Month: June 2004


Spotted the premiere edition of Spot Magazine sitting on the free-literature shelf at Flightpath today. For those who have not heard of this ground-breaking, earth-shattering, epoch-making periodical, it is a content-lite lifestyle magazine for trendy Austinites and their dogs (though there’s a token article for cat-lovers too). This is almost certainly the most unnecessary exercise in print onanism I have ever seen.

Do we need this? Does anyone need this? Has there been any unmet need for a designy magazine that advises you whether you should take your dog in for reiki treatment (for crissakes), reports on the way dogs fit in with the local music scene, or profiles of pet-friendly workplaces? Going out on a limb, I will answer that with a No. I am amazed that this wankfest made it past the five-minute “wouldn’t it be neat if” bull-session, and not only that, somehow actually got made. Anyone want to bet on whether we’ll see an Issue 2?

The Chinese Room

The Chinese Room, sometimes referred to as the Chinese Box, is a thought-experiment invented by John Searle to debunk “strong AI.”

Searle’s argument is that you put an English speaker in a little room. Slips of paper with Chinese are passed in; the English speaker refers to a huge compendium of rules for analyzing and responding to these slips; he follows these rules, produces new slips in response, and passes them out of the room. To a Chinese speaker on the outside, these would appear to be perfectly reasonable responses to the statements on the slips inside, but (according to Searle) that doesn’t mean that the guy in the room understands Chinese.

Jenny and I have long used the Chinese Room as a metaphor for the translation process in some of our knottier jobs–not so much in terms of our weakness with language but with the field of knowledge. I was recently asked to do a mercifully short job on seismology (about which I know almost nothing) that put me in mind of this. The job contained terms that I don’t know in Japanese, and when I found their English equivalents (or in some cases, what I was guessing to be their English equivalents), I dutifully typed them into my translation with only the most superficial idea what they might really mean. Chinese Room. When we find ourselves in situations like this, we just clench our sphincters and hope that the eventual target audience will know what the hell we’re talking about, because we sure don’t.

But thinking about the original Chinese Room argument (and surrounding debate, which is extensive) is frustrating because it is so perfectly hypothetical. Searle’s point was to create an analog to the Turing Test (digression: I just learned that, quite fortuitously, today would have been Alan Turing’s 92nd birthday) that would show up the absurdity of AI. The problem with his argument is that it’s so procedural, so mechanistic. The idea is that there can be a rote response for every input. (This is pretty much the same problem that machine translation today has.) The Chinese room would probably need to be infinitely large to accommodate all the rule books, and it would certainly take an infinite amount of time to prepare those books.

One of the primary arguments against Searle was that the guy in the room might not know Chinese, but the system (of which he is a part) does know it. OK, Searle responds, suppose the guy memorizes all the rulebooks so he doesn’t need to be in the room anymore: he still wouldn’t know Chinese. Aside from it being an improbable memory feat, I’d argue that yes, actually, he probably would. How can you memorize all those characters and rules for dealing with them without developing some kind of internal model of how the language works? One that would allow you to consolidate all the redundancy that would need to be present in the rule books, etc. Sounds a lot like language acquisition to me. In order for Searle’s argument to work, the human would need to be as dumb as the computer, in which case, he’d be undercutting his own argument anyhow. (Digression: I’ve always been struck by how much native fluency in language is basically a matter of following a script: I noticed in Japan that whole conversations would sometimes follow a script with only one or two decision points along the way–other than that, they were entirely ritualized. But in English as well, there are so many ritualistic utterances used in specific situations, or in response to the last ritualistic utterance, that one could probably pull off a pretty good simulation of English fluency by following a rule book with instructions like “when it’s very hot out, greet people by saying “Hot enough for ya?”. Etc.)

I realize this is a tangent to Searle’s original point, but perhaps it can pertain to AI in some way after all: perhaps what the machines really need to be smart is the capacity for abstraction, induction, and deduction. I know this is what some AI researchers are working on.

Japan Trip 2004

I’m posting my writeup of the Tokyo trip as a series of entries back-dated to the days they refer to. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, but there’s so much here that Movable Type chokes if I try to post the whole thing as one monolithic entry. For best results, start at May 20 and work your way forward. I’ll eventually be posting some observations from the trip as well, as part of the regular flow.

