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).