Tuesday, November 20, 2018

One Thousand and Four Letters


One Thousand and Four Letters

Ken Mogi

When Jane was elected Prime Minister a few days after the surprise resignation of her predecessor, there was naturally a lot of press coverage, although not so much about the novelty of gender. People no longer cared to count how many women have made it to the top job.
So much for the political maturity of the nation. Jane was quite aware, more than anybody else, that there were many serious problems with the union. She was prepared to use iron hands, if necessary.
Foremost in the agenda for Jane was the exit of the nation from the Community. It was not particularly Jane’s cup of tea: Actually, she campaigned against the exit. However, once the public opinion had been made, there was no other choice than to guide the herd in that direction. In other words, Jane was very aware of the principles of democracy.
"Welcome to No.10," said Sir James, who was the cabinet secretary. While Jane was putting her things on the desk, Sir James went on.
"As you may be well aware, King George offered this residence to Sir Robert Walpole, in 1732. Sir Walpole, however, did not consider the gift as private, and mentioned that the gift should go with the position, rather than the person."
"Selflessness has been the hallmark of this office," said June, to the nodding approval of Sir James.
In the next few minutes, Jane was asked by Sir James to write letters.
"Four letters, Prime Minister. Four identical letters."
"Four?" exclaimed Jane.
"Yes, four exactly identical letters."
"Why four?"
Sir James, who could never miss an opportunity to lecture someone, a new prime minister in particular, smiled. Rather like a devil, Jane thought.
"There are four submarines, and you’ve got to write four identical letters for each of them."
In an instant, Jane realized what these letters were for. Her face might have become rather pale.
Jane, as a young girl, used to be quite naive. She used to believe that peace could be realized by means of good will alone. Jane was not a simpleton now, ceased to be one long before she became a member of the parliament.
Jane was prepared to kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, if it was necessary, as she famously said during a discussion in the House of Commons.
The whole premise of nuclear deterrent rested on a firm will expressed in her four letters, she understood.
Sir James explained the four basic options: Retaliate, do nothing, use your own judgment, or enter under the command of friendly nations such as the United States and Australia. These options were to be carried out by the captains of the submarines, in case both Jane the PM and her deputy became incapacitated, the destruction of the nation to be verified by the absence of BBC radio 4 broadcast. Jane’s letter was thus to instruct the last official action of her Majesty’s government.
No particular thoughts went through Jane’s mind, as she penned the letters. Sir James was at the window, looking out into the garden.
"I am finished," said Jane to Sir James.
"Very good, I would seal the envelopes now," said Sir James.
Justin Hawks, the assistant secretary, brought a red box, into which Sir James put the four sealed envelopes.
"What happens to them?"
Jane asked.
"They will be flown straight to Faslane."
Jane watched as Justin carried the red box out of the office.
"Don’t you want to know what I wrote in the letter?" asked Jane.
"O, no," said Sir James.
"But they are very important. Perhaps the most important four letters in the nation," said Jane.
"No doubt," affirmed Sir James.
"Therefore nobody is to know what is inside."
"What happens when I am no longer the Prime Minister?" asked Jane.
"The letters would be destroyed, without being opened," assured Sir James.
"What if I have written some nonsense?" asked Jane.
Sir James only smiled.
The writing of the four letters, and Jane’s comments about deterrent in the House, were widely reported by the press.
A few days later, Jane was busy preparing for her first major speech about the exit when Sir James notified her of the arrival of the Japanese ambassador.
"The Japanese ambassador?" asked Jane blankly.
"Yes, about the funding of the Hinkley Project," whispered Sir James.
"O, yes," faltered Jane.
"So I've got to meet with the ambassador?" asked Jane.
Sir James nodded with his eyes.
At the end of a brief, but quite efficient meeting, the Japanese ambassador took out something small out of his briefcase, and handed it to Jane.
"I know it is quite irregular, but this is a gift from my wife. She insisted that I present it to you today. You know how wives are…" the Japanese ambassador closed his mouth without finishing the sentence, realizing that he was speaking to a woman.
"Thank you, and what is it?" Jane asked, out of pure curiosity.
"It is an origami crane. I am sorry there is only one. I should have brought you one thousand, to wish you good luck in your office."
"One thousand?" exclaimed June.
"That would be too much!"
At that moment, Justin came in, stood there smiling, effectively telling the ambassador there was absolutely no time left for the meeting.
That night, back home, Jane googled "origami crane" and "one thousand". Consequently Jane came to know the story of the Japanese girl Sadako Sasaki, who, suffering from leukemia caused by the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima, made one thousand paper cranes, believing the legend that one’s wishes would then come true.
Jane’s husband was already in bed. Alone at her night desk, Jane took a good look at the tiny paper crane that the Japanese ambassador brought her. She remembered the days when she was a little girl like Sadako Sasaki. Jane felt a sudden closeness of heart.
The first few weeks in Jane’s tenure as PM was hectic. She had to give a speech outlining her plan for the exit from the Community. She went through the ordeal of the first question time as PM. She needed to make some tough decisions on immigration. She had to attend the official party for the state visit of dignitaries from the Middle East.
In addition to all these political activities, needless to say, Jane had to do her paper work.
Every morning, when she arrived at No.10, Justin brought the red boxes. In it were heaps of papers, presented for the perusal and judgment of Jane. Some of the papers needed to be signed. Some were personal correspondences, filtered by the staff beforehand. Jane needed to concentrate for quite a while to properly handle all these papers.
One weekend, after a brief stay at the Chequers, Jane found herself in the constituency. There was not such a thing as privacy now that she was the PM, but Jane did have a brief moment of relaxed stroll in her home town.
Jane came to her church, and went in. The vicar was there. The vicar invited to have a chat in the corner. Jane signaled the secret services to keep a respected distance.
