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I arrived back in Tokyo on Thursday, March 17.  Sailed through customs and immigration.  Fastest train from the airport wasn’t running, but plenty of others were. Made it home easily.  Great to see wife and kids.

Life in Tokyo is much calmer, and safer, than what is being portrayed in the media.  Here’s a basic overview of how Tokyo has been impacted by events of the last two weeks.

Earthquake: The 9.0 earthquake 230 miles away shook things up pretty badly in Tokyo.  Buildings swayed back and forth for 5 or 6 minutes, and lots of things fell on the ground.  However, there was not much structural damage.  No buildings fell that I am aware of, and, it appears that only about 6-7 people died in the city from the earthquake.

Aftershocks continue, but I haven’t found them that disruptive. One has woken me up at night and I’ve felt a few others in the daytime. Perhaps other people find them more disturbing, after having experienced them so intensively the first few days after the major quake.

There remains increased danger of future earthquakes, since the earth has been shaken up in this area.  However, the high engineering of buildings in Tokyo and the strict enforcement of rigorous earthquake codes is reassuring.  Our own building, for example, has a special safety feature built into the elevator, so that in the event of an earthquake or power outage it will automatically proceed to the next floor and open its doors.

Tsunami: It is the tsunami, of course, that caused such extensive death and destruction in coast areas a couple of hundred miles north of Tokyo.  The situation is still severe in that area with large numbers of people homeless, short of basic supplies, etc. Tokyo, however, was unaffected by the tsunami.

Nuclear Reactor: As the whole world knows, the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, in Fukushima, Japan, has been badly damaged. The Fukushima Daiichi plant is about 175 miles north of Tokyo, right on the coast.  It is about 50 miles away from an area that my family and I have vacationed in twice.

The earthquake alone did not damage the plant in a way that would pose any risk, but the combination of the earthquake and tsunami accomplished that, with the earthquake knocking out some power systems and then the tsunami flooding other systems. The destruction of the power systems means that it is now very difficult to keep the reactors and stored nuclear rods cool by pumping water into them.  The Tokyo Electric Power Company and Japanese government are taking a variety of steps to try to get water in to keep things cool.  (It’s important to note that the plant itself is some 30 years old.  Newer plants no longer require maintenance of a power supply for cooling).

The leakage of radiation from the Fukushima reactor poses risks to people in the plant itself, of course, and lower risks to people in about a 10-20 mile radius.  The U.S. government has taken a very conservative approach and recommended that Americans within 50 miles of the plant leave the area.  However, there is no credible threat to Tokyo, 175 miles away.  The Fukushima plant is built differently than the Chernobyl plant, where the graphite core exploded sending radiation 10,0000 meters into the air where it then spread a wide distance. In contrast, the Fukushima plant does not have a graphite core and its nuclear material is all in containers. As the UK’s chief scientific officer explains, in a worse case scenario, radiation could go about 500 meters in the air, but then dissipate within 20-50 miles.

Japan of course has great sensitive to nuclear issues due to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Nevertheless, the people I’ve spoke too in Tokyo feel calm about the matter, though everybody of course wants the situation revolved as quickly as possible.

Power Shortages: Nuclear reactors supply about 30% of Japan’s electricity, and about 20% of nuclear capacity is supposedly down, thus resulting in a 6% decrease in available electricity in Japan.  However, this loss has to be absorbed in one part of the country, because, due to historical legacy from the 1800s, different regions of the country produce electricity at different cycles per second. This has resulted in a serious power shortage in Tokyo.

The government is encouraging voluntary reduction of power use, and there seems to be a great response to this.  People and companies are doing whatever they can to reduce power.  Because of this, train service in Tokyo has been cut back by about 20-30%. Most all lines appear to be running, but not on their usual schedule.

In addition, scheduled rolling blackouts of several hours a day are taking place throughout Tokyo.  I am certain these must be very disruptive, especially when they take place in the evening.  Toko is divided into 23 wards, and, to keep the economy going, blackouts are not taking place  in wards with major commercial districts.  Since we live in Shinjuku, which includes one of Tokyo’s major commercial centers, we have not been subject to these scheduled blackouts, which has made life easier on us.

Finally, there is also the danger of unscheduled blackouts in case demand exceeds supply, but these have not occurred yet.

A severe power shortage is likely to continue until April, when whether warms and demand for electricity is just reduced.  Moderate problems might continue after that.

