Tears at Winter’s End

The photos below are a minor miracle. That’s not to say they are any good – only readers can be the judge of that. But these photos wouldn’t exist if things had flowed normally on the day I attended Bangkok’s winter festival “Love and Warmth at Winter’s End.” But in lots of different ways that day was unusual and it’s thanks to the compounding of several quirky happenings that I have these photos to share.

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My Tail, in Two Cities

It’s been a great two years but my time in Saigon has come to an end. Vietnam is a lovely country and I recommend travel there to anyone, but for the last few months I’ve grown weary of the traffic, pollution and general chaos of the city. Vietnamese people are wonderful and I already miss my friends there, but Saigon isn’t a particularly livable city, and recently I sometimes asked myself if I wanted to be living there when I’m 60. When I kept answering “Hell no!” I realized it was time for a change. Just last week I moved back to Bangkok, where I was based before I moved to Saigon. 

Bangkok, Saigon, what’s the difference? If you haven’t traveled in this part of the world it’s easy to imagine that I’ve moved from one crowded and chaotic Southeast Asian city to another. I completely understand that – before I traveled and lived in this part of the world these and other developing Asian cities blended together in my imagination.

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¿Long Live the Butterflies?

Has anyone noticed that the future depicted in recent science fiction movies never looks like Yosemite National Park? Instead it’s generally some version of a poisoned dystopian wasteland. I think the creative minds behind these films may be onto something.

In some of the most visually stunning scenes in the fabulous new Blade Runner film, Agent K (Ryan Gosling) pilots his flying car through a toxic smog filled atmosphere that glows a radioactive orange by day and a bleak bluish gray by night (trailer included below). Sometimes a black poisonous rain falls. (Of course cars will all be autonomous then but Agent K/Ryan Gosling is always cool, and kicking back with a slurpee and watching YouTube videos while your car does all the driving is not cool, so he drives.)

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A Sky Full of Wishes

Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try. No hell below us,  Above us only sky. Imagine all the people, Living for today…

Aha-ah…

Naaaah, just kidding. I fear that sublime little ditty set the bar too high for us.

Imagine instead tens of thousands of the world’s citizens, forgetting for the moment both personal woes and cares about the endless problems of our planet, and coming together for a lively party on a Friday evening in early November. The location was Chiang Mai’s main bridge and we were there to celebrate the annual Lantern Festival (Yi Peng). We released tens of thousands of paper lanterns into the night sky while enjoying the giddy, festive atmosphere of a soiree under the stars of a perfect autumn evening in northern Thailand.

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First Day in Chiang Mai (a photo essay)

Last week I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the annual Lantern Festival in which thousands of lanterns and candles are released into the sky and floated down the river. I had a full day to stroll around the city before the festival started and the best photos from that first day of the trip are below. I’ll share photos of the festival itself in a future post.

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Are We Puppets or Puppeteers? (part 2 of 2)

I ended the last post with the question – in our daily lives is there a way to be more like puppeteers and less like puppets? In other words, can we break free from the various forces pulling us this way and that?

I think that one particularly promising possibility is the concept of awareness. Through an understanding of, and reflection on, these forces controlling us we can reduce their power over us. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins suggests this possibility in this excerpt from his interview with PBS:

QUESTION: Now, if we are gene machines [as Dawkins argues in The Selfish Gene], presumably then our behavior is also programmed by genes — you have made that case. But Christians would say that there is a thing called free will, and that free will gives us a genuine choice about our actions, that effectively free will allows us to override biology. What is your response to that as a scientist?

MR. DAWKINS: I am very comfortable with the idea that we can override biology with free will. Indeed, I encourage people all the time to do it. Much of the message of my first book, “The Selfish Gene,” was that we must understand what it means to be a gene machine, what it means to be programmed by genes, so that we are better equipped to escape, so that we are better equipped to use our big brains, use our conscience intelligence, to depart from the dictates of the selfish genes and to build for ourselves a new kind of life which as far as I am concerned the more un-Darwinian it is the better, because the Darwinian world in which our ancestors were selected is a very unpleasant world.

