Extraordinary Old Men: Jiro Ono and Bill Cunningham


I saw two very good documentaries recently: Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Bill Cunningham New York. Each of them features a man over 80 years old. One is Jiro Ono and the other is Bill Cunningham. Both men are very unassuming people at first sight. One rides the subway to work. The other rides a bicycle. They both have a thing for dark jackets. However, what you will eventually find out about these two men is they are both giants in their respective fields. 

Jiro is a sushi master who runs his own award-winning restaurant. Bill is a fashion photographer for The New York Times. Both have dedicated their entire lives to the perfection of their craft. Neither of them seem to have any close friends. Nor are they emotionally close to their family. Their work is their family. Now I may have given you the impression that these two people are cold-hearted, relentless people who are incapable of basic social skills. That is simply not the case. I am not sure about the motivations behind them to appear on camera, but both seem to be more than willing to accommodate the curious filmmakers. They both appear to be honest in their attempt to answer questions and they are both graceful in their social conducts. I highly recommend both movies if you want to see artists who are totally passionate and completely engrossed in their work.

I don’t work, I only know how to have fun everyday.” -Bill Cunningham

I’ve never once hated this job. I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. Even though I’m eighty five years old, I don’t feel like retiring. That’s how I feel.” -Jiro Ono

Other than the fact I enjoyed both movies immensely and I admire and respect both individuals portrayed, I cannot help but wonder, is this the kind of life I want to live? For Jiro and Bill, I don’t think the incentive is money, fame, nor pleasing others. The only reasonable incentive is love: the love of the work itself. I have no doubt both Bill and Jiro lived life with no regrets and given the chance to do it all over again, they would not have chosen differently. But to me, relationships with other people is something I value and cherish almost above all else. No work is more important to me than the people I let into my life. But that’s just me. For those looking for inspiration or just something interesting to watch, don’t miss out on these two beautiful films.

Posted in Inspiration, Movies | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Facebook and the Meaning of Life


How many times is your browser opened to Facebook and you find yourself having nothing to do but continuously hit the refresh button? You’ve already scrolled down the newsfeed up to where you left off last time… you’ve already commented on all the semi-interesting links people posted… you’ve already stalked all the pretty girls you felt like looking at for the day… so what now? What is it you are hoping to see on your Facebook feed that you cannot find anywhere else in life?
This is the question I want to ask today.

First, I want to offer some ideas as to why Facebook became such an indispensable part of our lives:

1.) Facebook offers us a sense of community. Kind of like being in an exclusive club with all the cool kids. In a fast paced world like ours, being –or rather— feeling excluded is something we find unbearable.

2.) Facebook offers us a way to express our individuality. We can “like” certain movies or certain celebrities etc. This important act announces to the world that we’ve got “good taste”. Also, status updates: there are people out there that depend on your daily postings of what you had ingested for breakfast.

3.) Facebook allows us to stay “in the know” about the people in our lives. We no longer need to talk to our friends in order to know what’s happening in their lives. This includes big news like getting knocked-up. People have no shame in sharing, on the contrary, they want you (someone they probably met a total of twice in their lives) to know that their last check up with the gynaecologist was a success!

4.) Facebook offer us a variety of games to play to get a break from “real life”. After a long day at work, you just want to come home and reap the carrots you sowed last night on Farmville, take your dog Tidus for a walk on Pet Society, and then recruit some new members to your gang in Mafia Wars.

5.) Facebook allows us to find interesting things we otherwise might not find via the links people share on their walls. For some of us, what people share is our only source for news and other worldly affairs.

6.) Most importantly, Facebook lets us see semi-nude pictures of the hot friends of our friends who conveniently left their privacy settings wide-open. God bless their souls.

In summary, Facebook provide us with a cool community to voice our opinions; a way to contact and keep up with our friends; ingenious games, news, and soft-core pornography. As to the question what is it we are looking for when we refresh our Facebook page, I suggest it is nothing less than the meaning of life itself. The elusive thing that will answer all our questions as to why we are here and the shining light that will instantaneously endow our lives with infinite value and happiness. As to the more pressing question of whether or not we’ll find it in such a place, I offer an analogy:

We are like the prisoners of Plato’s cave enchanted by the beautiful shadows on the wall… except it is not chains holding us down, it is the allure of the shadows… shadows that dance so poignantly that we cannot for a second stop clicking refresh.