The vicar asked Jane how she was doing as PM. She was enjoying the job, Jane said. That was great, the vicar said. Then, out of the blue, Jane mentioned the paper crane. "The paper crane?" the vicar inquired. Jane explained briefly what happened when the Japanese ambassador visited her at No.10. Jane and the vicar went on to exchange a few more words. Jane mentioned her sleep problems.
Jane’s visit to the local church lasted 5 minutes, at the most. It was covered briefly in local and national news. Nobody had a clue what the vicar and Jane talked about. It was generally assumed that she would have just said hello and discussed the weather.
On Monday, Justin noticed, when opening the red box, that there was an envelope on top of the papers. It was addressed to the PM, from the PM. Apparently, it was written by Jane.
At first Justin regarded the letter as some draft. Then Justin had second thoughts. There was a "private" stamp on the envelope. Although it was not that Justin would have opened the envelope otherwise, he thought that he need to handle the letter carefully. Therefore, he put the envelope in the "Festivities" holder, which was usually reserved for Christmas and the Queen’s birthday.
On Tuesday, there was another letter at the top of the red box papers. On Wednesday, there was yet another. Justin found it slightly embarrassing to keep quiet, and asked the PM, in a rather timid voice.
"Allow me to ask you a strange question, Prime Minister. But what are these envelopes in the red box?"
"Ah," answered Jane, as if what Justin asked was nothing of material.
"They are letters to me, written by me, each day" said Jane.
"I understand," said Justin.
"What should I do with them, if I may ask?"
"Please file them," answered Jane, as if that was the only sensible thing to do.
"All right, then," said Justin, bowed, and retreated from the office.
Later that evening, Justin discussed the PM’s strange new customs with Sir James.
"Hmm," reflected Sir James.
"Maybe she wants to write a memoir," was Sir James’s bemused judgment.
Jane enjoyed a relatively high approval rate, helped in part by the inner turmoils of the opposition party. When the exit talks with the Community came to a seeming deadlock, Jane called for a snap general election. A slightly increased majority in the House of Commons meant that Jane now had a clear mandate as Prime Minister.
Jane went on to make a series of tough decisions, some of which proved unpopular.
"Iron lady" "ruthless," "hawkish," "cold-blooded," and "woman wolf" were some of the colorful descriptions that the press used to describe the PM.
Jane’s media advisor indicated that her public image had probably been tarnished because of that infamous remark in the House. Would she consider rephrasing the "prepared to kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children" statement, he asked. Jane was adamant in her denial.
"No, I wouldn’t," said Jane.
"Deterrent means deterrent."
Sir James was mildly surprised when the tenure of Jane as PM passed the one year line. He could not contain his wonderment when her office went into the third year. Although Sir James admired Jane’s personal traits, he was of the opinion that the difficulty surrounding the union would curtail any Prime Ministerial career, even one as excellent as this one. Perhaps Jane’s hawkish image, bolstered by the woman card, worked miracles as chemistry to make her premiership both tangible and believable.
Jane’s strange habit of authoring one letter a day continued. Each day, Justin found yet another envelope inside the returned red box, on the very top. The custom seemed to continue even when the PM was in foreign travel, with envelopes matching the number of days spent abroad put inside the red box, on Jane’s return to No. 10.
Justin filed the envelopes conscientiously, and soon the "Festivities" holder became full. He had to create "Festivities 2" holder, and then "Festivities 3."
It was again nearing Christmas. It was felt that people were getting used to the idea of Jane being the PM. There surely were some hiccups, but then, Jane was doing her job, or so it seemed. Jane was getting steady with the people.
One day, Jane told Sir James that she would be holding a press conference.
"What for," asked Sir James.
"It is about the letters," declared Jane.
"Letters? How fascinating!"
Evidently Sir James thought it was about the promotion of the Royal Mail in the run-up to Christmas. Great was Sir James’s surprise, therefore, when, on the morning of the press conference, he was told that the title of the PM’s talk was "One thousand and four letters."
"One thousand and four?" exclaimed Sir James. Such an enigma was something that he had never encountered, in his career as a civil servant.
It was only when Jane showed Sir James the self-written script of the projected speech that he understood the meaning. Sir James thought it was a good Christmas maneuver. There was a smile on his face.
In the press conference, Jane told how, after writing the four letters on her first day as PM, she had qualms of conscience about the decision that she would be obliged to make, while being the PM. She told the vicar of her old church about it, and mentioned the strong impression of the paper crane presented by the Japanese ambassador's wife, and the legend of one thousand paper cranes.
After a brief silence, the vicar suggested something. She should write a letter to herself each day, reflecting on her actions and thoughts. By doing that, she would be able to be a good person.
"I had to keep making tough decisions, as Prime Minister." Jane said.
"I could not conceive of doing otherwise. I wanted to do what I deemed was best for the union, whether it was the exit, immigration, or economic policy," Jane said.
"As a balancing act, I have been writing letters to myself, each day, reflecting on the sometimes tough decisions that I have had to make on the previous day."
There were flashes coming from the press trying to capture Jane’s face as she spoke.
"Today marks the one thousandth day of my work as the Prime Minister, after I visited my vicar. That means, I have been writing one thousand letters to myself."
"How do you feel now?" asked one reporter.
"Well, as the vicar said, I hope I am a good person, even if my wishes did not come true," Jane answered.
There were a spontaneous wave of applause, which was rare in a press conference.
That evening, Jane reflected on her days as the Prime Minister, and went through, in her memory, the one thousand and four letters that she has written over this time. Jane did not recall the details of the letters. She did, however, remember the flows of emotion, ups and downs, conflicts, and few brilliant moments.
The face of the vicar briefly flashed in her mind.
Jane went on to write one thousand three hundred and six letters as Prime Minister. She resigned after successfully completing the exit process.
The red box letters are now filed in a series of "Festivities" holders in a corner of Jane’s private house. The vicar actually glanced at the holders as he was having tea on his visit. The four submarine letters were destroyed on the day of Jane’s resignation, and nobody knows what were in those envelopes.