So this titan of modern evolutionary biology believes that the Darwinian world is actually extremely unpleasant and that it’s by awareness of these forces that we can escape them.

This same approach is at least as promising with other forces controlling us – by self-reflective awareness on the way our upbringing, culture, religion, consumer marketing etc. push and pull us in unhelpful ways we can reduce their power over us.

I’m taking a course on Coursera (an online university course platform) called “Buddhism and Modern Psychology” taught by the evolutionary psychologist and religious scholar Robert Wright, which is about the surprising ways that this 2,500 year old religion and modern psychology are congruent. A major theme in both is the ways in which our minds trick us into craving things that don’t make us happy (junk food, new gadgets and other purchases we don’t need, sex and relationships with the wrong people etc. etc.). Wright argues that Buddhism, by advocating an awareness of the ways our minds cause suffering and by suggesting ways to avoid that suffering, represents a rebellion against some of the most unhelpful elements of human nature.

In the following two excerpts from course lectures, Wright discusses what modern psychology and Buddhism have to say about the ways our minds trick us into pursuing fleeting pleasures.

Richard Dawkins gets my personal vote for World’s Coolest Atheist and commonly refers to religion as a virus. It’s not clear at all that he would be a big fan of Wright’s argument that Buddhism offers a way out of this trap laid by the human mind. On the other hand, Wright politely ignores all the supernatural elements of Buddhism (nirvana, reincarnation, hungry ghosts waiting for rebirth etc.), and instead focuses only on the naturalistic parts of the religion, the practical everyday ideas for understanding and taming the unhelpful tendencies of the human mind. As a practical matter, I think the two of them reach a very similar conclusion – that we can mitigate the forces that control us in unhelpful ways by an understanding and awareness of them.

And, in The Matrix trilogy, it’s the band of humans who are aware of humanity’s enslavement to the machines who are able to fight and break free. I found it extremely interesting that, according to Wright in one of the lecture excerpts above, The Matrix is regarded as a “Dharma movie” by many western Buddhists for the way it serves as an allegory for the delusion inherent in the human condition.

Take a look at the clip below of the famous scene in the film where Neo stops the agents’ bullets.

While simple on a superficial level (yet another superhero triumph), I think this scene is actually quite profound. Remember, this and other “real world” scenes in the film are taking place in the matrix, the artificial reality the machines have created to enslave humanity. However, when people suffer and die in the matrix they suffer and die in real life “because the mind makes it so”. In this scene, Neo escapes this trap by achieving a deep awareness of the delusion of the matrix. After that, the agents’ bullets and blows have no power over him.

While rewatching the film the other night, this scene gave me a really useful insight into a current issue in my life. The tenant renting my apartment in Barcelona, Spain has been threatening to sue me to end his one year contract early without the penalties provided for in the terms. While my attorney has assured me that my legal position is strong, and in any case the amount of money in dispute is not large, I was absolutely dreading the time and emotional anguish of a lawsuit. In the beginning the threat did concern me and I considered giving up. While watching this scene in The Matrix though I realized that this sort of threat is a lot like the bullets in the matrix. It works only to the extent that we believe it.

Things move slowly in Spain and suing someone who lives in a foreign country requires vast amounts of time and money (many times more than the modest amount in dispute). The threatened suit is extremely unlikely because it would be financial and personal self-mutilation. And, in the unlikely even that it happens and even if I left the claim completed uncontested – breathing a silent “I don’t care” to the universe – I have virtually no financial assets in Spain so there’s nothing to collect. Like Neo’s insight about the bullets in The Matrix, I realized that the best approach to the threat was to recognize it as an illusion and ignore it.

This blog post is in a sense another effort to cultivate my own awareness of the different types of forces exerting powerful influences on us. By meditating, through writing, on the forces yanking me around I do think they have less power over me. I watch those Apple and Carl’s Junior ads and have a more ironic and critical take on them – “Hmm…What are they trying to get me to feel?”, “How can I use this in a blog post?”, and not “Cool…where can I buy one?” or “Yummy…I want one now”.

