Saturday, November 19, 2005

Abstracts for SFN 2005

Abstracts presented by our research group at the
Society for Neuroscience annual meeting 2005
(Washington D.C., U.S.A.)

Reactivation and consolidation in long-term memory
Fumiko Tanabe and Ken Mogi.

Role of meta-cognition in decision making under uncertain conditions
Fumihiko Taya and Ken Mogi

Robust perception of phonemes in complex stimulus conditions.
Kei Omata and Ken Mogi

Spontaneous ongoing dynamics and plasticity in neural networks.
Toru Yanagawa and Ken Mogi

Perception of objects in the pantomime effect and real pantomimes
Q. Zhang and K. Mogi

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

ICONIP papers

Papers presented at ICONIP 2005
(Taipei, Oct 30 to Nov 2 2005)

Omata, K. and Mogi, K.
Robust phoneme perception in complex stimulus conditions.
Proceedings of ICONIP 2005
pdf file

Sekine, T. and Mogi, K.
Effect of hand posture on tactile perception in crossed fingers.
Proceedings of ICONIP 2005
pdf file

Zhang, Q. and Mogi, K.
Proceedings of ICONIP 2005
pdf file

Sunday, October 30, 2005

My life as a Neanderthal.

The other day I went to a studio in central Tokyo and had my photos taken. Mr. Yamada of Bungeishunju publishing was with me. These photos were for the cover of my new book on literature ("The Descent of Qualia", to be published in December from Bungeishunju). The photographer used HUGE polaroid sheets. When the pictures came out, he stuck them on the studio wall. My life as a Neanderthal came into full view gradually.
I never thought of myself as a savage person, but these photos did depict me as a primitive man. Maybe there is something primordial within me.
On 20th October 2005, I turned 43. You could say that at may age it is good to be primitive and savage. For a start, I made a vow to go for jogging at least once a week. Let's see if I can manage that. It is difficult to live up to the reputation of a Neanderthal. All the more so in the hectic Tokyo, although where I live, there are some nice forests still left. What a relief for the Neanderthal.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

For the love of pampas grass

Autumn is probably the best season of the year for me. I particularly love the sight of the Japanese pampas grass swaying to and flo in the sunshine. The pity is I seldom have the time to take a good look at them for a long time. I am sure I can spend hours admiring the scene. Most often it so happens that I pass a spread of pampas grass in the car, on the train, and take just a brief glimpse of it, leaving my longing behind. Maybe they would be tossing the leftover particles of my soul in the blowing wind.
The pampas grass season is a long one. From late September until well into December, whenever you travel, you are sure to capture a sight of these beautiful plants. Japan in autumn becomes a pampas grass land, at least in my fond imagination.
One of these days I would walk though a pampas grass field and take in the autumn air deep into my lung, and thank for the occasional bliss that this frequently prosaic earth brings to us.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Transparent runner on the second base!

Many people have said various things about video games. Although there are many pros and cons, one thing is strangely missing from the current video games. A huge deficit of functionality, seeded in the game and then required for the human to conform, is apparent if you once notice it. Let's call that functionality "meta-cognition for rule-making" What does the meta-cognition signify here? Let me explain.
When I was a kid, I used to play the baseball a lot. The reality of suburban Japan at that time was that you wouldn't play in a proper baseball field. You had to make do with what vacant space there happened to be, either in the small playgrounds or chunks of land being vacant temporarily before the construction began. You sometimes chose to play with "triangular base", instead of the regular "diamond". You discussed with your friends whether there should be a catcher. The "strike" and "ball" counts were also optional. Stealing the base was seldom allowed. All these things had to be negotiated before the actual game started. You also had to decide what handicaps needed to be allowed for the weak and unskilled. All these negotiations were aimed, with the benefit of hindsight, at making the game the most enjoyable possible. You didn't simply play the game, you had to make all these rules. That's what I call meta-cognition. Standing out of the gaming itself, and observing it with the eye of an outsider.
There were even times when you had to resort to exotic rules. Like when there were only insufficient number of players, and you had to declare that a "transparent runner" was on the base. That happened when a player on the base had to be the next batter. He would then shout "transparent runner on the second base", and run to the batter's box.
All these meta-cognitive functions are lacking in today's video games. You don't make the rules, the computers make the rules. You simply try to maximize your performance under the dictatorship of the computer. Thus a whole area of human capabilities is forced to be dormant.
When you observe small kids playing, you would often notice that they are making their own rules. Like granting handicaps for the small and weak. The meta-cognition comes so naturally to children. It is a grand challenge for makers of video games to install that functionality. It is certainly a tall order.

