Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Too Few Science Students?

There's a fair amount of angsty discussion, in newspapers and blogs, about the state of science in society. One claim is that too few young people are choosing a science-related education today, opting instead for popular media- or design-related careers that are generally very competitive, have lousy job security and low pay. Yet people do choose to study them, and in large part it's because they're seen as creative and cool. If we could only present science as cool and fun, the thinking goes, students would soon flock to science courses.

There's just one problem: Science isn't cool, not by any reasonable definition of the word. You're not going to get famous, rub shoulders with the Beautiful People or strike it rich with a major hit. Rather, most science jobs are like being, say, a certified accountant, or corporate contract lawyer, or materials procurement workflow consultant. The job can be absolutely riveting for the right kind of person, but unless you have a genuine interest in the subject it's probably going to be difficult and quite dull. And yet, you don't hear plaintive cries about the lack of economy or law students. So why do lots of people still choose to become accountants or lawyers - or any number of other unglamorous careers?

They offer money or stability instead. There's really three ways you can motivate people to consider a career apart from their own personal interest in it: it may give you status (coolness being one aspect of it); it may make you rich; or it may give you stability. A career that demands a long, difficult and expensive training period will generally need more incentives like these than a career that is easy to get into. A TV manuscript writer has no job security and low pay but is regarded as cool. A contract law job is not cool but is fairly stable and pays very well. An accountant is the antithesis of cool and has modest pay but great job security.

Science jobs are often unstable, and if not they are relatively low paid. The careers that lead to jobs that are perceived as cool (pet veterinarian, say, or marine biologist) or high status (university professor) tend to have a corresponding lack of stability and pay1. In a sense, a permanent position as a research university professor or marine biologist is akin to breaking into the big time as a musician or writer in that few that embark on the career will ever reach such a point of stability, pay and status.

So if there are too few students of science then the solution would be simple: raise the salary level or offer greater stability (higher salaries are cheaper). Which is exactly what employers would do if there really was a persistent lack of science graduates. Salaries are not increasing, however, which likely means there is no shortage. Indeed, in relatively high-status science jobs, such as academic science, there's a vast surplus of qualified applicants today with several people for every available position. We mostly have the science graduates we need.

So why claim that too few people are studying science? Employers, of course, naturally prefer as large a pool of candidates as possible. And universities really do have a lack of students. In many places they have too few applicants for their science courses - sometimes fewer applicants than seats. They are in the business of educating people after all, and if there's a lack of bodies to fill lecture seats then the university loses money. If the offending department doesn't improve it's enrolment it will soon see its budget and personnel cut. They have a powerful incentive to increase enrolment whether their graduates can find jobs in their field or not.

As always, when somebody makes public claims, consider the source. What's their perspective and what reasons do they have to push those particular claims? In this case, do they really think society has an enduring lack of science graduates, or are they more concerned with finding cheaper employees or more students to fill their lecture halls?

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#1 One exception would be physician, a science-related career that is high status, stable and very well paid - and that's reflected in the very intense competition for entry to medical schools. The intense, enduring competition probably means, frankly, that physicians are overpaid in some markets.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Still in Sendai...

A city in rain and same city in sunshine is so utterly different you'd not think it was even the same place. Don't let your first impressions be your last.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Sendai

I'm off to a three-day conference in Sendai tomorrow. The conference itself promises to be fun, though of course the presentations will be in Japanese and range from very difficult to completely impossible for me to understand.

Sendai, by the way, has about one million inhabitants, making it the largest city in Japan I had no idea existed. Which is fine - with no expectations I can only get pleasantly surprised. It's apparently the "city of trees" (there's trees around, I guess) and beef tongue is a speciality for no particular reason I am aware of. People talk very highly of the city, so it should be good. Of course, I'll mostly see the inside of a conference hall and budget hotel but I hope there'll be a few hours to see a bit of the city as well.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Devotion of Suspect X

I'm finally done with "The Devotion of Suspect X", with the murder exposed, guilty parties behind bars and all the rest. It took almost ten months - much too long, really. I could have finished it much faster, I guess, but by the end I just wasn't all that interested in the story or the characters.

As I wrote already, the problem is that it's a standard murder mystery, meant as a quick, fun read on your commute or during a trip. It's meant as chewing gum for the grain for a few hours. The story is inconsistent, the characters are two-dimensional and poorly motivated and the mystery itself has lots of logical gaps. But these traits don't matter at all; you hardly notice them as you skim through the book.

