Just back from a quick trip to Japan, I thought I'd write up some thoughts and observations about the trip from a technology point of view.
All told, Japan is a far more technologically integrated country than any other I've visited. Much of this integration is borne from necessity (population density) and through organic processes (what originated as an electronic money system for the railways has morphed into a general e-wallet accepted at many points of sale).
Transport: technology in transport includes automated ticket machines, turnstiles which recognize both of the major electronic wallet formats (which are also embedded in mobile devices), extremely precise timetable execution, conductors carrying wireless, touchscreen ticket verification systems which are integrated with the carriages themselves (when they've verified your ticket, the light above your seat indicates the verification).
In addition to the Japanese side of the trip, traveling on Canada Air was a pretty up to date experience. The 777 had USB and socket outlets on each seat. The touchscreen entertainment system was available for use at the gate (I was already 30 mins into a movie before we took off). On the downside, the video watching experience appears to have morphed into an advertisement pushing channel from which you had to literally look away to avoid given that the screen was only inches away from your face.
Entertainment: all of the consumer electronic stores I visited in both Akihabara and elsewhere were full of 3D TV offerings from all the major flat screen manufacturers. The Sony Building in Ginza (which I understand is to be closed down in the near future) was transformed into a 3D aquarium with all of the floors featuring 3D technology and amazing videos of coral reefs, sharks, etc. Some TVs are boasting the ability to recognize the emotions of the human face, but I couldn't quite figure out what they were doing with the results!
Mobile Devices: I live in the Seattle area which is probably a very biased sample of the US in terms of mobile device use. On the bus I take to commute, iPhone adoption is extremely high, as is Kindle and iPad use. In Japan, with a quite different sample of observations on public transport, iPhones were far less prevalent - passengers tending to use the type of device with a physical keyboard. In addition, I only spotted one iPad (and that in the lobby of a hotel) and no other type of reading device. The Japanese have maintained the original form factor of the pocket paperback book (i.e. a paperback book you can actually fit in your pocket) - and that was still clearly popular. Public telephone kiosks seem to be disappearing (though nothing like to the extent in the US).
Search Engines: no-one has heard of Bing, or the fact that Microsoft has a search engine. It was big news when the Yahoo! Google partnership was announced while I was there (Yahoo! Japan is not the same company as Yahoo!). Google is running billboard advertisements for its browser (Chrome).
Tech Corporations: Two well known corporations in Japan (Rakuten and Uniqlo) have or are switching to English as their official corporate language. This is a pretty interesting change and highlights their international ambitions.
While technology is a big part of Japanese culture, much of it is used to support something that can't be packaged and automated - high quality customer service. The dedication and attention to detail one gets as a consumer or traveler in Japan is incredible and often not related to the amount one is paying.
The BBC writes about an effort in the UK to use crowd sourcing to populate data recording the number of different types of butterflies: the Big Butterfly Count. Participants are asked to spend 15 minutes spotting butterflies and moths. The data, currently 5121 sightings (24 hours later, 5866), is displayed on a map.
A couple of thoughts. Firstly, I think the data could be displayed in a far more engaging manner with a heat map of some sort, with the ability to show clusters of different species at least. The following is an inefficient way to show the data for a species:
Secondly, I wonder if Twitter could be used in some way to channel the data - one could even tweet a picture to the project. That way, the data could be verified and it would come with geolocation and time associated.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the site suffers from the age old problem of inadvertent-tab-ellipsis-renaming:
Almost twenty years ago, I recall coming across a paper (either in the AI library in Edinburgh, or the Computer Science library in Cambridge) which described an augmented reality approach to that most intractable of problems: fixing printers.
A number of forces have conspired to allow me to access a reference to that paper (Google's crawl/search, my memory being prompted repeatedly by augmented reality applications on mobile devices).