A triangular base game. Everything so free and chaotic. You have to make your own rules.

Friday, August 12, 2005

"To Sir Georg Solti"

It was always a treat to go to the opera at the Covent Garden during the two years I stayed in the U.K. At one time, my best philosopher friend, Ken Shiotani, came to visit me with his wife. We went down from Cambridge to London on the train. We went to see the opera at the Covent Garden. I do not quite recall what we saw. In any case, the most memorable moment visited us outside the theatre, not inside it. Beside the theatre, there was a black, luxury car. As we passed by, we happened to glance inside. On the seat next to the driver, there was an envelope. "To Sir Georg Solti", the letters on the surface could be read.
At that time, the great conductor was still with us, and he was apparently doing something in the house, although he was not conducting on that evening. The envelope brought a sense of intimacy with the man, and although it was of course an illusion, that was a wonderful one even so. I and my philosopher friend later discussed that it was the highlight of the whole evening.

Sir Georg Solti 1912-1917.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

In the middle of rice fields.

I went to the municipality of Inashiki to give a public lecture on brain and mind. In Japan, railways are big. Although Inashiki is in the Kanto plane (in which Tokyo is situated), it is at least one-hour drive from any of the railway stations around. That means, in the railway-oriented Japanese psyche, Inashiki is very very far away. Perhaps these areas are one of the best-kept secrets for an incidental traveler. I enjoyed being driven by the organizers through the endless rice fields.
The great extension of plain land in summer means that there is a risk of thunder and lightening. We had a jolly loud one during my lecture. The air conditioning of the auditorium was malfunctioning, due to a heavy thunderstorm a few days earlier, I learned. The audiences were mainly teachers of elementary and junior high schools. The questions and discussions were enjoyable, with many insights gained from a direct interaction with the modern children, despite the heat.
It is always heartening to share thoughts with school teachers. You are reminded of your own past, when you were a small kid, being given many things by the well-meaning teachers, and then disappearing from their sight without saying enough words of thanks. Many essential interactions in this world are unidirectional. Teacher-pupil relations are representative of that truth in life.

A road in the middle of rice fields--a typical rural landscape in Japan.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Japan's postal reform is halted.

National politics is only the nation's residents' concern, so it may not be interesting for people outside Japan but yesterday was a historic day in Japanese politics. The postal reform bill proposed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was vetoed in the upper house. Koizumi dissolved the lower house, calling for a general election. He took the unprecedented measure to exclude the members of his party who voted "No" from the list of official candidates of the Liberal Democratic party.
The way the lower house is dissolved is rather dramatic and exciting. The Emperor in postwar Japan only serves a symbolic role in politics. The prime minister can, legally speaking, dissolve the lower house at any time. He asks the Emperor to sign the official order to dissolve. The order is carried to the house in a purple cloth, and the chairman reads the order. It is customary that the M.P.s cheer the dissolvement by repeating "Banzai", partly as a wish to come back to the house after the general election.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolves the lower house.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A world open only to the blind.

