Tag: japan

A time to build barriers

September 22nd, 2012 — 12:29pm

Countries like Japan thrive on barriers to information flow. It is hard to overstate how deep and wide the rift caused by linguistic differences between Japanese and Indo-European languages is. The number of people who speak both very good English/German/French etc and very good Japanese is small and unlikely to grow dramatically. Yet there is a willingness from both sides to learn about the other side and push/pull information through that narrow channel.

One important consequence of this situation is that heterogeneity can develop and be preserved. Customs, the general way of thinking, the public sphere in Japan are different to their counterparts in the West. Among Western countries, these things are becoming increasingly homogenous thanks to ease of communication and the Internet. Not only will there be things on both sides of the divide that will never flow through the connecting conduit: the smaller partition, Japan in this case, can also act as a kind of catalyst and refinery for whatever comes in through the conduit, developing its own, highly refined versions of absorbed impressions. This is not possible if one has instant access to all information on the other side.

The Internet may yet turn out to be the greatest homogenising force mankind has ever known. For this reason, it is now an urgent task to erect new barriers on the internet and to restrict information flow. The wide open space must be partitioned into rooms with walls, doors and windows. The new barriers do not need to correspond to the old ones — it might even be preferable if they did not. Because the new barriers can be different from the old ones, the internet as a whole becomes a constructive step that we can endorse, and not something we are forced to react against. It is a stepping stone into a new world. Through restriction, we will be liberated.

An afterthought: barriers would be a negative addition that paradoxically has the potential to generate something new. But the negative aspect is certainly distasteful at first sight. If there is another way of achieving heterogeneity, which does not require barriers, then let’s hear it.

2 comments » | Philosophy

Japan earthquake: 17 March

March 17th, 2011 — 10:26pm

Six days have passed since the fateful earthquake and tsunami of 11 March. I’m still staying in Tokyo, and unlike a lot of the foreigners here, I don’t feel that there is any immediate danger to my person.

Life goes on: Yesterday I had a few drinks with my friend. A lot of places were closed, but some bars are still open. There’s both fewer customers and less electricity to go around at the moment. There was an air of calm bravery and defiance among the customers at the bar.

Some books I had ordered from Amazon arrived this morning. I used the trains as usual to go to the lab, where I worked on my research. This evening, before I left the lab, power saving efforts were intensified, since it’s been getting very cold the past few days, and more electricity is needed for simple heating. Before I left the lab I looked out the lab window. I had never before seen the skyscrapers in Marunouchi, around the Imperial Palace, so dark at night.

The situation is not completely under control yet. The big story today has been about the attempts to cool the reactors with water. Because of intense radiation immediately around the plants, it’s necessary to approach the plants by helicopter and dump water from above. Lately, they have also tried shooting water at the plants from trucks at a distance.

Even though the general concern is rising even among Japanese people, the  “foreign consensus” and the “Japanese consensus” are still strikingly different. Many countries are arranging tickets for people to go out of Japan, and even more of my friends have taken refuge in the Kansai region. This is a completely fair decision and there is no harm in taking precautions. Personally I try to keep a close watch on the radiation levels and the news. Recently many more measuring stations have been added to this geiger counter map. If the levels go up too far, I would definitely consider getting out of the Tokyo area for a while. But I consider myself attached to Tokyo, I live here, and I have projects I want to finish here. Right now, I don’t want to flee without good reason.

Since radiation is something invisible that we cannot see, smell or touch, and since nobody can go near the plants to look carefully at them by now, any understanding of the situation necessarily contains a lot of interpretation. Nobody fully knows what the current state of the plants are or what is going to happen. Clearly there are big risks. But I think it is fair to say that the stories circulated by foreign media do not reflect the situation in most of Japan. Those near Sendai or near the power plants have suffered terribly and are facing great risks. But the vast majority of Japan is experiencing little outside of power shortages. Those who have relatives in Japan should take this into account when they read the news.

My friend Jacob Ehnmark, who used to live in Sendai, is blogging about his escape from Japan and his impressions here.

1 comment » | Life

Japan earthquake: situation as of today

March 15th, 2011 — 4:06pm

I thought I would write a quick summary of the situation following the huge earthquake in Touhoku, as I understand it, possibly with more updates to follow.

1. I am fine, and there is no immediate danger to me personally. When the quake occurred, I was in Sapporo, and I came back to Tokyo on Saturday night.

2. There was huge devastation in the affected area in Iwate-ken, Miyagi-ken, Sendai and so on. Many people are still missing in those areas.

3. Ever since the tsunami, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has struggled hard to  cool down its nuclear power plants in Fukushima. Here is one of many articles that summarise the situation. Useful graphics from Washington Post. Various incidents have happened, such as explosions (apparently not in the reactor core, but as a result of hydrogen and oxygen being released) and a fire in one reactor, which has now been extinguished. Elevated radiation levels have been measured near the reactors and people in a 30 km radius are asked to stay indoors or evacuate.

