Saturday, July 23, 2011

Heart like a Crystal: Francisco de Osuna and the Tenth Recollection

As part of my M.St. I carried out some research for an essay on a famous Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Catholic Church in: Visions Within: Spiritual Development and the Evolution of Imagery in Teresa of Ávila's The Interior Castle. Among the images that most caught my eye were descriptions of the interior of the heart, likened to a crystal, which is introduced at the start of her book:

I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions. (I,i,1)

... and in the centre and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul. (I,i,3)

In my brief analysis I mentioned the profound influence of Tercer Abecedario (Third Spiritual Alphabet), written by a near-contemporary, Fray Francisco de Osuna, who was born a couple of decades before St. Teresa. However, although I had learnt that he had used imagery, owing to time constraints I hadn't pursued this beyond a reference to fortification.

Yet the name of this Franciscan friar lodged in the back of my mind. A year later I was helping out on a Buddhist meditation retreat at the Ladywell Retreat and Spirituality Centre belonging to the Catholic order of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood. Whilst there I wandered into the library and I came across The Third Spiritual Alphabet, a translation into English by a Benedictine of Stanbrook (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1931). I read a few paragraphs about the basic matter of personal conduct and was impressed by the sound practical advice, which seemed similar to advice for bhikkhus.

So I decided to look for a copy of this edition. It's not so easy to find, but fortunately I managed to trace one in a local shop, St Philips Books, St. Aldates, Oxford, and promptly went in person where it was duly found on a shelf, though somewhat tucked away. There is a more recent translation by the Paulist Press, New York, but I felt inclined to the earlier publication. One feature of the 1931 edition is that there are detailed footnotes that link this work with that of St. Teresa.

Yesterday, I took the Third Spiritual Alphabet with me on a ramble towards Chilswell, found a quiet spot and browsed. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the processes of recollection, especially where he writes in the Sixth Treatise:

There now remains only the tenth manner of re-collecting or gathering together God and the soul - the end for which it has aimed by all its recollection. This truly takes place when the divine Light infuses itself into the soul as into glass or crystal, sending forth as a Sun the rays of its love and grace that penetrate the heart after having first been received in the highest point of the spirit. This is followed by the most perfect recollection which unites and collects together God with the soul and the soul with God.

The footnote notes the relationship to St. Teresa's thoughts:

This passage is strongly suggestive of The Interior Castle: 'It is very important for us, sisters, that we should not consider our soul to be in darkness.' (Castle, vi, viii, 4). Like Osuna, S. Teresa compares God to the sun. This idea is maintained throughout the Castle. Speaking of the darkness of the crystal caused by sin, she writes: 'Notice that it is not the fountain and brilliant sun that lose their splendour and beauty, for they are placed in the very centre of the soul and cannot be deprived of their lustre. The soul is like a crystal in the sunshine over which a thick black cloth has been thrown, so that however brightly the sun may shine, the crystal can never reflect it (Castle, M. i, ch. ii, 3).

This observation has striking parallels with the Buddha's description of the mind's quality as pabhassara citta a Pali term meaning 'luminous' or 'brightly shining'. There is indeed a very brief sutta called the Pabhassara Sutta (A i. 10) which indicates the mind is actually inherently "luminous". A 20th Century meditation master, Phra Acariya Mun Bhuridatta Thera emphasizes this in his teachings, 'A Heart Released':

The mind is something more radiant than anything else can be, but because counterfeits — passing defilements — come and obscure it, it loses its radiance, like the sun when obscured by clouds. Don't go thinking that the sun goes after the clouds. Instead, the clouds come drifting along and obscure the sun.

Many Buddhist meditation methods make use of associations of clarity and luminosity to lead the mind towards purity. In the Dhammakaya tradition, we often use a crystal sphere. It's relatively easy to visualize and provides a focus in which to distil feelings, perceptions, mental recollections and consciousness. Placing this at the centre of the body is especially significant as it provides a gateway to the Middle Way. It's only the beginning of a long process leading to successively to great clarity and more refined forms of radiance, at each stage enabling the mind to identify and overcome subtler forms of defilement. The benefits of a crystal ball are further explained for practitioners.