My own answer to these two posts’ title question (the one I asked myself during the Thai puppet show in Bangkok) is that like most people I’m partly in control (a puppeteer) and partly controlled by these forces (a puppet). (In general, with complicated questions like this, it’s often the case that neither of the alternatives is completely “right”. Even smart people can get really passionate and emotional about these issues but reality is messy, and if we’re really honest with ourselves we can see some merit in both sides.)

By cultivating awareness of the way that culture, religion, corporate marketing, our parents and our own biological instincts (for food, sex etc.) push us in directions that are unhelpful to our own health and happiness, I think we can gain a greater measure of control. We can be the puppet masters of our own lives more often, and clueless puppets less often.

And, if this is all too geeky and esoteric, you can still enjoy my favorite photos of the Thai puppet show at the Artist Village in Bangkok.

 

  

 

Are We Puppets or Puppeteers? (part 1 of 2)

Last month I was in Bangkok again for a few days to see some friends from my time living in Thailand. Bangkok is one of those amazing cities where I can spend any amount of time and still think of something interesting to do. On one of the days in the city I decided to visit Baan Silapin (Artist Village), a large traditional Thai house with small galleries, artist studios and a Thai puppet troupe. Everyday at 14:00 there’s a puppet show. It’s highly recommended for families with young children and art lovers of all kinds. You can see my favorite photos of the Artist Village, the surroundings and a rehearsal for young apprentice puppeteers below. (I’ll share my photos of the puppet show in my next post, the second of two posts on this topic.)

For most visitors, the puppet show is definitely the high point of a visit, and families began grabbing the best seats about 30 minutes before the performance. I was also looking forward to the performance, partly because I was already thinking about doing a post about my visit to the Artist Village and hoped to get some good photos of the puppet show, to add to the ones I’d already taken of the complex, the surroundings and young apprentice puppeteers rehearsing that morning.

This is probably not the way you watch a puppet show but during the performance I found myself wondering,

“Hmmm in my own life am I a puppeteer or a puppet?”

In other words, am I actively guiding my own life? Or is my life direction shaped by forces outside my own control?

This is one of those posts where I geek out quite a bit so if this is not your thing by all means scroll down and enjoy the photos. As questions go though there are few bigger than this one – Are we actively guiding our own lives or are they controlled by outside forces? If you have any interest in this question, stick with me a bit before checking out the photos below.

I think most of us believe we’re fully in control and will quickly reject any suggestion of limitations on our free will. If we’re really, really honest though I think we need to recognize that our lives are shaped, at least in part, by a number of outside forces.

In the brilliant 1999 film The Matrix, ordinary life in our world is an illusion created by advanced machines who have enslaved humanity to supply their energy needs. The many philosophical references in the film are well documented in numerous academic studies and The Matrix has been the subject of entire university courses. Of course, the film has a pretty pessimistic answer to my puppet show question about how much we are really in control of our own lives.

In my university and graduate school education, I spent a lot of time studying evolutionary biology and I saw The Matrix as an allegory for one popular strand of modern evolutionary theory. Known as the gene-centered view of evolution and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his blockbuster 1976 work The Selfish Gene, the theory holds that humans (and all organisms) are essentially just vessels for our genes which control us to promote their own differential survival and reproduction.

The enslavement of humanity in The Matrix can also be seen as a metaphor for the way that religion and other cultural systems exert powerful influences on our behavior. Shortly after the recent visit to Bangkok, I started reading a great book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The work is a history of humanity from the origins of our species about 150,000 years ago to the present, and draws on a fascinating mix of evolutionary biology, archaeology, anthropology and history. The author Yuval Noah Harari notes that until about 70,000 years ago our species was extremely ordinary and had no more influence on the world than other animals.

From around 70,000 years ago though, advances in the size and structure of our brains allowed what Harari calls a “cognitive revolution”. The revolutionary adaptation that appeared in our species around this time was the ability of the human mind to imagine things that don’t actually exist and to create shared stories around these things.

This is actually a radical innovation. Lots of animals can communicate about their physical world – for example, monkeys have different calls for “Careful! An eagle!” and “Careful! A lion!”. But even the most advanced non-human primates can’t, for example, designate totems or offer prayers to ward off lions and eagles. Our species is the only one that can imagine things that don’t exist and create shared myths around them.

