Monday, January 31, 2005

When in Rome, don’t eat sushi.

I am recovering from a close brush with an unpleasant and painful death. OK so it wasn’t that close but it could have been, you know, if it wasn’t for modern medicine and all. Let me explain.

Believe it or not, the giant French hypermarket chain “Carrefour” has tentacles all over the globe, including a store in Osaka, where every Sunday, a selection of fresh imported produce is available, including many types of cheese, paté de foi gras, and other luxuries. Now I am not necessarily blaming the blue cheese for certain, but a day after consuming it, both I and a fellow blue cheese eater were struck down with a fever, which at first I mistook for the `flu (which I also got). After a few days though the fever came back, my tongue started feeling really sore, and it was very painful to eat and drink. Considering that my friend had just been pumped full of antibiotics after getting acute tonsillitis which stopped her from eating and drinking totally, this was slightly alarming. It was also complicated by the fact that I was due to go to Tokyo for a three-day orientation session the next week. So with the help of someone to translate, I decided to brave the Japanese health system.

It appeared that people don’t get ill on Sundays in Japan, since my local hospital was more or less shut, apart from the emergency department, where after registering at the hospital as a new patient, I had a very short wait before being seen by a couple of doctors who seemed even younger than me (though they probably thought the same) and various other nurses and people who chipped in to try to ask me questions in English. Anyway they sent my on my way, telling me I’d got flu and tonsillitis, and with a bunch of pills and instructions to see a doctor in Tokyo immediately if it got worse. Which it did.

Now I’m sure this is a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing and all, but I couldn’t help being slightly perturbed that the antibiotic they had given me was penicillin! The first antibiotic ever discovered, by Alexander Fleming in 1929! Surely everything was resistant to that nowadays? It must have been prescribed to death by now!? Maybe it was silly to worry about that since they really gave me a synthetic derivative of penicillin, and I have no idea whether it works well or not, but I was still having thoughts of gangrene in the trenches and having to have my head amputated or something. It still didn’t work though since the next day I arrived in Tokyo feeling absolutely terrible, and my tongue and lips had started to swell up and get covered in sores like mouth ulcers (I’m so very sorry, dear readers, I didn’t take a photo), and my face was swelling up like someone who had botox injections!

So I turned up at the registration desk and very apologetically demanded to see a doctor immediately (a medical doctor, not a proper doctor :-) there were about 40 of them there already). So they promised to send someone with me to the clinic round the corner as soon as the registration had finished. The doctor I saw then spoke quite good English, and with the help of the chap who had come along with me (who was Japanese, but spoke very good English, and French and German!), I managed to lisp out my explanation. After a blood test and chest x-ray which determined that the infection fortunately hadn’t spread to my lungs, he sent me on my way with some more powerful antibiotics. I was immensely relieved that the next day I felt a lot better and the swelling had gone down considerably, and though the flesh-eating bacteria were still munching away at me, they seemed to be losing the battle. I was able more or less to enjoy the rest of the orientation programme, including an unplanned burst of stardom at what turned out to be a Karaoke pub down the road from our (very posh) hotel. My god it’s difficult to persuade French people to sing in public.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Luxuries from the west are available ... at a price (of about three pounds twenty five). Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 13, 2005

In case that was a bit too much hard work, here's a picture of a sausage on a stand. N.b. this is not a traditional japanese dish. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Bayes' theorem, Spinoza, Zen and the art of fortune telling.

As those who have spent any length of time with me and shown the slightest inclination to seem at all interested will know, I am a confirmed Bayesian. To those of you who haven't read chapter three of my thesis, or yet become acquainted with one of the most interesting and philosophically rewarding aspects of modern statistics, Bayes' Theorem is essentially a restatement of the law of conditional probability, i.e. P(A given B) = P(B given A) * P(A) / P(B).

"What does that have to do with fortune telling?", I hear you ask (since I can tell everyone reading is utterly hooked by now). Well lets introduce one more piece into the equation, with P(A|B,I) meaning "the probability of A given B and initial information I". So P(A|B,I) = P(B|A,I) * P(A|I) / P(B|I).

Now let's suppose A is "the future" and B is "the state of these fresh chicken giblets" and I is my state of knowledge of the world before sacrificing the hapless bird, this tells me that regardless of how informative the exact configuration of the entrails laid out on the altar before me are, my knowledge of how the world works will play a role in the prediction I give to the assembled masses. Of course the more useless are the innards, the more important are the views I held before I looked at them.

This brings us to Spinoza. According to Antony Damasio's fascinating book "Looking for Spinoza", the heretic philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origin had intuitively grasped what neuroscientists are only now coming to understand. This was that the mind and body are intimately connected (as opposed to Descarte's view), and the former is largely a model of the latter. Not only that, but our brains contain a depiction of the world around us and its interaction with ourselves, built up from our senses; our emotions and feelings conspire to push us in the direction which will best lead to our material well-being and to the propagation of the species (our spiritual and mental health is thus intimately connected with our physiological health and the social and physical environment in which we find ourselves - a fact which has considerable political implications).

The old adage "the truth will set you free" makes perfect sense in this framework - if our internal model of the world, including our own and others' motivations and states of mind, corresponds to that which best fits the information acquired by our senses and experience (i.e. it is as close to the truth as is possible with the information at our disposal), then we are at peace. Each person's individual "truth" may be different however, even when placed in the same situation, as there is never enough information available to uniquely determine the state of the world at any one time, and every person's background is different. However, the more shared experiences they have, and perhaps the closer their temperament, the more similar will be their vision of the world. (Obviously someone with access to more and better information will have a more accurate representation of the world as it really is, and be capable of making better decisions.)

