Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election 2008

I've been out of the States for the last three elections. In 2000 I was in Toronto. I was a bit let down by the result, but I kind of expected it. Also, I had no idea that Bush was going to be such a disaster. After all, in his first campaign, he ran as a moderate conservative.

The 2004 election was pretty heartbreaking. All day, while I was working in the basement of Massey College, Toronto, the exit polls were showing a Kerry win, but when I went out at night to a bar to watch the coverage, the reality began to become clear. Then Ohio and Florida fell and it was all over. I remember feeling like the floor was falling out from under me. I was surrounded by Canadians, who cared but didn't care nearly enough, who had not voted and were already showing signs of retreating to their precious moral high-ground from which they could smugly claim that such things would never happen in the safer, saner Northern America.

Japan was a great time zone to watch from but it was a bit strange culturally. Ken was aware of the historical significance of the election, but a lot of my Japanese friends just didn't understand why it was so important - why I was so excited. The East Coast polls started to close about midday through my workday on the 5th. By the time I was done with work, it was clear that Barack Obama would be declared the president elect of the United States.

When I got off work, I went to an international bar to meet some friends and celebrate with other Americans. Everyone was excited and it was the first time in years that I felt really proud to be an American.

While I watched Obama giving his speech, I cried. I also heard a line that made me realize why I felt so proud - that reminded me what it is that I do believe in about America. Obama said,

The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but from the enduring power of our ideals - democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

In fact, for regular people who aren't American citizens, maybe even for a lot of regular American citizens, these are the only things that can really be regarded as America's strength. When we move so far away from these ideals, appearing to turn our backs on them - as has happened often in our history - we become a hollow mockery of ourselves.
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
- W. Shakespeare

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Waseda Interview

This weekend I went up to Tokyo to interview for a professorship in the history of science at Waseda University.

Now I have interviewed at wealthy private schools in both the US and Japan, and the experiences were very different. At Caltech, everything was paid for by the school, at Waseda, I paid my own travel expenses. At Caltech, the interviewing process lasted from eight in the morning until eight in the evening, at Waseda, it was over in an hour and forty five minutes. At Waseda, I was never told any one's names, at Caltech, I learned the names of over fifteen people and struggled to try to remember them. At Waseda, I wore a tie, at Caltech, I did not.

This picture below kind of sums up my feeling about the whole thing. I went into the front office and bumbled through a conversation in Japanese in which they used various words that I didn't understand, but eventually we got everything straightened out.

Then they took me to a lecture room so that I could set up my laptop for overhead projection. After everything was set up they took me to another classroom to wait by myself while the selection committee went into the first room. They told me it would be about half an hour, but since I forgot my watch in the other room, it felt like an eternity. It was, in fact, as I found out when I was shown back into the original room, exactly half an hour.

Everyone was seated when I went in. I was asked to introduce myself, which I did. Then I gave a 30 minute mock lecture that I had practiced every evening for the preceding week, and which, consequently, went well. This was followed by a fifteen minute question and answer period. There were a few simple questions in Japanese, that I answered in Japanese and one more complicated question in Japanese that I answered in English, but thankfully most of the questions were in English. But the fifteen minutes went by in a blur and then it was over. Everyone filed out. On the way out, one British professor (who had been sure to point out that Eton is spelled Eton, not Eaton), asked me if I was going back to Osaka that night. I said I was, and that was that.

In the main Tokyo station I noticed these annoying benches. They reminded me of some benches that Mike Davis talks about in his social history of Las Angeles, City of Quartz (1990). Apparently, the city of LA was trying to discourage homeless people from sleeping on the benches in certain parts of the city so they designed them with curved seats, so that you could sit on them but you couldn't lay down on them for any length of time.

Well, the Tokyo transportation system has taken it to a new level. Here you see some benches that you can lean on but they're specially designed so that you can't actually sit on them. Tokyoites, however, can sleep standing up on a crowded train so they should actually have no trouble sleeping on these leaner benches.