Okinawa Computational Neuroscience Course 2016: Thoughts from a Student

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OIST Campus, Okinawa, Japan.

By an isolated beach on an isolated island in the East China Sea lies a place where people gathered to study the most complicated biological organ known to humankind – indeed, the organ which has made humankind possible. Shoes were deemed optional by most, even for the morning lecture; indeed, appearances and formalities and the regular trappings of the world seemed to have no relevance here. Here was a monastery of science, nestled in the sub-tropics. Our prayers were programs and our sermons were lectures. It would be preferred by most that you had combed your hair in the morning and bathed appropriately, but beyond that it was not the external you that people were interested in, but the internal you. And what a mixture of internal yous we had.

With 32 students, some half a dozen tutors, and a steady stream of lecturers from all around the world, there was hardly a single moment which wasn’t filled with some kind of fascinating conversation. While in one corner there could be a deep discussion on the merits of different exploration techniques of solution space for parameters of advanced simulations, in the other corner there could easily be a passionate discourse about the free jazz evolution of Miles Davis. And all the while there would be several people tapping away at keyboards, working, and still others relaxing or eating sushi. It was marvellous.

Of course, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University, our generous hosts. They provided us with three square meals a day, lodging, airfares for those who could not otherwise afford it, as well as transfers to and from the airport. That actually meant our yen could only be spent in only one of three places: trinket shops about the tourist places we visited on Sundays, the local Family Mart, or the beer vending machine in the lobby. Can you guess where most of most people’s yen went?

A few of the visiting lecturers were kind enough not just to share their devotion to knowledge with us, but to share their enthusiasm for karaoke or beer. It seemed only natural to do so in that here we were, many hundreds or thousands of miles away from our regular environments, trapped on an island together with only learning and conversation and beer (assuming one can distinguish learning from conversation, and conversation from beer).

It was these three things, or really just the time we spent together, that made this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make life-long friends. Many were made and many will be treasured.

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The nature of special places

A busy canal in Venice.

A busy canal in Venice.

Venice is a bit like Amsterdam when it rains, except that instead of it being bikes which seem to outnumber faces, it’s umbrellas – streets and streets full of them. Large wooden and steel platforms are laid down when flooding is expected, raising you twenty or so centimeters above the old cobblestone. The higgledy-piggledy (dis)organisation of it all begs exploration.

After a few hours of getting lost in the maze of Venetian mask stalls, churches, and quaint stone bridges, the similarities with Amsterdam begin to fade, however, and the Italian culture becomes more pronounced.

Memory of the once glorious city state, the Venetian Republic,­ fades much slower in the minds of many who call this place home, however. Ornate gold and rose flags don window-cum-­balconies along nearly every street. A secession referendum was held as recently as a few years ago, but failed by the slimmest of margins. Though how well Venice could function without the mainland was an open question. Tourism would surely account for almost its entire export, except whether it should is a sticky topic in the half-floating city.

Venetians seem to have a love-hate relationship with tourists. Large posters promoting anti-tourism rallies lined at least one back-alley and not all locals greeted you with a smile. It’s easy to sympathise with the historic city’s 70,000 residents playing host to millions of gondola-riders and mask-­wearers and clothes-­buyers and glass-­blowing-watchers. Whether Venice is for the Venetians or for the tourists should be a question with an obvious answer, and yet I don’t know if there is one.

When Egyptians make decisions about access to or maintenance of the pyramids, or Athenians decide things about the Parthenon, I think they ought to make decisions which aren’t purely and always in their own interests. There is, at least to me, a shared human heritage which we are all responsible for and should all have access to. Sadly, not all states and actors agree (see extremists blowing up Buddhas in Afghanistan or the wreckage of much of the Levant’s ancient history).

But, for the Venetians, I ask: for how long can your home be a stranger’s hotel? In such a small place, can space ever be personal and if not, at what point does its invasion become tantamount to assault on a culture or on a place or on a people?

