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May 31, 2005

On the brain and its prostitution

This summer, I will post on a slightly lighter schedule as I will be spending most of my time (although perhaps not my mental energy) exploring the new field of financial consulting. Yes, I have decided to prostitute my brain to the feudal lords of money in an attempt to both hedge my bet on academia (and the glorious riches and fame that can accompany such a career) with a modest foray into the respected and venerable industry of hiring my smarts out to the highest bidder (who, in this case, happens to be a very large financial company that has hired the New York City consulting firm that I'm working for), and to supplement my burgeoning graduate student stipend. So, wish me luck and perhaps offer a quick prayer to Dionysus that I won't contract any debilitating diseases from my effective prostitution, and perhaps will even come away with some valuable skills. Oddly, I'm not entirely convinced that academia and business are that different... this is a topic that I should blog at some point.

posted May 31, 2005 11:16 PM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)

May 21, 2005

The inter-disciplinary politics of interdisciplinary research or, "Hey, that was my idea first."

A few days ago, Eszter Hargittai posted a rant on the joint-blog Crooked Timber about the entre of physicists into the subfield in sociology of social networks and her perception of their contributing mostly nothing of value. Her entry was prompted by this paper about the EuroVision Contest. I learned about the entry first when she reproduced it on the social networking listserv SOCNET; a list on which I lurk mostly because I'm too cheap to pay the membership fee and also because I mainly use it as a way to collect journal references for sociology literature. References which I imagine to myself that I'll read or use one day, although given the poor job I'm currently doing at keeping up with the recent papers in my own field, I may realistically never get around to. (This point is salient, and I'll return to it momentarily.) In the ensuing and relatively lively debate in the post's comments section, someone called for and then received attention from friend Cosma Shalizi, who blogs his own thoughts on the subject in his usual lengthy, heavily cross-referenced and edifying way.

Several meta-commentary thoughts come immediately to mind:

1. Cosma's points are extremely thoughtful and are likely right on the money in terms of seeing the merits of both physicists contributions to social sciences and the argument of their reinvention of wheels. Most relevant to the rant about physicists not contributing anything of value to the field of social networks, he gives four excellent and broad examples of how physicists have added to our knowledge.

2. One of these points, which bears rehashing here, is that physicists are not just interested in social networks (it unfortunately illustrates the irony of the sociologists claims of academic injustice that this observation is abscent from their complaints). Physics training, and particularly that of statistical mechanics, the subfield that most physicists interested in social networks hail from, emphasizes that items of inquiry can, to as great an extent as possible, be treated as interchangeable. Thus, complex networks is the idea that social networks are just one kind of network. The progress physicists have made in carving out the field of complex networks has been somewhat spotty, perhaps because of their not knowing entirely how much of statistical mechanics to import and how much of a reliance on numerical simulation is reasonable (this touches on a related point, that there is not a firm consensus on how computational modeling and simulation should be incorporated into science to the same degree that theory and empiricism have been). If they have been arrogant toward other fields in their attempts to do this, then they should be chastised through letters to the editor of the journals that publish the offending articles. With regard to the EuroVision Contest article, Eszter Hargittai and Kieran Healy's best recourse is to write such a letter to Physica A illustrating that the work is not novel.

3. A point which Cosma omits in his list is connection to social network analysis, via complex network analysis, a large body of mathematical techniques from physics such as percolation theory (he does point out the contribution via network epidemiology), group renormalization, random graph theory, ideas of entropy and techniques for modeling dynamic systems. I may be wrong on these contributions, since I will easily admit that I don't read enough sociology literature. (Update: Cosma notes that sociologists and affiliated statisticians were familiar with Erdos-Renyi random graph theory before the physicists came along.)

