Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

Happy New Year, 明けましておめでとうございます och Ett Gott Nytt År!

Happy New Year!
Design by Ritsuko Watanabe.

We're leaving the Year of the Pig and entering the Year of the Rat according to the Chinese zodiac. It naturally means we have license to plaster rodent images everywhere over the next year. I couldn't find a willing subject in time for this post - I'm not about to scour the nighttime alleys of Shinsaibashi for a rat during New Year's evening - so this rodent was happy to stand in.

It's the Year of the Rat. What have you done for your computerized rodent lately?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Interesting Times

Shisaku has a quick analysis of the rollback of the conservative legislative agenda of last year. Prime minister Abe enacted or tried to enact a number of very reactionary pieces of legislation, from whitewashing aspects of Japanese world war history to mandating teaching of "love of your country" in schools. Last summer, of course, the wheels fell off his government, the opposition won a majority in the upper house and he was replaced by Fukuda, the current prime minister. Who, in order to remain in power, has been rolling back much of the conservative agenda over the past six months.

The reactionary conservatives went too fast with too little support, reaching for more than they had a mandate for and with a government that in retrospect was too inexperienced and too unstable to withstand the pressure. They lost the Abe government, their intended instrument of change. And now, in order to even stay in power, the current government has had to roll back almost every gain they managed during the last year.

So, what will be their reaction? The LDP has often (and with some justification) been critizised for being interested in power, pure and simple, rather than in any particular political results. And for once, it seems it's the far right, rather than the centrists, that feel the pinch. They could, I guess, do one of three things:

* Push the party rightward again. Oust Fukuda and put another pliant government in place. Of course, the government relies on New Komeito, a small third party for support and it's not at all clear how far they are willing to continue that support with their own voter base dwindling. They also do not have control over the upper house so a simple majority is no longer enough for the more controversial legislation. And of course, a continued push towards a nationalistic right risks seeing LDP lose even more seats in the next election. They could win the party and lose the country.

* Break out and form their own party. It's been done before, in many parties, in many countries. It usually ends up with the breakout party marginalized and losing all support as the previous mother party soaks up most of the base the breakout party relied on. Or worse, if they manage to form a resilient right-wing party it will erode the LDP support base, virtually guarantee an electoral victory for the opposition.

* Let it be. Realize the window of opportunity is closed for now. Lick wounds, apportion blame, engage in a refreshing bout of internal power politics. Start work to slowly resolidify power base within LDP. The next opportunity will come soon enough. Of course, we're not talking about the most patient people in the world here, and a fair number of the high-profile people are aged enough not to have another chance to look forward to. You'd risk the power politics to blow up into civil war within the factions, destroying a lot of credibility among the supporters and pushing that window of opportunity very far indeed into the future.

In any case I agree with Shisaku that Japan dodged a bullet here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Enjoy 12 Gatsu Style

So, another Christmas come and gone. As you know, Japan doesn't really celebrate Christmas and it might be a little instructive to consider why.

Enjoy 12 Gatsu Style
"Enjoy 12 gatsu style" - I don't blog about Japanese use of English as a rule, but this slogan from Hanshin department store in Umeda is deliciously ambivalent. At first glance it looks like English, with "december" incongruously replaced by the Japanese "12 gatsu". But I suspect it is actually all Japanese; "enjoy ... style" is a (lately annoyingly) common Japanese slogan formed from a couple of loanwords, but when written all in roman letters like it's looks close enough to English to fool you.

The origin of Christmas really is a set of midwinter solstice feasts throughout Europe. It's cold and dark and summer is a long way away, so having a feast to lift the spirits and celebrate the returning of the sun is a very natural idea. Later on, as christianity spread, the catholic church latched on to that celebration and made it a christian holiday as well. The "tacked on" nature is pretty evident, with old traditions superficially tweaked to fit the catholic mythology. As late as the mid-1900's many protestant christians would not celebrate Christmas, seeing it as a catholic-only holiday, and orthodox and other denominations still don't celebrate it.

