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Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Where Fear Lies – tohoku earthquake part one

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on March 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm

With a cheap driver I worked the tiny screw on the back of my son’s toy microwave oven. He likes to play restaurant every now and then, making me fish pizza and croissant soup or whatever strikes his blossoming imagination. Then he tells me to ‘sit here and eat’. I couldn’t remember those words coming from him lately though so maybe the batteries in there still had some juice.

The sky outside was growing dim.

I am so not prepared for this.

———————-

Quarter to three in the afternoon; my son is sitting at a kid-sized table with his friends at the Shinryo pre-school, chomping on cookies and drinking cold tea. The other kids are there with their moms. Both teachers in the room are women. I’m the only adult male, and though they all say it’s great that my son could be there today with his ‘O-to-san’ I’m feeling a bit out of place. I stir my paper cup of coffee and watch my son interact with the other kids in effortless Japanese.

All along the coast, from Fukushima up through Miyagi and into Iwate, fishermen in slickers and rubber boots and weathered skin tie off their nets and head to bed. Their wives sit on the floor on straw mats pouring tea, alone or with friends, glancing outside at the slowly warming March weather. Young children play and shriek and eat cookies at schools just like Shinryo. All along the coast.

I slip my fingers around the lip of my cup as I feel a gentle tremor. This time, that familiar awe laced with vague fear that usually carries me through will only last the first couple of seconds.

The previous evening my student Eriko and I had gotten onto the subject of earthquakes. ‘The Big One’ was coming, we agreed, in the next ten or twenty years. Could be Tokyo, or maybe the Kansai area which includes Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, and Kobe, center of the devastation of 1996. ‘It won’t be in Fukushima,’ I added as the prefecture lies on relatively solid ground. ‘We’re lucky we live here.’

Eriko nodded in agreement.

———————

A bang, a bolt of sound so fast and fierce it pierces not your ears but your chest. A bang like a truck slamming into the building. But this explosion, this war cry from an unseen beast, came at us from all sides; the walls, the floor, the ceiling, all suddenly, violently alive…three seconds…six seconds…ten…. The sway and creak usually rises and falls, God reaching down with one hand to shake us out of our complacence and then leaving us to our own again to ponder the continuance of the day. Today, in this moment that felt like it would last the rest of our lifetimes, there was no build-up, no gentility, only the earth erupting in what we would personify as rage as if there were even a word for what was happening. I felt that familiar awe being buried, swallowed by a fear no longer vague. A fear so distinct it turns into images, growing increasingly real.

I held my son. I thought of my wife and my baby boy and a conversation with Eriko.

This was Fukushima, this didn’t happen here.

———————-

The floor and the building and the world shook again as I pried the batteries out of a toy, a hunk of molded plastic so trivial yet imbued now with something so important. Fear comes not from knowing what is happening, but from not knowing what will happen – in the next second, the next minute, the next hour if it is coming. I screwed the battery cover back into place. Don’t lose that little screw, we’ll need it I assured myself.

I grabbed two children’s books, filled a plastic bag with snack food and water and went back out to the car, the safest place – the only safe place – for now and who knew how long. My wife was in the passenger seat holding our ten-month-old. My older boy was in his seat in the back. He had himself all buckled in, ready to go. How to explain to a kid of three why we’re sitting in the car if we aren’t going anywhere?

Sometimes fifteen minutes would pass without another tremor. Sometimes it was only five. ‘Are we gonna get another reeeeally big earthquake?’ my son asked.

I stared out the windshield, the last of the sun disappearing behind the mountains. There were no lights, anywhere, save for the faint pinpoints of the stars. Behind my son the world was black. Up ahead, on all sides, it would soon be the same.

Fear comes not from knowing what is happening, but from not knowing what will happen.

‘I don’t know, buddy,’ I said to my son. ‘I don’t know.’

 

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Our Friend, Inflation

In Specific Facts on March 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm

HyperInflation – By Paolo CameraWith the economy still sputtering, politicians of every stripe are wondering how to jumpstart growth.  One promising method will make it cheaper to hire the unemployed, create advantages for American exports and reduce the burden of accumulated debts: inflation.  Curiously, some politicians have confused the medicine with poison.  In particular, Conservatives have abandoned their Milton Friedman heritage; once advocates for flexible money, now Republicans long for the gold standard.  It is a bizarre spectacle to see Ron Paul, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Monetary Policy, advocating the abolition of the Federal Reserve.  How have extreme positions gained credence at precisely the moment when the economy needs expansive monetary policy?

A fundamental misunderstanding of money underlies the hysterical fear of nonexistent inflation. The end of the gold standard did not result in the creation of a worthless paper currency.  In fact, every dollar is backed by the most valuable thing in the world: the U.S. economy.  Goods and services in the economy are traded for currency that was created in exchange for U.S. Treasury debt, which is considered risk free because the U.S. government has a monopoly on the right to levy taxes on the U.S. economy.  The removal of gold from the exchange actually makes it more explicit that money is a means of exchange to reduce the transaction costs of barter – goods and services are sold for a currency backed by the value of other goods and services in the economy.  This is not a defense of high levels of government debt; if anything this underscores the importance of responsible management of national finances.  Nonetheless, as the economy grows, so should the money supply and the price level.

Inflation is borne in prosperity. When lots of people have incomes – usually that means jobs – they buy more goods and services.  Their increased demand bids up prices and the result is inflation.  The benefits of healthy inflation were undermined by the “stagflation” of the 1970s, where high unemployment and inflation existed simultaneously.  The economic literature establishes that stagflation resulted from the combination of bad monetary policy and the growing pains of moving to a freer market system of prices and currency.  The oil shocks that are the popular explanation for high inflation in the 70s were just a smoke screen over a decade that saw wild swings in monetary policy, Nixon’s shocking abandonment of the gold standard and the phase out of price controls.  Paul Vockler’s triumph over inflation in the 80s, and the double-digit unemployment that accompanied it, was just the bitter medicine necessary to reestablish central bank credibility after a lost decade. 

The subsequent “Great Moderation” of the past three decades is marked by generally sound monetary policy, with some notable exceptions.  In retrospect, money was too loose during the recent housing bubble.  More importantly, money has been too tight in response to the last three recessions, marked by “jobless recoveries.”  The Fed has over-learned the lessons of stagflation and dampened the return to economic growth as the economy began to bounce back.