4. There's a deeper issue at play here, which Cosma has also discussed (his prolificness is truly impressive, even more so given its high quality). Namely, that there are more physicists than there is funding (or interest?) for physics problems. While I was at Haverford, one of my physics professors told me, without a hint of a smile, that in order to get a job in traditional physics, you basically had to work at one of the national laboratories, work at a particle accelerator laboratory, or work in condensed matter physics. None of these seemed particularly appealing, yet the ideas and approaches of physics were. So, it is perhaps entirely expected that similar folks in my position eventually branch out into other fields. This is, after all, the nature of interdisciplinary research, and physicists (along with mathematicians and, to a lesser degree, chemists) seem particularly well-equipped for this kind of adventure. With the rising emphasis among both funding agencies and universities for interdisciplinary research (which may or may not be simply lip-service), the future likelihood of inter-disciplinary ego-bruising seems high.

5. Obviously, in any scientific endeavor, interdisciplinary or otherwise, scientists should understand the literature that came before (I dislike the term "master", because it implies an amount of time-commitment that I think few people can honestly claim to have spent with literature). In my recent referee work for Physical Review E, I have routinely chastised authors for not writing better introductions that leave a reader with a firm understanding of the context (past and present) in which the fundamental questions they seek to address sit. When it comes to interdisciplinary work, these problems are particularly acute; not only do you have multiple bodies of literature to quickly and succinctly review, but you must also do so in a way accessible to the members of the each field. Some (but, by no means, all) physicists are certainly guilty of this when it comes to writing about social networks, as they are prone to reinventing the wheel. The most egregious example of which is the preferential attachment model of Barabasi and Albert, but it can (and should) be argued that this reinvention was extremely valuable, as it helped spark a wide degree of interest in the previous work and has prompted some excellent work on developing that idea since. So, the fundamental question that I think all of we who claim to be interdisciplinary must face and ultimately answer (in a way that can be communicated to future generations of interdisciplinary researchers, many of whom are in college right now) is, What is the most principled and reasonable way, given the constraints on attention, energy, time, knowledge, intelligence, etc., to allocate proper recognition (typically via citations and coauthorships) to previous and on-going work that is relevant to some interdisciplinary effort?

Or, more succinctly, what's the most practical way to mitigate the inter-disciplinary politics of interdisciplinary research while encouraging it to the fullest extent possible? Closely related are questions about adequately evaluating the merit of research that does not fall squarely within the domain of a large enough body of experts for peer-review. As is the question of how academic departments should value interdisciplinary researchers and what role they should fill in the highly compartmentalized and territorial realm of academic disciplines.

Manual TrackBack: Three-toed Sloth

posted May 21, 2005 04:09 PM in Simply Academic | permalink | Comments (1)

May 18, 2005

Galloway on the Iraq

These are too interesting not to re-post here. Galloway on Iraq, in the Senate and on Hardball. Of particular interest is Coleman's refusal to accuse Galloway of directly profiteering, and Galloway's eloquent rebuttal of both the case for war and Coleman's McCarthyism.



(Video clips are mirrored from Norm Jenson's excellent blog One Good Move, and their coverage of the same.)

posted May 18, 2005 01:48 AM in Political Wonk | permalink | Comments (0)

May 17, 2005

Reality as just another kind of media

danah boyd has an excellent observation piece on her blog apophenia in which she discusses the problems with connecting together physical and digital persona for the same person. From the entry:

... Given Aronsons' work (in brief, first impressions matter and are near impossible to overturn), coarse data is highly problematic. The thing about blogging is that it appears to be rich data, not coarse data. Yet, at the same time, how are the mental models of an individual connected to them? And worse, how do our models based on digital interactions fail to prepare us for what happens when we interact? This has huge implications on our ability to get to know people online.

