Sunday, September 04, 2011

Siam in the 16th and 17th Centuries: Encountering the French missions

This opening paragraph comes from Relation du voyage de Mgr. de Béryte, vicaire apostolique du Royaume de la Cochinchine (Account of the Travels of The Mgr. [Bishop] of Beirut, Vicar Apostolic for the Kingdom of Cochinchina), compiled by Jacques de Bourges, published in 1666 and made available as a Google eBook.

Drawing on my schoolboy French, a translation might be:
I do not believe that there's a country in the world where one finds more religions and whose practice is more permitted than in Siam. Gentiles, Christians, and Muslims, who are all divided into different sects, are at complete liberty to follow such worship as seems best to them. The Portuguese, English, Dutch, Chinese, Laplanders, Peguans, along with people from Cambodia, Malacca, Cochinchina, Champa, and several other places on the Septentrion coast, all have established themselves in Siam. There are nearly two thousand Catholics, the majority Portuguese, who have come from various places in the East Indies, from which they were driven, and have taken refuge in Siam, where they have a separate district making up a suburb of the city...

Thailand's reputation for openness goes back a long way!  Yet, I was still surprised by the plurality of the situation described here more than 300 years ago. Quite a distinguished case of 'multiculturalism' (about which contemporary discussions might suggest that it's a recent phenomenon!) What is not clear from this picture, though, is whether there developed much in the way of cultural exchange and integration among the communities. The compartmentalising suggests each group went its own way and the various accounts I've read so far seem to confirm this and they often relate complaints about each other and contrary points of view, especially among the Europeans.

I'm interested particularly in the East-West encounter, which in this period was concentrated in Ayutthaya, the old capital of what was then termed 'Siam' (which appears to have had external origins, which I may try to explain vis-a-vis 'Thai' and 'Tai' in another post). It was missionary zeal that drove much of the first two centuries of expeditions and settlements - and the religious institutions seemed often to be better informed and coordinated than the state-sponsored trading companies. Today the deep-rooted influence of the West is often characterised in terms of the material trappings of globalisation, but arguably more persistent effects are evident in the education system, where many schools still have a Christian foundation and this is more my focus here as I try to explore its origins and development in these early accounts.

This means having to keep practising my French language skills as most of the written accounts relate to the experiences of the French.  Given this predominance of materials it's difficult to draw a non-partisan view.    Among the French records, Martin's accounts are probably the most valuable for the meticulous attention to detail (recording a constant stream of news in the manner of a ledger, even leaving blanks as placeholders for figures that were still to be determined).  However, his background and allegiances do colour his interpretation.   There were a few other travellers who passed by without having involvement, one of whom was the German naturalist and physician, Engelbert Kaempfer - I look forward to reading his A Description of the Kingdom of Siam 1690 (Itineraria Asiatica: Thailand). At least the task is made somewhat easier by electronic publishing; in sponsoring large scale digitisation of old texts, Google has been providing marvellous support for this historical research.

Among the few scholars who appear to have studied the materials from this period in depth is Michael Smithies, a historian. He has published extensively and I've already availed myself of a copy of his book, A Resounding Failure: Martin and the French in Siam, 1672-93, published by Silkworm Books. The back cover summarises its importance: “François Martin, from his unique viewpoint as director of the French trading outpost at Pondichery, provides a careful analysis of the motives of the persons involved in the French colonizing venture.” And there were many players in this theatre!

Prof. Smithies original studies were in French and his teaching of French (and Indonesian) in Papua New Guinea earned him the honour of being received into the French Order of Academic Palms (I don't know the UK equivalent, but it's a notable decoration). In an interview for Bulletin No. 17 Amopa 79, 2005-6, he relates his career development. In particular, he joined the British Council in 1960 and was immediately sent “as a matter of urgency” to Thailand as Director of English studies. He recounts that he had to monitor the work of dozens of teachers, and assist in teaching at different universities in Bangkok.   At that time my mother (then Fuengsin Sarayutpitag), recently graduated from Chulalongkorn University, was teaching English as a foreign language at the newly established Thonburi Technical College. She knew a "Mr. Smithies" and I expect it was the same man. It would be nice if this could be confirmed.

Whilst Smithies was familiarising himself with Thai culture (it was about 10 years later that he started to devote himself to scholarly research in this field), my mother was undertaking the complementary activity of delving into Western culture. And this is the general perspective that I'm trying to keep in mind as I look at this confluence, in which my mother was inextricably involved for the rest of her life.

The Far East continues to be a source of attraction for French missionaries, as evident in a trailer for a film 'Ad Vitam, La Grande Aventure des Missions Etrangères de Paris en Asie'. The excerpt includes a brief historical explanation by the archivist, Fr. Gerard Moussay, who describes the origins of M.E.P.: in the 16th and 17th Century the Vatican gave the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to nominate missionaries across the world, but with the kings becoming increasingly ineffective in carrying this out, bishops called Apostolic Vicars were appointed, the first two being Mgrs. François Pallu and Lambert de la Motte.

Regarding present day attitudes, Fr. Etcharren, Supérieur Général of MEP, emphasizes that being a missionary means carrying a message that's "not ours" and requires always humility.  He offers us another glimpse into how the early period is viewed in a short speech he gave on a recent visit to Thailand (see another video), in which they celebrate 350 years in Ayutthaya.  He recounts the arrival of the first missionaries in 1662:
Ce Lieu d'Ayutthaya a été dès le début d'abord un lieu de prière, de contemplation et de réflexion missionaire. Lorsque les missionnaires sont arrivés ici, ils ont commencés par faire une retraite et puis ensuite un synode de réflexion. Les valeurs qui ont émergé lors de ce synode d'Ayutthaya sont des valeurs missionaires qui sont toujours d'actualité.

In English (again I translate):
This place in Ayutthaya was from the outset firstly a place of prayer, contemplation and missionary reflection. When the missionaries arrived here, they began with a retreat followed by a synod of reflection. The values which have emerged from the synod of Ayutthaya are the missionary values which are still current [today].

