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April 30, 2005

Dawkins and Darwin and Zebra Finches

As if it weren't already painfully obvious from my previous posts, let me make it more obvious now:

Salon.com has an excellent and entertaining interview with the indomitable Richard Dawkins. I've contemplated picking up several of his books (e.g., The Selfish Gene, and The Blind Watchmaker), but have not ever quite gotten around to it. Dawkins speaks a little about his new book, sure to inflame more hatred among religious bigots, and the trend of human society toward enlightenment. (Which I'm not so confident about, these days. Dawkins does make the point that it's largely the U.S. that's having trouble keeping both feet on the road to enlightenment.)

In a similar vein, science write Carl Zimmer (NYTimes, etc.) keeps a well-written blog called The Loom in which he discusses the ongoing battle between the forces of rationality and the forces of ignorance. A particularly excellent piece of his writing concerns the question of gaps in the fossil record and how the immune system provides a wealth of evidence for evolution. Late last year, this research article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which is the article which Zimmer discusses.

Finally, in my continuing facination with the things that bird brains do, scientists at MIT recently discovered that a small piece of the bird brain (in this case, the very agreeable zebra finch) helps young songbirds learn their species' songs by regularly jolting their understanding of the song pattern so as to keep it from settling down to quickly (for the physicists, this sounds oddly like simulated annealing, does it not?). That is, the jolts keep the young bird brain creative and trying new ways to imitate the elders. This reminds me of a paper I wrote for my statistical mechanics course at Haverford in which I learned that spin-glass models of recurrent neural networks with Hebbian learning require some base level of noise in order to function properly (and not settle into a glassy state with fixed domain boundaries). Perhaps the reason we have greater difficulty learning new things as we get older is because the level of mental noise decreases with time?

posted April 30, 2005 04:15 AM in Obsession with birds | permalink | Comments (0)

April 21, 2005

Social and anti-social

Over the past week, I have attended a workshop in my field. The workshop is relatively small, although the number of people registered is over 100. What's interesting is the degree to which the social structure of the workshop resembles high school. At the core, you have the popular kids, who have known and worked with each other for years. Their primary interest is in seeing their friends and talking about possible new collaborations. Surrounding this inner-circle is a set of groupies, who know the popular kids, but don't quite have the common history to be considered part of it. Surrounding that group is a possibly larger one of people who are just beginning their social climb in this hierarchy. These are often graduate students, or people who are just moving in to the field.

In retrospect, this kind of hierarchy seems entirely natural, especially when you consider that smart/good people have limited time and likely want to work with other known smart/good people than spend the time cultivating new contacts of unknown quality. The trouble, of course, is that the casual preference for old friendships will tend to lead to perceived exclusivity. That is, if no effort is made to keep the social circles open, they will naturally close.

For a while now, I've been mulling over the assumptions and stereotypes of academia/research being either a social or anti-social endeavor. Some recent thoughts: While certainly there are parts of research that are extremely collaboratory, there's a great deal of it where you sit alone, thinking about something that few other people in the world are interested in. The peer-review process is, on the surface, fairly objective, yet the common single-blindedness of the review process makes it easy for reputation to substitute for quality. The job-search venue appears to be at least as much about who you know as about how good your work is - letters of introduction and reference from known people are often enough (or a requirement) to get a job in a specific field. This part would seem to make it harder for interdisciplinary people to get jobs in more traditional departments; something I'm slightly nervous about. And then, the conference world is largely run by pure social dynamics, with all the trappings of high school mixers, albeit obfuscated, unacknowledged or perhaps slightly ameliorated.

This is, of course, not to say that anyone is going to get a "swirly", or have their lunch money taken away from them. Academics are much too polite for that. But in the ultra-rational world of academia, there are certainly equivalents. I can't imagine that the business world is any better, and indeed, may be significantly worse. Perhaps this is just how human organizations operate: selfishly, irrationally and in a largely ad hoc manner...

posted April 21, 2005 12:34 PM in Simply Academic | permalink | Comments (1)

April 15, 2005

Academia trips over own hubris

It was only a matter of time before cheeky computer science students (from MIT, no less), perhaps inspired by the success of the ever witty and popular R. Robot's random blogging, have developed a tool for creating random computer science papers (text, graphs, and citations). One of these random papers was accepted at WMSCI 2005.

What is WMSCI? In the traditionally easy-to-understand language of conference mission statements, it is

an international forum for scientists and engineers, researchers and, consultants, theoreticians and practitioners in the fields of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics.

