Happy new year!
T-Day takes place on site this Wednesday (Jan 4 7:30pm CET)!
New Year's celebration at our place (Dec 31 8pm CET)!
2022/12/01 The longer end of the moon alley
Early 2000s. I was confronted with an important question of my life.
My grandfather was one of those people whose lives were brought into chaos by the war. As a kid, I heard often how much he would have wanted to study at the university.
My father used to be a fairly good violinist. I don't know how serious he was about it in the end, but he must have thought about making a career as he grew up.
That's more or less the background for my environment. And early 2000s, I was totally unsure, whether I should become a professional cellist. I was probably on a good path to becoming a professional musician, but at that time, it was told that a professional musician in an orchestra gets an effective salary of about 500 yen per hour, which roughly translates to 5 dollars. That's essentially because you wouldn't be paid for practicing, neither for the time you have to spend to go from one concert to another etc. And so, that makes an effective salary of 500 yen an hour. The idea of becoming a professional musician sounds extraordinary, but how can a person live like that? In addition, you must play music to earn money, especially you will have to play whatever the orchestra says, or whatever the audience wants, even if it could be a kind of music you don't like at all. Finally, you have to win prizes and survive fierce competitions, in order to be employed by a big company or an orchestra. It made me already exhausted to think about going from one competition to another.
With this, I more or less made my mind - no music career for me.
Yet, my father had a totally different vision. Here's what he was saying: Playing in an orchestra or a big company is one thing, but there'll be a huge variation of music in the near future, as the people will be able to choose the music they like, just by the click of a button in a music list. This means, it doesn't matter whether you can impress a large amount of people or not, you just have to be good at the music that you like - the right audience will find you anyway.
This was about the time when iTunes was first introduced. There was actually indeed some music being sold there, but the songs were listed haphazardly. I could not imagine how I could possibly find the musicians I was looking for there, let alone the ones that I hadn't discovered.
It took only a few years, until I understood that what my father was talking about was realized under the name of YouTube. Then came also a whole range of different platforms doing similar things.
Looking back on that moment, I now see that he was probably inspired by the success of independent painters, as they were the first ones to open their websites and became famous, without belonging to any establishment.
After the initial success of painters, followed by musicians, independent filmmakers and actors started seeing success by the emergence of Netflix. Film industry used to be a place where it was said that the first job of actresses was to sleep with the director, just as it only now comes to light with for example cases like Harvey Weinstein. Those days might not be totally over, but it's definitely not the sole way anymore.
With all this in mind, I wondered - what comes next?
While observing the world as a scientist, I noticed that now there is this thing called Massive open online course (MOOC), which allows people all over the world to study, often for free. Especially in fields like theoretical physics or economics, I was expecting a huge influx of brilliant minds after MOOCs were introduced. At the same time, online language learning platforms flourished, which made me think there would be a large number of foreign language speakers in the near future.
Such a phenomenon, as you can probably already tell yourselves, didn't come.
For this, it is interesting to see how human learning evolved over the years. I recently came across this article describing the pilot training during WWII, according to which it took around 18 months. Now, 80 years later, it still takes 18 months in the US air force according to this page. This is certainly not a model for everything, but gives an important lesson: Whether technology advances or not, acquiring new expertise is just as difficult, regardless of the technological progress.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, learning a foreign language takes from 600 to 2,200 hours for native English speakers, depending on how far the language is from English. This translates to a bit less than two years to six years, if a person spends an hour a day on average. That's a huge amount of time.
So then? MOOCs and language learning platforms make no difference? That's not true either, because whether two to six years is a long time or not, it is definitely not an impossible amount of time, and it is true that these platforms offer possibilities to people who didn't have them before. As a consequence, we will see probably no remarkable change in the average population, while the best ones will be so overwhelmingly good that the previous generation will have no chance matching up to them.
