Stories #1 – Crossing Gazes

Hello everyone.
Today I start a mini-series of 4 short posts, translated from French to English. These are posts form my older blog and my French readers already know about them.
But I chose to translate them today, because they are among the rare texts that I don’t feel ashamed of, even years after I wrote them. They speak to my heart and make me melancholic at the same time.

This series is about a short part of my 3rd trip to China, in summer 2011. I went to visit some friends, Sandra and Sunny (not their real names), near to the bustling giant industrial city of Shenzhen. At the time I could speak Mandarin, and spent some days in unofficial immersion in a plastic molds factory.

Some explanations: Except in some specific cases, all dialogues reported here happened in Mandarin. Also, I am a girl but I look (looked?) like a boy, and most people naturally assumed I was one. I usually do nothing to clear the misunderstanding. So don’t be confused by the pronouns: people in the text can talk about me with « he » or « she » depending on the situation.

Let us start softly with my arrival in Shenzhen, and progress in the future posts to the more serious talk. This is about people. This is about their stories, as they told it to me. But this is also about a black girl going to a place where foreigners don’t go. Don’t look for objectivity: this story is as biased as it comes.

September 1st, 2011

My 2 weeks long trip in China started with a 4 hour plane delay. The Tokyo-Beijing plane landed in the middle of the night. It was so dark I couldn’t possibly find my way to the hotel, so I stopped a taxi. The driver was an old man. I showed him the printed address:

Me – Do you know this place?
Him – I can’t read these small wiggly lines (latin alphabet), little guy! How about you read it to me!

I read it, but it was a long time before we finally found the right place: there were no numbers on the houses. The hotel had received my train ticket for Shenzhen, courtesy of my friend Sandra. After resting for a full day, I left for the Beijing West train station. Those who know me will have guessed it: I got lost almost immediately. At some point, a strange looking bare-chested guy approached me. As a foreigner with the experience of visiting Vietnam’s biggest cities alone, I couldn’t help seeing everything with two wheels or two feet and asking too many questions as a potential enemy. Since I was stuck at a red light, I decided to play « stupid tourist », hoping to be quickly left alone.

Barechest – Hey! Hey! Where are you going? Heyyyy!
Me – *Smiles stupidly, shrugs*
Barechest – Where are you from?
Me – *shakes head*
Barechest – *turns towards a guy sitting on the ground nearby with a beer* Do you see that? This boy travels abroad, he can’t speak Mandarin AND he’s mute!
Beer guy – Hey you! Do you speak English?
Me – *Signs « a little » with hand*
Barechest – He’s mute I tell you!
Beer guy – *Hails a passing student-looking kid with a backpack* Hey little one, you study English at school, don’t you? Talk to this foreigner!
Kid – Eeeer! Hellow! Where you go?

At that point I decided to talk, because I didn’t want to wait for every passing person to be called by Barechested Guy, and why so much insistence towards a foreigner stupid and mute? In Mandarin, I said:

Me – West Station.
Kid – Train? You… Train?
Me – Yes.
Kid – It’s in the opposite direction, you’re going the wrong way…
Me – Er, really?
Kid – Yup, it’s *that* way.
Me – Oh… Thanks…
Kid – Bye bye!

And that’s how I noticed that my trip to Vietnam had made me paranoid, to the point of refusing to talk to people who were just genuinely trying to help me. Me and my big luggage that I was obstinately dragging in the wrong direction. I felt truly ashamed that I didn’t make the effort to speak in Mandarin to the guy who first talked to me. The young student really did his best to help me, even if he wasn’t confident in his spoken English. This is not an episode I am proud of. All of this to say, don’t be like me, don’t judge Beijing inhabitants on bad experiences that you’ve had elsewhere.

After that I rode the train for 38 hours nonstop, with two 8 years old kids as bed-neighbours. Everyone was so exasperated by the bratty behaviour of the two kids that we just gave up hope of getting to know each other and spent most of our time wide awake in bed. When the little family finally got off, after 32 hours, people exchanged a few polite banalities and we all fell into a deep, well deserved slumber.