Author’s note on 20th November 2018: I finished this short story on 10th August 2016. I decided to put it on the blog rather than keeping it or hoping to publish otherwise.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Visiting Horace Barlow.

I was getting a little worried. Horace had been always quick in his e-mail correspondences. However, after exchanging a few emails about my U.K. visit, the answers did not arrive. Then one day, Miranda sent me an SMS, saying that Horace was in good health.
Once in the U.K., I sent Miranda an SMS. She said in response that it was fine to meet with Horace on Thursday. I wrote perhaps I should go to the house, considering Horace’s health. Miranda said Horace suggested Trinity.
Miranda wrote that I should ring Horace once I was in the Porter’s Lodge, informing that I was on my way to the Parlour. Arriving at the Great Gate, I realized that there were some ambiguities in what was meant by Miranda’s message. I called Horace’s mobile number, which had been used by Miranda to exchange SMS. There was no answer.
A kind porter escorted me, trying to find where Horace was. The Parlour was being refurbished, so there was another room functioning temporarily as the Parlour. On the way, the porter and I carried on with some conversations.
“Do you know Professor Barlow for a long time?”
“Yes, I did postdoc with him some years ago.”
“Have you been to Trinity recently?”
“Well, a few years ago.”
“I think Professor Barlow might be here.”
The porter led me into a room, where several people were seated. Some of them were reading the papers. The porter cleared his throat, and asked “Has anybody seen Professor Barlow?” A gentleman with spectacles looked up, and said “I haven’t seen Horace for a while.”
The porter said he would ask if somebody had seen Professor Barlow’s car. I tried Horace’s mobile again, and this time, Miranda answered.
“Hi, Ken, Horace was a bit late driving to Trinity. He should be there in a few minutes.”
At about the same time, the porter received through his wireless communication devise the information that somebody had seen Horace’s car. Brightening up, the porter led me into the green square between the dining room and the river. “Professor Barlow should be coming this way,” said the porter.
The moment I saw Horace walking into the green square, I was relieved. He was apparently in good health. His walking was slow, but his face was vividly smiling as ever.
“Hello Horace,” I said.
“Hello Ken,” Horace said, and we shook hands.
Horace led me into the dining room. 
I saw several familiar faces around the high table. Among them were professors Brian Josephson and Martin Rees.
It was Horace’s kind manners to read out what was available on the menu. We both had soup, and then Horace had a crab. I had some salad.
As we sat at the table, and Horace introduced me to professor Ian Glynn, and we exchanged a few words. Professor Glynn mentioned his visit to some colleagues in Japan with warm words. Horace was fond of the apple juice in a nicely designed bottle. He had several glassfuls, and I helped pour the juice into his glass.
It was the manner of Horace to go straight into scientific conversations. He was of the opinion that the exploration of redundancy was very important in understanding the cellular functions in the visual cortex, a view still underappreciated, in Horace’s opinion. We discussed some issues about artificial and natural intelligence. When we were finished, Horace suggested coffee. As the Parlour was closed for the moment, Horace suggested we go to his house to have coffee.
It was inspiring to see a 96 years old person drive a car (Horace was born on 8thDecember 1921). As we went over the river, Horace mentioned a sculpture by Antony Gormley recently installed in Trinity. “Pop out and see it!” said Horace. I popped out and saw the figure, which, according to Horace, was representing Isaac Newton admiring the Wren library.
Once on the road, Horace drove the car very smoothly. “You seem to be driving without any problems” I mentioned. “Well,” said Horace, “I feel much safer in the car.” Then Horace went on, jokingly, “I think I am much safer to other people while in the car, too.”
We arrived at his house. I could already hear the dog barking. I had seen the dog before, but forgot the name. It carried a tag around the neck. However, since the dog was barking, it was difficult to see the name.
Horace told me how to make the coffee. I ground the beans accordingly. Horace then took the spoon and cleared the powder into the coffee filter. The meticulous and careful way Horace used the spoon to put every bit of powder into the filter reminded me of the fact that Horace did physiological experiments in his youth.
Once, when I was having a chat with Horace in the laboratory, I asked Horace why he was not doing experiments any more. Horace laughed and said, “that’s because I have to sleep at night now.”
The coffee was made, and we sat on the table. Miranda came in, and we said hello. Miranda told Horace that she would take the dog for a walk. It was such a fine day. The dog stopped barking.
When Miranda was gone, we sat at the table. Horace said he should have made the coffee stronger. I felt it was just fine. Talking with Horace over the coffee in his house, it was like the old tea time was coming back again.
When I was doing postdoc in Horace’s lab, it was customary to go to the Physiology tea room in the morning and the afternoon. It would be at those times that Horace said things really interesting, some of which I remember to this day.
Horace’s strong intuition about the brain’s central function always impressed me, and the impression was renewed. The relevance of Horace’s belief that the job of the brain was to detect possible coincidences in the environment would go beyond the visual and sensory cortex, and would have possible contributions to the general computational principles of the cortex. The conversation shifted towards intelligence again. Horace said that the “is” questions, such as “what is intelligence,” were not very helpful. Horace suggested that we should instead ask what were the things that intelligence made it possible for the brain to perform. Horace remained silent for a few seconds, and then started to speak. There was a twinkle in his eye. 
“I suppose intelligence makes it possible to carry out intelligent conversations. Without intelligence, we cannot discuss things of interest in such a way!”
We were finished with the coffee. As I stood up, there was a mixture of joy, relief, and a deep sense of inspiration in my heart.
“I hope to see you again soon,” I said to Horace, and shook hands.
“I hope to see you, Ken”, said Horace.
As I stepped into the bright evening air, my steps were light. The sun would not set yet for quite a while. 
It was still summer.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The production of The Qualia Song.

