Tuesday, August 25, 2009


At the beginning of the summer vacation, I went to the meeting of the International Commission of the History of Science and Technology, which was in Budapest this year. I stayed in a small hotel across the Danube from the meeting. The venue was a technical university that faced the river from the Buda side. You can see the university in the picture below.

The conference was the biggest international meeting for historians of science. There were a fair number of talks that I wanted to hear but, because they were running ten or so multiple sessions, I wasn't able to see all of them. It was good to see some of my old teachers and colleagues who I haven't seen for a while and to meet, for the first time, colleagues whose scholarship I've been reading for years

In between sessions, and during a few dead periods, I was able to get out and explore the city. Budapest is both splendid and squalled at the same time. Here you see the parliament building, which is on the Pest side, from the turrets of an old fortress on the Buda side.

Budapest was once the two cities of Buda and Pest, separated by the massive Danube and from time to time making war on one another.

It's hard to get a sense from these pictures of just how huge the Danube is. In Budapest, the river is spanned by numerous bridges.

One of the most prevalent features of central part of the city are the 19th century apartment buildings.

Here's one that looks like it's from the early 20th century.

Years of communist rule, however, have taken their toll and many neighbourhoods are impoverished and the buildings in a state of disrepair.

With the new influx of borrowed money, there is construction going on at slow pace everywhere throughout the city. Here's a typical street that they've ripped up and don't seem to be in any hurry to refinish.

The Hungarians are famous for being a mathematical nation. I took this button panel in the elevator of my hotel as evidence of the mathematical disposition of even the average Hungarian.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summer Vacation

I survived my first semester at Waseda. There have been many strange things to get used to but I has been going by so fast that I hardly have time to take them all in. Maybe a few examples will help.

When I first started I was asked to go to the clinic associated with the university for a check up. I was given a thorough examination and a few days later received a ten page report in the mail. The final conclusion was that I had a hearing loss and should go to an ear doctor and that I had high blood cholesterol (I had to look that Japanese term up) and should go back to talk to the examining doctor about the situation. A weeks days later I received a very polite email from someone in the human resources department saying that she had seen the report and would I please eat lots of intense vegetables (濃い野菜, the adjective usually means strong in the sense of taste or color) and do things like walking and then take another test in the summer holiday. I found it endearing that they would take such concern, but on the other hand I was relieved that I didn't have anything embarrassing that they could have found out about.

Our library is generally in a fairly deplorable state for what I'm teaching. I was going to set an assignment on eugenics, so I searched in the library catalogs to see what they had. In this case I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had many books in both Japanese and Western languages on the various eugenics movements. What was a bit peculiar, however, was that in addition to some ten or twenty books of modern scholarship there were also some hindered or so books on race, race purification and straightforward racism, mostly written in the interwar period. Given the situation, however, this is understandable. If I were Japanese in the 1920s and I was aware that someone had written books with titles like The Mongol in Our Midst : A Study of Man and His Three Faces or Our Testing Time : Will the White Race Win Through?, I would want to know what they were about as well. 

I have also had to come to grips with teaching undergraduates in their first and second years many of whom come from very different backgrounds from anything I previously imagined. I repeated realized that I was taking too much for granted. In one of the most extreme situations a student told me a week before the paper was due that she had not had time to read my long and detailed instructions on how to write a paper, but that she had decided to write her (five page) paper on the relationship between the role of determinism in the collapse of civilizations and the extinction of species and for her sources she had two textbooks, one on ancient civilizations and one on biological speciation and extinction. I told her that this sounded a bit grandiose and that moreover she should try to find some sources that dealt with her topic directly and which were not textbooks. Next, a week before her paper was due, she sent me an email explaining that she had changed her mind, that she would now write on The History of Astronomy and that her paper would have the following form: 1. Before Christ, 2. After Christ, 3. Modern Astronomy, 4. Technology in Astronomy and 5. The Future of Astronomy. I replied that this sounded like a bit much and, moreover, that I wasn't sure where she had derived this periodization but that it wasn't particularly sound. Luckily, in the end she turned in a reasonably good paper on the history of astronomy in ancient Greece. 

