Thoughts on “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley

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Living in Japan, it’s hard to get a hold of English books in bookstores. There are very few book stores having an English section (at least in Nagoya) and even fewer with some variety in fiction and non-fiction, so I was pleasantly surprised to see an English section in a second-hand bookstore and bought Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” (which I henceforth call TRO). I had heard quite a lot of good things about Ridley’s book Genomes from my colleagues, while pursuing my studies in biotechnology. This was the main motivation behind buying this book and the really low price didn’t hurt.

As the title of the book suggests the author here plays an optimist with respect to the overall state of human society on earth and gives a series of rational reasons for the same. Throughout the book the author primarily explores the progress of humans starting from hunter gatherer to modern times and argues in favor “evolution” of prosperity. Before I get into the details of my views on this book, a short detour. It was perhaps by sheer coincidence that I picked up “The Communist Manifesto” at same time as this book and it made understanding the undertone of the book much easier. This gives me an opportunity to describe this book in one word – “Anti-communist”.  Now, this may sound a slightly negative term but that is not how I perceive it. In fact, in my opinion, if anyone has read The Communist Manifesto (at least in today’s world) and has not been utterly repulsed by the systematic nonsense of it, needs to get a course in logic and reasoning.

Now coming to TRO, in the first chapter, author describes with numerous examples and statistics, as to how better off the humans are in every respect from their predecessors. I partially agree that we are better off in almost all respects from our predecessors. The important difference that lies here and one that I would like to emphasize is that we are “better off” but not necessarily “better”.

Where I could not agree with the author, is when he got carried away in proving how we are better off, by comparing the humans with other species. I find it slightly disconcerting how often, in trying to understand the behavior of human or other animals, people tend to anthropomorphize animals and compare them on scales made by humans, for humans. As an example, the author at one point in first chapter, writes “Imagine you are a deer…” and then goes on to compare the daily activities of a deer with that of a human. I find this whole line of reasoning quite flawed.

Next chapter onwards, the line of reasoning followed by the author to explain the rise in prosperity of human is much more focused. The author introduces the “exchange” or “trade” as the vital factor that led to where we are today. The author goes on to explain how exchange has led to rise of prosperity from ancient times and how stagnation in trade and exchange has caused the thriving societies to collapse.

As the book progresses, author gives more convincing arguments in favour of being optimistic about our future while constantly reminding us of the extraordinary prevalence of pessimistic notions with respect to different aspects of lives like climate, diseases etc. However, the author does seem to get slightly carried away by the passion with which he supports certain causes and technologies like the fossil fuels, GM food etc.

Now coming to biggest flaw of the book – the assumption that there can be a single idea or factor that can possibly explain the course of entire human cultural evolution and more. Trade, exchange and innovation certainly played a major role in the evolution of society as it is today but these certainly are not the all-encompassing universal explanation to entire course of human evolution on earth.

Finally, even with its flaws the book is worth a read and particularly for someone who is a proponent of a free market economy.

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An amateurish guide to living in Nagoya

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It has been almost three months since my wife and I moved to Nagoya, Japan. I am working at Nagoya University (NU) as postdoctoral researcher. After some initial hiccups we have been able to get settled here with a routine and life seems to be going smooth. We were fortunate to find some friends here in the beginning who helped us a lot and we will always be thankful to them. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to find helpful people right away and for a person not speaking Japanese, it can get quite difficult to understand things in Nagoya. So, I decided to start a blog which will be a culmination of all the useful information that I believe is important for getting around NU.

I understand there are several portals online to help Indians in Japan, but my attempt here is focused only for Indians coming to Nagoya and more specifically the students and researchers coming to NU (or near by). I will try to keep the information as less redundant as possible, meaning that I will only share the information that I believe is difficult to find using simple Google search.

Since I have been living near Nagoya University, all the information that I will be sharing will be specific mostly to the area around the NU.