Some economists have begun to advocate for expansive monetary policy to create inflation and spark economic growth.  Scott Sumner, an economist at Bentley University, thinks that our whole conception of the Fed’s “price stability” mandate is flawed.  The Fed has taken price stability to mean minimizing inflation, but inflation is only the derivative of prices, not the level of prices.  We should be concerned with where prices are, not where they are going.  Imagine if everything you owned declined in value by 10% last year, but now leadership was panicking that everything was increasing in value by 5% this year.  You’d think: “but my stuff isn’t even worth what it was two years ago!”  Yet, that’s how inflation targeting works.  Rather than digging out of the hole in prices caused by a recession, the Fed strangles the inflation necessary to regrow the economy.  Targeting the price level, rather than inflation, allows for temporarily high inflation to make up for lackluster price growth in the past.  

If inflation was really so bad, then inflation hawks should welcome recessions; nothing steps on the neck of inflation like a stiff recession.  Our current recession, for example, has seen historically low levels of inflation (2009 boasted negative inflation).  The return of inflation will mean the economy is again flush with growth.  America did not wake up less productive in September of 2008; robust growth should be easy now because we have lots of people we can put back to work.  Yet, instead of bouncing back we are trudging along.  Three decades of stagnant wages and jobless recoveries should be enough to convince us that inflation is not the root of all evil.  At this point, inflation is more like an old friend we haven’t called in far too long.

Our Family in Japan

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Chris Carr has been the driving force behind the Inductive since I went back to school.  For awhile, he was the Inductive.  His incredible energy and passion make this place hum and you might have noticed its been quiet around here recently. 

Well, Chris lives in Fukushima prefecture, Japan. You might have heard that there have been some happenings in Japan recently.  I know that Chris has a million things he must be thinking – he might have some revolutionary anti-disaster ideas by now – and I can’t wait to read them, especially since that will mean he is safe.  To all of our writers, those they love and who love them, we are watching Japan with you in our thoughts and prayers.  Be safe from the waves – whether they are water or on the electromagnetic spectrum. 

Housing Preferences in Japan and America

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on March 9, 2011 at 3:06 pm

I have a student who is a professional landlord – not an absentee landlord, but a painting, renovating, cleaning, advertising, photographing, traveling, active landlord.  She explained to me that this month will be quite busy for her and her husband, since the Japanese school and fiscal years start in April, and both students and the vassals we call salarymen begin their annual migrations in March. 

She asked me about my experience living in and renting a variety of apartments – four to be exact.  The first was in New Zealand.  This was a white house on a hill that overlooked Otago Peninsula.  I got along famously with my flatmates, and the landlord company was content to stay away and collect checks; but I shivered myself to sleep every night.  My second experience renting was my senior year of college.  I shared a house with seven other bros, which straddled the university and surrounding gangland.  The floor was often covered with beer, and the walls were full of holes even before we moved in.  The rent was prohibitively expensive, and the landlord used every opportunity he had to try to extort our deposits from us.

The other two apartments I’ve rented were in Japan.  The first was a Nova apartment.  In typical Nova scum-bag fashion, the rent was seriously marked up, and mysterious “cleaning fees” were rumored (although I was never charged).  The company would call occasionally with inane complaints about trash, as anytime anyone in the building made a mistake sorting trash or failed to follow proper disposal procedure when moving out, all the other tenants assumed it was the stupid gaijin and called Nova to complain.  This apartment was tiny, and zombie cats ruled the night.  I moved out quickly and into a Japanese-style house with two friends.  It was here that I stayed until my first daughter was born, when I moved in with my wife’s parents. 

This final apartment was more or less ideal.  When I moved into it, it was already famous as the “Gaijin Party House” even though we didn’t really have any parties and was legendary in Fukushima.  I would be living there with two friends, and we each had our own wing of the house.  The house had tatami floors and sliding fusuma, which could be rearranged according to the season and the weather to block or focus wind.  There was room for a plethora of sports equipment among us: two pairs of snowshoes, two sets of skis, three snowboards, nine surfboards, and a variety of miscellaneous footwear. 

There was an ample library of books left by previous gaijin tenants who could not bring them back to their respective countries.  The kitchen was large enough for two or even three people to use at the same time, although zombie cats ruled the night here as well.  The house was right next to the train station, but it was hardly ever loud besides the cats and the occasional belligerent drunk out on the streets.  This house was neither colder than my previous apartment nor my current abode.  Bottom line: Gaijin Party House was five or six times as large as my Nova apartment at one-third the rent.

Why, you might ask, would such a difference exist in the same city?  My roommates and I had a theory: we assumed the difference in price could be explained by the fact that the bath area was gross and required renovation.  Instead of renovating the bathroom, the landlord has just let the price drop until someone agreed to rent it at that low price.  However, my landlord student explained to me that that was probably not the case. 

There are plenty of apartments that don’t have their own bath areas and still have rent higher than what we paid.  There are plenty of public baths in Japan, and many people go to the public baths everyday.  This is especially true in bigger cities.  It was more likely, she said, that the price difference simply represents a difference in preferences.  My student explained to me that Japanese people generally prefer apartment buildings to houses.  The most important consideration when choosing an apartment is whether someone else has lived there before; new buildings are preferred.  The second priority is a window facing south, since heating and insulation systems in Fukushima are usually inefficient.  The third preference is for top floor on down.  By this reasoning, the most desirable places to live in Japan would be at the tops of new buildings on the south faces.  The Gaijin Party House met this final criterion, but failed the first two.

Nevertheless, my wife has a qualification: simple lack of a suitable renter demographic.  Having a roommate is not a popular custom in Japan, and the house is too big and too expensive for just one person to live in.  Families, on the other hand, would prefer to rent somewhere more kid-friendly and safer.  The house in question is located in the city center, close to the street, and there is no real yard for children to play in.  It is possible that parents with extremely young children might get some use out of that style of Japanese traditional house, but they would probably move out as soon as their children learned to walk and yearned to explore the world.  In this sense, we got lucky.  As commercial development built up around the house, it counterintuitively became less desirable to live there until a group of individuals with radically different living customs and radically different preferences came along to find it near perfect.