And finally, for some pictures and general weirdness. Here's the sign to the men's sink in a department store in Akihabara (秋葉原). The Japanese just means "face-washing" and is probably just an abrivation for the word for sink (洗面台).

In Ueno (上野) there's a shop called Powwow, run by some Japanese people that sell American Indian stuff. It has all manner of products of dubious taste...

... and a ridiculous sign. I got into an argument with my friend Nathan, who's half Maori, about whether or not this sign is racist. He maintained that in order for something to be racist the people involved had to have some clue about the racial conflict, the social context. He pointed out that the people running this shop obviously had no idea about anything to do with Native Americans, other than some fantasy they had concocted based on media and such, and they were totally obliviousto the meanings behind these things. I can kind of see his point, but whatever you want to call it, it's pretty creepy.

Finally, the curiously named Spo-Vege, short for "sport vegetables," which promises the power of vegetables for a body doing sports (スポーツするカラダに、野菜のチカラを).  


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New Apartment

I finally moved into a new apartment at the end of last month. It is a large place for Tokyo, but it was reasonably priced because it's in an old building and about ten to fifteen minutes walk from a decent train station (and about two minutes from a crappy one). But it's really near the university, so it's fine for me.

A sign of the state of my Japanese is that I was able to do the transaction and set everything up entirely in Japanese. This included getting optical fiber pulled to the apartment and a number of calls to the internet company in which I managed to be an annoying prick on the phone while still maintaining all the superficial forms of politeness - a distinguishing characteristic of my phone manner with customer service representatives. (In the interest of the full truth, I should point out that this phone manner is not particularly effective, but somehow I find it too satisfying to change.)

This is the room that I was going to use as my bedroom, but it is just above a large road with a train track down the middle and is INSANELY LOUD. I have found that I can get some work done in it, however, so I'm going to turn it into a study with a couch and screen for watching movies.

The only green that you can see from the place is actually an old school Japanese style garden with landscaped lakes, little bridges, benches and the whole bit. It belongs to a shrine but it's open to the public and has a park for kids at one of the entrances.

Here's the little side street behind the place, which the main door of the building opens out onto.

Here's the Google Map location.

View Larger Map

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dormitory life

It's hard to believe I've been in Tokyo for almost two months. Classes are moving at a brisk pace, and what with with prep, writing and trying to keep up with my Japanese, I haven't had much time to get out and see the city.

I moved into my more permanent temporary apartment at the end of April. It's tiny and although it has a bathroom and a small kitchenette, it's basically a dorm room. I don't even have enough space to unpack all my stuff, and my clothes are in stacks all over the place. But I just don't have the time, or the inclination, to move somewhere else at the moment.

I've got a fairly good routine down for now. Since I only have to teach classes three days a week, I am able to get in about two full days of work a week. This means that I've been able to get more done than I thought I would.

The library - shown above - is fairly good but still a far cry from great for the stuff I need. On the other hand, I can get whatever I want through interlibrary loan pretty quickly because there are a fair number of large libraries in Tokyo.

Waseda itself feels very much like a large private university. There is far more in the way of school spirit type stuff than what you get at most Canadian universities and it has all the quirks of a private school - such as ideosyncratic systems that are only marginally functional and which are justified by vague appeals to the "Waseda way of doing things."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Getting out

Deborah was in town over the weekend, so I took the excuse to take some time off and see a bit more of Tokyo.

On Sunday we went out to Odaiba island (お台場), which was once the fort protecting Tokyo's harbor and is now a huge man-made island devoted entirely to entertainment and shopping.

It's basically just one massive mall after another with rides, movie theaters and museums scattered in here and there. We went to Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (日本科学未来館) - which had some exhibits on robots and nanotechnology that were pretty cool.

