Saturday, May 22, 2010

The playfulness of google

There is something definitely breathtaking about the occasional playfulness of google.

This morning, many users of google would have waken up to find that the top page logo has been replaced by a Pac-Man stage. First you think it is simply another Easter egg in design, until you realize a few seconds later that it is actually playable.

The Pac-Man was first released in Japan on the 22nd May 1980. The Pac-Man playable logo on the google front page today is apparently given away in celebration of its thirtieth birthday.

As the computer age deepens and matures, it is increasingly becoming clear that the whole thing is about playfulness. When people talk about gaming, they often do not realize that searching for valuable information on the internet is gaming in a sense, mixing the expected and unexpected, serious and joyful, in an interesting balance of contingencies.

In today's world, and in the years to come, the most successful in society would be those who understand the Zeitgeist of playfulness. The whole idea of the internet, connecting people, making unexpected and intelligent links between the here and now and the distant, is about playfulness.

So here's to yet another manifestation of the inherent playfulness of google. We keep playing the great game of life, beyond horizons and boundaries, all the way.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Absent-mindedness is my long time friend.

I got on the train in the opposite direction. AGAIN.

I was reading Richard Dawkins on the Amazon Kindle, and got on the train that came to the platform.

Well, the Tokyo train network is so complex, you see.

It was not that I was not taking note of the destination displayed on the cars. I vaguely remember seeing it all, but my brain at that time was too busy thinking about "the origin of morality" that I did not take the small cognitive step necessary to realize that I was not supposed to get on that particular train.

It took two stations for me to realize that I was wrong. What a shame to get off the train and get on the train on the opposite side of the platform. I am sure people realized that I had made a mistake!

Well, absent-mindedness does sometimes visit my life. Absent-mindedness is my long time friend. Like an occasional black swan in my flow of consciousness, it enters my life, and takes me to terrains unknown.

With the sweetness of regret, every time it happens, I welcome yet another visit of absent-mindedness, because there is nothing else I can do about it. I cannot stop reading Richard Dawkins while waiting for the train.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Remembering Shusaku Arakawa.

It was with deep sadness to hear the news that Mr. Shusaku Arakawa passed away. Shusaku's great achievements and warm personality would remain in my memory vividly in many years to come.

I was fortunate to have had some opportunities to converse with the artist/architect. The entry of this journal on 30th December last year recalls vividly the impression left by the great creator.

In Mr. Arakawa we found a person who was brave to think out of the constraints of the norm, and challenge the assumptions which sometimes make our lives mundane. At the same time, he had a gentleness of heart which touched all these people who had the fortune to meet with him.

Within a few minutes of encounter, it was clear how Shusaku embraced all that was around him with love and care. Even if Shusaku defied the status quo, it was always with life-nurturing effects of sunshine that he did so, never in the manner of a cold northern wind.

The very existence of Shusaku was a great lesson for life. The manner in which Shusaku spoke, moved around in agitation, and looked around was a constant inspiration. How we are going to miss him.

Here I dedicate million imaginary roses to the soul of Shusaku. May Shusaku finally rest in peace where he finds all the freedom and beauty he deserves.

With Shusaku Arakawa, April 2006.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The story before Harry Potter.

Whenever I discover the hidden agendas and threads behind a famous person's life, I exclaim, and shudder at yet another manifestation of the depth of human creativity.

Sometimes, a commencement speech at a university reveals a person's depth, as the speaker is posed to do a bit of soul searching in front of the shining faces of the newly graduating, whose lives lie like great oceans to be explored.

Steve's Job's Stanford speech, in which he stressed the need to "stay hungry, stay foolish", was one memorable example. The speech delivered at the Harvard commencement ceremony in 2008 by J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is another. She recounts the days when she worked as a researcher at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

If you haven't seen it, now is the time to do so. You can find the video and transcript text below.

J. K. Rowling giving the commencement speech at Harvard.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The counter wood is the most important element of a sushi restaurant.