Near the end of each year, just before the holiday seasons, our lab has a special meeting called "The Brain Club Xmas Special." (The Brain Club is the name for the journal and research club held every week.)
In the Xmas Special, we hold a competition to create (often humorous) works. We vote, and there is a prize for the winner.

So this year, I created a song titled "The Qualia Song" using GarageBand. I knew for quite some time that there was this music software on my Mac (and iPhone), but this was the first time I used it. Initially, it was difficult to grasp how to use regions and loops, but I went through the learning curve and here it is.

The lyrics are by me, and I take responsibility for any biases or misperceptions. : - )  

The Qualia Song.

(Lyrics by Ken Mogi)

Qualia are sensory qualities
Like the redness of red
If you don’t get it you can still have it
So relax, breathe, and enjoy your qualia
Immersed in the here and now

Some people just don’t get it
Like the great Daniel D
We can agree to disagree
So relax, breathe, and enjoy your qualia
Your existence in the here and now

It is such a silly idea
But many people stick to it
The integrated information Theory
(IIT is obviously wrong! You know that!)
So relax, breathe, and enjoy your qualia
Your existence in the here and now

An individual arises from relations
in the Mach’s principle
Maybe twistor is the great savior
(God save Sir Roger Penrose!)
So relax, breathe, rejoice in your qualia

Your existence in the here and now 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An audience with Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi at Christie's London.

During my latest visit to London, I had the fortune of viewing Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, recently authenticated by experts. Christies announced that it would be put on auction on November 15. The artwork is expected to fetch astronomical sums. The last time it was put on auction in 1958, it fetched just 45 pounds. 

Learning that "The Last da Vinci" was to be shown in London, I was grateful for the happy coincidence. On the first day of the public viewing, which happened to be my last day in London, I started off to Christies at 8 King Street, after finishing my usual rounds of 10 km run in Hyde Park.
As I approached the venue, I was apprehensive of the wait time. Fortunately, the queue was not that long, perhaps due to the fact it was still early in the day. There were only six people before me. 

However, the movement of the queue was very slow. Apparently, given the nature of the venue (it's Christie's, after all) and people (some of them might actually be considering a purchase), they were taking extra time to admire the recovered work of the genius.
When I finally turned around the corner and the painting came into view, I understood the real reason why the movement had been so slow. 

It was such a fascinating painting. Once enraptured by it, it was really hard to leave. 
Christ's right hand is giving benediction. The luminance coming from the crossed fingers is counterbalanced by the subtle nuances of the face on one hand, and the serene, detached beauty of the crystal ball on the other, in an exquisite trinity of artistic motifs. As with Mona Lisa, the countenance of the savior, Jesus Christ, seemed to be conveying a poignant enigma.
The mystery of that expression would perhaps never be solvable, as in the case of Mona Lisa. People would discuss the "meaning" of the Salvator Mundi for many years to come.

Walking along the streets of London, I thought about the unique position that a savior of the world is placed. What does it take to sacrifice oneself for the redemption of the original sin of all humanity? What would the emotion of the savior be, as he reflects on his own destiny. Would it be resignation, sorrow, joy, pride, sense of duty, resilience, or sheer rapture?

Later that day, sitting on a chair at Heathrow, I felt as if, in some strange sense, I have encountered the person of Jesus Christ himself, in the house of Christie's. At the least, I had a sense of a reverberating intimacy of physical closeness. 

The very vividness and mastery coordinations of Leonardo's artistic expressions perhaps did that trick. 
As far as I was concerned, I met Jesus Christ in London, on that morning.
That would be what you would call the magic of a great work of art.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Writing the Little Book of IKIGAI.

The Little Book of IKIGAI, due to be published from Quercus on the 7th September 2017, is my first full English language book.

In the past, within the English language domain, I have written book chapters and edited a volume. However, this is the first time I have ever written a book in English from the beginning to the end. 

It is not that I am a stranger to the publishing world. I have published more than ~100 books in Japanese. 

However, the practical and imagined language barrier has been huge. For someone who was born and educated in Japan, writing a book in the English language de novo has been a dream that I thought would perhaps never become a reality.

Now that I have finished writing the book, with the final proof sent to the publisher, I can look forward to see that impossibility actually happen. 