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny (in Education)

In Empires of the Mind on March 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

The phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” refers to embryological parallelism, the idea that the development of any individual organism strongly parallels that organism’s evolutionary history.  For example, in mammalian embryos, the backbone appears very early, followed by other neural developments in the order that they first appeared in mammalian macro-evolution.  The cerebrum is the last brain structure to develop in the individual human, as it is the newest structure in macro-evolutionary terms.  

If we look at whale embryos, legs begin to develop before retracting back into the body cavity.  Hair also develops briefly, but whale embryos lose this hair at further stages.  Birds have fingers at early stages of development, but these eventually fuse to form wings.  Birds also possess the genes for teeth, but these genes have been “turned off”, and teeth never develop in birds.  Both human and monkey embryos briefly have tails to reflect our be-tailed common ancestor, but this tail disappears abruptly in humans, whereas it continues growing in monkeys.  This all correlates strongly with both genetic, mathematical models and the fossil record.

I find the parallelism between macro-evolutionary history, individual organismic development, and mathematically modelable genetic histories endlessly fascinating, and I am obsessed with reconciling and systematizing these phenomena.  But, I do not know enough about the subject right now; it is something that I would like to explore in depth in the future.  

For now, I’d like to see how such a model could be applied to education: that is, the educational development of the individual student recapitulates the macro-history of human knowledge.  I will detail some caveats and qualifications later in this article.  Hopefully all potential concerns will be addressed.     

First, we must consider the purpose of an education.  Plato said that education should be to give the student a privileged and rational view of reality.  Rousseau suggested instead that education should be about giving the individual the right to pursue her own curriculum through self-discovery.  Others have suggested that the purpose of education is to socialize children – to homogenize them and allow them to fill productive roles in society.  For the most part, all education systems embrace one or more of these paradigms: Plato’s concept of preparing a future elite; Rousseau’s idea of intellectual freedom; and the standard Modernist, functionalist program.  

There are some notable variations on one or more of these themes which seem to mesh with my idea of education recapitulating the history of human knowledge.  One interesting theory I came across in my (admittedly shallow) research is Kieran Egan‘s idea (through psychologist Lev Vygotsky) that an education system should follow the natural mind development.

Egan believes that education should follow the way the human mind naturally develops.  He identifies five stages of understanding: somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic, and ironic.  Somatic understanding, according to Egan, refers to the stage before language when a child discovers the physical capacities of his own body.  The mythic stage is when the mind becomes capable of representing opposites, and by extension, images, metaphor, and story structure.  The romantic stage is when rational thinking begins and the limits of reality are discovered.  Philosophic understanding represents the systematization of disparate data under the umbrella of general principles, with a corresponding recognition of patterns and limits.  Finally, an ironic understanding recognizes the limits of human knowledge and remains open to the existence of other valid philosophic explanations.  Egan has written extensively on education theory.  Being in Japan makes it difficult to get a hold of any of his books, but I am looking forward to reading some of them when I get back to the United States.  

The second idea which I think goes nicely with the idea of individual education recapitulating the intellectual history of society is Great Books curricula.  The idea of Great Books arose at a time when American universities were focused on specialized, technical education at the expense of general knowledge.  The Great Books approach to learning stresses that any education should be grounded in a general familiarity with the history of Western thought.  Philosopher John Dewey famously argued against this idea that there should be significant cross-over in education (that knowledge of rhetoric or philosophy could be of pragmatic use in law or medicine).  

History seems to have vindicated the generalists in a certain sense.  The history of twentieth century failure in the sciences and social sciences is often the history of conceptual failure or the history of proceeding in an entirely reasonable path from flawed first principles.  Take economics as an example: the history of mainstream economic thought over the last hundred years or so has been a history full of ever-more-complex, ever-more-mathematically-elegant models which are all based on the presumption that individuals are perfectly rational, economic actors or that our economic programs will do what we say they will do.  

Actual behavior contrary to the models is often explained away as epiphenomenal or unrelated to the perfect model.  Unpredicted results of national economic programs are usually rationalized as the result of “liberal” or “conservative” contamination (see Paul Krugman’s views on stimulus).  There is little attention paid to alternative theoretical structures.  In this sense, it seems much of social and natural science can be described in Egan’s terms as “philosophic”.  This is appropriate, since ironic understanding would be necessarily grounded in the exposure to and contemplation of disparate philosophic systems, such as those represented in the canon of Western literature.

This idea of education recapitulating the history of human thought raises the further question of how to define ourselves.  Any education system consciously incorporating the principles explained above must decide whether it is going to recapitulate the intellectual history of the world, Western Civilization, Western Europe, Anglo-America, the United States, the Northeast, New England, Massachusetts, Eastern Massachusetts, Norfolk County, Cohasset, or the Carr Family.  In a world with few ties to place, this becomes a difficult puzzle to solve indeed, but the best system would probably spend some time on each level.  In my home, I could expect to learn my family history and values well enough plus gain valuable perspective on society at large; and at school, I could expect to come to understand the history of that school’s location and everything above.  At a national university, I could naturally expect what I learn to be at the national level or above.  

What I have described as individual education recapitulating societal intellectual history is perhaps not unlike our existing educational system.  Given the level of individual autonomy within the existing system (Central planners usually do not wind up micromanaging individual curricula and do so even less at the level of the university, where students and teachers are more or less allowed to design and choose their own classes.) and the tendency of nature and culture to follow similar patterns, it is possible that education systems – in the United States at least – represent a spontaneously emergent order wherein the education of any one individual correlates strongly with the intellectual history of the collective.

Recognizing Convenience

In General Principles on March 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

 

Like many I’m sure, I take for granted the ease with which I walk into my corner store and get the things I need without having to bother or hassle with traveling further to a large grocery store once every three weeks or so to restock.  More likely I bitch – like many – about how high the markup is on items (under my breath) and move along. Something happened to me yesterday as I was in my corner store chatting it up with the day-guy and the night-guy came in for his appropriate shift and while doing so he patted me on the shoulder and said “What’s up Chip?” This little effort made the day a little better and, I obviously remember it.