3.5. The water level inside some of the reactors’ so-called second containments was too low at certain points, exposing the fuel rods, and it is likely that fuel inside was melting. Supposedly, even if it melts, it is meant to be collected in a container underneath the core.

4. Tokyo is 250 km from Fukushima, and the radiation levels are far lower here. Some Geiger counters (in Tokyo) are available online (also on map). While the radiation levels near the reactor are now at dangerous levels, in Tokyo, so far they have not gone above harmless levels.

5. Accounts of the disaster vary widely, from careful, measured fact reporting to doomsday predictions. Foreign media are generally playing up the disaster angle quite a lot. For example, this article from Der Spiegel. What is reported in Japanese media still sticks mainly to observed facts and public advisories, although there is a sense of increasing exasperation with the lack of information from TEPCO and the government.

6. If the radiation level keeps going down, the biggest risks to us living in Tokyo should be the risk of a strong aftershock following the initial quake, especially if there is an associated tsunami. However, as time passes, this risk is written down.

7. Across Japan, people are trying hard to conserve electricity because so many power plants have been shut down. Parts of east Japan are having a controlled power outage on a rotational basis. Trains run less frequently than usual, but as of now, in central Tokyo, daily life is basically still normal.

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Partitioning idea spaces into containers

August 29th, 2010 — 3:55pm

Some scattered thoughts on idea flows.

The global idea space is partitioned in various ways. One example would be peoples speaking different languages. English speakers all understand each other, Japanese speakers all understand each other, but there are relatively few people who speak Japanese and English very well. We can understand this situation in an abstract way as two large containers with a narrow passage connecting them.

Similar partitionings occur whenever there are groups of people that communicate a lot among themselves and less with people in other groups. For instance, there would be a partitioning between people who use the internet frequently and people who use it rarely (to some extent similar to a partitioning between young and old people). This partitioning is in fact orthogonal to the language partitioning, i.e. there is an English internet, a Japanese internet, an English non-internet, etc.

The partitioning of the space into containers has effects on the establishment of authorities and the growth of specialised entities inside the containers. The establishment of authorities is in some ways a Darwinist selection process. There can only be one highest authority on philosophy, on history, on art, on mathematics etc. that speaks one given language or acts inside a given container. Or for a more banal example: pop charts and TV programs. (Even though, inside the Anglosphere, each country may still have their own pop chart, they influence each other hugely.) If there are two contenders for the position of highest authority on art in a container, either they have to be isolated from each other somehow, or they must interact and resolve their conflict, either by subordination of one to the other, or by a refinement of their roles so that these do not conflict. As for the specialised entities, the larger the container is, the more space there is for highly niched ideas. This is in fact the “long tailidea. The Internet is one of the biggest containers to date, and businesses such as Amazon have (or at least had) as their business model to sell not large numbers of a few popular items, but small numbers of a great many niched items. Such long tails can be nurtured by large containers. (In fact this is a consequence of the subordination/refinement when authority contenders have a conflict.)

We may also augment this picture with a directional graph of the flows between containers. For instance, ideas probably flow into Japan from the Anglosphere more rapidly than they flow in the reverse direction. Ideas flow into Sweden from the Anglosphere and from Japan but flow back out of Sweden relatively rarely. Once an idea has flowed into a space like Sweden or Japan from a larger space like the Anglosphere, though, the smaller space can act like a kind of pressure cooker or reactor that may develop, refine, or process the imported idea and possibly send a more interesting product back. A kind of refraction occurs.

In the early history of the internet, some people warned that the great danger of it is that everybody might eventually think the same thoughts, and that we would lose the diversity of ideas. This has turned out to be an unrealised fear, I think, at least as long as we still have different languages. But are languages not enough? Do we need to do more to create artificial partitionings? What is the optimal degree of partitioning, and can we concretely map the flows and containers with some degree of precision?

Comment » | Philosophy

Nomura’s jellyfish

January 21st, 2010 — 5:14pm
Nomura's Jellyfish

Nomura's Jellyfish. Picture by Kenpei at the Osaka aquarium. GFDL license.

Nomura’s jellyfish, a species frequently encountered in Japan and China, is one of the largest in the world. The body can reach a diameter of 2 m. Since they create big problems for the fishing industry, Japan has now sought China’s help on the issue. It is thought that a recent proliferation of the species, huge swarms appearing every year since 2000, originates at the mouth of the Yangtze river.

Evolution can do fascinating things sometimes. Upon reading about this, a doubtlessly romantic and delusional notion entered my mind. What if the sea ecosystem, or a subset of it, say 10-100 species, perceive the human fishing industry as a threat that needs to be defended against, and in response create an evolutionary niche where a new kind of species can thrive, a species whose only purpose is to obstruct fishing? A romantic notion since it plays off the mythical idea that human beings are at war with nature, or that nature is good and man is evil, something I don’t really believe in. But an interesting one nonetheless. Is such a development possible?

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