There was also a quintessentially Japanese activity going on at the southern end of the island. There was some kind of organized event for the fans of idol girls to take photo shoots of their favorite girls. There were packs of older men, all in their 50s to 60s, with expensive cameras taking photos of different girls. The men all had little yellow ribbons that marked them as participants in the event and the girls were doing various pin-up like poses for them. There were also organizers walking around with yellow arm bands that marked them variously as organizers, security and such.

On the way back, we saw this man-hole cover in front of the JR Shinbashi Station (新橋). The caption literally says fire extinguisher plug, or cap. I guess it means fire hydrant.

I've finally got my office all set up. I needed a set of file drawers, a little table for my printer and a white board. I talked to various people about this but we ran into a bit of a problem with funding regulations and it was unclear, who, if anyone was responsible for paying for it, and such purchases were clearly ruled out by the stipulations of my research grant.

So me and the general office manager did what one would do in such a circumstance at any university. We went over to the building that the department had just moved out of, talked to the janitorial staff (who, in Japanese, have a much more elevated title), and together rummaged the place for abandoned furniture. The head janitor took us around to various places where he thought he remembered that stuff like that was, but he was pretty old and I guess his memory isn't what it used to be. Eventually, we did find most of what we were looking for and the janitor assured us he would let us know when he found the other stuff. Sure enough, the next day, the moving company brought everything to my office.

In the background of this photo, you can see building 11, which houses our department and the School of Commerce. The faculty offices are on the top floor.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

New Office

The moving company arrived this morning at nine o'clock, exactly as they said they would. After I witnessed the unsealing of the seal, they very quickly put everything in the front room, as I had told them, handed me an official receipt made out to the University and left.

I then made my way back over to the department. When I got there, I saw that the boxes of loaner slippers had disappeared. There were still a lot of slippers lying around, however, so I asked the guys at the front if I could go in with my shoes on. They said that I could either use the slippers or my shoes, as I pleased. I wore my shoes.

At the main office of the department, I introduced myself in rather formal Japanese, saying "Hello, I am S, who has been entrusted into the care of this department" (こんにちは、こちらにお世話になることになりましたSですが). This may sound a bit extreme, but it was regarded as the appropriate sort of thing to say at this juncture by the woman at the desk, who gave a little bow. I then asked if my contact person was in, but he had seen me come in, or something, and was already on his way over.

He welcomed me and took me to a conference room in the back, to sign the contract. While he was getting the contract papers, I took this picture of the main quad of the campus. The statue is of Okuma Shigenobu, the samurai scholar who founded the university in 1882. Somehow, signing the contract in my own shoes felt more dignified to me.

After signing the contract, I was given the key to my new office, which is on the top floor of the building with the other faculty offices. In Japanese, a professor's office is called a research room (研究室), and that is certainly what mine looks like.

I borrowed a moving dolly from the logistics company, and spent the afternoon bringing my research books into my new research room. My teaching books will arrive from Canada in the next few days.

By the time I decided to call it quits, I had everything divided into subject piles, but nothing really put away. I also had a list of things the office needed.

I'm not sure about the logistics, but hopefully I can get back in on Sunday.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Osaka to Tokyo

Well, I moved - and none too soon, because after spending about six months excavating the lot across from my balcony and apparently finding nothing, they decided to put up a new wing of the national hospital. Now, instead of the Naniwa-no-miya park, this is all you can see out of my old window.

I wont miss the sound of the construction, but I will miss the sound of the kids playing after school. Look at how tiny those kids are. I don't really understand how they can make as much noise as a construction site, but they do.

I don't know if there is anyone reading this blog who doesn't already know, but I accepted a tenure track professorship at Waseda University (早稲田大学). So, I'm posting this from a faculty apartment near the Waseda campus in Tokyo's Shinjuku-ku. Actually, this apartment is just a temporary place for a few weeks, before they move me to another faculty apartment that is right in the middle of campus. (If you click on the "view larger map" link below, you can go to street view and see my apartment building. It's the off-white building besides the parking lot and across the street from the construction sight.)

