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9 Ways Japanese Schools Are Different From American Schools

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They say education is the foundation of society—and since Japanese and American societies are different in many ways, it may not surprise you that aspects of the two countries’ educational systems are like chalk and cheese. To find out just how different learning your ABCs (or あいうs) can be in the U.S. and Japan, study up on these nine things that are commonplace in Japanese public schools, but probably wouldn’t fly in America. 

1. Dress Code

While only about 20 percent of public schools in the U.S. require uniforms, nearly all Japanese public school students suit up from junior high school on. The traditional uniform is a high-collared, black, military-style suit for boys and a beribboned sailor blouse and pleated skirt for girls (sorry ladies, there’s no pants option). These as-seen-in-anime styles are still the norm for middle school students, but the high school uniform is gradually being replaced by the tartan skirts and trousers with ties typical of Western parochial schools. Besides regulating clothing, shoes, and backpacks, many Japanese secondary schools impose strict bans on makeup, nail polish, hairstyles, and even eyebrow grooming that would make the average American teen wince. Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of Japanese school dress codes, though, is that until the 1990s, these mortifying buruma (bloomers) were the standard girls’ PE uniform.

2. No Janitors

You won’t find a janitor in any Japanese school. Instead, industrious students and teachers roll up their sleeves and spend a few minutes every day mopping the floors, clapping erasers, and even scrubbing the toilets. Which means that students wouldn’t dream of putting gum under their chair or doodling on the desks—‘cause they know they’ll just have to clean it up themselves.

3. No Substitutes

Leaving 30 teenagers unsupervised in a classroom would be the stuff of nightmares in an American high school, but that’s exactly what happens when a teacher calls in sick in Japan. Japanese secondary schools rarely use substitutes; instead, students are trusted to study quietly and independently. 

4. The Sasumata

Even in a country as safe as Japan, schools have to prepare themselves for the possibility of a violent intruder. Enter the sasumata: an aluminum pole with two curved prongs at one end which is adapted from an ancient samurai weapon—and found today hanging in schools all across Japan. The idea is to use the tool to immobilize the trespasser (who is hopefully not carrying a gun, which would be highly unlikely in Japan anyway).

5. Kancho-ing the Teacher

If the sasumata doesn’t work, there’s always the kancho. A favorite prank among elementary and kindergarten students, all foreigners coming to Japan to teach English are duly warned about getting kancho’d. How it works: kids clasp their cute little hands together, extend the pointer fingers, then aim them right at the unsuspecting teacher’s butthole.

6. Lunches

Forget PB&J, it’s hot lunch every day at Japanese elementary and junior high schools. Students and teachers forgo cafeterias, instead eating all together at their desks in the classroom. Everyone eats the exact same meal, which is prepared by lunch ladies and served by students who take turns dishing out the rice, fish, and soup to their classmates. And because waste is a big no-no in Japanese culture, schools are known for enforcing 100 percent membership in the Clean Plate Club, requiring even the pickiest of eaters to finish every last bite.

7. Greetings

Greetings are an integral part of Japanese culture, and school is no exception. At the beginning and end of each class, students stand and greet the teacher, then bow in unison. Many high schools also bring a little of the dojo into the classroom with a brief mokuso, (closed-eyes meditation) to allow students to center themselves before class. 

8. Saturday School

One-day weekends were the norm for Japanese schools until 1992, when the government began phasing out Saturday lessons as part of a national push for a more relaxed educational system. Despite this, many school boards ignored the change and continue to hold extra lessons on Saturdays—and almost half of all Tokyo elementary and junior high students still spend at least one Saturday morning a month doing math instead of watching cartoons. 

9. Summer Bummer

Japanese students do get a five-week summer vacation (about half as long as America’s), but calling it a “break” might be a stretch—unlike in America, the Japanese summer break is right in the middle of the school year, and though school is technically out, students and teachers will still typically come to school almost daily for club activities. Even elementary school students are assigned a legendarily hefty summer homework packet.

Japanese-style education seems to work for them; the latest OECD global math and science rankings place Japanese high schoolers at fourth in the world, while students in the U.S. have slipped to 28th place. So though we probably won’t find American students scouring the bathroom floor while wearing a pair of bloomers anytime soon, Saturday school may be worth considering.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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