So I’ll cut to the quick here. Our good country has forgotten just how good we are, and you’ll take notice I didn’t say great; it currently seems impossible to utter the word with any truth where the U.S. is concerned.  It’s time to stop whining and take (some kind of) action. I don’t buy in to the theories that technology and progress is the reason for our collective asses not getting off the couch. There has always been some kind of technology. Blowing smoke has apparently become the status quo. I don’t like having to apologize for wanting to save the world and I live in the country that used to be number one in that department in everyone’s eyes. Unlike Gordon Gekko I don’t think greed is good, it’s more like Jonestown Kool-Aid.  And our whiney little attitudes and the preservation of politicians who only protect themselves and their campaign donor’s butts just won’t cut it anymore. Through fear, intimidation and some good-old-boy appeasing we have been force-fed that bitching is just how it is and there is no reparation. Hogwash.

It was my experience in the convenience store that made me remember that we American’s are still a caring people as a whole and that this proof is in the pudding of experience. I like to think that I have always cherished these values while on the other hand I’m sure there are people out there that would not see me as such a Gung-ho type. But I was raised by a mother and father that instilled upon me the wish to make other people feel nice when the opportunity is afforded to do so. This isn’t a liberal thing or a conservative thing – it’s a character thing.  And we are not cartoon characters; we are Americans and it’s a tough role, but somebody’s got to fill it.

The Shamisen Redemption

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on March 5, 2011 at 6:23 pm

One of my students is the curator of an art museum in my city.  We were talking the other day about the idea of Western art as subtraction stories as opposed to the idea of Japanese art as functional.  As Japanese society changed in response to contact with the West and people stopped using swords or wearing kimono (because it is so expensive), much of Japanese art also “died” – or was at least frozen in carbonite.  This works as a general overview to Japanese art history.  

Due to the nature of traditional Japanese arts as functional, there was never any concept of art as aesthetics until that idea was introduced by Westerners.  Japanese visual artists today have to walk a thin tightrope between the absurdity of producing traditionally Japanese, functional works of art for revisionist aesthetic reasons (since “art” has been de facto defined as aethetics) and appearing to do little more than copy Western modern artists.  Accordingly, creating good modern art is more difficult for Japan than it is for the West, since everything Japan’s artists produce will ultimately be seen through a lens of Japaneseness.

What I mean by Western art as a subtraction story is that Western art has a history of the gradual removal of constraints – the opposite of Japanese art as necessarily bound to the constraints of function.  If we look at the history of Western poetry, for instance, we still see with Shakespeare and Marlowe a general reliance on the iambic pentameter and rhyming patterns of the ancients (even though those standard rhyme patterns and meters emerged from another language and culture entirely).

Fast forward to Walt Whitman and poetry becomes all about breaking “suffocating” rules of rhyme and meter whilst yawping barbarically.  This idea of directionless rule-breaking would find its most absurd expression in E.E. Cummings, who wrote about extremely conventional subjects in extremely unconventional ways.  

Rimbaud will eventually follow, like Genghis Khan laying waste to the paltry remains of the Classical order.  Eventually, a decidedly non-black and mediocre Eminem will emerge from a separate and awesome system into the system and be hailed as a poetic genius for rapping about vicodin and homosexuals instead of bitches, blunts, and forties by none less than high-brow arbiters of taste Reynolds Price and Seamus Heaney.  

This cynical reconstruction of art history is not to say that mindless conformity is good.  Certainly there is merit in pushing against artificially imposed boundaries; but this leads us to a paradox: the more we try to make poetry about meaning by removing arbitrary structural constraints, the more poetry becomes about arbitrary structure, and the more criticism of poetry necessarily becomes about analyzing arbitrary structure; an artistic medium that originally fostered free expression becomes bureaucratized.

On the contrary, the advantage of structurally super-conservative haiku is that readers are already familiar with the structure, so they can freely take it for granted and concentrate instead on meaning.  Presumably this was also the advantage of iambic pentameter, octava rima, and other traditional structural conventions in Western poetry, which we have since curb-stomped into oblivion.  The result of stripping away all these received structural rules is aesthetic nihilism, complete with hair nests and unmade beds.  

The ripest representation of aesthetic nihilism in the world of musical art is what we call “pop”.  By aesthetic nihilism, I don’t mean complete and total meaninglessness, because clearly pop music is about making money for producers.  And this is why I hate pop, and Gucci, and Dolce and Gabbana (among other reasons): any aesthetic or artistic purpose, no matter how fruity or misguided, is subverted to the bottom-line concerns of brand establishment.  

[Relevant to the rest of this post: I don’t think this necessarily holds for music, given the “additionist” history of music.  The paradigm set by the Beatles rests on incorporating the musical notions of India and other non-Western civilizations into the big tent of Western music.  The fame of Led Zeppelin as a bookend to the project of the Beatles rests on taking these additions to their absurd and nihilistic conclusion.  Indeed, the entire rock project is based on musical egalitarianism.  Although it could be read as the misappropriation of other musical traditions, I find this narrative false.]

As I continued discussing Japanese art with my student, we moved on to Jpop, the Japanese bad carbon copy of American pop music.  I contended that it is possibly the worst music in the world objectively speaking, and relayed my personal belief as such.  The popularity of Jpop as opposed to traditional Japanese music is as if all the old pubs in the British Isles were torn down and replaced with Shidax karaoke, all the greatest, oldest restaurants in the corridor from Rome to Paris were torn down and replaced with McDonalds, and all the Buddhist temples in Thailand were bulldozed and replaced with Christian megachurches combined.     

Unfortunately, young people in Japan seem to prefer pop music to anything else.  I recently helped administer a dialectic at the middle school at which I teach concerning how to get better ratings for kohaku, the dwindling annual music contest held on Japanese television on New Years Eve.  In its current form, kohaku consists of about half Jpop and half enka.  Most of the male students said that they weren’t interested in watching kohaku on New Years Eve, because they like Downtown’s annual New Years Eve special.  (I like Downtown on all occasions – Funniest show ever.)  Many of the students said that there should be less enka, since young people don’t like enka (Enka is kind of the last waltz of traditional Japanese music.) and that enka should be scrapped in favor of Jpop, which was much more popular with young people.  

I found myself agreeing that young people like Jpop, but nobody should like Jpop to begin with since it is a bad copy of Western music designed solely to make money.  I will admit that there is no accounting for taste, but I can’t really find any reasons at all to like pop music, and I think it’s sad that modern Japan is willing to reject so much of what made it great in the first place without reason other than economic.  I probably wouldn’t be complaining about this if I didn’t think that much of the love for Jpop rests in conspicuous consumption and/or ignorance.  

