…and about higher education in Japan.

The following is an entirely anecdotal account of what it is like to pursue education at public university in Japan. I cannot comment on the country as a whole or every field of study, but this certainly gives some basis for comparison to experiences in the United States.

Oh, where to start. My adventure into academia here in Japan started at the latest of stages. I came here as a student who already held an advanced degree in my field – a masters of science. So, when commenting on the experience of  undergraduate and the first two years of graduate school, I can only give an outsider’s perspective.

Undergraduate admissions to universities in Japan are similar in concept to those in the United States. You’ve gotta take a test of some kind while you’re still in high school and your grades have to be measured against all the other applicants. And, of course, some kind of application needs to be filled out. I can’t say for certain if any personal statement accompanies the application, but that’s a minor technicality. However, in the case of Japan, universities do not rely on a nationally administered exam that is standardized for that year (e.g. SAT or ACT). Instead, students are expected to participate in the university specific entrance exam. I could easily imagine the difficulty is scaled to fit the caliber of institution. Places like Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka University would have the more challenging examination hurdles. By in large, private universities are nice enough to not schedule their exams at the same time as each other, but in the case of the national universities (public schools), this is not the case. All national universities test on the same day. There is, however, a “second chance” day (as my assistant professor likes to call it). Here, students can opt to re-take a test they did not pass at a public university or try for different one. All tests are administered onsite and that means you must be physically present with your butt in the hot seat for an entire day. As far as I can tell, there are no exceptions. And if you don’t read and write the language fairly well I am not confident that there is any “special” test for you. Classes are almost always taught in Japanese, so it’s a moot point if you don’t read and write the language.

From what I have been told, the test is the primary metric by which schools decide whether or not to admit you. Schools in the US are certainly a little different and the admissions criteria remains a mystery from school to school. One of the long standing traditions of Japan is to post the examination results quasi-publically. Nowadays, you can view your examination (and similarly your admission status) online. However, they still go through the motions of posting the examination results on some form of a public bulletin board (with names redacted and test numbers shown). I personally experienced this with my oral interview/exam for the doctoral program. Although, no one told me about it and I only found out about the postings a few days after it was made. My advisor was nice enough to tell me only an hour after the interview that I passed.

As for graduate-level admissions, the process is nearly the same. And from my personal observations, most Japanese students pursue a degree at the same university from which they completed their undergraduate degree. Now, this continuance of education is heavily dominated by the sciences – and that’s where my observations lie – so, I cannot comment on the flow of  students in the humanities. I do recall from the early 2000′s that engineering majors at my US undergraduate university were more interested in employment post-graduation than continuing on to graduate school. I cannot say if attitudes in the US have remained the same, but that mindset today is completely opposite in Japan. Most (nearly all) undergraduate students will continue after their four year degree and pursue and additional two years of graduate study in the same field (often in the same laboratory they were aligned upon graduation). About one semester prior to the completion of their undergraduate education yet another test is administered for graduate admissions (or, shall we say, graduate continuance). Thankfully, those tests are not all on the same day throughout the country. So, if you fail at your home university, you can try elsewhere. Procedures, obviously differ a little in the United States. Applicants typically look to the GRE as the largest hurdle prior to application (classes are over, so no possibility to go back and fix that poor GPA). But, aside from the standardized testing and letters of recommendation that are usually expected, there is not much a student must consider. However, if someone is looking to jump right into a PhD program, that’s where things get a bit fuzzy.

Japan likes to be very procedural. And I am not sure if this “procedure” is the same everywhere, but this is how things played out at my university. Students couldn’t skip a masters of science in our department. Nor could they simply earn one on the way towards a PhD. Everyone willing was required to enter into the masters program, finish that, and wipe their hands clean. Following that accomplishment, they then basically re-apply for the PhD program and go through that bevy of hoops and obstacles to be fully admitted once again. Since I had earned a masters in the US, this is where I squeaked in and started.