Posted in Humor, Philosophy, Self | Tagged | 5 Comments

On Awkwardness: an existential investigation

Awkward. It was the sighting of a woman that cannot be described by anything other than the word “awkward” that got me thinking how prevalent that expression has become. Usually, the expression is used in the past-tense: “Oh, that was awkward!” But now popping up obnoxiously in the silence between any kind conversation presumably to fill the void while simultaneously raising awareness to the fact that one or both of us is socially retarded:

A: [Silence…]
B: [Silence…]
A:  “Awkwarrrrd…”

Recently, a close friend of mine disclosed to me that her entire life can be summed up with the word “awkward”. What an ubiquitous yet strange word indeed! Even the English word itself is kinda awkward eh? I mean… the ‘a’… and the ‘w’… and then the ‘k’… and then another ‘w’… it just looks kinda funny, no? In any case, I want to get to the bottom of why this word is used so much nowadays to characterize our day-to-day existence.

I think most of the time that word is used today to describe some social situation that does not go as smooth as expected or simply unplanned for: “That was an awkward encounter!”
It can be used to describe a person: “She sure is one awkward-looking person”.
And it can also be a feeling: “Geez, that sure felt awkward”.
Generally, the word conveys the sense that something just isn’t right. But I think that’s not actually  the case at all. It’s not just that “something” isn’t right, but rather something doesn’t feel right. Awkwardness has to do more with our internal feelings than the external circumstances we find ourselves in. One tentative hypothesis is that we feel awkward when we unexpectedly become aware of ourselves as fully autonomous human beings that should be capable of speaking but find ourselves unable to form meaningful sentences. We have unintentionally nurtured an autistic culture where picking up the phone and calling someone seems rather intrusive and impolite. Text messaging and facebook is easier. No need to read social cues and no need to reply on time like in a “real” conversation. One can spend that extra time crafting that perfect, witty response to send to that cute girl you just met… wait, but awkward people don’t go out to meet people… so forget that example… makes no sense. Awkward…

Let’s be honest with ourselves, having a real conversation with someone is hard. It’s especially  hard when the other person is unfortunate-looking, utterly stupid and, which by the way,  just also happens to be your boss. I mean, why should we talk to them, right? It’s fuckin’ disgusting, mate. (Read the above with a British accent.) There’s also the problem of intentions. Are you talking to me just so you can get into my pants? Or are you talking to me because you don’t really want to talk to me… what? Awkward…

Add to losing our basic conversation skills, I just think that we’re just so used to not feeling anything at all on text messaging and facebook (other than misplaced envy) that whenever we experience any feeling or emotion we automatically assume something is wrong… but we just don’t know what… nor sure of why… until we realize, fuck, it’s okay to feel uncomfortable and uncertain sometimes, it’s a normal part of being a human fuckin’ being.

Posted in Humor, Philosophy, Self | 2 Comments

On Narrative: History, Philosophers, and 9/11

WARNING: The following text contains mildly abstract and geeky subject matter. Reader’s discretion is advised.

In my recent years of thinking, two seemingly disparate subject matters converged in my mind. The first is the History of Western Philosophy e.g., the major figures like Plato, Descartes, Kant etc. The second is the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. How these two came together for me is what I want to share with you today.

To be honest, I never thought much of the subject of history until I took an inter-disciplinary course in my last year of undergrad that explored the notions of narrative, perspective, time and space. It wasn’t a history course per se as in we were not studying some particular event that happened in a particular time and space (e.g., WWII) but more of a theoretical discussion on what hidden assumptions we make when we refer to history and how those assumptions may be challenged. Generally speaking, there are  three theoretical approaches to the study of history:

(a). History is basically the events that happened in the past. (It places emphasis on the events themselves that took place. This I will call the objective view of history.)

(b). History is what we imagined may have happened in the past. (This view places emphasis on the subjective, imaginative aspect of history. I will call this view the constructivist view of history as in history is what we say and believed to have happened but not necessarily what really happened.)

(c). History is the events that happened in the past recorded as accurately as possible with respect to archaeological evidence. (This view is blend of A and B so I will call this view compatibilism*. This is basically the idea that we can generally discover what truly happened in the past if we were given enough evidence.)

Now, if we lay the views side by side in a spectrum, it becomes obvious that the view compatibilism should fall somewhere between A and B.