There is growing contemporary interest in Christian mystics; it has notably opened up opportunities for fruitful dialogue among monastics of different religious traditions. Now the spheres of such meditative practices have been ostensibly widened into society more generally, particularly in academic circles. I am wondering whether the reflections of Fray Francisco de Osuna may be found to have relevance and to be a source of inspiration at The Cave of the Heart: Contemplation, Mindfulness and Social Renewal, a conference at St. Mary's University College in Twickenham.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Children's Dhamma: Kruba Srivichai

the cover for Children's Dhamma, Vol. 4 No.1, published by the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara

I went to school in Birmingham between 1980 and 1987. Around that time, the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara published Children's Dhamma for younger members. Reflecting the multiple traditions, there were contributions from Zen and Tibetan practitioners as well as from Theravadins.

I would like to highlight an article from March 1984 written by my mother about Kruba Srivichai, a Thai monk, whose exemplary life she probably got to learn about whilst growing up in Thonburi. He may not be so well known now, so I reproduce what she wrote about him here. But this is just the first article - there was more to follow. I must have another delve into the family papers to see if I can find the sequel...

Kruba Srivichai

by Fuengsin Trafford

Kruba Srivichai was one of the most famous monks of Northern Thailand. He was an inspiration to many and was revered by thousands of monks, nuns and laymen, from cities, towns, villages and the hill-tribes. Under his guidance they came together and volunteered to rebuild, repair and restore many beautiful pagodas and temples and the roads leading to them.

They worked very hard and brought their own food. Some people gave money, food and transport. As a result of their good work magnificent ancient buildings and pagodas which had been destroyed in the war were restored to their former glory.

Kruba Srivichai's work can be found throughout the north in an area which at one time was known as "the Kingdom of Laannaa Thai".

This remarkable monk led a very holy life, and worked very hard for the Buddha-Dhamma, and he was a good example to many. In the eyes of his followers he had a kind of supernatural quality but this he always denied, saying he was just an ordinary monk. After his death his fame spread further and he was called the "Saint of Laannaa Thai".

Kruba Srivichai was born on the 11th. June 1878, (the Year of the Tiger), in a small village outside the Province of Lumpoon, called Baan Paang. He was the fourth child and had four brothers and sisters. His parents were poor and lived on a small farm which was surrounded by very high hills and thick forests. It was said that on the night just before he was born the bright moon was suddenly darkened by a cloud and there was thunder and lightening. There was also an earthquake which shook the family's cottage. In those days this was thought to be a very good omen for a saintly person's birth. The baby was given the name "Faa Hong" which means thunder.

At the age of seven Faa Hong was very good and quiet and did not enjoy playing with children of his own age. He was very kind, never harmed animals and looked after the family's buffaloes very well. Once he freed the fish which hie father had caught and kept in a jar of water. He showed deep compassion for every creature. He refused to eat meat and was content to have rice and a variety of chilli sauces for his meals. The young boy's favourite chore was to take the buffaloes to graze in a quiet and lonely field, he would then sit under a tree and contemplate. He loved to visit Wat Baan Paang, a local temple which was situated on the edge of a hill; the Abbot was called Kru Baa Kaat. According to his name he was a respected monk who had been studying and practising the Dhamma.

Faa Hong was set on going to school at Wat Baan Paang, the local education centre in those days. He was also inspired by the monk's behaviour and way of life. Having watched his brother's ordination he was even more impressed, and later asked his parents permission to be ordained. When he was asked why he wanted to become a monk, he said it was not because he wanted to run away from the hard life of a farmer, but that he wanted to study the Dhamma and gain merit for a better rebirth for his parents. His parents were very happy to hear this and granted his wish. So Faa Hong was ordained a Samanera (novice) when he was just eighteen years old.

The new Samanera worked very hard and studied the local alphabets which were written on palm leaves. He also studied Pali and Sanskrit so that he could read the scriptures.

Over a year later Samanera Faa Hong had mastered all the local languages and went on to study the Dhamma and Vipassana Meditation. Almost every day he went up to the top of the hill to sit in solitude surrounded by all kinds of plants and trees.

Two years passed and Samanera Faa Hong was twenty one years old. He was ordained a Bhikkhu and given the Pali name "Siri Vichyo". People prefered to call him "Phra (monk) Sri Vichai".

His teacher noticed the young monk's dedication and unblamable conduct and sent him to a superior teacher called "Kru Baa Upala" at Doi Tae to study meditation. It was the first time he had left home having a difficult journey on foot and by cart. It took several days to reach the temple although it was in the same province.