So, to round out this discussion, the final stage of any academic pursuit culminates with the pursuance of a doctoral degree. Here is where things change a bit. Most universities in the US have a test used to validate a basic level of competency (at least in the field of engineering they do). This test is known as “quals” or “prelims” or “general exams” depending on where you go. This test is typically taken by students when they are ready and that’s usually soon after finishing their coursework at the graduate level. This is considered to be the hardest test anyone will ever take. After this, there shouldn’t be any barriers that prevent you from starting, continuing, or finishing your doctoral research. Some places have an additional “exam” that amounts to a committee meeting to discuss your field of research and proposed hypothesis you want to work through. But other than that, you exit the educational gauntlet with the thesis defense and then you’re done. Japan seems to make this a whole lot easier. Instead of an actual exam, my university administered an oral presentation/interview. This was a fairly short 30 min presentation about my previous work with an additional 15 minutes for questions. Usually this presentation covers your masters thesis and your previous research. However, coming from a masters program geared more towards working professionals, I didn’t have a thesis or any body of research to present. So, I gave a presentation on my previous work at my last employer with a short introduction into the type of work I would like to do for my doctoral study. That was it.

After a short wait, I was informed of my admittance by my advisor. The admissions process felt pretty informal to me, but I guess that’s Japan. My exit “exam” will be of a similar format (i.e. thesis defense), but of course longer. I still have my thesis to draft and submit for review to my reviewing committee. That’s a few months away and all the fun of late-night-edits still await me.

Good times.

More on the topic of Japanese academia will certainly follow.

It’s that time of year again. Students in Japan are both preparing for the end and the beginning. My lab has seven students up for their masters degree and a bevy more undergraduates who are both preparing their final reports and studying for entrance examinations leading to another two years of study. I write this in between final thesis presentations from members of my academic clan, err laboratory. It’s this never ending annual cycle of new students in and new students out. And for most Japanese engineering students at the big three universities (Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka Universities), that’s it. They’ll stick around until they are twenty-three or twenty-four, graduate for the last time, and transition into the workforce for one of the several enormous and sprawling companies that have become the mainstay of industry in the “Land of the Rising Sun”. Every once in a while, some unlucky or foolish chap will decide to throw another three years onto the pile and continue on towards a doctorate in their respective area of study. I guess that makes me either unlucky or foolish (or both). And here I am in the waning days of that academic study wondering if I am both ready to finish and ready ready to move on. And thinking about whether or not I made the right choice.

What the hell am I talking about? Of course I made the right choice.

It is so easy to be overflowing with self doubt and decision paralysis in a world where more opportunities continualy spill out from behind every corner. I should be reflecting on how fortunate I am for this plethora of choice, but instead the worry, the doubt, and the varying shades of fear come creeping in every now and then. How do I really know that I am making the most of the time I have? I don’t and I never really will. And the knowledge of that very fact eats at me. Perhaps now is a good time to learn to let go of that visegrip on control and outcome I’ve tried so desperately hard to maintain. But that’s what engineers do, don’t they? They minimize risk and strive for predictability and repeatability. Engineers hate it when that doesn’t happen. I hate it when that doesn’t happen. I hate it when I doubt if I’ve made the right choice and have maximized the possibility for the future.

That annual cycle of students coming and going, pardon my imagination, can be found in the metaphor of a flowing stream. New students come in just as fast as the old students go. Sitting on the banks you can see them float on past. I can imagine that’s how the professors feel from time to time. They sit and watch new youth come and go. As a doctoral student the flow of time is a bit slower; I see faces speed past me, towards the rest of their life. It’s even more poingent when I know I came back here to skirt the uncertainty of “the real world”. These young engineers enter that world for the first time. Albeit, it’s a little different here than back home, but facing the impending decisions that come along with graduation is something I’ve faced, endured, and retreated from. The finality of it all is what really gets me.

At some point, it’ll be “pencils down” for all of us and we’ll need to move on.

 

It’s been nearly two and a half years since arrival. The first six months of which were spent desperately learning as much of the language as would stick. During that time I met and interacted with the most diverse group of fellow students and researchers since entering into higher eduction. It’s helpful to become the foreigner in order to meet more of them. Learning a modicum of Japanese was possible, but since all academics naturally fell back in to English, that language practice quickly fell by the wayside. It should be mentioned that (thankfully) a masters degree back home allowed me to skip ahead to conduct research without the need for additional coursework. So, Japanese wasn’t really required – only enough to get by, only enough to buy groceries and verify if this train I am sitting on is going to Kyoto and not Wakayama. And so, after formally being admitted to the department and passing the hurdle of an entrance exam/interview (where my interest in sake seemed to resonate with the faculty more than my professional work at Rocketdyne), I began down the fairly short path of studying towards a doctoral degree at Osaka University. And Now, after two years of work, here I stand looking at the last 12 months that lie ahead. There is so much to do and so little time to do it.