On my arrival at Shenzhen, I met Sandra (« let’s eat something! You don’t eat enough, that’s why you’re so skinny! ») and we took the bus to my hotel, next to the town she lives in. It’s a « factory-town »: all the people who live here work in the little factories nearby, and most of them had never seen a foreigner.
There was a shy young man, hiding behind the bus curtains, who was too bashful to ask me directly if « I was born with my hair naturally like that (curly), or if I had it done by a hairdresser? ». It was a cute question that got me smiling all the way (but if your hairdresser does your hair like mine, please change to a different hairdresser).
There was an old man with very tan skin and small shiny teeth, who smiled to me almost without blinking for 10 min before I dared talk to him. He had a very soft voice, a huge smile, and seemed delighted to simply look at me. I told him I came from France, but I felt as if I could as well have said that I came straight from Mars.

It’s strange, nobody seemed to notice me when I was in the Chinese countryside or in the big cities, just like no one noticed cripples and homeless people. It was just normal that I was there and that I spoke Mandarin. But here, in this place stuck between a giant city and a deserted countryside, I wouldn’t look more bizarre if I suddenly grew horns and started hopping on my head.

At the hotel, the reception clerk (a young woman) asked me the usual questions then inquired about my age.
Clerk – What? 21 years old?! You are but a little child! A baby! 21 years old, oh gosh!
Sandra – Do you hear that Lana, she says you’re a little child! Hahaha, a baby! Ho ho ho!

Yes, I heard, Sandra. This is something that never changes, wherever I go…

Me – Do you know Sandra, there were 2 little kids in my train and…
Sandra – How nice. Did you talk to them?
Me – Well, no, they really were kids, 7 or 8 years old I guess, and…
Sandra – Good, you could have practiced your Mandarin!
Me – …

This post was meant as an introduction to the main characters. In the next, shorter episode, « Nail Polish and Liver Soup », I get a feeling of the town and the factory. In the 3rd and 4th episodes, we get to the core of things: Chinese lives in the big city as told by Chinese people.

Identity as a learning mechanism

Hi all. In two weeks I give a talk at the lab, but I’m supposed to keep it around 20 min long so I would like to put some order in my thoughts here first!
That way I can hopefully give a short, better organized talk.

Today’s topic is my latest reflections about identity (or personality) and why we need such a concept. What are the evolutionary advantages of having some specific tastes, preferences and personality traits? Why isn’t everyone a good natured, funny, easy going, broccoli-loving kind of person, for example? Diversity is often good to help a species adapt to new situations without having all its members wiped out, but in my opinion, this does not explain the diversity of personality traits in humans and other animals.

Another question is, why aren’t our personalities more stable, fixed in time? Why must part of our personality be reconstructed from cues in our environment, which can lead to errors and confusion as I mentioned in my previous post? Why must we reconstruct who we are based on outside hints, rather than take entirely reference on an inside « identity model »?

In this post I propose answers to these questions, and I hope to convince you that your identity is in fact a permanent reconstruction based on environmental cues, and not a fixed concept safely stored somewhere in your brain forever.

 

Let’s first talk about the dimension of spaces of choices. What are some differences between performing a successful golf swing, and performing a successful social interaction with a colleague?

Both must be learned: for the golf, you’ll do a few swings, get the feel of the club in your hands, the motion, the ball resistance. For the conversation, you’ll learn to approach people, read their face, their voice tone, the meaning of their words and phrasing, the appropriate reaction and timing to all these cues.

The number of possible movements you can do with a golf club in your hands is practically infinite. The number of physically acceptable movements is already much smaller. You can hit yourself on the head once, but not twice because you’ll most likely be dead or at the hospital. You must avoid every motion that could hurt you, break your equipment, or is too tiring. The number of movements that can be called « successful » is even smaller. You must avoid useless motions, hit the ball with the right part of the club, send it in the right direction with appropriate strength. All in all, you will most likely find one globally right class of movements that you’ll call « successful swing », and then add some small variations here and there to adapt to individual situations. « Successful swing » might be stored in your brain as a succession of touch and proprioception sensors activated in a determined order, at a determined timing, with a determined intensity, along with the muscles that must be used to reach this ideal flow.

The number of ways a conversation might possibly go is also infinite. Depending on what both of you say, how you say it, facial expressions, physical interactions, voice tone, the language you speak… But even when adding physical limitations like « don’t yell at the top of your voice » or « don’t put your finger in your eye », the number of possibilities is still endless. What is a « successful » interaction will depend on your goals, the person you’re dealing with, your current situation, your past interactions with this person and even past interactions with other people. Small changes in the interaction flow might change nothing at all to the output. Saying that joke now or in 2 min, talking louder or lower, smiling or being neutral, talking about the weather or rather about yesterday’s TV show… Of course, some choices might have a very big effect, but the point is that you have to make an infinite number of choices, many of which have very limited consequences. And once you have found a globally « successful » way to interact with that colleague, how and what is your brain supposed to store? Storing the complete string of choices you’ve made during that 5 mn conversation is virtually impossible. Did you stand at 50 or 60 cm? What words did you use? Did you smile first or did they? To learn from that interaction, you will have to store only a generalized part of what is relevant. But how will you store it? There is nothing as concrete as muscle memory or raw sensor data to keep somewhere. Instead you have vague abstract stuff like facial expressions, emotions and subjects of conversation to deal with. Each of which changes with the person you’re dealing with.