Yes, the world will probably just envy the best ones, maybe with some hostility. But I see it differently: In the history of humanity, there was so much injustice and inequality. Who could have possibly got a high level of education 50 years ago outside of the most industrialized nations? Who in the third world could have possibly become a world famous artist? Today, we are surrounded by the greatest minds from all over the world, who could make their way thanks to the technological advances.
Towards the end of her life, Anne Frank wrote: "In the meantime I have to keep my ideas high and dry; in the times to come they may still be fulfilled". Karen Carpenter sang: "I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world". My grand father gave up his dream of studying at the university. My father didn't become a violinist. They all lived through an era, in which so much was impossible. There's no way for me to find out what kind of life they would have lived if they were me now - in the world, in which we can be what we wish to be, in the world, in which the success is on our shoulders.
So, I'm gonna make a step forward to the next stage, for me to go beyond the existing possibilities.
2021/06/28 Event calendar restored
So finally after a few months, I decided to restore my public calendar. Let me know if you are interested to join some of the events below :).
2021/02/02 A dystopian story of Skyler, Alex and Charlie Part II
This is the second part of the story A dystopian story of Alex and Charlie". Again, it's a fiction, but I think there's a certain degree of truth in it. Let me know if you agree or disagree.
After Charlie got his PhD degree, he immediately started working as a postdoc. Meanwhile, his group got a new PhD candidate, Skyler, who got her master degree recently. Skyler, whose study was mainly based on the most advanced interactive programming environment, was truly convinced of the promises of the computational physics. She got a topic that she was not quite familiar with, but with a very solid basis already established during her study, she didn't have much trouble understanding the problem.
Alex continued his passion for physics even after the demoralizing contact with Charlie. After some time, there were actually companies interested to outsource some work to him. They preferred Alex to a university laboratory, which often involves a lengthy process without full control over who is going to do the actual work. So, while pursuing his passion, Alex also started working as a freelancer, which now gave him to use super computers just like Charlie.
During regular meetings, Skyler was having the feeling that there were quite some misunderstandings with Charlie. It looked like it arose through two points. Firstly, Charlie seems to be thinking that Skyler has no practical ability to use the stuff she learned at the university. Indeed, the older scientists appeared to her to only know what they are doing, but not what they must have learned during their studies. She would quickly find out that with the conventional method of studying with pen and paper, it was not quite possible to obtain a full understanding of what they learned, while Skyler had more practical sessions using interactive programming languages, so not only she knew what she was doing, but also she was capable of using it. Secondly, Charlie was telling her a lot about what has already been done in physics and what hasn't been, while all this information was already available in the internet. Indeed, with the recent advances in AI, search engines are now capable of answering relatively complex scientific questions, which was something that didn't exist during Charlie's PhD.
It didn't take much time for her to get used to the new life. Contrary to what she had imagined from what she had heard, there was no strong pressure on her to produce results or publish papers. She fully enjoyed her life.
Around a year went on. Charlie asked Skyler to present her results at an upcoming scientific conference, which was to take place on a French island in the Mediterranean sea. Skyler was both excited and puzzled at the same time. On the one hand, she felt that her work was recognized, and above all, it's taking place on a beautiful French island! On the other hand, she was wondering why it was taking place on an island which people don't really associate with science, and most importantly, she has been working on creating a numerical tool, for herself and others to do science, and that's not really something to "show" but it's something to "use". So the common format of presentation at scientific conferences was not really the suitable one for this purpose.
Charlie said, since the conference was to take place a few months later, she can write things she would produce by then with her tool in the abstract, as well as showing her tool. She was surprised that such a thing is allowed, since it's not like cooking or sewing, but it's science. So you never know whether one can see the results as expected in a given timeframe. Charlie told her that that's what everyone does. So Skyler did as she was told, interpreting Charlie's comment as "if you cannot get the results by then, you can simply apologize at the presentation and possibly pull out, or maybe show something different".
