Sunday, May 11, 2008

Meeting with Kim Peek

I had only the faintest idea, if any, what Salt Lake City was actually like. Naturally I remembered some fragmentary scenes from the 2002 winter Olympics. Beyond that, except for the faint connotation of the Mormon church and the self-evident indication of the existence of a "salt lake", most probably large, I did not have any premonitions of what to expect.

On 25th May 2008, I traveled from Tokyo to Salt Lake City, Utah, via San Francisco. As the airplane descended to make the final approach to the airport, I witnessed the vast expansion of water underneath. The geological variations manifested by the surrounding areas were fascinating to watch. I could see how the water, which presumably contained a high concentration of salt, merged itself with the land in an interesting gradation of colors. I looked on, and figured out that the tints and shades represented different conditions in the area such as shallow water, mud, or dry and flat earth. And these lands would of course be salty. Just like us organic life-forms, the mother earth itself was rich and heterogeneous, I thought, while my cheek was pushed against the airplane window.

It was already late afternoon when I found myself at the curb of the airport exit. As the car was driven towards the downtown, the most impressive element which entered my experience was the vision of mountains surrounding the plain which embraces the salt lake city area. The air was serene and cool, and I was already in a process of transfiguration from the busy streets of Tokyo, my native town.

The nightfall came soon enough. I went to the steak restaurant (Spencer's for Steaks and Chops) in the Hilton hotel. The waiter was friendly, and explained that they were famous for the quality of beefsteaks, notably the "cowboy cut", which he recommended. Why not, I said. Then he asked what brought me all the way to Salt Lake City. "I came to meet with Kim Peek", I said. "Do you know him, the renowned savant who inspired Barry Morrow to write the script for the movie Rain Man?" "Of course", the waiter answered. "Actually, Kim Peek comes to this restaurant from time to time with his father." "Oh, does he bring the Oscar with him?" "Yes", he said. "I hope you will have a good time with him!".

I really enjoyed the "cowboy cut" that the waiter brought to me. It seemed like a good omen. I was with the film crew of the Fuji television, one of the most popular key stations in Japan based in Tokyo. We were to make a program about Kim Peek and other notable savants of the contemporary time (Stephen Wiltshire of U.K. and David Helfgott of Australia). I was to meet with Kim Peek and Fran Peek, his father, and the crew was to film the event.

As a scientist, I hoped that I would be able to take a glimpse of what lies beyond the mind of this "stellar savant". My expectations were high. I had the intuition that meeting with Kim Peek would enrich me in domains not possible to be verbally expressed or documented easily in a scientific paper, and lead me to newly found venues of investigation, both intellectually and emotionally.

From the materials I studied beforehand I learned that Kim was 16 months old when Fran took him to be examined by a neurologist. The cold-hearted and (with the benefit of hindsight) careless verdict was to put Kim in an institution, and forget about him altogether. Fran did not comply with the advice. Fran took care of Kim, almost single-handedly, loved him, and encouraged him to develop his own unique talents. The result is one of the most remarkable brains known in human history. Uniqueness is probably a given, but it takes (an unconditional) love to nurture it.

The next day was spent preparing for the meeting and shooting some background scenes. We drove to the copper mining site, where they have dug a very large hole in search of valuable metals. We then went down to the shores of the salt lake, which actually looked like an ocean. Legend has it that the Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young, upon arriving at the lake shore, thought that they have reached the pacific ocean and decided to settle down. (It is one of the blessings of the land of America that you are close to untouched nature no matter where you are.)

In the evening we came back to downtown again. The film crew thought it would be a good idea for me to ride on the horse drawn carriage. I sat next to the lady who held the reins. When the lady asked me what bought me to Salt Lake City, I mentioned the name of Kim Peek. Her face brightened instantly. "Oh, I know him!" she said. "Kim Peek once came to my daughter's school to give a talk. He came with his father. After the talk, we chatted for a while". "Did he bring the Oscar?" "Sure he did. He was a very interesting person."

Thus, people in the City seemed to know Kim Peek well. I could feel that the footprints of Kim Peek was everywhere in Salt Lake City. It was as if the encountering process had already begun even before the great day dawned on me.

Finally, the day came. It was early morning, and we started in the direction of Kim's house. I was told beforehand that he was living in a nice neighborhood. The sky was clear, and refreshing air was blowing against my face through the open window. The car meandered off a busy street and eventually found itself parked amidst the tranquility of suburban greens.

The crew told me which house I should walk to. I took to the path, approached the designated address, and knocked on the door. Almost immediately I heard a faint sound from inside. Some moments later, a gentleman was looking out of the door, which I recognized as Fran Peek. "Hello" I said. "Hello" Fran said. Then Fran called in a gentle voice to somebody inside the house.

A few seconds passed, and I could hear the footsteps of another person from within. There appeared Kim Peek himself. I was not sure what to expect from our very first encounter. There was no hesitation on the part of Kim, however. He walked straight up to me, grabbed my shoulders, and held my body very closely to his. Then he moved his face close to mine, and said in a whispering voice. "You have made yourself a great man. People admire you for what you have done in your own field."

That was the very first sentence that Kim spoke. I was to listen to remarks of essentially the same nature from Kim in the following hours on that day that we spent together, either directed to me or others in the crew. Holding somebody very close to himself and whispering assuring remarks was clearly Kim's favorite way of greeting people. I was to appreciate the profound social significance of Kim's mannerisms.

