Year: 2011

Big Brother

A deep and unshakable fear

Exclamation point

Stale Content Alert!

This post was written a long time ago, and my views have almost certainly evolved since then. Please keep that in mind while reading, commenting, or sharing.

Image of Big Brother from 1984This isn’t really a post about my life, it’s (another) political post, so if you’re looking for something else, look elsewhere. This has been hanging over my head lately, and I need to get it out.

I’ve never before been as terrified by the state of American politics as I am now.

A lot of the time, when I’ve written about politics, it’s been about single issues. One of my earliest blog posts ever was about the proposed amendment to ban the burning of the American flag. Recently, I blogged about Net Neutrality (in response to an issue in Canadian politics, but relevant in the US nonetheless). I’ve been frustrated over individual cases here and there, but never in my life have I been so honestly outraged and frightened by the state of politics.

Maybe I’m just getting older and realizing how messed up things are, but I think there’s more. I think things have taken a nasty turn recently. I can’t pin a finger on it– I don’t know when it happened or what caused it– but its many symptoms are starting to make me wonder just how diseased the entire system really is. It’s at the point that I’m eager to leave next year, and I’m sincerely considering the possibility of moving away after college. If these trends continue, I don’t want to be anywhere near the US.

Put simply, I’m scared shitless by the amount of power the government is accruing, in whose interests it’s being used, and how little oversight or regulation there seems to be.

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A letter from the Associated Kyoto Program congratulating me on my acceptance to the program.

Yatta

We were almost done with our house meeting this evening when the phone rang. It was Takemoto-sensei, my Japanese professor from last year and the director of the Associated Kyoto Program. Apparently, he wanted to show Kagaya-sensei, a visiting professor and next year’s resident director for AKP, the Tek. Given that the program decisions were supposed to be going out either today or tomorrow, everyone was a little on edge.

Things got more suspicious when Liz, the only non-Tek applicant to AKP from Whitman this year, showed up at our door. We invited her in and began chatting, but it escaped nobody that all five Whitman applicants were currently gathered in the living room, and two AKP representatives were en route.

There was a knock on the door. Takemoto-sensei, Kagaya-sensei, and Seanacey, the program administrator from Whitman, all entered the house, and took seats in the living room. We all stood up when they entered, partially out of nerves, and partially out of some strange, half-extinct practice of etiquette that seemed desperately important at the time. We remained standing until a very perplexed Takemoto-sensei politely but firmly requested that we sit.

First, ever the salesman, he led us in a group “thank you” to Kagaya-sensei for flying out and interviewing us. She had a difficult time organizing her flight over the weekend–her home college, Williams, had ten inches of snow when she left, so we were fortunate she was able to make it at all. We all obediently and humbly thanked her, bowing while trying to contain our anxiety.

Then: “I have something for you.”

He stood, and like an out-of-season Santa Claus, reached into his backpack. Out came cardboard boxes–prepaid mailers with our last names handwritten on the sides. “Mehoke.” “Wharton.” Kagaya-sensei slowly passed four out–

–and then a pause. Takemoto, his eyes gleaming, turned to Sara. “Oh, Portesan-san…” he started.

Heads swiveled to look. Was this the bad news? Were we a divided group– four lucky admitted students sharing a room with one who didn’t make the cut? Or did these four boxes contain the gentle, reconciliatory declination letters? The tension muted us quickly, and even the previously uncontainable nervous jitters fell still.

Then he pulled the fifth box from his backpack and handed it to her.

“These are all for you,” he said. “I suppose, in true American fashion, you can open them now…

On the couch, we exchanged glances. Was this some sort of trick? Trying to get us to broach Japanese rules of etiquette? It seemed entirely possible at the time–then again, Takemoto could have told us our acceptance depended upon our ability to compose spontaneous English haiku about small appliance stores, and we probably would have taken it at face value. Slowly, our hands crept to the edges of the boxes, and began to tear them open–some of us more clumsily and brutishly than others.

Inside, a shiny packet of Pocky adorned with a sticker encouraging us to “Stick with the AKP!”

A package of Pocky with a celebratory labelAnd a bundle of forms, bound with red string.

A bundle of formsThis is it. The months of preparation, the interview, the sine wave of excitement and terror about the prospect of living and studying abroad for a year… it all came down to the words in this packet of paper. This determined the shape of not only my next year, but in fact the rest of my undergraduate experience, and potentially the few years afterward. Those first few words would indicate whether I was going to have the experience of a lifetime.

Another photo of the letter, centered on the word "Congratulations!"A few gasps around the room, then a boisterous cheer, followed by expressions of profuse gratitude. “Sensei… doumo arigatou gozaimashita!” I reached over and high-fived Sam. People were hugging.

Everyone got in.

Nobody was spared from the excitement. Our RA and our native speaker immediately began making plans to visit Kyoto during spring break next year. We began listing the people we knew that we would be able to visit when abroad. All of the stress and worries of the past few days, weeks, and months, evaporated.

We did it.

We’re going to Japan.