As it turned out, things didn't really go according to her plan, and it was only a day before her departure that she got the expected results, after she went through a few days without sleeping sufficiently. Anyway, the conference came. She took a plane a few days earlier to enjoy the stay on the island. She could see a few more people on the island who looked like conference participants, who looked inexplicably different from the rest of the tourists.
In the evening of the day before the conference, there was a get-together meeting, where she joined Charlie. Charlie introduced her to a few scientists from other institutes, who greeted her friendlily, but showed little interest when she said she was a PhD student. Charlie was the one who talked most of the time, but then also they were mostly talking about papers or other boring stuff. At one point, thinking it was the moment to know other scientists more personally, Skyler tried talk about hobbies, which somehow brought an awkward atmosphere. She quickly understood that it was not quite the place to talk about personal stuff, although at the same time she wondered why they were then getting together in the first place then.
The conference then started. Despite her expectations, there was no one saying like they couldn't manage to prepare what they were supposed to do, or changed topic. Certainly many of the results had already been there before they submitted their abstracts, but she wondered whether there weren't those who had the same experience as her, and didn't manage it since she would have nearly failed herself. Simultaneously, she could hear arguments like "due to convergence", "due to model error", "due to experimental accuracy" and so on very often, which appeared to her like a strategy to get away with something handy when tough questions were there. In order to understand the presentations well, she decided to sit in the first row all the time. She hardly understood anything, but she's just a PhD student. She didn't really know what she was doing there, but she simply stayed. It also looked like it was mostly the same people asking questions, so she didn't really feel uncomfortable just sitting there.
Then her turn came. As she reached the stage, she was badly agitated. From there, however, she could see that not many of them were looking at her. She was anyway in such a panic that she couldn't care about it during her presentation. She got a few questions about her tool, although she was so afraid of saying something stupid in front of so many senior scientists that she could only think about getting away with some answers.
After the presentation, she decided to go to one of the rear rows to have a short break. She took a deep breath and looked around, and found out something quite important in astonishment: Most of the people are actually working on their computer and paying no attention to the presentation. She decided to stay there for a few talks more to see if it changes, but she could only see that they listen only in the first few minutes of the talk, until at some point they decide to open their computer and start working again. It was only a handful of people, who were listening to the talks, and they were also the ones asking questions actively all the time.
She was puzzled. But anyway more importantly she was full of joy that she finished her talk. So in the afternoon she went to a nearby beach. There, she could actually see some of the ones in her session who were just working on their own, without paying attention to the talks. That's outright waste of taxpayers' money - she couldn't believe what she was seeing.
Her rage made her turn to Alex, who had become fairly famous for his private scientific work in the meantime. She was also aware of the story that Alex had shared before her PhD, which was essentially in line with what she observed. She wrote him in detail all the problems she has seen so far. Alex of course didn't know her, but quickly found out that she was the PhD student of his friend's. As Alex was himself not convinced of the righteousness of today's scientific community, he listened to her carefully, and published the story on his blog.
At the beginning, Alex and Skyler both didn't expect anything particular. However, their story was first echoed by some PhD students, then it was picked up by both far-left and far-right politicians, who had anyway mistrusted science. It went through social media like wild fire and finally the government promised to look into it. And indeed, Skyler's observation was confirmed by many of the current and former scientists, which forced the government to announce a few restructuring measures. Some of them included creation of presentation videos and reports for the general public to understand what is done in each institute. Essentially, scientists are now obliged to present their results to the general public directly, in the manner that it can be understood straightforwardly.
Charlie couldn't believe what he was seeing. After all, he was working as he was supposed to. He couldn't believe that all of a sudden there were even people who started talking about "fraud" about his research, which he has been working on with no bad conscience.
A few years passed by. Things didn't really change in the scientific community. Only some measures ostensibly serving transparency and moderate public mistrust stayed. Skyler quit her PhD work and started working at Alex's café.