Of course, you do it every day since you were born, and effortlessly. But it does not mean that it is not difficult. We’re just really, really good at it: we’ve had lot of time to perfect the skill of interacting with each other, and it is crucial to an individual’s survival.

My theory is that identity as a noisy reconstructed signal is a way to deal with infinite spaces of choices. Whether it is social interactions, fashion sense or food preferences (only when food choice is unlimited can you be picky enough to have preferences…), it is more efficient to store information as being about you (« I’m a funny person. I like to make jokes. ») than as being about a set of specific situations (« I cracked a joke about food at John yesterday night and he smiled; I said a pun to Jenny last week and she laughed; I… » etc). Especially when the situations are difficult to summarize efficiently: just try to think about all the times you’ve interacted with someone with a positive outcome… since you were born. What made those interactions successful? What choices did you make, when? It is likely easier to store the fact that you’ve been a funny person, or a good listener, or a talkative/quiet person until now and that it seems to have worked well.

But not so easy after all. You must store quite a lot of these personality traits, and while they might be a good summary of what to do and what not to, in return they do not tell you exactly what to do. They’re rather vague concepts about yourself. You must apply dozens of such abstract concepts to specific situations in a single day.

So my second idea is that it is convenient to offload some of this information into your environment as practical examples (expressing your tastes via a funny t-shirt, classy shoes, an organic scent-free shampoo, or your social entourage), and then to pick up this information later, when necessary, by analyzing your past behaviour and current environment. If this two-step process uses less memory, or less processing power while still being reliable, then better use it than trying to hard-wire lots of hardly re-usable abstract information in your brain.

So my theory is that identity (personality traits, tastes) is mostly a way to insure behavioural coherence in an infinite space of equivalent choices. Research indicates that emotions help you actually make a choice between equivalent options. I think that identity is the way you store these choices to be re-used in the future. And I think that the easiest, most efficient way to implement this storage is to scaffold it in your immediate environment and rebuild the relevant parts when needed.

To end this post, here is a link about a person who suffered a very strange disorder: he systematically assumed that his own identity was whatever he knew about the person that was in front of him. Or following my hypothesis, he perpetually reconstructed his identity from the wrong cues…
The Man Whose Brain Borrowed Nearby Identities

 

PS: objections to this theory include the fact that even babies (who have limited impact on their immediate environment) have distinct personalities. But as most researchers, I do not believe in the opposition between « innate » and « learned »…

Stability, Short-term and Long-term memory

I got some positive comments on my previous post, so I decided to continue publishing in this format for a while. Now that I’m back in Tokyo, I might even post on the regular blog again: do not despair at this sudden change, French followers!

Today, I would like to talk about a theory of stability in the brain. In my previous post about the Chinese room experiment, I said that I have a problem with this: your brain is always changing, yet « something » seems to remain stable. This stability shows in the consistency of your behaviour, opinions,  tastes, ideas… These are part of your identity. Indeed, you probably feel as the same person waking up every morning and one year to the other, despite all the cellular changes in your brain and the rest of your body!

From here, I will give my own interpretation of existing research and explain my theory on the subject. Feel free to disagree and criticize it.

One hint about the stability of identity could be in recent research on behavioral economics. Several studies show that actually, our identity is not as well defined and fixed that we previously thought. In these experiments, they find that we take cues from our past behaviour to try to define what kind of person we are. When faced with a decision (« buying a drink »), you rely on what you did in the past (« I bought coffee from this shop last week ») to define your identity (« If I bought coffee there, it must mean that I like this shop ») and take a decision in the present (« I will go have a drink there, since I like the place so much »). Other example: you find yourself morally obligated to give to a charity, because all of your friends gave money to that same charity. You deduce that you’re a generous kind of guy, otherwise why would you give to charity? The following week you pass by a homeless person, and decide that giving them money is the obvious thing to do, because you’re a generous person. Note that the usual relation « I have this personality trait, therefore I act like this » is reversed into « I acted like this, therefore it must mean that I have this personality trait ».