Perhaps I was wrong in adding to the masses or perhaps this is simply the nature of special places.

A little under the Zurich weather

A derelict alley near the University of Zurich.

A derelict alley near the University of Zurich.

Throwing myself around in a bed that wasn’t mine in vain attempts to find the spots least dampened by my feverish sweat was not what Zurich had promised me. Or, more rightly, what I had promised Zurich. Sickness stole more than it was owed. Like a gangster who didn’t get her tax when it was ‘due’, Sickness was extracting interest in Zurich for what I had only half-paid her in Geneva. A small amount of interest felt warranted – I had tried to cheat. But this wasn’t just interest; I was being made an example of. To whom, I don’t know … perhaps myself? When I arrived at the the university on Monday morning, I knew something was wrong. Barely able to stand, I excused myself repeatedly to get water or rid my lungs of the muck that made me breathe like Darth Vader. Incessant chimes echoed in the chamber of my mind like spiked flails clamouring into rotted wood. The sudden thunder of coughing disrupted even my most basic trains of thought and briefest moments of rest. Over and over the episodes of violent breathlessness came. Again and again I yearned for nothing but home. Medicine be damned, this sickness was killing more than my body. But home was too far. For now, medicine could be my only salve. I arrived at the university hospital sometime in the early morning. My patient information card was made nearly illegible by the liquid dripping from my hair and hands. I was admitted hastily. Tests. Semi-consciousness. Nodding to earnest attempts at English. Being poked and prodded and taken to this machine or that. Different doctors. Documents written in Swiss German. Bags of medicine with funny instructions ‘take before the meal’, ‘for couthing’. Out in the rain, disorientated and drugged, I somehow found my way back to the hostel. With European sirens from the ambulances moaning in the background, I felt like it would be more appropriate to go by Bourne, not Burns, had anyone asked my name in that moment. A private room was now not my blessing exclusively. While walls tend to block pathogens rather well, their ability to muffle the harrowing grate of forced air against constricted airways at three in the morning is less of a guarantee. Whether my neighbours slept through the nights any better than I was a mystery I was happy to leave unsolved. “How did you sleep?” the hostel manager asked when I checked out at the week’s end. “Well, thanks,” I replied. “As well as you could have, I guess.”

My little English adventure

Me outside Westminster station, London.

Me outside Westminster station, London.