When I was in London two weeks ago, I saw a lot of "Yo! Sushi" adverts. One of them asked "are you a Sushi virgin?", featuring two smiling Japanese girls in a "kosupure" costume.

The culture of Sushi has spread to the world, and lots of mutations in the memes have taken place. Some of them go beyond your wildest expectations. When I was in a Sushi restaurant in Brasilia some 15 years ago, I was intrigued to find that the sushi was cut into half their usual sizes. Presumably the delicacies would look like canapes and easier to handle and eat then.

Diffusion is a good thing. New possibilities can only be found in variations and subsequent selection process. Having said that, I, as a proud Tokyo resident, can testify that the (in my view) genuine form of Sushi eating can only be found in Japan, or more specifically, in Tokyo.

London's "Yo! Sushi" type restaurants which serve sushi on moving conveyor belts are surely abundant in Tokyo. Families love them. However, a genuine Sushi restaurant can be distinguished by the makeup of the counter. It needs to be constructed with a single plain wood, with the annual ring traces aligned in parallel ("masame"). A piece of wood in such a condition, which is long enough to be made into the counter is rare and highly prized. If you have a chat with the Sushi chef over the counter, he will tell you how much it had cost him to have that particular wood.

You should know that the counter wood is the most important element of a sushi restaurant. Now you have climbed one step on the road of becoming a Sushi connoisseur.

Monday, May 17, 2010

How to behave in a soba restaurant.

In Tokyo, there are quite a few soba noodle restaurants. In particular, the Kanda Yabu and the Matsuya in Kanda district are my long time favorites.

These restaurants were conveniently close to my university. When I was a student, I would often walk from the University of Tokyo Hongo campus with "fat man" Ken Shiotani, my best friend who philosophizes.

Ideally, it is best to visit around 15:00 hours, when there are less customers. The posh thing to do is to start with a glass of beer, and then move on to sake. There are quite a few delicacies to accompany the beer and sake. Don't expect large portions. Traditionally, the delicacies in a soba restaurant is served in very small portions. Expect to feel like becoming Gulliver in the island of Lilliput.

The connoisseur never orders a soba dish straight away. The soba noodle, whether served cold or hot, is something that you finish your meal with. It is advisable to take some time to get pleasantly intoxicated, and let the time go by slowly and mellow.
Mind you the point is never to get really drunk. A soba restaurant, after all, is not a pub or a bar. When you feel you had enough share of golden time, you order your soba.

Surprisingly, soba noodle after intoxication is heavenly. The whole point is to land on the solid good taste of soba after feeling uplifted and a little bit carried away through the effect of alcohol.

The "relay" from sake to soba is one of the most exquisite form of eating known to the author.

Finally, it is fashionable to leave the restaurant before dinner time, to avoid the crowd. If you can manage that, I would call that your golden afternoon.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The blessings of science keep the curiosity in us alive.

I attended the TEDx Tokyo held in Miraikan. I gave a talk titled "The Blessings of Science". I hugely enjoyed the whole thing. The heat. The hype. The passion. My deep gratitude to all the volunteers who made this happen. Special thanks to Patrick Newell, who put much work into the realization of his vision, and for inviting me to participate.

In the talk, I started from my experience as a kid chasing butterflies in a rural town. There were exactly 52 butterflies where I lived. I chased every one of them.

In the forest, I had this sense of wonder. I was bewildered by the sheer abundance of life around me.

One question came up vividly in my mind. Why such an abundance and variety in the species? My childish curiosity was greatly stimulated. Then one day, at the age of 9, I bumped into a book in the school library. It was a book about the evolution of species. (It was written in my native tongue of Japanese. I started to learn English only at the age of 12.) In the book, the author said that once upon a time, there was this man Charles Darwin who became very curious why there were so many different species, on his voyage on the Beagle. Some years, later, after much work. he published a book titled "The Origin of Species".

It was on that afternoon that I came to know one blessing of science. Science can EXPLAIN. A curious child asks the adults all awkward questions. Why, How, What if. The adults sometimes get tired of being constantly demanded, as many of them have lost a precious gift of childhood. CURIOSITY.