Not convinced? There are lots of papers out there showing that this is actually what happens in our brains (I think the term is coherent arbitrariness, I recommend Dan Ariely’s books if you’re interested). The most compelling proof is that it works even when the decision in the past was *not* yours but you *believe* it was yours, and even if the past information has absolutely no link with the choice you must make in the present! I can actually think about some parents using this kind of tricks with their kids (« I know you will behave, because you’re a good boy »or »A nice boy like you does not hit his friends, does he? » can actually convince a rough kid to play nice), and some adults too. And it’s not just about the fear to disappoint.

We act as if we don’t know what kind of person we’re like, but instead have to guess it from our past choices. A series of psychology experiments also showed that if you can convince someone that they chose X over Y in whatever situation the past, and then ask them to justify that choice, they will come up with reasons why they absolutely prefer X and why X was obviously the rational choice for them and how they would totally choose X again if in the same situation… Even if in reality, what they had chosen was Y. We also use other hints from our environment to « guess who we are », like the opinion that others have of us, or what objects we own, but ultimately  it seems to be reduced to choices we made.

So identity is not a rock hard concept embedded in you, but rather something that your brain tries to reconstruct when necessary. And, oh look! Unsurprisingly, the same goes for memory. A long time ago, science thought that memories where stored in the brain and retrieved as a block when necessary. But all recent science paints a very different picture. Memories are reconstructed from diverse bits every time you need them, not retrieved intact from some storage place in your brain. And this reconstruction itself tends to modify the memories. This is partly the reason why it is possible to induce false memories of the past in people just by influencing their present environment (yes, science did it… and it worked).

To summarize, your image of yourself (memories, preferences, personality traits) is not fixed, but gets reconstructed by your brain in real time, using whatever is found in your memory. This memory itself tends to change when accessed. You then base your present and future behaviour on this reconstructed image of yourself. Therefore, the stability I was looking for in the last post emerges from a loop:

– You make choices that get summarized and partially stored in your memory

– You rely on these memory bricks to re-build memories of what you have done in the past

– You use these memories to build an reconstruction of your own identity

– You make new choices based on this identity

– Start again from the beginning of the loop.

If this is true, it shines a new light on the effects of a disease like Alzheimer. People with this condition start by losing their ability to build new memories. They become unable to remember what just happened, then forget events further and further in the past. Family members often say things like « this is not the person I knew » or report feeling like talking to a stranger. Well imagine what happens if you become unable to complete the loop above because your ability to form new memories is impaired. You make choices that you forget immediately. You are forced to rely on older and older memories for identity-building, but the memory-bricks of these memories change when you access them and fail to be re-stored, making even that part of you more fragile. At some point you’re left with only some disparate fragments of old things to build your identity with. Then it’s not surprising that you’re a total stranger for people who thought they knew you.

This also works for some forms of amnesia. People remembering abilities (speaking their mother tongue, riding a bicycle), but with no memories from their previous life. If tastes and preferences were hard wired in the brain somehow, you would expect these persons to still like the same food and appreciate the same hobbies. But it is not what happens. Instead, they end up with a brand new set of tastes and a whole new personality, an new identity. Which would not be very surprising if my stability loop really is what happens in their brain, in mine and in yours.

 

I would like to finish this post by a part on artificial intelligence, of course. I think the following network-based system would be able to exhibit a form of stability, despite underlying instability:

– First we need a short term memory, to store recent events quickly. Add a necessarily slower long term memory with a « summarizing system », to analyse the short term memory, store the bits that look important, and erase the rest. We also need a mechanism to re-build past events from bits found in the long term memory.

– Our system’s behaviour must be heavily based on rebuilt past events. By making choices, the system imprints it behaviour on the environment. These prints then go through the memory system.

Then my prediction is that even if the structure of the system changes drastically and completely over time, and even if storage errors tend to happen, and even if just about everything is unstable in the system, the behaviour of the system will be very stable. And if among stable systems this one is the minimally complicated, then the result of artificial evolution project I described in my previous post should look a lot like this one. This is important, because to be useful, a theory must be able to make predictions. Then if the prediction is correct, it is a good sign that there is some truth in the theory.  My theory is that the « stability loop » exists in humans and in just about every biological system in need of stable behaviour, and my prediction is that it emerges when there is selection pressure for stability applied on unstable systems.