As I think all of we who make an effort to project ourselves digitally wonder, What impression do people have who, after Googling me, read my website, my blog and my articles? Beyond danah's fascination, which I also share, of the disconnect between physical and digital persona, there are other potential disconnects to consider. As academics, we communicate ideas through our technical writing, and there are several researchers whom I have met after become very familiar with the results of their research. My mental image of them is inevitably far off. This point danah raises is particularly interesting to me, for a reason that will become obvious toward the end of June. Different personas, different media, different false impressions.

posted May 17, 2005 10:28 PM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)

May 14, 2005

The utility of irrationality

I have long been a proponent of rationality, yet this important mode of thinking is not the most natural for the human brain. It is our irrationality that distinguishes us from purely computational beings. Were we perfectly rational thinkers, there would be no impulse buys, no procrastination, no pleasant diversions and no megalomaniacal dictators. Indeed, being perfectly rational is so far from a good approximation of how humans think, it's laughable that economists ever considered it a reasonable model for human economic behavior (neoclassical microeconomics assumed this, although lately ideas are becoming more reasonable).

Perfect rationality, or the assumption that someone will always follow the most rational choice given the available information, is at least part of what makes it inherently difficult for computers to solve certain kinds of tasks in the complex world we inhabit (e.g., driving cars). That is, in order to make an immediate decision, when you have wholly insufficient knowledge about past, present and future, you need something else to drive you toward a particular solution. For humans, these driving forces are emotions, bodily needs and a fundamental failure to be completely rational, and they almost always tip the balance of indecision toward some action. Yet, irrationality serves a greater purpose than simply helping us to quickly make up our minds. It is also what gives us the visceral pleasures of art, music and relaxing afternoons in the park. The particularly pathological ways in which we are irrational are what makes us humans, rather than something else. Perhaps, if we ever encounter an extraterrestrial culture or learn to communicate with dolphins, we will, as a species, come to appreciate the origins of our uniqueness by comparing our irrationalities with theirs.

Being irrational seems to be deeply rooted in the way we operate in the real world. I recall a particularly interesting case study from my freshman psychology course at Swarthmore College: a successful financial investor had a brain lesion on the structure of the brain that is associated with emotion. The removal of this structure resulted in a perfectly normal man who happened to also be horrible at investing. Why? Apparently, because the brain normally stores a great deal of information about past decisions in the form of emotional associations, previous bad investments recalled a subconscious negative emotional response when jogged by similar characteristics of a present situation (and vice versa). Emotion, then, is a fundamental tool for representing the past, i.e., it is the basis of memory, and, as such, is both irrational and mutable. In fact, I could spend the rest of the entry musing on the utility of irrationality and its functional role in the brain (e.g., creativity in young songbirds). However, what is more interesting to me at this moment is the observation that we are first and foremost irrational beings, and only secondarily rational ones. Indeed, being rational is so difficult that it requires a particularly painful kind of conditioning in order to draw it out of the mental darkness that normally obscures it. That is, it requires education that emphasizes the principles of rational inquiry, skepticism and empirical validation. Sadly, I find none of these to be taught with much reliability in undergraduate Computer Science education (a topic about which I will likely blog in the future).

This month's Scientific American "Skeptic" column treats just this topic: the difficulty of being rational. In his usual concise yet edifying style, Shermer describes the tendency of humans to look for patterns in the tidal waves of information constantly washing over us, and that although it is completely natural for the human brain, evolved for this very purpose, to discover correlations in that information, it takes mental rigor to distinguish the true correlations from the false:

We evolved as a social primate species whose language ability facilitated the exchange of such association anecdotes. The problem is that although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the overall phenomenon has endured the winnowing process of natural selection. [...] Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; science requires training.

Thinking rationally requires practice, disciplined caution and a willingness to admit to being wrong. These are the things that do not come naturally to us. The human brain is so powerfully engineered to discover correlations and believe in their truth, that, for instance, even after years of rigorous training in physics, undergraduates routinely still believe their eyes and youthful assumptions about the conservation of momentum, over what their expensive college education has taught them (one of my fellow Haverford graduates Howard Glasser '00 studied exactly this topic for his honors thesis). That is, we are more likely to trust our intuition than to trust textbooks. The dangers of this kind of behavior taken to the extreme are, unfortunately, well documented.