But when you study a language you don't skim. You're not quick. Instead, you scrutinize every sentence for minutes at a time, looking for clues to the story, to the characters behaviour or simply to grasp the basic meaning. And a quick read like this is simply not written to withstand such close scrutiny. So even though Yougisha X was an easier book to read than Riyuu, it took almost as long, simply because the flaws in the book kept putting me off.

It's not a put-down on the author at all - the exact same is true for, say, Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Dan Brown, John Grisham and all the rest (I do like to think that PD James would perhaps hold up better). Their books are fun, but pretty much fall apart if you start thinking too much about the details (and Dan Brown, to be honest, doesn't even need much thinking; I gave up on his bestseller partway through, something I almost never do).

Anyway, the take home lesson is: if you're going to read a book slowly and in detail, you're better off picking a book that is intended to be read that way. Even if they are more difficult you end up having more fun, and probably learning more since you're not tempted to skip or skim.

My next book? I've already picked it, and I've even read a bit already. No, it's not another Miyabe Miyki. We actually bought "Mohouhan" (copycat killer); the problem is, it's a five volume series and according to Ritsuko (who has been reading them) they're just like Riyuu, with lots of characters, asides and detours that only vaguely connect with the main story. It is fun, apparently - Riyuu was fun too, after all - but five volumes worth means I'd be occupied with the series until about 2013, which is a little longer than I want to commit to any one book.

I'll write about the new book once I get started on it properly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Guardian Spirit of Relaxing Baths

Rubber Duck
Osaka has a "water festival" of sorts right about now. It's a series of events and happenings along the canals and rivers in the city, lasting up until the end of next month I believe. It's long overdue, I think; the city has a large waterfront and lots of waterways but most of it has been treated as something unwanted and ugly. It's traditionally been a part of the industrial infrastructure - a place to transport goods and dump waste - rather than a scenic feature of the city.

But for the past couple of years there's been work to clean up the water, add walkways and promenades and generally open up the water areas to the public rather than hiding them. Seems Osaka is finally coming around to the idea that canals right through the city might be something people will actually appreciate and enjoy. I hope this water event will be come an annual one.
 
Guardian Spirit of Relaxing Baths

Anyway, one spectacular event is this art installation, a gigantic inflatable rubber duck. It's huge - over 9 meters tall - it's rubber, it's a duck. It's also surprisingly cute, like an enormous, benevolent Guardian Spirit looking out for mellow, unhurried bathers everywhere.


Rubber Duck

It's part of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's rubber duck project. In his words, "The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate people and doesn't have a political connotation." Which sounds OK to me.


Rubber Duck

It's really, well, "powerful" is the wrong word for something so I-want-to-take-you-home cute, but it can't help but to dominate the scene and loom over you in the friendliest possible way. It really is an engaging performance, surprisingly so as all it does is gently rock in the water.


Photographers

There were lots of people along the canal, on the Tenmabashi bridge and on the easternmost tip of Nakanoshima island (where there's another set of events event and exhibitions about clean water). And of course, everybody was taking pictures - most people with their cellphones of course, but a scattering of all kinds of cameras, even including two people with Diana+ cameras. I'm bringing a film camera too, next time.


Rubber Duck

It's on display up until the 27th of September I believe, so you can see it during the long holiday next week. And really, you do want to go see it if you have the chance. It wants to see you.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The "Science Cabinet"

High Power
I'm really going to cut all political posts for a while, I promise. We've got the Japanese upper house election next July and the Swedish elections in September and I don't want to burn out on the subject beforehand.

However, I do want to reflect a bit over a piece in Yomiuri Shinbun that dubs the upcoming government the "science cabinet". It turns out that not only does incoming prime minister Hatoyama have a science background (he's got an engineering PhD), but so does Hirofumi Hirano (cabinet secretary) and Naoto Kan (state strategy minister, whatever that means) who both have undergraduate science degrees. The article correctly points out that a science background is pretty rare in the world of politics where most people tend to be lawyers or economists.

Of course, when three ministers are lawyers you don't call it a "legal cabinet". The article really has a strong vibe of a reporter short on ideas and short on time desperately trying to come up with a new angle on the incoming cabinet. But fluff piece or not, it does bring up a relevant question: how will the cabinet change when some of the main members have a science background?
 
Mostly it won't change at all. The piece tries to push the "logical technocrat" angle, but frankly, anybody looking for a Mr. Spock would have better luck at the movies or book store than in a real university science department. A science background doesn't make you immune to biases, rationalizations, wishful thinking or outright denial of reality - as engineers and physicians connected to "young earth" creationism, Aum Shinrikyo and other bizarre cults can attest.