This gives the impression that there has been continual activity, perhaps suggestive of serene and steady development, but it's not been like that historically because inevitably there has been a lot of political involvement.

From the accounts of de Bourges (cited above) and others, the Kingdom of Siam might have seemed an opportunity ripe for successful missionary endeavours.   The French were certainly encouraged to invest a lot in developing their presence in the region; Martin relates in 1675 about Mgr. Pallu, Bishop of Helipolis:

This great prelate, whose probity and sanctity Europe, Asia and America admire, had embarked in Siam on a vessel of a private French merchant to go to Tonkin, to devote the rest of his strength to the conversion of the infidels. (II,13, translated by Smithies)

There were many 'gains' in some parts, but efforts were in vain in Siam (and Martin merely echoes the uncharitable remarks, which sound like those of a bad loser):

I also learnt from letters from Siam that the French Missionaries made many conversions in Tonkin and Cochinchina.  Things were not the same in Siam, although this place was like an entrepot for the other missions and from where they were supplied with all essentials.  This was attributed to the stupidity of the Siamese, a brutal people to whom one could not explain the mysteries of the Christian religion." (II, 86, translated by Smithies)

Even so, efforts gathered pace as we also learn from Martin that under Louis XIV, the French were by the mid 1680s emboldened to issue various demands to the Siamese king, Phra Narai, including his conversion from Buddhism to Christianity.   The bishops attempted to win over the king through rational argumentation, but the king simply concluded that Christianity - alongside other religions - was basically good and he felt no need to change his own Buddhist affiliation.

Meanwhile, the French military presence continued to grow until it was all too much for some members of the Siamese court: in 1688 there was a revolution and the French were formally ejected under a treaty of 'honourable capitulation'. With a formal trade embargo then introduced and enforced for about 150 years, there was a lull in the nation's engagement with the West - we have to wait until King Rama IV before formal ties with these nations are resumed.  However, I expect that smaller scale developments continued and it may be interesting to find out more about them.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Heart like a Crystal: Francisco de Osuna and the Tenth Recollection

As part of my M.St. I carried out some research for an essay on a famous Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Catholic Church in: Visions Within: Spiritual Development and the Evolution of Imagery in Teresa of Ávila's The Interior Castle. Among the images that most caught my eye were descriptions of the interior of the heart, likened to a crystal, which is introduced at the start of her book:

I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions. (I,i,1)

... and in the centre and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul. (I,i,3)

In my brief analysis I mentioned the profound influence of Tercer Abecedario (Third Spiritual Alphabet), written by a near-contemporary, Fray Francisco de Osuna, who was born a couple of decades before St. Teresa. However, although I had learnt that he had used imagery, owing to time constraints I hadn't pursued this beyond a reference to fortification.

Yet the name of this Franciscan friar lodged in the back of my mind. A year later I was helping out on a Buddhist meditation retreat at the Ladywell Retreat and Spirituality Centre belonging to the Catholic order of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood. Whilst there I wandered into the library and I came across The Third Spiritual Alphabet, a translation into English by a Benedictine of Stanbrook (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1931). I read a few paragraphs about the basic matter of personal conduct and was impressed by the sound practical advice, which seemed similar to advice for bhikkhus.

So I decided to look for a copy of this edition. It's not so easy to find, but fortunately I managed to trace one in a local shop, St Philips Books, St. Aldates, Oxford, and promptly went in person where it was duly found on a shelf, though somewhat tucked away. There is a more recent translation by the Paulist Press, New York, but I felt inclined to the earlier publication. One feature of the 1931 edition is that there are detailed footnotes that link this work with that of St. Teresa.

Yesterday, I took the Third Spiritual Alphabet with me on a ramble towards Chilswell, found a quiet spot and browsed. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the processes of recollection, especially where he writes in the Sixth Treatise:

There now remains only the tenth manner of re-collecting or gathering together God and the soul - the end for which it has aimed by all its recollection. This truly takes place when the divine Light infuses itself into the soul as into glass or crystal, sending forth as a Sun the rays of its love and grace that penetrate the heart after having first been received in the highest point of the spirit. This is followed by the most perfect recollection which unites and collects together God with the soul and the soul with God.

The footnote notes the relationship to St. Teresa's thoughts:

This passage is strongly suggestive of The Interior Castle: 'It is very important for us, sisters, that we should not consider our soul to be in darkness.' (Castle, vi, viii, 4). Like Osuna, S. Teresa compares God to the sun. This idea is maintained throughout the Castle. Speaking of the darkness of the crystal caused by sin, she writes: 'Notice that it is not the fountain and brilliant sun that lose their splendour and beauty, for they are placed in the very centre of the soul and cannot be deprived of their lustre. The soul is like a crystal in the sunshine over which a thick black cloth has been thrown, so that however brightly the sun may shine, the crystal can never reflect it (Castle, M. i, ch. ii, 3).

This observation has striking parallels with the Buddha's description of the mind's quality as pabhassara citta a Pali term meaning 'luminous' or 'brightly shining'. There is indeed a very brief sutta called the Pabhassara Sutta (A i. 10) which indicates the mind is actually inherently "luminous". A 20th Century meditation master, Phra Acariya Mun Bhuridatta Thera emphasizes this in his teachings, 'A Heart Released':

The mind is something more radiant than anything else can be, but because counterfeits — passing defilements — come and obscure it, it loses its radiance, like the sun when obscured by clouds. Don't go thinking that the sun goes after the clouds. Instead, the clouds come drifting along and obscure the sun.

Many Buddhist meditation methods make use of associations of clarity and luminosity to lead the mind towards purity. In the Dhammakaya tradition, we often use a crystal sphere. It's relatively easy to visualize and provides a focus in which to distil feelings, perceptions, mental recollections and consciousness. Placing this at the centre of the body is especially significant as it provides a gateway to the Middle Way. It's only the beginning of a long process leading to successively to great clarity and more refined forms of radiance, at each stage enabling the mind to identify and overcome subtler forms of defilement. The benefits of a crystal ball are further explained for practitioners.

