Monthly Archives: August 2011

Japan’s New Prime Minister, and the Shrine to War Criminals

 

Meet Yoshihiko Noda, who will officially become “Prime Minister Noda” in three days. I always prefer to stay away from politics here, but an election of the highest authority in the country is a valid exception. I’m not going to get into his political plans, like how he might raise taxes to help pay for the tsunami reconstruction (which is really the same thing as giving to charity, except they don’t ask for permission). But it may be helpful to know who he is, how he got here, and what the deal is with this “shrine to war criminals.”

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Stanford offers free education online, over 125,000 sign up

In a little over one month, a little-known Artificial Intelligence (AI) course has skyrocketed in popularity, since the two professors announced that anyone anywhere in the world could take their course.  Three days after the announcement, 10,000 people signed up, and a month later, the number has increased tenfold. The Stanford University School of Engineering has decided not just to show videos of the classes – a practice which has been going on for around a decade in some of the most reputable universities in the world (especially in America) – but to allow students to take tests, watch lectures, and participate in class discussions. As said in a recent article from SingularityHub “Classes of 1 million or tens of millions may be in our future. If Stanford can succeed in teaching classes of 100k+ students at a time, what will it mean for education in general?”

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Skeptikai Notices (Aug22) – Psychology, technology, Japan & more

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Land of the Scorching Sun – Part 2

In part 1, I mentioned, among other things, that 2010 was the hottest year on record for Japan, I now live in the hottest part of Japan, game and entertainment centers have been cut back to help reduce energy usage, and vending machines were a high priority for conservation since March. The government told employers to cut job interviewees some slack for dressing down because of the heat, but it seems that interviewees are still dressing up in suits to make good first impressions, and employers are still expecting them to do so. Maybe the energy specialist who believes that we shouldn’t cancel cultural events (e.g., fireworks displays) in order to conserve power is right, but regardless, it raises this question about conservation: How much is too much?

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Land of the Scorching Sun – Part 1

The people of Eastern Japan are now in a constant struggle between resisting the fierce heat and trying to conserve energy. As I mentioned earlier, this makes for a very dangerous summer. So far we have not had summer blackouts, as the region has been quite successful in minimizing energy usage since the earthquake. However, we have come extremely close to exceeding the energy usage limit, and there are now scores of people being treated for heat-related illnesses. The humidity is as intense as ever, and people are still debating about whether certain drastic measures ought to be taken in order to further conserve power.

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Skeptikai Notices (Aug9) – Video games, news, hacking, Japan, science

Video Games:

Robots use Kinect to understand our world – Robots can’t view the world like we do, but technology is advancing, and soon they may be able to understand it enough to convince us that they can experience it similar to us. Researchers at Cornell University’s Robot Learning Lab have manipulated the Kinect system – created essentially for entertainment purposes for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 video game console – so that the robots could image their environments in “colored 3D pointclouds.” The accompanying video shows the world as they see it. The robots can locate objects, and robotics will probably be advancing exponentially, now that we have examples of robots learning skills through reinforcement – such as the robotic arm that learned to flip pancakes after 50 trials.

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Award-Winning Homage to Trains

Japan was the first country to really have significant high-speed railway technology, when the 0 series Shinkansen (which in English was called the “bullet train” because of its speed and shape) came out in 1964. The demand to move people between cities like Tokyo and Osaka drove the engineers to connect the country via trains, and the slow-moving versions just weren’t doing it. Flash forward today, and virtually everywhere is connected by trains in Japan. They’re fast, safe, and pretty much considered the gold standard of train technology among other nations, many of which are using Japanese technology as a model. But despite the fact that most trains connect us from one end of the nation to the other, the southern region of Japan, Kyushu, has only been connected by shinkansen this year. There was even a great commercial made for its debut, but practically no one had heard of it. Why? Because it aired at the same time as the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.

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