View Larger Map

Needless to say, it has been a busy couple of weeks. I was going to my Japanese classes right up until my last day in Osaka. My teachers wanted me to make a speech in Japanese. I tried to get out of this in various ways, including telling them that I had no time outside of class to prepare the speech - which was true. They were undeterred by this, however, and simply cleared up class time for me to work on it. I wanted to do something kind of original, as opposed to a self-introduction or a trivial cross-cultural comparison, which is the standard fare for such speeches. I ended up doing a simplified version of the story of Fred Marshall's pumpkin harvest. After a few rounds of revisions, my teachers decided the speech was ready, and then told me they were going to make a video of it and play it at the graduation party, which I would, happily, miss.

After a fairly humiliating morning of repeatedly recording the fifteen minute story until my teachers were satisfied that I had made no major pronunciation slips and had expressed what they regarded as fitting sentiment at the appropriate moments, I rushed home to finish packing in time for the moving company, who came that afternoon. The movers themselves were as organized as one can imagine. I had a bunch of extra boxes from a different moving company, and when I was asking my movers if they wanted them, they told me they would take the extra boxes for free, but that they could also take my full garbage bags for ¥300 a bag. Since my trash wasn't properly separated, this seemed like a better idea than facing the wrath of the old lady who was in charge of berating me about constantly failing to follow the many rules of the apartment building - most of which were unwritten, but were somehow understood by her as obvious.

The movers put all my stuff in a my own gated cage inside the moving tuck and then closed the gate and sealed it with a paper seal. They asked me to come down to the truck and witness the sealing of the cage. After I affirmed that I had, indeed, seen the cage so sealed, they told me that could witness the opening of the seal in Tokyo. I told them that I was much obliged, and there was some minor bowing and a number of thanks were said.

I spent the night at Chie's and then returned to the apartment in the morning to clean. The guy who had checked the place for damage a week before had told me just to clean it lightly, since they would clean it anyway after I left, so that's what I did. Then Chie and I had lunch together, she walked me to the station, and I took the bullet train to Tokyo. It rained all day.

The rain was heavy when I arrived in Tokyo. I didn't really know what to do, so I just walked to the address of my new place. It was just an apartment building and there was no one around. I called one of the numbers posted for the management and told them I had a reservation for that day. Then I told them I had just arrived so I had no key. Then they understood that I was a new tenant who had no idea what he was doing and they directed me to a main building where I signed a contract an was given a key.

After I dropped off my bags, I went to the new offices of my department, the School for International Liberal Studies (国際教養学部). Our department has just been moved into a huge, brand new building. Actually, the move is still in progress, so there are protective covers all over the floors and the walls to protect the building from furniture damage. (This is a standard practice in any move in Japan.)

Moreover, for reasons that I do not entirely understand the moving company had provided boxes of slippers, one for public use and one reserved for moving company employees, at the front entrance of the building. Near the boxes many people had left their own shoes. I could read the signs and see all the shoes, but somehow I couldn't really believe it. As I was standing there wondering what to do, however, a woman came out of the building wearing bright blue loaner slippers and carrying her own shoes.

So I took off my shoes, put on a pair of general-use loaner slippers and shuffled in, to see if I could get the key to my new office. Our main office, however, was already closed. I thought they would be, but since Japanese work late anyways, I had decided I would go in and see. Actually, I could see people still working through the curtains but they had posted a sign stating that they were closed and to please come back tomorrow. Anyway, it had been a long day, and now I was wearing bright green loaner slippers, so I decided to just call it a night.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The National Hospital

There's a National Hospital right across the street from me. I see it every day but I few weeks ago I got the influenza, so I walked over for a check-up. Apparently, the influenza that I had was the real deal, because I was so out of it that I couldn't leave my place for days on end. I kept thinking that I should go out and get some food and maybe go to the hospital, but then I would think that maybe I should just rest for a little bit first and proceed to wake up like six hours later.

At one point, I emailed a friend and asked her to bring me some food. She bought a huge bag of food and left it in front of my door, but unfortunately there was altogether too much in the way of fish and seaweed to really satisfy my idea of comfort food, so I couldn't eat much of it.

