is also a testimony of the status quo of neuroscience as an increasingly big and fragmented endeavor, with nobody really knowing what is going on in the whole field.

Where's your poster? The poster board number extends from A to Z, and then from AA to ZZ+something, in order to accommodate the several hundred presentations given in each session.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Society for Neuroscience Meeting 2004

Right now I am in San Diego for the Society for Neuroscience meeting. We are presenting the following works this year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

To share the problem, not the answer.

I had a long conversation with the young Zen priest, Jikisai Minami in a temple in central Tokyo. Jikisai is known for his books on the Buddhist philosophy, emphasizing non-traditional and yet essential views on what Buddhism is all about. The conversation is to be published in the quarterly magazine "Kangaeru Hito" ("The Thinker") to be released in December.
In the conversation, Jikisai emphasized the importance of sharing the problem, while not necessarily sharing the answer. Sharing a particular answer, he said, might lead to the closure of the system. Many religions failed to remain open spirited because the leaders imposed a certain set of official answers. We can share the problem instead, he said. As human beings, we cannot escape from the fundamental constraints on our existence such as age and death. Everybody can share these basic problems. If we remain open-minded about the possible answers to these questions, then we can be religious and open at the same time.