This is the end of this post. I should definitely add the references to the papers I’m mentioning, but then writing these posts would take me as long as writing an actual paper!

The Emperor’s New Mind – Chinese room and stability

I recently started reading this 1989 book by Sir Roger Penrose: The Emperor’s New Mind . The interesting thing is, although I disagree with a lot of what is written (the book is a bit old), the logic of it is very interesting. Therefore instead of feeling frustrated (looking at you, book on mirror neurons…), I feel stimulated by these disagreements.

Today I would like to think about the Chinese room thought experiment. It was devised by Searle, but I never really understood why it was interesting until I read Penrose’s narration.

Summary of the experiment as I understand it: you’re an English speaker who cannot speak Chinese. You are in a room where you can receive a set of Chinese characters arranged to form a question. You must arrange another set of Chinese characters as to answer that question. You also have a set of rules, written in English, that allows you to perform the task while still not understanding a single word of Chinese. These rules are algorithmic, so you can execute them « mechanically » without actually having to think about anything. If we take a native Chinese speaker to stand outside of the room, devise the questions and receive your answers, for them it is exactly as if you could really speak Chinese.

The question is: can we truthfully say that you can actually speak and understand Chinese, just because you act as if you could? In Artificial Intelligence terms: can we say that a robot is intelligent or understands something, just because it runs algorithms making it act as if it were intelligent? Which comes with another question in the book: are there tasks that cannot be reduced to algorithms, and therefore will never be reached by an algorithmic approach to AI?

From here, I will expose my own thoughts on the subject.

First of all, what would a non-algorithmic approach to something look like? Since I was little, long before I learned about computer programming, I always tended to execute things in an algorithmic way (« do thing T1 until condition C1 is met. Then do T2. If condition C2, stop. Alternate T3 and T4 in exact proportions. »). This really is my default approach to anything from sweeping the floor to eating cookies, so the question of « non-algorithmic » processing is a hard one for me. My current answer looks something like this:

  • Algorithms take digital inputs
  • The structure of a given algorithm is extremely stable, it does not change (although that would make for a very interesting algorithm indeed)
  • Processing can be « parallel-like » but never truly parallel
  • Therefore algorithms have a finite number of states

So what would an extreme non-algorithm look like?

  • Analog inputs
  • Unstable structure, that is a structure that is changed by the influx of inputs itself
  • « Extremely parallel » processing
  • Therefore, an infinite number of states

This kind of processing system would have interesting properties. For example, the fact that the passage of information itself changes the structure of the system creates a form of memory, which influences the system without needing to be « retrieved » (as you would need with an algorithm). In addition, if you allow true parallel processing, any « piece of information » currently transiting in the system can be directly influenced (multiplied, added etc) or indirectly influenced (by changes in the structure of the system) by all the other information currently transiting the system.

But we now have a new problem. How can such an unstable system produce anything interesting? If similar inputs always produce a completely different behaviour (output) of your system, it is basically useless (but certainly artistic in some way). Imagine an animal that would once eat food, once avoid the same food, once rotate on itself in presence of food etc. The specie would not survive a single day, and you would certainly not call it intelligent. The same goes for a robot.

So we do need some kind of stability. We need it to emerge from that unstable system. What a powerful system that would be! Patently unstable when you look at it from too close, yet having some elements of stability when you zoom out. By the way, it is probably obvious by now, but networks are an easy way of building a system exhibiting the 4 non-algorithmic properties I thought of.  This is not completely intentional, I really wanted to find something more general, but anyway. Let’s go with networks. Back to stability: stability emerging from fundamental instability sounds a little bit like magic to me, and I don’t like that. But I think we have the same problem with our own brain: a network of neurons, always undergoing lots of changes. New neurons are born, some die, the structure changes all the time. Yet your image of yourself, what you think about your own identity, is relatively stable. Your daily behaviour is mostly stable and predictable. Something must be « passed along » despite all these changes in your brain. Maybe it is the fact that most changes are quite slow? But this answer is very unsatisfying to me.