When I taught at Nova, I had a student once (She was probably the highest-level student we had, and she had studied in America for seven or eight years.) respond to a question I had about Akira Kurosawa with, “Uggghhh!  Akira Kurosawa is, like, sooooo, like, what OLD people like.  Like, maybe my grandparents, like, like his movies.  I, like, dig Orlando Bloom.  He’s, like, soooooo sexy.  Pirates of the Caribbean is, like, my favorite movie.”  I threw up in my mouth.  

After that incident, thoroughly depressed, I delicately asked my wife why Japanese people seem to hate their own traditional culture.  She responded with her belief that if it weren’t for the extraordinary popularity of traditional Japanese arts with tourists, much of traditional Japan would be long gone.  Whatever tradition remains is shameful to the Japanese, half through free judgment of inferiority to Western tastes and half because much of it was consciously purged by occupying U.S. forces after the war.

This was the context for my stumbling into a shamisen concert today on the busiest shopping street in my city.  With my older daughter, I watched seven senior citizens in kimono playing perhaps the best music I have ever seen live.  The shamisen is one of many traditional Japanese musical instruments.  It is commonly described as a “Japanese guitar” but is more like a banjo or mandolin in both sound and traditional mystique.  I looked around me and noticed that everyone else in the crowd was at least fifty, excepting my one-year-old daughter and someone else’s two-or-three-year-old granddaughter.  It was sad to see such beautiful music appreciated by only the outgoing generation.  As with sumo, another great Japanese passion of mine that is only appreciated by senior citizens, I can only hope that taste accrues with age.

Bathrobes & Beer: A Night at a Japanese Ryokan

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on March 5, 2011 at 1:39 am

Japan boasts a considerable array of accommodation options – to put it in cheesy tourist pamphlet terms. Capsule hotels, business hotels, love hotels; the Hilton and the Hyatt and the Japanese versions of such; you have your youth hostels (thirty dollars with membership) and your campgrounds (thirty dollars without); and on the traditional side, you’ve got your minshuku, with tatami floors, futons and green tea to make yourself comfy as you watch your coin-operated 13-inch television, and then you have your more upscale ryokan, with tatami floors, futons and green tea to make yourself extra comfy as you relax and watch your wide screen high-definition plasma television.

In the course of my travels around Japan, when not camping (illegally) or sleeping on a beach or a gazebo in a park (maybe legally), I’ve rucked up to many a minshuku. They give you those robes to hang out in, and dinner and breakfast are included so why not? I’m not much of a TV guy however so I never sprang for the more expensive ryokan. And if my wife hadn’t finagled a sweet deal at Azuma-So up the road in Iizaka last weekend I might very well have ended up leaving Japan – or dying – without ever experiencing a wide plasma screen while hanging out on the floor drinking tea in someone else’s bath robe.

The word ryokan has always conjured up images in my mind of something like this. So it was a tad anticlimactic when we pulled up – an hour late because minor things (like one-page translations) tend to make me forget about more major obligations (like mini family vacations) – to what impressed as a converted gymnasium. It had this arched roof which made the building look like a long, fat shiitake mushroom with the rounded ends lopped off. The front entrance consisted of wide, automatic sliding glass doors flanked by more glass, offering a generous view of the red carpeted lobby. On the tiled floor, lined up neatly below the step up to the carpet, were four pairs of wooden sandals. This being Japan, I couldn’t discount the possibility that these people just knew, could feel when we would be arriving, and set those slick lacquered flip-flops there for us and buggered off out of sight again while we were still in the parking lot, distracted by the architectural wonder of this big cement toadstool. But missing there in the vestibule was the standard shelving for guests to place their shoes. Were we expected, allowed to walk from the muddy parking lot up onto that carpet? My wife took her Asics off and went inside to check, our little boy bouncing around in her arms. I stayed behind, holding my older boy’s hood as he strained to slap one wet and dirty Thomas the Tank Engine boot on the carpet. There were forty-yen beers in there waiting for me, I didn’t need my kid’s footprints jeopardizing the deal.

As he switched feet and lunged forward again a jaunty silver-haired couple stepped through the doors and walked right on into the lobby and out of sight. ‘Okay, I guess we can go in,’ I said, half to myself, half to Pig Pen. I let go of his hood. He went tripping and sprawling into the lobby. I followed, grinding his mud splatters as deep into the carpet as I could. I wanted those beers.

The lobby was long and brightly-lit and could have passed for a cheap Vegas hotel. Or a nice Hampton Inn. Outside the row of floor-to-ceiling windows along the back of the room sat an uninspired attempt at a Japanese garden, soaking in rain and melting snow. At the top of a staircase with no risers in between the steps so your kid can slip right through and down on top of the stacks of boxes and hastily-stored panel dividers beneath if you aren’t watching him (because you are thinking about forty-yen beers) we reached a dim hall with the kind of hard, gray carpeting you might find in the little alcove in the DMV where you get your picture taken. In one corner were a half dozen wooden armchairs; on the floor next to a door with a brass plate engraved with a lackluster nick-name for a banquet hall was a rolled-up projection screen, minus the stand. The faint discolorations in the carpeting here and there made me wonder when my New Jersey license was set to expire.

My wife’s mother was already in the room, waiting for us for the last hour. (‘We’re ready to go,’ my wife had said rather impatiently when I’d gotten home after the translating gig, leaving me to remember, if I had indeed forgotten, as she suspected, just where in the blazes we were going on a Monday afternoon.) ‘Come on in,’ my mother-in-law said, all smiles seeing her two little nephews. She was decked out in her official green and white Azuma-So bath robe. There was green tea and a variety of snacks on the low table in the middle of the room. The huge flat screen was showing a samurai movie.

We sat for a while on the floor, drinking tea and sharing cookies and chocolate and rice crackers and strawberries. Soon, though, and with a subtle giddiness, my wife and her mother began suggesting we get ready for the main event, the great purpose for our congregating there (which, incredibly, was not the forty-yen beers). Yes, it was time for the rest of us to get our robes on and head downstairs to take a bath.