But regardless of religious significance, the holiday has deep cultural roots in Europe and north America; whatever your religion - or if you aren't religious at all, as is the case for me and most scandinavians - it's still deeply satisfying to counter the darkest, coldest time of the year with some time off work and school, lots of good food and idle time with your family.

In Japan, of course, people want the same thing. And there is a big midwinter family feast with food, long-time traditions, and time off - the New Year, just a week later than Christmas. With no religious significance and no long traditions to fall back on Christmas is rather redundant here in other words. Indeed, the only parts that have been adopted or invented are those that don't really compete with the New Years celebration - bright lights and decorations in red and green, Christmas Cake and couples' romantic Christmas dinners rather than a family holiday. I would list annoyingly loud repetitive music and over-the-top shopping frenzy among the adoptions, but that is the normal state of being here after all; only the theme changes for a few weeks.

Not so DryChristmas Cake
Lousy cold rainy weather much of the weekend. Doutonbori is always interesting though, no matter what the weather. The eagle-eyed long-time reader may notice that we got exactly the same Christmas cake as last year. Well, it's looks good and tastes great; why change a winner?

As luck would have it, this year was a long weekend, with Monday the 24th a day off for Emperor Showa's birthday. The weather was somewhat miserable last week and we both came down with a cold so apart from a year-end party on Saturday we didn't really go out; instead we spent much of the weekend indoors. We celebrated much the same way as we did last year - Japanese Christmas cake, Swedish hot spiced wine (the wine itself from Australia), Finnish pasties with Italian Bologna sausage and German mustard, Danish-made Brie cheese with caviar on French crackers - a testament to open trade and multiculturalism if nothing else.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Choice Blindness

A couple of colleagues of mine in Lund made quite a splash a couple of years ago with a fun experiment on "choice blindness". Petter went to Tokyo University for a post-doc, and now Asahi Shinbun has a good write-up of it in their weekend section. It is available online (for now) here.

The premise is really simple. You show a volunteer two pictures of women. The volunteer looks at the pictures and points at the one they like better. Both pictures are put down on the table face-down, and the chosen picture is given to the volunteer. They look at the chosen picture and answers why they picked that picture. When they are giving their answer they only see the chosen picture, in other words.

But there's a trick to it: sometimes the researcher does not pass over the chosen picture, but the other, less liked, one. The volunteer is actually looking at the picture they didn't pick, and be asked why they picked it.

So the subjects get confused, perhaps angry, wondering why the picture changed? Nope. Usually people don't realize that anything happened. Most subjects happily describe why they picked that picture - that they didn't pick, remember - with no hesitation. It didn't matter if the pictures were of fairly similar or dissimilar faces, and changing the time allotted to choose only affected it a little.

When they look at how people motivate their choice, there is little difference between switched pictures and unswitched ones. People are just as confident about their reasons, and describe their reasons in just as much detail. When asked outright if they would have noticed if the picture had been changed, most people (84%) said that they most certainly would - even as they were sitting with a changed picture in their hand. Once a participant had detected a change did they become more vigilant and more difficult to mislead.

Change Blindness

This experiment is making use of a phenomenon called change blindness, an inability to detect visual change in some situations. Basically, if a change is somehow masked so that we don't see the actual change take place, we can miss it completely even if the change is substantial. One way to hide the change is to have it occur very slowly so we don't notice a difference from one moment to the next; another is to distract the viewer at the critical moment (a favourite tactic of stage magicians). A third is to "mask" the change - instead of switching from one image to the changed image directly, we hide it altogether for a moment so that everything changes at once.

Briefly, change blindness works because we do not keep in memory every single detail out there. We have neither the visual nor memory capability to do so - besides, normally it would be quite useless since we can just take a look at any detail whenever we want. Instead we seem to create a rough sketch of the situation, and then depend on us detecting and taking note of any changes. But when we miss the change, we never update our sketch. There's an entertaining example from British TV on Youtube here, and of course, you can search the site for lots of other examples.

