Wars and cherry blossoms

Cherry blossom
Cherry blossom (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

If St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to be Irish, the Cherry Blossom Festival is definitely a good time to be Japanese, at least in San Francisco. The procession of sparkly-costumed, drum-beating, flag-waving, frenzied-dancing groups of revelers in the Cherry Blossom Parade, combined with the parade watchers, would lead you to believe everybody in town is Japanese at cherry blossom time.

Walking home from church about 20 blocks or so away (walking was the only option; Post Street was closed to traffic) I decided to follow the parade route coming east from Fillmore Street and see the action up close. Bad idea. The sidewalks along the parade route – i.e., Post Street, my new address – were already inhabited by about 14 people per sq ft, six rows deep. Before being totally overwhelmed with panic I managed to extricate myself and detour uphill a few blocks, out of the crowds.

It occurred to me, from a slight safe distance away, that in those crowds were:

People, waving Japanese and American flags in each hand, whose parents and grandparents fought for “the enemy” a few wars back.

People whose parents and grandparents were interned during that war by their own government here – and have managed to forgive.

People whose religions are vastly different – there were more than a few hijabs in the sidewalk crowds, and definitely more Sunday morning beer drinkers than church-goers – all cheering with the sheer joy of it all.

And probably no one who hadn’t spent many hours in the past week bound in a sort of national community of grief by the horror that struck a similarly festive event in Boston.

All of us just enjoying the sunshine and the cherry blossoms.

Robo-seals invade U.S. nursing homes — perhaps a gadget too far?

Stuffed seal
Image by matsuyuki via Flickr

What with human affection so hard to come by these days, wouldn’t Granny be happy with a fuzzy mechanical toy? That, presumably, was the reasoning behind Japanese inventor Takanori Shabata’s idea for the nursing home’s new best friend, Paro the robo-seal. $15 million dollars later, Paro had hummed and buzzed his (her?) way into the hearts and homes of some 1300 Japanese adults who don’t want the hassle of real, live pets. Now cleared as a Class 2 medical device — a category enjoyed by his brethren the motorized wheelchair and similar less-cuddly items — Paro’s newest destination is U.S. nursing homes.

“Some of our residents need more than we as human beings can provide,” says Marleen Dean, activities manager at Vincentian Home, one of four facilities run by Pittsburgh-based Vincentian Collaborative System. Vincentian Collaborative recently used a $55,000 grant to purchase eight Paros and finds them especially comforting to patients with dementia. “We’ve tried soft teddy bears that talk and move. But they don’t have the same effect.”

Bill Thomas thinks it’s inhumane to entrust the task of emotional support to a gadget.

“If you give me a robot that helps perform mundane tasks associated with caregiving, such as vacuuming or doing the dishes, I’m all for that,” says Dr. Thomas, founder of the Green House Project, a campaign to make nursing homes smaller and more like regular houses. But “if we wind up with nursing homes full of baby-seal robots, the robots will be trying to fulfill the relationship piece of caregiving, while the humans are running around changing the beds and cooking the food.”

This space sides with Bill Thomas. At $6,000 per robo-seal, it just seems that some less anti-bacterial real creature could be found to serve the same purpose. But Paro has made believers in several U.S. nursing homes such as one in which a dementia unit resident is quoted as whispering to it, “I know you’re not real, but somehow, I don’t know, I love you.”   The question of whether offering Paro for love and affection (and often just for calming down the agitated folks who tend to populate nursing homes) is ethical and proper is stirring debate both here and in Denmark, where more than 100 Paros have found homes.

Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Science, Technology and Society program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, acknowledges Paro’s potential as a communication aid, but warns against regarding it as a companion. “Why are we so willing to provide our parents, then ourselves, with faux relationships?” she asks.

Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo, who spotlighted Paro in her 2007 documentary on interactive robots, “Mechanical Love,” dismisses such concerns. “When I came into nursing homes and found people sitting in rocking chairs with dolls, no one lifted an eyebrow.”

DTI (European distributor Danish Technological Institute) requires caregivers to attend Paro seminars, where they discuss such issues as whether it’s OK to leave an elderly person alone with a Paro, and whether patients must be told it’s a robot. Don’t allow someone to “escape into a strange seal robot’s universe,” cautions Lone Gaedt, senior consultant at DTI.

Admittedly, we carry on with perfect strangers in the parallel worlds of cyberspacial social networks. But somewhere, somehow, a few lines of human interaction might be better off left un-blurred.

What do you think?

Paro the Robo-Seal Aims to Comfort Elderly, but Is It Ethical? – WSJ.com.

A novel suicide prevention plan

Every now and then an innovative idea comes along, and should be applauded. This one, for those who worry about suicide rates, might merit a standing ovation — if it works. Time and Japanese commuters will tell.

As of November, East Japan Railway Co. has put blue light-emitting diode, or LED, lights in all 29 stations on Tokyo’s central train loop, the Yamanote Line, used by 8 million passengers each day.There’s no scientific proof that the lights actually reduce suicides, and some experts are skeptical they will have any effect. But others say blue does have a calming effect on people.

“We associate the color with the sky and the sea,” Mizuki Takahashi, a therapist at the Japan Institute of Color Psychology, a private research center. “It has a calming effect on agitated people, or people obsessed with one particular thing, which in this case is committing suicide.”

What a lovely thought: a moment of calm could save a life. Since long before Anna Karenina flung her life away in Tolstoy’s memorable tale, trains have served as lethal weapons for the desperate and the depressed. Obviously, the blue-light theory wouldn’t work where tracks are in the open  — as with a recent spate of young people in Northern California who tragically ended their lives this way. But passengers on the New York Metro and other subway systems could surely use a moment of calm, whether feeling suicidal or not. In Japan, economic woes added to the usual stress factors have brought rising suicide rates, and the need for response has taken on a special urgency.  Nearly 2,000 Japanese committed suicide by jumping in front of trains last year alone. Conductors, reports Shino Yuasa of the Associated Press, “describe them over the public address system as ‘human accidents’.”

East Japan Railway has spent about $165,000 for the special lights at all the Yamanote stations. The lights, which are brighter than standard fluorescent bulbs, bathe the platform below in an eerie blue light. They hang at the end of each platform, a spot where people are most likely to throw themselves in front of a speeding train. Shinji Hira, a psychology professor specializing in criminal psychology at Fukuyama University in Hiroshima, speculated that blue lights could make people pause and reflect.But he said that if railways want to go further to ensure safety, they should set up fences on platforms, as several Tokyo subway stations have. The barriers have sliding doors that allow passengers access to the trains.

For those of us who grew up in American small towns with Railroad Avenue as the traditional main street, trains hold a special place in the heart. May the blue light plan help get them out of the lethal weapon category soon.

Japan tries to limit suicides on train tracks.