His new teacher was soon impressed with the young monk's excellent memory and undivided attention. One year later Phra Sri Vichai finished his studies and went back to Wat Baan Paang. By then his reputation for being a most worthy monk had spread. He ate only one meal a day and was a vegetarian.

Three years later the Abbot passed away and Phra Sri Vichai was appointed Abbot.

Baan Paang village was surrounded by many Hill Tribes, and they lived in the high hills and forests nearby. These people were very poor and badly needed medical care. Phra Sri Vichai had great compassion for them and wanted to teach them the Dhamma, and make them see how foolish it was to worship spirits, and took inspiration from the Buddha who used to travel to many places to teach all kinds of people. So Phra Sri Vichai went into the forests and hills to teach, spending a few days in each village. He also healed many people with herbal medicines. These people soon realised that his medicine was more help than the spirits. He spent a month amongst the tribes and soon mastered all their languages. More and more of the Hill Tribe people e.g. Maeu, Yau, Karen, Leesaw, etc. became Buddhists and the great monk's fame spread. Many people sent their sons to be ordained by him, and to stay at Wat Baan Paang and study the Dhamma. ---

--- to be continued.

A couple of others articles, with photos:

For further interesting articles for youngsters, please read Children's Dhamma Volume 4, No. 1. (scanned copy in PDF format).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On the Yanaka Heritage Trail

I had a couple of free days whilst in Tokyo and was able to wander at leisure on the Sunday (3rd July). On browsing through the Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo, I found a section on walking tours that highlighted some earlier traditions and environs around Nippori, Yanaka and Ueno. So after breakfast I took the train on the JR Yamanote line towards Ueno. For convenience my academic hosts had suggested I use a SUICA charge card so that I didn't have to try and figure out fare stages indicated on the maps above the ticket vending machines. I found it convenient as it was accepted on all the train and metro services I used, but it doesn't provide discounts and so is not economical for large numbers of trips (see e.g. this helpful guide).

Still somewhat struggline with jetlag, I started dozing off on the train. Next thing I knew the train had stopped at Nishi Nippori so I jumped out of the carriage and exited the station, under the bridge and onto the western side. Once again I wasn't exactly sure of the route to take, so ambled along up an adjoining street:

Nishinippori rail station (looking North)

According to a Japanese friend, the yellow sign means something like "Safety Street" - but we don't know if that's descriptive or prescriptive! Anyway, on I went and soon came to the corner of a park, which provides a pleasant natural environment with its shade very welcome at this time of the year.

Nishi Nippori park

This area is known for stray cats and we're not supposed to encourage them:

Do not feed the cats!

Perched on a small hill, Nippori and its surrounds have been attractive to settlers for many centuries. It's now a heritage trail, one of 23 designated historical walks in Tokyo.

Pathway to History and Culture

Even today there are some good vantage points offering extensive views, which show carefully cultivated cultural areas merged into rambling urban landscapes:

Cemetery, Nishi Nippori, and the urban backdrop

The initial impression may be a bit disappointing - it may seem to lack overall planning (and made me wonder what kind of permission would be needed for development). However, on reading a little more about Tokyo's urban planning, I came across a plausible explanation which describes how the reconstruction of Tokyo after the Second World War was by necessity implemented at a neighbourhood level using the existing urban 'typology', covering the streets in rich areas and poor. Hence especially the populated inner city areas can appear as a whole rather higgledy-piggledy. I think this is conveyed well in a memo about urban development (Matias Echanove).

Along this trail one can find quite a number of temples and shrines dating to the Edo period and were (as far as I could make out) either Shinto or Buddhist. Many had connections with other more rural parts of the country, sometimes with connections to mountains. The following poster, for a Shinto shrine, is an example:

Poster for Shinto shrine

I know little about Shinto, and whilst sorting through my photos I've had to look things up. After a while I came to recognize a number of distinct features in common. For instance, in the poster you can see some jagged white strips of paper suspended from rope. You encounter these when passing through a Torii gate and shimenawa ring:

Steps to the traditional Torii gate and Shinto shrine

Shimenawa ring

The zigzag strips of white paper are called shime 注連 or gohei, and symbolize purity. They look like lightning, which itself is regarded as holy (and, I expect, may be associated with insight). I saw some visual instructions as to the Shinto ritual for entering the gate: one passes through the ring three times - first moving round to the left, then the right, and then the left ring once more; at each stage, one bows before moving. Finally, one proceeds straight ahead to make an offering and a wish (for prosperity, health etc.). When making an offering one claps loudly to call the attention of the divine beings. There are many online sources of info on Shinto, such as a a shrine guide and Shinto symbols

Along the way, I bumped into two volunteers working on local history projects. They were carrying with them recording equipment and making a podcast for neoKITAKUMIN. Perhaps they interviewed someone at the 'Swiss chalet':

Swiss chalet, Suwadai Dori

I then took a right turn down into Yanaka Ginza, a traditional shopping area with quite narrow streets.