Obviously. Perhaps for an encore, the students should host a randomly generated conference. To add layer upon layer of hubris to the embarrassment, the conference organizers defended their acceptance of the random paper. Academia rarely gets so tangled in its own contradictions...

Update: Lance Fortnow has an interesting take on the random paper: it's equivalent to academic fraud. His readers, however, seem to think that the prank is more akin to a validation of the review process at the SCI conference (which the conference failed).

posted April 15, 2005 02:59 AM in Simply Academic | permalink | Comments (0)

April 13, 2005

TravelBlog: Kyoto, city of a thousand shrines

While Tokyo is the bustling, crowded, frenetic center of Japan, Kyoto is the historic center, having been the location of the capital for several hundred years between when it was at Nara (located slightly south of Kyoto) and Tokyo. It's also the home to an impossible number of shrines and an overwhelming amount of history. In fact, it's difficult to walk around outside the city center without running into some historical building (which, given Japan's propensity for mutability, likely has burnt down and rebuilt a dozen times).

There's something about being awake early in the morning that I like when traveling. Perhaps it's that early morning is a time when the city is just groaning into life, and people go about their business in a way that's pretty independent of culture and location. That is, I just like watching whatever city I'm in wake up. the city of Kyoto itself is surrounded be low mountains (800m at highest), and its the foothills that are where the majority of the shrines lay. Because I had limited time in Kyoto, I decided to focus on one section of the halo of shrines that surrounds the city, so my first stop was the massive Choin-in temple, where I heard three monks doing their early morning chants to the regular rhythm of a drum. The temple buildings can only be described as massive, in that "wow, that roof looks like it weights several hundred tons and it was built using techniques from a thousand years ago" kind of way. These gargantuan structures (topped by beautiful roof tiles) are the exact ones that you see shown whenever someone wants to represent traditional Japan. Inside one of the smaller Choin-in buildings, I discovered a set of calligraphy tables, laid out as if later in the day a group of young Japanese students would occupy them, learning how to make beautiful kanji characters. Choin-in is one of the more touristy temple complexes in Kyoto, but being there well before it opened, I was able to enjoy it quietly.

Although I saw upwards of a dozen shrines and temples during my first day, a few stood out. The Kiyomizu-dera temple is one of several a world heritage sites and is another sprawling complex of buildings, some small and some large. On the approach, you're confronted by a three story tall pagoda painted bright orange, flanked by some early-blooming cherry trees (the cherry blossom season has particular significance to the Japanese, and there are all sorts of festivals scheduled for the time of year when they blossom). The rest of the temple complex is strung out along a winding trail that skirts the bottom of a steep hillside. The main temple itself is raised on five-story-high stilts, which gives it a commanding view of the area. Around the corner from the main temple, a few narrow alleyways were packed with Japanese school kids and merchants selling traditional Japanese fortunes - little pieces of paper folded tightly and bound with a read ribbon. The kids were laughing and teasing each other about their fortunes, and a few took up the challenge of the Love Stones: two stones, placed about 20 feet apart, where if you are able to successfully walk from one to the other with your eyes closed while murmuring the name of your interest, supposedly your heart's desires will come true. Several of the temples I visisted had prayer boards, where people would hang a small wooden plaques with writing and/or pictures on them which are called 'ema' which offer prayers with vows of love. The chief priest of the shrine or temple then prays so that the prayers will be answered on the first Sunday of every month.

Another memorable temple was Sanjusangendo, a 120 meter long building containing 1001 statues of Kannon, and 20-something statutes of the major gods of Buddhism. The odd statue of the 1001 is a larger-than-life bodhisattva. As you walk along the length of the interior, reading the various descriptions of the major gods, it's hard to avoid being amazed at the Japanese's attention to detail. Both with the 1000 identical statues, and the temple buildings themselves, being able to mass produce things that require an incredible attention to detail seems to have a long tradition in Japan. If you mentally compare the relative messiness of the appearance of a gothic cathedral to the extremely well-ordered appearance of a Japanese temple structure, you'll get a good impression for just how amazingly disciplined the Japanese people were when the Western world was still in chaos.