After an unwelcoming immigration interview where I was compelled to detail my travel plans to a stranger to an extent not even my own mother cared about, I stepped into the invigoratingly cold tube station and headed straight for London Bridge.
Upon arriving at my hostel and stowing my bags in a locker, I mozied into the bar and requested the burger.
“Sorry, but we’re on the breakfast menu until 12.”
“It’s not even lunchtime?” I thought to myself.
“How long ‘till then?”
“A bit more than two hours.”
Time’s only residual meaning was embedded in place and how long until menus started, now.
“I’ll have the big breakfast,” I said, impressed with the price.
Except, what the familiarity of English culture had tricked me into believing in that exhausted moment was that the breakfast was only $3.50, not £3.50 (or about six or seven Australian dollars). Nonetheless, it still wasn’t expensive, and having room to move my elbows more than a few inches while using the cutlery was a welcome treat.
Equipped with advice from the Australian barkeep, I headed off to see the classical Westminster stuff. It was about as good as the pictures, really, though the morning sun beaming over a statue of Winston Churchill was more than a picture to witness – it was a moment.
Both camera and personal battery failing, I headed back to the hostel to check-in to my room above an old pub accessible via a stone alleyway. It could have easily been from Middle Earth. Collapsing on my bed (the first I’d felt or could call my own for days), I fell asleep with the camera charging and my moments uploading to the laptop.
I woke anxiously several hours later, remembering my plans to meet an old school friend downstairs for dinner. He was late, luckily, but also not unexpectedly. We bought a few beers before heading out into the cold London night.
He showed me St. Paul’s and recounted stories from here and there. Our life paths, once intertwined in an everyday context, had diverged wildly. I, the bookworm, had stayed in my natural habitat of Melbourne to study, whereas he had learnt different things, in different places, and in different ways. Being an ambitious and seasoned traveller, I trusted his experience and knowledge completely, which he was only too happy to share with me on my first expedition outside of Australia. His advice on travelling to my next destination: take the bus.
Perched above the morning traffic, looking out the front window of an iconic double-decker bus was the perfect way to make up for lost sightseeing during my afternoon nap the day before. As the housing got sparser, the rolling English countryside revealed itself behind a thin curtain of mist. My excitement for the magic of Oxford was growing.
The plan consisted of two parts: sightsee in the morning, and surprise Justin Oakley, my bioethics teacher and research supervisor, in the afternoon. Justin was due to give a talk on the ethics of pharmaceutical marketing and prescription ‘consumerism’ at a conference on virtue ethics at Oriel College.
In the morning I saw All Souls, the Bodleian Library, and the most complete remains of a dodo to be found anywhere in the world. About these attractions, I met a busker who played the tuba. I asked what his favourite memory of playing was.
“All of them are from my childhood,” he said, “I’ve recently had a heart attack. My mother and father passed away. Life deteriorates and breaks down, eventually.”
He went on to claim that he was not special and that this happens to everyone. He, like the dodo, was mortal. However, he said that music was special, as it fails to deteriorate. I think the same could be said for most abstract things or experiences. Nevertheless, how long until the remains of humans were the exhibit?
I rested my feet in a pub while pondering the question. I decided that, unlike the dodo, it was mostly up to us to determine the length of our species’ flourishing. It wouldn’t be easy, and there might be some impossibilities or random events which form insurmountable blockages to our passage through time. But that only means we best make the most of it. And so I was off to make the most of my time in Oxford.
Oriel’s inner sanctum was encased in a castle-like defence, though an open front door made entry easy for the intruder and reckless racketeer. I reported to the reception, however, for directions, and to my delight I met the very generous and competent conference organiser, who was happy to collude in my plot. She suggested I join the delegates for lunch in the main hall; I could spring my surprise there.
Interior of the main hall of Oriel College, Oxford, with the tables set for lunch.

Interior of the main hall of Oriel College, Oxford, with the tables set for lunch.