For the next 12 months, the last 12 months, I’ll do my best to write here again. If not for you, then for me.

Gurney

Artwork by James Gurney

I just found out about this and it pains me so much to not be able to get my hands on it here in Japan.

When I was younger, much younger, I was fascinated by the two large, coffee-table-sized books of stories and artwork by James Gurney in the world of Dinotopia. The two books I had the pleasure to read as an imaginative child were Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time (1992), Dinotopia: The World Beneath (1995). At the time of their publication I was 8 and 11 years old respectively. These books were powerful trips of fantasy that were arguably as imaginative as J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Vern, and H.G. Wells in their respective works of literature. If you don’t know the backstory, here is the description of the first book pulled from the Wikipedia page:

Dinotopia is a fictional utopia created by author and illustrator James Gurney. It is the setting for the book series with which it shares its name. Dinotopia is an isolated island inhabited by shipwrecked humans and sentient dinosaurs who have learned to coexist peacefully as a single symbiotic society.

What made these books so terribly powerful was their limitless possibility for narrative fiction that appeals to creative youth. What hurt dearly was how the second book finished. It felt so incomplete and with so many questions left unanswered for a child at the age of 11. I wanted, no, I hungered for more and managed to convince my parents to buy whatever other texts related to this fictional universe I could find. Unfortunately, none of these other books really expanded beyond the conclusion of the second book.

Especially more poignant was the narrative of the second book regarding technology, long forgotten and lost to the underworld of the caverns that lay beneath the mythical world on the surface. It drew parallels and behaved almost like a figurative Atlantis lost to memory and history beneath one’s feet. At the time I was beginning to find my connectedness with things mechanical. I loved Legos and everything that required assembly. Relatedly, I was entranced by the mechanical arm of the garbage truck as it grabbed and tossed garbage bins into its hull. I loved things that were extensions of the human body in a mechanical sense. The thought of a fantastical world of technology to discover and explore captured my attention and drew me in more powerfully than any other young adult novel I had ever read.

Gradually, however, and over time, I lost interest because future publications in this world appeared to never come. There wasn’t anything more than the texts I held in my hand. That is until, just a few days ago. As an adult I have discovered that there is a third book that was released six years ago, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara (2007). I so desperately want to get my hands on this book. It’s 160 pages of rich story telling and illustration that just powers the imagination and really sucks you in. Unfortunately, I am stuck here in Japan. I strongly doubt I’ll ever find a copy and it just isn’t reasonable to order one shipped over here… perhaps.

This whole second discovery of the books has made me desperate to answer questions that I held as a youth and forgot with age. It’s so delicious to reach back into my history, as far back as a young child, and rekindle the love I had for stories once read. I am sure, however, that these books will just answer some questions and raise new ones. It’s ok to dream a bit more and be fanciful again, right?

I highly recommend all three of these books, especially for children.

It might be time to bite the bullet and pay for some expensive shipping…

As an aside, the artwork by the author will be on display at New Hampshire Institute of Art for a couple more days.

And here is a link to the BoingBoing article talking about the books and the art exhibit.

Friday night my laptop died.

I brought it home as usual, in the basket of my bicycle (yes, my bicycle has a basket). Just minutes earlier it was working fine in lab. However, upon reaching home, it would not boot. Screen was out, the fans spun up, the hard drives spooled up too, but there was no chime, no hello from the machine code deep within. It was dead. More to the point, the logic board was toast. After four years and four months of faithful service, it was gone. Over the years I had replaced the hard drive with a shiny new SSD and removed the optical drive for another, second hard drive. Thankfully, the demise of this laptop does not mean my data went with it. As a wise geek once said, “back up, back up, back up.” So, I have everything I need on backups here, there, and in the cloud. However, without a new laptop to put them on, I am a little bit adrift. That all changed about an hour ago when I placed the order for a brand new replacement. The purchase price is about the same as the first and I expect it to get the same mileage. However, because my life will depend more on this piece of consumer electronics, I went ahead and spent the money on the extended warranty. Some would argue that it’s not required these days with increased reliability, but I can’t take that chance here in Japan with my PhD riding on my ability to document, analyze, and present my work. So, in my mind, it was money well spent for additional piece of mind.