There is growing contemporary interest in Christian mystics; it has notably opened up opportunities for fruitful dialogue among monastics of different religious traditions. Now the spheres of such meditative practices have been ostensibly widened into society more generally, particularly in academic circles. I am wondering whether the reflections of Fray Francisco de Osuna may be found to have relevance and to be a source of inspiration at The Cave of the Heart: Contemplation, Mindfulness and Social Renewal, a conference at St. Mary's University College in Twickenham.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Children's Dhamma: Kruba Srivichai

the cover for Children's Dhamma, Vol. 4 No.1, published by the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara

I went to school in Birmingham between 1980 and 1987. Around that time, the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara published Children's Dhamma for younger members. Reflecting the multiple traditions, there were contributions from Zen and Tibetan practitioners as well as from Theravadins.

I would like to highlight an article from March 1984 written by my mother about Kruba Srivichai, a Thai monk, whose exemplary life she probably got to learn about whilst growing up in Thonburi. He may not be so well known now, so I reproduce what she wrote about him here. But this is just the first article - there was more to follow. I must have another delve into the family papers to see if I can find the sequel...

Kruba Srivichai

by Fuengsin Trafford

Kruba Srivichai was one of the most famous monks of Northern Thailand. He was an inspiration to many and was revered by thousands of monks, nuns and laymen, from cities, towns, villages and the hill-tribes. Under his guidance they came together and volunteered to rebuild, repair and restore many beautiful pagodas and temples and the roads leading to them.

They worked very hard and brought their own food. Some people gave money, food and transport. As a result of their good work magnificent ancient buildings and pagodas which had been destroyed in the war were restored to their former glory.

Kruba Srivichai's work can be found throughout the north in an area which at one time was known as "the Kingdom of Laannaa Thai".

This remarkable monk led a very holy life, and worked very hard for the Buddha-Dhamma, and he was a good example to many. In the eyes of his followers he had a kind of supernatural quality but this he always denied, saying he was just an ordinary monk. After his death his fame spread further and he was called the "Saint of Laannaa Thai".

Kruba Srivichai was born on the 11th. June 1878, (the Year of the Tiger), in a small village outside the Province of Lumpoon, called Baan Paang. He was the fourth child and had four brothers and sisters. His parents were poor and lived on a small farm which was surrounded by very high hills and thick forests. It was said that on the night just before he was born the bright moon was suddenly darkened by a cloud and there was thunder and lightening. There was also an earthquake which shook the family's cottage. In those days this was thought to be a very good omen for a saintly person's birth. The baby was given the name "Faa Hong" which means thunder.

At the age of seven Faa Hong was very good and quiet and did not enjoy playing with children of his own age. He was very kind, never harmed animals and looked after the family's buffaloes very well. Once he freed the fish which hie father had caught and kept in a jar of water. He showed deep compassion for every creature. He refused to eat meat and was content to have rice and a variety of chilli sauces for his meals. The young boy's favourite chore was to take the buffaloes to graze in a quiet and lonely field, he would then sit under a tree and contemplate. He loved to visit Wat Baan Paang, a local temple which was situated on the edge of a hill; the Abbot was called Kru Baa Kaat. According to his name he was a respected monk who had been studying and practising the Dhamma.

Faa Hong was set on going to school at Wat Baan Paang, the local education centre in those days. He was also inspired by the monk's behaviour and way of life. Having watched his brother's ordination he was even more impressed, and later asked his parents permission to be ordained. When he was asked why he wanted to become a monk, he said it was not because he wanted to run away from the hard life of a farmer, but that he wanted to study the Dhamma and gain merit for a better rebirth for his parents. His parents were very happy to hear this and granted his wish. So Faa Hong was ordained a Samanera (novice) when he was just eighteen years old.

The new Samanera worked very hard and studied the local alphabets which were written on palm leaves. He also studied Pali and Sanskrit so that he could read the scriptures.

Over a year later Samanera Faa Hong had mastered all the local languages and went on to study the Dhamma and Vipassana Meditation. Almost every day he went up to the top of the hill to sit in solitude surrounded by all kinds of plants and trees.

Two years passed and Samanera Faa Hong was twenty one years old. He was ordained a Bhikkhu and given the Pali name "Siri Vichyo". People prefered to call him "Phra (monk) Sri Vichai".

His teacher noticed the young monk's dedication and unblamable conduct and sent him to a superior teacher called "Kru Baa Upala" at Doi Tae to study meditation. It was the first time he had left home having a difficult journey on foot and by cart. It took several days to reach the temple although it was in the same province.

His new teacher was soon impressed with the young monk's excellent memory and undivided attention. One year later Phra Sri Vichai finished his studies and went back to Wat Baan Paang. By then his reputation for being a most worthy monk had spread. He ate only one meal a day and was a vegetarian.

Three years later the Abbot passed away and Phra Sri Vichai was appointed Abbot.

Baan Paang village was surrounded by many Hill Tribes, and they lived in the high hills and forests nearby. These people were very poor and badly needed medical care. Phra Sri Vichai had great compassion for them and wanted to teach them the Dhamma, and make them see how foolish it was to worship spirits, and took inspiration from the Buddha who used to travel to many places to teach all kinds of people. So Phra Sri Vichai went into the forests and hills to teach, spending a few days in each village. He also healed many people with herbal medicines. These people soon realised that his medicine was more help than the spirits. He spent a month amongst the tribes and soon mastered all their languages. More and more of the Hill Tribe people e.g. Maeu, Yau, Karen, Leesaw, etc. became Buddhists and the great monk's fame spread. Many people sent their sons to be ordained by him, and to stay at Wat Baan Paang and study the Dhamma. ---

--- to be continued.

A couple of others articles, with photos:

For further interesting articles for youngsters, please read Children's Dhamma Volume 4, No. 1. (scanned copy in PDF format).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On the Yanaka Heritage Trail

I had a couple of free days whilst in Tokyo and was able to wander at leisure on the Sunday (3rd July). On browsing through the Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo, I found a section on walking tours that highlighted some earlier traditions and environs around Nippori, Yanaka and Ueno. So after breakfast I took the train on the JR Yamanote line towards Ueno. For convenience my academic hosts had suggested I use a SUICA charge card so that I didn't have to try and figure out fare stages indicated on the maps above the ticket vending machines. I found it convenient as it was accepted on all the train and metro services I used, but it doesn't provide discounts and so is not economical for large numbers of trips (see e.g. this helpful guide).