Sometime later on a random day, Charlie visited them in their café, with the latest public report of his university in his hand. As a matter of fact, Charlie had quit his postdoc position as well. Thankfully, as the title of one of his papers contained the term "machine learning", in which he only used an existing programme without knowing what it does, he was hired by a large search engine company. Despite his fear of not being able to be hired easily after his postdoc, the process of looking for a job turned to be quite easy. As he was indeed a diligent programmer, he was also successful in his new workplace. As soon as he quit science, he started to see the things as Alex did. To be true, he was not sure if he didn't see those problems when he was a scientist himself, or he tried not to see them.
They all looked into the public report, and watched the public presentation videos afterwards. They all knew that things were presented nicely there, without actually presenting anything. The people who created this must have spent quite some time on such a useless thing. Quite obviously, the whole incident created yet another piece of burden on science, which had nothing to do with science.
While Charlie is now feeling now quite good, Alex is devastated. Not only because his action created a chain of reactions which turned out to be totally counter productive for the scientific community, but also he saw a discrepancy between science and the scientific community, and he could see that the next generation who learned all this might not dream of science as he used to do. After all, he is the one who understands that science is not just interesting because the general public finds it interesting. Basic research is sometimes simply not transparent, and potentially impossible to understand for anyone outside of the field. The line between an honorable scientist and a hypocritical cheat is therefore extremely thin. That's why it's important that the scientists all understand the importance of being disciplined and paying attention to the ethics.
Life went on. The downfall of science left a bitter taste to Alex, who didn't become a scientist, and a happy ending to Charlie, who became a scientist.
2021/01/30 One year went on
"Every problem has a solution."
Summer 2014, I was vising my very first international scientific conference. For some reason, I came into a conversation with a German researcher about the Middle East, in which she said this phrase. It had been more than 3 years since I left Germany and this phrase reminded me of the country I once lived in. Yes, this is Germany. However complex the problem might be, German people would never give up saying there's a solution. And they showed this to the world, whether it's rebuilding a country after the Nazi regime, creation of the European Union, transition from the Bretton Woods system, German reunification or Green Revolution.
When the coronavirus brought the first death here in Germany a year ago this week, this was the first thought that came to my mind. Whatever comes to this country, Germans will do what is needed - I was thinking vaguely.
Needless to describe how wrong I was after that. Not only I was wrong in that moment, but also most of the predictions that I made in the months to come turned out to be wrong. Indeed, whether I had met the German researcher at that particular conference or not, I could see several reasonable solutions, and the government gave proper advice in agreement with my understanding. I could hardly figure out what makes it so difficult for us to bring the cases down.
This failure, however, didn't really affect me in the end - Most of the costs associated with the hiking were returned. And just as much as I was professionally not affected by the virus, I was mentally also perfectly fine. It might sound weird, but I enjoyed being alone for the first time in years, spending time on things I had always wanted to do. So when it comes to my personal situation, I have nothing to say. I have been perfectly fine and will certainly be even if the virus is to stay there in the decade to come. Case closed?
Not quite. Even though my personal situation might be fine, there's one thing that has been tearing me apart: restriction on kids.
The first thing arrived as early as in March. The organization for exchange programs I worked for in the previous summer announced that they were sending all students back to their home countries. I tried to resist, sending them plenty of emails to the organization to keep those high school students in Germany. They didn't change their mind.
Soon, I would realize that they were going ahead with more drastic measures: Schools got closed, universities got closed and finally children's playgrounds got closed. In that moment, we already knew that the children and young people were hardly affected by the virus. That was the decisive moment that showed the skewness of the problem and measures: the ones who die were not the ones who had to take responsibility.
The logic somewhat makes sense in the same way as car drivers and pedestrians - the car drivers must take responsibility because the pedestrians might die. But I'd like to raise important differences here: while people can choose to be car drivers and pedestrians, kids cannot choose to be old, which has the critical consequence that they cannot vote. So politics obviously decided to suppress the politically weakest ones first.