I Am (not) The Decider

OK, so we're lousy at detecting change. But what about that choice blindness we started with? That wasn't just a failure to detect change - indeed, the participants were specifically asked about the very details that they had noticed in the original picture, and that changed in the subsequent one. We don't have the whole answer - this goes deep into questions about intentionality and (gulp) consciousness - but it lends weight to the view that our deciding bits and our self-aware bits are somewhat independent, with our conscious selves mostly along for the ride.

The "real" us - all our perception, context, and evaluation systems - chose a picture, the picture got switched, and then our consciousness makes up a story about why we chose that picture. A story that is patently, obviously untrue, but sincerely believed by the participant. And since there is little difference in the explanations when the picture is changed and when it is not, the perhaps uncomfortable conclusion is that we always lie to ourselves. We have no idea about why we do what we do - we have no direct access to the real, lower-level systems; instead we observe our own behaviour, then make up some post-hoc explanation for it. This is not the only experiment that points in this direction; there are data from many different sources, including split-brain patient experiments, that confirms this view.

This view has a number of interesting consequences. With Christmas coming up (it is a couples' holiday here), let's consider what it can tell us about scary movies and dating. Everybody knows that going to a scary movie with your date is often a good idea, and this can explain why. We sit there and see scary events unfolding. Our minds, who aren't all that sophisticated, believes the scenes to be real, and reacts with fear and excitement - pulse races, blood pressure changes, we might even raise our hairs and break out in a cold sweat. Our conscious minds, however, know this is just a movie and not for real. There is really nothing to be upset about. But we are upset or excited about something, and since it can't be the movie it must be something else. Like that really very attractive person sitting right next to us, perhaps - we seem to like them a lot better than we thought we did.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fushimi Inari

Fushimi inari shrine lies in southern Kyoto, along the Keihan line to Osaka, just a few stations north of my so-far favourite ramen joint. Of course, when you say "shrine" you tend to think of a collection of buildings aroudn a courtyard. Fushimi Inari is different; a 3km walkway up and around a mountain, with small and large shrines and altars - and tea houses and restaurants and souvernir shops - dotting the path. Inari is a god of enterprise, so having "merchants in the temple" seems perfectly appropriate. Inari uses foxes as messengers, and the place is filled to the brim with fox statues and symbols.

Prayer Priest
Fushimi Inari main shrine at the base of the mountain.

The path itself is an absolute orgy of "torii", red-painted wooden arches donated by compaines and individuals, over tenthousand of them in all. Along most of the path you're walking in a red, wooden tunnel, so closely are they standing to each other. And as the path winds itself up along a densely forested hillside the light is decidedly dim, even on a sunny day.

Torii New Torii Torii
The torii stretch out all along the mountain side to form a long, red, wooden tunnel. In the center a painter is filling the donor name on a new gate.

The torii are donations from people and companies, giving thanks for successful enterprises. As the wooden toii don't really last in the humid climate (I've heard 15-20 years mentioned), there'll be "openings" for donations dotted all along the way, and old, half-rotted gates will stand next to ones so fresh the paint has yet to dry. Along the way there are many small shrines or offer mounds for all kinds of special needs; there's shrines not only for all kinds of manufacturers, but also for advertising and for PR work, and for various ailments. The shrine for back pain is memorably accessible only via a steep, narrow set of stairs sure to test the faith of everybody with spinal trouble. More pictures in my photo set

Shrines Candles
Small shrines are plentiful, sometimes enclosed, often out in the open, but always with foxes and small and large red gates everywhere.

Friday, December 14, 2007


I've looked for a new book to start on after finishing Harry Potter. My criteria is that it be a Japanese long-form novel; no translation, nonfiction or short stories. I considered Yoshimoto Banana's "Kitchen" and Murakami Haruki's "Kafka on the Shore" but decided against them for now. It's late autumn, after all, with winter just days away. It's a time of falling leaves and wet streets. A time of cold wind and rain cutting you to the bone, of gloomy days and frosty nights. A time of hot drinks, warm blankets - and murder mysteries.