I will try to be as organised as possible but since inherently I am not organised it is going to be difficult task and you might find several stray thoughts here and there…. So lets begin

A few words about the Japanese people

We found Japanese people to be one of the most helpful people ever. They will try to help you in any way possible. So if you are stuck somewhere just try conveying your problem to one of the local people and surely they will help you. Knowing a few Japanese words can go a long way. Japanese are very well mannered and polite, so you need to be polite while talking to them. Start by saying “Sumimasen” which means “Excuse me”. Also thank after they have helped you by saying “Arigato Gozaimasu”

Trip to Mt Fuji

Mt Fuji is probably, the most popular tourist destination in Japan  and since moving to Japan in 2015, Arpita (my wife) and I were trying to go there. We went to Tokyo in February, 2016, but due to lack of time, we could not visit Mt. Fuji then. So, when we found out that we will be going for a conference to Tsukuba to attend the annual meeting of Biophysical Society of Japan, we thought of going a day before and make a trip to Mt. Fuji.  With great help from our friend Nagai-san we planned our trip to Mt. Fuji. Nagai-san booked one day tour to Mt. Fuji and Hakone from Hato tours. I did not know about this tour operator at the time. It turns out that they run several one day tours from Tokyo  with english speaking guide and an option of vegetarian meal for lunch which was a great relief for us. Our trip was scheduled to start at 9.20 from Hamamatsucho bus terminus in Tokyo.
We live in Nagoya and we had to reach Hamamatsucho by 9 so we took the first Shinkansen from Nagoya bound to Tokyo at 6.41 AM. Thanks to punctuality of trains in Japan we reached the Hamamatsucho bus terminus well before time.
Our bus started at exact 9.20 AM.There were 40 people in total in our trip group. The weather was cloudy and we were quite sceptical if we will be able to see Mt. Fuji.
Our tour guide Masayo- San was an excellent guide and quite a manager. Our bus took the Chuo express way to Mt Fuji fifth station. The entire way was quite beautiful and we could still see autumn colors.
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On our way to Mt. Fuji, we passed through something called “Melody road” . Driving on these roads produces a distinct melodious sound. The music created by this particular road was from some Japanese song that our guide taught us and we sang it together while driving over that stretch of road. We reached Mt Fuji fifth station at about 11.40. Fortunately as soon as we reached there, the weather cleared and we got a nice view of snow covered Mt Fuji. The weather there is really unpredictable and it changed again after few minutes with fog and mist all around but by then we had already enjoyed the view and taken plenty of pictures.
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The first view of Mt. Fuji

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A clearer view from the way

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From Fifth station

We started for Hakone from Mt Fuji at around 12.20. Our driver was kind enough to stop at several places on our way back to help us take pictures of Mt Fuji.
On our way to Hakone we stopped for lunch at Fuji premium resort. The lunch turned out be surprisingly good. My wife being a vegetarian often faces problems in eating out but to her delight they served salad, Veg spaghetti, bread and some kind of matcha flavoured mousse.
We reached Hakone at about 3 and from there took a cruise on Lake Ashi. Its a beautiful lake surrounded by several hills.
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Lake Ashi

The cruise boat took us to the starting point of the Komagatake Ropeway that took us to the summit of Mt. Komagatake. The view from the summit was breathtaking.
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View from Mt. Komagatake

We started our return to Tokyo from Hakone at around 5 PM and reached Tokyo station at around 8 PM. We thanked our guide Masayo-san and headed to our hotel.
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Masaya-san, Arpita and Me

Overall the trip was excellent, however I would like to visit Mt. Fuji at least once more during hiking season ( July-August) and try the hike to the summit. But, that’s in future…

100 yen shops in Nagoya

One of the best revelations to us after moving to Nagoya was the concept of 100 yen shop. These are exactly what they sound. Everything in these shops is of 100 yen (well exactly 108 yen after tax). The best part is that you can get so many useful things here that it becomes one of the first destinations to look for when you need some small household items. There are even 100 yen convenience stores like Lawson 100 where you can get a variety of things just for 1oo yen. This is particularly helpful for those who come for stays of short durations and don’t want to spend much on settling here. There are quite a few 100 yen shops near NU. As in my previous posts I am going to share their locations in reference to Nagoyadaigaku station

Lawson 100- This is a 24 hour open convenience store with a variety of food items and useful household stuff.

100 yen shop in Aeon Motoyama (2F) – This has a lot of options of things of everyday household needs.

 

Seria – This is a big chain of 100 yen shops at several locations. The one nearest to the NU is at 3F of Aeon Yagoto.

There is another quite famous chain of 100 yen shops called Daiso but none of the Daiso stores are as near to the NU as stores mentioned above.