Still somewhat struggline with jetlag, I started dozing off on the train. Next thing I knew the train had stopped at Nishi Nippori so I jumped out of the carriage and exited the station, under the bridge and onto the western side. Once again I wasn't exactly sure of the route to take, so ambled along up an adjoining street:

Nishinippori rail station (looking North)

According to a Japanese friend, the yellow sign means something like "Safety Street" - but we don't know if that's descriptive or prescriptive! Anyway, on I went and soon came to the corner of a park, which provides a pleasant natural environment with its shade very welcome at this time of the year.

Nishi Nippori park

This area is known for stray cats and we're not supposed to encourage them:

Do not feed the cats!

Perched on a small hill, Nippori and its surrounds have been attractive to settlers for many centuries. It's now a heritage trail, one of 23 designated historical walks in Tokyo.

Pathway to History and Culture

Even today there are some good vantage points offering extensive views, which show carefully cultivated cultural areas merged into rambling urban landscapes:

Cemetery, Nishi Nippori, and the urban backdrop

The initial impression may be a bit disappointing - it may seem to lack overall planning (and made me wonder what kind of permission would be needed for development). However, on reading a little more about Tokyo's urban planning, I came across a plausible explanation which describes how the reconstruction of Tokyo after the Second World War was by necessity implemented at a neighbourhood level using the existing urban 'typology', covering the streets in rich areas and poor. Hence especially the populated inner city areas can appear as a whole rather higgledy-piggledy. I think this is conveyed well in a memo about urban development (Matias Echanove).

Along this trail one can find quite a number of temples and shrines dating to the Edo period and were (as far as I could make out) either Shinto or Buddhist. Many had connections with other more rural parts of the country, sometimes with connections to mountains. The following poster, for a Shinto shrine, is an example:

Poster for Shinto shrine

I know little about Shinto, and whilst sorting through my photos I've had to look things up. After a while I came to recognize a number of distinct features in common. For instance, in the poster you can see some jagged white strips of paper suspended from rope. You encounter these when passing through a Torii gate and shimenawa ring:

Steps to the traditional Torii gate and Shinto shrine

Shimenawa ring

The zigzag strips of white paper are called shime 注連 or gohei, and symbolize purity. They look like lightning, which itself is regarded as holy (and, I expect, may be associated with insight). I saw some visual instructions as to the Shinto ritual for entering the gate: one passes through the ring three times - first moving round to the left, then the right, and then the left ring once more; at each stage, one bows before moving. Finally, one proceeds straight ahead to make an offering and a wish (for prosperity, health etc.). When making an offering one claps loudly to call the attention of the divine beings. There are many online sources of info on Shinto, such as a a shrine guide and Shinto symbols

Along the way, I bumped into two volunteers working on local history projects. They were carrying with them recording equipment and making a podcast for neoKITAKUMIN. Perhaps they interviewed someone at the 'Swiss chalet':

Swiss chalet, Suwadai Dori

I then took a right turn down into Yanaka Ginza, a traditional shopping area with quite narrow streets.

Steps down to Yanaka Ginza

Lots of little shops, many crafts on display, a good place for souvenirs

Basket shop, Yanaka Ginza

The dining places are unusual. I learnt via Google that the following is Iranian:

Zakuro, Yanaka Ginza

It was late morning, so I was actually having an iced coffee in a little cafe opposite. I had lunch later in an Indian restaurant owned by a friendly Nepali, who informed me he had arrived in Tokyo 16 years ago and now had 5 restaurants in the city. It had quite a mixed clientele:

Mother India: Indian restaurant, Yanaka Ginza

Refreshed, I rejoined the trail and explored some Buddhist temples, including a few dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Kuanyin):

Statue of Kannon Bosatsu

Another Bodhisattva, who seemed to appear frequently was Jizo Bosatsu, who is especially a protector of infants. So parents traditionally make offerings for their own newly born.

Statue of Jizo Bosatsu

Often there are 6 Jizo Bosatsus in a row, one for each of the realms of existence (often adorned with red children's garments, such as bibs).

Row of Six Jizo Bosatsu

Some of the wooden temple buildings - here at Kannon-ji temple - remind a little of structures in Thailand:

Kannon-Ji Temple

Not far away, outside another smaller temple, Choanji, I saw a peace pole with its message 'May Peace Prevail on Earth,' which originally came in an inspired moment to Masahisa Goi. They are now found all over the world and are very popular at interfaith gatherings.

It's not a large distance, but there are many interesting aspects, so it's best covered at a slow pace. I spent several hours in the area before accelerating towards Ueno and the Tokyo National Museum, to delve further into the cultural history of Japan.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A class in Game Theory for Management students

My host, Prof. Yukari Shirota, had arranged that whilst at Gakushuin University I would give an undergraduate class in some topic of mathematics to students in the Department of Management. For such a one-off, I had a fairly free hand as to subject matter; what seemed to be considered most valuable for the students was the (rare) opportunity to hear a native speaker of English (though actually I'm ethnically less than half English).

I chose Game Theory, the subject made famous by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in their landmark work, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. I first came across Game Theory whilst at secondary school. In fact I became quite engrossed, venturing into Birmingham Central library to conduct research for an extended essay on a typewriter [yes, it was a long time ago]! I was fascinated by its confluence of mathematics, economics and psychology; the last of these particularly intrigues me. On this occasion my main reference was Games, Theory and Applications (1st edition) by Lyn Thomas, which I used during my own undergraduate studies at Southampton University. For anyone wanting to further their study, I would strongly recommend a textbook like this.

Game Theory as a production of Economics, Mathematics and Psychology

Would you like to explore this topic in this slightly extended post?