Secondly, I would like you to look at the differences between the generations. The generation above mine, known as Generation X, is the one that enjoyed the end of the Cold War, social welfare and a period in which climate change didn't play an important role in the society. In all three problems, there were things to do. In particular, we might have expected them to create a truly inclusive world with the Eastern countries. Instead, they apparently decided to make one excluding the former Soviet Union and China, which has brought ramifications today. They could have returned to the classical theory of economics in the sense of Karl Marx and prepare for a low-growing world. Instead they created a high-capital-return system which threw us right into the financial crisis. And while climate change was indeed something people talked about, they largely ignored it. Frankly, I don't really remember anything from that generation other than their opulent consumption of livelihoods, drugs and alcohol.
The generation below mine, also known as Generation Z, is quite obviously living a completely different life: They organize Friday for future, fight against the current monetary systems and for the inclusion of refugees and other foreigners into the society. You might think they are simply following the natural flow of history. Indeed, what they are doing now is probably where the humanity as a species was going, but the real players are the individuals who acted according to their ethical standards. And I'm certainly not overstating if I claim how much we should admire the responsibility they are already taking in the miserable world we left to them. With all my sincerity, I have to ask this question: Is it really right to ask for more of them?
This question persisted this year. Whether it's right or not, we have to ask for more, simply because there's nothing else we can do. Yet as a millennial, I will for sure keep in mind that what they are doing is something we wouldn't have been able to do, and certainly not what Gen X would have done.
The current pandemic is obviously not over yet. So drawing any final conclusion is probably just as absurd as it could possibly be. But this is the comment to mark the year from the first death here in Germany: I will never be proud of what we are imposing on young people.
I finish this article by citing my own words from March 2020:
Some time in the future, probably years from now, we will look back on this one week and the weeks that follow, and think of what we were doing in this period of time, over and over again. And just as global as the crisis stretched, we will probably wonder what we as a society were doing. In this regard, probably we are about to decide whether we're gonna carry great dignity or hopeless shame to the next generation with us. That's a lot of responsibility compressed in a relatively short period of time.
I know, humans did a lot of things wrong in history, but I'm gonna firmly stick to the idea: Not this time.
We are already doing things so badly. And it didn't even take a year.
2021/01/24 My new year's resolution
January 2021 is already going towards an end, but since I had an inspiring conversation with Eduardo, my colleague, and one of the most intelligent friends of mine here in Germany, I'm gonna write it down here. It's mostly my personal stuff, but it might give you some thought about yourself as well. Maybe I should warn you that it's gonna sound quite stupid, so get ready for that.
Some years ago, when I was still living in France, there was my roommate Adrián (whom I still sincerely admire so much), who asked me why I didn't have a girlfriend. The answer I gave at that time was "because I can love only someone that I have respect for, but that must be someone who has a quality that I don't have. Such a person doesn't exist, so that won't happen". What a horribly arrogant answer. And to be honest, that was rather a random one and I don't know how much this claim was related to the fact that I virtually never wanted a girlfriend during my stay in France. But that's what I said. And it's true that while I knew that the society would judge I was and still am objectively a horribly imperfect person, I kept thinking there was no quality that I would love to add to myself, until this particular conversation with Eduardo.
There's one particular quality that I have and I am particularly proud of. And that's probably one feature that explains most of what I am today: I can do things for a very long amount of time (however stupid they are). Let me give you a simple example: at the beginning of this year, when the first lockdown started, I vaguely thought I could go do outdoor sports (i.e. jogging or hiking) whenever the weather allows. There was no strong determination, but since that day, there hasn't been even a single day that I missed it. The same applies to the cello that I picked up in 2018 after a 10-year break, piano, guitar, learning languages, cycling from Europe to Japan, regular hiking and swimming sessions, or even to being abstinent and holding back from eating meat. And again, no strong determination preceded any of these activities, so if the circumstances change, I could easily switch from one thing to another. So, usually I don't really need a new year's resolution, because I don't really need to be particularly resolute.