Steps down to Yanaka Ginza

Lots of little shops, many crafts on display, a good place for souvenirs

Basket shop, Yanaka Ginza

The dining places are unusual. I learnt via Google that the following is Iranian:

Zakuro, Yanaka Ginza

It was late morning, so I was actually having an iced coffee in a little cafe opposite. I had lunch later in an Indian restaurant owned by a friendly Nepali, who informed me he had arrived in Tokyo 16 years ago and now had 5 restaurants in the city. It had quite a mixed clientele:

Mother India: Indian restaurant, Yanaka Ginza

Refreshed, I rejoined the trail and explored some Buddhist temples, including a few dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Kuanyin):

Statue of Kannon Bosatsu

Another Bodhisattva, who seemed to appear frequently was Jizo Bosatsu, who is especially a protector of infants. So parents traditionally make offerings for their own newly born.

Statue of Jizo Bosatsu

Often there are 6 Jizo Bosatsus in a row, one for each of the realms of existence (often adorned with red children's garments, such as bibs).

Row of Six Jizo Bosatsu

Some of the wooden temple buildings - here at Kannon-ji temple - remind a little of structures in Thailand:

Kannon-Ji Temple

Not far away, outside another smaller temple, Choanji, I saw a peace pole with its message 'May Peace Prevail on Earth,' which originally came in an inspired moment to Masahisa Goi. They are now found all over the world and are very popular at interfaith gatherings.

It's not a large distance, but there are many interesting aspects, so it's best covered at a slow pace. I spent several hours in the area before accelerating towards Ueno and the Tokyo National Museum, to delve further into the cultural history of Japan.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A class in Game Theory for Management students

My host, Prof. Yukari Shirota, had arranged that whilst at Gakushuin University I would give an undergraduate class in some topic of mathematics to students in the Department of Management. For such a one-off, I had a fairly free hand as to subject matter; what seemed to be considered most valuable for the students was the (rare) opportunity to hear a native speaker of English (though actually I'm ethnically less than half English).

I chose Game Theory, the subject made famous by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in their landmark work, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. I first came across Game Theory whilst at secondary school. In fact I became quite engrossed, venturing into Birmingham Central library to conduct research for an extended essay on a typewriter [yes, it was a long time ago]! I was fascinated by its confluence of mathematics, economics and psychology; the last of these particularly intrigues me. On this occasion my main reference was Games, Theory and Applications (1st edition) by Lyn Thomas, which I used during my own undergraduate studies at Southampton University. For anyone wanting to further their study, I would strongly recommend a textbook like this.

Game Theory as a production of Economics, Mathematics and Psychology

Would you like to explore this topic in this slightly extended post?

Good! So on a Wednesday morning I gave a class in the Multimedia Mathematics series to about 25 4th year undergraduates, kindly assisted by Prof. Shirota who gave explanations (sometimes in English, sometimes in Japanese) and encouragement. Normally there would be hands-on for students, but things were kept simple so that I only had to give a presentation with software demonstrations. I read somewhere some statistic indicating that the Japanese have more slides per presentation than any other nation, so I armed myself with 70+ slides. That's excessive, probably more suitable for 2-3 classes, but I had only one at my disposal and I wanted to share sufficient material to give a reasonable feel of the mathematical methods involved, including inductive reasoning and aspects of probability. I also included quite a few pictures and came up with simple examples to show how many situations in life can be treated as a game - such as growing tomatoes or commuting.

At the same time it was important for me not to rush delivery - speaking more slowly than usual, there was no way I would cover all this material in one go, so I just used a selection of slides, starting with the main concepts and proceeding via a few hops to a couple of famous non-zero-sum case studies, the Prisoner's [really prisoners'] Dilemma and The Battle of the Sexes.