Of course it sounds silly to put it in such coarse terms. This Azuma, this lopped off mushroom, was a ryokan in Iizaka, one of the best-known hot spring (‘onsen’) areas in all of Tohoku. People come from all over Japan, and even overseas, to enjoy the mildly alkaline waters, known for their magical therapeutic powers including the mitigation of your neuralgia. (This, coincidentally, is a line from the translation bit I had just finished a couple of hours earlier – and it still didn’t occur to me that I was forgetting something.) To sit and soak in these natural spring waters is, in all honesty, a fantastic way to spend an otherwise cold, wet and dreary afternoon. Stick it in between a table covered with snacks and a table with forty-yen beers and it becomes something like poetry.

That’s not to say the experience wasn’t befitting an hour inside a concrete fungus.

My wife and my mother-in-law like sitting in scalding water more than I do; figuring I’d be done and headed back to our room first they quickly elected me keeper of the room key. ‘Here, put it in a locker,’ my mother-in-law said, pointing to a cabinet of tiny metal lock boxes. I stuck our room key in one, shut and locked it and took the numbered locker key, which I would leave sitting in a wicker basket on a shelf in the men’s change room along with my boxers and my towel and my green and white robe, safe among all the other wicker baskets with underwear and towels and robes and keys.

There is a whole handbook of rules for proper onsen etiquette, but this should not discourage anyone not intimately familiar with the process of onsen bathing. For the most part you just watch what those around you are doing and do the same. (The toilet located just inside the door to the actual bathing room, on the other hand, is a good example of a conceptual clue, i.e. having an accident in the water is generally, and quite literally, frowned upon.) But when the piped-in music floating through the damp, misty air sounds not so much like Kyoto as it does Venice one can get the feeling one really has no idea what the hell is going on.

I strode into the bath room (after slipping stealthily into and out of the toilet), self-assured and buck-naked. One elderly man sitting in the water had a small white towel folded and perched on top of his bald head; the man across from him, slightly younger and much more blessed upstairs, was wringing his out; a third man stepped gently down the two steps into the bath, his little white towel held strategically in front of his little naughty bits. I had no little white towel – and suddenly felt only slightly less awkward than I would had I walked into the women’s bath by mistake. No matter, the row of spigots – my link to cultural conformity – was only a few feet away. I sat down on my plastic bucket and put my plastic wash basin under the tap and pressed the lever – and a tepid spray rained down on me from the hand shower thing on the wall.

The guys on either side of me washed their bodies with their soapy white towelettes. I had to make do with my hands, lathering up and rinsing off, for this is what you do before you sink yourself into the onsen water that is ostensibly clean and pure due in large part to everyone’s proper use of the plastic wash basins and the toilet. Sitting in the boiling water I watched the steam rise in swirls to the ceiling and tried to forget that I had no towel to rinse and wring and balance on my head.

Periodically one of the other men – most of them seemed twice my age – would get out of the water and go sit on a bucket and rinse off. Then he’d get right back in the water. I think they did it just to confuse me. They do the same thing out on the street (no not rinse off naked). At that socially ambiguous time between 10am and noon I never know whether to say ‘Ohayo’ or ‘Konnichi-wa’. There seems to be no set delineation, no acknowledged rule – and these people, deep inside I am sure, or maybe not so deep, get a kick out of their ability to keep me eternally in the dark about it. ‘Ohayo,’ I’ll say cheerfully as I am hauling the trash to the designated pickup spot at the end of the street. Old man Sato looks over – ‘Konnichi-wa.’ – and continues on his smug, elitist way. Then when I am toting the recyclables out the next morning – at the same time – you can bet Sato-san will pull a fast one on me. ‘Konnichi wa.’ He sneers, it only looks like a smile. ‘Ohayo…(bakana gaijin…)’. It’s no different in the evening. Konnichi wa. Konban-wa. When is the switchover? When it’s dark at five pm in December is it considered evening? I’ve never gotten a straight answer on this, so I have to be crafty. ‘Konnnn….’ And I wait for surly old Sato to commit one way or the other. It’s been a while since I’ve run into Sato-san in the evening, I think he deliberately avoids me. When he appears in the morning I just say ‘Hey.’

So these old men are running this rinse and soak game on me, going through exaggerated motions with their little white towels for an extra bit of salt in my wounded pride. I had no choice; I sat up on the edge of the bath, the water only halfway up my shins. No sense in trying to hi
de behind an itty-bitty washcloth, ay gentlemen, what do you think?

Within ten minutes the place had all but cleared out. One of them, on his way through the door into the change room, said to another something about dinner time – obviously an excuse for leaving that I was meant to hear because in a real conversation they would have been talking about forty-yen beers.

On the tatami step leading into the dining hall was a free-standing banner with what at first glance looked like the Kanji for ‘draft beer’ and ‘graduation’. On closer inspection I saw I was right; the fine folks who would be serving us tonight had passed through a rigorous training course on serving beer to people enjoying some exquisite Japanese cuisine in their bath robes. There were even individual certificates of achievement, framed and hung proudly, official statement of congratulations printed in English as well as Japanese. ‘You have gained many knowledge and skill in an art of draft beer…’

For forty yen a pop I wasn’t really expecting that much anyway. But nor was I expecting my mother-in-law to take her beer coupon and use it for herself. Suddenly I was faced with the ponderous task of making two big fat mugs of Kirin Lager last through the innumerable fish and vegetable dishes – prepared so delicately, placed so perfectly on their stylish plates and bowls of food they made the digital camera in my hand look like a stone arrowhead from the Jomon era. With the entire flock of soft-spoken guests moving gently toward their pre-assigned tables in their green and white bath robes I wasn’t sure what time period I had slipped into.

At the far end of the room, over my wife’s shoulder and past approximately twenty meters of flawlessly-aligned tatami mats boasting flawlessly-woven pieces of straw and just the faintest evidence of beer stains, a large frame hung on the wall. On the canvas – or shall I say the secret Japanese paper (secret because in nine years I have not yet found the time to find out the proper name for it) – were written in that typical sweeping style four Chinese characters. On the surface, and to the uninitiated, this sort of reckless behavior with a ten-pound brush may seem incongruous at best, and oh for heaven’s sake how silly-goosey at worst. What’s the point of creating such dramatic, beautiful and (one might assume) Confucian-esque wisdom-cum-art if no one can read it? Well, I may not know the correct term for that paper but in nine years I have learned a thing or two, and I can decipher that cryptic script over there. It reads ‘Nose City never wins.’