Every one must remember the immense satisfaction that you got as a child when a clever explanation was given for a question you were craving to know the answer of. What do we need to keep our curiosity alive? We need the blessings of science.
On that fatal day, in the school library, I came to know that science had a great power to EXPLAIN.

Then I started to do my own exploration. I did some work, and presented my very first scientific research poster at the age of 11. It was a science fair for students. I reported my study into the diversity of habitats and life history of butterflies, making some measurements and observations. Seen from a professional's point of view, the poster was shabby, very rudimentary. I am, all the same, tremendously proud of my initial efforts to EXPLAIN the mysteries that I held as a child, chasing the butterflies in the fields, forgetting lunch, breathless in bliss.

Ken Mogi, age 10, chasing butterflies in Hokkaido, Japan

My first scientific presentation poster at the age of 11.

Around that time, I met my hero. Albert Einstein. Through Einstein I learned many things. Foremost, I learned the following truth about science: Science explains many things, but then uncovers yet more mysteries along the way.

In other words, science is an "OPEN-ENDED" endeavor. No matter how much you learn about the world, there would be yet more questions to be explored. Sometimes, getting to know a particular fact about the world makes us realize that we don't know this and that, questions that we did not know even existed before the enlightenment. Einstein never stopped his scientific exploration, precisely because he knew that science is an OPEN-ENDED behavior, although he did not (to the best of my knowledge) use this particular word.

There are several unsolved problems in the science today. For example. the time's arrow. How is the PAST different from the PRESENT, and the FUTURE? Another example is the wave function reduction in quantum mechanics.

Another mystery in science, and my own life work, is the relation between the mind and the brain. How do the activities of the billions of neurons in the brain give rise to conscious experience? Central to the mystery of the phenomenal dimension of our existence is the concept of qualia. The sensory qualities such as redness, transparency, glitter that constitute our conscious experience. How on earth do activities in the brain, which, although a very complex system, is after all an physical entity, give rise to our consciousness full of qualia? This is a genuinely intriguing mystery. Nobody has written a book of "The Origin of Qualia" yet, but you never know. Someday, someone will.

So for me, the blessings of science are two-fold. First, it can EXPLAIN. Secondly, it is OPEN-ENDED. The combination of the power to EXPLAIN and the liberating and uplifting effect on one's soul of being OPEN-ENDED keeps the curiosity in us alive.

Issac Newton left these famous words:

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

It is fun to collect the pebbles and shells in the shape of theories, facts, which have the power to EXPLAIN. At the same time, it is so rewarding and ultimately satisfying to be aware of the great remaining mysteries of the universe, our own existence, life and consciousness, which lie before us unsolved.

So here's the blessings of science for you and me. Thank you very much.

This, in a nutshell, was my TEDx Tokyo speech.

Myself at TEDx Tokyo, 15th May 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Contingencies are sometimes very personal.

When we are talking about contingencies, we should always remember that it is ultimately the nature of cognition of each subject that determines their nature, although certainly affected by the objective statistics of events.

The same situation can be the source of different contingency for different people. For an experienced skier, a snowy slope would not present a high degree of contingency. For a novice wearing ski boards for the first time, even standing still on the snow slope can be a problem.

For a patient being told that she has cancer, the life suddenly becomes full of contingencies. For the medical doctor who is treating her, the diagnosis of cancer should be accompanied with less uncertainties, based on his expertise and accumulated experience as a specialist in the field.

Thus, contingencies are sometimes very personal. In order to encounter an interesting case of contingency, one sometimes needs to actively search for it.

Appropriately presented contingency is a necessary "food" for the brain's learning process. One should always be "contingency aware" in the course of one's life, always assessing in a metacognitive process the nature of contingencies that one is currently encountering in life.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Contingency and learning.