One way to find an answer to this specific kind of difficult questions in a creative way is to use artificial evolution, and I think « evolving stability from instability » would be an awesome, and totally doable project. I might take it as a side project actually, because it really sounds super interesting to me and of course, it relates to my research. And from here I would like to go back to the Chinese room experiment. My answer to the question « would you say that the person in the room understands Chinese » was « yes » a few months ago. Now my answer is: « No, but who built the algorithm in the first place? »

I think the original problem leaves out a very important part of the experiment. The system is not complete if you do not include the person who built the algorithm in the first place. If you include them, then yes, without a doubt, the system « English speaker + algorithm + person who built the algorithm » can and does understand Chinese. I rarely have original ideas, so I suppose someone else said it before me. But what if we want to take the algorithm programmer out of the system? After all, an AI that is intelligent only if you take the AI programmer into consideration is not A nor I. So let’s assume that the Chinese room algorithm was evolved using artificial evolution. Let’s leave aside the details to focus on the results. Now you have a system (algorithm+English speaker) which evolved to speak Chinese like a Chinese person on one hand, and an Chinese person who is also the product of (natural) evolution on the other hand.

We have two possibilities. Possibility 1: the artificial and the natural system perform the same task of answering Chinese questions in Chinese, but in different ways. Then we must accept that there are 2 ways to speak Chinese (the system’s way, and the Chinese way). And one will necessarily be more efficient than the other. So either « understanding Chinese » is not the most efficient way to speak Chinese, which is not very likely! Or the system stumbled upon a not efficient way to speak Chinese without actually understanding Chinese, in which case we can repeat the artificial evolution process as many times as necessary with as many parameters as we want, until we find the « most efficient » way to speak Chinese (that is, understanding it). That leads us to Possibility 2: the artificial and the natural system perform the same task of answering Chinese questions in Chinese, in the same way. Of course the exact mechanisms cannot be the same, as the two systems are different, but at a slightly zoomed out level, both systems take a Chinese question in input, understand it, and answer in Chinese.

My point is that if you evolved to solve a task, you will likely do it in a very efficient way. And if you solve the task in the more efficient way possible, who can pretend that they « understand » the task better than you? It seems to me that that is not even the question anymore. On a related note, what do you think has a greater potential for learning and evolution: a stable system with everything neatly arranged in « if … then » branches, or a system born to create relative stability from instability? Seems to me that one of those is pretty close to the very definitions of « evolution » and « learning ».

Twitter

Un tres court post pour vous annoncer ma venue sur Twitter.

Est-ce une bonne idee de me disperser dans les social media alors que le blog est presque mort ? Je n’en sais rien, mais ce qui est sur c’est que j’ai plein de trucs a vous raconter sur le Japon, et pas vraiment de temps… Je sors donc de ma grotte anti-facebook-twitter-googleplus pour tester ce nouveau format: les tweets avec photos dedans. (mais vraiment que ca, donc ne vous attendez pas a une reactivite d’enfer si vous me hashtaggez/twittez/messagez, les reseaux sociaux c’est vraiment pas mon truc…)

Ce sera principalement en anglais, mais je developperai les truc les plus interessants en francais ici meme (si j’arrive a prendre mon courage a deux mains). Toutes mes excuses aux non-twittereux et non-anglishpones en avance, et pour les autres suivez-moi @cyber_octopus (pas besoin d’etre inscrit sur Twitter, mes tweets sont publics: http://twitter.com/cyber_octopus ) !

Oncle Picsou

Wow ! Il y a tellement de nouvelles choses a raconter mais j’ai tellement peu de temps libre…
Dois-je commencer par la glace aux spaghetti, par comment j’ai par erreur fini dans un love hotel d’où m’a sauvée mon super-tuteur ? Par le chouette debut de mon stage, et ma nuit dans le mythique Sunrise Seto ? Et dire que tout ca c’est passe en globalement 2 semaines !

Bref, je crois que je vais commencer par la porsche, parce que comme ca c’est presque chronologique. Comment ca, « quelle porsche » ? Ne vous ai-je pas raconte comment j’ai gagne 5mn dans une porsche decapotable, juste en sifflant le conducteur ? Non non, ce n’est pas du tout ce que vous vous imaginez. N’allez pas me faire un reputation bizarre a cause de ces histoires de love hotel…

Or donc, je suis actuellement en stage a l’universite de Tokyo, mais avant ca il a fallu que je boucle tout mon programme a l’unversite de Tohoku. Ce qui signifie qu’en deux semaines j’ai prepare 2 exposes, ecrit un article scientifique et prepare un dossier de bourse de 10 pages, sans oublier de faire les demarches de stage et de nettoyer mon appart a Sendai, tout en participant a deux reunions franco-japonaises. Autant dire que dormir 7h en 5 jours est devenu une obligation.