We took some time to look at the living room, which was under refurbishment at the time of our visit. There were several interesting items. One of them was a large trophy, which, Fran explained to us, was for an award only two persons received thus far, namely and Kim Peek and Christopher Reeves, for overcoming one's difficulties. There was also a drawing of Kim Peek done by one of the famous savant artists living in the United States.

It was time to go outside. I walked slowly admiring the beautiful day alongside Fran and Kim towards an open green field nearby. We found a bench and sat. The sun sprinkled the beam over us. Soon the conversation started. Or rather, time passed by as Kim spontaneously spoke of various themes that came to his mind, with Fran helping us by adding explanatory remarks to what Kim said.

It was fascinating to witness the dynamo behind Kim's mind. Kim seemed to make associations almost at random, or it so seemed to an innocent onlooker. However, it gradually became evident to me that there was a solid structure of association behind what Kim had to say, whether it was about current affairs, some people that Kim and Fran used to know, or detailed facts of history ranging from British monarchy, baseball, and the great wars.

During our conversation, Kim did not sit still. He would stand up out of the blue and would walk around, endlessly muttering to himself. Kim would occasionally come up to me, would push my arms in a guiding manner downwards so that they would hang straight. Then he would hold my upper arms tight with his hands and whisper the ego-reassuring words again.

Fran was Kim's careful and caring partner. Fran would gently say "Kim, why don't you come back to the bench so that they can film while you are talking to Ken." Kim would follow his father's words, but would start walking around again in a few minutes.

It was a revelation to me that Kim's awesome memory power was not limited to the "public domain", in which people can verify the accuracy of Kim's memory by independent means. Kim's intellectual energy did not make a distinction between those knowledge pertaining to personal matters from those belonging to the wider world. Kim would make remarks about people who were living nearby, who have moved, married, died, had memorable incidents, or said something interesting to Kim and Fran.

"Wasn't it so, dad?" "Didn't he, dad?" "Didn't they, dad?" Kim would ask Fran after saying something about the past,
and Fran would say "yes", nodding in a very assuring manner. "You see, Kim would never say anything he doesn't actually know" Fran said, during one of these occasions when Kim stood up and wandered away from the bench, where Fran and I were sitting. "He would never tell a lie. Everything he says is true. There are times when what he says is so complicated and detailed that I do not know what he is talking about. On other times it is difficult to follow the associations that he makes. However, when it is possible to verify what he says, it becomes clear that Kim is 100 percent correct."

The film crew wanted to have a solid evidence of Kim's extraordinary abilities in a manner that viewers in Japan could understand. Accordingly, I mentioned my birth date, 20th October 1962. Literally without a delay, Kim said "Saturday". It was true. Then I read out the birth dates of some of the people who would appear on the program when the shot film is edited and broadcast. Kim correctly answered the days of the week for all of them, each time without any noticeable interval between my questioning and his answer.

It is known that Kim is born with a uniquely configured brain. He lacks the corpus callosum entirely, so that his left and right brains are more or less "independent" from each other, without the usual flow of information which binds the two hemispheres together in normal subjects. Although it is not the case that the agenesis of corpus callosum always results in a prodigious memory, it is certainly the case that Kim's special abilities developed under this special condition. The story of Kim's life is a manifestation of the value of neurodiversity, a philosophy which would endow the individualities of various brain conditions special and unique values free from the monotonous and often discriminatory systems of evaluation such as I.Q.

Even with a prior knowledge of Kim's condition, the demonstration of his unique abilities were so astonishing that it shook the very foundations of my belief system of what constitutes a human being. The sense of awe that we feel in the presence of a person like Kim derives itself from our admiration of a higher intelligence. The universe is constructed in such a wonderful manner that the numerical bookkeeping is conducted at a level of depth and detail unimaginable for a mortal human, no matter how gifted he or she may be within the scale of the human race. No matter whether one believes in God (traditional or unconventional), or is an atheist or an agnostic, if one is blessed with a power of reason to comprehend the makeup of the universe as modern science has revealed and continues to clarify, one cannot avoid being awe-struck at the magnificence of the design of the universe, whoever might have been responsible for its genesis. The manifestation of a super intelligence clearly has a divine connotation for us. When one witnesses a person like Kim Peek, a feeling of reverence surges from within.

After having a quite interesting conversation on the bench for a few hours, we drove to Kim and Fran's favorite restaurant nearby, Anna's Cafe. There we had an intimate time. It was heartwarming to see how Fran helped with cutting the food into small pieces so that Kim could easily eat them. The condition of agenesis of the corpus callosum resulted in Kim being unable to conduct basic motor tasks necessary in everyday life. As a consequence, Fran has to help Kim with most of his daily chores, brushing his teeth, taking the shower, undress and dress, etc. The flowering of Kim's special talent was not possible without Fran's devotion and affection.

Fran brought the Oscar to Anna's cafe. When a waitress or a customer approached, Fran would ask quite friendlily "Have you ever held an Oscar?" People would invariably say "No", and were delighted to hold the evidence of Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay presented to Barry Morrow. Barry kindly gave the Oscar to Kim to take it around and show to people. Consequently, it has since become the Oscar held by the most number of people.