As is often the case when I travel alone, I made friends with a few other people in the hostel over dinner that night. The next day, Rosa, a chinese woman who spoke English but no Japanese, joined me for the day. What impressed me about Rosa was that she was much more confident of her ability to get around than I was. For instance, she taught me that in restaurants, you should ask for the "picture menu", and that failing that, just ask for "fish". It was also interesting to see her mistaken for Japanese and then amusing to see their confused looks when she refused to speak Japanese back to them. Rosa and I took the long way up the nearby Mt. Hiei in order to get to another sprawling temple complex, called Enryaku-ji. Bigger temples, but not significantly novel after my first overdose on shrines. Oddly, in getting there, we passed through a garden filled with reproductions of French impressionist paintings and a restaurant called Cafe du Paris. Those Japanese... very strange. :)

Given how much history is represented in Kyoto, my few short days there were wholly insufficient; yet I'm happy with how much I was able to pack into them. On my last half-day in the city, I visited a traditional Japanese Zen rock garden, the famous Ryoin-ji. The garden is supposedly the quintessential one of its kind, with 15 rough rocks of various sizes arranged on a 40 x 20 ft bed of carefully raked white gravel (I was surprised at the roughness of the stones - my naive impression was that rocks in rock gardens were supposed to be smooth). The brochure instructed we tourists to find our own meaning in its arrangement, and it occurred to me that this perspective is decidedly post-modern, despite the garden having been built more than 500 years before modernism. In several touristy spots, I'd seen Japanese carefully dusting surfaces; in fact, every temple or shrine I visited was immaculately clean. The natural gardens surrounding Ryion-ji were no different, although it was the detritus and stray pieces of gravel that the groundskeepers were carefully removing. From Ryoin-ji I walked down the road to Kinkaka-ji, the Golden Pavilion, built by one of the shoguns while Japan was under military rule. Here, I met throngs of camera-ladden tourists (mostly Italian and Spanish) snapping pictures of a three story building situated in the middle of a tranquil lake, of which the top two stories were completely covered in gold leaf. It was like the dome of Napoleon's Tomb meets the Shogunate, and it sparkled brilliantly in the mid-morning sun. It was here that I met Sarah, an American working as a nanny for a Japanese family outside of Tokyo. Sarah's story struck me as interesting because she had simply decided that she didn't know what she wanted to do after college and so, instead of moving home and getting a job like most lost college grads, she spontaneously moved to Japan for a year. I had to admire her gumption.

There were two things I didn't get to do while I was in Kyoto. The first was to see the geisha in the Gion district. On my way back to the hostel, I took a stroll down the main street in the area, which is literally about four feet wide, and peeked down the inviting entryways to the teahouses. The other was to see some kabuki theatre (I've heard it's boring, but still, I want to see it first hand), which originated in Kyoto. I'll have to come back another time to see these and the temples on the western side of the city. This is probably true of all cultures everywhere, but I couldn't help but notice the similarity of function that the massive temples had as compared to the massive cathedrals in Europe; that is, they inspire awe and reverence for the cause to which they were built. In fact, when Rosa and I were wandering through the Nijo-jo castle, the brochure specifically said that the brilliant Kano-period painted screens were intended to inspire awe in the Shogun's visiting nobles. It's been said many times before, but this gives the function of our modern skyscrapers on a slightly different interpretation, particularly banks.

After my last entry, I had a request to make some observations about the Japanese people and perhaps contrast them with Americans. It's my impression that the Japanese are a somewhat guarded people. They're extremely friendly to strangers and travelers, but that would seem to be a traditional obligation, not unlike the same of ancient Greece (think: The Oddysey). They are also very family-centric, and when you apply for jobs, etc., you typically have to give your parent's contact information, presumably so that the boss can call on their influence, if need be; the family seems to be a crucial part of the social accountability system. At least partially because of the population density, people often live with their parents until they can afford their own place, or they get married. For the women, I don't get the impression that they have as many socially acceptable alternatives to early marriage and housewife-dom as their American counterparts. Indeed, I very rarely saw women around my age who weren't on the arm of their boyfriend. There also seems to be an element of cultural doppelgangerism - the fashion and music of the American 1950s, 1980s, and British punk rock are alive and well here in Japan. (To be honest, I think the Japanese have improved upon the originals.) Also, the Japanese are a people of intense convenience. Heated toilet seats, their cellphones, their shinkansen (bullet trains), ubiquitous automatic doors (even in the smallest of restaurants or stores), etc. are all testament to their desire to live more easily through technology. But what's odd is that they aren't as computerized as Americans are. They love their gadgets for their convenience (and are years ahead of the rest of the world), but still rely on paper copies of information tables and paper files in many of their transportation offices. For good reason, Japan often gets called the place where East and West meet. I think it's modernized extremely quickly, adopting western attitudes for things like technology, some fashion, convenience, etc., but it's still quite traditional when it comes to social mores. I wouldn't be surprised if China becomes even more of a weird blend of east/west and tradition/modern given the rate at which it's advancing.