I entered the hall as if it were a cathedral of knowledge. Gazing upon the traditionalistic stained glass and portraits of past fellows, students, and provosts, and one of the Queen, I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the history that surrounded me. After a few extra moments of indulging in the visual feast, I strategically positioned myself to one side of the main doors. As people passed me – engaged with one another – I could see them before being noticed.
Courtesy of my placement, Justin heard me greet him before he saw me. He was pleasantly surprised, and invited me to join him and a colleague from the Netherlands, who he had been chatting to on the way in.
Our contribution to the chorus of academic discourse which filled the hall was a discussion about moral education and the recent child euthanasia laws passed in Belgium. What would give impetus to the moral education of medical students? Was limiting euthanasia access to adults arbitrarily depriving children of relief from immense suffering?
What these walls would have heard throughout the years, I thought. Oriel is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, and the oldest royal foundation.
Before long, we had to head off to the next talk. It was a keynote by British sociologist Andrew Sayer. He reminded me of a more softly-spoken Tony Benn, especially when he made a passing comment about Marxism. His talk was ultimately philosophically unrevealing, albeit entertaining. One point that caught my attention was on the so-called strategic survival personality, seen most prominently in the political elite during Question Time. Such a personality was one to never show weakness and never back down. They often thrive in cutthroat environments like politics, and traditional boarding schools were suggested as a probable breeding ground. I was instantly reminded of the late Christopher Hitchens, a fierce writer and political commentator who was educated in strict British boarding schools and later attended Oxford.
After a short break, Justin’s session was on. I had expected a small lecture theatre about half full, but found myself sitting at a long table with a dozen or so others in the style of an intimate Oxford tutorial. I’d heard some of Justin’s argument before, but thoroughly enjoyed hearing it again and in full. The subsequent questions and answers were rather enlightening, too. And it was at this moment that I realised: this was just like a class. In fact, it was a class. The only difference was that this was the first time Justin had taught this lesson, and in part he was still testing and developing it, figuring out what it ought to teach us. This, I thought, is where knowledge begins.
Another short break followed. Justin and I mazed through a labyrinth of ancient walkways, in search of the conference reception’s location and to enquire as to whether I could be included in the evening’s festivities. I was included, incredibly. For the most obvious time in my life, it was clear that relationships were powerful, and the old saying of who you know rang true. I’d come to Oxford unannounced, without knowing a soul, and here I was, given intimate access the very day of my arrival.
The conference organiser was also a gifted singer, and sang songs with a small choir above the dinning area before our meal. These walls heard some of the finest songs, and some of the finest conversation. (It’s a pity it couldn’t also taste the fine food and wine.) Incidentally, my evening conversation seemed to carry on from lunch, being also about moral education. This time I had the pleasure of hearing the perspective of a Japanese philosopher of education from Nagasaki.
Though I wished I could stay longer, I had travel plans for early the next morning. So, after dinner, I bid Justin and the others I’d met a fond farewell and returned late to my hostel.
My body clock unexpectedly woke me at four the next morning. As I couldn’t force myself to rest any longer, I resigned to catching up on social media and writing in the common room. As early as I could, I checked out and headed for the train station, booking tickets from Oxford to Salisbury and Salisbury to London.
Salisbury is a beautiful small town that I would’ve liked to explore more of. The cathedral alone boasts the oldest working clock and the best copy of the Magna Carta. But I wasn’t here for the history of Salisbury, truthfully. I was here for something much older.
Although Stonehenge is many kilometres inland and not located at a particularly high elevation, the wind hitting you upon alighting from the bus from town felt like it belonged to the edge of a pier on a stormy winter’s day. Recent wet weather meant most of the archaeologically-interesting grounds surrounding Stonehenge were closed, but visitors could still get very close to the main attraction. Imagining prehistoric societies bracing these elements for the sake of establishing this monument, and then actively using it in some way, was mystifying to say the least.
Stonehenge.

Stonehenge.

In London the next day, I saw the Churchill War Rooms, used by Churchill and senior military and political figures during the war. Built totally underground, you could feel the anxiety and seriousness in its construction. A specially-engineered gas mask sat by the head telephonist’s desk, which would allow her to continue working in the event of a chemical or biological attack. The Prime Minister had his own bedroom down there, though he apparently rarely slept in it. He also had exclusive access to what many thought was the only flushing toilet in the bunker – in fact, the ‘toilet’ door (which was always engaged) was the secret entrance to the codes room. Staff walked past it the entirety of the war, never knowing of its existence.
The National Gallery was next, where I witnessed originals by Claude, Monet, Van Gough, Titian, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and many more. I couldn’t help but witness the stolen history at the British Museum, too. Much is said of the Elgin Marbles (which are undoubtedly beautiful), but there are many more marvels robbed from their respective homelands. In the trophy room of colonialists, everyone has something new to treasure and something old to miss.
Now I was off to see a different type of room, one in which treasures were donated and combined together to affect unity and a greater good. It was the true purpose of this trip, but I had politely stolen a small holiday on the side (granted, I paid for the extension myself, so perhaps it wasn’t stolen at all – then, I wonder if colonialists would say something similar?).
Till Geneva.

A report from Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center, Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi.

When my effectively sleepless 14-hour incommodious torture at 30,000 feet had ended, I walked into an airport slightly smaller than I had expected to find that everything, everyone was different. But really, I was the one who was different.