I had a public discussion with Yohei Nishimura, who is known for his arts education program for the blind. In addition, Nishimura is a famous ceramic sculptor in his own right. The discussion was a part of the Summer School for tactile art.
I began my discussion by stating how from the point of view of the brain's mechanism lacking the functionality of vision is not a simple case of deprivation. When you take one functionality from the brain, something else fills that space. It is not like "normal" people are on a 100 and blind people are, say, on 10 less. The "normal" and the blind are both on 100, with different compositions of functionalities.
There are worlds open to you only when you become blind. I remember the time when I visited the famous Kaidan-Meguri in Zenko-ji temple. In this ancient temple, you are led into an underground vault, which is totally dark. You cannot see anything, and you try to touch the "key to the paradise" hidden somewhere in the passage. The condition is supposed to symbolize the helpless condition of men before the almighty in this world.
When I was there, I was struck by the surprisingly rich wave of sensations and feelings that arise from walking in the dark, searching and touching with the hand in a hesitating and careful manner. For example, your forehead feels like it is burning, presumably expecting something to hit that part, should some obstacle be in your way. Although the search for the key to the paradise was not easy, I enjoyed the whole process.
When I came out of the pitch-dark vault, I was refreshed by the summer sunshine and wind. I reflected on what I had just experienced, in a totally sightless condition. I pondered on the contrast between inside and outside the vault. Then I suddenly realized that for a blind person there wouldn't have been a single difference. For them, the world would have been a continuous and homogenous condition of sightlessness, and they would not have noticed the transition. I realized what blessings I had as a sighted person, and at the same time appreciated the existence of a whole world that I missed.

Tourist guide to the Zenko-ji temple and other attractions in the vicinity

Zenko-ji temple at night.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

True Days of Infamy

Close scrutiny into history is revealing that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 and then on Nagasaki three days later, cannot be justified even on the premises of drawing the war towards the end. It was, simply put, a war crime, and the Americans should have the guts to admit that. These were the truly "days of infamy" for Americans. In today's highly unstable world politics climate, nuclear weapons are becoming much more vulnerable and lethal at the same time. We must come to the sane conclusion that any use of it, no matter how beautifully or bravely put, cannot be justified in any sense. Let's be brave enough to stop justifying a senseless use of brutality.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima just after the bomb. Today A World Heritage Site.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Dialogue with Rei Naito

I had a dialogue with the artist Rei Naito in the Bungeishunju building in Kioicho. The diaglogue will be published in "Bungakukai" (Literature World), the most respected literary monthly in Japan.
Rei Naito's artworks are going to be featured on the cover from the October issue of Bungakukai. The dialogue was intended to be a kick-off introduction of the artist to the readership of Bungakukai.
Rei Naito, a good friend of mine, is known for her exquisite arrangement of small things in a carefully prepared space. She believes, she said, that if you sincerely attend to one small thing in the world around you, that thing will reward you with a deep presence of beauty which makes you thankful for the very existence of the world as it is here and now. She has always lived with that particular sense of the appreciation of small things that be, without any specific reference to the already established religions or systems of thought. Her works are thankful depiction of the blessings that are apparent around us, sometimes buried in the busy goings of a modern world, but present all the same at any time. Like any great pieces of art Rei Naito's work makes us aware of what we've always known and unconsciously carried within us, but became oblivious in the busy daily execution of practical things.
After the dialogue we had a merry time in the "Pizza Mia" Italian restaurant near Bungeishuju building. The editor-in-chief Shigeki Okawa and Ms. Naoko Yamashita, who has edited my "Literature in the brain" essays in Bungakukai, were also present. The restaurant owner, the chef, and the waiter are all Italian. For strange and unknown reasons they do not speak a word of Japanese although the restaurant is situated in the heart of Tokyo and almost all the customers from local. The whole situation gave you a sense of traveling abroad, which was a nice little piece of midsummer's dream.

Rei Naito's "Pillows for the Dead" from the installation "Being Called"

Friday, August 05, 2005

My first download at the Apple iTunes Music Store

The long awaited Apple iTunes Music store opened here in Japan at last! I checked the site from my iTunes the first thing in the morning. They say there are roughly a million pieces on offer. I searched for some of my nostalgic numbers but could not find them. Maybe a million is not large enough to encompass the music universe that we all live in. The memorable first download was "Tounasuya- seidan" by the great Rakugo artist Kokontei Shinsho. Rakugo is the traditional Japanese art of comedy story-telling. A Rakugoka (Rakugo artist) sits on the floor to tell the comic story, so it is not a stand-up comedy, it is rather a sit-down comedy. "Tounasuya-seidan" is one of the most beloved masterpieces from the great Shinsho, about a delinquent son who repents and becomes a true man after some comic and yet heart-warming incidents in the ancient Tokyo of the Edo era (1603-1867).
I am happy to get this piece. Now I can listen to it on the Tokyo subway on my way to the lab.

