Teaching In Socks

double encrypted language barrier and COBRA
April 27, 2009, 3:49 pm
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This weekend I attended Spring8’s open house. Despite having a name reminiscent of a hotel chain or rec club, Spring8 is Japan’s, and the world’s largest particle accelerator.

I was actually invited to a soccer game that day as well, but when faced with the choice of seeing a soccer game or  the world’s largest particle accelerator on the one day it’s open each year, the nerd in me won out.

A few observations on the experience:

1. Science is kind cool in Japan. Spring8 is near Hyogo University, but aside from that it’s rather remote. Still, several thousand people showed up to look around and ask questions.

2. Other Languages are hard; Specialist’s terms in other languages are even more difficult. While I can do a little reading, and little speaking in Japanese, science terms are beyond me. I now understand why I teach a science class to my Japanese scientists.

One of the researchers at Spring8 and I had a lengthy conversation where he tried to explain certain aspects of the accelerator to me. Despite having more than a passable command of English and being a very bright fellow, we still hit bumps in the conversation. He  alluded to doing something with “Peabee”, but claimed he didn’t know the English word for “peabea”. After a minute it hit me, and I asked him, “wait, you mean the element, Pb? Lead?”.

3. Everything in Japan has a cartoon mascot. Spring 8’s is a lion head with a mane that has triangles with represent that different testing points around the accelerator (signified by the Lion’s head obviously).  Actually, that’s just one of the mascots. here are all 8:

together they form Voltron.

together they form Voltron.

4. Watching cool scientist do cool things can be a bit depressing. It’s not like watching a basketball game where I can say I didn’t win the genetic lottery and that’s why I’m not out on the court. This is more of a, I didn’t work hard enough in school and now I don’t get to crazy things with electron guns or high frequency lasers.

Frankly, I blame and America for this. If paying attention in science had been advertised to me  as something that later in life would allow me to shoot things with expensive lasers, I would have spent less time playing with G.I. Joes and Transformers, pretending to shoot lasers and more time pondering about bosons and gluons.

aka more Graviton, less Gravitron.

Actually who am I kidding, G.I. Joes were the foundation of an epic and fruitful childhood. Plus, I don’t think they ever get to shoot the free electron laser at Cobra Commander and I shot him with lasers hundreds of times.

White Boy Can Run
April 20, 2009, 4:20 pm
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A few months ago, banking on the confidence I gained from running a half-marathon last year, I persuaded my girlfriend to sign us up for a run this year. Actually the process was more of a negotiation. Despite overwhelming photographic evidence to the contrary, I don’t think she was ever fully convinced I even ran more than 2K. Thus after convincing her I am capable of athletic activity, and finding a suitable race in the countryside, I signed up to run a 10K and she the preceding 5K.

She bought shoes, I discussed training methods, and we proudly boasted to people that we were real athletes. I should say though that said training methods never really materialized.

After months of procrastination, broken promises, and fear of cardio, we raced this weekend .

To begin, I had hopes to improve upon my race day preparation routine of last year–which included an early morning fajitas-and margarita-induced yak.

While I kept things quit the night before he race, the morning commute was more rigorous. The race was in Shisho City (City is a bit of an exaggeration in my opinion), which required us to get up at 6:30, take the 7am train a few stops to meet a friend and navigate an hour drive to the race. I know, it sounds daunting.

However, with the help of modern technologies such as alarm clocks, car navigation, and virtual reality these travel logistics were conquered with ease. Despite a kilometer long walk (oh yes, the boy thinks in metrics these days!) from the car to the race, we arrived at the  registration tent with plenty of time to spare.

My quick survey of the crowd and the race roster confirmed an earlier suspicion and fear; I was the only foreigner there. Now, there’s a certain amount of pressure one undergoes when running any race; you want to finish, you to make a respectable time etc… However, to run a race where you also are representing an entire…well, race, provides additional and entirely unnecessary ocean of pressure–not only do you have to finish, but you have to do respectably–something I was not prepared to do.

While living in the countryside has given me experience of being a representative of my homeland, I have great distaste when this role is combined with some sort of athletic event that I am not awesome at (which rules out everything except darts after a few beers and ping-pong). Basically, I like eating Frosted Flakes, but I’ve never wanted to be on the box, I leave that job to freaks of nature like Michael Phelps and Tony, because he is a tiger and tigers can do whatever they want in my book.

So back in Shisho City, we headed in the gym to drop off our s.w.a.g,  and the other non-race items. Also, this past weekend  happened to be the hottest of the year so far, so we sought shelter from the sun and the heat.

We entered in the gym, and with an hour to spare we sat in our socks (only in Japan would you have to take off your shoes to enter a basketball court) pretended to be really serious about stretching and I ate an energy-bar breakfast. This would be a mistake.