posted April 13, 2005 11:06 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

TravelBlog: Japan, a country in pictures

I've sifted through the 200 odd pictures I took during my time in Japan and have posted only the best (I swear!). Enjoy!

posted April 13, 2005 12:40 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

April 10, 2005

Give the politicians swords and let God (or the dice) work out the details

This song produced by Hitachi's PR department to trumpet their recent breakthrough concerning storage technology wins the prize of most... bizarre.

In a twist of the surreal that only US Patent Law could create, Smuckers, the company that brings you the American wholesomenesss of jelly, tried to patent the premade peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and issue cease-and-desist orders to other companies making sandwiches.

Finally, we should all give thanks that upright citizens like this BestBuy employee are observant in this post-9/11 world. But then, in this post-9/11 world of ours, convenience is in the eye of the beholder, and when the beholder is conservative pundits, no truth is too inconvenient to circumvent. Democrats should be wary of engaging such creatures:

Beholder: a powerful, magical monster. Although a fairly weak hand-to-hand fighter, the Beholder can spawn Skeletons to do the fighting for him. He can also shoot powerful magic at his opponent, which makes him a formidable distance fighter.

Democrats, listen up, this bit concerns you:

It is recommended that knights and paladins with a high shielding skill attack the Beholder directly in a melee fight. Ignore the skeletons until you have killed the Beholder. It is recommended that you carry several Healing Runes or Life Fluids. Using the defensive mode of attack is recommended because of the number of opponents and the fierce magic attacks.

Warning, if he is heavely wounded he have a bigger range with his missles, beware!

I couldn't have said it better, myself.

posted April 10, 2005 11:48 AM in Political Wonk | permalink | Comments (0)

April 09, 2005

TravelBlog: Tokyo, the New York of the East...

Actually, a more apt statement would be New York is the Tokyo of the West. (For some great pictures of Tokyo at night, try here.) The urban area of Tokyo and its surrounding areas are sprawling metropolis encompassing a staggering 34 million people. As a city itself, it lacks many of the architectural anachronisms of New York, but this is largely due to the fact that earthquakes knock many of them down every so often. In fact, because the islands are perpetually changing shape (earthquakes, volcanoes, waves), the Japanese could be said to rely more on social structure to preserve their cultural heritage than to rely on architectural cues as is the case in Europe (think: the Palace at Versailles).

My adventures in Tokyo began the night I arrived. After meeting up with friend Chris Salzberg (currently working on a PhD at U. Tokyo, doing cool artificial life stuff), I experienced the tightly packed urban eating area in Shinjuku where salarymen eat a variety of Japanese cuisine in small shops that seat at most six or seven. The next morning, I rose at 4:30am to go to the Tokyo Fish Market, which my Let's Go guidebook recommended (although, I can't recommend the Japan guidebook). Just like Shinjuku train station, the Fish Market is the largest in the world. 27 tonnes of fish pass through the market every day (except Sunday), chilled by 200 tonnes of ice! The market itself starts up at around 3:00am, so by the time I arrived at 6:30am, things were in full swing. The daily auctions of freshly caught tuna had just finished, and rows upon rows of flash-freezed tuna carcasses lay on the auction house floors. From there, the fish were transferred to about a dozen densely packed rows of processing merchants who, with band-saws and 4-ft long knives, sliced and carved the tuna into progressively smaller chunks. Tuna isn't the only thing that passes through the market. There are so many things that do, I was at a loss to identify all but a few familiar ones: sea cucumbers, tuna, giant crabs, spiny lobsters (I think), squid, cuttlefish (maybe), and a host of other finned, shelled and tentacled things.

On the subway to the market, I met Sue and Ann, two South African sisters. Both were twice my age, but we had a great time strolling through the bustling market. Sue had been to the market once before, and shared the statistics I mentioned earlier. At the far side of the market, the processed fish were packaged and moved so as to be transported to the far reaches of the globe. From what I hear, there are sushi restaurants in New York City that have their fish flown in daily from Tokyo. I've seen one end of the chain now, so next time I'm in New York, I'll have to see the other. My companions and I finished our tour with a breakfast of fresh sushi; delicious!

