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Maybe the Japanese DO get the Net?
by Hugh Ashton

Recently, an article by an American journalist appeared in a well-known Net magazine, in which he claimed that "the Japanese don't have much of a clue about the Net." His idea of "having a clue" seemed to be spending long hours surfing the Web, courtesy of toll-free local telco charges, or doing lots of online shopping, just like in America. His attitude reminded me of expats I have overheard who find life in Japan to be intolerable because the Wendy's burgers "aren't like home. While I am not an uncritical fan of all things Japanese, I feel that the average Japanese Internet user doesn't deserve being glibly written off as either a schoolgirl panty fetishist or avatar chat user described in the article, so I spent some time -- where else? -- on the Web.

There's an interesting program (SETI@home ) being run out of the University of California at Berkeley, asking netizens to allow computers on home and corporate desktops to be used to help crunch the massive amounts of astronomical data that is generated by the radio telescopes assigned to the project. The site at Arecibo , Puerto Rico -- featured in Carl Sagan's movie "Contact" -- is one such source of data. Presently, this "supercomputer" (the planet's largest) has over 750,000 PC performing as parallel processors, spread over 205 countries. Of these, 20,000 were from Japan. That may not seem like a lot, but let's look at a few facts behind the numbers.

First, Japan has the fifth-largest number of volunteer users assisting with the project, after the USA, UK, Germany, and Canada. Of these, three are mainly English-speaking countries where project participants can easily understand Berkeley's explanations, and the Germans' ability to learn English is justifiably renowned. In Japan, on the other hand, the teaching of English is often poorly done. Given this massive language barrier, I'm impressed at the number of Japanese participants. (SETI@Home has just recently added a Japanese translation of the site -- Ed.)

Next, although Japan is reckoned to have 10,000,000 or so Internet users, this number includes Internet devices, and people sharing accounts. The number of actual computers connected to the Internet (i.e. potential participants in the SETI@home program) is less, resulting in a higher participation rate per PC than the raw data would otherwise suggest.

The final interesting point is that site statistics show the average time taken for a Japanese user to complete the computation of one block of radio telescope data is significantly less than that for a USA-based user. This can mean one or both of two things: Japan-based computers participating in the project are newer and faster than those in the US, and/or the Japanese computers aren't doing as much their counterparts in America (participating computers do the data crunching when the PC sits idle, displaying a progress chart as a screen saver).

The point of all this is that since participation in this project is only available through the Internet, it means that not all Japanese Internet users are idling their time looking electronically up girls' skirts (looking up girls' electronic skirts? looking up electronic girls' skirts?), or dressing up as Godzilla and going into 3D chat rooms. It seems many are engaged in helping to look for little green men, which I personally see as a worthwhile pursuit, more so than frantically buying the latest pulp fiction from Amazon, or bidding for used Roll Royces on ebay -- or even rabidly waiting to invest in the next startup with "Internet" in its prospectus. For a long-term investment, it's hard to beat first contact.

SETI@home program


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