Shopping and Supplies: Produce and supplies are down in stores for a variety of reasons, including problems with deliveries and people wanting to stock up. In particular, I’ve heard of shortages of safety supplies, such as batteries, and some basic commodities, like bread and milk.  Ready-made food at convenience stores is also in short supply.  I went to two stores yesterday and found most of the groceries I was looking for, with the exception of milk.  We recently (post-earthquake) bought powdered milk and soy milk at stores, so that is not a problem. We also have a number of other ways of getting food and supplies besides going to stores.  We belong to a local coop which delivers food and supplies to us on a weekly basis and has continued to do so since the earthquake; got a full delivery yesterday of produce, fish, etc..  We also buy online from Japan Costo through a local supplier with an English-language website; we just received a case of bottled water from them yesterday too. Finally, Keiko’s family lives in southwestern Japan, and they have sent us a box of stuff.

In summary, while life in Tokyo is more inconvenient than previously, we are not suffering any hardships.  I lived in the Soviet Union right before it broke up and — whether in securing food and supplies or having reliable access to electricity — life there was much more challenging than Tokyo is experiencing now, and there was not even a natural disaster then.

Mood of the People: I have been back a short time and have not spoken to a lot of people, but, at least in my neighborhood, I get a sense of calm and normalcy in daily life.  I took my kids to the local playground yesterday and there were more families there than usual.  Kids were swinging and jump-roping, parents were relaxing and chatting.  The streets are relatively quiet in my neighborhood, but it’s hard to know if that’s due to the situation or simply the fact that nearby Waseda University is in its annual February/March break.  (Our apartment building is quite empty as many of the visiting scholars who live here have traveled back to China or Korea temporarily, but our apartment is certainly not typical in that regard.)  People in Tokyo are saddened by the death and destruction from the tsunami and anxious for the nuclear reactors to be brought under control, but they take satisfaction in how they as a nation and people have withstood these multiple tragedies.

Due to the burst of the bubble economy, Japan has been in a malaise the last 10-20 years, and some are beginning to speak about how the current tragedy can point the nation in a new direction.  Japanese writer Ryu Murakami put it most eloquently:

Ten years ago I wrote a novel in which a middle-school student, delivering a speech before Parliament, says: “This country has everything. You can find whatever you want here. The only thing you can’t find is hope.”

One might say the opposite today: evacuation centers are facing serious shortages of food, water and medicine; there are shortages of goods and power in the Tokyo area as well. Our way of life is threatened, and the government and utility companies have not responded adequately.

But for all we’ve lost, hope is in fact one thing we Japanese have regained. The great earthquake and tsunami have robbed us of many lives and resources. But we who were so intoxicated with our own prosperity have once again planted the seed of hope.

I have nothing to add to Murakami’s poignant words.

The situation in Japan is certainly much more dire than when I wrote my report from Tokyo last week.  Though Japan’s earthquake defense system proved magnificent–not a single building tumbled in Tokyo and there is little evidence of buildings falling even in the areas close to the epicenter–the tsunami proved deadly and destructive.  The death toll has already climbed about 3,000 and is expected to be more than triple that.  Tens of thousands more are suffering from lack of food, water, medicines, or shelter.

On top of the double whammy of earthquake and tsunami, Japan faces its most serious nuclear threat since World War II.  Due to the strong safety measures in place and the heroism of workers at the nuclear plants, radiation leakages so far have thus been limited. But, coming at the same time as earthquake and tsunami relief have barely begun, the nuclear crisis adds to the tremendous strain the country is under, and has special meaning for the only country so far to have faced massive nuclear destruction.

Reports from my wife and others in Tokyo suggest that, while people there are facing no immediate danger, life remains seriously disrupted.  Many trains are not running, preventing some people from going to work.  Enough teachers are absent from our children’s kindergarten/day care center  that they are encouraging families to keep their children home if possible. Aftershocks and power rationing disrupt the day, leaving both homes and offices scrambling to manage cooling and heating systems.  People spend time going from store to store to look for necessities, which are in short supply due to delivery problems and everyone’s natural desire to stock up.

Thankfully, Japan is probably is in better position than any country in the world to respond to these challenges.  It has a low degree of poverty and a highly educated populous.  It has great scientific and engineering prowess, including in the area of disaster management and relief, due both to its own history, including the Kobe of 1995, and also due to Tokyo’s role as a major aide donor to developing countries, such as after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.  Most importantly, Japan has a stoic, hard-working, and self-sacrificing populous, who are amazingly cooperative with authorities and with each other.  The people of Japan are not looting, stealing, wasting, violating orders, or complaining. They are putting the noses to the grindstone to save their families, their communities, and their nation.  They deserve not only our sympathy, but our deep admiration.