Contingencies, the mixture of predictability and unpredictability in the occurrence of events, has an important significance in nurturing our brains. If everything follows some already known rules, there is nothing to learn any more. If, on the other hand, the events occur in a random manner, as in the case of thrown dices, there isn't anything to learn either, except for the realization that the statistics of dice indeed exhibits randomness. Any "learning" beyond that would be due to a gambler's fallacy.

Thus, it is always the case that a mixture of predicable and unpredictable elements provides an opportunity for learning. It is not that the unpredictable elements monotonously decreases as the learning progresses. It is rather that learning new regularities leads to a structuring of the world, in which newly unpredictable aspects of events emerge in our cognition. Thus, the brain is playing an incessant game of pursuit and chase, in which the unpredictable is never diminished to nothingness.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

People are mirrors.

Reflecting on my own life, I find that people are often mirrors on which I see my own reflection. This particular viewpoint, obviously, is related to the recent discovery of the mirror neurons. But the idea is not necessarily based on, and restricted by, the neurophysiological findings of today.

When I meet someone with whom I resonate, I discover and confirm what kind of person I am. The counterpart then becomes a magnifier of my own personal traits. When my counterpart finds pleasure in the same kind of things, I feel that my own dispositions are socially approved and consolidated.

On the other hand, I do sometimes meet people with polar views and sensitivities. Even when I present something valuable and dear to me, they would receive it with cool and sometimes even disdainful reactions. When I was young, I found myself unduly hurt by such a behavior. But gradually, I came to realize that such an occasion of miscommunication actually provided a significant opportunity to recognize my own self.

People are mirrors, when they are resonant, AND when they are dissonant. Every day, with the encounters with various kinds of people both young and old, passionate or quiet, I see millions of reflections of my own image. I recognize my own self. I am generally very grateful for these encounters, even when they hurt me.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Healthiness test" for your brain

In my opinion, the "healthiness test" for your brain is simple.

"Are you enjoying the uncertainties that you encounter in life?"

If the answer is "yes", then your brain is in a healthy state. If you are able to welcome every opportunity in which you meet new challenges, experience the unexpected, and learn things, then the state of your brain is satisfactory.

If the answer is "no", then you need to reconsider the status quo. If you are unable to meet new challenges, and tend to avoid circumstances where you are likely to encounter the unexpected, then your brain is missing opportunities for learning and growth.

In this respect, the recent tendency among Japanese to avoid the unexpected and follow the trodden road is worrisome.

Why don't you jump into the great ocean of uncertainties? It might be frightening at start, but you will get used to swimming soon enough.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The "operating system" of Japan is most probably out of date.

It is with a deep sadness to acknowledge that the "operating system" of Japan is most probably out of date. The nation is lagging behind, and I would like very much to do something about it, but judging from the daily encounters with people, especially those in the "elite" positions within the nation such as the academia and the media, the national disease is a deep and serious one, albeit not incurable.

I find some hope and solace in the fact that young people are increasingly disillusioned with the status quo. There are mounting pressures, still invisible but certainly going up, to change the current situation. One should have one's principles, and do daily chores, to bring about the change however gradually.

In Japan, the more established a system or an institution is, the deeper the problem lurks. Take University of Tokyo, for example. I have been a proud graduate of this prestigious academic institution, but recently I have my serious doubts about the nature of its constituting principles. The overwhelming majority of its undergraduate students are Japanese. Entrance to the university has been considered as a ticket to success for many years. Some weekly magazines even carry articles about how many students have entered the university from which high school.

Compared to other excellent universities in the world, however, the closed nature of the university is scandalously singular. Harvard University in the United States, for example, gathers its graduate and undergraduate students from all around the world, as a natural reflection of the global nature of today's world.

In the Times Higher Education Ranking (2009) , the University of Tokyo is ranked 22nd. The University is performing very poorly in "International Staff Score" and "International Students Score". Should the university amend this defect, the ranking position would be improved considerably.
When I discussed this point with a few University of Tokyo professors, they invariably answered that "the entrance examination for undergraduate is sacred, and cannot be changed". According to their views, the current entrance examination, conducted in Japanese, effectively limiting the undergraduate students to Japanese or people brought up within Japan, is the raison d'etre of University. If they change the entrance exam, the constitution and the nature of the University will be transformed beyond recognition. And they have no plan to do that. What a shame!