I also had another prop with me - some reasonably authentic-looking notes in Pounds Sterling (Casdon PlayCash that I bought from the local Boswells store). I used it as an ice-breaker:

(Thanks to the American Mathematics Society for this idea, which I first saw on 'Who wants to be a mathematician?' roadshow).

Yes, a £1,000 giveaway! Except it was a bit credit-crunched: as only £937 cash was in the bank, I tried to explain that the British banks are struggling at the moment and a cheque could make up the remainder, £63.

The students were divided into 6 teams, A-F, one team per island, each with a representative. Each team was a 'player'. Teams had to choose a number N>=1; a team that picked the highest number would receive a share of £1000/N. This game had two rounds as follows:

  • Round 1 [slide 3 above]: no communication
    We should have collected pieces of paper; as it was, numbers went something like: 20,50,80,100,50,52.
    Team D won £10.
  • Round 2 [see slide 4]: communication allowed
    Teams chatted about this and quite quickly came to a decision, yielding the optimal result: 1,1,1,1,1,1, so each team gained £1000/6!

I was struck by the smoothness in reaching this outcome (and lack of betrayal among the teams) and think this may reflect a general culture in Japan of collective action and perhaps conformity, something that has helped the country to become such a productive and powerful economy. Quite different from an individualistic view, where it would be seen as problematic. It was later related to me that when someone says, "Ne...?" ("Isn't that so?"), there is often a feeling of obligation to say, "Ne!" ("Yes, that's so."). This would tend to support a culture of opinion leaders and followers. Ne?

In terms of software demonstration, I used mainly two tools, both released under open source licenses. The first was Gambit, which is a dedicated Game Theory suite that provides for the analysis of non-zero-sum games in both normal and extensive form. It has options to carry out computation, particularly of Nash Equilibrium, though one of its current limitations is that it restricts itself to games where players have to choose their moves independently. The other tool was Maxima, a Computer Algebra System, which I used for the graphical visualisation of payoff regions. Maxima by itself has only a command line interface, but it can invoke gnuplot to render graphical output and there is a choice of graphical interfaces: in my case I ran wxMaxima. All these are bundled together in the distribution.

I find the topics of communication and cooperation to be of philosophical interest. A standard definition of a cooperative game is couched in terms of business contracts (in the UK we can think of the Co-op supermarket) and so in such games players are said to enter binding agreements. It is used accordingly as a basic binary categorization and its importance is evident in e.g. providing assurance for the mathematical calculations. However, it means communication becomes secondary and I'd argue that [human] communication is more fundamental - it's what made the huge difference in the giveaway of slides 3 and 4 and to my lay-person's thinking, co-operation was established through a collectively agreed strategy before it became binding. No ties are needed to work together! Communication doesn't imply cooperation, but it usually precedes it.

So, I should issue the caveat that my slides exhibit a natural personal bias to this voluntary sense of cooperation, illustrated, for example in the Battle of the Sexes, in which a young married couple have free time at the weekend for an outing. The only issue is that the husband prefers a sporting venue, whilst his wife prefers a concert (so the story goes), but the bottom line is that they'd both prefer to be together than go there separate ways - see slides 65-71.

In Gambit (using this source file), we can compute the Nash equilibrium points. If we assume x is the probability with which the husband choose the first venue and y is similarly the probability that the wife chooses the first venue, then the expected returns e1 and e2 are given respectively by:

  • e1(x,y)=5xy -4x -4y +4 - (eq1)
  • e2(x,y)=5xy -4x -4y +4 -(eq2)
  • where 0 <=x <=1, 0<= y <=1.

For minimax we set both of these equations to equal the value of the game. Gambit can do the calculation for us. The following screenshot shows the matrix used and underneath three equilibrium points.

Battle of the Sexes: equilibrium points computed in Gambit

The first of the equilibrium points are the respective the minimax strategies. But a value of 4/5 seems rather poor and would suggest - if the payoff matrix is a true reflection - that both 'battlers' will reason that settling on any venue would be better. Indeed, underneath are two other equilibrium points that return expected returns of 1 and 4 and vice versa.

However, the computation of individual points doesn't give a full picture. Just a few lines of Maxima instructions enables us to compute the region covered by all mixed strategies. It generates a 3D parametric plot, and we can initially set the z-axis to be constant, so with a bit of dexterity, you can rotate it to show the following:

Maxima rendering of Battle of the Sexes

The x and y-axes denote the respective expectations for husband and wife. I'm fascinated by the shape: the attentuation to the corners (1,4) and (4,1) - this particular graph reminds me of someone sitting in a hammock! Note that the point (4/5,4/5), which is the expected value of the game under minimax, lies a long way from those corners and it's also nested deeply in the region. It's certainly not on the boundary since in equations 1 and 2 above, if we set x=y=0.5, we get e1(x,y)=e2(x,y)=1.25.