After 12 days in the U.S., I will be flying back to Tokyo tomorrow where I will see my wife and children for the first time since the earthquake.  We will then have our first real chance to discuss our plans.  With few obligations in Tokyo (we are both on research sabbatical or leave from U.S. universities through the end of June), it would certainly be easier for us to relocate, either within or outside Japan, than for most people.  However, any decision we take will not be made lightly.  We are not just temporary interlocutors; we are a bilingual, bicultural family, four of whose members hold Japanese passports, and in full cognizance that Japan may well be going through a defining moment in its history. Whether we decide to stay or go, we do so in awe and honor of experiencing humanity at its finest.

Our family (American husband, Japanese wife, three children ages 5, 5, and 6) are living in Tokyo this year.  I  was in L.A. for a short visit when the earthquake hit (and still am).  It took me a while to reach my wife, but I’ve communicated with her several times since then by Skype, Google phone, and email and can share my family’s experience.

Keiko was alone in her 9th floor office at Waseda University in the center of Tokyo when the earthquake hit at 2:46 pm local time on Friday.  She crouched under her desk and experienced several minutes of severe shaking. A cabinet in the room fell and she feared the worst.  Fortunately, after several minutes, the shaking subsided and Keiko was able to run down 9 flights of stairs to the outside.

Keiko first ran to our apartment building 5 minutes away and ran up 6 flights of stairs to our apartment where our 6-year-old son was with a babysitter and with Keiko’s mom.  Danny was quite scared and was comforted throughout the entire earthquake by the babysitter.  Things had fallen in the apartment but there was no structural damage.

They all walked down the 6 flights of stairs to wait in the lobby while Keiko ran to the kindergarten/day care center where our 5-year-old twins were.  When she arrived, the teachers were upstairs getting all the kids ready to be evacuated.  Keiko had to ring the buzzer for a long time before they heard it and let her in, due to the commotion.  Kids were in pajamas and bare feet having awoken from their naps. The teachers were getting their shoes on and getting them ready to evacuate the building and go to a nearby open space.  Keiko took the twins and walked home with them.  We suspect that the teachers and many of the children ended up sleeping at the school last night because, with trains shut down in Tokyo, parents may have been unable to arrive from work.

All the family–Keiko, three kids, grandma, and babysitter–walked back upstairs to the apartment. Surprisingly, power, water, and local phone service were working fine.  Long-distance phone service was not available.  The babysitter, who lives far away, was stranded due to the trains not running.  She spent the night at our apartment in one bedroom and the other five huddled together in the other bedroom.  With aftershocks occurring every few minutes–some the size of good-sized earthquakes themselves–it was pretty difficult for people to sleep.

It’s Saturday morning in Tokyo and the family is still in the apartment.  The babysitter will have to stay until the trains are running, and they don’t know when that will be.  They’ve been a couple of times the the local convenience store but all the food has run out.  We live right next to a university campus and many students were stranded there and bought food at the store. Fortunately, we have enough food at home to last for a while.  Elevators are still not working.

The kids are doing well today, though they are disappointed that their favorite Saturday morning cartoons have been usurped by 24 hours news broadcasts.  The family is trying to decide whether to remain hunkered down all day in the apartment or venture out to a park and playground a few blocks away.

Compared to other people in Tokyo, we are very fortunate to live within walking distances of our offices and our kids’ school.  In contrast, a large amount of people who rely on public transportation were (and many remain) stranded.  One person told me that, in crowded office districts of Tokyo, there was so much pedestrian traffic right after the earthquake that it took a half hour to walk 100 meters.

We are praying for the many people in the northern coastal areas that were more badly affected by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  The earthquake was so powerful — 8.9 — that it was felt very strongly in Tokyo, 231 miles from the epicenter. Very fortunately, though, only a few people died in Tokyo, a metropolitan area of 35 million people.  I am extremely thankful for the excellent engineering and safety standards in Japan.  Otherwise, it is virtually certain that buildings would have collapsed in Tokyo, killing large numbers of people.

Let this be a reminder to everyone to update your emergency disaster plans and stock up on recommended emergency supplies. And thank you to everybody for your thoughts for us and, especially, for the people in the more hard-hit regions of Japan.