At any rate, I suspect the image below, from a document with a 1993 time stamp, may be one of the earliest incarnation of augmented reality. Feiner,
S., MacIntyre, B., and Seligmann, D. (1993) "Knowledge-Based
Augmented Reality." Communications of the ACM, Vol. 36(7),
Looking around now, what will be hitting mainstream in 17 years?
I'm re-reading Mosteller's Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability With Solutions while traveling in Japan. This is absolutely one of my favourite books (not least because it is such a tiny volume). Fredrick Mosteller was "one of the most eminent statisticians of the 20th century" (according to Wikipedia), and a statistician who was passionate about education. The book actually has 56 problems, generally simply stated, like the following:
A drawer contains red socks and black socks. When two socks are drawn at random, the probability that they are red is 1/2. (a) How small can the number of socks in the drawer be? (b) How small if the number of black socks is even?
Reading the problems in this book lead me to thinking about what constitutes a 'good' puzzle. Personally, I like those problems that have one or more of the following qualities:
Counter-intuitive: the birthday problem is like this, 23 sounds like a low number.
Relies on basic number theory: Mosteller's problems require things like working with geometric series, binomial coefficents, etc.
Motivates you to think probablistically about things that you don't generally consider in that way: for me, those problems involving randomly throwing sticks on a table are fun (but I do remember Johnny Ball performing this experiment live once on the BBC...)
Problems that seem recursive but can be solved simply.
Entertainingly cast as a brief story (e.g., a three person dual).
Intruigingly, Mosteller's solutions, while nicely written with an engaging informality, still require concentration, especially when they skip a few steps on route to the prize. Generally, he demonstrates a great way to attack the problems by first playing with a few examples, and then running through one or more full solutions (often employing induction and negation tactics).
If you are looking for other good sources of puzzles, Car Talk (on NPR, Saturday at 9) offers not just amusing car problems, but also the occasional Mosteller like puzzler...
Much of what is presented is not novel - but novelty is not the heart of innovation. Execution is, and TabCandy looks like it has a great chance of taking off - the Firefox userbase and the simplicity of the user experience.
Bing's whole approach to differentiation has been to focus on tasks, and a big part of TabCandy is to help the user scale over tasks, especially those with a long term nature. Should the browser embrace the information sources, or should the search engine embrace browser like state?
Logging on to Facebook from Japan triggered a lengthy authentication process. Having only used the site from US IPs logging in from a Japanese address forced me to go through an authentication process which involved answering a number of face identification questions in a multiple choice format. This was quite un-nerving for the following reasons:
Some of the people I knew from face to face interactions, but I hadn't seen in a long time (people change over time).
Some of the people I had never met and was barely able to figure out who they were. If it weren't for the multiple choice format of the challenge I would have failed.
Some of the photos - this is true - had tagged people who were wearing fancy dress costumes including a full mask. The face was literally not visible, and I wouldn't be getting any points for recognizing a dead president. Fortunately Facebook showed two different images per person.
Facebook gets full points for an innovative application of tagged pictures, but it wouldn't have surprised me at all if I had failed to 'reactivate' my account (following the language used, logging in from a different country must 'deactivate' your account).
The irony for me was that I had actually meant to log on to Foursquare but my fingers weren't listening to my brain. I was actually already in the authentication process before I realised - this doesn't look like Foursquare...
I've just done my first Japan checkin on Foursquare - it was non trivial. Firstly, I had to add a location via Foursquare's website. This was a real challenge as the site is not really aligned with the way in which Japanese addresses are expressed. After a lot of hacking (throughout which Foursquare kept telling me it couldn't find the location) I figured out that if I could tickle the Google location search via the Foursquare interaction, I could get the right place to show up. Finally, this succeeded and I added 京急富岡駅.
This would have been a lot easier if I could have directly located the venue on the map (as a lat/lon position) and then simply named it. That mode of entry seems like a pretty general backup plan for any problems, and easy to implement, so I'm assuming it is not available due to some potential for abuse.