Saturday, April 03, 2010

A train journey

In the center of Honshu, roughly speaking, you find mountainous areas.

Japan might be perceived as a country of big cities with incredible congestions, but the mountains provide a different scene. I took the Azusa express train from Shinjuku, and before long found myself fast asleep. I had an early morning.

When I awoke, I was already in the vicinity of gods. There was a glow in the sky, the evening sun shining through a thick blanket of clouds hanging over a mountain. I wanted to take a photo, but thought better of it. I knew these moments would pass. The train was speeding, the tunnels would come one after another, and the scenery was in a constant transition with the acceleration of modern technologies.

Better witness it all in my flesh.

At that moment, I was convinced that had I been a local living in the distant past, I would have been persuaded of the existence of gods by the very beauty of the evening sunlight.

Our train reached the destination station shortly, and I found the smiling face of my very best friend waiting for me. A train journey has just been completed.

Friday, April 02, 2010

One and the same, continuous story

The closing sentences of "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin are beautiful.


It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.


I am particularly sympathetic to the sentence " whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
Charles Darwin was concerned with the study of the various forms of life. And yet his sensitivities were open to the existence of the world "before" any life forms of significant complexity existed.
According to the currently held view, the universe was born with the "Big Bang" some 13.7 billions years ago. Even before any life forms evolved, the materials in the universe were moving around, bumping into each other, changing into various states while obeying the laws of nature, gravitation included.
The phrase "whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity" is a testimony, in my view, for Darwin's awareness of the vast extension of space and time to which biological forms are irrelevant. I admire Darwin for his ability to see thus far away. The origin of species and the origin of the universe are one and the same, continuous story.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Away Nation: a secret government plan to revive Japan.

In the game of soccer, it is a well known fact that the probability of winning the match is asymmetric between a home game and an away game. You have various advantages in a home game, with the support of fans and an in-depth knowledge of the field. In an away game, the audience is often against you, and you have to cope on a foreign soil.

Therefore, it is a laudable decision on the part of the Japanese government to introduce this new scheme of an "away nation", or "nation in an away situation". A secret draft, made known to me through a personal friend, outlines a 10 year plan to make the nation of Japan open to the world, making it more flexible and overcome its current economic difficulties, by encouraging its people to experience and learn from an away situation.

It has been well known that the Japanese excel in fabricating artifacts from electronics to automobiles. In the field of information technology and intellectual enterprising, however, the nation has been rather shy. One compromising factor has been that Japanese are reluctant to express themselves in a foreign language, making the ideas generated and distributed within the nation domestic in essence. The government feels that the closing of the Japanese mind has been a crucial factor behind the present economic stagnation, which is regarded by many as a result of the nation's lack of organizational intelligence.

The secret plan, code named "Benkei" after a famous Japanese warrior known for his venturing spirits, lists a series of action plans that would hopefully help the Japanese people perform better in an away situation. For example, it is proposed that students be encouraged to take gap years before entering, or after graduating from universities, which is very rare in Japan at present. It is also recommended that company executives take at least one month off before their significant promotions to do volunteer works abroad, where no secretary or company-provided chauffer-driven sedan (which is typically black in Japan as a symbol of authority and respectability) is available. Evaluation by the Health Ministry is under way whether the average Japanese businessperson would be able to survive such an ordeal.

It is also proposed that all major television stations in Japan, including NHK, Fuji, and Nippon, have a special broadcasting day (to be promoted as "Away Television") where they provide programs in English, Chinese, Finnish, and Swahili. The addition of Swahili is the result of the judgment of members of a secret committee that at present the African nations represent the most "away" situation in the Japanese psyche.

In the most extreme part of the plan, it is proposed that nation introduce a scheme code named "The Prince and The Pauper", to rectify the difference between "regular" and "temporary" employees. Specifically, pairs of regular and temporary employees would be chosen randomly in a national lottery process, where they are strongly recommended to swap positions. The recommendation would be delivered in a personal letter from the prime minister, with a specially designed T-shirt on which the letters "The Away Spirit" is printed. In the case of particularly challenging swaps such as a company executive swapping positions with a young part-time worker in a convenience store, a special T-shirt featuring Sakamoto Ryoma would be provided. Sakamoto Ryoma was a samurai at the end of Edo Era and is currently a popular symbol of the venturing spirit for many Japanese people. A drama series on the life of Sakamoto Ryoma is being broadcast on NHK. It is planned that the Ryoma drama would be broadcast in Swahili on the "Away Television" day.

As a special bonus, participants in the job swap program with high profiles would be offered appearances in a reality T.V. show entitled "Gekokujo" ("the low overcomes the high), with potential economic gains for the participants and the television station.

These schemes have been made open to me by a close friend of mine in the government, with the clear understanding that I am to be discreet about the distribution of this information. I therefore ask the readers of this blog not to forward this story to anyone who is obstinate and or does not support Manchester United.