My first download from the Apple iTunes Music Store was "Tounasuya-seidan" by Kokontei Shinsho, the famed Rakugo artist.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The taste of Guinness

I went to Dublin only once. I attended a conference organized by Tony Veale of the University College Dublin. When I and Yoshihide Tamori entered a pub on arrival, we were surprised to find ourselves in a dark room, with people's faces candle-lit in the many corners defined by chairs and tables. It was midday. The taste of our first genuine Guinness was quite impressive. In particular, the smooth and milky foam on top of the dark liquid really made one happy.
I have had some glasses of Guinness elsewhere, but never encountered that particular taste. So I concluded at that time that Guinness does not travel well. I thought that in order to taste the real one, you simply got to travel to Dublin.
Time passed, and modern technology made it possible to taste real Guinness on a daily basis here in Tokyo. I am not talking about the rapidly increasing Irish pubs here, I am referring to the canned beer on sale in the convenience stores. In the can, they have installed a special device called "floating widget", which produces the smooth creamy head that is the hallmark of Guinness in the Dublin pub. It is quite impressive.
So I don't have to travel to Dublin. I can just hop into one of the Tokyo convenience stores and by a can of Guinness. Then I think of the good times that I had we Tony Veale in Dublin, the musicality of the language, and feel a bit nostalgic.

The canned Guinness being sold in Tokyo

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Piet Hut and the QRIO

Piet Hut came to visit our lab for the second time. Dr. Fumihide Tanaka of Sony Intelligence Dynamics Laboratories was also present. We discussed about Fumihide's experiment on robot-infant interaction going on in a San Diego nursery school. There are already some interesting aspects emerging from this ongoing research. Piet made some keen observations.
Shinichi Nozawa of Waseda University, and Nobuo Ishikawa of Tokyo Institute of Technology also participated in the discussion. They are most likely to join our lab starting next April.
After the serious talk, we continued our exchange of thoughts in a more relaxed environment of "Asari", a nice Izakaya in Gotanda area frequented by us. After some mugs of beer and glasses of sake, the border between robots and humans, or between sobriety and merriment, seemed to become even fuzzier.
After the merry but serious "symposium", Shinichi Nozawa and Takayasu Sekine walked Piet back to the hotel.

The Robot in question. Sony's Qrio

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

How science makes the feeling deeper for Penguins

The French film "March of the Penguins" directed by Luc Jacquet is being shown in Japan. I went to the preview show. Although the effort of the crew to shoot the breathtaking scenes through the harsh winter of the Antarctica is laudable, the film, in my perspective, was seriously flawed in two essential respects. The oversimplified impersonation of the emperor penguins and the cheap "poetic" narrative. These flaws made the wonderful scenes much less enjoyable than otherwise.
People sometimes don't realize how an objective and scientific understanding promotes a deeper appreciation of life, rather than dissecting it out of it vital force. Science is sometimes depicted as cold and impartial, but the most profound perception of what life involves actually comes from scientific understanding.
In these respects, David Attenborough's "Life In the Freezer" produced by BBC is far superior in depicting the trials of life faced by these magnificent creatures on the white earth. In this much-praised film, Attenborough describes the life of penguins in a dry, matter-of-fact way. The Penguins are not there to entertain us, they are there to survive, human sentimentalism having nothing to do with the daily overcoming of their trials.
The march of penguins was cheap poetry. Life in the freezer showed much deeper poetry, made possible only through a rigorous and objective appreciation of the life of a creature far removed from us like a distant star.

Much deeper poetry. David Attenborough's Life in the Freezer.

Monday, August 01, 2005


When I was a kid, August was a special month. You had one month long vacation, in which you would go to places. Sometimes I would climb mountains with my parents. One year we went to Meshimori-yama in Nagano. I still remember the green slope, the gradual ascent to the top, and then the panoramic view. In those days you would follow somebody else's initiative, because you were small. There is a particular subjective feeling to following other's initiative. That is the hallmark of childhood. I sometimes miss the feeling. Nowadays I need to generate my own initiative and I do it in a matter-of-fact way. The long summer vacations are gone, and August is not a special month any more.

