Inventing the Future: nuggets

Some short impressions from my trip to Japan. Not directly about software or Croquet at all, but what the hell.

Japan is clean. To be sure, on an inter-city train I saw graffiti, trash in the riverbeds, and shantytowns on the riverbanks. But Japan is clean. In the past I’ve heard folks say that US cities are dirty compared with, say, Europe. But I was never really struck with this idea while in Italy, England, even Germany. But we dropped a soda bottle cap on the floor of the train from the airport. It rolled who-knows where under the seats. After only a few minutes in the country, we couldn’t bear the thought that we were messing up the train.

Things are generally tidy. Partly, I think this comes from everything being crammed into small spaces. It’s like living on a boat. This turns out to be by group desire rather than the limits of space: I’m told that 85% of the land is unoccupied. But I think part of the tidiness comes from a general desire to do things well. Small toys are made with great care. I saw a uniformed man changing the garbage bag on a train platform. He lined the space between inner can and outer bin with newspaper, so that small bits of waste wouldn’t escape. At the airport another uniform man bowed frequently and deeply to us as we stepped on to the slick elevator next to a beautiful small indoor garden. It wasn’t clear whether he was responsible for maintaining the garden or the elevator, but it was clear that both were done with a sense of pride in a job well done.

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We met a rather odd professor on a cold bridge across the river that runs through Kyoto. He flagged us as Americans and demanded to know where we had lived. It turns out he was a linguist who had studied under Chomsky, who had taught where my wife and I went to school. He insisted that people in his field have been dismissive of his idea that dictionaries should not contain definitions, but only examples. Yet, he said, his first Japanese English dictionary had sold out and he was writing a second edition. A process scheduled to take 12 years, but which he hoped to complete in maybe three years less. What did I think? I told him that as an engineer, businessman, and programmer of abstractions, I thought it was sometimes vital to have specific definitions. Some institutions, even some countries, defined official lexicons. “WHAT?” he demanded. “This is the FREE WORLD! You can’t make official meanings!” I was so proud. Then he demanded we proofread a few pages of the work he produced from his bag. When he learned my wife had been an editor, he would not let her go. We found some issues. I was proud again. He thanked us so warmly I nearly cried.

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Addresses don’t follow the Napoleonic system of sequential numbering by street. This presents a problem for the white-gloved uniformed taxi drivers. On two occasions the drivers made multiple cell phone and radio calls to get us to where we wanted to go, with each apologizing sincerely for the need.

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We squeezed our wide American hips through a wonderful narrow covered fish market street, a two-abreast alley with a restaurant behind every single door, a steep street full of crafts winding towards a mammoth temple, and another narrow street with antiquities dealers at every door. A third century terra-cotta horse’s head. Tenth century wood Buddhas. Fifteenth century bronzes. We fell in love with a pair of Meiji vases. Only 150 years old, but we could only admire these last $20K pieces. The gracious shopkeeper went and found us an English language card for the shop, explaining that the master was out, and perhaps we might change our mind.

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Kyoto is FULL of countless tiny restaurants of every stripe. We never had to wait, though we were simply turned away one night when in a very large group. Some we weren’t sure were restaurants or sure they were open, and we were afraid to go in. But once we did, it was always a pleasure. One had no other customers, no sign, and no English, but fine fare. We muddled through, and enjoyed it greatly. The owner thought my wife was so cute that she gave my wfie a tiny gift of toy sandals. Another had no sign (that we could read), but had been recommended by a stranger in the neighborhood who had asked us what we were looking for. We had told him we were looking for Keiseki-ryori, an elaborately-simple multi-course local meal. It was clear that this restaurant had never served an American, and they kept bringing out a special dictionary of cooking, with pictures, to show us what we were eating. I was filled with the food and with the great warmth of the people.

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Everything is small. Except the temples, which are huge as well as plentiful. And the glorious modern train station cum mega mall that held our hotel. But despite the small scale, everything is made, presented, and maintained full of grace and simple but rich comfort. I have never been on a trip in which I did not by the end long for my own bed and toilet. But I did not want to give up the comforter on our tiny futon or our spectacularly civilized warm-spraying toilet with heated seat and internal “odor-removing” fan.

– – –

One thing there is not a lot of is foreigners. I imagine there might have been many more in bigger cities like Osaka or Tokyo, but not in the more traditional ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara that we were in. There was rich diversity among the local population, and it took no time at all to shed the idea that they “all looked alike.” But coming through customs back in Detroit, it was nice to be surrounded by so many colors and heights and weights of people, in so many styles of dress from around the world. And this was the US-passport-holders line! I was proud again.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

One Comment

  1. Thank you.

    The dictionary man belongs in a graphic novel or science fiction movie. In fact, I think I may appropriate him for the novel I’m working on now!

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