The New Cool

Robotics has all the elements of education that everybody loves—problem-solving, team-work, hands-on learning, and mastery of technology, all in the service of authentic projects. Unfortunately, robotics is typically offered on an extra-curricular basis, and thus available only to small numbers of students in places where there happen to be either volunteer teachers or commercial classes.

Amir Abo-Shaeer, a high school engineering teacher in California, approached robotics in a different way—not as an “extra,” but as a key element of curricular transformation. He has integrated student participation in a year-long robotics competition as part of a remarkable interdisciplinary public school program in the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy he founded.

I interviewed Abo-Shaeer extensively in relationship to a new book I’m writing on digital media and learning that will appear this fall.  I believe his approach—of integrating hands-on project based learning with a very rigorous and demanding curriculum—is the exact philosophy needed for transforming our schools.  In the book, I will discuss the particular challenges that he has faced in redesigning a California high school curriculum in the face of standardized testing demands and other possible hurdles and how he creatively overcame them–and what lessons that has for broader educational reform with technology.

In the meantime, though, for those wanting an in-depth look at the experiences of Abo-Shaeer and his students, there is a terrific book just released called The New Cool. Journalist Neal Bascomb set off to cover three robotics teams and write a book about the experiences of the students.  However, mid-way through his research, he decided that the story of Abo-Shaeer and his students was so compelling that that story should become the centerpiece of his book. Bascomb brings to life the experiences of Abo-Shaeer and his robotics team in fascinating detail.  For those who are interested in what passionate educational reform can mean for transforming the lives of youths and helping them realize their full potential, The New Cool is a must read.

A week ago I was one of the lucky recipients of a Google CR 48 notebook. The detail of the CR 48’s hardware failures have been well documented, as any Google search for CR 48 will reveal (lack of Home, End, Delete, Caps Lock keys; faulty touchpad; etc) so I won’t both reviewing these aspects. Instead I shall focus on a topic more near and dear to this blog: the application of the CR 48 in an education setting.

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I received my CR 48 in a fit of excitement, but immediately upon turning it on, I had my first encounter with it’s fatal flaw: network incompatibility. As the OS entirely relies upon wireless internet access for the setup, it is subject to all of the typical annoyances associated with WiFi. As I love and work on the UC, Irvine campus, I am subject to their security protocols for my internet access, a situation familiar to many academics and students. Upon turning on my computer, I was unable to authenticate my Google account until floundering into Guest mode and being redirected to our university’s network authentication page. After 1 blissful, naive hour online I turned off my computer…little did I know how dear that hour was.

Upon next turning on my computer, I found that I was no longer able to access the internet, nor could I find or access the network authentication page. My new notebook was effectively bricked. Thankfully Google has amazing tech support in the form of Chrome Ninjas (who sadly it seems only work Monday through Friday). After 3 days of tech support involving entering the elusive command prompt  (open using ctrl + alt + t), resetting the computer (using the hidden developers switch), and very pleasant conversations with a knowledgeable ninja, we resolved the problem. My own network, UCI Resnet, had assigned me an IP address that had previously been blocked.

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Moral of the story:

Chrome OS relies upon the most fragile, ill-supported segment of our technology structure: the WiFi network. This is often where valuable websites are blocked, legacy settings & code wreck havok, and hardware fails. My husband, a teacher, refuses to test the CR 48 on his school’s network since they already block Google products such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and Gtalk. He complains often that though they use Google Apps, they block the generic versions of Google for his students and himself. Even on an open network, a small error bricked the entire notebook.

Beyond this, the CR 48 shows promise for schools. Since the OS is entirely cloud supported, users can switch between computers with ease. At parties, I don’t mind passing my computer around to others because even strangers can sign into their own accounts without my worrying for my files and settings. The OS starts up in seconds, not minutes. The memory is solid state so more durable. Applications, extensions, and themes belong to the user, not the computer, and  install quickly upon the initial sign in. The number of applications is growing, though Chrome still does not support Silverlight, Java, or most media players.

Overall, I feel that Chrome OS shows promise and could be considered for schools that have “Gone Google” in another couple of years.

How far we have come!

From the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia:*

Mongolism is a form of mental deficiency characterized by certain bodily abnormalities. A flattened face and bolded upper eyelids give the patient an Oriental appearance. Other abnormal body features include a small, round head; short arms and legs; a large abdomen; and thick, stubby hands, with the little fingers often short and turned inward.