Competence in one field doesn't necessarily translate to competence in another1. What really distinguishes the sciences from other fields is its method of inquiry, but that's not really applicable to political decision-making. To the extent that experiments, observational studies or modeling can be applied to politics, social science and economy, those fields are already doing it. Besides, of the people above only Hatoyama has experience in doing science rather than applying it. Decision making won't change in any material way.

Neither does it mean you finally get "smart" people in charge. It's popular to bash politicians as incompetent and dumb, but that's simply not true. Anybody that manages to rise to the top in politics - or any competitive field - and stay at the top for years is likely to be intelligent and fairly competent (that, or they're great at surrounding themselves with people who are - which can be even better). They might be crooked, they might be dishonest, and they might even be evil, manipulating and greedy, but they're generally not stupid or ignorant. The educational background doesn't matter.

With that said, this might mean a welcome improvement in one small way: a science or engineering background means you're familiar and comfortable with numbers. Innumeracy - the inability to or interest in reading and understanding numeral amounts, charts, statistics and so on - is a serious impediment for a decision maker, and distressingly common even among otherwise intelligent, rational people. But whether you like it or not, numeracy is necessary in order to fully grasp complex situations and understand the pros and cons of different courses of action. If you rely on other people to interpret statistics and and explain probabilities to you, you're effectively delegating part of your decision power to them2. Imagine, if you will, an illiterate politician, completely dependent on his assistants, lobbyists and colleagues to read and explain the gist of printed text for him. Consider how much power he gives them all to color things according to their own biases and expectations, even when they try to be completely neutral. An innumerate decision maker is in the same situation; it's just less obvious to onlookers (some of whom may be innumerate themselves).

In any case, we're talking about three people in a cabinet of a couple of dozen, and only one with an actual background as a scientist. Even if scientists and engineers really had been a breed apart in politics, this wouldn't have mattered much. It's mostly a curiosity that gives Hatoyama a bit of personal colour, like Icelandic prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir being openly gay, or former Czech president Vaclav Havel being a celebrated playwright. Mildly interesting but not a big deal.

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#1 This is another reason I write little about science here. I don't want posts about things I do know about to lend authority to posts about things I don't (which, frankly, is pretty much every single word on this blog)


#2 This is reportedly why scientists and statisticians are rarely asked to serve on trial juries in the US - neither the prosecution nor the defence wants to lose their power to interpret the evidence for the jury.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Picture post: Osaka

Some pictures I take end up as illustrations on this blog. But many pictures just don't make it into a post and they end up unused. So here's a set of Osaka-themed images I've taken over this summer, posted for no reason other than that I like them.

Not here anymore

Right by Sakaisuji Honmachi station, where I take the subway each morning, stood a large single-family residence; an old-style residential compound with three or four single-story buildings in a park-like garden enclosed by a mud-and-wattle wall. Old and rundown, the garden - what little you could see from outside - was crowded with overgrown trees creating a permanent gloom below.

Building crews suddenly appeared last month and have now demolished the compound. When they removed the main gate you could find this wheelchair abandoned in the one single sunny spot in the dark garden, a bottle of water left beside it, and a potted plant overturned from its ledge. I wish I knew who lived here.


Omiya

Omiya is a kushikatsu restaurant just a few minutes from home. Kushikatsu - cheap pub-style food originally from south Osaka - is pieces of meat, fish or vegetables on a bamboo skewer, dipped in a heavy dough-like batter and deep fried. It goes excellent with beer or sake, and is a perfect after-work food. Here's the owner, working the fryer as he does every night.


Father and Son

It's easy to talk to strangers in Osaka (much more so than in Tokyo), and in relaxed places like Omiya the challenge is rather to avoid being drawn into conversation with people. This was a father-and-son team (I love the look-alike haircuts) both working for the same plastics manufacturer in south Osaka, the father as manager and the son as chemical engineer. Fun evening.


Yodobashi Gaming

Nintendo DS is an extremely popular portable game console (I have one myself, for a kanji training game). Last month saw the release of the latest episode of the Dragonquest game franchise for the DS. Dragonquest is not just popular, it's almost a religious movement here, so the release was a major event. The game can apparently be played cooperatively over a wireless connection, so people have been congregating outside some major stores to play together. This is right outside the subway exit to Yodobashi Camera in Umeda, and the picture doesn't make justice to the throngs of people gathering there.


Doutonbori

Ebisubashi and Doutonbori has lots of interesting night life. It's a place to meet, a place to be seen, and a place to hang out and watch people go by. like Shinsaibashi just north of here, it's also an occasional scene for bands to play, build their fan base, sell CD's and - just possibly - land a real paying gig or even a music contract. That may or may not be in their future, but while they're still clawing at the bottom rung of the ladder to fame and fortune, groups like this singing duo gives us some high-quality street entertainment.