C’est dans ces conditions qu’un beau matin a 11h, j’ai recu un mail qui disait: « Salut Lana-chan. Je serai a Sendai ce midi, ca te dit d’aller boire un the ? »
C’etait Usami-san, mon role-modele japonais (pour faire court, un type qui a fait la meilleure universite du japon tout en faisant des courses/rallies de moto/voitures et a traversé l’asie du sud-est en voiture en solitaire avant de se faire embaucher par Honda). Bien qu’on ait echange quelques mails, je ne l’avais pas vu depuis 3 ans: autant dire que je pouvais difficilement refuser.
Alors que je marchais vers le point de rendez-vous, qui donc me dépasse en faisant vrombir sa Porsche Boxter  S décapotable ? Usami-san of course, sauf que sans la voiture je ne l’aurais pas remarqué: locks rasta de 30cm de long, lunettes de mouche et chaine en or pour completer le tableau. Bref rien a voir avec le look permanente décolorée bouclée de mes souvenirs… Lui non plus ne m’avait pas vue et partait en direction inverse du point de rendez-vous, donc j’ai du siffler entre mes doigts pour qu’il s’arrête et me laisse monter (une scène certainement très bizarrement interprétée par les badauds…)

... rutilante

… rutilante

IMG_4943

 

En fait Usami-san a eu un parcours qui ressemble vaguement au mien, mais un peu a l’envers: il a été à l’université de Tohoku puis a fait son master a l’université de Tokyo, a pris 1 an de repos puis est entré chez Honda. Moi j’ai fait Honda pendant mon année de repos, puis Tohoku, et j’aimerais bien rentrer à Tokyo. Et pourquoi pas après revenir à Honda, puisque c’est là qu’apparemment Usami-san est devenu riche… Car oui, la porsche et la chaine en or, c’est parce qu’en deux ans a bosser à la cool chez Honda il est passé d’étudiant fauché qui peut pas se payer un hotel quand il vadrouille, à plutôt bien riche si j’ai compris. Et quand je dis qu’il bosse a la cool, c’est que le nombre d’heures obligatoires au bureau est de 30… par mois. Thème de recherche libre, pas d’obligation d’écrire des articles, et il n’écrit pas une ligne de code de la journée (pour info son thème de recherche c’est les voitures autonomes qui se conduisent toutes seules, donc normalement il faut quand meme savoir programmer). Bref je suppose qu’il a du obtenir des hyper super resultats pour se retrouver là !

Bref, après avoir fait un tour dans sa frimante voiture et discuté un moment, on est allé voir son ancien directeur de labo, qui a insité lourdement pour que je sois africaine mais fait du très bon café, et s’est finalement exclamé: « Quoi ! Tu vas travailler tous les jours habillé comme *ça* ?! »

*Ca* faisant réference aux locks évidemment, mais aussi au piercing géant et chaine en or avec pendentif rutilant, sans oublier le sarouel bizarre (personne ne s’habille comme ça au Japon, si vous en doutiez) dans une entreprise où le costard cravate est censé être la norme.

Après avoir choqué son ancien prof avec des noirs qui sont pas africains (« mais tes parents, ils SONT africains avoue ? ») et des salariés sarouelés, Usami-san est reparti dans sa chouette voiture dreadlocks au vent, et moi je suis retournée dans mon labo pour 20h supplémentaires de labeur solitaire.
Cela dit c’est aussi lui qui m’a suggéré d’aller démarcher des labos de Tokyo pour voir si je ne pouvais pas m’enfuir de Tohoku, et donc c’est un peu (beaucoup) grace à lui que je fais en ce moment même un stage dans un labo vraiment génial*. Alors je me sens un peu obligée de considérer son offre de sauter la case « doctorat » et d’essayer de me faire directement embaucher par HRI. Hé, moi aussi je veux être riche !

*Quand une collègue fait tomber son parapluie, mon supérieur shoote fort dedans d’un air triomphant (sa collègue est un peu comme ça aussi, alors ils sont copains comme cochons). Il chante dans le train, et est pris d’envies subites de danser dans les musées. Il dit des mensonges gros comme une maison sans ciller, et répond une fois « Oui! » une fois « Non! » si on lui pose 2 fois la meme question a une minute d’intervalle. Il interrompt sa présentation devant 40 personnes pour apostropher un pauvre collègue d’un retentissant: « Hé ! Ce slide je l’ai mis juste pour contredire ton papier de l’an dernier. Qu’est ce que t’en penses ? », le slide en question étant un scan de notes manuscrites illisibles. Mon prof a une figure un peu terrifiante, mais en vrai il est hilarant… dans un style un peu spécial. Il a 53 ans, et exactement 2 cheveux blancs.