Throughout our delectable dinner, through the light, flaky fish with the subtly tangy sauce, the surgically-sliced vegetables and the soba grain soup and the individual-sized clay pots of more fish and vegetables fired to perfection with the open flame burners underneath to add a subliminal element of danger to the gentle atmosphere, all I kept thinking was How do women manage to sit comfortably (or at all) without their skirts riding up to their torsos? Granted the slit in my bath robe went up a bit higher than on anything Sharon Stone ever wore but still I couldn’t get it out of my mind that I was flashing the people diagonally across the way. To cover myself (so to speak) I had to demand that my son stay in his chair, kneeling and turned slightly sideways and don’t worry too much if you spill your soup on yourself okay buddy?

As my wife struggled to feed our little one I plowed through my first beer before my debauchery-minded mother-in-law had a chance to snag my wife’s beer coupon ahead of me.

That evening my older son couldn’t have been any more excited as he destroyed all order among the futons the kind people at Azuma had so lovingly laid out for us while we were downstairs eating. This had initially instilled in me a sense of unease; these people knew exactly when we would not be in the room. I threw my son from my futon onto his and reached for my backpack to check on my secret chocolate stash. In retrospect, this might have been what sent his hyperactive wheels in motion in the first place.

As soft and freshly-laundered as those futons were, my little pre-toddler isn’t completely accustomed to sleeping in foreign environments just yet and for most of the night my wife would barely have a chance to get back to her snoring before the critter would resume his routine and wake her up. ‘He’s thirsty,’ my mother-in-law said at one point from the depths of her comforter. Three seconds ago she too had been sawing bamboo, now she sounded like she’d been up and doing laundry for hours. My wife grunted in agreement, my mother-in-law grunted in acknowledgement, and six seconds later she was working her saw again.

Sitting in the corner of the room under a soft spotlight, I poured myself another cup of green tea and got back to my book.

The tea Azuma provided, by the way, was a bit of a disappointment. I expected, or maybe just hoped, despite the indications inherent in the lobby and the carpeting and the mushroom motif in the architecture, that we would be getting that fine powdery stuff, kept fresh in a carved wooden canister, the figure of a stork or a chrysanthemum perhaps inlaid on the top. Instead we walked into a pile of green aluminum packets, with tea bags inside that all but said Lipton. On the back of each packet even were directions on ’How to Enjoy Delicious Tea (Standard Version)’ This is likely kind reciprocation for the thoughtful ‘Lather. Rinse. Repeat.’ we extend to foreigners not accustomed to using shampoo.

Despite my littler kid’s nighttime antics my wife was up and in the bath again and back before I’d emerged from my futon. She didn’t have to say she went, I knew from the fading first-degree burns on her cheeks. ‘Did you hear the announcement?’ she asked, smelling ever so faintly of sulfur. ‘No,’ I said into my pillow. But then I thought yes. I had a dream about a loudspeaker that had no business being in my life. ‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘7:15, breakfast is ready!’ my wife sang in whispering imitation of the monster who I remember roaring the same thing in my dream.

My older son destroyed the futons again, my younger son tried to punch a hole in the wide screen with the key to the safe and we shuffled off to breakfast – though this time I put on pants.

I love Japanese food, I truly do. But rice and miso soup and fish just don’t do it for me in the morning. I left satisfied, surely enough, but still I found myself pining for the Hampton Inn. The Azuma did offer soft-boiled eggs to go with the rice (no toast, the Azuma sticks to eastern tradition – except for maybe the coffee, and the ping pong table – ‘First Hour Free!’ the sign in the elevator proclaimed). I powered down three of them despite the fact that they are called ‘radium eggs’. This of course brings visions of Nagasaki and incinerated chicken coops but naturally this is ridiculous. Iizaka would get their radium eggs from Hiroshima, which is much closer.

I failed to mention one major difference between a minshuku and a ryokan. At a minshuku, you are expected to fold up your futon and slip it back into the big closet in the wall before you check out. At a ryokan they do it for you. This leaves you with a palatable aura of luxury as you pack up and leave your room, the wide screen plasma television disappearing as you close the door.

Then it’s back to the industrial carpeting, the stray projector screen and the Vegas hotel lobby. And your fond memories of all that Azuma-So had to offer. 

The Disconnect of Staying Connected

In Empires of the Mind on March 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm

<This guest post is contributed by Mariana Ashley who particularly enjoys writing about online colleges. She loves receiving reader feedback, which can be directed to mariana dot ashley031 at gmail dot com.>

Eyes down and only half-listening to what was supposed to be a two-sided conversation, my roommate’s fingers clacked away on her Blackberry as she responded to e-mails, sent in a fresh tweet, and blasted her boyfriend with the fifth “I love you more!” text since we sat down. I pondered why I even bothered to go out for coffee with a person who seemed less interested in interacting with someone who was actually there and more interested in interacting with those who weren’t.

Chances are I am not the first to marvel at this wonder – how it seems the more that people are connected by technology, the less they are connected to actual people. A friend once told me a story about a group of customers in her restaurant who spent their entire meal talking to one another through their Nintendo DS devices. None of them uttered an actual word to one another, aside from the occasional yelp of victory or distress from whatever game they were playing. How is it that we can be more social than ever through social media and still be completely shut out from human interaction?

The allure of connectedness through technology is obvious. With a click of a button, you can send out a missive to everyone in your phone book. You can have lengthy or short discussions with someone without having to suffer through the awkward pauses that tend to fill the holes of face-to-face conversations. You don’t even have to comb your hair or put on make-up or change out of your sweaty gym clothes to talk to someone through texting, Facebook, or e-mail. All in all, technology makes it easier than ever to communicate, which may be the most dangerously seductive aspect of it.

Hugh Mackay touched on the phenomenon of disconnected connectedness in his 2007 article, “The Technology Disconnect“. Technology offers users a sense of control and companionship without bogging it down with the pesky burden of anxiousness and nerves that people typically experience in face-to-face communication. It even offers users a distraction from a less-than-satisfying reality, Mackay wrote, which further encourages them to delve deeper into it. Take, for example, my Blackberry-obsessed roommate. I spoke with her more through text messages than I did in person, even though we lived together for two years. It seemed that her phone catered to her habit of being easily distracted. Rather than actually learning to sit down and pay attention, she allowed her Blackberry to constantly indulge her need for diversion. It caused a rift in her relationships, including her romantic one, as her boyfriend felt that she was more loving and attentive when they were apart than when they were together.

