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Princeton’s annual “Art of Science” contest is open to students, faculty, staff and alumni, and aims to prove that science is beautiful–these images were created during the course of research. The 56 winners of the 2011 Art of Science contest represent this year’s broadly interpreted theme of “intelligent design”, and were chosen by a panel based on their purely visual qualities as well as scientific interest. The images will also be included in an exhibition at the university, up through November 2012. As the website says: “The Art of Science exhibition explores the interplay between science and art. These practices both involve the pursuit of those moments of discovery when what you perceive suddenly becomes more than the sum of its parts. Each piece in this exhibition is, in its own way, a record of such a moment.” All images courtesy Princeton University’s Art of Science Competition.

This flower-like shape is actually a ferrofluid, a liquid mixed with small metallic particles. Ferrofluids, which are used in electronics, spacecraft and medicine, can have the properties of either a liquid or a solid, depending on whether a magnetic field is present. Unlike a flower floating on a pond, here the “flower” (the magnetized part on top) and the “water” underneath are the same material. Photo credit: Elle Starkman

This is not a dandelion. This image shows two superimposed scanning electron micrographs of zinc oxide nanostructures, whose applications include the harvesting of solar energy. This image was an accident—the structures should be vertically oriented, but they didn’t come out right due to surface contamination. The researchers were able, ultimately, to manufacture the right configuration, but the results turned out to be less visually interesting. Photo credits: Luisa Whittaker and Yueh-Lin Loo

A Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly. The grainier images, at bottom left and top, show a simulated compound-eye view of how one butterfly would see another from different distances. At 18 centimeters—the view at top right and the typical courtship distance for the species—if either the eye or the butterfly moves slightly, large portions of the image flash back and forth between all orange and all black. Photo credit: Henry S. Horn

A look inside a generator. The coils on the campus generator above were visible for a few days during its first 10-year preventive maintenance shutdown. The generator can produce enough electricity to power about 60% of the peak load of buildings connected to the campus grid. Photo credit: William Evans

The crystal structures in this piezo electric material were formed while placed under high temperature and pressure. This particular material is being studied because of its unique ability to convert mechanical energy to electrical energy offering a wide range of energy harvesting application. Photo credits: Nan Yao, Gerald Poirier, Shiyou Xu

To understand the fundamental building blocks of nature, scientists create large particle accelerators to accelerate and collide beams of particles. To understand the accelerators themselves, scientists create smaller machines to simulate the behavior of these beams of particles.
A small tabletop version was created using a ring stand from a chemistry laboratory, two metal spheres, and a power supply that creates an electrical potential of several thousand volts. When this voltage oscillates at 60 Hertz and drop small dust particles into the gap between the ring and the spheres, it is possible to clearly see the charged particles. In this demonstration the dust grains are charged and are alternately pushed and pulled by the oscillating voltage. Since they are heavy, and the voltage oscillates quickly, the particles never have time to get pushed or pulled all the way out of the system — they stay trapped. Photo credits: Elle Starkman, Joe Caroll, Gary Stark, Andy Carpe Erik Gilson

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In the final installment of the series (Parts One, Two, Three, Four), we look at the export possibilities for Japanese culture when the “most popular” goods and works are increasingly being made by and for marginal subcultures without obvious analogs overseas.

Part Five: The Difficulty of Exporting Marginal Subcultures

Marketing guru Kawaguchi Morinosuke’s recent book Geeky Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturist’s Guide to Technology and Design posits that corporate Japan needs to take more guidance from otaku and gyaru. There is an important point to this — these are now the most influential and powerful groups in Japanese pop culture and should not be ignored out of snobbery. And maybe their obsessive spirit has applicable lessons for industry management. Yet we should not be naive about this either in a wider context: the products actually made within these subcultures are increasingly losing their resonance overseas.

Until now, you could divide Japan’s successful consumer exports into three groups:

(1) technological/industrial goods like cars and electronics
(2) kids’ products like video games, toys, comic books, and pens/stationary
(3) sophisticated cultural goods like fashion brands, indie music, and literature.

Other than automobiles, Japan has lost its edge on high-tech goods. Korean rival Samsung has almost singlehandedly taken over the space once monopolized by Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, and Sharp. And with the decreasing number of children, greater competition from the U.S. on video games, and a general move away from gadget culture, Japan is also struggling to export kids’ products. Meanwhile most of Japan’s successful cutting-edge culture exports — Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Shonen Knife, The Boredoms A Bathing Ape, Comme des Garçons, Hiromix, Murakami Takashi — came from a scene that has ceased to be high-profile in Japan.