Good! So on a Wednesday morning I gave a class in the Multimedia Mathematics series to about 25 4th year undergraduates, kindly assisted by Prof. Shirota who gave explanations (sometimes in English, sometimes in Japanese) and encouragement. Normally there would be hands-on for students, but things were kept simple so that I only had to give a presentation with software demonstrations. I read somewhere some statistic indicating that the Japanese have more slides per presentation than any other nation, so I armed myself with 70+ slides. That's excessive, probably more suitable for 2-3 classes, but I had only one at my disposal and I wanted to share sufficient material to give a reasonable feel of the mathematical methods involved, including inductive reasoning and aspects of probability. I also included quite a few pictures and came up with simple examples to show how many situations in life can be treated as a game - such as growing tomatoes or commuting.

At the same time it was important for me not to rush delivery - speaking more slowly than usual, there was no way I would cover all this material in one go, so I just used a selection of slides, starting with the main concepts and proceeding via a few hops to a couple of famous non-zero-sum case studies, the Prisoner's [really prisoners'] Dilemma and The Battle of the Sexes.

I also had another prop with me - some reasonably authentic-looking notes in Pounds Sterling (Casdon PlayCash that I bought from the local Boswells store). I used it as an ice-breaker:

(Thanks to the American Mathematics Society for this idea, which I first saw on 'Who wants to be a mathematician?' roadshow).

Yes, a £1,000 giveaway! Except it was a bit credit-crunched: as only £937 cash was in the bank, I tried to explain that the British banks are struggling at the moment and a cheque could make up the remainder, £63.

The students were divided into 6 teams, A-F, one team per island, each with a representative. Each team was a 'player'. Teams had to choose a number N>=1; a team that picked the highest number would receive a share of £1000/N. This game had two rounds as follows:

  • Round 1 [slide 3 above]: no communication
    We should have collected pieces of paper; as it was, numbers went something like: 20,50,80,100,50,52.
    Team D won £10.
  • Round 2 [see slide 4]: communication allowed
    Teams chatted about this and quite quickly came to a decision, yielding the optimal result: 1,1,1,1,1,1, so each team gained £1000/6!

I was struck by the smoothness in reaching this outcome (and lack of betrayal among the teams) and think this may reflect a general culture in Japan of collective action and perhaps conformity, something that has helped the country to become such a productive and powerful economy. Quite different from an individualistic view, where it would be seen as problematic. It was later related to me that when someone says, "Ne...?" ("Isn't that so?"), there is often a feeling of obligation to say, "Ne!" ("Yes, that's so."). This would tend to support a culture of opinion leaders and followers. Ne?

In terms of software demonstration, I used mainly two tools, both released under open source licenses. The first was Gambit, which is a dedicated Game Theory suite that provides for the analysis of non-zero-sum games in both normal and extensive form. It has options to carry out computation, particularly of Nash Equilibrium, though one of its current limitations is that it restricts itself to games where players have to choose their moves independently. The other tool was Maxima, a Computer Algebra System, which I used for the graphical visualisation of payoff regions. Maxima by itself has only a command line interface, but it can invoke gnuplot to render graphical output and there is a choice of graphical interfaces: in my case I ran wxMaxima. All these are bundled together in the distribution.

I find the topics of communication and cooperation to be of philosophical interest. A standard definition of a cooperative game is couched in terms of business contracts (in the UK we can think of the Co-op supermarket) and so in such games players are said to enter binding agreements. It is used accordingly as a basic binary categorization and its importance is evident in e.g. providing assurance for the mathematical calculations. However, it means communication becomes secondary and I'd argue that [human] communication is more fundamental - it's what made the huge difference in the giveaway of slides 3 and 4 and to my lay-person's thinking, co-operation was established through a collectively agreed strategy before it became binding. No ties are needed to work together! Communication doesn't imply cooperation, but it usually precedes it.

So, I should issue the caveat that my slides exhibit a natural personal bias to this voluntary sense of cooperation, illustrated, for example in the Battle of the Sexes, in which a young married couple have free time at the weekend for an outing. The only issue is that the husband prefers a sporting venue, whilst his wife prefers a concert (so the story goes), but the bottom line is that they'd both prefer to be together than go there separate ways - see slides 65-71.

In Gambit (using this source file), we can compute the Nash equilibrium points. If we assume x is the probability with which the husband choose the first venue and y is similarly the probability that the wife chooses the first venue, then the expected returns e1 and e2 are given respectively by:

  • e1(x,y)=5xy -4x -4y +4 - (eq1)
  • e2(x,y)=5xy -4x -4y +4 -(eq2)
  • where 0 <=x <=1, 0<= y <=1.

For minimax we set both of these equations to equal the value of the game. Gambit can do the calculation for us. The following screenshot shows the matrix used and underneath three equilibrium points.

Battle of the Sexes: equilibrium points computed in Gambit

The first of the equilibrium points are the respective the minimax strategies. But a value of 4/5 seems rather poor and would suggest - if the payoff matrix is a true reflection - that both 'battlers' will reason that settling on any venue would be better. Indeed, underneath are two other equilibrium points that return expected returns of 1 and 4 and vice versa.

However, the computation of individual points doesn't give a full picture. Just a few lines of Maxima instructions enables us to compute the region covered by all mixed strategies. It generates a 3D parametric plot, and we can initially set the z-axis to be constant, so with a bit of dexterity, you can rotate it to show the following:

Maxima rendering of Battle of the Sexes

The x and y-axes denote the respective expectations for husband and wife. I'm fascinated by the shape: the attentuation to the corners (1,4) and (4,1) - this particular graph reminds me of someone sitting in a hammock! Note that the point (4/5,4/5), which is the expected value of the game under minimax, lies a long way from those corners and it's also nested deeply in the region. It's certainly not on the boundary since in equations 1 and 2 above, if we set x=y=0.5, we get e1(x,y)=e2(x,y)=1.25.