Probably it is not fair to single out University of Tokyo, but the status quo of the academic institution is the symbol of the sinking nation of Japan. University of Tokyo has been traditionally producing high officials in the government, the cream of Japanese system. There was a time when the world marveled at its efficiency. Sadly, no more. The cream is rotting.

It is never too late to bring about the necessary changes. As an alumnus of the university, I would very much like to see its entrance exam changed, so that it is at least partially based in English, to admit more international students. The time is ripe.
It is now time to rewrite the "operating system" of Japan. I hope those people in responsible positions would realize the need, and act quickly.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The radio spirit

I appear on the radio program "All Night Nippon Sunday" from time to time.

Yesterday evening, I went to the radio station in central Tokyo and chatted in the program as the host, for 90 minutes.

I like speaking on the radio. There are rough storylines and a list of music to be played during the program, but apart from that, you are quite free to organize your talks. You can touch upon your recent encounter with the World Memory Champion, discuss how to love your mother with the listener, and consider how one may deal with the post-vacation blues. What you say is quite spontaneous and on the spot, and nurtures a great spirit of gaiety.

I recall, when I was in the low-teens, it was quite the thing to listen to the radio. The discussions in school on the day after was quite dominated by the funny things that the host had said in the evening. I think the ethos of the radio was resonating with our youthful dreams and anxieties.

So here's to the radio spirit. I am looking forward to my next opportunity to chat on the air. I expect that to happen sometime in June.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Living among the tropical plants in Indonesia.

After the Keio University lecture yesterday, several students came up to me and chatted. One of them was a graduate student studying computer science. He said he was from Indonesia. When I asked which city, he said "Bandung". "Oh, that's where the famous conference was held, isn't it?" I said. He smiled and said "Ah, you know that!"

I have been to Indonesia several times. On these occasions, I visited the island of Bali, Jakarta, and Yogyakarta.

A visit to a market in Jakarta still remains vividly in my memory. I was in the early twenties. At that time, I happened to be very keen on tropical plants, the orchid family in particular. I tried to cultivate some of them back home, but in the climate of Tokyo this venture required special cares, particularly in the winter months.

So it was quite an inspiration to see the treasured plantations breathing free air in the market, apparently enjoying carefree lives in a climate that was so benevolent to their physiology.

Ever since this revelation, one of my dreams was to live in Indonesia, and have pots of plants scattered around my residence, and sip tea in the afternoon looking and admiring the exquisite beauty of the curve of their leaves.

As I was chatting with the Indonesian student, all these memories swelled in me. I did not, of course, have time to discuss the art of horticulture with the young gentleman, as our topic was on the relation between computers and the brain.

In any sense, the chat gave me ideas and dreams. Wouldn't it be lovely to put the plants just so, and do nothing further about it, letting the weather take care of them through naturally appropriate humidity and temperature?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Chatting with interesting people

I gave two 90 minutes lectures at Keio University Hiyoshi campus. The audience was the graduate students and general public, about 200 in all.

The first lecture was on the brain as a system, while the second lecture focused on the significance of contingency in the makeup of the self in the social context.

After the lecture, we ventured into one of the Izakayas of the Hiyoshi area with Prof. Takashi Maeno. It was fun to talk about google, satellites, and life in general.

Chatting with interesting people is one of my favorite exercises, and yesterday was a classic example.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Back in Tokyo

On the way back to Tokyo airborne, and onto central Tokyo by car, I was continuously writing a series of essays which unfortunately met their respective deadlines yesterday.

In all, I churned out 4 essays, letting out a total of ~10000 Japanese characters worth text.

My home country welcomed me back with a sunshine and hot air. I immediately became a "T-shirt" man, taking off my sweater, revealing my Paul Smith T-shirt featuring an apple. It is one of my personal favorites.