It's a graph that assumes no cooperation, which is not a very optimistic view of a newly wed couple. We'd expect them to work something out in the form of a cooperative strategy, pure or mixed, so that whenever they have an outing they will go to one of these attractions together. If that's the case, then we can simplify the equations so that the (0,0) outcomes are factored out. The resulting graph is a line, the convex closure of the original region:

Maxima rendering of Battle of the Sexes, with convex closure

(Incidentally, I wonder if there is some metric indicating how far one is from cooperation in choosing minimax, perhaps defined in terms of the angle created by the expected returns with pairs of 'pure cooperative' vertices - the smaller the angle, the greater the missed opportunity for cooperation...?)

In the case of the Prisoner's Dilemma there is no minimax strategy. Geometrically, if you plot that graph you get a triangle, i.e. the set of points in Euclidean space is already convex.

Student Response and Feedback

In the event the class listened attentively and concentrated well. The opening game helped to stimulate interest, which they seemed to sustain for the duration. I was informed that they could understand most of what I said, which was a relief since preparing this class felt a bit like navigating in the dark. Certainly a few of the students gave responses that indicated they understood particular concepts. Although I didn't receive questions at the end (same kind of traditional response as Thai and other oriental students), facial expressions were not blank or bemused. This may have been helped in no small measure by Prof. Shirota, who produced (in one evening/night!) a translation into Japanese of some (possibly all?) of the slides. This would also encourage students in further reading and assist them in an assignment - a write-up about the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Whilst at Gakushuin, I also met Prof. Jun WAKO, who is a specialist in Game Theory. I hope he would approve of my presentation, but at least he may now have a few more enquiries from interested students...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Responses to the Japan Earthquake

Ever since the earthquake struck off the East coast of Japan in March, thoughts have been with the people of Japan. Whilst the loss of thousands from the tsunami was already a great tragedy, the factor of uncertainty surrounding the problems precipitated at Fukushima nuclear power plant seem to have cast an even darker cloud.

From my remote vantage point in the UK I naturally wondered about the situation ahead of my visit in July. I didn't really consider the risk until a native resident in Tokyo warned me not to travel, citing various sources that indicated dangerously high levels of radiation. For me to cancel a one week visit whilst 30 million residents had to stay seemed somewhat selfish, but I felt obliged to undertake the research. So I set off trying to understand a bit of theory, with the aid of sites like the ABC's of Nuclear Science, dipping into radiation readings (sometimes accompanied by a chart on levels exposure), and periodic visits to some official sites such as The World Health Organisation's FAQ on Japan's nuclear concerns, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice on travel to Japan, and similarly the US Department of State.

I dipped into the arguments and counter-arguments from nuclear analysts. Among those conveying considerable concern I found Greenpeace and Arnie Gundersen at Fairewinds. I can't really assess his analysis, but he seems generally level-headed, particularly in the way he discussed the delapidated state of each reactor building. At least from this I could be informed about the main concerns: radiation leakage into water supplies (and hence the food chain) and the ingestion and inhalation of tiny radioactive 'hot particles' or 'fuel fleas' ejected into the atmosphere. For these to be valid concerns there would need to be reliable readings and research establishing the linkage in terms of carcinogenic effects. I couldn't find anything conclusive - both are subject to much debate - at least judging by one Google-chosen thread at the Department of Nuclear Engineering, UC Berkeley.

Having read, watched, and pondered, I cannot say I really know. In the event I assessed the severity of the situation as somewhat higher than TEPCO has described, but the risks for my particular visit as relatively low and I actually had some moral feeling that I should go. When I was in Japan I could see how deep the disaster has impacted on society: a particularly poignant aspect has been the departure en masse of people from overseas shortly after the disaster, which was regarded with sadness and disappointment. In practical terms, there's been huge changes in working practices: in order to reduce especially peak energy consumption employees are arriving at work earlier or working at the weekends, air conditioning units are being used sparingly, lifts are reduced in number, many services having to economise. In parallel to this, there is a huge amount of contingency planning - offices and meeting rooms are being cleared out and refurbished so as to install new safer furniture. Japanese people are already used to reconstructing and redefining, but the challenge of this disaster have been particularly severe.