Getting a cellphone and internet

Mobile phones have become such an integral part of our lives that now it is difficult to imagine life without one. Mobile phones make life so much easier, and if you are in India getting a phone and a local number is a cakewalk. However soon after reaching Japan we realised that getting a local (Japanese) phone number and phone is one of the most difficult aspects of settling in Japan, especially if you don’t know Japanese. There are few very important points to remember before one decides to buy a phone

  • First of all, if the period of stay in your visa is less than three years, it is very difficult to get a number and phone (As per my understanding, there may be exceptions)
  • Buying just a sim card is very difficult without knowing Japanese.
  • Hand set bought outside Japan (say India) will not work here. So you  either will have to buy a new phone or a used phone. Former is much easier option but obviously expensive, latter is a cheaper option but you might have to jump through hoops to get it.

Buying a phone is not all together necessary, there are other options that you can use for calling your family (in India) or internet etc. (discussed later in this post). However if you are still interested in getting a local number and phone then keep reading this section.

The 3 major telecom carriers in Japan are NTT, Softbank and AU.

In order to buy a phone you will need to go to the office of one of these companies. Now here it becomes tricky, as it is quite impossible to find staff who can communicate in English  at these offices. After walking into several offices at different locations, we finally found one person at the Softbank office of Sakae, who knew English well. So we decided to buy phone from there itself. There are several Softbank offices in Sakae, the one that I am referring to, is located near (right side) the Exit 6 of Sakae subway station.

Depending on the phone that you buy and calling plan that you decide, usually the contracts are for two years. Another very important point before you even think of buying phone is getting a credit card. You can read my blog post on how to get a credit card here.

Do not forget to take your Passport, Residence card and credit card when you go to buy phone.

Internet

Although getting a phone number and phone might seem quite difficult in Japan, getting access to internet is not that tough. First of all, the students and researchers who are living on NU campus should be able to access internet either via wifi or LAN provided by NUWNET. One can also buy pocket wifi devices, that are quite popular here and connect any phone (wifi  enabled of course !) with it. The charges for these are quite nominal. Since I have not used it, my knowledge in this regard is limited and I suggest you to explore this site. The information on the website is general with respect to Japan and not specific to Nagoya. I will update this page once I am able to gather more information.

 

Food and groceries in Nagoya

We Indians love food and particularly, we are attached to our Indian food. One of the first things that we wanted to find out when we moved to Nagoya was a place where we can get Indian spices and groceries. We had a bit of a hard time buying groceries initially as it felt really expensive and with very few choices. Anyways, after exploring the area near NU and help from our friends we have been able to land on some excellent and economical options for getting groceries. I am going to share these category wise

Fresh Fruits, Vegetables and Meat-

Although you will find these items (to some extent) at all convenience stores, they are pretty expensive and sometimes not even fresh. Following are some of the places that are economical as well as you can find fresh items here.

  • Yaosen – Formerly and popularly known as “Tachiya” is one of the best places to buy fresh vegetables, fruits and meat near NU. It is very economical (from Japanese point of view and not Indian point of view of course). It is about 2 km from Nagoyadaigaku station (see map below for the route).
  • Marche– This is another good place to buy groceries, it is larger than Tachiya and has a lot more things apart from food, however we found it slightly more expensive in comparison to tachiya. If you visit here on a Sunday you will receive a coupon along with the bill which can be used on the coming Wednesday to avail discount on certain items. This is close to HIgashiyama zoo (see map below).
  • Food front- This is also near Higashiyama zoo and we found the prices to be close to or higher than Marche.

Apart from the places mentioned above, fresh fruits, vegetables etc. can also be found at AEON mall. I will mention the details of the location of these later in this blog.

Indian spices etc.

Our food is known for the exquisite  aroma and taste and those are brought by the numerous spices used in Indian cuisine. Being foodies we were determined to find out the places where we could find all the spices for our food. The best way is to order it online, we frequently use Indobazaar (http://www.indobazaar.com), there are other portals like Ambika Japan (http://www.ambikajapan.com), Indojin (http://www.indojin.com) etc. In case of Indobazaar, the delivery is free of cost for orders above 8000 yen and  it usually comes within one-two days. Indobazaar has the option of “cash on delivery” which is good in case you dont have credit card yet. Since I have not used any other site till now, I can  not comment on others. You may search on the internet for more options. In case you need to buy something urgently or buying over internet is not an option then you go to “Halalaya” shop. This is a halal shop that has almost all the Indian spices, pulses, rice, flour, dry fruits and also ready to cook packs. The prices are slightly higher than what you can get on the internet. Following is the map to reach Halalya from Nagoyadaigaku station

Apart from the above mentioned options you can find some common spices (like chilli powder, herbs- Oregano, Basil etc) at AEON Malls near NU. I will list the major supermarkets and malls near NU below.

