Category: Life


The year and decade in review. 2020s: orderly peace?

December 30th, 2019 — 8:49am

2019 comes to a close, and with it the 2010s. Below are a few thoughts on these periods of time.

The most significant book I’ve read in 2019 is probably Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. The German title, literally “Elements and Origins of Totalitarian Rule” more closely reflects the contents of this monograph. Arendt explores antisemitism, imperialism and totalitarianism to form a grand analysis of totalitarian forms of government, which she considers to be genuinely new and unprecedented. Those who make it through the somewhat slow early chapters will be richly rewarded. It’s a very timely book – although written in the 1950’s, most of the ideas feel like they could be from last week. Elements of totalitarian rule are absolutely something we should worry about.

Another notable book from this year has been Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record. Aside from the obvious political dynamite, I found myself relating to a lot of the experiences he had growing up. Perhaps this is a generational story. In the late 90s, the Internet suddenly became relatively mainstream and for a short while, it was a very special place, seemingly full of utopian promise and all kinds of possibilities and exploration. For many born in the mid-80s this coincided with our teenage years.

I’ve lived in Japan throughout the 2010s, the final part of the Heisei (平成) era. In 2019 this era came to a close and we are now officially in Reiwa (令和). I can’t easily summarise the 2010s. Both my personal life and Japan seem to have undergone great change during this time, and sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other. The Fukushima incident in 2011 was perhaps a watershed moment that Japan is still grappling with. Although the future of nuclear power has not yet been resolved, the country’s response to such a tense incident has in many ways been admirable, and the famous Japanese virtue (sometimes a double-edge sword) of stability certainly came through. The surrounding world is also changing, and Japan, though still a relatively separate culture, is becoming considerably more open and mixed as a society, perhaps out of necessity. Tourism and labour imports have both increased significantly. This raises interesting questions about what kind of society Japan might be in 10 – 20 years.

During the decade I have had diverse personal and professional experiences. I lived in Tokyo, Osaka, then Tokyo again. I was able to complete a PhD thesis. I visited many countries for the first time, and became interested in bioinformatics (mainly as a field in which to apply fundamental computer science and software engineering). I took up several new hobbies, obtained permanent residency in Japan, and was able to improve my Japanese to the point of reading novels, although I’m still not quite where I’d like to be with the language. I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy and general literature and tried to systematically develop a worldview (fragments of which sometimes appear on this blog). Not everything I tried to do worked out the way I expected, but the learning has felt very valuable, and I do feel much wiser and more capable about my approach to many things. I expect to be sincerely expressing the same sentiment in the year 2029, though.

One technical focus this year was improving my Spark (and Scala) skills and developing an algorithm for De Bruijn graph compaction (similar to what Bcalm does). I was pleased with the efficient research process I was able to achieve, probably my best ever on this kind of project. In terms of my professional path, the overall trend for me seems to be towards smaller firms and greater independence. (Although I remain with Lifematics, I will now also be available for consulting and contracting opportunities in bioinformatics as well as general software development. If you are reading this and think you would like to work with me, do get in touch.)

Thus ends a politically very strange decade, from a global perspective, and we enter the brave new world of the 2020s. Will it be a time of “orderly peace”, as the name 令和 suggests?

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Computer science, Life, Philosophy

Photography

September 6th, 2018 — 3:02pm

One of my recent interests has been film photography. Of course, I was interested in exploring the difference between digital and analog technology, and having taken more than my share of smartphone pictures in my life, I was ready to jump to the opposite end of the spectrum. It also helps that Japan has an excellent second-hand market for vintage cameras and lenses. Some manual focus lenses made here in the 1970s and 1980s are still considered excellent performers with today’s latest “mirrorless” digital cameras.

I have been surprised by the richness of this activity. Film photography forces a higher level of consciousness than the easy point and click photography of smartphones, which must now be almost as automatic as breathing for many. With film, it is necessary to compose the shot, consider, and then wait for the result. Of course, there will be no previews until the film has been processed. Not only am I forced to think more about the shots, I’m also forced to consider what photography is, becoming aware of myself as someone who observes and records.

Susan Sontag has argued clearly enough that photography is not objective truth. Unless some kind of scientific attitude is applied, there is too much framing, selection and cherry-picking. But photography is maybe the art form that most convincingly makes the claim to being objective truth. A phenomenology of photography, the taking of photos and their viewing, would be something rich and complex. For me as a photographer, photography is almost a pure exploration of the psyche and of my own reaction to subjects. Other people viewing my photographs would, I expect, usually discover a completely different meaning than the one I have already attached to them.

Truth and meaning-considerations aside, impressions of the physical world are on some level captured in photographs, digital as well as analog. Photography exemplifies several ways of relating to particularity through instruments and attitudes. Digital photography imposes a final alphabet and ground level of measurements, and a digital image is thus effectively a number in a very large integer space. Film photography impresses the image upon silver halide crystals, which are not homogenous, not square-shaped, and whose physical properties may or may not have been fully elucidated. In some sense the ground of film photography may be said to be open in a way that digital photography is not. For all that, of course, in 2018 digital photography may be the quickest and most practical way to get sharp and high quality images, by most people’s common sense standards. But it is hard to suppress the feeling that something must be lacking there, that we tend to make the leap too easily and quickly.