I’m using Japanese text for place names and wherever else I feel like it: hover over the text to get the English. This trick may not work in Internet Explorer. Sorry (actually, I’m more sorry if you’re using IE than that this doesn’t work in it).

Photos are online: Log in as adamguest/adamguest if need be.

Reader’s Digest version: We had a great time. We walked an incredible amount–Gwen estimates about 10 miles a day–and our legs protested at the end of every day. Because of the somewhat constraining conditions where we were staying, I felt ready to be getting home when we left, but if we’d had a little more slack, I would have been happy to stay for a solid month. I want to visit again, soon.

He’s dead

More 80s nostalgia. Now everyone’s talking about Reagan. The revival of the Flashdance look was bad enough.

Through much of the Reagan administration, I wore an “Impeach Reagan” button. And I meant it. So I’m a little disconcerted by the almost universal hagiography upon his death, and slightly cheered by the occasional writer who will call a spade a spade.

But one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, so I’ll say this: in his two terms in office, Reagan was less destructive than G.W. has been during his one.

Not dead yet

I’m still here.

Shortly after departing for Japan, my site was hacked. I’ve gone around and around with my web host, which has been unwilling to reactivate a compromised site–which I can understand, but they also haven’t exactly been johnny-on-the-spot about helping me to secure it. For the moment, at least, it’s live again.

Gwen and I returned from Japan last night. We had a ball over there. More on this later.

Coming home

Hung out. Had pastries. Went to airport. Found a Lawson Station from which we procured more nigiri. Found our gate, and on a lark, I decided to see whether there was a free wifi node. There was, though I suspect this was through oversight, not intention. Got on plane. Baby cries for 6 hours, but eventually settles down. Arrive in San Jose. Claim checked bags and passed through an alarmingly casual customs interview:

Inspector: What’s in the box?

Me: Um, two pair of shoes and some paper products. [forgetting, in my jet-lagged fog, to mention some kitchenware, a really big sharp knife, and a candy bar]

Inspector: [waves us on]

We then had to immediately pass through another security inspection. Now, at no point had we left a secured area. The implication here is that they don’t trust Japan’s security inspection–in which case, they really should have just turned back the plane.

Recheck our box of goodies, find our gate (for-fee wifi there), and wait. Get on the nerd-bird back to Austin. Catch cab home, and try to sleep.

Returning to Austin from Japan is always weird. We left Tokyo at 5:15 PM Saturday local time, and landed in Austin at 5:30 PM Saturday local time. The human body doesn’t know what to do with this.

The dead

Our last full day in Tokyo.

We had acquired enough trinkets and tchotchkes to bring back to friends to fill a decent-sized box. I was planning on mailing this, and today would be our last chance to, but Gwen suggested we be parsimonious for a change and bring it home as checked luggage. Despite my deep aversion to baggage carousels, I assented.

Graveyards. Gwen has a thing for them, seeing signs of how people live in the way they bury their dead. We made our way to a shrine in Brian’s neighborhood, 代々木八幡宮, walked around the grounds (which, interestingly, included a reconstruction of a stone-age thatched hut that apparently stood in the area in 4000 BC or something), took in the cemetary there.

I suggested we go to the 都庁, the city hall. Saying “city hall” makes it sound kind of quaint, and not at all like a tourism destination. Wrong. Tokyo’s population is in the same ballpark as Australia’s, and the Tocho is two 48-story towers plus a surrounding complex, done in an intimidating style by 丹下健三 that Joseph Stalin would have approved of. It’s very much a product of the bubble economy, trumpeting Tokyo as a world financial capital, and although Japan’s economy has been in the shitter ever since it was built, it seems to have been the harbinger of many more audacious mega-construction projects that have followed, including Minato Mirai, Roppongi Hills, the underground expressway, and so on. Apparently 10 more projects on the order of Roppongi Hills are in the works for the next 20 years.

Anyhow. The cool information displays that were once installed on the second level were gone and replaced by shops. We hit the observation deck. Gwen observed “no wonder we’ve been doing so much walking!” The city goes on forever in every direction.