The next day, I decided to email an American friend. I told him I wanted American style comfort food, but something light. He brought me rice that was topped with a breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet all smothered in beef gravy. Somehow, it was only when I saw the food that I remembered he was a Texan.

When I woke up in the mid-morning of the following day, I hadn't eaten for quite a while and my fever still hadn't broken so I decided that I really had to go to the hospital. I didn't know the procedure, so I just took my heath card and wandered over. I went up to the information desk and told them that I had come to the hospital suddenly with some kind of sickness. It was kind of an oblique way of putting it, so the lady asked me if I wanted a medical examination. She used the technical term, which in theory I should have known. It's not a term I hear much or ever really use, however, and, being American, it didn't occur to me that you could just walk into a hospital and request a medical examination, so I just sort of stared at her blankly. Then she asked me if I had come to visit someone at the hospital or for a medical examination. I told her that I hadn't come to visit anyone so I guess I had come for a medical examination. This time, I used the technical term.

Then she led me to another desk, where they gave me a sign in sheet. There were boxes where you could just choose what department you needed. You could just go right ahead and make a check for surgery or the cardiovascular clinic, or whatever. I knew the Kanji for most of these words because there was a section in one of my textbooks on hospitals and their departments. Nevertheless, I wasn't really sure what box was best for me, so I told the guy at the desk that I had a fever and a headache and he told me that I should probably go to internal medicine.

If there were an award for the Most Adorable Doctor In the World, my internal medicine Doctor could surely be a contender. She was tiny and seemed much, much too young to be a doctor - maybe like a 12 or 13 year old girl who was playing dress up. There was team of nurses who took all my statistics and laid me out on one of the gurneys. The Doctor, who seemed far and away to be the youngest person in the room, would come talk to me for a while and then go and type furiously at a computer on the other side of the room. Sometimes I had the feeling she was only humoring me. At one point she told me that if I wanted she could give me an intravenous transfusion. I didn't know the term for an intravenous transfusion so I asked about that. She made some gestures and gave a fairly graphic description, and I asked if she really thought that would be necessary. She said that she didn't.

About an hour later, they sent me home with a medication for the fever and another for the flue. Taking those medications, I started to recover by the evening.

I'm back in Japanese school again, for two hours every day. This time it's a completely different experience. Now, I can actually understand everything the teachers say, and I can articulate my questions about whatever I don't know. We're moving too fast for me to retain everything again, but I can put the new constructions into use right away and I understand fairly well what they mean. Still, I have the constant feeling that even though I am slowly climbing, I'm at the base of a huge, and still largely unseen, mountain.

Here are a couple pictures of some otaku bikes at a local bike show.

Check out Little Busters. Bike geeks, anime style.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Washington D.C.

In the second week of January, I went to the US capital to give a talk in the history session of the Joint Mathematics Meeting of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematics Association of America. This is sort of an ideal setting for a historian of mathematics. The meeting itself is huge with over 2000 talks, and the history session has one of the larger rooms, seating some 250 people. Since many mathematicians are interested in the history of their discipline, the room is usually close to full.

I was mostly busy with the conference, but my colleague Toke and I did get out to see some of the monuments and a few of the museums in the Smithsonian Institution. Actually, the only patriotic thing I did was visit the Lincoln memorial.

It was a dreary day and as we were walking back towards the museums it started to rain. I didn't even bother to go look at the White House. After all, I've seen it a million times in photos and movies, and I wasn't planning on going inside.

The Smithsonian Institution was really amazing. There must be around 20 museums, all of which are free and really well presented. One could spend days wandering around them and still not see everything. We only saw a fraction of the holdings of the few that we had time to visit. As well as having the money to put up first class exhibits, the Institution also possesses a fair number of original items from all over the world.

Below you see the Hope Diamond.

In the Air and Space Museum, there are spaceships and planes from all over the world hanging from the ceilings, including the original Wright Brothers 1903 flyer and one of the joint Soviet and US space stations.

Here's a picture of one of the top of the high end bikes made by the Wright Brothers in the bicycle shop where they built the first plane.