Returning to Japan

On returning to Japan

A portrait of me holding a folding fan to my face

God, I’m a dork.

I went to Japan four years ago or so. This probably isn’t news if you know me– I bring it up once in a while, and it was a big deal to me when it happened. That said, in the four years since returning, I haven’t really written a ton about it, nor have I put any of my pictures from the trip anywhere except my hard drive. I kept an audio journal while I was abroad, and at one point I was working on digitizing and transcribing it, but that’s also fallen through the cracks. I have a bag of memorabilia at home that I saved with the intention of eventually scrapbooking it, a project that has been neglected as well.

This is not in any way to say that my trip was not worth it. Far to the contrary, my trip to Japan was my first significant trip abroad, and it opened my eyes to an entirely different cultural perspective than the one I grew up with. I stayed with Japanese families, met Japanese people, talked with and learned from Japanese students, explored the community of Hirado and learned– a little bit– what it was like to be a total foreigner in an unfamiliar country. I think my trip was significant enough that it inspired me to continue learning Japanese, and it’s part of the reason that I hope to return next year, and am considering teaching English there after graduation through the JET Programme. It was undeniably a worthwhile trip.

But it was, in the grand scheme of things, a taste. It whet my appetite, but now I’m looking at spending an entire year in Kyoto starting this fall (provided the program accepts me).

And I can’t wait.

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Michael Shermer on TED: The patterns of self-deception

Incredibly interesting TED talk about pattern recognition, self-deception, and all those wonderful skeptical things.

Astronomers got screwed.

Comic bemoaning how the word "astrology" is taken to describe pseudoscience

[Editor’s note (06/04/2012): I changed the title of this post from “Astronomers got gypped,” to “Astronomers got screwed.” “Gyp” is a racist term that plays off of notions of the Romany people as sneaky and conniving. That’s not something I want my blog to perpetuate. -Spencer]

The Consequences of Usage-Based Billing

Just this week, Canada approved usage-based billing for the internet. What’s this mean? Now, Canadian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can place caps on the amount of bandwidth subscribers can use, and charge them heftily for crossing that cap. While this may make sense in the abstract, the implementation is where it’s all shot to hell: Bell Canada is switching to an incredibly low 25GB monthly cap, and is charging almost $2 for each gigabyte past that cap. (The cost to Bell to deliver a gigabyte of data is far less than a penny, for reference.)

This is bad in so many ways.

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A sketch of a small, wiry, and balding character in a long coat, with goggles strapped to his forehead

Gobb Clan Artificer

A sketch of a steampunk-y characterThis is what I drew tonight. It’s still in progress, but this guy inhabits the same world as this city— in fact, he’s one of the many, many people living in that city.
Nerd, nerd, nerd.

Blind Spots

Have you ever seen your blind spot?

There’s a fantastically interesting demonstration over on Serendip, a science hub supported by Bryn Mawr College. Check it out.

Diagrams of a vertebrate eye and a cephalopod eye

Vertebrate eye (left) and cephalopod eye (right)

The gist of it is that vertebrate eyes, due to the way they evolved, are naturally set up in a way that leaves a hole in the vision. The retina, which senses light, is behind the nerve fibers that transfer the signals to the brain. In order to get those nerve fibers out of the eye, they bundle up near the back and go back into the skull– but since the retina is normally behind the fibers, there’s nothing to sense light in that spot. (Check out the image to the right in case that description’s not clear.)

The interesting thing, however, is that this doesn’t result in a gaping hole in your vision. Make no mistake, there’s absolutely no way, given the anatomy, that that portion of your eye detects light. Then why is your vision whole?

Enter the brain. Your brain, as the Serendip demonstrations show, is remarkably adept at filling in holes. In the demonstration, you adjust your vision while focusing on a single point, until a large black dot elsewhere on the page disappears. If you do this on a white background, then what you see is an unblemished field of white. But more remarkably, if there is a line running through the blind spot, your brain fills in that line, even though it’s getting no information for that spot. If the blind spot occurs in a field filled with a regular pattern, then your brain fills in the pattern appropriately.

I’m constantly amazed by this for a couple of reasons. First, it’s downright incredible. That our brains are sophisticated enough to patch up the image we’re seeing based on what’s around our blind spot– that’s just cool. And we don’t even notice it. Before I experienced the Serendip demonstration, I had no idea that my brain was doing all this work behind the scenes. Clearly, it’s doing its job, and it’s doing it well.

But the second thing that hits me about this is what it implies about our knowledge. The blind spot demonstration shows the power of our brains, which is incredible, but it’s also a reminder about the limitations of what we can know through perception. My brain is working hard and doing a great job at patching up that image and drawing the line right through the blind spot when that dot disappears, but it doesn’t change the fact that the dot disappears. True, if I stayed in that particular arrangement forever, never moving my eyes, I’d never realize that what I was seeing was not the whole picture. The whole thing seems accurate and truthful– but it’s not. The brain may continue the patterns, but it fails to perceive the big honking black dot in front of it. What we see is not always how it is.

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