Needless to say, I am extremely happy.

Writing a book in the English language has always been one of my personal ambitions. Like many other things in life, it got postponed for some reason or another, in a series of not-so-creative procrastinations.

The serendipity happened when my literary agent Mr. H made a trip to the London Book Fair. To be precise, Mr. H was not my literary agent at that time, since I did not have a single publication to my name in the English langauge. Mr. H was born in Australia and is now based in Tokyo. We have been discussing book projects over the years, but nothing had materialized, until last year.

During the London Book Fair, Mr. H met with an editor at Quercus, Katy. Katy apparently said she was looking for someone who would write a book on IKIGAI—the Japanese philosophy of life which contributes to good life and longevity. Mr. H immediately thought of me, and sent an e-mail.
To be honest, at that time, writing a book on IKIGAI was not on the top of my "to do list". 

Interestingly, there were several interesting coincidences. I already knew the Dan Buettner TED talk in which he mentioned IKIGAI as the secret of longevity in Okinawa, a lovely island in the south of Japan. Just before I got that e-mail from Mr. H, I was attending a TEDx conference in Tokyo, in which one of the audiences (who was apparently an American) mentioned in passing IKIGAI as one of the Japanese ideas that was catching the world's imagination.

So when I received that e-mail from Mr. H, although I had not thought of writing a book on IKIGAI before, I immediately thought it would be an interesting challenge to come up with something that would be not only helpful, but also provide some insights into the Japanese ways of life.

IKIGAI is something that many Japanese take for granted, like the air. In the process of writing the book, I needed to do some soul searching, reflecting on how this particular concept actually formed our daily lives. I also tried to present a concise explanation of science involved in the elucidation of the benefits of IKIGAI.

I did my best to make the book balanced on practical indications and in-depth explorations. I discussed the world of sumo, sushi, Shinto shrines, the usual suspects when discussing the unique values of the Japanese culture, as well as some themes probably new to many Western readers, such as radio calisthenics, comiket (comic market), and cosplay. 

I hope this book will be helpful for people who are interested in IKIGAI as a hint for a better life.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

May the Force be with you, in retrospect.

The concept of Force was perhaps the greatest invention of the Star Wars franchise, especially in retrospect from an era when artificial intelligence threatens to storm the world in our own life time.

The Star Wars is hallmarked with gigantic structures of machinery floating in space, in which humans move like tiny ants, with few scenes of food consumption or reference to organic ecosystems. In the film, machines dominate, with one of the key figures (Darth Vader) always encapsulated in a life-sustenance suit.

In such a world of the Star Wars, it would seem that our own life, what is human, would be marginalized, dwarfed by the immense presence of the machine civilization.

There enters the Force, symbolizing what life and human spirit is worth. The Force ultimately sets the course of the galaxy. 

It is naturally an absurd idea, but the salvation of the human soul actually lies in the very absurdity. This is especially true, in view of the emergence of artificial intelligence systems which threaten all of us.

May the Force be with you.

The value of the Force as a soul-saving fantasy grows and shines, in retrospect, almost 40 years after its initial release.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Consolations in the post-truth era.

In a world dominated by fake news, it would appear that people can ignore apparent truth for their own benefit, and the vested interests of the gang. It is surely a sad scene. It has given birth to a legion of deplorables, who actually pride themselves on being so.

On the other hand, there are some consolations, too.

The diminishing of the power of the so-called authorities to decide what is true, acceptable, and respectable, helps sharpen one's instinct. We can no longer follow a certain set of standards as something that would vouchsafe intellectual decency. We need to judge cases one by one, and thereby risk ourselves to be scoundrels, if we make a bad choice.

That is what you would call freedom.

In a sense, the emergence of post-truth brought freedom into our world, and may even be regarded as a progress if you look at it that way. And here we are.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Against context.

(This text was written for an art exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan, October 2016)

Ken Mogi

Ever since the time when Thomas Hobbes quipped that humans are in effect living inside a monster (aka the Leviathan, or a nation state), we have been forced to live a life of a monster tamer, trying to overcome the often savage nature of the monster in which we all live and hopefully breathe. The task has been a difficult one, and it has been conducted with a sense of Machiavellian wisdom and hypocrisy by the powers that be, and at best times, with a balancing sense of humor and humiliation, at least by some good states persons. 

From the point of human existence, the monsters were enforcers of contexts in which we all live and act. When nations go to war, we are forced to take some specific stance within the context of war, whether the good nature within us favor it or not. Being ambiguous is often made into an unacceptable crime. The Leviathans that were supposedly conceived to protect our individual rights by overcoming the Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all) would sometimes crush our own freedoms and even lives, when it forces certain contexts on our existences. 

Now, in a world becoming more and more complex, the monsters have begun to take many new forms. The Leviathans in the form of nation states are perhaps made less and less absolute in their reigns, due to the development of technologies such as the internet, which makes borders or national control in principle irrelevant. The nation states do not have a monopoly of the Leviathan status anymore. The monster’s powers have been transformed, transferred and diluted, into the multitude of entities both physical and virtual, connected through the ubiquitous medium of information technologies. 

To be sure, despite all these changes, the powers that be remain very real, sometimes with tragic consequences, even after the blasts introduced to the human civilization by such individuals as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning (born Bradley Manning). 