View of the Meshimori-yama mountain in Nagano.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Making "musical" out of the "Ring"

As a perfect Wagnerite I could not miss the New National Theater (in Tokyo) production of "Get back the Ring!". It was termed a "Kids Opera", so I expected some changes from the original work, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Actually the changes were substantial. What emerged from a substantial re-interpretation and arrangements from the original work was a "musical", with Brunnhilde portrayed as the beautiful princess and Siegfried as a suitor who would do bold things to win her love. Wotan is the King, who reluctantly, and then wholeheartedly, gives his daughter and the kingdom to the young hero.
All the music was from the original score, but the whole impression was that of a "musical", rather than a "music drama". I realized that the difference between a musical and an opera is not only in the music but also in the (con)text.
The musical format is well accepted in today's highly commercialism-oriented society, but it does not, in its prevalent style, really have a power to make one stop and think about deep issues such as death, life, and love.
The "musical" presented by the New National Theater probably left the kids and their well-meaning parents happy, but I wonder whether the audience were touched in a real sense either directly or indirectly by the greatness of the original work. In the original music drama, a man has to forsake love in order to win political power. There's incest and murder. One is bound by his own commitment in the past, and the space for free will is gradually diminished until one is led to the conclusion that the only way out is total self-denial. Then, when all the entangled elements appear to be just impossible to handle, the redemption by love gives a deeply satisfactory ending to the whole saga.
Although it is certainly a high order to depict all this in a "Kids Opera", I certainly think that it was possible to depict some elements, something that would inflict a benevolent "scar" on a child's heart. Every great work of art leaves a scar on one's mind, and the appreciation starts with the healing process.
"Get back the Ring!" failed to leave a scar, at least on this listener's heart. It was a great opportunity lost, for the kids in the theater and the well-meaning art directors of the New National Theater.

Poster advertising "Get Back the Ring!"

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Piet Hut's hightlights.

Piet Hut's hightlights.

The famed astrophysicist Piet Hut, who recently came to visit me, has a log of the highlights of his life. He was kind enough to put a pointer on his blog. Here I put my pointer to Piet, so that people can surf in a closed loop if they wish.

Prof. Piet Hut of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton.

James Joyce's delirium.

I used to have a very beautiful copy of "Dubliners" by James Joyce. I purchased it in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge, U.K., where I was studying as a postdoctoral fellow. The book came with lots of photos of the old Dublin, possibly from the time of Joyce. I was very fond of the book, and would read excerpts in my bed before I go to sleep. I somehow lost the copy and my favorite pictures are gone.
I think the first encounter with Joyce was The Boarding House. It was given as a reader for the summer vacation at senior high. I still remember one word; "delirium". It was in the phrase "They used to kiss. He remembered well her eyes, the touch of her hand and his delirium...."
The novel goes on to say "but delirium passes". In my case, somehow the delirium stuck with me, and I still read Dubliners from time to time. "Dubliners" for me represents the best in English prose.
I have not yet challenged the more intimidating pieces of Joyce. They should be good, coming from such a genius.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Earthquakes real and imagined.

We sometimes have earthquakes in Japan. In Tokyo, we have not had a really bad one in my personal history since birth. They say we may have the real thing at any time. Like any great earthquake centers in the world, such as California or Italy, it may strike today or tomorrow, but there is nothing you really can do about it.
Recently we've had some mildly bad earthquakes. There was no serious casualty, though. Yesterday there was yet another one. When I am in the middle of an earthquake, like recently, I sometimes wonder why I am not feeling that scared. Then I realize I have experienced worse ones in my dream.
From my childhood, probably because I grew up in an earthquake-rich region, I sometimes had earthquake dreams. In some of them, I would be in a building, and the building would swing to-and-fro, really slowly and with large amplitude. These imagined earthquake experiences left me bewildered and awed, like the very foundation of the world in which I exist is shuddered.
My dreams perhaps prepared myself for the really big ones, imagined or otherwise, so that the impression that actual earthquakes have on me is somehow diminished. In real life I have never experienced such an awful earthquake, swinging to-and-fro. But I surely have some idea what it would be like when it occurs.