Quarterly Reflection: April – June 2019

The second quarter of 2019 has been a whirlwind. With the current political climate here in Thailand , it is often difficult to divert my time (and attention) to learning. While most of my time is spent on familiarizing myself with 3D software releases from earlier this year, I also took up an interest in architecture. So far, World Architecture Festival seems to deliver what I’m looking for the most from any creative works — To catch a glimpse into what a creation means to its creator on a personal level, and to understand how that creation affects community and the way of life on a societal level. In spite of time constraint, it’s almost ironic how newly adopted interests and materials not only bring to light my own hidden presumptions about the world, but also challenge them.

Architecture

I always wish to see human creations that really pushes at the boundaries of human imagination. My wish was granted when I came across an article about this unique architecture. The Piano Mill is both a building and a music instrument. And it even managed to win awards from both categories. More detailed account on the inspirations and how it works can be found in a podcast here and an article here.

I am particularly impressed by how the Piano Mill manages to shatter a few common perceptions in architecture. In itself, the Piano Mill is an unlikely combination of art, function, and innovation. And each attribute seems to exist harmoniously because of the other two, instead of depriving others for its sake. It really appears that all bars are pushes to the limits. For a building that is relative low-tech (creator’s word), it is stunning to see the many ways this piece of art has accomplished.

Moreover, it challenges the belief that rich art and cultural experiences are limited to the urban scene. What’s even more impressive is that it’s not just a piece of art in a remote area of the country, but one that can exist because it is there in this forest and not in some concrete jungle. It is the surrounding that gives life to this architecture and enriches artistic sensibilities, as opposed to taking away from it.

Despite having yet to be realized, this is another example of architecture that exists in harmony with its natural surrounding. Considering that this area seems to be somewhat remote, the architects could be aiming for something that will be an uncontested visual spectacle, without the typical aesthetics concern about how it would look when surrounded by other architecture in the same communal space. Instead, they downplay the extravagance and opt for an exterior that translates seamlessly with the overlooking hills of Jordan in the background. I like how this architecture seems to be more humble (relative to its kind) in appearance and there’s a sense of connectedness there.

Art

  • MANIFOLD, song by Robot Koch, graphics by Mickael Le Goff

Despite my long-term fascination with art and culture, I have never been a music person. I know I gravitate toward certain varieties, but I can’t discern notes for life, so describing why I like a song is always a pain. I also have rarely been moved by music and usually stick with genres I’m familiar with. However, Manifold made me want to go out of my comfort zone.

I had never heard of Robot Koch before. I actually came across this song because the video above was shared on a 3D-related platform. (Procedural modeling and animation!) As if the visuals aren’t compelling enough, the song really provides an overwhelming experience. A friend remarked to me how it’s like “sensory overload”, which I agreed. Especially on a good pair of headphones, you are not only hearing the music, but it is touching you. I don’t know the detail on what inspires the artist or what purpose this song is meant for, but it delivers an experience akin to being in direct contact with something so alien and yet so captivating.

I went ahead and purchase Robot Koch’s Sphere Out Takes + Remixes.

TV & Movies

  • GAME OF THRONES, Episode 2: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Game of Thrones has consistently managed to achieve raving reviews. Given that this is the final season, expectations are even higher. The first episode was a little slow for me (albeit reasonably so, considering that they have to set up crucial first encounters between many major characters). The gradual pace continues in episode two, but this one captured my attention with the scene above.

One of the reasons to what makes Game of Thrones so captivating is how how it depicts individuality within the context of a larger society. Characters are portrayed in a variety of worldviews, and their personal identities are an interplay between personal desires shaped from experiences within their respective culture. There are some “lucky ones” like Ned Stark, whose social placement, personal values, and collective values are in near perfect accordance throughout his life. Others aren’t so fortunate.