The Oscar is an ice-breaker, as well as an instantly effective explanation of Kim's uniqueness. The film Rain Man made the life easier for Kim and for many people with savant syndrome, as people from the street came to know the existence of such uniquely gifted individuals as depicted so wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman in that film.

It was moving to observe how demonstrating such feats as telling the day of the week of a person's birth date has become a mode of communication for Kim Peek. Many people with savant abilities are also autistic, although savants are not limited to people with autism. Kim Peek does not belong to the autistic spectrum by diagnosis, and is quite sociable and eager to associate with people. However, Kim apparently has a difficulty in understanding other people's mind, making communication in a conventional manner awkward.

It was a great discovery on the part of Kim that he could make people pleasantly surprised and engaged by displaying his memory power. With the unfailing support of Fran, it was now possible for Kim to establish a mutually rewarding relationship with other people, even when they were perfect strangers.

The fact that Kim was able to compensate for his difficulties in reading other people's mind with his tremendous memory power, often associated with the very failure of cognitive abilities related to the so called theory of mind, set me thinking a lot, and for a long time. What an ingenious way to get around one's inabilities! Kim's almost compulsive manner of greeting, namely the tight grasping of both arms and the whispering of assuring words at a very close distance, also seemed to be an effort to overcome communication difficulties. Kim would like to associate with people somehow, although not in a manner conventionally accepted by the society. Savant-like memory is not usually classified as a manifestation of social abilities. It is rather considered to be an antithesis of of what is social. The "double roles" played by Kim's savant abilities in the context of social relationships are both humanely moving and intellectually revealing. And Kim's life story keeps going in interesting directions, a continued journey in a world yet unknown to humans.

Leaving Anna's cafe, we headed for the Salt Lake City public library, where Kim would spend hours reading books. It is said that Kim is able to read two separate pages with his left and right eye at the same time, remembering virtually everything written therein. A Scientific American article ("Inside the mind of a savant") published in 2005 reports Kim's tremendous ability thus: "Kim began memorizing books at the age of 18 months, as they were read to him. He has learned 9,000 books by heart so far. He reads a page in eight to 10 seconds and places the memorized book upside down on the shelf to signify that it is now on his mental hard drive."

As soon as we arrived at the library, Kim disappeared with one of the crews. After a while, Kim came back. We went up to the fourth floor with him. Once out of the lift, Kim started to walk through the shelf, appearing as if he was looking for something interesting.

It became eventually apparent, however, that Kim had a clear mind of what he wanted to show us from the beginning all along. Kim took us to where the phonebooks were. Kim mentioned a relative's name, who married with somebody several years ago. Kim apparently wanted to confirm the address of the aforementioned relative. He went straight to a location in the bookshelf, and, taking a particular phonebook, opened a specific page straight away, without any signs of hesitation, behaving in every respect as if he knew the wanted information was on that particular page.

That was the last manifestation of Kim's incredible ability on that day. By that time, I was accustomed to Kim's idiosyncratic modes of behavior. I was not surprised when Kim continued to come up to me and hold my arms tight, whispering the same sort of magic words of assurance, looking into my eyes from very close, occasionally bursting with breath, always friendly, constantly in motion, driven by an invisible dynamo from within.

I could see that taking care of Kim was a very tough job for Fran. Fran's unfailing support for all those years is a wonderful story of love and understanding. I could appreciate, although only partially, one of the reasons why Fran had been able to go through all these hardships. Kim had such a charming personality. It could be even said that one was addicted to Kim's manners. Kim's countenance would suddenly change without any warning, expressing an apparent agitation within. The volcanic eruptions of awesome memory power, the dynamic movements of body, the willingness to share his talents with the passers by, the gleam in his eyes, the whispered reassurances, empathy, all these things together made "the Kim Peek experience" deeply rewarding and transforming.

It was finally the time to say good bye to Kim and Fran, two extraordinary individuals I learned to like, respect, care for, and even love during such a short time. The crew took the photo of us three standing in front of the library, with Fran holding the famous Oscar.

As the photographer was ready to take a snap, Kim yawned, in a big and slow movement, as if to gulp down everything to be known, to be felt, and to be witnessed in the cosmos.

Ken Mogi, Kim Peek, and Fran Peek

Kim is an honor for all of us. An inspiration, an enigma. I still cherish the image of Kim looking like a lion king. No matter where I am, I will always look for the savannah in which Kim's spirit roams and reigns. We would be able to breath more freely once we find the promised land.

(The meeting took place on the 27th April 2008. The Fuji television program will be broadcast in July 2008. My whole-hearted thanks to Kim and Fran Peek for their kind hospitality.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

The annunciation

I was in Kobe, delivered a lecture at an academic conference. After the sessions, I found myself near the Rokko mountains. The spring was finally in the air. I was admiring the gentle variation of natural tints and shades of the forest that covered the rocky slopes, painted on the phenomenology of my mind by the nature's everlasting process of life.
Subconsciously, I think I was pondering the origin of human creativity, a subject of my recent investigations. Suddenly, I realized a beautiful metaphor for the conception of a new idea.

The annunciation.

When a new idea visits us, the archangel Gabriel kneels before us, telling us that a new idea has been conceived. The idea does not stand still. Once conceived, it keeps growing, matures, until finally a fruit is borne.
Life is a vast ocean of change in which the annunciation might visit us at any moment. The miracle is to be found in the most subtle symptoms. We thus breathe on earth forever enthralled.