Rainy, chilly days ahead.

Miyabe Miyuki is a very popular current Japanese writer. Her works range from contemporary crime novels and historical mysteries to fantasy and science fiction. The book I've started on is called 理由 (riyuu), "Reason", and is a crime novel set in a Tokyo suburb in the late 1990's. I have only read the prologue and the first bit of chapter 1, about twenty pages in all, and I've only just come to the bit with the actual murder so I can't really say anything definite about it yet. It is decidedly more difficult than Harry Potter was, and the lack of furigana isn't helping. At this rate I'll have reading material for my morning commute well into spring.

So far, though, the setup and tone reminds me a lot of the Swedish authors Maj Sjövall and Per Wahlöö and their 1970's series of police novels (available in English). The book has a tone reminiscent of theirs (so far), and just like Sjövall and Wahlöö, Miyabe's book is as much about the setting as about the story itself. They use the plot as a guide to describe a changing city and a changing society and how these changes affect all the ordinary people caught up in them. In the case of Sjövall and Wahlöö it is Stockholm and Sweden during the cold war and economic depression of the 1970's; for Miyabe it's Tokyo and Japan in the post-bubble era of the 1990's.

"Riyuu" looks to be a very enjoyable read despite the difficult (for me) language. That it's been able to hook me already despite my lack of language skills is a testament to how well-written it is. My only regret so far is that it's only available in Japanese so I can't pass it on to other people that I know would love it as well.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hamster Cells

I'm being busy at work with paper deadlines and holidays coming up - so of course I just spent the last half an hour reading various science blogs instead of doing anything actually useful. And this lead - through the usual tortuous chain of links - to a wonderful, brief, article by a scientist accidentally injecting himself with Hamster Cells. Not the first choice as superpower sources go, I guess, but intriguing.

Friday, December 7, 2007

i-1 In the News

Our robot, i-1, is in the news again. A pretty good, accessible piece in New Scientist, with links to a video demonstrating the balancing capabilities. Robot Watch has a good piece with pictures as well. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Autumn is in full bloom as it were, with cool, clear days, trees turning golden and people starting to stress out over the coming New Years holidays. At this time, anybody with a camera will feel the primeval urge to go out and take pretty pictures of leaves. I'm sure that in some far distant human past, cavemen would go out at this time of year, painstakingly create hollow boxes with a small opening in the front out of rocks and twigs, then obsessively point their contraptions at piles of leaves with an expression of utter bewilderment mixed with a deep sense of contentment.

Since these kind of pictures rarely have much value for anybody but the photographer, I thought I'd shorten the suffering and try to make one largish autumn post rather than dribble pictures at you over the next month or so.

Osaka Castle Trees

Osaka castle and the park is ringed with small access roads and causeways that are very popular for walks or bicycle rides. This one to the north is surrounded by Ginkgo and cherry trees. To my eyes, the Ginkgo in the fall beats the cherry blossoms every time. As autumn is unusually late, the Ginkgo planted along midosuji hasn't actually turned color yet.

Fisherman Osaka Jo
I really like the whole area around Osaka castle (with the exception of the castle itself). The moats are connected to the rivers, so they actually have plenty of fish for those who are so inclined to spend their time. No word on how edible they are though, after having lived in Osaka river water their whole lives. The water quality in rivers and canals is apparently a lot better than just a few years ago, but that is of course very much the relative statement.

Ivy Tree-tops
Kobe seems to have an earlier autumn than Osaka; when went there a couple of weeks ago leaves were already turning.

More pictures, for those who are interested, in my Flickr-stream shown on the right. One warning or promise is that there's a couple of spider pictures there, with a spider eating a freshly caught ladybug.