Few Mongoloids have a mental age greater than that of a 4-year-old child. But they are quiet, good-natured, and affectionate. They die at an average age of 14 years. The cause of Mongolism is not known. But doctors believe it results from abnormal functioning of glands that regulate growth and maturation. The defect is thought to be related to a hormone deficiency in the mother during pregnancy.

George A. Ulett

Several things are clear about both education and health care costs in the United States:

1. They continually rise faster than inflation

2. Increases in cost are not matched by increases in results

3. Our costs are higher than those in other developed countries

The conventional wisdom is that these costs are spiraling out of control due to waste and inefficiency.

However, though there is certainly waste and inefficiency involved, even if all the waste and inefficiency were removed, it is virtually guaranteed that costs in education and health care would rise (a) faster than the rate of inflation and (b) faster than corresponding improvements in quality.  What’s more, while costs in the U.S. are indeed higher than in other countries (in all cases in health care and in many cases in education), the rate of change of costs is pretty consistent across countries, with other nations experiencing increases above and beyond the rate of inflation on about the same curve as the U.S. is.

The real reason why education and health care costs rise has been known by economists ever since at least the 1960s, when Baumol and Bowen published a seminal book on the economics of the performing arts. Their analysis was as follows.  The productivity of manufacturing rises dramatically over time: it might take only a few minutes of person power to make a shirt compared to many hours a couple of centuries ago.  However, the productivity of a string quartet giving a live performance increases hardly at all, since that work cannot be made more productive without harming its quality (having 3 people instead of 4, having them play faster).  For that reason, the cost of attending a live cultural performance vis-a-vis the cost of buying manufactured goods rises steadily over time–and, if a society wants to see as many string quartet performances as it did before, it will need to devote a higher percentage of its personal and national income for that.

The same principle holds true for education, healthcare, and other services that demand in-person labor.  Yes, they can be made more productive in some ways, but never at the same rate of productivity increase as manufacturing or agriculture or mining.  For that reason, the relative costs of education and healthcare will go up over time.

The music industry has survived over the last 200 years by moving away from live performances to recorded music.  It costs a lot to produce a CD (or MP3), but it can be heard by millions of people.  There are some who argue that we need to make the same change in education, to move to massive online education using software so that, just like you can get a world-class music collection for a few hundred dollars, you could get a world-class education for the same low-cost.  And they often cite Baumol’s work as a reason why such a shift is necessary.

I happen to believe that you cannot get a world-class education without teachers, or with very few of them. Listening to music is by nature a pretty one-way experience, whether done at a live performance or at home on an iPod.  But learning is a very social, interactive, multi-directional process, and the kind of learning that takes place with mentors and peers is vastly superior in many contexts than that which takes place from software. This is especially so for young learners, learners with low motivation, learners with many language and literacy challenges, learners with special needs–exactly the types of learners who are so numerous in K-12 schools.

The question, though, is if we don’t radically increase educational “productivity”–by replacing teachers with software, or by dramatically increasing student-teacher ratio in new online diploma mills–how do we get around the Baumol affect?  Are such dramatic cost measures necessary?

And here, those who like to cite Baumol’s 1966 book fail to point to his important paper three decades later where he answers that question.  In that paper, Baumol explicitly discusses education and health care, pointing out that, whatever new efficiencies are put in place, education and health care costs will still inevitably rise in cost faster than inflation and thus require a growing percentage of our national income.  He also points out though, that precisely because of advancing productivity in other sectors, we can afford to pay more for education and health care and still have an ability to afford more good and services.

He compares the cost of education and health care to the cost of an imaginary steering wheel on a car.  Let’s say the cost of a car fell from over a decade, but, over that time, the relative or absolute cost of a steering wheel increased.  Well, the cost of a steering wheel as a percentage of the whole care would rise continually.  That, however, would not keep you from buying the car, because the cost of other components are falling.  You can still get the more expensive  steering wheel because the cost of the car is falling.  In fact, even if the steering wheel rises to 20%, 40%, or 60% of the cost of a car, as long as the total cost of the car falls, you can still buy the steering wheel.

In other words, increased productivity means that the costs of education and health care will continue to keep rising as a portion of the economy, but it also means that we can afford them.  As Baumol says in his article, “productivity growth in the entire economy means we can afford more of everything.”

The issue not so much whether we can afford higher costs of education.  The issue is whether we have the will to do so. So yes, let’s try to make education as effective and efficient as possible, but let’s also help people understand why it is that costs will rise anyway, and why we can afford to pay them.