…that was some eulogy.

Anyway, I am so excited for some new hardware. My aging laptop was incapable of properly handling the demands of HD video, “lightweight” games, and the other simple tasks I asked of it using the heavier and more resource demanding applications out there now. It’ll be nice to be struttin’ with 16 GB of ram, an all SSD hard disc, and a high resolution display. Now all I have to do is wait. And yeah, it’s a Mac. I am not shy to say that. The new exchange student from the US would look at me with disdain, but I am too heavily invested in software and hardware at the moment to consider switching back. I have been happy with my hardware in the past and I see nothing wrong with spending the money if I make it last.

Now I just need to settle on a name.

Most of my storytelling while here in Japan has been in the form of photography. Unfortunately, as you can probably tell, this blog has very little (if any) photography visible. So, rather than just load up the wordpress blog with more photos, I am going to try and rely in on an easy and seamless method of auto-publishing instagram photos to a tumblr blog I’ve let sit dormant for… well, forever. Here’s the site:

lostalpinist.tumblr.com

I’ll still write to this blog occasionally, but the on-the-go, effortless method of getting the message out there as to what I’ve been doing will take place through that medium. I don’t have to do anything but snap pictures.

It might have been the passing of the typhoon to the south west. It might have been my imagination. But honestly, it feels like someone flicked a giant switch and turned off Summer and turned on Fall. The threshold for discomfort and misery outside lately has been whether or not the thermometers read above 30°C. And suddenly, we’ve plunged right through that threshold and into the 28-27°C range.  Additionally, it feels like the giant knob in the sky for humidity has been dialed down a bit. I greatly welcome the change! Now I can start to bring out the camera without fear of destroying the optical elements by mold. Now I can sleep at night without continuously running the air conditioning. Soon I can start to wear pants. And now, as a consequence that summer is over, I can finally hear myself think when walking under some of the local flora (all those pesky cicada – or whatever they are – are dead for the season). Granted, summer has it’s good moments: festivals, grilled food, fireworks, and the ever present excuse to pull out a cold bottle of nihonshu. However, I prefer it when my t-shirts don’t soak through with sweat in the morning when riding the bike to campus.

So, with the coming of Fall, so comes the beginning of another academic semester. And coincidentally, the research is looking to become all-consuming of my time… and I like it that way. Yee-haw.

My other area of “research” (as we’ll call it) has been Japanese premium nihonshu (sake). I want to try and fold that exploratory research into this blog as best as I can. And as part of that, I can certainly upload some of the great photos I snag as part of the process. So, without further ado, here is the introductory post on such passioned musings of nihonshu!

Tamagawa is a great brewery. Why is this so? They’ve got the only foreign national as their head brewer (also known as a Toji), Philip Harper. I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy his well crafted brews from time to time. However, recently, I came across a liquor store that sells a fairly comprehensive set of their products. The brewery is still in Kyoto Prefecture, but all the way on the northern coast of Japan – somewhat off the beaten path for sure. Now, the store didn’t have everything, but I did manage to grab three different bottles. One of which is the photo below: Time Machine 88.

This is fairly unique sake. The story goes, the staff of the brewery found an old recipe tucked away somewhere in the facility that was purportedly from over 300 years ago. The brewers reproduced the sake to the instructions and came up with this very deeply colored and sweet tasting brew. The “88″ represents the milling ratio (I think). So, only 12 percent of the rice is milled away and the remaining 88 percent is brewed with. This unusually high seimaibuai (milling ratio) is mostly why the flavors and colors are so wild with this brew. Usually, sake is much clearer, occasionally with a tinge of yellowing – but certainly not this dark.

To add to the experience of this bottle being so old in heart, I opened up the bottle yesterday: “Respect for the Aged” day.

The bottles only come in the 300 ml size variety. And sadly, the label on this one is printed on the glass and not a traditional paper label. So, I can’t add this one to the growing art collection on my wall. I should also mention that there is another version of this type of sake. The brewery produces in extremely limited volume the same sake, but then they age it for another 3 years (I am not sure what type of container – stainless steel, ceramic, cedar, or something else). They only sell this bottle at the brewery itself or by order from the website – it’s not distributed. So, I’ll just have to visit the brewery itself if I want to try it!