This last category, while minor in terms of actual sales, did a lot of the legwork for boosting the Japan “brand” in the 1990s, especially among the cultural elite in the U.S. and Europe. The reason is simple: the artistic works spoke the language of upper middle-class aesthetes overseas. Furthermore these artists made an easy match with the West because they played with iterations of ideas originally created in The West: avant-garde art and fashion, street culture as defined by US/UK, punk rock, lounge music, etc. In general, the successful products and artistic works had something “universal” (i.e., “Western”) at their core, which made them more easily exportable. Overall Japanese culture found warm reception where the consuming groups in the West were similar to the Japanese creators in class position and values. We take for granted that Miyamoto Shigeru’s art-school tastes appealed subconsciously to the richer American youth who bought up the NES in droves during the mid-1980s.

What we have not seen, however, are good consumer comparisons overseas to the psychologically tortured Japanese subcultures like contemporary otaku or the yankii/gyaru. Mass market anime like Naruto and Gundam are relatively easy to export as they were built for “normal” youth. That cannot be said about moe titles that are meant to satisfy older men obsessed with two-dimensional elementary school girls. Similarly, no gyaru clothing brand has more retail stores overseas than the avant-garde Comme des Garçons, despite gyaru clothing’s huge business in Japan and CDG’s highly-limited audience. At least from what we have seen from the big subcultural moments in the last decade, the culture of Japan’s marginal pluralities is almost unexportable.

Let’s look again at AKB48 on YouTube — a global site where anyone can watch videos from anywhere else around the world. Based on the public viewership data for “Heavy Rotation” and other AKB48 videos, the vast majority of views for AKB48 come from the group’s domestic fan base. In other words, no other country than Japan contributes to AKB48’s multi-million view count despite the fact that the videos are available worldwide and AKB48 is the overwhelmingly dominant group in Japanese pop at the moment. AKB48’s seemingly-massive popularity in Japan make them the number one favorite for J-Pop exportation. Yet no one non-Japanese is watching their videos — even in light of a “Japan Cool” wave and the popularity of YouTube all around the world. Compare AKB48’s videos to the insight map for “The Boys” by Girls Generation (SNSD) in Korea, who have had massive success in Japan and whose YouTube stats show a very wide global audience.

In most countries with growing economies, educated upper-middle class consumers still spearhead the consumer market. They have the most disposable income and the most interest in cultural exchange. And those consumers, whether it’s Taiwan or the U.K., are the ones most likely to be willing to follow and purchase foreign cultural items.

Currently, however, the most conspicuous Japanese culture of otaku and yankii represents value sets with little connection to affluent consumers elsewhere. Most men around the world are not wracked by such deep status insecurity that they want to live in a world where chesty two-dimensional 12 year-old girls grovel at their feet and call them big brother. The average university student in Paris is likely to read Murakami Haruki and may listen to a Japanese DJ but not wear silky long cocktail dresses or fake eyelashes from a brand created by a 23 year-old former divorcee hostess with two kids. Overseas consumers remain affluent, educated, and open to Japanese culture, but Japan’s pop culture complex — by increasingly catering to marginal groups (or ignoring global tastes, which is another problem altogether) — is less likely to create products relevant for them.

This is not to say that the emergence of otaku and yankii culture is insignificant for Japan. This wave has finally given material and cultural expression to pockets of society that had a hard time voicing their experience in the past. The rich Tokyo elite enjoyed a disproportionately high influence over national culture for decades, and now the two marginal groups have taken the elite’s place in dominating the direction of pop. When it comes to “fairness” and democracy, this is the least elitist that Japanese culture has ever been. But we have replaced one kind of distortion with another, and we still should not confuse these subcultures’ tastes with being truly “mainstream.”

One of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter’s teachings is that companies that are competitive overseas come from domestic markets where they have local competition and must learn to please demanding local consumers. The more advanced the consumers, the more advantage a company has in eventually exporting its products when other consumers catch up. Apple’s success with the iPod came from the product’s direct targeting of tech-savvy American college students and former college students who had massive libraries of mp3s stuck on computers and wanted to take them out on the streets. Girls Generation worked to best other idol groups in Korea through highly skilled dancing, singing, and a song library purchased from European producers.

Japan’s consumer market meanwhile is becoming increasingly dominated by technological and cultural laggards. The peak “Japan Cool” came at a time in the 1990s when the average Japanese was intentionally or inadvertently consuming highly sophisticated culture, and the pressures to please them gave Japanese companies the training to be globally competitive. Cultural producers tried to one-up each other in coolness.