A famous portrait of Sakamoto Ryoma. It is rumored that the prime minister would make a surprise announcement of the plan dressed as Sakamoto Ryoma complete with the samurai hairdo, within the next few days.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The kindness of Oscar Wilde.

Over the last few days, I watched the film "Wilde" (1997) on my laptop. The role of Oscar Wilde was played by the British comedian and author Stephen Fry.

The most lingering impression as I finished the film was the kindness in the personal character of Wilde as portrayed by Fry, which came as a warm and welcome surprise.

I think it is fair to say that Wilde was often provocative in his clever ways, as indicated by the remark attributed to him "I have nothing to declare but my genius". Wilde was making statements to the customs as he entered the United States.

With knowledge about Wilde's flamboyant manners in the background, I was tacitly assuming that the imprisonment of Wilde
was a result of his extravagance, although ultimately justifiable by aesthetic judgment by the author at that time, and by moral standards of the average citizen of today. However, the film portrayed Wilde's downfall as ultimately coming from his kindness.
Wilde was not trying to show off "the love that dare not speak its name". Quite contrary to it. Wilde was very discreet. It was the emotional confrontation between Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed "Bosie", wonderfully played by Jude Law) and his father the 9th Marquess of Queensberry which dragged Wilde into a court action.

Seeing the film, I realized that Oscar Wilde's downfall was a case of kindness paving one's way to destruction. Which surely happens from time to time. A sobering realization of the conditions of this strange tragicomedy we call "life".

Stephen Fry playing Oscar Wilde in the film "Wilde" (1997)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Butterfly encounters

When I was five, my mother introduced me to Mr. Ito, who was studying entomology at a University. It was Mr. Ito who introduced me into the wonderful world of insects in a professional way. I was an insect lover before this encounter always, observing and tampering with beetles and butterflies around my parents' house where my little feet could take me. With the guidance of Mr. Ito, I started to study butterflies in earnest, equipped with professional instruments.

When I look back on the long hours I spent in the woods waiting for my favorite butterflies, I realize how deeply this particular experience affected the way I look and interact with the small world around me. Butterflies are needless to say airborne entities. They emerge out of nowhere from every directions, startling you. When an interesting butterfly emerges, you need to react quite quickly, if you wanted to capture it that is.

There were many unforgettable instances where a rare species flew into your view. Your heart started to pound quite wild, and you got really nervous. The moment of truth had arrived. You tried to do your best, but often fail to do so, knowing this was a once in a lifetime chance.

These butterfly encounters would repeat themselves many times over in life, assuming different appearances and lurking in unexpected contexts, taking one by pleasant surprise. I grow by small inches by these encounters.

I am always longing for my next butterfly encounter.

Monday, March 29, 2010


One crucial point of the argument of Richard Dawkins is that we do not need religion to explain the foundations of our morality. Scientific theories of evolution provide convincing and powerful accounts of how our ethical behaviors have evolved.

For example, origins of altruism can be explained by models of interaction between agents, where certain actions lead to the increase or decrease of utility for the parties concerned. Models suggest that "free riders" (those agents that take advantage of other agents' altruistic behavior) can certainly arise under certain conditions. However, they never become the majority. It is an obvious fact that a community consisting entirely of free riders is not sustainable. Under robust interaction conditions, altruistic behaviors naturally evolve, as they are certainly adaptive for the individual agents as well as for the community, increasing the overall utility.

Morality does not need to be explained by religious commandments, which the human beings are required to follow without questioning their origins. Even if we have a free hand in choosing what codes of actions we adopt, we can end up as reasonably altruistic, caring beings, with the bonus that we have the freedom to think through the foggy mists of unquestioned systems of beliefs.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The passion of Richard Dawkins

I watched the documentary "The Root of All Evil?" written and presented by Richard Dawkins. It was originally broadcast as a two part series on Channel 4 in U.K.

The theme is a controversial one to say the least. Professor Dawkins was courageous enough to pick up the religious hot potato. It is not that the views of Dawkins are extreme. What Dawkins says during the 90 minutes of this excellent documentary appear only fair and well-balanced for me.

People say that religion is at the top of the "A-list" of topics to be avoided in the conversation at a dinner table. Some might even argue that it is morally wrong to tamper with other people's beliefs. While the spirit of tolerance is laudable, it also freezes the status quo.

Then there comes someone who dares to go beyond the barriers of faith and make long-due remarks about the emperor's new clothes. Mind you this particular action requires diplomatic tact as well as dare-devil courage. Professor Dawkins is able to continue conversation even with people of very strong religious opinions without making an ugly scene, a remarkable feat in itself.

I admire the passion of Richard Dawkins. The passion comes from a very mature intellect, married with a deep love of the wondrous order of the universe being uncovered by scientific endeavors.

Richard Dawkins