Despite the relatively bad news of update #2, update #3 is pretty good. A couple of weeks ago my advising professor and I travelled to meet with a private company who was willing to hear us out and my research interests. After a conversation almost entirely in Japanese (practically none of which I spoke), we got the smiles and head nods of agreement and approval. So, to make it short, it looks like the company is willing to allow us to use their equipment in so far as preparing samples for test. The arrangement will not be quite as hands on as I would have liked – our previous partnership with the public research institute was a workshop environment with much more assistance. This feels much more business-y, but that’s what I would have expected.

Another really good piece of news regarding this new partnership is the equipment to be used. TRI (Osaka Prefectural Technology Research Institute) had a modified EOS M250 Xtended with a jury-rigged way to pipe in nitrogen or argon gas. It didn’t quite make the laser build chamber as pure and devoid of oxygen as I would have liked, but it would probably get the job done. The new private company has access to much fancier machines. Specifically, we’ll be working on a Laser Concepts M2. This (very expensive) piece of equipment has a built-in nitrogen generator with a build chamber and powder reservoir that is also sealed. So, we can get the oxygen atmosphere content of down pretty low – something critical for sintering titanium or most alloy steels. Obviously, as a business, they are quite busy with their equipment. However, they do have two facilities with one machine not in use as much. I’ll be free to load that machine up with work. Additionally, they have a Filipino on staff that can speak English. So, that’s another good bit of news.

Lastly, and this is probably almost as important as the first paragraph, the professor asked me to present at the conference we are hosting next year. Since I am his only PhD student, I believe he wanted someone from within his own lab to make any presentation. And to top it off, the professors seem genuinely interested in my topic of research. The only catch is, I still don’t have any data. It’s taken this long to secure equipment, so I am playing a bit of catch up. The papers for the conference will be due by March. So, that leaves me with roughly 6 months to get a 4 page paper put together. The presentation won’t be until November of next year, so that’s work and preparation I can kick down the road. But coming up with the bulk of the work before then, namely the engineering research itself, will be a challenge. On top of all the hard work that will be required just to make the samples, we’ll have to get the tensile split Hopkinson pressure bar operation again. So, I will be busy the next few months for sure. I will try to update as frequently as I can. When I have more progress (and feel confident about results) I will post more specifics. Until then, I will be a little vague.

That’s it for now. Keep reading (if anyone still does).

Today we had a bit of unexpected bad news from the professor regarding the research prospects. To make a long story short, the laser sintering machine I was to be training on and ultimately using for the research has gone down for repairs. The researchers at the Osaka Prefectural Technology Research Institute informed us that the laser is only operating at 60% of the maximum power it should be capable of. That just isn’t going to work for most stainless steels and other alloyed metals with higher melting points.

A bit of background…

The company that makes these particular machines, EOS (located in Munich, Germany), has developed special powdered materials for use in these machines. They provide very easy to follow laser sintering parameters that make it fairly straightforward to produce prototypes and injection mold dies. However, these powders are not suitable for hardware to be used in service for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here. However, the reason they are so easy to work with is because they rely predominately on selective laser melting to form bulk solids out of the constituent powder. One of the alloying elements in these from-the-supplier-materials is copper. Copper has a relatively low melting point. So, with a relatively lower power level on the sintering laser, it can selectively melt the copper powder particles to then act as a binder for the other, stronger elements. This is all well and good, but if you want to full-melt pre-alloyed powdered metals (such as 304L or 316L), you need much more power to elevate the temperature of the powder high enough to achieve a melt pool that will both bond to the previously sintered material and fully consume the powdered material not directly  heated by the scanning laser. The trick is to have a laser power sufficiently high enough that it melts the powder and not vaporize it! Some researchers have recorded (and intentionally fabricated) plasma from powdered metals in the build chamber. This isn’t exactly the intent of this fabrication process, but something to investigate nonetheless.

So, back to my woes…

The good news is that we may have an alternate player who may let me train and use their equipment in the meantime. The only catch is that they are a private and not a public entity. So, I am not sure what conditions will be levied on me being at the controls of their equipment (or if we can use it all).

Other than this, I can say that the weather should start to look more favorable in the coming weeks. I am definitely happy about this.