That is where the real issue lies. Using technology to communicate is not a bad thing. Rather, it is how this type of communication is beginning to replace real face-to-face communication that is worrisome. Rather than going through the work of meeting and interacting with real people, many are sticking with interacting through the technological filter. But texts, e-mails, and tweets are not substitutes for the real deal, despite the fairly convincing masquerade.

Through the filter of cell phones and social media platforms, human emotions, tones of voice, gestures, and postures are all lost, and these are the small things that make up effective communication and connection. By seeing someone’s facial expressions as well as their posture, tone of voice, and hand gestures as they talk to you, you are more able to establish a personal and trusting connection as opposed to faceless digital connection. The simple fact is that all of the nuances of human interaction, including the awkward pauses and the need to look presentable, are essential to communication. Real person-to-person communication can be difficult, but it is necessary. After all, it is only with real-life interaction can people make true friends, establish real meaningful relationships, and raise healthy and happy families. What is important is that people do not allow technology to rob them of their presence in their real lives. Technology was created to help make our day-to-day lives better, not replace them entirely.

Transcendent Indwelling

In General Principles on March 3, 2011 at 4:53 pm

To continue my rambling series on personificationism, the way we typically discuss “God” makes no sense at all.  (Out of simple curiosity, I have chosen to ignore the obtrusive irony of committing these thoughts to words.)  For a long time, I have been averse to both Evangelical Christians like all the usual culprits and New Atheists like all the usual culprits.  It seems there is a dearth of surly, self-appointed team captains willing to speak for the radical withholding of judgment.

Perhaps at least part of my aversion to both factions is rooted in their tendency to debate the nature of a representation, which just doesn’t make any sense at all.  Mr. Hand says “Romanticism is green”.  Mr. Book says it is not green.  I have more antipathy towards the New Atheists because as scientists they are presumably not proceeding from first principles; this – and a history of science full of arrogant fuck-ups – compels more cooperative metacognition.  But then again, conceptualization has never been the scientist’s strong suit.

A typical argument used by the New Atheists comes from Betrand Russell’s teapot.  The positivist Russell parodied the claims of the religious by postulating that a teapot exists in orbit around the Sun between Mars and Jupiter.  One cannot disprove the existence of that teapot, therefore Russell’s claim that the teapot exists is just as invalid a claim as “God exists”.  At first glance, this seems like a fair attack on the existence of God; yet upon closer examination, we realize that Russell’s claim involves the physical object of a “teapot”, whereas “God” is a received linguistic artifact.  Russell and the New Atheists commit an egregious category error in compelling a falsifiable conception of the divine.

There are some who claim to feel the presence of the divine.  I am generally not one of these people (unless I’m hiking).  I will admit that living deliberately under this logical umbrella may someday compel a religious conversion, but for now, I find a logical approach to the world useful.  The romantic in me sees that my culture has taught me to suppress and ignore my emotions.  The empiricist in me judges that doing so has had pretty good results so far.  The romantic responds that the data on which the interpretation of results is based come from within my culture.  The empiricist counters with the claim that that is all there is and ever can be.  And this back and forth continues while I relentlessly continue to chase “knowledge”.

Like anyone else, I have the occasional intuitive epiphany.  And like anyone else, I cannot explain where such ideas come from, since the idea that we can discuss subjective intuitive phenomena in universal logical terms just doesn’t make any sense to me at all.  My decision to become a doctor was one such inexplicable epiphany, and I am dreading the inevitable interview question.

I reject the idea that these intuitive crystallizations are caused by any mass-marketed supernatural corporeality, and I am a strong skeptic of universal claims about the divine, in particular teleological claims.  For example, an earthquake literally just happened as I write this.  A thousand years ago, I may have thought that that earthquake represented a force more powerful than myself.  I may have read into it contextually that I shouldn’t continue this potentially blasphemous post (since really, anything that doesn’t adhere to the dominant paradigms preferred by power is blasphemy, no matter how harmless or well-meaning).  But, it is because of a web of scientific progress and cultural dissemination since that time that I now “know” that the earthquake I just experienced is the simple result of plate tectonics.  Any interested party can go and evaluate that.      

Because some things (like earthquakes) have been better explained by science in that particular historical interval, there is a tendency to eliminate the entire suite of ancient knowledge in favor of scientific explanations for everything, no matter how loosely defined or poorly conceptualized or spurious they may be and even when doing so represents an obvious category error.  Look at evolutionary psychology, for instance, a science which purports to explain all of human behavior as rooted in physical, evolutionary changes (as opposed to natural forces or emergent forces or the complex system we call “culture”, etc.)  The idea that we scrap everything that does not easily lend itself to scientifically presupposed objectivity is central to the New Atheist platform.  It is reductionist beyond the most pejorative sense of the word.  Accordingly, we often see evolutionary psychology directly contradict itself.

From my perspective, the way I see religion and language, the debate between theists and atheists makes no sense.  Representations of deities have always been on the far right of a scale from abstract to concrete.  The divine presence that A-san feels may render itself to the word “God” by convention, but it will probably not match the divine presence that B-san feels.

It seems like the ancients grasped this, although the inherent difficulties of articulating what is necessarily an abstraction have been further mutated and permutated by the tides of history.  That is to say, representations of God in sacred texts probably emerged in conjunction with the metaphors and motifs prevailing at that time.  As soon as they were written down for posterity, they lost their power.  

Given this, it makes sense that (1) YHWH’s “name” is “I am” (although the “I” in the English translation grounds YHWH in an imagined real subject); (2) Islam wisely forbids depictions of God; (3) Spinoza’s God (Einstein’s God) avoids the problems inherent in representation by being all that exists or beyond all that exists and subject to an inherently partial and subjective understanding; and (4) Eastern religions are also generally pantheistic or panentheistic.  

The existence of any of these contextually-faithful non-representations is necessarily non-debatable by science’s own terms, since nothing has been hypothesized or objectified.  Various concepts of the divine remain abstract and free from the human burden of language let alone empirical observation.  It has been pointed out by many that it is when religion attempts to interface to the human world by representing the divine concretely that it gets into trouble.  Ascribing God with objective, human attributes (like omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience) is a slippery slope down a road to eventual falsifiable claim.  This crude representation is what we are seeing debated in the American public sphere in the twenty-first century.