The first law of the dynamics of human society states that contexts which sometimes restrain our activities are here to stay for the foreseeable future. In order to remain free, we need to fight the contexts, whether they are imposed by political powers, the market, cultural conventions, or our own prejudices. On the other hand, it is also true that we cannot do anything without some framing contexts, leading to one of the most interesting dilemmas of human existence. Regarding contexts, we cannot live with them, and we cannot live without them. It is precisely because of the subtle nature of context-dependent dynamics that artistic expressions can sometimes contribute towards making it easier for us to breathe, by delving deep into the tangled web. 

Here, it is important to note that we are not just talking about political systems. The very nature of economy forces us to accept some degree of inequality. Human culture is increasingly divided into millions of sects, with adherents of each sect being indifferent to others, as if they are inhabitants of distant galaxies. Gone are the days when terms such as a contrast between high and counter cultures were at least marginally relevant. Now, the heterogeneity of the cultures are such that  it no longer makes sense to talk about high, mainstream, low, or counter cultures, unless you are being a hypocrite by intention and design. The mirror that reflects the various contexts in which we live in has already been shattered, and perhaps it is not a good idea to try to restore it to its original coherency.

Noboru Tsubaki is aware of all these difficulties and transformations. Or rather, we are made aware of these sea tide changes through his artworks, although, of course, as in any works of fine art, the references and metaphors are indirect and sometimes surpass the specific events that worked as sources of inspiration. 

Behind the seemingly nonchalant diversity of Tsubaki’s artistic expression lies the spirit of an artist who is engaged in one of the most strategic and consistent activities searching artistic and human freedom in recent times.

In essence, Tsubaki is an artist who is not afraid of being in a crash course with a monster, be it the art establishment, market, capitalism, institutionalism, or good old Leviathans of the nation states themselves. In fact, some might regard Tsubaki as kind of a monster himself, growing up to the scale of a gigantic sea monster in one’s own favored imagination. Tsubaki is perhaps entitled to receive the recognition of an artistic Leviathan status, although the artist might well shy away from such an acclaim, especially from his sense of anti-authority. 

Tsubaki’s stance not to take the status quo for granted was evident ever since his debut as an artist. He is recognized as one of the most outspoken and nonconformist artists of the nation, and the ripples are felt well beyond the borders of nation states.
As a young and upcoming artist, Tsubaki was known for his painting inspired by the mono-ha movement, for which he received numerous prizes. Following that line of expression alone would perhaps have earned him the status of a successful artist. 

However, Tsubaki did not stop there. He went on to explore new and unconventional venues for artistic expression, which ultimately put his name on the map. 
Going out of one’s own contexts might well be the hallmark of a monster slayer, especially when the monster is the ubiquitous contexts that we all breathe in. That is a universal problem that we face as individuals in today’s world, and it is an artist’s job to tackle it.

If you look back on the history of art, it was always about innovations going beyond the established contexts. The impressionists, originally a derogatory denomination thrown by the (then) mainstream art scene, were young artists which were regarded as second rate by the establishment. Marcel Duchamp, in his legendary Fountain (1917), turned the art scene upside down, and the world has not been the same ever since. Going against or out of the context is the name of the game, and Tsubaki is well aware of that in his actions. 
Tsubaki spent his youth in the rural Japan, where he was exposed to the brutal forces of nature. Tsubaki had ample time to observe and experience various forms of lives, a fact that perhaps explains the richness of artistic Cambrian explosion characterizing his artistic career. 

This  Camereon Eater (1983) is a hallmark work in Tsubaki’s early period, exploding both in physical dimensions and color. This work, according to Tsubaki, gave such a visual shock to two visiting American curators that it found its way to be included in the “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties” exhibition. The term “Againt Nature” was of Tsubaki’s own coinage. The New York Times referred to Tsubaki’s work in one of its articles, mentioning the new monster coming from a country where the first atomic bombs were dropped. 

As a result, Tsubaki inadvertently became one of the first artists to introduce aspects of Japanese pop culture into the world art scene, well before such now household names as Takashi Murakami and Yositomo Nara.

The emergence of Japanese pop culture in the contemporary art scene has been an aesthetic coup d’├ętat, turning many things upside down, as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain did. This phenomenon could be compared to the influence of Ukiyo-e paintings on such impressionist artists as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. One may even say that without the preparation of ground by the Ukiyo-e influences, the unique and yet very flat originality of Henri Rousseau paintings might never have recognized. The same could perhaps be said about the influences of Japanese pop culture on contemporary art, although the jury of history is still out. Tsubaki’s works can be placed in the great web of arts and artists, in which a “pay it forward” relay of influences contribute to the betterment of the art word in general. 

Tsubaki pays it forward well.  One of the hallmarks of Tsubaki’s works is the vibe of energy emanating from its works. Energy is a great liberator of human spirit, a fact that lovers of Tsubaki’s works appreciate well.

In the Insect World (2001), exhibited at the Yokohama Triennale of 2001, Tsubaki put a gigantic locust figure on one of the landmark hotels. This work has a certain poignancy in a land where the fictional monster character Godzilla was born and then was made popular through the film series. When you suppress or damage something (in the case of Godzilla, it was the nuclear test in the Pacific that awoke the legendary monster from sleep), it will eventually snap back. In Tsubaki’s work, the giant locus is perhaps a reflection on human’s original sin against nature, which our ancestors once feared and then conquered, seemingly to our own benefit, but eventually to our own demise. If we control the nature within the suffocating context of modernization, then we should also expect it to snap back, whether in the form of a fiery monster or an oversized pest.
Needless to say, the conflict of contexts is not only between humans and nature. 