The men wore kandoras, an ankle-length white dress. Although religiously-inspired (and, some may say, strongly recommended) I could be convinced that the kandora was actually the ideal dress for Emirati weather. It was invariably hot and invariably dry. I imagined it must feel like the pleasure of wearing a more formal dressing gown after a warm bath, except around town.

Once I’d collected my baggage and passed the curiously lax immigration checkpoint, I went looking for a cab. There were multiple ranks of different styled cars. Some looked rather exuberant, more chauffeur than cabbie, but between others there seemed no obvious difference. So, I asked a local which to take. He apologised, managing to convey that he did not speak English. However, in the midst of his attempts to convey this, he saw what appeared to be a man of South-East Asian appearance wearing a shirt and pants. Immediately he began pointing and saying, “Him, him.”

The man quickly attended to us, and spoke English very well. But how had the local known this man could speak English? Apparently it was appearance alone.

Expats from South-East Asia are the backbone of the service industry in Abu Dhabi (though the Emirate itself could do perfectly fine without such industry given its mammoth oil reserves). Most speak English rather well and most wear Western-style clothing.

Before approaching the taxi rank I’d been informed was for me, I asked the tourist information centre whether my three-quarter-length shorts and shirt were appropriate clothing for my visit. “It’s fine,” they said, “Your shorts cover your knees, so it’s fine.”

Fine for some places, that is.

I asked my cab driver to take me to Emirates Palace, an ultra-luxurious hotel which I had no intention of staying in, but had been told was worth a look. The opulence and grandeur of the Emirates is infamous, after all. At the Palace entrance my cab was stopped by security and told to turn around: pants only. Annoyed, I asked the driver to let me out and I took a few photos from the gate.

My map and a list of must-sees in hand, I began my self-guided tour of the lavish city. The walking made me feel the dry, Melbourne-like heat a little more intensely, but it also gave me the opportunity to see a lot more, and to stop and appreciate my surroundings when I had the inclination. However, in keeping with the grand scale of things, the roads (thus walks) were rather long.

Perhaps the most striking find on my journey was made relatively early. A short walk from the Palace entrance was a monolithic, propagandist billboard. The divine-like depiction of the now deceased Sheikh Zayed, former President of the United Arab Emirates, stood proudly facing a major road intersection. It must have been at least 30 metres high and wide, and was supported by a scaffolding of rusted metal at the rear. From the road, one could not see the rusting metal. Only by walking behind, examining it more closely, could one see what was really behind the man.

The other big industry that many expats from South-East Asia work in is construction and general labour. Two such builders walked by. I took their photo in front of the Sheikh billboard. Let them be in the front of the photo, I thought, not stowed away in the background.

Two builders in front of a billboard of Sheikh Zayed, Abu Dhabi.

Two builders in front of a billboard of Sheikh Zayed, Abu Dhabi.

Reverential portraits and images of Sheikh Zayed and his sons (the current rulers) were everywhere in Abu Dhabi. I really mean everywhere. Every cafe and every restaurant and probably not every but still far too many bathrooms. I’d rather an old, dead Sheikh not watch me while I piss, thanks.

One cab driver described to me how he used to dine in a cafe which had no portraits. When military serviceman visited and noticed, they did more than merely suggest that the shopkeep put some up. And he did so the very next morning, according to my driver.

After walking a little more, past some of the gargantuan grandeurs of the skyline – hotels, offices, homes – I came to the heritage village. I had wanted to visit the Qasr al-Hosn fort, the oldest building in Abu Dhabi and the original ruling place of the sheikh-of-the-day, however in typical Emirati fashion the fort was not enough – it had to be refurbished and extended both in and around the site to make it more grand. So I was at heritage village – a fakery, but a decent-enough looking one to visit nonetheless. Who knows, perhaps it was better than the real thing.

Before seeing the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (where I was let in with shorts), I tried some Arabic food. The restaurant had portraits.

Upon leaving, an old Emerati man watched me. His face told a story of a tolerated liberalism: I got the sense that some here despise the international hub the Emirates is becoming.