Culture Shock

Just minutes in LAX and I'm already reverse culture shocked.

1. The walls in the toilet stalls don't go all the way to the ground and there is writing on the walls.

2. I ordered a medium drink thinking it wouldn't be enough and it was HUGE.

3. A Pizza costs the same as a sandwich. Japanese pizzas are really expensive.

On another note.. LAX sucks. I'm going to try avoiding it from now on. When I got out of my flight there was absolutely no sign or employee to ask about where to go for my connection. It just led me to the street.

Need Sleep and Food!

Merry Christmas from the Denver airport. :(


Flashback Post

This is a repost of a really old blog entry from when I lived in Saitama over 3 years ago. Oh how things change (see first sentence)

Friday, November 03, 2006

I've been spending a lot of time studying Japanese recently.

Sundays, I go to a community center where many foreigners gather and some Japanese volunteers teach Japanese. My friend and I are the only native English speakers there. Most of the others are Chinese or Philippino. Last Sunday we had a Japanese BBQ instead of class and we sang some songs and made food all afternoon. I spent most of the time playing with 2 adorable kids. One is 4 years old and 1 is in first grade (probably around 6). The 4 year old spoke to me in Chinese as if I understood everything and the 1st grader spoke to me in Japanese. Kids that age are so cute!

Tuesdays my friend and I go to this elderly lady's house and she and her friend give us one on one lessons for an hour and a half. After that we all drink tea and chat for a little while. This is where I learn the most out of all my lessons, because she prepares conversations for me that we read aloud and she uses expressions and idioms I otherwise wouldn't be able to pick up very easily.

Thursdays a couple other foreigners and I go to another community center where some more volunteers teach. This lesson is much smaller but pretty fun. After this we usually grab a beer and chill (I'm usually exhausted by Thursday and completely worn out on Friday). I finally got my first monthly pay check. It was about the size of the paycheck I was getting in the US after taxes.... every 2 weeks. But this paycheck is gonna furnish my apartment so I can get my home theater system back up and running.

Before telling this next story let me explain the Japanese alphabets a little.

First there is hiragana. Hiragana has a letter for each sound you can make in Japanese. There are 5 vowels (a i e o u) pronounced as in Spanish and there are about 9 consonants. Making roughly 46 letters. Hiragana is used for all the Japanese grammatical aspects such as verb endings, particles, and more. Here is Hiragana in Hiragana: ひらがな

Next there is katakana. For every hiragana, there is a katakana equivalent. Some of them look simliar, like ka (hiragana か, katakana カ) but some are completely different like su (hiragana す, katakana ス). Notice how katakana is much more angular and hiragana is smooth and pretty. Katakana is used for foreign words and names. For example, orange -> orenji -> オレンジ. Here is katakana in katakana: カタカナ.

Last but not least is Kanji. Kanji means Chinese character and as you may have guessed, comes from China. There are thousands of characters used for names and all kinds of words and verb stems. Kanji are sometimes very simple, such as one (ichi) 一, or person (hito), 人, but they can get really complicated, such as the character for love 愛. Here is Kanji in Kanji: 漢字.

Here is an example sentence: 今日はマイケルの誕生日です。 This sentence means 'Today is Michael's birthday.' 今日, pronounced kyou, means today. The kanji separately mean Now or This (今) and Day or Sun (日). Then comes the hiragana topic marker は, pronounced wa. This marks 'Today' as the topic. Then comes the foreign name Michael (actually said maikeru マイケル). Then comes the hiragana particle の, pronounced no, meaning possession (like the 's in English). After that comes 誕生日, pronounced tanjoubi, meaning birthday (notice the day kanji again, but with a different pronunciation). Lastly is です, the verb meaning is. This is pronounced desu technically, but usually it sounds more like des.

Okay lesson over. So this Thursday I taught 1st and 2nd graders the numbers 1-20.. after 2nd period, about 20 students mobbed me in the hallway asking for my signature. They all had their little booklets and pencils and they lined up nicely for me to sign each one. One girl asked me to write my name in hiragana (the Japanese alphabet) but I said no, I should write it in Katakana. The concept of katakana's use for foreign names was yet unknown to her, though, so she thought that meant I only knew katakana (being a first grader she had just learned katakana recently herself). So about 10 minutes later after I had finished the signatures, she came back with a little folded piece of paper, handed it to me and ran off.

This is the note she gave me. She wrote the whole thing in katakana (the other teachers thought that was hilarious). It says at the top, 'to Michael sensei <3' and at the bottom left it has her name and 1-2 (grade one class two). The face is a picture of me. The note on the right says 'Michael sensei, thank you for the signature. I am very happy. Bye bye.' Hahaha so cute! I'm not sure who the flying thing is but other people drew it on notes to me too. The note by it says 'shinamon' which might be cinnamon, but who knows. Anyway, thats life here, and that's all for now.