Tsubaki is not afraid to question the hegemony in the social context too, even if it possibly means upsetting the nerves of some onlookers. In UNBOY (2003), Tsubaki made a critical reference to the impasse in the world’s efforts to bring about peace, especially in the particular zeitgeist of the time when the United States was supposedly waging a war on terror in the wake of the 911 attacks. 

Here, it is noteworthy to note that In Tsubaki’s artworks, the killer instinct is not shied away from. In aTTA, modeled after the leafleting ants in Costa Rica. Tsubaki seems to be giving expression to, if not totally endorsing, the brutal in nature, whether it be non-human or otherwise. 

At the end of the day, it is evident that humans cannot perhaps do away with brutality all together. The rise of terrorism here and there in the world has made it obvious that the classic justification of the maintenance of nuclear weapons under the MAD (mutually assured destruction) scheme is becoming obsolete. As nations collapse and technical glitches emerge like bamboo shoots after the rain, the fiction that “responsible” nation states (oh, the Leviathans again!) could in principle control nuclear weapons is becoming an outdated and perhaps lethal fairy tale. Even in such a situation, humans seem to be adhering to the now seemingly ancient notion of security assurance by the powers of nation states, in a world divided by the Leviathans in an ad hoc manner.

If we cannot abolish human brutality from the root, it befalls on us to come face to face with it, not only to stay realistic but also to give peace a chance. That is perhaps why Tsubaki, although a peace loving man himself, often refers to the brutal nature of existence in his artworks.

It is interesting to observe how Tsubaki’s artworks have evolved and are constantly evolving. In the aftershock of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, Tsubaki produced Metapolice, a visual metaphor of the society where the ubiquitous cameras would monitor our activities constantly. After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident of 2011, Tsubaki produced RADIKAL AQUA, a critical reference to politicians, scientists, journalists, and artists who promoted the use of nuclear energy. 

In his recent works Mammalian and DASYBELL, Tsubaki have stressed the view that perhaps humans themselves are the monsters, on the backdrop of new innovations of balloon technologies, enabling the artist to produce forms in the air freely. Now, Tsubaki says, he considers himself to be an “air sculptor“. 

So, the artist Noboru Tsubaki is constantly evolving. And so are the humans in general. Tsubaki seems to be dancing with the progress (or regress) of humans. It takes two to tango. And it is all about monsters.

Indeed, we have come a long way, monster-wise. It used to be that the picture was relatively simple. In the dawn of humanity, the mother nature was perhaps the greatest monster of all, providing humans with nutrition and necessary resources, but hitting back with life-threatening forces at the most unexpected time. The “enemies” (i.e. people of opponent nations in a war) were also depicted as monsters. These oversimplifications were perhaps politically correct and even psychologically necessary, to survive in a brutal world. Even the contrast between the heaven and hell might have come from such a psychological need for survival. We made monsters of the images of heaven and hell through survival necessities. We have come a long way from the primitive menagerie of imaginations gone wild. Welcome to the 21st century, where a brave new world of ubiquitous and often forced contexts is just around the corner. 
The art world is no exception, from the point of view of the tyranny of contexts. Many artists have criticized the “white cube” of art institutions. Banksy has gone physically out of the context of exhibition rooms. What is left in the art museums then? The elephant in the room now, in the most general sense, is perhaps the still rampant “contexts” surrounding humans, penetrating and integrating the civilized society in which we all live. 

The internet is one gigantic context, in which individuals hope to achieve the legendary 15 minutes of fame. The dream of individual glories is counterbalanced by the motif of totalitarian control. The government secret agencies try to gather information about the individual activities through a megalomaniac tapping plan, whether these individuals are involved in suspicious activities or not, or, for that matter, whether these activities are legal or otherwise.  It is the very nature of the information technology that individual differences have no relevance for the regime. It is one of the greatest ironies that we have come to this, with the supposedly benign motive of protecting our own freedom originally.

Everybody is fighting with contexts nowadays. And the fight will not be over with Episode I. Episodes Never-ending is the human destiny, when it comes to the fight with contexts. The artists would never be out of their jobs.

Some people argue that the singularity is near, in which the artificial intelligence vastly surpasses human intelligence and becomes dominant in the universe. After all, the artificial intelligence is nothing but a very finely tuned contextual dynamics. When an artificial intelligence program (e.g. the AlphaGo) is designed to play the game of Go well, it does so with unlimited concentration, within the context of a board game. But how are humans different from artificial intelligence? Are we not increasing becoming functional bots, constrained in boxed constraints assigned to each of us by the system?

Noboru Tsubaki has been involved in a fight against precisely these contexts. That is why we need an artist like Tsubaki in the years to come. To inspire, and be inspired. To breathe, to make some air.

In person, Tsubaki looks and moves like a seasoned athlete, or more precisely, a boxer who has trained for a long time to fight a monster in the ring, the world at large. The monster, or elephant in the room, is probably well perceived and aimed at by the artist, and the viewers usually get the message.

After all, every message is ultimately personal, and embodied. In addition to being an active artist, Tsubaki is a well-loved and respected Arts University professor. At college, Tsubaki teaches with vision and passion, aiming to inspire his students into the path of an active contemporary art career which he himself once followed. Tsubaki is critical of the way students are sometimes forced to behave in a context-dense society (e.g. Japan), where conformity often stifles the sparks of individuality, a necessary condition for artistic expressions, or, for that matter, existence as a decent human being. 