My next stop was the neighborhood of Akihabara, which is better known for its cheap electronics and anime stores, but I was there to see a little Confucian shrine, and the shrine to Kanda Myojin (Japanese legendary figure). As seems pretty common in Tokyo, nestled among the endless tall buildings, bustling streets and fashy modernity are islands of aged tranquility. Smack in the middle of Akihabara is a walled compound that houses the Confucian shrine, and across the street is the Kanda shrine. Both were imperfect santuarie, as if, despite the stillness within, the young, modern and energetic Tokyo a few dozen meters away refused to be silenced by the stable, ancient and peaceful Tokyo of yesterday.

Next, I walked from Akihabara to Ueno, another major transportation hub much like Shinjuku. Situated just behind the station is the sprawling Ueno Park, home, it would seem, to most of the major museums in Tokyo. I focused my time in the Tokyo National Museum complex, which houses six different buildings containing art and treasures from historic Japan, as well as the rest of Asia. Apparently, the mummys are the main draw there and I missed them. Instead, I wandered amongst thousand year old urns, scrolls and statues of buddha. Of all the pieces, I enjoyed the black and white Japanese screens, and the 'modern' Japanese art, from the 1800s, that appeared to be slightly post-Renaissance and reminded me a little of Andy Warhol's stuff. Oh, and, the samurai armor was neat.

Finally, I walked from Ueno to Asakusa (getting lost only a couple of times on the way - the directions in Let's Go Japan are universally bad for Tokyo; fortunately, the Japanese are often extremely helpful to lost foreigners) to see the famous Senso-ji shrine. "Shrine" doesn't really do it much justice - "campus" seems a better word. The main shrine is about the size of a small office building, and it's flanked by a huge and beautiful five story pagoda building. The small hut-like structure on the approaching road billows smoke that the Japanese waft towards themselves to get luck. At all the shrines I visisted, the offering box is situated in front of the buddha and is fitted with wooden slats running short-ways across the top - coins tossed onto them make a pleasing thunk-thunk-chink as they bounce across them before finally settling into the interior. The offering box at Senso-hi was proportionate to the size of the shrine... that is to say, it was huge, and patrons tossed their coins from a proportional distance away. After snapping some pictures of this sprawling and very traditionally Japanese structure, I browsed the shopping street nearby. Tourist-trap central, although a lot of the goods are hand-crafted. I hear that it used to be more pleasant (read: less touristy), but I found it nice enough.

On my second day, I ventured to Harajuku neighborhood to see the "fashion parade" of young girls wearing outlandish costumes (accompanied by Chris and Hana). At first, I had much respect for them since I thought they much have made these costumes themselves. Then, as we walked from Harajuku to Shibuya for lunch, I spotted a host of stores that sell these get-ups pre-made. The outlandishness suddenly became both less endearing and less interesting. But my faith in Japanese weirdness was restored when I came upon a group of four Japanese men outfitted in tight leather and copious amounts of hair grease, dancing to "Do The Twist" in the nearby park. As any Japanese tourist would do, I snapped a picture of the crazy locals.

That night, Chris, Hana and I had what's called "munja", a kind of traditional Japanese food. The restaurant was small and run by a local family, the menu was in kanji; Hana ordered. Soon we were brought three bowls of chopped stuff (possibly soaking in a liquid), which is then fried on the hot plate built into your table. For one kind of munja, once it's partially fried, you carefully construct a little pen on the hot plate and pour the liquid from the bowl into the middle. If you've built properly then none of the liquid seeps out. Trying my hand at this, my dam only sprung one leak, and the final result was extremely tasty.

Tokyo, like New York City, is too big to see in a few days. As I've come to expect with all of my travel, many interesting things will go unseen and unexperienced. My rationalization is that I simply have to return in the future to experience more. Tokyo is no different. During my last day, I focused more on business, visiting both the Ikegami and Kaneko laboratories at U. Tokyo. My intention was to investigate the possibility of doing a post-doc in Kaneko's lab, and this may materialize in the future. My trip to Japan left me so enamored with the country that I've placed it on the (very short) list of places to live in the future.

posted April 9, 2005 12:33 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

April 05, 2005

Flying west to get east; follow-up

I just got back from Japan, and I want to go back already. Truly a country where East meets West, and Traditional meets Modern, and Nature meets Mankind (think: volanoes, earthquakes and tidal waves), Japan is an amazing place. Over the next little while, I'll be blogging about some of my experiences and observations about the differences between Japanese and Americans.

posted April 5, 2005 10:11 PM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)