Web Comics

Whenever I go online the first things I check are my email and my web comic rss feed. Here are some comics I subscribe to. Let me know if there are any other good ones I missed.

Google RSS Reader lets you make a bundle of feeds and share it on a blog, so I did that for my webcomics.. they're on the right side of my blog under the other widgets. Click here to see a preview of each of them.

Recent Discoveries:


Cyanide and Happiness
(Not for the feint of heart)


Twilight Spoofs

My favorite so far:

College Humor:
Twilight: Three Wolf Moon

And again (warning: bad language)
Twilight: Deleted Sex Scenes

This one wasn't as good, but here ya go.



If you took a piece of thin paper, say 0.35mm thick, and folded it in half, it's now about 1mm thick. So without using a calculator, how thick do you think it might be if you fold it 40 times? 10 meters? A mile? Just try to imagine it without doing the math.

A) 1 meter
B) 10 meters
C) 1 Kilometer
D) Distance from Earth to Moon
E) 1 Light Year

What do you think? No cheating!



If I had any super power, it would be the ability to travel back in time, to be invisible, and to observe hairpins.

For any two animals* A and B, there were once two sisters A' and B', one whose descendants led to animal A and the other whose descendants led to animal B. In fact, the sister A' is also the direct ancestor of ALL other species more closely related to A than B. (And B' is also the direct ancestor of ALL other species more closely related to B than A).

Dawkins calls the mother of these two sisters a hairpin (source). If you go back in time looking at ancestors of animal A you would eventually get to A' and then the hairpin. Then you can go forward in time on a different path (B') to eventually lead you to animal B. While this is a basic concept of evolution, this is something lost on a lot of people. The hairpin is the common ancestor of the two animals. It is not the same as a modern living creature. We are not descendants of chimpanzees and there are no crocoducks.

There are as many hairpins as there are species alive today minus one. Think of a tree where the tips of the branches (leaves) are modern living species, each point in the tree that splits (internal node) is a hairpin.

*The sisters idea breaks down when you get to closely related examples: such as me and my aunt, but the hairpin idea still holds.


Pollution in China

Amazing, terrifying, saddening pictures of polluted areas. English. Chinese.

Scientific America video on lead poisoning from metal producing plants.


Line of Sight

While working on my game, I decided that I will at some point want to have line of sight for a unit. This is how I did it.

The game is on a hexagonal grid, so to make it easier, I decided that a circle around the outside of a hex is the size of whatever blocks vision. All I had to do was check each hex to see if it blocks vision, then for each of those hexes, mark all the ones behind them as invisible. What I was left with was a problem like this:

The unit is at A, the hex at B blocks vision, and everything further away than B that is between the yellow and red lines is invisible. So all I had to do was find the equations for the two lines. They turn out to be really elegant. After many pages of math where I made mistakes and relearned algebra, I found the two equations and plugged them into my map editor for testing. Anyone want to give it a try? I'll post the answer in the comments.

Here are the results!

A Small, Simple Map with a blocking hex and a unit:

Showing the LOS:

Yay it works. Here's a bigger example. This is supposed to be a cave interior, so the black is wall, the red is lava and the rest is just ground. The selected unit is in the middle.

Without LOS:

With LOS:


Atheist vs Agnosticism

This is kind of in response to my brother's post here.

First of all, atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. Atheism to me, and a lot of people who's views I agree with, is the rejection of theism. It is a lack of belief, not a belief in non-existence. An atheist does not necessarily assert that there is no god. Clearly, no one knows whether there is or not. Nor do we know whether the universe is all a computer simulation. We don't know whether magic exists, of if the Force is real and if flows through all of us and binds us. You could call me agnostic toward the Force, but this would send the wrong message. I do not believe in the Force, magic nor a god.

There has been much debate about the word atheism and whether it is the right word to use for the growing number of non-believers. Prominent atheists have suggested other words, some more condescending than others. Sam Harris doesn't like the use of the word because of its baggage. But it is important to recognize the bigger picture. The world (and especially the US) has a huge number of evangelical religious lunatics who believe Barack Obama is the antichrist or that they will receive 72 virgins in the afterlife. There are polls showing that atheists are the most hated and distrusted minority. IDiots and creationists (I know, I'm repeating myself) are constantly trying to stop the teaching of evolution and/or inject their own religious beliefs into the public school systems. It is for all these reasons and more that a large number of high profile atheists are starting to join forces and speak out. Groups like the Atheist Alliance, for example, are trying to create a positive voice for atheism (see here).