Objective < — >  Compatibilism < — > Constructivist
1                 2                     3                     4                      5

When the professor introduced this spectrum and asked the class what our view of history was, most of us (me included) chose 1 or 2. Meaning, yes, generally, history has to do with the events themselves, but it does require rigorous research to recover those events. However, by the end of the class, I was convinced that history was more like 4 and 5.

We go about everyday, I think, functioning as if the objective view of history was the sole truth. Basically the attitude of “Of course X happened”. Example: “Of course Jesus died on a cross 2012 years ago!” And maybe we experience a visual image of Jesus hanging on a cross that is somewhat reminiscent of the scene portrayed in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. This sort of thinking goes by unquestioned, stealthily in our day-to-day life. But if you question just a bit with what I have said, it would surely seem kind of strange. We know there is this fellow named Jesus, we know he died on a cross, and we can even somewhat vaguely picture him. But really, what do we really know about what happened? I don’t even remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday and right now we’re talking about something that happened two thousand years ago and its something none of us living has ever personally witnessed or experienced. The above-mentioned movie is only an imagined reconstruction of what may have happened out of documented accounts that were also reconstructions. Thus our recollection of that film (for those who saw it) is a literal reconstruction of a literal reconstruction. Thus the point is this: the image we have of any event in history is basically an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation ad infinitum! And this example of Jesus dying on a cross is just one tiny (albeit significant) event in history. History is not just one minuscule event. History is every single fucking event leading up until now. How can we even begin to comprehend this infinite string of chaos called “History”? This is where the idea of narrative comes in.

A narrative ties otherwise discrete events together. Because we are unable to consider every single thing that happened, we pick and choose what we feel is important or who we think is interesting. Going back to my interest mentioned in the beginning (the History of Western Philosophy), we can maybe trace a linage from Plato to Descartes to Kant all the way to Wittgenstein. But what I realized was this: the HISTORY of WESTERN PHILOSOPHY is not merely a small handful of men scattered across a few hundreds years. There are indefinitely more thinkers and cultural factors in the western cannon and each of these are playing their part in this history. History thus, contrary to what we’d like to believe, is not singular.  History is a collection of stories we tell to make sense of the world given our limited capacities and resources. But what stories are told and how they are told will ultimately be determined by the narrator and other social-cultural variables like when and where one is living and who is in power. Due to the inherent nature of narration, there is always an extraneous element in the production of history. Either something is being included and intentionally left out. Why does Western Philosophy have to then start with Plato? It could just have easily have started with Zeno. Or arguably Thales. And why does it have to end at Wittgenstein? Why not Ayn Rand? How characters and plots and other elements of narrative are selected in the production of History is an interesting question I will not attempt to address right now. What I do want to establish is that history is a lot more fluid and complex than we may think it is. There are an infinite amount of variables and we simply cannot account for them all. This brings me to the topic of 9/11.

No question about it, 9/11 was a horrible and terrifying event and my condolences goes out to all those that were killed and those surviving family members who are still struggling to make sense and come to terms with what have happened. I hope that by using this event for theoretical discussion does not trivialize it and make it less serious than it really is. But let us now take a step back and apply some lessons from what we learned about history just now. What do we really know about what happened in 9/11? We know that two planes crashed into two buildings. That event makes no sense without some context. A narrative supplies that context. According to the “official” narrative, a group of middle-eastern terrorists, following orders from their evil, criminal boss Osama Bin Laden, flew two planes into the World Trade Centers in order to attack America. Ah, now the event is starting to somewhat make sense. We can easily relate to this story. There some bad guys (“terrorist”) and they are working for an ultimate bad guy (“Osama Bin Laden”). They have done harm by killing good people (harmless, innocent American civilians). This is a story we can easily understand and accept without question. It forms the basis of all B action movies.

What is amazing about this narrative is how fast it was established and simultaneously agreed upon that Osama Bin Laden was the man responsible for such terrifying acts. For a country that still cannot convincingly show how JFK was assassinated, they sure knew their stuff this time around. The beauty of the 9/11 narrative was this: if you questioned the given narrative, then you’re deemed unpatriotic and were simply ignored. In the wake of destruction, there is no room for dissent and, also, just simply no time to stop and think. Osama Bin Laden may possibly be a dangerous character, but what is more dangerous is how easy it is for us to accept a story (any story) in the wake of turmoil and destruction. What I am trying to say in regards to the official 9/11 narrative is that this is only one version of what may have possibly happened that day and it is what some people have very consciously decided was right for you to believe. Narratives allows us to organize and combine different events together into coherent, manageable chunks. However, we must realize that all narratives are merely fragments and are, oftentimes, false.