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The natural history of contingency

The natural history of contingency
by Ken Mogi

One of the deepest joys in life is to understand more fully the world in which we find ourselves, as the days unfold.
The objective knowledge of how the universe is constructed is very much related to the subjective working wisdom of daily life. The academic and the worldly are interrelated. Without a background of wisdom accumulated over the many years by scholars and thinkers, we cannot hope ever to enrich our individual lives. Without jumping into the ocean of life in which the unknowns await, we cannot aspire to accomplish anything substantial in our academic endeavors. A system of knowledge which would ultimately encompass the whole universe starts from the very private experience of this small "I". The microcosmos resonates with the macrocosmos. In that realm, the traditional wisdom of "tao" itself would be gradually fused into the grand ensemble of wisdom, western, eastern or otherwise. At this meeting point of the knowledge of the world and the knowledge of life lies the human brain.
What is deeply moving in the novel "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes is the process in which Charlie Gordon gradually comes to an understanding of what have been happening to him once a successful operation endows him with an improved intelligence. Various scenes from his life would flash back, as Charlie starts to comprehend how other people have been feeling, regaining his own emotions. Through this "rite of passage" does Charlie finally come to a reconciliation with his own past. Charlie, in a sense, lives his life all over again.

(This is the author's own translation of the opening sentences from the essay "The natural history of contingency" ("Guuyu sei no shizenshi") which originally appeared in Japanese in the quarterly magazine "Kangaeru Hito" (The Thinking Man) published by Shinchosha . The "Natural history of contingency" essay series will be carried in Kangaeru Hito over the next two years.

Monday, January 21, 2008


A few days ago I caught a cold. Walking around in a T-shirt was not such a good idea. They say the cold affects your stomach this year. (When you think about it, they say so every year, actually.) On the morning after I found that I lost my appetite, and could not bring myself to eat breakfast.

I expected a full working day ahead, and had to eat something. On the table I found a banana. I took a nibble, and felt that I could eat on. In less than a minute, I finished the whole thing.

Thanks to the banana, I could carry the weight of my life that day. Now the cold is gone.

Aren't the bananas wonderful. They used to belong to the luxury food category in the postwar Japan. They were like jewels. The sight of bananas would make people filled with yearning and envy. Now they are sold very cheap. A child doesn't take much interest in the bananas. I don't, either, usually. But the fact remains that the bananas are wonderful.

I once heard it said that people react to beautiful things even when they are deeply depressed. Bananas must be to the stomach as beauty is to the brain.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sushi doesn't travel.

One of the good things living in Tokyo brings into life is the experience at fine sushi restaurants. Sushi might have transformed itself into one of the more fashionable food items in various parts of the world, becoming part of the staple diet first for the connoisseurs, and then for the general populace. Dan Ruderman, one of my former colleagues at the Horace Barlow laboratory in Cambridge U.K., used to boast that the best sushi in the world was to be found in California.

However, the essence of the best of sushi does not travel well. That remains surprisingly true in today's globalized world. In a sense, the heart of sushi has not moved even an inch. To enjoy the authenticity, simple purity, and get immersed in the sensual bliss, you simply have to travel to Tokyo. Needless to say, you have to know where to visit. In addition you need to know certain unspoken rules, what to appreciate, and observe the essential customs to make the miracle happen.

A proper "sushiya" is not even a "restaurant" in the western sense. For a starter, in many established places there is no menu or price lists. You simply sit down at the counter, and the culinary ritual starts without the nuisance of an order. In an "omakase", the "oyaji" (chef) of the sushiya would set before you various nigiri sushis, one after one, with a minimalist explanation of what they are.

Various specimen of "neta" (fish to be taken care of through miscellaneous tradition honored steps and then artfully sliced to finally become the toppings on rice) have been purchased in the market with the greatest care imaginable. It is an art of procurement requiring many years of training to master. For example, in order to secure the best maguro (tuna) which is arguably the king of sushi neta, a working knowledge encompassing a wide range of sushi phenomenology is necessary: The pros and cons of various fishing methods (angling, trolling, trawling) in affecting the final quality of meat, the seasonal changes of availability in various parts of the ocean around Japan and the rest of the world, the strength and weakness of each fish port, the anatomy of the fish body ("akami", "chutoro", "otoro", and other rarely encountered parts). On top of all that, the chef must have the skill to prepare the culinary jewels from the sea to obtain the best results.

It is the whole culture of sushi in its dedication to the finest details of procuring and preparing the neta that is so hard to travel. As the result of the mutually nurturing relationship between the oyaji and the customers over many years, the atmosphere in a excellent sushiya approaches that of a monastery, a similarity in contraction where the incessant pursuit of sensual pleasure ultimately culminates in a stoic and almost forbidding ritual of spiritual endeavor.

In sushi restaurants in California or New York, one may be able to enjoy good nigiri sushis and brand new rolls (accompanied by avocado or otherwise). but the serene air of the best Tokyo sushiya has simply not arrived. The difficulties involved are similar to the ones encountered when trying to remake Kurosawa in a western context. Like the swift and glittering swordwork of a master samurai, the core of sushi does not travel.