Yet, despite this hard line against irrationality and our predilection toward finding false correlations in the world, this behavior has a utilitarian purpose beyond those described above; one that is completely determined by the particular characteristics and idiosyncrasies of being human and has implications for the creative process that is Science. For instance, tarot cards, astrology and other metaphysical phenomenon (about which I've blogged before) may completely fail the test of scientific validation for predicting the future, yet they serve the utilitarian purpose of stimulating our minds to be introspective. These devices are designed to engage the brain's pattern recognition centers, encouraging you to think about the prediction's meaning in your life rather than thinking about it objectively. Indeed, this is their only value: with so much information, both about self and others, to consider at each moment and in each decision that must be made, the utility of any such device is in focusing on interesting aspects which have meaning to the considerer.

Naturally, one might use this argument to justify a wide variety of completely irrational behavior, and indeed, anything that stimulates the observer in ways that go beyond their normal modes of thinking has some utility. However, the danger in this line of argument lies in confusing the tool with the mechanism; tools are merely descriptive, while mechanisms have explanatory power. This is the fundamental difference, for instance, between physics and statistics. The former is the pursuit of natural mechanisms that explain the existence of the real structure and regularity observed by the latter; both are essential elements of scientific inquiry. As such, Irrationality, the jester which produces an incessant and uncountable number of interesting correlations, provides the material through which, wielding the scepter of empirical validation according to the writ of scientific inquiry, Rationality sorts in an effort to find Truth. Without the one, the other is unfocused and mired in detail, while without the other, the one is frivolous and false.

posted May 14, 2005 06:07 AM in Thinking Aloud | permalink | Comments (0)

May 05, 2005

The joys of unfettered research

Although I diligently try to keep up with the new papers in my field, there are just so many to read... yet, some are more pleasant than others. In fact, some could be said to be downright pleasurable, such as a mathematical model of scientists writing papers (and citing other papers). Or an empirical study of the frequency of natural numbers on the World Wide Web. Who says science is humorless?

Update: In following the power-law exuberance, power laws exist in the income distribution of movies in the United States. This doesn't suprise me one bit actually, since there is pretty strong evidence that humans prefer a power law in the popularity of things (e.g., power-law degree distribution in the sales of books, etc.). Somehow, I doubt that power laws of this kind will not continue to make headlines...

Friend Dennis Chao (of psdoom fame; another shining example of the fruits of unfettered research) pointed me to this amusing bit of research in 2003 by a pair of Canadian psychologists on the effects of a pretty female face on heterosexual men's ability to accurately estimate the future value of goods. From the article:

A sex difference in discounting is predictable. Because men have always had some chance of gaining fitness from short-term expenditures of mating effort, whereas successful reproduction typically requires more prolonged parental investment by women, men should have evolved to discount the future more steeply than women, and sex differences in age-specific mortality confirm this expectation (e.g. Arias 2002). Men also have higher discount rates than women in choices of monetary rewards (Kirby & Marakovic 1996).

and, on their results,

As predicted, discounting increased signif icantly in men who viewed attractive women, but not in men who viewed unattractive women or women who viewed men; viewing cars produced a different pattern of results.

Straight men's weaknesses: cars and pretty girls...

posted May 5, 2005 04:23 AM in Scientifically Speaking | permalink | Comments (0)

TravelBlog: Kyushu, mountainous and beautiful

My last missive was written about my time in historic Kyoto, hopping among the innumerable shrines and temples that put modern tourists in touch with Japan's historic roots. From there, I spent almost a full day traveling to the south eastern corner of Kyushu, Japan's large southern-most island that is situated the closest to Korea. Two shinkansen and three long local trains later, I arrived in Miyakonojo, where my friend from Haverford Jenn Louie has been stationed for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching, run by the Japanese government to bring foreigners into the country to teach English to Japanese students) program over the past three years.