It's a graph that assumes no cooperation, which is not a very optimistic view of a newly wed couple. We'd expect them to work something out in the form of a cooperative strategy, pure or mixed, so that whenever they have an outing they will go to one of these attractions together. If that's the case, then we can simplify the equations so that the (0,0) outcomes are factored out. The resulting graph is a line, the convex closure of the original region:

Maxima rendering of Battle of the Sexes, with convex closure

(Incidentally, I wonder if there is some metric indicating how far one is from cooperation in choosing minimax, perhaps defined in terms of the angle created by the expected returns with pairs of 'pure cooperative' vertices - the smaller the angle, the greater the missed opportunity for cooperation...?)

In the case of the Prisoner's Dilemma there is no minimax strategy. Geometrically, if you plot that graph you get a triangle, i.e. the set of points in Euclidean space is already convex.

Student Response and Feedback

In the event the class listened attentively and concentrated well. The opening game helped to stimulate interest, which they seemed to sustain for the duration. I was informed that they could understand most of what I said, which was a relief since preparing this class felt a bit like navigating in the dark. Certainly a few of the students gave responses that indicated they understood particular concepts. Although I didn't receive questions at the end (same kind of traditional response as Thai and other oriental students), facial expressions were not blank or bemused. This may have been helped in no small measure by Prof. Shirota, who produced (in one evening/night!) a translation into Japanese of some (possibly all?) of the slides. This would also encourage students in further reading and assist them in an assignment - a write-up about the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Whilst at Gakushuin, I also met Prof. Jun WAKO, who is a specialist in Game Theory. I hope he would approve of my presentation, but at least he may now have a few more enquiries from interested students...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Responses to the Japan Earthquake

Ever since the earthquake struck off the East coast of Japan in March, thoughts have been with the people of Japan. Whilst the loss of thousands from the tsunami was already a great tragedy, the factor of uncertainty surrounding the problems precipitated at Fukushima nuclear power plant seem to have cast an even darker cloud.

From my remote vantage point in the UK I naturally wondered about the situation ahead of my visit in July. I didn't really consider the risk until a native resident in Tokyo warned me not to travel, citing various sources that indicated dangerously high levels of radiation. For me to cancel a one week visit whilst 30 million residents had to stay seemed somewhat selfish, but I felt obliged to undertake the research. So I set off trying to understand a bit of theory, with the aid of sites like the ABC's of Nuclear Science, dipping into radiation readings (sometimes accompanied by a chart on levels exposure), and periodic visits to some official sites such as The World Health Organisation's FAQ on Japan's nuclear concerns, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice on travel to Japan, and similarly the US Department of State.

I dipped into the arguments and counter-arguments from nuclear analysts. Among those conveying considerable concern I found Greenpeace and Arnie Gundersen at Fairewinds. I can't really assess his analysis, but he seems generally level-headed, particularly in the way he discussed the delapidated state of each reactor building. At least from this I could be informed about the main concerns: radiation leakage into water supplies (and hence the food chain) and the ingestion and inhalation of tiny radioactive 'hot particles' or 'fuel fleas' ejected into the atmosphere. For these to be valid concerns there would need to be reliable readings and research establishing the linkage in terms of carcinogenic effects. I couldn't find anything conclusive - both are subject to much debate - at least judging by one Google-chosen thread at the Department of Nuclear Engineering, UC Berkeley.

Having read, watched, and pondered, I cannot say I really know. In the event I assessed the severity of the situation as somewhat higher than TEPCO has described, but the risks for my particular visit as relatively low and I actually had some moral feeling that I should go. When I was in Japan I could see how deep the disaster has impacted on society: a particularly poignant aspect has been the departure en masse of people from overseas shortly after the disaster, which was regarded with sadness and disappointment. In practical terms, there's been huge changes in working practices: in order to reduce especially peak energy consumption employees are arriving at work earlier or working at the weekends, air conditioning units are being used sparingly, lifts are reduced in number, many services having to economise. In parallel to this, there is a huge amount of contingency planning - offices and meeting rooms are being cleared out and refurbished so as to install new safer furniture. Japanese people are already used to reconstructing and redefining, but the challenge of this disaster have been particularly severe.

Against this challenge, I would like to highlight the response from Prof. Shirota, the host for my research visit. In her home page for this year, she has written a message for her students, urging them to study hard in the safe environment of Gakushuin. On that page you can see as an immediate response, Prof Shirota is promoting a campaign to send salt supplies to horses abandoned in Minamisōma, Fukushima. In the long term, she is dedicating her life to education and research, motivated by the observation (to paraphrase), "Japan lacks natural resources; to recover from this catastrophe we can only enhance our human resources." I find this really admirable.

Facing life-critical moments become a matter of personal world-view or beliefs. For myself, I try to reflect on the law of Dependent Origination, which gives us karma and rebirth and Buddhist notions of protection. These are fundamentally internal methods of mind-heart development, which can maintain stillness and peace in the face of impermanence. But it may be harder than contingency planning as it needs constant practice.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Research Visit to Gakushuin University

Located towards the northwest of central Tokyo, Gakushuin is a private academic corporation that comprises schools and colleges as well as a university that currently has 9000 students. It is famous in Japan because of its historical connections with the Imperial Court. When I arrived a couple of weeks ago, I found the Mejiro campus spacious and verdent, surprisingly so given its centrality; I was informed that among the universities inside the JR Yamanote loop, it's the second largest after the University of Tokyo.

The present campus, like much of Tokyo, has seen many changes, but among the modern blocks there still remain a few of the older buildings, a little over 100 years old:
University buildings old and new

The modern multi-storey block on the right (East building no. 1?) obviously offers more capacity, but in the distance are some well-maintained old classrooms, cherished by staff and students even today. To the left is the former library building, now housing the Museum of History, graced by a venerable old tree in front of a small pool and foundation:
Venerable tree at the Gakushuin University Museum of History.

However, I wasn't here to be a tourist (although during my week's stay I did have a chance to wander), but rather to explore aspects of e-learning. The opportunity had arisen following earlier exchanges of ideas in the UK: in 2005, Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS) received a visit from Professor Yukari Shirota of the Department of Management, Faculty Economics, Gakushuin University. I arranged for her to give a presentation on some interactive software she had developed that guided students through the study of some topics in mathematics. The system's architecture was based on solution plans to word problems and delivered using an intelligent agent (animated by the Microsoft wizard).