(Sukiyabashi Jiro, which recently received three stars in the Michelin Guides, making Mr. Jiro Ono the world's oldest three-star chef at 82 years, is one of the most honored sushiyas in Tokyo)

Friday, January 04, 2008

The brotherhood of the living and the non-living

During the new year holidays, I had a chance to glance at some of the old photos at my parents' house. The old times certainly existed, but are sometimes difficult to hold vividly in one's memory. When these times were "here and now", I certainly breathed and reveled in the unmistakable qualities of the passage of time. I could not escape from it. Moments of my life flourished and then perished, never to return or to be regained. There were people around. My parents were once at my own present age or even younger.

In the long history of humanity that have now fatally passed, countless people have wondered why it is that all living things are destined to die. This particular enigma originates from the more general and arguably greater puzzle of the passage of time. The mystery of life is a part of that of temporality.

There was a time when the earth found itself in its infancy, still hot and sometimes violently erupting. That time is now gone. Once there was a collision between the earth and a meteorite with a diameter of a few kilometers, making dinosaurs and other species on earth extinct. As "here and now", these periods had the same encapsulating and inescapable qualities for the contemporary dwellers, whether actual or hypothetical, conscious or unconscious, living or non-living.

Mortality is not unique to life. It is an unavoidable consequence of the flow of time. Time itself is mortal. Mortality is the consequence of, and the prerequisite for, any changes that befall this world. Pondering the nature of time opens one's eyes to the hidden agenda of the universe: The brotherhood of the living and the non-living. Thus we learn to embrace all materials in the world as sharers of a common fate.

Myself at five years old in the kindergarden album.
These times are now irreparably gone.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Conversation with Kanzaburo

I was invited to sit as one of the guest judges at the 58th Red & White Year-end Song Festival
hosted by NHK, performed live and broadcast on the new year's eve (19:20 to 23:45 JST, 31st December 2007). It is considered as one of the greatest honors for Japanese singers to be selected to sing in this once-a-year festival. 10 people were invited to be the guest judges this year.

One of my co-judges was the great Kabuki actor Kanzaburo Nakamura. Kanzaburo is known for his superb acting, as well as for planning and executing ambitious stage projects such as the commercially successful and critically acclaimed performance of Kabuki pieces in New York in 1977. Kanzaburo plans to tour in Berlin in 2008.

I exchanged short but vivid words with Kanzaburo during the preparations and curtains. One of Kazaburo's well-known roles is "Gonta" in the play "Sushiya". Gonta, a notorious criminal on the surface, is revealed to be a sincere follower of his forlorn master. The fact that Gonta is committed to the great cause is only revealed at the time of his imminent death, caused by a stab from his father infuriated by the apparent vice. It is too late for the poor fellow when the stabbing was discovered to be unjustified, and the confessions of the convert that follows is played so movingly and convincingly by Kanzaburo.

During the conversation, Kanzaburo mentioned that he would like to perform Gonta in front of the inmates at a Japanese prison.
"Do you think it is possible?"
Kanzaburo whispered in a eager tone.
"I think to perform Kanzaburo's vice together with his hidden sincere heart in front of the prisoners would be great. But I doubt if the officials would allow it."

As is well known, Kabuki initiated from the dance drama performed by Okuni at the beginning of the 17th century. When the Tokugawa government forbade female actors from stage, the Kabuki players invented Onnagata, where male actors play the role of women. Since then, Kabuki was never in line with the prescribed norms preached by the powers that be, choosing to go along with truths of human nature rather than the officially approved moral institutions of the times. In Kanzaburo I witness the finest example and embodiment of this living tradition.

The pinnacle of our conversation was when Kanzaburo mentioned out of the blue that Kabuki actors used to visit psychiatric hospitals to study the behavior of patients, so that they could refine the performance of mentally distracted roles. These days, however, such a visit is difficult to realize, as people are oversensitive about being politically correct. Needless to say, it is important to be politically correct in the modern life. The wide dynamic range of the "dramaturgie" of Kabuki, however, originates from elsewhere.

The Great Kanzaburo Nakamura the XVIII th. (1955-)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Abundant Ichiro

In early December, I traveled to Seattle, U.S.A. and interviewed Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle Mariners for "The Professionals" program produced and broadcast by NHK. With me were co-presenter of the program Miki Sumiyoshi, Chief Producer Nobuto Ariyoshi, and Directors Daisaku Kawase and Kenichiro Tsutsumida.

Ichiro is renowned for his stoic stance, meditative and restrained movements. However, the real Ichiro is something different. There is a fire within him, a raging volcano which would erupt when time comes. The superficial appearance of the quiet man is only a disguise behind which lurks a gigantic force.

That Ichiro is in fact a man full of elementary forces should come as no surprise when you consider the nature of the game of baseball. In a fast pitch by a major leaguer, the ball arrives at the home base 0.4 seconds after it is released from the thrower. You cannot afford to be just quiet and restrained to adapt to that sort of speed.

Ichiro is a vivid creature exploding with energy, and exemplifies a universal principle. In general, when there is abundance, it is possible to restrain the overflow and make a refined use. When superfluence is lacking, however, one cannot fake it, force the abundance, induce the overflow. Genius is hallmarked by excess, almost without exception. And Ichiro is no exception.

The program will be broadcast in the New Year (January 2nd 2008, 21:00 to 22:12 JST)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rain Reaction

I am not sure if there's really such a word, but I am coining it anyway. I am going to write about the rain reaction.