AEON Motoyama– This is the closest AEON mall to NU. Apart from the usual household stuff, food, etc., it has a big pharmacy and  a 100 yen shop (I will write about 100 yen shops in Nagoya in another post). Following is the way to AEON Motoyama.

AEON Yagoto- This is quite big and has quite a lot of options with regards to almost all the household items. You can get kitchen ware, Dining ware, Toiletries etc here. This also has a 100 yen shop (Seria) and Uniqlo (very economical clothes brand). This is a little far from NU but still at walking distance if one tries, other wise you can take a subway from Nagoyadaigaku and get down at Yagoto station on Meijo line. The exit 3 of the station opens in the B3F of Aeon Mall.

There are more malls and supermarkets at some distance from NU, like AEON Aratamabashi etc. which you can explore when you go out.

Getting your first credit card

One of the first things that took us by surprise when we moved to Japan was the reliance on credit card here for almost any financial transaction. It is almost impossible to buy something as basic as a phone without a credit card. I will write another piece on how to get a phone in Nagoya. For now I am going to try and explain the easiest way to get a credit card if you are an employee/student in Nagoya University.

As most forums will tell you, getting the first credit card is most difficult (as there is no credit score etc. etc…).  I had no clue in the beginning, but two of my friends helped me a lot to figure it out. I will give a step by step guideline for it.

You need following things to get a credit card (this is purely based on my experience, it may vary for others so please do not take it verbatim).

  • Residence card with address notified on the back of it.
  • A savings bank account in a Japanese bank (easiest is to go to the Japan Post Bank branch in the University and open a 0 yen account. It hardly takes 20 minutes)
  • A phone number of your office or home where they can contact you. This is the most important part because they will need to verify your credentials, so you need to give a phone number which you can access easily when they try to contact you. My verification was done by a person who knew English also, so it was easy.
  • Photograph

Once you have arranged the above things, you need to go to the Nagoya University Co-op shop located near Akasaki Institute. You can pick up “Tuo” credit card forms. The form is completely in Japanese, however you can download an ehandbook from the website of the credit card company (http://tuo.univcoop.or.jp/). In spite of the English instructions you might need to take help of someone who knows Japanese, particularly to fill your bank account details etc. Once you have filled out the form and pasted the photograph, you need to take this back to the co-op and submit it at the “Travel” counter (left side of the first entrance).

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And its done. Well at least your part is done. Now you have to wait for the verification, they will most probably call after one week and ask about your address, name, date of birth etc. If everything goes fine, you should receive your credit card approximately within one-two weeks after verification.

One last note- Issuing credit card is completely at discretion of the credit card company (in this case- Mitsui Sumitomo) so you might get rejected even after following everything. However, I hope you get it. So best of luck.

Notification of place of residence

Although I understand that everybody who comes to Japan knows about this but still I am writing this piece only  for the sake of completion and continuity. So basically once you have settled at your place of residence you need to notify the ward office of your residential area about your address and get your address stamped at the back of your residence card. It’s a very simple procedure that takes hardly 30 minutes. For those living in or around Nagoya University (NU), you need to go to the “Chikusa ward office” or “Showa ward office”. Students and researchers living in “International Residence Higashiyama” need to go to the Chikusa ward office and following are the instructions to go there.

Chikusa ward office is about 2.8 km from NU.

Subway Route to Chikusa ward office-

  • The subway station for Chikusa ward office is “Ikeshita” on “Higashiyama” or yellow line.
  • The subway fare from Nagoyadaigaku station to Ikeshita station is 200 yen
  • Take subway train from Nagoyadaigaku to “Motoyama” (It is next stop from Nagoyadaigaku in counter clockwise direction) (Note- Meijo line is a circular line connecting several different subway lines at different stations, hence clockwise and counter clockwise directions)
  • Change at Motoyama and take train going towards “Sakae” or “Nagoya station” or “Takabata” on Higashiyama line
  • Ikeshita is the second stop after Motoyama.
  • Chikusa ward office is right in front of the exit 2.

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Although the English language skill of the office staff is pretty bad, they are very cooperative and helpful. So you will have no problem in getting this work done.