Finally, just to reiterate, you can either be a theist and believe in a god, or an atheist and not believe in a god. While it is true that a person who asserts the non-existence of god is also an atheist, that is not what we are all doing, and standing on the sidelines as a wishy-washy agnostic is not helping the greater cause for, among other things, womens rights and science.


Sinfest FTW: Homophobia

Some Cool Eusocial Insects

Leaf Cutter Ants feed the leaves to a fungus and eat the excretions. They also produce anti-biotics to fight pests.

Termites also feed a fungus and produce some awesome architecture that regulates temperature like an air conditioner.


Building a Windmill

Watch this.

And then watch this.


A Brief Analogy

I guess to put it really briefly, what I was saying in my previous post is that I think you could make an analogy as follows:

Genes are to Life as Memes are to Consciousness.

Obviously there are some problems with this analogy, but I think it's interesting as a thought experiment.


Consciousness and Life

A few days ago I had a lengthy discussion about consciousness. The result has been a mild obsession recently with the topic. I would much appreciate any comments anyone has on the subject.

To understand my view of consciousness, you first should know what Biological Naturalism is, as this is the closest view to mine that I've found. I used to think I was a materialist, but materialists deny the existence of a non reducible property of consciousness. Meanwhile, there is dualism. I haven't been a dualist since I was a kid. Dualism is hard to justify when one does not believe in the supernatural.

Biological Naturalism states that consciousness is a biological property, like digestion or photosynthesis. But unlike those properties, it is ontologically irreducible.
Solidity can be ontologically reduced to molecular behavior and consciousness cannot be reduced to neuronal behavior. To put the point more precisely, in the case of solidity the fact that we can give a complete causal explanation of solidity in terms of micro physical processes leads us to say that solidity is nothing but a certain sort of microphysical phenomenon. Causal reduction leads to ontological reduction. But in the case of consciousness we are unwilling to make the ontological reduction. Consciousness is entirely caused by neuronal behavior, but all the same we are unwilling to say that consciousness is nothing but neuronal behavior. (Searle 2004, Biological Naturalism)
So to understand where I begin to differ with Searle, consider the question "What else is an ontologically irreducible biological* property?"

... pause for effect ...

If you answered "life" then maybe you already know where I'm going with this (If you're totally lost I recommend reading some of Searle's work). Bells rang in my head when I made this connection, and I'm sure I haven't been the first. Not only do life and consciousness share this rare quality of being ontologically irreducible, and being physical properties (as opposed to epiphenomenal phenomena, like a rainbow or a sunset), but they alone also share something else that is very important: replicators.

Life is a medium of physical replicators (in the case of life on earth, genes). Replicators, in the sense I use the word, undergo copying, selection and variation. Consciousness is, and I think should be defined as, a medium for memetic replicators. A meme, in my definition, is anything that is imitated. Memes, like genes, undergo selection, variation and copying.

This theory puts a lot of the puzzle pieces into place and answers the following questions. When did consciousness first emerge? Are animals conscious? Can computers become conscious?

The first two can be answered together. As soon as animals develop the higher brain functions necessary for imitation, they contain a rudimentary form of consciousness. When a bird hears a song from it's same species it may imitate the song, copying the meme. It may miss hear, or simply make a mistake, introducing variation, and through selection, only some songs will persist over time. This rudimentary consciousness is like looking on the ancient earth at replicators first evolving. It took billions of years for life to develop into a state with so few mutations as we have today. At the start, mutations were most likely frequent and extreme, as they are with many memes. But as some genes developed to produce proteins that repair DNA, some memes produce ways of maintaining themselves as well (language, writing, and eventually electronic storage, for example).

Currently computers and machines are used to copy memes, but the variation and selection is still almost exclusively done in the brain. You could think of these memes stored in a computer as an equivalent to viruses. Viruses are not widely considered alive, despite having genes and undergoing selection. Similarly, media can contain memes, but the variation and selection is not yet done by computers. I disagree with Susan Blackmore's prediction of "temes" as a new replicator, because I do not believe memes need be in a biological brain. What she calls temes I call memes that exist entirely in computers.

When computers start to not only copy, but select and vary memes, whether intelligently or not, they will on a certain level become conscious. This scares a lot of people, and perhaps it should. Memes existing entirely in computers would have protection from mutations in the way that they do not have in the human brain. It is like we are witnessing the transition of simple replicators to single celled organisms, in that the level of self sustainability will dramatically increase. Why should we be scared? Because we don't see any self sustaining replicators outside of cells anymore. The success of the cell eliminated all the competition.


A couple links

This [subnormality] is great. I always wondered why so many of my friends and even some family members like professional sports so much. Playing is one thing.. or rooting for friends, but I've never gotten into prof sports. I even tried to get into them so I could have something to talk about with "the guys".

Also.. I think I've been living in Japan too long because it took me a while to figure out why this [failblog] was supposed to be funny.