I am fond of jogging in the forest near my flat in Tokyo. The other day, the sky was cloudy with a hint of imminent rain in the air. I ventured off notwithstanding. I enjoyed my running on that particular day. Feeling and breathing in the moisture in the space as you dash through is a soothing experience.

I was approaching my favorite spot, where the trees grow tall on a gentle slope. A dragonfly came into my view. It drew my attention because the way it flew was a bit unusual. I looked like a common Autumn Darter ("Akiakane"), but the manner of flight was definitely not.

I stopped running and observed the insect carefully. It flew in a zigzag trajectory as if in a jovial dancing, and approached a tree. There, after making some agitated turns, it perched on a leaf. I approached and took a good look at the specimen. It was an Autumn Darter all right.

I noticed that it had actually begun to rain. In a poignant period of transition, the raindrops gradually increased in number, and I myself had to run for cover.

It was the rain reaction. The insect, detecting the raindrop, apparently went into a different mode of flight than usual. This kind of behavior would be observable only in the transition period, as once it definitely started raining these creatures would not make flights but shelter themselves under the leaves.

I jogged on, pondering the rain reaction. Butterflies must also exhibit rain reactions. Their wings are so vulnerable. Ants must make rain reactions on the ground. These abrupt changes of behavior must be written in their genetic codes. Rain is such a common phenomenon.

Then I mused on rain reactions in life. When rain falls in life, what do people do? Do they dance in a heightened mood, or do they shriek for cover? Is it different from the snow reaction? Is there such a thing as a sunbeam reaction?

My jogging was almost over. As I dried my hair and took of the T-shirt, I thought of the dragonfly, biding time under the leaf.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Miscellaneous Weeds Gardening

On the veranda of my flat in Tokyo, I have several pots of plants. These were originally purchased in gardening shops, featuring the benjamin fig, orange, camellia tree, and other plant species of interest.

With the passage of time, some of these plants sadly perish. Some are flourishing, while some are in states of constant transitions the outcomes of which are still not clear to this writer.

Whatever the fates of the main inhabitants, I have one "pot policy". When miscellaneous weeds find their way into the pot, I do not get rid of them. I let them grow.

Many plant seeds have managed to land in the tiny soil in my pots whether by the whims of winds, or birds. It is fascinating to watch how different plant species fight for soil spaces and then settle to co-exist. The pots thus left alone are quite enjoyable gems of ecology.

Something uncontrollable, and yet by nature so peaceful. Like our own minds.

I regard this "miscellaneous weeds gardening" as one of the greatest achievements of my otherwise lamentable idleness.

The result of miscellaneous weeds gardening in one of the pots.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Janice Tay's article in the Straights Times.

Some time ago I received a mail about my 11th April blog from Janice Tay. Janice is an active writer originally from Singapore, who now stays in Kyoto. In the mail, she said that she was planning to write an article for the Straights Times, a venerable English newspaper founded in 1845. Janice asked if she could mention my blog in that article. I was overjoyed.

Janice's article titled "When closed doors set us free" has now been published on the 14th July issue.

Janice's article.
When closed doors set us free

Janice's blog.

Power of logic

Some time ago, I met with Prof. Lisa Randall of Harvard University at a lecture and discussions session held in Koshiba Hall at the University of Tokyo. I am an alumnus of the Physics Department of this university, where Prof. Emeritus Masatoshi Koshiba (Nobel Prize in Physics, 2002) used to teach.

One of the marvels of contemporary physics, from the eyes of an interested onlooker, lies in the belief that the power of logical consistency is pushed to the limit. Assuming that the laws of physics such as general relativity and quantum mechanics hold, one can make certain conclusions about the origin of the universe, scales of parameters involved in forces and particles, etc. What is remarkable is this belief in the "extendability" of the power of logic. For example, by applying the currently known laws of physics, one can make certain conclusions about the dynamics of the generation and annihilation of the universes, a great multitude of them in fact, one of which we supposedly inhabit.

Lisa's combination of logical rigidity, a well-balanced sense of humor, and healthy common sense was a great charmer for the full packed audience. Lisa's powerful role in generating new results as well as communicating about them to the general public is a super nova. The session was recorded, and will be broadcast on NHK (Japanese public television) on the 25th of August, 2007.

Lisa Randall lecturing in Koshiba hall, University of Tokyo on 28th July 2007

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The trumpet boy in Salzburg.

I have been visiting Salzburg, Austria, to attend the Quantum Mind
conference organized by a long time friend of mine, Gustav Bernroider of the University of Salzburg. Now I am heading back to Tokyo, lost in translation at Vienna airport.

On the last evening of my short stay in Salzburg, I was tasting my beer in the venerable Cafe Tomaselli. A small boy of about 6 or 7 years old was playing the trumpet. He was adequately good, but not particularly masterful, going out of tune here and there. About five meters from him, a man, apparently the father, was standing observant, eagerly watching his son's performance.

The sight reminded me of the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was "on tour" from the age of six, traveling around Europe, earning money for his father by displaying his genius at the piano. It was a marvel which attracted people's attention, but the admiration waned with the growth of the great composer. The novelty value was diminished as Mozart's height increased and he became an ordinary young man. The real struggle of Mozart's life, to have people acknowledge that he was a serious musician to be appreciated on genuine merits rather than as a "small chap" playing the piano masterfully, started there.