An hour later we gathered at the starting line. I noticed towards the rear of the pack there was an array of costumed folk gathered. My initial surprised and shock was subdued by the realization that I was in Japan, and here costumes are as mundane as the five-day forecast. There were some wild ones, but amongst the crazy hats and the Winnie the Pooh costumes I resolved that it was my duty to make sure I finished before all five of the Power Rangers, even the red one, who is clearly the strongest. If they all combined to make some sort of super running robot, then I was just going to have to sprint, or try and trip the robot as often as could while dodging whatever form of blazing sword it would obviously have.

I’m happy to say the race began well as I followed the pack and our zen-like soundtrack of a thousand feet marching for the first 3 kilometers.  However, after that,  the decision to eat just an hour before the race began to haunt me. I found myself bumbling along with the crowd fighting my gag reflex with each step. Again, it’s one thing to "ralph" in race (unpleasant, but acceptable) but it’s another thing to be the only white guy in race, and be "ralphing".  It didn’t help that most of the course was in residential, and many of the resident were out in their yards cheering on the racers. While I’m not expert on all of the intricacies of the Japanese code of etiquette, vomiting in someone’s yard, no matter the circumstances, probably violates a few essential rules.

Invoking a British grittiness, and Japanese zen mentality and the American work ethic, I trudged on. I gave child spectators the high-fives they requested, I said "arigato" when I took water, and while I  was passed by one guy in a silly hat I finished comfortably ahead of all the Power Rangers and a few other undetermined anime. It was a semi-proud moment.

nb: In defiance of traditional s.w.a.g custom not t-shirt was made or given out to commemorate the marathon/race. Instead we were given rather large embroidered fanny packs (which incidentally look as though they were a bit more expensive than a t-shirt). Only in Japan would they give away free fanny-packs in lieu of t-shirts.

April 13, 2009, 5:14 pm
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It would be an egregious error of omission if I didn’t dedicate an entire post to discussing the cherry blossom phenomenon. I know I mentioned them in a previous post, but it’s such part of Japanese culture. Thus, where others have cultivated volumes, I will aspire for due diligence on the subject.

It’s difficult subject to discuss; while I am neither a poet or someone who has the propensity to drool over fauna of any sort, I haven’t been able to construct a proper qualitative equation to capture and convey how sublime and beautiful these trees are.

I suppose at the peak of their bloom, it looks like they are trees in winter, stacked with soft, fluffy snow. Now, as the blossoms begin to fall and paint the ground pink, even the gentlest of breezes can create that surreal, cinematic sensation of storm of swirling petals. Basically, it’s hard not to get girly about.

Perhaps what sums it up best was something the owner of nearest convenience store said to me. He said (and I’m editing his English here a bit), "many people say the Cherry blossom is a good representation of a man’s life". That is to say intensely magnificent and equally  brief. I believe this comparison originally was used to describe the life of  a samurai, but it’s still relevant.

This metaphor perhaps reveals a host of insight about Japanese culture, but  one I recognize  is something I experienced when living in London. That is when you live in a country with a vast history, people have a greater awareness of their lifespan versus the ocean of geological time. In America, where we generally seem consider the relevant history of our nation to start around 300 years ago, we do not see life through the same lens. While I’m sure this affects ones attitude in more ways than I can enumerate here, I will say in both here and England, the culture seems to be at greater peace with the finite limitations of life.

Other Points of Interest:

Below are two things I noticed at a Hanami (a cherry-blossom viewing party). We’ll go with a Pro/Con format here.


1. While not everyone partakes, it’s tradition to bring a few beers or jars of sake and get sensationally ripped while sitting under the trees. On this occasion, I was semi-working, as it was a school event, and had to abstain.  However, I can’t think of a Japanese tradition I have encountered that I support more. It seems like a supremely good method to enjoy life to its fullest. Although it was unfortunate when an older gentleman–not in our party–had to be hauled out in an ambulance.


2. There was a group of teenagers who brought a TV and Karaoke with them. Never mind that wizardry that clearly took place to power those devices (or who lugged a car battery to the picnic) but as much I support enjoying a drink in this scenario I do not support the ideal of mobile karaoke. It’s and indoor activity and no matter how many times you have tried our for American idol, you are at a crowded picnic area–other people do not want to hear your half-baked rendition of “Proud Mary”

Final Note:

I was on the train the other day, reading a fellow passenger’s paper when I noticed in the Horse Racing section, the paper had printed color portrait photographs of all the horses racing that day. I can’t imagine in what situation that would be useful or necessary, especially for someone making a wager on the races. "Oh this one has good color, I like the white spot on his nose, I’ll take him to place, the ugly one to show, and the one with the googly eyes and the blue hat to win in the fourth race".