For example, Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, God, corporations, money and nation states don’t exist as physical realities outside of our belief in them but these and countless other shared beliefs in things that exist only in our collective imagination constitute what we call “culture”. No other species can do this and shared culture allows our species to organize – and to be controlled – in ways not possible with any other animal.

Take nations and nationalism, for example. These shared beliefs alone were the basis for 123 million deaths by war in the 20th century alone. And bitter arguments over what it means to be British, French, American etc. dominate the politics and social discourse of modern nation states as well, with many people in even the most free societies organized into – and controlled by – their ideologies and political parties.

Puppets or puppeteers?

God and religion are of course other prominent examples of how shared beliefs in imaginary things control us. In 16th and 17th century Europe alone up to 20 million people died in religious wars. And in the context of the tremendous diversity of spiritual beliefs that humans accross the world have, and have had in the past, the differences between Catholics and Protestants are actually fairly narrow! But historically religion is much more about power than it is about spirituality.

A photo of the Hindu Maha Kumbh festival in India, the largest religious gathering in the world. Who’s in control?

As individuals in vast cultural systems like religion, nationalism and even the corporate culture and norms of our own employer, is it really possible for us to be fully in control?

Corporations and consumer marketing form other puppet strings yanking us this way and that. A couple weeks ago there was an article in the New York Times entitled “The Dog Ate My Cellphone” which cites a fascinating study conducted by a Columbia Business School professor demonstrating that people are much more likely to “accidentally” damage their iPhones when a new model is available. Essentially, we feel guilty for buying the new model when our current phone is perfectly adequate. The study demonstrates that many of us respond to this dilemma by being careless with our phones, perhaps sub-consciously. When the phone drops in the bath, or suffers some other fatal disaster, we give ourselves permission to buy a new one without the guilt.

How childish and petty we are! And how easily manipulated!

I don’t think it’s any secret that big companies are really good at making us want their products even when we don’t really need them. See for example the Apple TV ad below – if you buy the new water resistant iPhone 7 you’ll have the willpower to do your workouts even on cold rainy mornings.

And look how cool and creative you’ll be with the new $150 wireless earphones, which you’ll need since they’re not including a headphone jack anymore (video below). When we buy this stuff, are we puppeteers or are we puppets? I’m not at all saying that all purchases make us puppets. Just that it’s really valuable to view consumer culture with an attitude of critical awareness and ask questions like “Do I really need this?” and “Is this a useful tool for me…or am I an unwitting tool of it?”

I’m a fan of the iPhone and a few other Apple products. And, as a shareholder, I do hope they keep selling lots of them (though I’m also a big fan of the efforts CEO Tim Cook has made to protect workers, the environment and civil rights). I bring up Apple mainly because, as an amateur photographer, I admire the photography and video in their ads, not at all to single out this company as a bad actor. I think it’s indisputable though that this and other large companies are really good at selling us stuff that we don’t really need.

In this context, I was interested in how often people upgrade their iPhones. Do we tend to buy a new one because we really need a new mobile phone (ie, like a puppeteer) OR because Apple and mobile phone carriers are crafty and convince us to buy them even when we don’t need a new one (ie, like puppets).

According to a 2015 Gallup poll, only about 2% of Americans upgrade their iPhones every time a new model is available. I initially thought this data challenged my argument that we’re all to some extent puppets. When you look more closely at the data on upgrading though it’s actually not very promising for free will – a majority of iPhone users upgrade whenever their mobile carrier allows it, which is typically every two years. And mobile carriers and their two year contracts are among the most powerful and nefarious puppet masters of the modern world. These companies are really, really good at getting us to pay more for both the phone and the mobile service than we need to.

If you actually believe that new iPhone is free, $99, $199 or whatever your carrier or Apple has promised you in their bold print ads, take a look at this analysis:

http://time.com/3732923/cell-phone-plans-two-year-contract/

The plans with the lowest upfront costs are actually the most expensive over two years and you save a lot of money (about $400 in the analysis cited above) by paying for the entire iPhone outright and purchasing pay as you go mobile service every month. People are tricked by the low upfront cost and some really simple math buried in a lot of small print.