As some approached the trumpet boy and showed their appreciation with the sound of dropping coins, I wondered what it would have felt like to witness the very young Mozart in performance, eagerly trying to please people all around. I would have liked to see the gleam in his eyes.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The brightest searchlight

I met with Mr. Adam Smith, who is the product management director for the Book Search service at Google. Mr. Smith visited Japan on the occasion of the Tokyo International Book Fair, in which Google announced the launch of the book search service in Japan.

The informational qualities of books are in general superior to those of digital information on the internet. The reason being that people put much more energy when they write up a book. Living things tend to take seriously those information sent out with a lot of energy behind. Cost can be the effective measure of the importance of a biological signal. Digital information on the net are easy to publish. There is in principle no prima facie reason why information published on the internet should be inferior to those in the books. However in practice, the quality of information on the web is varied.

The serious defect of books, however, is inaccessibility. I remember the time I was browsing through the books in the Cambridge University library while I was doing postdoc there. For a special reason I was looking for some passages in C. D. Broad's writings. I do not think that many people were interested in those volumes at that time. I doubt any human fingers have touched the covers of some of the books I went through since I returned them to the shelves more than 10 years ago.
In this modern age of connectivity and accessibility, the intractability of gaining information from a forgotten book is something on the verge of an intellectual scandal. Legal issues notwithstanding (I am sure somebody can sort them out in due time), making the contents of books searchable is clearly the right way to proceed. Not only currently available copies but also "public domain" books now becoming obscure have a right to be known to the general public.

During the meeting, Mr. Smith mentioned that making all the books digitally available was the original dream of Larry Page and Servey Brin, before they founded Google.

Shedding light to the forgotten corners is a healthy exercise, in which we outgrow the limitations of the contemporary and gain deeper insight into the history of human thinking. The internet with its powerful search functionalities is the brightest searchlight that we possess, in many cases for free.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Recently, I was invited to the Kankyu-an of Mushanokojisenke in Kyoto. I was to attend the most formal of tea ceremonies hosted by the next (15th) Iemoto Designate, Mr. Souoku Sen.
Certain cultural essences never travel far. People might get to have a very faint idea of what a tea ceremony is all about, by coming to witness some of the outreaching events. However, I knew from my own experience so far in life that the essence of certain ancient traditions would be never be known, unless one actually lives and breathes the "heart" of the event at its best.

In my life, a particularly poignant example was the Ise shrine. The essence of its natural and architectural beauty could never be understood, unless one actually visited the sacred place. All the historical, cultural and sometimes political connotations that surrounded this institution did not help, but rather hindered, my appreciation of its jealously conserved merits.

A tea ceremony at Kankyu-an is very special. It is said that even if one dedicates oneself to the teachings of the masters of the school all life, it is not certain whether one would be invited to a ceremony at this important historic site. It was a special consideration on the part of Mr. Sen to grant me, a complete novice in the art of tea and not even a formal pupil of his school, this very rare opportunity.

So here was my chance to get to know the real thing, where my only weapons were the open senses.

During the ceremony which lasted for more than four hours, I was moved by a series of inner discoveries. Although I do not have the time to go into all the details in this journal, I will try to convey the (in my view) most essential elements below.

I think I could understand the historical context surrounding the initiation of this form of art for the first time. I had to travel to Kankyu-an and go through the formal procedures of the classic tea ceremony to come to this realization.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the most powerful man at the time of the founder of tea ceremonies, Sen no Rikyu. After many years of warfare between the Daimyos, Hideyoshi united Japan. Being appointed Kampaku by the Emperor, his power was second to none in the earthly sense. After a long period of often brutal battles, in which betrayals by the closest of allies, sometimes even by those of one's own blood were the norm, people were accustomed to the idea of a man in power giving a free vent to his often savage whims. The grave matters of life and death were nothing but trifle movement of a finger for the powers that be.

It was all the more significant, then, that Sen no Rikyu defied the supreme political powers by inventing an art form which requested, for example, the practitioners to stoop as they enter the chasitsu. No weapons were allowed in the small hall of exquisite beauty where all the ceremonies took place. The powerful warriors had to abandon all the worldly glories they had fought all their lives for and obey rules of quite another world, where the most humble and unassuming items were deemed lofty and valuable.

No exceptions were made even for the most powerful of all. Hideyoshi must have felt that his world was being turned completely upside down, his taste for the decorative and rich effectively ridiculed by the tea master. It must have been as if that Hideyoshi's achievements, laudable by any reasonable estimates of history, were reduced to mere nothingness. Hideyoshi was again transformed into a complete novice, where he had to learn everything from scratch in the great universe of wabicha created by Sen no Rikyu.

Here was a creative tension between politics and the arts almost unrivaled in the long history of humanity. It would have been psychologically helpful for Hideyoshi if the cosmos of Sen no Rikyu was something he could reject and ignore. On the contrary, it was so attractive, probably more desirable than being the supreme power of the nation. Hideyoshi must have envied the tea master deeply. Yearning and respect can easily turn into resentment and an urge for a revenge, when it becomes clear that the object of desire is not attainable no matter how hard one tries.