Unlike my time in Tokyo and Kyoto, I walked significantly less on this leg of my journey, as Miyakonojo is a suburb of the slightly larger town of Miyazaki (not to be confused with the director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) who was born in Tokyo), and driving was a much more convenient way to get around the Japanese countryside. It was in Miyakonojo that I finally got to experience the true sushi restaurant/bar, complete with boisterous sushi chefs, the little conveyor belt, endless green tea, and the entire-wait-staff shouts of welcome and goodbye when customers enter and leave. My mission for sushi places was to try at least one new kind each stop. Here, I tried uni, which is sea urchin, eggplant with a miso-based sauce on it, some fish I can't name, a roll with little mushrooms and some kind of mountain potato paste, and a gently grilled tuna. Some were better than others, but none as bad as some hardened fish eggs I tried in Kyoto. The eggplant was especially delicious and I have yet to find a place in the U.S. that serves it.

That evening, we drove to the famous hot spring bath resort hotel in nearby Kagoshima. These communal baths are called "onsen" (also used as a verb), and are extremely popular among the Japanese. The one in Kagoshima is co-ed, so guests are required to wear a medium-weight white robe for modesty; what made this onsen unusual is that a) it's outdoor portion is literally a few feet from the high tide mark of the Pacific ocean, and b) there's a huge, gnarled tree that grows around the hot spring itself. The tree is considered lucky, perhaps on account of its age and putting up with hot mineral water, so a small Buddhist shrine has been built under its roots.

After lunch the next day with some of Jenn's friends from the JET program, we took a drive along the Kyushu coast line. On account of it having a high density of volcanoes, the island is extremely mountainous, even by the ocean. The little road we took to visit two shrines hugged and undulated with the coastline itself: deep blue a few dozen meters on one side, and tree covered mountains rising up from the other - these are the roads you imagine James Bond zipping around in his tricked-out convertible. The views were stunning and reminded me of the Cinque Terra coastline in Italy, except with more greenery. Our first stop was the shrine on a small island just off the coastal area called Nichinan Kaigan near Aoshima. Between it and the mainland is what's called the Devil's Washboard, on account that it really looks like a gigantic washboard. Basically, volcanic activity created hundreds of layers of hard rock, which was then tilted and covered with water. So, the rough edges of the layers stick out just above the surface all along the coastline, giving the appearance of a washboard. The island is a ecological treasure trove, but the best thing is the crazy traditions surrounding it. In the dead of winter there is a festival where Japanese strip naked and run into the water carrying mini-shrines strapped to their backs. A little further south along the highway is another coastal shrine. In addition to the regular buildings, there's a walkway that snakes down the cliff face toward the somewhat dangerous looking breakers. Tucked into a good sized cave is a medium-sized temple. Below, on the rocks, there's a natural depression that's typically filled with water. Legend has it that if you can toss a small clay pellet into the depression, you will be blessed with healthy children. The rock itself is perhaps 30 feet from the landing where you stand, and the depression only a couple of feet in diameter, but ringed by a braided rope so it's easy to see. The small pellets litter the rocks below it, and a significantly smaller number sit inside the pool. Fortunately, I'll have at least one healthy child - I made it on my first try, although failed on my other four.

That night, I experienced the most pure of Japanese traditions: karaoke. Jenn and her fellow JETs had organized a surprise party for one of their number, and after a nice meal, we hit the Shidax karaoke building. It's difficult to express just how overwhelming karaoke in Japan is... imagine a five story building decorated inside in bright colors, faux marble, and packed with well-decorated soundproof rooms. Each room is decked out with a sound system, big screen tv and karaoke machine (which has a remote control and a remote LCD interface). We got the all-you-can-drink karaoke package, and started around midnight. Normally, I don't like singing in front of people. But eventually, the atmosphere of carefree off key singing and drunken revelry persuaded me to add my voice to the festivities. And happily so. Japanese karaoke is a unique and amazing experience, and I'm a bit sad that we Americans don't have anything quite so indulgently musical for recreation. Come 4:30am, most of the group was still at it when a few of us retired. From what I understand, it's not uncommon for karaoke to last so late into the night, and with several thousand songs in the database, the hardcore among us could probably have gone on through the entire next day.