Against this challenge, I would like to highlight the response from Prof. Shirota, the host for my research visit. In her home page for this year, she has written a message for her students, urging them to study hard in the safe environment of Gakushuin. On that page you can see as an immediate response, Prof Shirota is promoting a campaign to send salt supplies to horses abandoned in Minamisōma, Fukushima. In the long term, she is dedicating her life to education and research, motivated by the observation (to paraphrase), "Japan lacks natural resources; to recover from this catastrophe we can only enhance our human resources." I find this really admirable.

Facing life-critical moments become a matter of personal world-view or beliefs. For myself, I try to reflect on the law of Dependent Origination, which gives us karma and rebirth and Buddhist notions of protection. These are fundamentally internal methods of mind-heart development, which can maintain stillness and peace in the face of impermanence. But it may be harder than contingency planning as it needs constant practice.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Research Visit to Gakushuin University

Located towards the northwest of central Tokyo, Gakushuin is a private academic corporation that comprises schools and colleges as well as a university that currently has 9000 students. It is famous in Japan because of its historical connections with the Imperial Court. When I arrived a couple of weeks ago, I found the Mejiro campus spacious and verdent, surprisingly so given its centrality; I was informed that among the universities inside the JR Yamanote loop, it's the second largest after the University of Tokyo.

The present campus, like much of Tokyo, has seen many changes, but among the modern blocks there still remain a few of the older buildings, a little over 100 years old:
University buildings old and new

The modern multi-storey block on the right (East building no. 1?) obviously offers more capacity, but in the distance are some well-maintained old classrooms, cherished by staff and students even today. To the left is the former library building, now housing the Museum of History, graced by a venerable old tree in front of a small pool and foundation:
Venerable tree at the Gakushuin University Museum of History.

However, I wasn't here to be a tourist (although during my week's stay I did have a chance to wander), but rather to explore aspects of e-learning. The opportunity had arisen following earlier exchanges of ideas in the UK: in 2005, Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS) received a visit from Professor Yukari Shirota of the Department of Management, Faculty Economics, Gakushuin University. I arranged for her to give a presentation on some interactive software she had developed that guided students through the study of some topics in mathematics. The system's architecture was based on solution plans to word problems and delivered using an intelligent agent (animated by the Microsoft wizard).

Prof. Shirota is a computer scientist of long-standing - for instance, she co-authored an introduction to UNIX in 1984. During the past decade, Prof. Shirota has been developing e-learning systems to aid in the teaching of mathematics to her Management students. Inspired by George Pólya, her research has been focused on problem solving, invoking techniques in A.I. and especially visualisation, to help make sense of how the formulae and equations are used in word problems in Economics. I was particularly struck by her idea that A.I. might be able replicate the rhythm of instruction from teacher to pupil, quite similar perhaps to the rhythm of communication between a mother and baby. I hadn't come across anything like this thinking in the UK.

More recently, Prof. Shirota's research has concerned the provision of integrated tools that enable academic staff to create a range of online materials to direct students step by step in tackling certain types of questions, particularly in the field of bond mathematics. These systems are typically Web applications with scripts that invoke computer algebra systems such as Maple and Maxima to deliver step by step instructions. Some recent examples of this work are evident in overview of activities for 2011.

With regard to the financial mathematics, Prof. Shirota and her colleagues have used a conceptual approach based on entity-relationship diagrams to relate variables to formulae and equations. So the tasks of understanding may be characterised by being able to visualise and understand this map and its relations. How may that process be best aided online? In its entirety, the complete diagram is too extensive and detailed to show all at once, so any online implementation will need navigation - to focus on particular formulae and relations, but also to 'zoom out' and see the model as a whole. So does this suggest navigating it like, say, Google Earth or some other way based more closely on the relationships?

It's in addressing these considerations that I have been offering some input with my background in mathematics, somewhat distant now, and more recently e-learning and Web development, gained mainly whilst in the Learning Technologies Group at OUCS. Determining effective solutions is a multi-faceted task: its design, especially in terms of user interface, should be soundly rooted in principles of cognition. As I am not trained in educational psychology, I have to deal more with the nuts and bolts of the learning context itself, primarily in terms of the current and emerging technologies. In this regard, I'd say that whilst the emphases in pedagogy vary from country to country, the predominance of personally own computing devices has presented new variables to factor into the education at all levels. It's particularly this phenomenon, which I tend to call mobile and ubiquitous computing, that I was encouraged to explore ahead of my visit in the form of a survey paper on e-learning systems for mathematics, with particular reference to business and economics.