PS: je n’oublie pas la glace aux pates.

Publié dans Sendai, Tokyo. 4 Comments »

Divers

Je n’ai pas d’inspiration pour le titre de ce post, mais ca va parler de multicopters, de nourriture et de boissons !

Commençons par un update sur mon article sur les quadrocopters: après des recherches que j’imagine intensives, mon agent (OK: mon père…) a trouvé trace sur le net du fameux papier. Ce qui m’a rappelé que Honda mettait ses articles en accès libre sur son site web. Voilà donc où vous pouvez trouver mon papier: http://honda-ri.jp/publications/ , « Recently published papers », mois de Mars, le seul lien en anglais qui porte mon nom.  Ou ici, cliquez sur le bouton « pdf ». Autant que je vous prévienne: si vous comprenez rien c’est pas grave, mon superviseur non plus. Non seulement le papier est mal écrit (je sais pas pourquoi mais apparemment je suis la seule à être nulle à ce point en écriture de papiers…), mais en plus à cause de ça si vous êtes pas spécialiste en « Multicopter localization using sound landmarks » vous allez avoir du mal. (sachant que vu que c’est mon papier, c’est moi l’unique spécialiste mondial…)

Bref, passons aux choses sérieuses ! En dépit des occasionnelles déconvenues, je continue à me précipiter sur les boissons bizarres qui apparaissent au détour d’une bouteille de thé glacé. Aujourd’hui en rayon nous avons le jus de tomate pétillant au gingembre:

Tomash tomato soda

… Qui en dépit de tout bon sens, s’est révélé être vraiment délicieux. Rafraichissant, un peu salé, un peu sucré, un peu piquant… Malheureusement peu de gens ont du être du même avis que moi, car il a disparu des magasins en tout juste 2 semaines. RIP Tomash T_T

Je vous présente également cette incongruité:

White cola

Le white cola de noel (ouais ça date), au gout de bonbon Coca Cola fondu (vous savez ceux en forme de bouteille). Super sucré et super artificiel comme goût, autant un bonbon ça va, mais alors 250ml c’est vraiment trop. Il m’a servi à déboucher l’évier du labo. Vous auriez du voir comment c’était tout propre après…

Pour finir cet onglet boissons, mon compagnon des soirs de fête:

Japanese Cider

Et ouais, du cidre japonais ma bonne dame, fait avec des vraies pommes et tout ! L’une des rares boissons que j’aie pu acheter au japon dont la liste des ingrédients tient en une seule ligne. 3% d’alcool, je suis nulle en vins mais j’aime bien ce cidre, il est doux et pas excessivement pétillant (pas comme certains où tu te retrouves avec que de la mousse dans la bouche).

Et maintenant passons à la nourriture, en commençant par le « oden » organisé par mon labo il y a quelques mois:

self-made oden

Le oden c’est un peu difficile à décrire. En gros il y a toutes sortes de petites « éponges » à base de pâte de poisson, avec des différences de consistance, de fabrication et d’ingrédients, qu’on plonge dans un bain aromatique avec quelques légumes. C’est un croisement entre une soupe et une pochette surprise, et en fait c’est vachement bon. On en vend aussi dans les magasins, et je n’ai mangé quasiment que ça pendant une semaine après en avoir découvert l’existence.

Continuons avec un truc bizarre dont j’ai oublié le nom:

Un-yukimi daifuku

La consistance du coeur blanc était la même que celle d’un marshmallow fondu, le tout enrobé de nutella basse qualité, avec un extérieur en mochi (pâte de riz). C’était un peu ecoeurant, honnêtement ca vaut pas un yukimi daifuku (je sais pas si j’ai déjà parlé de ce délicieux dessert ? une glace enrobée d’une couche de mochi glacé et saupoudré de sucre glace… Mmmm !)

Pour finir, un teaser que si j’ai le temps j’enverrai un article à Eat’n Waf, parce qu’il le vaut bien:

Napolitan Pasta flavoured ice cream... WTF  Garigari-kun?!?

Napolitan Pasta flavoured ice cream… WTF Garigari-kun?!?

 

Oui, c’est bien une glace.

Publié dans Mini Post, Sendai. Mots-clés : , , . 1 Comment »
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