Doutonbori

Ebisubashi is also where hosts (like hostesses, but male, for female clients) often hang out to meet clients. They're very easy to spot, with flashy suits, improbable hair and expensive-looking accessories. Here I ran into a guy I'd already shot earlier. He seemed to find it pretty amusing.


Dobutsuenmae

The Osaka subway is mostly great ("mostly" because it doesn't run at night, unfortunately). It covers most of the city and the layout is easy to navigate. A couple of other railway companies connect directly with the subway so their lines become extensions to it; when I go to work can I get on a subway that becomes a Kintetsu local train as it leaves the Osaka subway area, without ever having to change trains.

This is Doubutsuenmae ("doubutsuen" means zoo) station along the midosuji line that connects Umeda in north with Namba in the south. It's the oldest and busiest line in Osaka, with beautiful high-vaulted stations, and distinctive light fixtures. I take it on weekends to get to my Japanese class next to Nagai park in the south.


Nagahori Station

Nagahoribashi, our local subway station. We've lived here long enough now that the street here feels familiar, safe and comforting. It feels like home.


Waiting

Nagahori quiets down at night. A young man is idly playing with his phone as he waits outside the station exit. The building in the background is not a religious temple or an old courthouse, by the way, but a wedding reception hall run by a chain of wedding organizers. Osaka city has never been burdened by an excess of taste.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nanapi

Nanapi is a Japanese website filled with everyday tips for living. The name seems to be a conjunction of "7分" (nanabun - seven minutes) and "レシピ" (reshipi - recipe), which nicely encapsulates the format: quick, easy-to-follow tips in a cookbook form.

The site is in Japanese (sorry), but it's easy Japanese. The tips are in a how-to format so there's not much room for complicated expressions or lots of vocabulary. Each tip is short (many are just a few sentences) so if you're a Japanese learner you're not likely to get discouraged and give up even if it turns out to be harder to read than you thought.

The tips themselves range from the banal to the useful to the somewhat odd. One useful tip I didn't know about, for instance: If you use a permanent marker on a whiteboard by mistake, you can erase it by painting over the text with a whiteboard marker. The solvent in the whiteboard marker dissolves the permanent marks too so you can wipe both off at once.

You'll also find how to water plants, how to stop a yawn during an important meeting (lick your upper lip, or press your tongue against the back of your lower teeth), how to make online passwords that are easy to remember and 50 excuses for coming too late to work (among the less obviously useful ones are "Had to give a statement to the police after helping a woman connected to the Yakuza", and "Well, it seemed like such a bother").

Some of the tips are somewhat odd, though, in the sense that I don't get why you would want to do it in the first place. One such tip - the one that alerted me to this site to begin with - is how to eat curry and rice without dirtying your plate. Japanese curry is basically a thick meat and vegetable stew - it's simple but amazingly satisfying, and one dish you can count on even the cheapest food place to get right. I don't have a single picture of it (a major oversight I have to rectify), but if you click on the link there's both a picture and illustrations to follow.

The idea is to make sure your curry is on one side of the plate and the rice on the other. You eat the rice and the curry that mix together down the middle. Then you push the rice towards the curry side and repeat. As the curry and rice disappears the white rice will soak up and wipe the sauce off the plate. When you're finished the plate will be white and clean with hardly a trace of the thick stew.

Cosplayers
Princess girls, Shinsaibashi
No sticky stew for them.

Sounds good, and you can bet I'll try it, just to see if it works. Now why you would want to do it is something I didn't really get. According to a local authority on Japanese culture (my wife - it doesn't get more local or authoritative unless we let our spare room to an anthropologist), the tip is aimed at young girls going on dates.

Apparently, when you're doing your damndest to come off as all Ethereal Dreamy Rainbow Tinkle Princess-like, leaving smears of brown, sticky stew clinging to your plate kind of ruins the overall effect. And never mind that your juvenile date is likely just as self-consciously preoccupied with his own behaviour to actually notice anything you do. I don't really get it - but then, I didn't get teenage culture even when I was a teenager so no major surprise there.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Umeboshi - The Drying Game

Now that we've finally gotten this whole election thing out of our system we can go back to vaguely disliking the ruling party - whoever they are - and return to more normal blogging fare.

In June we started a batch of umeboshi, remember? We got a pile of ume, cleaned them and pickled them, some plain and some with shiso leaves which give them a distinctive taste and an intense red color. We're making four kinds in all: plain, honey-flavoured (not sure about that one), a bit of shiso, and lots of shiso.