On top of this, our brains are capable of projecting our future happiness, based on the model of how the world works we have built up from our experiences and on the conscious plans we may have for the future - so thinking positively is worth it! The upshot of all this is that our brains contain a considerable amount of information which may not be consciously available to us, yet guides our actions often without us being aware of what is happening. So-called "gut feelings" are well worth paying heed to, though care should be taken if you are in unfamiliar situations, or especially when dealing with things which were not present during human evolution, such as weblogs (yes I know you feel a sudden urge to close your eyes and fall asleep, but the future of mankind depends on you to continue reading this!).

Back to the subject of Japan, and zen...

For a hundred yen or so, it is possible to buy a small piece of paper with a prediction of your fortune on it at most respectable temples. Being wily sorts and with a good few thousand years of study of human nature behind them, the purveyors of these things give you a good choice of subjects at the same time, from travel plans to marriage. Any decent crystal ball reader worth her caravan will also keep you occupied with a similar plethora of advice, until she spies in your eyes something that hits home.

So my contention is that while the predictions on these pieces of paper may indeed be entirely random, sometimes they seem eerily significant (such as "Work: you must work hard or you will fail"). This happens because they probe your Bayesian priors, as the initial information "I" is known in the trade. Often these are hidden from conscious view, but they represent your (limited but useful) experience of the world and your knowledge of yourself. So when Mystic Meg's pronouncement that you should "beware horseless carriages" has an inexplicable ring of truth to it, your car was probably making funny noises yesterday and you should check the oil.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005



Hatsumoude! Posted by Hello

Kodaiji temple in the snow. Posted by Hello

We made it! Posted by Hello

Snow! Posted by Hello

Special new year's breakfast (made by Atsushi's mum!) Posted by Hello

Making mochi Posted by Hello


Now just before I set off for Okayama, I had an email out of the blue from my second cousin Tom, who said he would be in Osaka over new year. Being a bit out of the loop I thought he was on holiday in Japan, but after a bit of confusion, I established that he was on his way back from Australia, after visiting his brother, who is staying there for a few months. He had a flight from Sydney arriving at 8pm on the 31st , and leaving for London at 12 o'clock the next day.

My friend Nao (I'm using first names only by the way, just out of paranoia about the unlimited power of google, and so I can bad-mouth my colleagues without recriminations!), had very kindly offered to take us to Kyoto to take part in the Hatsumoude ceremony at around midnight, and he was generous enough to offer to pick Tom up from Kansai airport by car! Now the airport is a good hour south of my part of Osaka, in the opposite direction from Kyoto, but we made it no problem at all, came back to his parent's house, had a cup of tea and then took the train to Kyoto and met another colleague of mine in time for the bells!

And when I say bells, its slightly different from the chimes of midnight. I mean one helluva bell, which takes about a dozen monks and what looks like a huge battering ram to ring. We queued up to snake past this amazing spectacle as the monks rang the bell 108 times to represent the 108 devils inside all of us (can you feel them?). Midnight has no special significance, apart from it serves to identify the groups of anglo-saxons in the queue who loudly start to count down (and you can tell whose watch is wrong).

As we arrived it started snowing again, really heavily, which gave the proceedings an almost magical atmosphere. After the big bell thing ("Jyoya-no-kane") at Chion-in, which was a Buddhist ceremony, we fortified ourselves with a bite to eat and some hot Sake, and headed via another couple of temples (which looked totally magnificent in the snow) to Hatsumoude at the Yawata shrine. This basically consisted of joining a huge number of other people in throwing a coin onto a stage, clapping twice and praying. After that you can buy a piece of paper with your fortune on it. Tom's said his was terrible!!!

We got back at about 4am, and after a short night's sleep I managed to put Tom on a train back to the airport in time for his flight (I hope!). Not bad for 16 hours!!

Happy New Year!

Greetings to all and best wishes for 2005.

I'll post some photos in a moment, but first a few updates on what I've been up to over the new year.

Dec 28-31st

Atsushi very kindly invited me to stay with his family near Okayama for a few days just before the new year. They live with his grandparents in a big house next to a rice field in a city called Kurashiki. Apparently I was the first foreign visitor they had had at their house, and I could not have been better looked after. Atushi's mother is a fantastic cook, and the food was rather superb. The only thing that I had a bit of trouble with was sea cucumber (namako).

I had tried this a couple of times before, and not been a huge fan, but this time I got to see the whole preparation process, from pulling out the innards, to slicing open the sea cucumber, (I wasn't sure how alive it was at any point during this), and then it is sliced into thin slices and soaked in vinegar. It ends up looking like fairly inoffensive grey seafood, but it has a texture like slippery rubber with a certain amount of resistance to it so it needs a good chewing. Of course this is considered something of a delicacy, and perhaps with a bit of effort I will manage to acquire the taste, but it's going to take some time.

I hope that doesn't sound like I am complaining! I had a great time, did lots of other stuff, and the whole family was extremely kind and hospitable.

We also had a go at producing mochi, in the old fashioned way by pounding steamed rice in a big stone bowl with a huge wooden mallet.

And then it snowed! Loads and loads! Enough to make me think I might not be able to get back to Osaka in time for the next installment of my adventures...
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