All this is great. And since I know that I'll keep doing things, I don't really have to worry about things I am not able to do today. That's mostly the reason why I upload the YouTube videos, while I'm painfully aware of the fact that those shameful out-of-tune videos are nothing I should be showing. At least according to my plan, there'll be a day that I look back on them and think how horrible I used to be, to think of them as some sort of "history".
This was essentially what I was talking about with Eduardo, who, then, asked me this question:
"Where are you going with this?"
...where? Nowhere. I just keep going.
Later in the evening, I inescapably asked myself if this was really the true answer. I gave that answer, because that was what came to my mind first. Eduardo, again as intelligent as he is, is a kind of person who strikes my head with blasting questions. But this time, I really had to take that back home and think about it. Even though I'm not 100% sure what he wanted to know with that question, there's indeed an inevitable question I had to ask myself: Am I able to set a proper goal for an activity and candidly pursue it? It is true that it's great that I can do things without goals today, but can I also define conclusive milestones and follow them according to a well specified plan?
To be true, this was a question that I was vaguely aware of for quite some time, because there's this one student in medicine, who managed to play Shostakovich's violin concerto last year for our orchestra's concert. In that moment, I knew that that was a quality that I might not have, I just didn't know consciously what I was admiring in that moment.
So, here's my new year's resolution: I give myself proper milestones and goals to pursue, for some of the things I keep doing, to find out whether I can do such a thing or not. In the meantime, I thank Eduardo very much not only for yesterday's conversation, but also for pointing out many of my irrational statements and logic, which has contributed to my personal improvements.
2021/01/21 Suicide rate in times of disaster
Psychology is an interesting area of subject. Even though I don't really think it's science, mostly because often the conclusion is there before the research, I still think there are counter-intuitive things that I would love to look into more in detail. A great example in this sort is here: suicide in times of disaster.
There's something fairly known in Japan, but since those of you who are reading this article in English might not be familiar with the topic, I'm maybe going to ask you this question: After the disaster in Fukushima in 2011, the suicide rate went up or down in the area around Fukushima? The answer is --- it went down. Even though you probably won't be able to understand this article, the graph shows a clear decline in 2011 and 2012 (compared to the national average). Then what follows is again quite interesting, since the suicide rate in Fukushima was then above the national average from 2016 on. Apparently, what happens is that when there's a natural catastrophe, it gives some sort of collective spirit, which makes them try to overcome the difficulties, probably looking forward to going back to the glorified daily lives. It's when it goes back to the normal lives which differ significantly from what they were looking forward to, which let them down.
The same way of thinking can probably applied in the current pandemic. Interestingly, there was an article this week which talked about the same issue, again in Japan, according to which the suicide rate went down at the beginning of the pandemic. And then towards the end of 2020 it went up again, maybe because Japan was not so badly affected by the coronavirus. However, if the effect of the pandemic is more strongly felt in Europe, we might see a stronger backlash at some point, meaning when the normal life comes back some time in the near future, we might be totally overwhelmed with the discrepancy between our imagination and the reality.
Well, maybe anyway I'm gonna keep my voice low - after all, even though I'm hardly affected by the lockdown, it might be too unsettling for some people to think that the future they are looking forward to is not quite as promising as they are imagining right now, while the current situation is already quite bad...
2021/01/12 T-Day goes online!
Hey everyone! How’s it going? I hope the lockdown is not letting you down too much!
As Merkel today stated, it doesn't look like it's converging soon, but I came across this platform called "wonder.me", which is very much like Zoom, but it has the possibility to create breakup rooms. So I thought maybe we can give it a try and do an online T-Day. I just created a room with various languages we could be interested in.
So, I suggest that we’re gonna take a look at it TOMORROW (Jan. 13) at 8pm CET. We'll do 10 phrases from 441. Have a look at this page.
This platform allows to share screens but it doesn't have a whiteboard function, and since I have never organised an online event like this one, I cannot really tell how it works, so we'll discover it together.
If you are interested, just drop me a line! I'll share the link then. See you there!