Prof. Shirota is a computer scientist of long-standing - for instance, she co-authored an introduction to UNIX in 1984. During the past decade, Prof. Shirota has been developing e-learning systems to aid in the teaching of mathematics to her Management students. Inspired by George Pólya, her research has been focused on problem solving, invoking techniques in A.I. and especially visualisation, to help make sense of how the formulae and equations are used in word problems in Economics. I was particularly struck by her idea that A.I. might be able replicate the rhythm of instruction from teacher to pupil, quite similar perhaps to the rhythm of communication between a mother and baby. I hadn't come across anything like this thinking in the UK.

More recently, Prof. Shirota's research has concerned the provision of integrated tools that enable academic staff to create a range of online materials to direct students step by step in tackling certain types of questions, particularly in the field of bond mathematics. These systems are typically Web applications with scripts that invoke computer algebra systems such as Maple and Maxima to deliver step by step instructions. Some recent examples of this work are evident in overview of activities for 2011.

With regard to the financial mathematics, Prof. Shirota and her colleagues have used a conceptual approach based on entity-relationship diagrams to relate variables to formulae and equations. So the tasks of understanding may be characterised by being able to visualise and understand this map and its relations. How may that process be best aided online? In its entirety, the complete diagram is too extensive and detailed to show all at once, so any online implementation will need navigation - to focus on particular formulae and relations, but also to 'zoom out' and see the model as a whole. So does this suggest navigating it like, say, Google Earth or some other way based more closely on the relationships?

It's in addressing these considerations that I have been offering some input with my background in mathematics, somewhat distant now, and more recently e-learning and Web development, gained mainly whilst in the Learning Technologies Group at OUCS. Determining effective solutions is a multi-faceted task: its design, especially in terms of user interface, should be soundly rooted in principles of cognition. As I am not trained in educational psychology, I have to deal more with the nuts and bolts of the learning context itself, primarily in terms of the current and emerging technologies. In this regard, I'd say that whilst the emphases in pedagogy vary from country to country, the predominance of personally own computing devices has presented new variables to factor into the education at all levels. It's particularly this phenomenon, which I tend to call mobile and ubiquitous computing, that I was encouraged to explore ahead of my visit in the form of a survey paper on e-learning systems for mathematics, with particular reference to business and economics.

To give some structure in this rather broad landscape, I initially made reference to some recent features of e-learning in the UK. There's a strong focus on learner-centred education; within that I'm particularly interested in processes of deep reflection, stemming from the RAMBLE project I led in mobile blogging and learning environments. I'm not sure about the merits of focusing so much on individual predispositions, but I felt that the work on open educational resources and podcasting as a delivery mechanism was a useful vehicle to illustrate how learning has emerged from being concentrated in a classroom or workshop and flowed out into less formal environments. It was with this image in mind that I developed a thread to show how computer assisted learning for mathematics has similarly emerged from the laboratory into the open and is now squarely aiming at handheld tablet and multi-touch devices.

The paper, whose full title is 'Ubiquitous e-Learning: Designing Web Systems for Economics and Business Mathematics', has been published in Gakushuin Economic papers and is now available online - in HTML and PDF formats.

Arrival in Japan

Lantern at Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), Sensoji

This month I had the opportunity to spend a week in Tokyo (1-7 July), my first time in Japan. I came on a research visit kindly arranged by Professor Yukari Shirota at Gakushuin University. I'll describe the research aspect in a later post, but here I'll just share some initial impressions on my arrival.

Japan has a very distinct cultural identity; it's one of the few countries that retains - at least in many people's perception - a uniqueness that has persisted in spite of its immersion in modern industrialisation and particularly global markets and consumer products. It's famed for its etiquette and politeness and it was as though the whole trip was couched in such ethos from the moment I dropped off my bags at Heathrow, where I had a friendly conversation with the staff of Virgin Atlantic.

We know Japan as 'the land of the rising sun', which is a translation of Nippon. It is fitting in many ways; the heat and humidity in the summer months is quite palpable, certainly sub-tropical, feeling not much different from Thailand. (I feel sympapthy for 'cool biz' workers who have to trade in their jackets and ties for reduced air conditioning, with the government advising units to be set to a minimum temperature of 28 degrees. Even in a land used to construction and reconstruction, there's been a lot of discomforting changes, faced with admirable forbearance.) But it's particularly as the emergence of the hi-tech society, that the sun it such a resonant symbol. It wasn't long before I was struck by its manifestation in rail transport.

On arrival at Narita Airport, there are many options to proceed to the centre of Tokyo. With the aid of a Lonely Planet guide, I had perused various routes to my destination of Mejiro and settled on catching the fastest train service available, the Keisei Skyliner, which can whisk you into heart of the capital in under 40 minutes, followed by a trip on the circular JR Yamanote line. So after collecting my baggage (probably the shortest wait I've had), I bought a ticket for the Skyliner, complete with a seat reservation, another one for the local service, and made my way down to the platform. The train duly arrived:

Keisei Skyliner

As this is the terminus, the train is cleaned before boarding, but there is also a wait for something else: the repositioning of the seats. Just like synchronised swimmers, every passenger seat is rotated in unison, through 180 degrees to face the direction of travel. Once on the train, pre-recorded announcements are given in Japanese (in a singsong voice) and more regular US English. The driver(?) makes only occasional announcements to inform passengers of the location of toilets and where to find refreshments - not the buffet car, but vending machines!

My train was surprisingly not on time. There had been an incident on the line causing congestion, but I was in no hurry, and there was no visible response from the other passengers. I disembarked at Nippori station, (mis)fed my Skyliner ticket into a turnstile, plucked out the other ticket and after enunciating "Me-ji-ro" to a couple of station staff I found the right platform. Shortly before midday I emerged from Mejiro station, into broad daylight and my first steps on Tokyo soil outside the transport system!

Entrance to Mejiro JR station

Initially a little disorientated, I established my bearings once I spotted the Northwest entrance to Gakushuin University.