Back in the funereal mode, we made our way to the granddaddy of cemetaries, 青山墓地. Extensive enough to have numbered lanes and picturesque enough that for one day a year, it’s Tokyo’s favorite picnic spot (with people having pizzas delivered graveside), there also seem to be a lot of interesting people buried there, judging by the headstones. We noticed a couple of unkempt graves (upkeep is the responsibility of family members) that had signs posted by the management saying, basically “use it or lose it.”

We noticed some really enormous monuments, standing 20 feet tall or so. One in particular caught Gwen’s eye, and there were three guys in front of it discussing something, two in suits and one in some kind of maintenance uniform. This monument was especially huge, and had an explanatory plaque telling a few facts about the interred: apparently he had been a major military muckety-muck in the early days of modern Japan, having been an admiral in the Russo-Japanese war. There were several graves that were perfect stone hemispheres, which reminded me of stupas somehow.

Aoyama Bochi is near to Julia’s office, so we stopped by there to visit for a bit. Stopped at the nearby 時代屋 restaurant, which was having a 釜めし定食 for lunch. It looked pretty good, so we went in. Quirky place. In the basement, with a waist-high door you need to crouch to pass through. The interior is filled with antiques (hence the name of the place), many of which have little explanatory cards hanging from them. After lunch we did some more wandering around Roppongi, which is never seen in its best light by day. Eventually we made it back to the apartment, and had dinner at another quirky place, アホアホ, which specializes in dishes made with chili pepper and garlic: each item had a garlickiness and spiciness score. Although we enjoyed the garlic bulb deep-fried whole, we found the spiciness ratings to all be inflated. The owners apparently have a Jackson 5 fetish: they had an apparently original concert poster from a Jackson 5 gig in 1971 and Jackson 5 figurines over the bar. The music was strictly Motown, and there was a breakdancing video running on the TV.

You can never go back

I had a morning meeting with a client I had done some work for recently. Gwen accompanied me into Shinjuku, where the office is, and went off on her merry way. My meeting went OK, I suppose, but I felt awkward. Three Japanese women speaking in a level of 敬語 that I found both embarrassing (I’m nobody special, and not deserving of that level of speech) and impossible to match. My own Japanese tends inevitably towards the casual, and it’s always a last-minute catch for me to tack on a not-too-casual verb ending in these situations. On top of that, I was particularly tongue-tied, refusing to drop into English but having a hard time even living up to my usually modest ability to express myself in Japanese.

After the meeting, which lasted about an hour, I reconnected with Gwen at Alta. She had discovered 世界堂, an excellent art-supply shop, and Okadaya, a hobby-supply store with a narrower but deeper selection than Tokyu Hands, focusing particularly on textiles.

Bryan had suggested we go to lunch at a place he likes, 文琳, which has a cheap-ish lunch special he descibes as “kaiseki Chinese.” Indeed, it was quite good, with little bijoux tidbits of this and that, just enough to enjoy the taste of each thing.

After that, I told Gwen that I wanted to walk along Yamate-dori back to my old neighborhood, 東中野. It was going to be a long, ugly walk, and kudos to her for putting up with it. When I was living in Tokyo in 88-90, the city was in the beginning stages of a project to widen Yamate-dori and build an underground expressway beneath it. Because Japan apparently has weak eminent-domain laws, the city began buying up properties all along the street as they became available, tearing them down, and barricading the spaces where they had been–I’d seen evidence of this on previous trips. Well, it seems that they’ve acquired all the extra margin they need, because Yamate-dori has been widened, and the center is completely occupied by construction equipment doing the prep work to install the underground expressway. I wanted to see for myself how much things had changed, and how much was under construction. So we walked. And walked. And walked, and then walked some more. With only brief interruptions, that center construction strip covered Yamate-dori as far as the eye could see. Cranes rising into the air every hundred feet or so. Mind-boggling.

We came across a new train station that would have taken us directly to my old train station; Gwen was getting pretty tired of all this walking, but said she could hold out if we’d be there in another 15 minutes. Which, I estimated, we would. So we walked on. And pretty soon, sure enough, we found ourselves at 中野坂上駅, not the station I had planned on going to, but one I had used every weekday for about a year. It’s at a major intersection, of 山手通り and 青梅街道. I didn’t recognize anything. Nothing at all was familiar. The shock was physical. The area had been spruced up, with new buildings, a terraced grassy 待ち合わせ spot. We continued along a bit, working our way into the back streets of the neighborhood. Some buildings I recognized, some were clearly new. Gwen asked me if I wanted to place a bet on whether my old building still stood. I didn’t, but it did (though its address had changed, because the house next door, occupied by a crazy geriatric couple, had been torn down and replaced by two houses).