The next day, Jenn and I traveled again to Miyazaki, this time to witness a traditional festival involving horseback archery. This festival was small and was more like a historic competition using tradition methods, garb and formalities. Riders would race down a narrow dirt track and fire arrows (from Japanese longbows which are somewhat larger and more unwieldy than the British equivalent) at each of three wooden targets. Between each run was a series of signals up and down the raceway using brightly colored fans in order to communicate the readiness of each team who replaced used targets and signaled the rider to begin. A few of the older men were extremely good, and would routinely hit two of the three targets, but the crowd (of almost all Japanese - this part of the country doesn't see too many foreigners) would clap enthusiastically at the rare times a rider hit all three. There were some very young boys who also participated - their horses trotted much more slowly, but the boys were not much worse than the adults at hitting the targets. All of this was preceded and followed by the whole group of people (in traditional Japanese grab) processing from one end of the track to the other.

Our original plan for the rest of the day had been to visit the island Koshimajust where native macaque monkeys live. These monkeys discovered (in the 1950s) how to wash dirty sweet potatoes in the stream before eating them. Unfortunately, we dawdled a bit too long in the sunny weather at the park near where the archery contest had been held. When we finally arrived at the beach across from Koshimajust, it was close to dusk and the boatman was not to be found. The view was beautiful, and a stroll down the concrete wharf brought us only a few hundred feet from the island. Spoiling to see the monkeys, and realizing that it probably wasn't going to happen, we hemmed and hawed and talked ourselves into a bit of craziness. Leaving most of our clothes (and our sanity) on the beach, we boldly plunged into the cold water and swam across the strait. The water itself was pleasant once the initial shock wore off, and with no current, we felt very safe (all things considered...). Upon attempting to beach on the island, I discovered that the rocks in the shallows there are home to prickly sea urchins and sharp-shelled barnacles. Being pleased with the success of our crazy adventure and now thinking better of going completely ashore, we plunged back into the cold water for the return trip to the beach. Irresponsible, yes, but, a little bit of insanity is good for the soul - keeps the heart young and provides a great story for recounting later. Being now soaked and salty, we drove us to the nearest onsen while I delicately began extracting sea urchin spines from my injured hand. This onsen was indoor and gender-segregated. So that you have an idea of how these things work, here's the routine: first, you shower (traditional Japanese style, where you sit naked on a small plastic stool with the movable shower head in front of you); then, you hop from hot bath to hot bath, perhaps sampling the "electric bath" (where a small electric current emanates from the walls and produces a tingle and twitch in your muscles), the jet-massage chairs, the tea tub, the sauna, the massage stream (a twelve foot tall column of falling water you can use to massage your shoulders), or the regular jacuzzi-style bath.

The next day was my last full day in Japan, and we drove north toward Fukuoka, where my flight left for Tokyo and then back to the States. On the way, Jenn and I chatted extensively about the quirks of Japanese culture, particularly in how it compares to American culture. I'll say more about that shortly - first I want to describe some of the things we saw as we drove north. In addition to more gorgeous views of tree covered mountains, valleys, waterfalls, rice paddies, cherry blossoms (which were in full bloom by this day) and the ocean, we stopped in the onsen resort town of Kurokawa. This tiny town is nestled in a wedge valley where the hot springs abound. The price of the onsen is regulated by the government so that it's accessible to everyone (500 yen, or about $5); the real money made by the onsens is in overnight guests (which starts at about 10000 yen, or $100/night). The decorum is exquisite traditional Japanese, with dark dark stained wood, tatamai mats, brass dragons and sliding doors. Several of the more famous onsen are off from the main town, but I liked the town itself the best. Here, flanking every available square foot of the valley's small river (Black River) are onsen buildings. Guests who purchase a three-onsen pass can hop from one to the next, and we saw many groups of bath robed Japanese doing exactly this. Once you finish with your pass (a large wooden disc), you're supposed to hang it in the local shrine for good luck (good luck for what? Just good luck. Luck, apparently, it a bit like money, and it's commonly believed that one can never have too much). We stopped for a brief snack, so that I could sample another kind of traditional Japanese food. I forget what the rice balls were called, but it was a red bean soup with six of these balls. Instead of simply packing rice together, the rice is powdered and packed tightly into a gooey substance that's a bit like bubble gum.