It was a regrettable act of Hideyoshi to order Sen no Rikyu to commit ritual suicide. At the same time, it indicates that Hideyoshi perceived the significance of Rikyu's approach in full, seeing rightly the radicalism behind the seemingly peaceful processions.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Everybody is getting busier these days. The internet and the mobile phone are responsible for making us occupied with various things all day long, forcing us to accept miscellaneous contexts simultaneously, in a situation that was inconsiderable some years ago.

If the popular conception about the dog year holds, then more things must be compressed into the same amount of time compared to what used to be the case.

One consolation of the current situation is that there are more chances of different elements making associations with each other and leading to a non-trivial synthesis. In the association cortex of the brain, experiences would be accumulated with higher intensity, and would, during the course of the "editing" and "streamlining" of the various memory traces, lead to the genesis of new things.

The Flynn effect pinpoints the increase of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) scores in industrialized nations in recent times. If this particular effect is due to the changing information environment, then it can also lead to increased creativity among people. Creativity is difficult to give a measure to compared to the general intelligence, but it must be somehow possible to find empirical evidences in support of the increased productivity in the domain of intelligence.

It is as if the average information environment in which a common man finds himself is becoming something similar to the tropical jungle, where miscellaneous factors are compressed into one with an extremely high density.

For me, creativity increased induced by intensity is at least the gospel of the time, if not entirely the case.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Wittgenstein's cat

I have this bad habit of scribing nonsensical things in my notebook during meetings and conferences. Just listening to other people talk seems to bore my brain. I need to do something extra to properly exercise it.

That's how I came up with the idea of volcano whales, which illustration I use for the current version of my name card.

The other day I was attending a conference, and was half consciously "at it" again. After somehow going into drawing a cat, I came upon this idea of revising the fascinating concept of the Schrödinger's cat.

Schrödinger's venerable cat has been doing the scientific community a lot of service by providing a striking illustration of the mystery of quantum mechanics, after its introduction to humanity in 1935. However, as the Gedanken experiment involves the life and death of a lovable animal, some people might express uneasiness from politically correct reasons.

Here's the new version. It is called "Wittgenstein's cat". One Sunday afternoon, when the sky's blue and the sun is shining, the deep thinking philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein begins to lecture his latest theory to his cat. In this Gedanken experiment, the key question is whether the cat will be awake or asleep after five minutes. Would the cat be alert and attentive to what Wittgenstein is saying, or would it be happily asleep, taking a well-earned nap after listening to his mater's intractable ideas?
According to quantum mechanics, there will be a superposition of the awake cat and the sleeping cat. You would not know which until you actually make the observation. This is the Gedanken experiment of Wittgenstein's cat.

One crucial condition for this experiment to make sense is that the philosopher keeps talking philosophy (blah, blah, blah, ....) whatever the attitude of the cat turns out to be. In other words, the philosopher should not care whether the cat is listening or not, and keep talking philosophy anyway.

This particular condition, given the known facts about Wittgenstein and other philosophically oriented people, is quite likely to be satisfied.

Wittgenstein's cat. A politically correct version of the Schrödinger's cat experiment.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


I met with Dr. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google for an interview to be broadcast in the "The Professionals" program in NHK during his visit to Tokyo.

Eric said that in Google, information regarding business and technology is made as open as possible, as freedom of information is one of the necessary premises of a creative company. Eric stressed the importance of listening, as a collection of people is bound to be cleverer than an individual, how gifted and experienced that particular person might be.

In a meeting, after expressing his own opinion, Eric waits for somebody else to oppose him, and then listen to the following discussions among the participants. Eric finds that listening is an essential part of creative management. Without listening, one cannot learn, especially in this era of distributed intelligence of the swarm.

Needless to say, the final decision is his, but in order to make an educated choice, a period of listening must precede the moment of truth.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


I met with Mr. Yukio Sakamoto, CEO of Elpida Memory Inc. for interview in "The Professionals" program that I host with Ms. Miki Sumiyoshi for NHK. Mr. Sakamoto's miraculous turning around of the once struggling company is well known.

One of the things that Mr. Sakamoto said and impressed me deeply during the shooting was the necessity to have a clear image for the future. Of course we know that the future is in fact unpredictable, Mr. Sakamoto said. All the same, we do need to have an idea of what kind of person (or company) we would like to be in, say, five years.

The here and now is the only controllable element in life. However, in order to live the here and now fully, we need to have an envisioned future for the guidance. It is admittedly a temporary, mocked-up future, which may not turn out to be the case, but we need to have that vision. And in order to make the vision good, we need to conduct a hard study, think deep, and take action after actions.

This strong urge to envision the future might be one of the key components of a successful entrepreneur. It is also necessary for anyone who cares for the development of his or her own career, coping with the unavoidable in life, but still sailing defiantly towards the promised island of his or her own choice. To know for a fact that the future is unpredictable is compatible with being a self-determined visionary.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Only positive things

Some time ago, I made a half conscious, and half unconscious resolution that I will basically refer to positive things coming from positive emotions in what I write. I have my share of rage and sometimes very fierce criticisms, but I reserve them for the medium of air. I just say it, and let it pass. When you write it down, it remains, and with the passage of time begins to stink. Positive things age into maturity, but negative things deteriorate and leave a bitter aftertaste. I recommend this differential usage of media for anyone with passion, both positive and negative or otherwise.