Arya, for example, is expected to marry into a similarly powerful house and have heirs for mainly political reasons. But she desires a life different from the typical predetermined path of a Lord’s daughter It is often too easy for people, whose personal goals and social expectations clash due to social placement, to be on the offense by default from years of having to put up with ridicules and not being taken seriously in their pursuit. Not to say that their anger is unreasonable or that it’s reasonable to “blame” them for being infuriated, but it will grate on some people nonetheless. Yet Arya is well-liked. I’d assume because she undergoes development that turns her character into a role-defying self, sans the self-pity.

Brienne has to be one of the least disliked characters on the show because she manages to surpass not only the social barriers (she is obviously skilled) but also having done so without becoming cynical or antagonistic. While we have seen on several occasions of unfair treatment based on presumptions, she is never defensive and simply shows just how wrong it is to underestimate her. She has been consistently graceful, stern, and principled in a world where people in a much more advantageous position struggle to be even one of the three. She is a golden example, not a stereotype. So when she is finally knighted by Jaime, it seems beyond deserving.

A part that resonates with me personally is how the significance of this “knighting ceremony” is not in the ceremony itself. Particularly in secular Western culture, there is so much emphasis on making one’s own destiny. There’s an expectation to “rise above” and reject values of old labels and roles. Some critics might scorn even the idea that approval is worth anything, if it’s from those who are more traditional. Shouldn’t Brienne want to “just be”? Why would she seem so joyful to receive that formal recognition when it’s just a title?

Brienne is a living proof of a good knight, so denial based on generalization is obviously prejudiced. Her joy at receiving that recognition could be interpreted as validating the enemy, but I beg to differ. But the knighting ceremony isn’t significant because what it validates her personally. She will continue to be the pragmatic and loyal fighter, with or without formal recognition. They all think they are going to die that night anyway. Symbolic rituals can’t get anymore meaningless, considering their perceptibly looming fate. But it is meaningful for her circumstance. It means that “the system” finally, symbolically acknowledges her legitimacy as true and its stereotypical presumption as false. She is no longer denied. And regardless of whether you buy into the system or not, this is the most effective, ideal solution to soothe the pain of anyone who has been treated unfairly based on presumptions. It’s not a weakness; it’s not about an individual needing external recognition for ourselves. It’s wanting “the other side” to recognize their own prejudice; it’s wishing to see them acknowledge how their actions affect others.

Books & Articles

  • THE PEOPLE AND CULTURE OF JAPAN: CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN DONALD KEENE AND SHIBA RYOTARO, translated by Tony Gonzalez

On my latest trip to Japan, I picked up these two gems from Sanseido in Jimbocho, the book town of Tokyo. Despite harboring a minor case of otaku fever and having visited the country several times before, I still know embarrassingly little about Japan, especially from a historical perspective. Donald Keene was a American translator who has translated over 50 Japanese books, while Shiba was a prolific history writer. (Both have passed away, with Keene’s passing being very recent — February of this year. R.I.P.) Books about the combined perspectives of a culturally aware outsider and a historically-conscious insider? I had high hopes that these books could serve both as souvenirs and cultural cure.

(In case anyone lands on this page from google search and looking for more general info on this neighborhood, most books in Jimbocho are mostly Japanese, but Sanseido dedicates most of its second floor to English-translated books. Tax free counters are on the street-level floor. You can also find art prints and ukiyo-e in nearby stores. The closest train station is Jimbocho station.)

Well, that was not easy. While this book inspires a few observations that will be useful in my future work, I think I am too uninformed to fully appreciate the book. My biggest hindrance is that Keene and Shiba often make references to historical figures and provide commentary without much elaboration on the background. There are translator’s footnotes, but they are hardly descriptive and certainly not explaining the person’s significance in respect to historical context. This is not a criticism. Due to my current level of knowledge, I am clearly not an intended audience for this book. To make the best of it, I imagine a reader should be familiar with the historical figures and events in the book, and how they are portrayed today. (It’s actually really fun to imagine this book but with Thai history. Could I make it my #lifegoal?) But if you are somewhat seasoned in Japanese history, I think this book could offer some very interesting insights. Alas, albeit my naivete, there is one notable takeaway I got from The People and Culture of Japan.