We wandered around the old ‘hood a little more, taking in the 商店街. We came across what had once been an improvised sort of restaurant operated out of a yurt with a few stools outdoors. The restaurant was still there, but it now occupied the lower two floors of a 9-story building. Pao. We decided to eat there. It wasn’t in a yurt, and in fact the interior was quite nice, but it retained some of its old yurty funkiness. Most of the seating was low, carpeted platforms, with pillows and knee-high tables. We took one. Gwen decided that she wanted our next dining room to be just like it. The menu was Afghan oriented, but about half the dishes we wound up getting seemed more Italian. It was all good, though. Gwen had a cocktail of Cassis and Oolong tea, which was actually pretty good, and we split a mango tart for dessert, which was excellent. When we got up to pay, I mentioned to the woman at the register (who had probably been there all along) that I lived in the neighborhood 15 years ago, and remember when the place was a yurt. She said with a smile ‘things have changed.’


日光. This was our other getaway destination, and I decided we should make a day-trip of it. Headed out early, and took to the 特急 from Asakusa. Had a little time before boarding, so we stopped in a nearby coffee shop, where the waitress was visibly shocked that I could speak and read Japanese–that was kind of fun. The area gets so many tourists that the ratio of Japanese-speaking white people to all white people must be much lower than in other parts of town. Anyhow, the trip out was uneventful, and once there, we walked up the main drag to the shrine area. Nikko’s three shrines and temples are probably what the town is best known for (along with its national park, and its monkeys), and that’s what we were there for. It’s hard to do justice, in words or pictures, to these places. Unlike most of Japan’s religious buildings, these are covered in ornament. As a f’rinstance: part of 東照宮 is surrounded by a wall in 87 sections. Each section contains three panels. Each panel contains an elaborately carved and colorfully painted scene showing birds: the top, birds in the air, the middle, birds on the ground, and the bottom, bids in the water. Each panel different. It’s like that everywhere you look: no opportunity to decorate, illustrate, illuminate, exalt, inspire, or awe is overlooked. As one of our guidebooks put it, Nikko is “17th-century Disneyland.”

After about 5 hours of this, my eyeballs hurt. We started heading back, stopping for a bite on the way down to the station.

Back to Harajuku

We headed back to Omotesando for a little unfinished business. Went down to the antique mall below the Hanae Mori building, which is kind of a trip. Stopped by the ridiculous Oriental Bazaar and the sublime Kiddyland, which wound up being a rather lengthy diversion. The plethora–nay, cornucopia–of diverse キッティちゃん products was endlessly entertaining. Dolls of Hello Kitty wearing an eggplant costume. Dolls of Helly Kitty wearing a cat costume. Think about that.

Stopped at 平禄 (which used to be 元禄–not sure why the name changed), a conveyor-belt sushi place. This turned out to be the only occasion we ate sushi on the whole trip, and a 回り寿司 place inevitably isn’t going to be the best, but it wasn’t bad, and it’s a fun experience. It’s also kind of amazing how quickly you can mow through a dozen or so plates of sushi when you can continuously grab them as they roll by.

Next, to the 太田記念年美術館. But before we could get there, we stopped at a miniscule shop around the corner from it. Gwen had been interested in picking up a new handbag that was cool, funky, and unobtainable in the USA, and here she found what she was looking for: a long, skinny purse made of lenticular plastic that blinks obverse and reverse sides of 平仮名 flashcards, all themed around 鉄腕アトム.

Then on to the museum, where they were having a special 北斎 exhibit. The Ota Museum is a sort of oasis of stereotypical Japanese-ness. You take your shoes off when you walk in; you crouch on tatami to view some of the artwork. The place is dimly lit, silent, refined, sedate; it has a rock garden indoors. The fact that it is tucked away in the midst of Japan’s poppiest pop-culture is part of the fun.