I guess the main lesson here is to realize that the world is A HECK LOT more complicated than we tend to think it is and that there are always people out there trying to manipulate your view of the world by pitching certain narratives rather than others. There is oftentimes more fiction than truth to history and sometimes it is simply impossible to separate the two. We have to always be skeptical of what we are told to believe in and be wary of stories that are not our own.

*Not to be confused with the metaphysical view that Determinism and Free Will is compatible with each other. Another interesting topic for another time.

Posted in Philosophy | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

I won’t lie, prior to watching the movie and after repeated viewings of the trailer, I was feeling very ambivalent about this film because I’m rather skeptical about trailers that explicitly list the themes of the said movie in sans-serif ALL CAPS right across the middle of the screen. The epic scale of the storyline hinted at in the trailer alongside the over-the-top soundtrack also did not impress me much and I feared that a movie trailer so full-of-itself can only lend itself to disappointment. Boy, how wrong I was.

Cloud Atlas is what you get when you combine a solid screenplay, talented actors, and filmmakers with a lot of heart. Cloud Atlas is, no doubt, a labor of love. This is the Wachowski siblings at the top of their game and doing what they do best: high-brow philosophy interlaced with gun-fighting action. Also kudos to the lesser known, but no less important, Tom Tykwer. There was clearly a scene that was an allusion to the cult-favourite Run Lola Run (an earlier work directed by Tykwer). The film seamlessly weaves together six distinct stories and manages to deliver one coherent and breathtaking experience. The cast was simply superb and I think each and every one of them gave it their very best. I found each protagonist immensely likable and found it easy to sympathize with each character’s predicament.

Great movies have the ability to inspire us, to move us, and to help us become better, kinder people. Great movies reveals to us the raw intrinsic beauty of life and reminds us to celebrate the sheer joy of being alive. Cloud Atlas is one of the greatest movies ever made and I urge you to take some time to appreciate this incredible piece of art.

9.5/10

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | 8 Comments

A real teacher.

After eight full years of formal education (or however back you want to trace it), what have I learned? What has stayed in terms of the knowledge in my brain? At first glance, the answer appears to be a short one: nothing. After four years of highschool and four years of university, all the details and intricacies of course material has faded away into oblivion. This is especially true for courses I cared absolutely nothing about. This indifference is usually caused by a lethal combination of lacklustre material with a less than sub-par teacher. I vividly remember the teacher I had for grade 10 science. We shall call her Miss Incompetent. Miss Incompetent was a strange creature. Not only was she totally inept in teaching the subject at hand, she didn’t even come with the modesty to hide the fact. A typical day in Miss Incompetent’s class consists of reading certain textbook pages scribbled on the board and then doing the textbook questions at the end of the chapters. During the time, she would be either 1.) using the classroom phone talking to who-knows-who or 2.) using the computer next door doing who-knows-what. Neither of those involve “taking questions from students”. It came as no surprise later on when I found out she normally taught the class Physical Education: what we students affectionately called “gym”.

Now if Miss Incompetent taught all my classes, I can confidently say I learned nothing all these years and probably would have ended up in construction. Thank goodness that was NOT the case. Along the way, I have had the pleasure of meeting teachers that were competent, intelligent, and actually cared about the students’ general well-being. A real teacher does not teach you facts and figures, a real teacher teaches you how to be a human being. A real teacher does not ask you questions, a real teacher ignites your curiosity so you learn to ask questions yourself. So for all the real teachers out there, thank you for all that you do and please, please continue doing what you do because it is so important. So important.

In sum: the question is not what you or I have learned in school but whether or not we continue asking questions and learning by ourselves.

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Share your teacher horror stories below or, better yet, share a story about how a “real teacher” made a difference in your life.

Posted in Self | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Hello World!

Seriously, what do you write for the “first post” of your blog? An introduction to who you are? An introduction to what the blog is about? I am pretty sure there are specific sections for those i.e., the ABOUT and/or HELP section. So why, wordpress… why do you torture me with this blank white box in step number 6?

[silence…]

This is becoming weird… sitting here… all alone… hungry…
naked. This was supposed to be professional! I chose you, wordpress, not blogger! I thought I had more time to customize my blog before I show it to the world! But nooooooo… you and your care-free attitude… “Let’s create the first…”

Are you still reading? Welcome to eleganthinker. Image

Posted in Humor, Self | 5 Comments