A consistent theme and key characteristic of Japanese culture, as observed by Shiba and Keene, is the heightened consciousness of foreigners and outsiders in the mind of Japanese people. The awareness of how they are being seen in the eye of outsiders influences much of the Japenese way of living. Shiba and Keene note how this is distinguished from the Chinese, in which emphasis is placed on insiders — namely family members and friends. The behavior of Japanese, on the other hand, is influenced by how they are perceived by their outgroups. I find this most curious because, as Keene points out, part of Japanese’s cultural protocols seems at least somewhat influenced by Confucianism, yet these two versions of consciousness are so experienced so differently.

It’s even more interesting to compare them to Thailand. China’s influence have cast a shadow over many Asian countries for ages. It’s fair to say that I also hear many common sayings which include “Don’t embarrass your family,” and “Think of how this will seem to other people,” a lot. But Buddhism in Thailand is largely deontological. I can’t imagine my mother telling me not to drink because my drunken antics could bring shame to the family name (oh, how unfilial.) She would just say it’s a sin. It doesn’t matter if someone sees me or not, if I can afford it or not, if I have gone overboard with the drinking or not. The principle is rooted in the act of drinking itself. The differing concept presented in the book stood out to me because as much as I try to fight it, there’s still a biased tendency to view the world in an overgeneralized West vs. East perspective. I tend to think of each country’s “heretics” as an actor of a different face, committing different actions, rather than insiders having different ways of finding faults in the very same heretic doing the same thing. It gave me a pause — one I suspect worth more pondering over.

It’s fortunate that I’ve never gotten into the habit of drinking anyway.

  • A PROMINENT ECONOMIST’S DEATH PROMPTS TALK OF MENTAL HEALTH IN THE PROFESSIOTE, an article published on Chronicle

I discovered Alan Krueger’s book, What Makes a Terrorist, last year. It was at a time I was discontent with my book selection skill. I was looking for something that offers not only an insightful perspective, but also allows its reader to see how the author draws that conclusion. It’s irrelevant whether I was predisposed to agree or disagree with the author’s point of view. I was looking for a book that argues and argues well.

It wasn’t until March or April that I finally got around to the book. I wish I had finished it much sooner. There were so many things to be impressed by. Krueger’s conclusion obviously deviates from the common myths that plague headlines of news and words of politicians (including Barack Obama, whom he later served). But the author clearly outlines his argument from the definition of terrorism to running the numbers through different variables. There is such rigor in presenting not only facts, but definitions as well as potential biases. I get frustrated with books that advocates and imposes conclusions, yet fails to deliberate the thought process or at least denotes assumptions. (I’m obviously still triggered by the highly-raved bestseller Principles by Ray Dalio, despite that I generally agreed with most if not all of his “principles”.) Krueger’s book resulted in my subscription to Princeton University Press and prompted me to redefine my guidelines for choosing reading materials.

Unfortunately, Krueger’s passing also shed light on another assumption of mine: I thought someone in his position would be safeguarded from suicide. I don’t fancy an educating profession for myself, but had always thought this type of career had a lot to be envied. University professors, especially at an elite institution, really seem to have everything in Maslow’s hierarchy. They’ve got it all: an at least decent salary, security, prestige, community that cares about the same thing you do, a platform that encourages self-actualization. In Krueger’s case, he was even influential on a scale unattainable to most of us. Yet this obviously wasn’t enough to shield one from depression and lost hope.

Often times it’s too easy to imagine someone in a more fortunate position as happier and issue-free. If one feel like they’re being heavily derived, in a way that conforms with societal perception, then at least they can imagine the world with all they’re missing, albeit unattainable. But it’s heartbreaking being viewed as “having it all” while still in a state of hopelessness. I’m beyond saddened to imagine what Krueger must have been dealing with, and how isolated he may have experienced in this “fortunate” position. At the very least now, he can finally have his peace.

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