With it getting late, we sped on to Fukuoka, where we checked into a business hotel. These hotels have extremely small rooms (think: dorm rooms), and come with all the basics that a traveling businessman would need - tooth brush, night gown, soap/shampoo, etc. Before retiring for the night, we toured the nightlife area of Fukuoka, and in particular the area called Canal City. An island in the middle of the river, Canal City is a dense, bright, thumping spot of commercial activity. The mall is home of Ramen Kingdom, where you can sample gourmet ramen from different parts of Japan (not the stuff you can get in the grocery store in the U.S. at all).

I'll now say a few words about my impressions of Japanese culture. Jenn pointed out to me that because the island of Japan is constantly changing (earthquakes and volcanoes, mostly), their buildings reflect a sense of temporary existence. Tokyo and Kyoto are largely made of concrete (albeit, from combinations of the seven kinds of concrete the Japanese have). Cheap to build, since they get knocked down periodically. So, since they cannot rely on their physical surroundings to preserve their sense of history (as the western europeans do (think: the palace of Versailles)), they instead rely upon a strong social rigidity. Thus, Japanese schooling typically involves mastering the ability to reproduce the works of previous masters, rather than encouraging individuality as we westerners are wont to do. This is probably why somewhat bizarre traditions like running naked into freezing water continue - this is what makes them Japanese. The grade school system is much more like the British one than the American one. In the States, we teach each child that they can grow up to be anything or do anything if they work hard enough at it. Toward that end, we basically teach them a lot of theory and fewer skills than may be ideal. In Japan, the children begin focusing their future careers at an early age and may learn trade skills in grade school. Also, the schooling system is every bit as intense as you're heard - high school students routinely stay at school until the late evening participating in clubs and sports. There are no school districts in Japan (and thus no school busses), as students apply to attend a school and must complete an on-site interview and grueling entrance examination. There's a hierarchy of schools, so eventually, everyone finds a place. In contrast to the States, it's the public schools that are best in Japan. I've heard it mentioned that Japan is a centralized-capitalist nation, while the U.S. is a decentralized-capitalist nation. Given the amount of top-down regulation from the government in a wide variety of spheres of life, this sounds like an appropriate distinction. The Japanese expect a large amount of government involvement, and in fact, the government feels somewhat obligated to give everyone a job if they can't find one elsewhere (so, in the current recession, there is a lot of road work being done as public works projects). Anyway, the teenagers who are learning their trade skill are taught to take pride in their work; in the service industry, which I interacted with the most, this translated to an amazingly high level of customer service. On the United flight back to the States, the flight attendants were all American, and I immediately missed the helpfulness and happiness that is exuded by the Japanese. Whether this behavior feigned or not, I don't know. Also, the social accountability system in Japan extends not only to having you give a reference when you check into a hotel (as we did in Fukuoka), but also to the teachers being obligated to certain parental duties (like accompanying an injured student to the hospital, etc.). Basically, the traditional system is much more village-like (in that they really do spread the responsibility of raising children around) than in the States. Naturally, this has both good and bad elements to it. What's interesting now, however, is that the younger generation has absorbed a lot of the western ideals that the Japanese so easily adopted (as they so frequently do), and are significantly more individualistic than I think their elders would like. So, it will be extremely interesting to see how, in the coming years, Japan deals with a) an aging population and b) the erosion of the traditional societal/hierarchical bonds. Still, while freely adopting bits and pieces of other cultures that they like (e.g., pop music), they remake much of it into a Japanese style. The country may seem extremely modern (and it is), but the trappings of modern life will seem a little unfamiliar to we foreigners because they've done it their own way.

posted May 5, 2005 02:02 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (1)