After a couple of months of pickling, it's time to dry them in the sun. "Umeboshi" (梅干し) literally means "dried ume" so not drying them would of course be a bit weird - what'd you call them for a start? "umeboshijanai" (梅干しじゃない - "It's not dried ume")? "umewaritonureteiru" (梅割と濡れている - "Comparatively wet ume")? Anyway, we dried them during the o-bon holidays. That's the traditional time to do it as tsuyu is normally over by then; also, they need about three days to dry and it can be hard to organize if you're working at the same time.

Umeboshi

The ume has gone all soft, plump and squishy from being pickled. Some people like to eat them like this, but the drying process makes them firmer and chewier, and gives them a more intense flavour.


Umeboshi

Early in the morning, you place the ume on a big, sieve-like bamboo frame, not too close together. Be careful; they're really soft. Place the frame in the sun (we use our balcony). Around midday, rotate the ume - one by one - so they don't stick to the frame and so they get to dry from all sides. In the evening you rotate them again, then you take the frame inside overnight.


Umeboshi

Note that you don't actually need full sun all the time, just dry, clear and hot weather. Our balcony is in shadow for half the day and it doesn't seem to affect the process at all. This is the sieve with the four different kinds of ume we're making.


Dry Ume

After three days of drying, they'll start looking all scrunched up and shriveled and feel fairly firm to the touch - though it depends on the kind of ume you're using, and the kind you're making too; note how different they are from each other.


Ume Ume

Here's the same type of ume (the "lots of shiso" one) before and after drying. Once they're done, you return them into the brine jars. You're supposed to be able to eat them almost directly after, but it's probably a good idea to let them be for a week or so at least, so they get to soak up a bit of liquid and stabilize.


Once done they'll be good for at least a year. The only risk is getting mold on the surface, apparently, but we've never gotten that so far. We're on our final jar of last year's umeboshi right now and they taste great; if anything the flavour keeps developing over time, making them intensely savoury by now.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The DPJ Won - Now what?

So, the DPJ actually made it (I'm a perennial pessimist regarding that party). They seem to be fairly well prepared for a power handover, so we should expect to see them get to work relatively quickly, assembling a government by mid September. How much actual change will we see? for this first year, expect only easy, highly visible, symbolic changes. The reason, of course, being the upcoming upper house election - yes, we're doing a repeat performance of the hit political show of the year next summer - and the DPJ will need to show some kind of visible progress to the voters by then. Anything very complex or time consuming may well be started but probably not pushed until after that election. Also, any issues where the DPJ is at odds with coalition partners SDPJ and the PNP will wait until after the election, when their support might no longer be necessary.

As for the fundamental questions faced by the Japanese society - things like the gulf between salaried and temp workers; the low birthrate; the rampant inequality and paternalistic social systems; the underutilization of women in the workplace - the truth is that the DPJ really is in no better position to address them than the LDP was. It is a broadly conservative party when it comes to social issues and a substantial part of the party is aghast at the thought of changing tradition-bound systems even in the face of a slowly unfolding disaster. A number of other high-profile problems, such as social security systems that no longer fit the way people live their lives, are tangentially connected to these issues and thus unlikely to see more than temporary band-aids.

For instance, many laws and regulations assume and actively promote the 20-century family unit (actually a fairly recent family type, even though many conservatives seem to believe it's traditional) of one married breadwinner, one stay-at-home parent and their children. This life is proving to be impossible to achieve for many young people, since temp jobs are not stable or high-paying enough to marry and support a family, while two working parents are very discouraged by lack of day care, rules permitting (even expecting) workplaces to fire women once they get children and other disincentives. But changing rules so that two working parents are encouraged, making it easier to be a single parent, and making it easier for women to continue a career while having children, is anathema to many conservatives and seen as a path to moral dissolution and the destruction of society.

You can certainly argue that in this they are simply following the overall attitude of the country as a whole - and Japan is indeed very conservative with regard to some social issues. But in times of crisis a leader is expected to actually lead and drive opinion rather than follow it. I don't see the DPJ do more than baby steps in this direction, just to mollify its SDPJ partner, and I'm not optimistic that the DPJ would even be able to do much more without creating a serious, potential fatal rift within the party in the process.

The DPJ win is good, it is necessary, and it will hopefully cause some long overdue change in the governance of the country. But don't expect any actual long-term solutions to Japan's current ills from this government. The crisis will have to become rather more acute for anything to happen, no matter which government is in power.