To give some structure in this rather broad landscape, I initially made reference to some recent features of e-learning in the UK. There's a strong focus on learner-centred education; within that I'm particularly interested in processes of deep reflection, stemming from the RAMBLE project I led in mobile blogging and learning environments. I'm not sure about the merits of focusing so much on individual predispositions, but I felt that the work on open educational resources and podcasting as a delivery mechanism was a useful vehicle to illustrate how learning has emerged from being concentrated in a classroom or workshop and flowed out into less formal environments. It was with this image in mind that I developed a thread to show how computer assisted learning for mathematics has similarly emerged from the laboratory into the open and is now squarely aiming at handheld tablet and multi-touch devices.

The paper, whose full title is 'Ubiquitous e-Learning: Designing Web Systems for Economics and Business Mathematics', has been published in Gakushuin Economic papers and is now available online - in HTML and PDF formats.

Arrival in Japan

Lantern at Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), Sensoji

This month I had the opportunity to spend a week in Tokyo (1-7 July), my first time in Japan. I came on a research visit kindly arranged by Professor Yukari Shirota at Gakushuin University. I'll describe the research aspect in a later post, but here I'll just share some initial impressions on my arrival.

Japan has a very distinct cultural identity; it's one of the few countries that retains - at least in many people's perception - a uniqueness that has persisted in spite of its immersion in modern industrialisation and particularly global markets and consumer products. It's famed for its etiquette and politeness and it was as though the whole trip was couched in such ethos from the moment I dropped off my bags at Heathrow, where I had a friendly conversation with the staff of Virgin Atlantic.

We know Japan as 'the land of the rising sun', which is a translation of Nippon. It is fitting in many ways; the heat and humidity in the summer months is quite palpable, certainly sub-tropical, feeling not much different from Thailand. (I feel sympapthy for 'cool biz' workers who have to trade in their jackets and ties for reduced air conditioning, with the government advising units to be set to a minimum temperature of 28 degrees. Even in a land used to construction and reconstruction, there's been a lot of discomforting changes, faced with admirable forbearance.) But it's particularly as the emergence of the hi-tech society, that the sun it such a resonant symbol. It wasn't long before I was struck by its manifestation in rail transport.

On arrival at Narita Airport, there are many options to proceed to the centre of Tokyo. With the aid of a Lonely Planet guide, I had perused various routes to my destination of Mejiro and settled on catching the fastest train service available, the Keisei Skyliner, which can whisk you into heart of the capital in under 40 minutes, followed by a trip on the circular JR Yamanote line. So after collecting my baggage (probably the shortest wait I've had), I bought a ticket for the Skyliner, complete with a seat reservation, another one for the local service, and made my way down to the platform. The train duly arrived:

Keisei Skyliner

As this is the terminus, the train is cleaned before boarding, but there is also a wait for something else: the repositioning of the seats. Just like synchronised swimmers, every passenger seat is rotated in unison, through 180 degrees to face the direction of travel. Once on the train, pre-recorded announcements are given in Japanese (in a singsong voice) and more regular US English. The driver(?) makes only occasional announcements to inform passengers of the location of toilets and where to find refreshments - not the buffet car, but vending machines!

My train was surprisingly not on time. There had been an incident on the line causing congestion, but I was in no hurry, and there was no visible response from the other passengers. I disembarked at Nippori station, (mis)fed my Skyliner ticket into a turnstile, plucked out the other ticket and after enunciating "Me-ji-ro" to a couple of station staff I found the right platform. Shortly before midday I emerged from Mejiro station, into broad daylight and my first steps on Tokyo soil outside the transport system!

Entrance to Mejiro JR station

Initially a little disorientated, I established my bearings once I spotted the Northwest entrance to Gakushuin University.

North-West entrance to Gakushuin University

This made me feel I really had reached my destination. With the aid of a map and directions from the porter at the gate, I subsequently made my way to the Faculty of Economics, met Prof. Shirota, and was later shown to the guest accommodation.

Time for a bit of rest, before the preliminary discussions later that afternoon...