With my mobile, nomadic life and work style I actually need an iPhone or other high end phone. It’s not a luxury purchase for me. However, I absolutely do NOT need to upgrade every year and I avoid carrier contracts the way I avoid nasty infectious diseases. Roughly every three years, I pay full price for an unlocked version of the new iPhone model (black phone with black case, no rose gold, rabbit ears or bling bling for me). I purchase prepaid mobile service wherever I’m living. (By the way my mobile plan in Saigon costs only $5 a month and it’s prepaid so I don’t pay anything during the roughly three months a year I’m traveling!)

In general, I find it really helpful to view corporate marketing with a critical, ironic perspective. “Hmmm what are they trying to get me to think and feel with this slick ad? Do I really need to buy this?” Hint: the answer is almost always “No”. This is true even of companies we deeply admire. No, it’s especially true of those because they are the ones that have the greatest power over us.

It’s no surprise that corporations use primitive human instincts like sex to sell us things. Take a look at this medley of hilarious, over-the-top TV ads below and let me know if you still believe we’re fully in control. Men in particular, look how easily corporations use beer, burgers and busty babes to yank us around like puppets! These commercials cost a lot of money to make. Would companies spend this much money and make lots of them if they didn’t work?

As another example of how easily companies manipulate us into wanting even the most dubious products and services I offer Hooters. I confess I’ve never been so I’m not on the firmest ground with this example but I believe the chain’s offer is essentially this – in exchange for paying way too much money for mediocre food you have tacit permission to ogle your waitress’s breasts. How simple we are and how easily yanked around on our puppet strings!

Puppets or puppeteers?

There are endless other ways to consider this question of how much we’re really in control of our journey through this world. For example, consider this question – are you a lot like your parents? Including in ways you really dislike? I know I am!

Of course, this is partly because we were raised by them. However, it’s also because we have their genes, exactly half of our father’s and half of our mother’s. The influence of heredity may very well be more powerful but for many people it’s more disturbing because it’s much more threatening to our sense of free will. We can imagine – if not actually execute – a break from the path that our parents set for us but we’ll never be free of their DNA.

So, we like to imagine that we’re fully in control of our own lives, but if we’re really honest about our existence in this world, it’s pretty clear that culture, corporate marketing, our upbringing and our genes exert huge influences which deeply constrain our freedom.

Note that all my examples in this post come from “free” and “democratic” societies. To my mind, the post wouldn’t be interesting at all if I were to take examples from autocratic countries like North Korea. Anyone would agreed that people in those places are not very free. My point is that even in the most “free” societies we’re not really as in control as we like to believe.

Is there a way out of this matrix? Can we somehow cut all these puppet strings yanking us around, often in directions that make us unhappy? I’ll consider this in my next post, the second of two posts on this topic.

Note on photos and videos: All of the photos below are my own. All of the photos and videos above are the works of others.

 

The Artist Village

(Above two photos) Sculptures at the front of the Artist Village, where there is also a cafe and seats for customers.
Another photo of the canal-side seats in front of the Artist Village. Families with young children can buy unicorn colored (and quite possibly radioactive) fish food to feed the fish in the canal.

(Above two photos) Studios in the Artist Village.
A gallery room in the Artist Village

 

Surroundings

(Above three photos) The Artist Village sits on a canal but is also reachable by road. These are photos of nearby houses and a sightseeing boat for tourists.
A walkway beside the canal
A house next to the Artist Village
Lunch near the Artist Village

(Above four photos) A picturesque Buddhist temple near the Artist Village.

 

Morning Rehearsal for Apprentice Puppeteers

 

(Above two photos) The small boy in the above two photos was easily the youngest of the apprentices. He was apparently too young to actually handle the puppets, which were taller than him. During part of the rehearsal he practiced with a large bottle of Pepsi.
Young apprentice puppeteers with the puppets

(Above two photos) Two apprentices having a bowl of noodles. In the first of the two photos, the boys are watching videos on one of their phones.