United merger today goes terribly wrong. Shows a moral about life.

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I called United today to cancel a booking, and make another booking using my miles. What normally would take 5 minutes or so, took nearly 2 hours! The reason was today was the actual day of the United and Continental merger.

Firstly my United mileage plus account was gone. The lady could then retrieve my new Continental One Pass mileage number, but then I realized almost all my miles were missing!

The lady asked if I can go to the web site to create a new pin while she held on the phone. To my amazement, the entire United Airlines and Continental Airlines web site around the world (USA and Japan site) is completely down! The lady told me then that there were so many problems it looks like the web site was completely shut down. Finally after about one and a half hours, the lady could make my booking. But then she couldn’t issue the ticket because my miles are missing. It was kind of a Catch-22 nightmare. Finally the lady (who was very nice, and apologized many times) made the booking and put it on hold for 3 days in the hope that my miles will somehow be found.

This experience showed to me that even the largest airline in the world, which has spent months and months and probably millions of dollars in planning, can completely crash due to complexity. We can learn from this that complexity of life is so multidimensional and nonlinear that it is effectively impossible to predict or control. If we decide to plan for even a small event, we can be caught up in “analysis paralysis” and spend all of our energy to control life. Instead, similarly to Zen philosophy, we should remove our expectations, and stop trying to control life. Instead let life flow, and let our minds and bodies flow with it.

Analog still is better than digital even for kids

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This weekend was the Workshop Collection at Keio University Hiyoshi campus. It is an amazing event where there are literally hundreds of workshops put on by groups, students, companies. The aim is to make creative workshops for kids. Each workshop lasts about half an hour. The event had an incredible attendance, thousands of kids and their parents.

One of my observations was that seemingly simple workshops which used no digital technology seemed to be the most popular. I judged popularity by the lines or people formed. For example one of the most popular workshops by far was a “furikake” workshop. Furikake ふりかけ is a dry Japanese condiment meant to be sprinkled on top of rice. At this workshop the kids chose their own recipe of dried vegetables and crushed them. It sounds so simple right? Well this workshop had huge lines of more than 3 hours. Somehow the kids enjoyed immensely to choose their own vegetables and make their own furikake recipe which they then could take home.

Another workshop was sponsored by Muji and it was to cut out pieces of cloth and then glue them onto a plain canvas bag. Muji made special labels that the kids could write their names on. The kids made wonderful and creative bag designs.

And another one at first seems so simple. It was called “A space of laundry pegs”. Basically the kids worked together to put pegs on clothes line racks to make colourful creations just from pegs.

All these workshops were so popular. And I am not saying the workshops with computers, or ipads, or robots weren’t also cool and creative. But the kids voted with their feet. I think they wanted to have authentic experiences. Even in the internet age and the internet generation it seems simple and analog is best.


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In his article, Groupthink, the New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer says there are two types of brainstorming — a free-for-all exchange of ideas in a structured environment, and a random, unplanned debate. Only the second type really works.

He says M.I.T.’s famous Building 20 — which is now replaced with the Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry— became one of the most innovative spaces in the country because it fostered the best kind of brainstorming.

MIT’s ‘Building 20’ Is Proof That Only A Certain Kind Of Brainstorming Works – Business Insider

It seems that the kind of brainstorming that is often used in creative circles may not be effective. It would be good to carefully examine this, as often we take the brainstorming style as the best creative practice. What seems to really work is random unplanned debate in close physical spaces. I tried to create this in my lab in Singapore. The administration and management people were very much opposed to my efforts to make a cubicle free open space. They seemed to love walls and cubicles in Singapore. However the physical closeness seems to be critical for creative research. The building 20 at MIT which was an accident of the war effort seems to be one of the best examples.

Vision Statement

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Vision statement: n. a shared delusion of the corporate hierarchy.
Derek Abbott posted in Wickedictionary.

Professor’s life

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Sometimes a Professor’s life seems to be and endless amount of tedious meetings. I often wonder whether I would have been much happier to have a much more hands on career, where I could use my hands and body to construct and build real things, rather than sit in meetings.

Valentines Day in Japan has been “Japanified” in bizarre ways.

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Valentine’s day: n. a mass-societal ritual where petrified men manufacture tangible manifestations of undying devotion and where the sinister cabal run by Hallmark, Hershey’s, and the National Restaurant Association wins out. Posted by Derek Abbott on his Wickedictionary page.

In Japan they have taken the Western ritual of Valentines day and typically “Japanified” it in bizarre ways. Similar to western countries, it is a massive commercial chocolate and sweets industry selling day.

However, it is MUCH better for men in Japan. “Valentines” day on February 14th is for women ONLY to give chocolates to men. But not just husband or lover. They should give to every man in their office also. So there is the strange concept of “true love” chocolates and “obligation” chocolates. Of course it is not labeled as such, they are all beautifully packaged. But the obligation chocolates are small and not expensive whereas the real love chocolates are more expensive. Something which I think is good in Japan is that the “highest” level of love chocolate need not be expensive. If you receive a hand made chocolate from someone then you know that person is really in love with you.

Of course as is customary in Japan, every present should be returned. So there is a “White Day” in Japan after Valentines day and this is where the man will return a gift to the woman. For colleagues, similar to Valentines day, the present will normally be small “obligatory” chocolates. However for real love gifts there is a much wider range of gifts on White day, including flowers, jewelry, etc. One good thing is you need not give obligation chocolates to your women colleagues at work if they didn’t give you one on Valentines day, so it is definitely less stressful for men. However if you received a real love chocolate you had better make a special return gift (which again may be an expensive gift or may not cost anything if you make something yourself).

Over all I perceive the Japanese take on Valentines day as showing some interesting aspects of Japanese culture, namely:

1. The concept of “honne” and “tatemae”, namely public feelings or those feelings expected by society, and true feelings (which are normally not expressed in public). All Japanese children are taught this from a young age and it allows for a smooth running society. This becomes exemplified in the “obligation” and “real love” Valentines day chocolates.

2. The cultural tradition of returning gifts seen in the ladies Valentines day followed by men returning of gifts on white day. Whether it is a birthday or wedding present one is obligated to return another gift of about half or more of the value. That is why giving a present in Japan can sometimes create more burden than pleasure, especially if it is expensive.
I once had a strange experience where I received a small souvenir gift from a colleague at work in Tokyo. I returned a small souvenir from Australia. This caused him to give me another gift, I think some chocolate, upon which I gave him another gift. To cut a long story short this gift giving escalated over several months and at the end I literally received a very expensive Japanese leg of ham, expensive sausages, and other expensive foods which I carried in a large bag to my house and took weeks to eat. I can’t remember what gift I gave in return but I think it was so big it ended that “gift war”. We almost needed Henry Kissinger to help solve the gift escalation.

3. Wabi-sabi: Although the Valentine and White Days are certainly commercial extravaganzas, there is still the concept that the highest form of showing your love is to make something with your own hands, which might not cost any money. I think this is an expression of the Japanese cultural concept of Wabi-sabi, where small, delicate, old, and natural yet imperfect things are highly valued as beautiful. Their beauty is because of their imperfect and natural state. I appreciate this concept which does counter-balance the rampant consumerism of modern society.

Clueless in Davos

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Clueless in Davos

The Atlas of Economic Complexity

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The Atlas of Economic Complexity

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