Japanese companies now face a true crisis: Appealing to the most powerful consumers in Japan will lead them away from tastes and values that can be easily exported overseas. AKB48 may be opening vanity branches in Taiwan and Jakarta, but will the world inherently be interested in an idol group meant to please a small group of men’s reactionary attitudes towards women and desire for songs that ignore the last twenty years of musical change? And as we’ve seen with the success of K-Pop in Japan, companies cannot automatically protect the domestic market against invasion. When the mainstream consumers do see something they like, that reflects their values in a way that otaku and gyaru content does not, they pounce. But until they reawaken as a consistent consumer force or rebuild cultural online to be less centered around product purchase, we are likely to stay within the current situation — where marginal subcultures rule the school.

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The other day I was asked if I were going to study abroad in Japan again, (which I totally would love to do! Work sucks!) would I advise applying to a Tokyo university or one out in the country? It seems to be a pretty common question, so I thought if I wrote a reply here weighing up what I perceive to be the benefits and drawbacks of both, it might help a few people make their decision. As such, this post isn’t exactly super interesting if you’re not ever planning to study in Japan but, I think some of it can probably apply to people planning to make a trip or work out here, too.

Reasons Tokyo Is Awesome

Painfully obvious things first – everything you could ever need is in Tokyo. You want to go bowling? There’s at least three bowling alleys near you. You want to eat in a Syrian restaurant? If there even are any in Japan, you can wager they’re located somewhere inside the capital. You want to form a 70s Jazz-Death Metal-Techno fusion band and need to find some people with similarly odd musical tastes? Well there’s no better place than Tokyo!

Furthermore, Tokyo has the most English speakers in all of Japan, and probably the most able ones, too. That’s not to say everyone here is fluent, far from it, but when you wander into a mobile phone store and try to work your way through the confusing registration process in English, you’re more likely to succeed than if you did the same thing in the middle of nowhere, where the reaction is usually to throw holy water at you and hide in a circle of salt. For people less confident in their Japanese, I’d say a Tokyo university is probably better.

Finally, Tokyo universities in general offer more courses, particularly in English. This may not be entirely accurate but having spoken to people who exchanged both inside and outside Tokyo, it seems like Tokyo universities offer a wider selection of modules, especially when it comes to anything to do with international relations, politics, business and so on. If you’re coming over because you’ve been studying Japanese along with a major in international something or other, Tokyo might well be better for you.

Reasons Tokyo Isn’t So Good

I think, based on what my classmates told me when we all came back to England a year ago, that it’s easier to make Japanese friends and find a community outside of Tokyo. That’s not to say there aren’t Japanese people to meet in Tokyo (in fact, I hear there’s quite a few!) but generally speaking community life and the idea of knowing all your neighbors doesn’t really happen in the same way. It sounded like the rural universities (as they are called, even if they’re in Osaka or other colossal cities) offer more of a slice of Japanese life rather than a slice of Japanese university life, if that makes sense.

Next, Tokyo has the most English speakers, far more than the countryside. Now I know what you’re thinking – Mike, you just said this above, stop repeating yourself, it makes you sound insane. But the fact is if you’re interested in immersing yourself in Japanese and using it 24/7, Tokyo is not the place to go. I spent a good amount of time in Sophia urging people I knew to speak Japanese and trying to find friends who wouldn’t spend thirty seconds nodding at my Japanese and then just hit me with a load of English. In the end I had a few friends who were happy to speak Japanese and I eventually managed to find a sports circle which did not contain a single native English speaker, but other than them I really didn’t bother spending time with many Sophia students. If you are similarly minded, you might want to consider not going to Tokyo.

Finally, it’s so much cheaper to live in the countryside. Food is cheaper. Rent is *so* much cheaper. Again, I’m not super read up on how much universities in the countryside cost, and as I entered Sophia through my university and thus paid fees to England not Japan, I am not really that read up on prices of Tokyo, either. But it’s almost certainty noticably cheaper.

In Conclusion

Should you go to Tokyo? Or should you brave the wilderness? To be honest, the answer is ‘I don’t know’. It really depends on what you want to do. If you love nightlife, international networking, electronics and so on, or if you’re more interested in non-language studies, I’d say Tokyo is probably a better choice. If you want to really throw yourself at the language and have people stare at you with a mix of fear and puzzlement on their face, the countryside is calling out to you.

I hope in this blog post I’ve sort of explained a few reasons you might want to consider one or the other, or at least I hope it’s brought up a few more issues to think about before you take the plunge. If you have any other questions feel free to leave a comment or use the contact form above. Happy exchanging!

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