Tsubaki’s passion to guide the younger generation has a deep root. Tsubaki used to teach at junior and senior high schools. During that tenure, Tsubaki sometimes asked his students to appear in some of his works. Looking at his early works, one feels that the presence of pupils in school uniforms constitute an integral part of the artworks visually, as well as providing a critique of a society into which these young spirits grow and eventually get assimilated.

Noboru Tsubaki is a champion of freedom in a world increasingly becoming context-dependent. The monster has been released into the cyberspace, making it difficult to identify and locate the Leviathan, let alone slay it. Tsubaki’s quest is likely to go on for quite a long time yet. Art is long, much longer than the reaches of the monsters, and therein lies our hope.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Sustainable design.

Since coming to Milan for Milano Salone del Mobile a couple of days ago, I have been thinking about design from time to time.

I am aware that people nowadays talk about "sustainable design".

It is certainly a good idea to make a design sustainable, so that too much burden would not be put on the earth's environment, and in order that human resources would develop without fears of distortions or coercions. At the same time, sustainability is a difficult concept to grasp and/or materialize.

Walking through the streets in Milan, I realized afresh that most of the things I saw around me were actually related to design in some sense. After all, every artifact in an urban environment was designed by people at some stage. Some of the things might now be manufactured and installed without thinking too much about the origins, but they were designed by people in the first place, anyway.

The call for more sustainable design comes from the realization that human activities have done much damage to the earth's environment. This is certainly a salient point, but there seem to be some serious theoretical and practical issues.

For example, things in nature, whether biological or otherwise, are mutually entered and eroded, where no definite boundaries are defined. On the other hand, most artificial designs are based on a principle of exclusion. Exclusion is the very foundation of the identity of things designed, manufactured and maintained, and yet is the ultimate reason for the unsustainable feature of artificial designs.

An urban environment, of which Milan is an pristine example, is based on the principle of exclusion. An urban space is composed of concrete, glass, and steel, into which biological entities other than humans are not allowed. Nowadays, people put greens on the walls and roofs, aimed at the ostensible appearance of being environmentally friendly. But at the core, the urban space remains largely and jealously exclusive to any forces of nature which might work towards its corrosion.

I wonder how you can make any design sustainable in essence, without addressing this exclusion issue.

(Maybe I will come back to this issue later)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz

The comparison between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz is interesting.
Both candidates make remarks, which are, by today's standards of universal values and human rights, very questionable, to put it mildly.

However, when Mr. Trump makes remarks, for example about walls and immigration, it sounds as if he does not really mean it. It is as if he is just acting like a macho, in the great reality TV show that is the US Presidential election.

On the other hand, when Mr. Cruz says something, it appears as if he is really meaning it. Which is, after all, what earnest Presidential candidates are supposed to do. However, in this case, it makes Mr. Cruz even more scary.

There is another interesting difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz. When Mr. Trump delivers judgment, he seems to be doing so from his own experiences and value systems. It is an individualistic act. When Mr. Cruz says something, on the other hand, he seems to be referring to supposedly important communal values.

In sum, Mr. Cruz seems to be of a more "deep" case than Mr. Trump, especially because the candidate apparently lacks a metacognition of what he is doing.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The tyranny of time.

I sometimes feel that the most powerful in this world is time.
People might talk about Presidents and Prime ministers as examples of the apotheosis of power, but at the end of the day nobody can beat time.

I was a child once, and I sometimes look back on how I used to feel, see the world around me through a lens of enchantment. The child that I was is no longer here. I am a different person, although  a fragile belief based on my memory system would like to rely on the continuity of me from my childhood to the present day, as an assumption.

The fact that the ambience of times past would never return is the most dramatic constituent element of the world  we live in. Memory and records are but insufficient solaces for life when faced with the utmost brutality of the passage of time.

I conclude that time is the only tyrant in this world. Hope is a reaction to the brutality of time with which we soldier on. Contemporary physics has nothing to do with this greatest mystery. In a sense, science has done nothing towards softening the blows of temporality.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Reaction rather than action.

You observe some phenomena in the world which seem to be against the universal values of human rights and enlightenment. Some people fear where the world is going to. I think it is important to realize that these are reactions rather than actions.

The trend of globalization is inevitable. People want to be happy in that world. Respect of individual freedom is going to win after all. Everything else is just a bit of irrelevant details.

Events you see here and there in the world are just reactions to the inevitable trend of globalization and the spread of universal values. If you see things in this context, maybe you can breathe easier, with some grains of salt in your hand. The future is here to stay after all.

It this simplistic optimism?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The 2016 US Presidential election. Whom would you vote for?

So, here are the colorful candidates...in cat form : - ).

Excuse my drawing.

I just thought viewing these individuals in a feline context would give us some insights...but maybe I was mistaken. 

But seriously, whom would you vote for?

I am glad I am not an American citizen, as deciding whom to vote for would have given me a lot of headache this year...

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Who is to judge fairness?

In Japan, there is a series of controversial dialogues going on between the government and the media, especially the terrestrial television stations.
The government says that the tv news coverages need to be fair and balanced.

Fair enough. But who is to decide?

Generally speaking, I think it is a bad idea for the government to decide what is fair and what is not.
We need a third party to make a fair judgment on fair reporting.

It comes as a surprise that this simple organizational wisdom does not cross the minds of those in the power.

It puzzles me.