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Brexit and globalisation

March 30th, 2017 — 2:37pm

Two momentous events that took place last year were the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the UK’s referendum on EU membership that led to the “Brexit” decision to leave the union. The two are often lumped together and seen as symptoms of a single larger force, which they probably are. But in one respect they are different. The Trump presidency has an expiry date, but it is hard to see how Brexit might be reversed in the foreseeable (or even distant) future.

As a student and then an engineer in London during 2003-2007, one of the first vivid, intense impressions I got was that the UK was a much better integrated society than Sweden. Manifestly, people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds were – it seemed to the 19-year old me – living and working together smoothly on many social levels. During my life in Sweden until then, I had not ever seen immigration working out in this way. It was mostly seen and talked about as a problem that had to be addressed (and on a much smaller scale than what we have now).

This may of course reflect the fact that London has long been, until now, one of the most global cities in the world (Tokyo has nothing on it in this respect, although it has a massive energy and dynamic of a different kind), and the place I came from was rather rural. Countryside Britain was never as well integrated as London. World cities tend to be sharply different from the surroundings that support them. But on balance, the UK came across to me as a successfully global society.

In the years since, Sweden has, it seems to me, successfully integrated a lot of people and there are plenty of success stories. It has become a far more global society than it was in, say, 2003. At the same time, xenophobia has been on the rise, just as it has in the rest of Europe and the US, and now Swedish politics must, lamentably, reckon with a very powerful xenophobic party. Reactive (in the Nietzschean sense) forces are having a heyday. Ressentiment festers.

The global society is probably here to stay. The ways of life and work, the economic entities that now bestride the earth, are all firmly globalised. This is an ongoing process that may not end for some time. (However, this probably will never erase the importance of specific places and communities. To be rooted in something is in fact becoming ever more important.) But globalisation, to use that word, has plainly not brought prosperity to everyone. In fact, many have been torn out of prosperity by economic competition and technological advances. Witness American coal miners voting Trump. In my view, though not everyone will agree, a well-protected middle class is necessary to achieve a stable democratic society. Witness what happens when that protection is too far eroded. Neglecting this – which has been a failure of politics on a broad scale – is playing with fire. General frustration becomes directed at minorities.

Being somewhat confused ourselves, and living with weak or failing, if not xenophobic or corrupt, politicians and governments, we – western/globalised society – may need something that is utterly lacking: new ideology, new thinking, new dreams. Not a wishful return to the 90’s, 70’s or some other imagined lost paradise, but something that we can strive for positively, and in the process perhaps reconfigure our societies, politics and economies. For this to happen, people may need to think more, debate more, read more books, and be more sincere. Sarcasm and general resignation lead nowhere. One needs to look sincerely at one’s own history, inward into the soul, as well as outward.

A successful form of such new politics probably will not involve a departing from the global society. But it may involve a reconfiguration of one’s relationship with it. So as Theresa May’s government proceeds to negotiate the withdrawal of the UK from the EU – which must be a bitter, gruelling task for many of those involved – I hope that what she is initiating is such a reconfiguration. I hope that Britain can draw on its past success as a highly global society and constructively be part of the future of the West.

4 comments » | Life, Philosophy

Reading shelf, September 2016

September 12th, 2016 — 10:26pm

Currently reading:

C.G. Jung: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (vol. 2) (seminar notes)

J.G. Ballard: Empire of the Sun (fiction)

Eric Hobsbawm: Age of Extremes (nonfiction)

 

Just finished:

J.G. Ballard: Extreme Metaphors (interviews)

Ursula K. LeGuin: The Earthsea Quartet (fiction)

 

 

Comment » | Life

Collecting books

August 23rd, 2015 — 3:26pm

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Until about five years ago, I would hesitate to buy books if I had other, unfinished books that I was currently reading. It seemed irresponsible to “start on something new” without finishing things that were in progress. This is the kind of attitude that leads you to visit every single room and see every single exhibit in a museum, exhausting yourself (thus precluding visits to other museums for a while). In retrospect, this was an unwise approach.

Umberto Eco (I learn via Nassim Taleb), and others before him, advocates the notion of an antilibrary. Books that one has not read are clearly more valuable than books that one has read. So simple, and so obvious. One should fill one’s shelves with unread books.

Of course this does not mean indiscriminate acquisition, though. We should curate, buy books on the basis of potential value – at present or at some time in the future. Look for links between books, associations, counterpoints, juxtapositions. Thus we build a space – both literary and physical – that is instantly accessible, offering up its riches. We can immediately jump from book to book, trace connections and make new ones, a quadratically increasing number of potential contrasts…

Talking to a new acquaintance for ten hours does not hold ten times as much “utility” or interest as talking to him or her for one hour. Trying to exhaust or deplete one person before moving on to make another acquaintance would be rude, clumsy, pointless and tiring. Although we may sometimes wish to converse with someone for days or weeks immediately upon meeting them, sometimes a few minutes is enough to have a crucial insight.

A metaphor, and an obvious insight now, but one that bears repetition. Finally: it is important that the collection is physical, concrete shelves with physical volume and mass. No digital interfaces, however convenient, can make up for the lack of physicality. They are complementary at best.

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