Summer Update and My Game

I haven't updated my blog in a while, so I thought I'd say something about what I've been doing lately. So far this summer I went to Karuizawa and Izu. Tomorrow I leave for Kiyosato for a week to teach English at a camp for kids. I did it last year and it was pretty fun. Tomorrow is also the 3 year anniversary of my first day in Japan! It's hard to believe.

The past month or 2 I've been working a lot on making a web-based turn-based strategy game. The original goal was to make a mock-up game to test the rules for a possible board game, but now I've taken it in a new direction. The ultimate goal now is to adapt it for Facebook and play with family and friends.

The idea of the game is simple: Each player has robots. The robots are given orders and carry them out simultaneously. The catch is that you have to tell the robot what to do in advance, therefore trying to predict what your opponents will do. I want to do things like capture the flag later, but at the moment the object is to just take out all the opponents.

All the art work is done by me. For those who are curious, I'm coding it entirely in Ruby on Rails and Javascript. I'm using the YUI library for a lot of things including animation and ajax. Check out these screen shots from my latest version. I'm hoping to get a version online soon, but I'll be busy the rest of the month so it might have to wait until September.



This pretty much says it all folks.

An important point: Believing something does not exist is not the same thing as saying it does not exist. This is a common misconception of atheism.


What would you do?

On a hidden camera show a gay couple crashes a bar to see how homophobic people are.

It went much better than I expected. It was actually pretty encouraging, but I wonder what the results would be in other cities or even other countries.


Teaching Practices

According to Bill Gates, many schools in America don't allow the principal to come watch classes without prior notice, and no more than once or twice a year. I always wondered about this, because I don't really remember how things were when I was a kid in terms of people watching the classes. The system here in Japan is drastically different:

1. The Principal visits every teacher without notice once a month. He does a review of their lesson and teaching style and gives them input afterwords.

2. There are a few days every quarter that are like an open house. Unlike the after school open house in the US, these are during school hours and last for 3 days (all these numbers vary by the area, but this is the general idea). The parents come and go as they please and can sit in on the classes.

3. There are study lessons throughout the year. One teacher will prepare a special lesson (sometimes it will be team teaching), and they present the lesson with all the other teachers watching. They all stand in the back wearing suits holding clipboards, and someone usually has a camera. Often times there will be a high level official there from the board of education, and after the lesson, which is usually after lunch on a half day, there is a long meeting to discuss the class. These lessons are sometimes for the teacher to show techniques to the other teachers, or for the other teachers to critique the main teacher. There are themes, like team teaching, or science projects. I've done quite a few of these where the theme is usually team teaching. I'm supposed to be an assistant teacher, and this is usually the only time that's true.

4. In some schools, including both of mine, there is one day a year during which the entire school is open to the public. Parents come, teachers from neighboring schools come (for 5th and 6th period, so all their kids have gone home), and anyone off the street can come in and watch the lessons or look at things the students have made in the hallways. I've never had a lesson during one of these, but I've been to a couple and it's quite an experience.

The level of accountability and the lack of reward for good teaching in the US is depressing. It's amazing that good teachers exist at all, frankly.


I don't have this gene

But I think some of my siblings do.

Most experts now agree that crossed wires in the brain are probably responsible for the photic sneeze reflex.

A sneeze is usually triggered by an irritation in the nose, which is sensed by the trigeminal nerve, a cranial nerve responsible for facial sensation and motor control. This nerve is in close proximity to the optic nerve, which senses, for example, a sudden flood of light entering the retina. As the optic nerve fires to signal the brain to constrict the pupils, the theory goes, some of the electrical signal is sensed by the trigeminal nerve and mistaken by the brain as an irritant in the nose. Hence, a sneeze.



A Couple Videos

This guy is my hero.

This is amazing. It's as if it's out of a movie (Terminator?)

Oh, and it turns out that's a tree farm for IKEA.


The Science of Spore

I have read a lot of science blogs complaining about how unscientific Spore is. As soon as I saw the creature creator I knew this would be the case... but it's true that the game is ridiculously unscientific from an evolutionary standpoint. This wouldn't be a big deal if they didn't go out of their way to market as and educational tool.. but they do. I have just two simple suggestions they could have used to make it much better.

Tech Tree! While it is fun for the creature creator to be able to do anything with all the parts, in the game, you should be limited to a tech tree where you choose paths to go down. This would also prove much more evolution like. You can't use the huge three prong claws until you have the small claws first.

Small changes. The evolve step should perhaps limit you more in terms of drastic changes. As the game is now, you can literally change the entire creature at any time. This change would make it more challenging to get what you want and more rewarding when you do.

All in all, I'm glad I never bought the game. The few hours of tinkering with it were enough. Nice graphics and creator mechanics, but that was about it.