Once in my native country, I get immersed in a totally different context from the past few days. This morning, I will have discussions with editors of a book in the morning. In the afternoon, I will give two lectures at Keio University.

Back to the chores. However, the spirit stays. There are certain things that are left in you forever, to grow and glow.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The volcano did not hinder my flight back to Tokyo this time.

On the last day in London, we met with Dominique O'Brien, who became eight times World Memory Champion. The current Champion, Ben Pridmore was there, too. We conducted a simple EEG experiment.

In the afternoon, I met with Prof. Linda Pring at the University of London Goldsmith campus. Goldsmith is famous for being the home of the YBA (Young British Artists), including the sculptor Anthony Gormely.

The volcano did not hinder my flight back to Tokyo this time. Right now I am safely on the plane, trying to reflect on my experiences in the U.K this time.

Soon after I finish writing this, the airplane will start descending to the airport. I won't be able to use any electric devises then. I will most probably read "Darwin's Island" written by Steve Jones. I bought the copy in the Heffers bookshop in front of Trinity college.

Once back in Japan, I will have a busy work schedule as usual. I won't have the luxury of relaxing. One needs to find solace in small things under these circumstances.

In the least, I would like to have a taste of the soba noodle somewhere and sometime soon. That could be done in 10 minutes at a standing bar found in many locations in Tokyo.

See you again, U.K. See you soon, Marmite. You have been very kind to me.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Drive it away!

I did not "agree" with the tightly controlled process of learning how to drive that is normal in my native country. So I dropped out of school. Time flew, and I moved to England, to conduct two years' post doctoral in Cambridge. After a while, I learned that I was eligible to apply for a driving license under the British system.

So I called up BSM. On the first day, Mr. David Ash came to my door and knocked. "Hello!", David said. "Hello!", I said.
David took me to the suburb of Cambridge in the car. I think it was near the Cavendish laboratory. David parked the car on the roadside, and let me sit in the driver's seat.

"Drive it a way!"

David said.

So under the British system, the learner is told to "drive it away!" on day one. What a difference from what I had known previously. The "drive it away" approach suited me fine.

When I was moving in London yesterday, I saw a car with "BSM" written on it. All of a sudden all these memories came back to me like in a flood.

The conversations I had with David. The first motorway. Night driving. David always helpful and kind, and yet firm.

The process of obtaining a British car license was interesting, but that is another story.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

London Skies

Walking along the London streets, even for a short time, is always an uplifting experience.

People has identified New York city in the United States as the capital of cultural freedom. In a subtly different sense, London is at once a capital of cultural tradition and freedom.

People from many countries in the world flock to London in search of something. What they seek and get, being immersed in the world according to the lingua franca of English, reflect the multitude of opportunities for a human being today.

I am in search of something myself, when I find myself in the British capital. To some extent, the nature of that something has changed over the years, while other aspects remain the same.

So I look up to the London sky, believing in the infinite possibilities extending before me. The skylines inspire me, to keep going and make yet another effot.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Trinity excellence in gardening.

I have moved to London yesterday night. When I awoke in the car, people were shouting "Abbey Road!" A surprise encounter with the street of Beatle legend brought me back to conscious life on arrival at London.

As I reflect on my stay in Cambridge, several things surge in me. Every time I revisit, I take home something valuable.
This time, my mental souvenir included a realization of the excellence of the art of gardening in the academic city.
I have been to the Trinity college premises many times, but until the last visit yesterday I did not explicitly realize the meticulous care with which the trees and plants are cultivated and maintained in the gardens, alongside the building walls, along the corridor.

Gee, what an excellent work of art! And high tech, too!

I asked the kind Trinity college Porter who was with us about the gardening in Trinity. "Yes, gardening in this college is excellent," he said. "There are 30 gardeners in this college. We have a new head gardener now. He is a superb man."
So I discovered that Trinity college excelled in the science of gardening, too. I suspect that the Trinity excellence in gardening reflects the general high standards of English gardening.

Thus we become the plant's best friend, with care and knowledge.