North-West entrance to Gakushuin University

This made me feel I really had reached my destination. With the aid of a map and directions from the porter at the gate, I subsequently made my way to the Faculty of Economics, met Prof. Shirota, and was later shown to the guest accommodation.

Time for a bit of rest, before the preliminary discussions later that afternoon...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

County Express interview with Fuengsin Trafford (1981)

Fuengsin Trafford at home, 1981.  Credit: Phil Loach

The Internet and, especially, the Web are enabling old lines of investigation to be reopened with possibilities of new finds - for all kinds of detectives, including biographers! In March 1981, Fuengsin (my mother) was interviewed for the County Express, which was published, as far as I can recall, in Stourbridge and Kidderminster. Jill Skelding was the reporter and she came round to our house with a photographer, Phil Loach; I can't remember them myself, so I expect it took place during the day whilst I was at school. The article was part of a series called Woman to Woman and this particular interview was entitled: Buddhism as a way of life. It was published on Friday 13th March 1981.

I thought that it would be a good time to reproduce the article online (I don't think the paper is in circulation under that name any more; it may have become Stourbridge News). We kept a few cuttings, but even if we had preserved them in mint condition, the newspaper medium meant that photographic reproduction was limited in quality. Fortunately, Google came to the rescue (again) and 30 years after the interview I was able to locate Phil, who is still in the photography business with The Silver Image. What's more he was able to send me a pretty good scan (a larger version of the one online). So the complete article is available to view.

Here I'd just like to highlight a few things my mother said.

It's really quite a typical piece - finding the mundane and profound in the everyday and the present moment. You get a taste of something unusual in the first two paragraphs, though it's definitely more mundane in flavour!

With an impressive Oriental family history spanning several centuries and an unusual childhood spent in Thailand, there's nothing Fuengsin likes better than to disappear to the depths of her kitchen and cook ... spotted dick steamed pudding!

Mrs. Fuengsin Trafford, who lives in West Hagley, came to England 17 years ago, in her mid-twenties, from her home town near Bangkok. She studied at London University - and soon found she had a weakness for English food.

The kitchen wasn't always frequented with such endeavour. One of my mother's childhood friends said that the two of them used to play cooking. I asked whether that was because in reality they didn't do any cooking and she nodded and grinned! In fact my father taught her some of the basics English cookery - there was little indication that she could later produce a cookery book! And as for her regard of the culinary offerings of this new land, the initial response was typically to bring out a tin of red chilli powder ... at breakfast!

There's a brief summary of how she came to the UK as a student, met my father, married, and settled in the UK. When she left Thailand in the early to mid 60s, Thonburi, where she grew up, was still separate from Bangkok on the other side of the Chao Phraya river and certainly was not so developed. We spent our first family holiday there in 1972, and there was a lot of change already by that time, but looking at photos from that period still shows many areas of fruit cultivation. Fuengsin did not return next to Thailand until after the interview, so she probably had nostalgic recollections in mind when she recalled:

"By that time my father had died, but my mother and Anthony got on remarkably well - the pace of life is so different out there, it's hard for anyone from the Western world to understand it immediately."

"The pace of life in Thailand is much slower than here in England - there just isn't much stress, or traffic come to think of it!"

Our next family trip was in 1988 and I think we all found the new Bangkok somewhat overwhelming.

The article then moves on to discuss my mother's Buddhist outlook, which is clearly the theme of the photograph, which shows her in a quite serious pose seated underneath three Buddha rupas. Fuengsin's characteristic directness is clearly recorded:

"Buddhism is something that has to be achieved by the individual - but once you have reached that point you will have enlightenment.

"It isn't a Sundays-only type of religion, and I know it's hard for people who know nothing of Buddhism to even to begin to understand what it's all about, but basically, no one can tell you how to practise Buddhism, it's something the individual must learn for him or herself.

"It has to come from inside a person, and it is a very personal thing - no one can help you with it, and you can only practise Buddhism though life itself.

"It is closely linked with meditation and when you meditate you look at a figure of a Buddha and bow - that way you are aiming to suppress your ego, and get rid of any pride. Once you are rid of that you are at one with the universe."

She had a very practical approach to Dhamma and these teachings are really core to the article, including the value of service. It's mentioned that Fuengsin taught English to Asian immigrants - I recall she said these were elderly Pakistani ladies and that she was a member of a volunteer group (she didn't even get her bus fare paid). I'm sure my mother would have had a quip about 'Big Society'!

The article concludes by switching back to food and more steamed puddings. I think my father and I must accept some responsibility for this - we created quite a demand for puddings and cakes!

You are welcome to read the interview ...

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Bye bye Thinkpad (R51) Hello Thinkpad (Edge 13)

[updated 10 April '11]

After almost 6 years, the LCD display on my IBM Thinkpad R51 has become faulty with thin coloured vertical lines, the hard disk is getting full and generally it's not as sprightly as it once was.

So I decided to replace it and as I've been generally impressed with the Thinkpad range, I've bought another one, though this time I'm much more on a budget. After reading a number of online reviews, I settled on a Thinkpad Edge 13, which balances reasonable screen size with portability, the latter particularly enhanced by processors that consume less power; I went with the AMD Turion II Neo K685 CPU as I felt I couldn't afford one with the Intel Core i3. I ordered directly through the online Lenovo store on St. Patrick's Day (for a 10% discount) and it was duly delivered by UPS within the advertised 1-2 weeks time slot. Some retailers were offering a cash-back deal that would make it cheaper, but it meant purchasing an external DVD writer, which would be surplus to my requirements. No, I didn't choose heatwave red or glossy options - the traditional boxy design would have been fine for me!

I opted for Windows 7 Professional, which allows me to run under XP mode software that I was using previously that's not supported by Windows 7. As this would run under in a virtual PC, I figured I probably would need 4GB to be comfortable, but I initially ordered just the minimal 2GB from Lenovo as extra memory seemed to be charged at something of a premium. I then turned to Crucial Memory (UK), but hit a slight snag. The first batches of Thinkpad Edge PCs had been shipped with an earlier versions of the AMD chipset and processor and so when I used their Memory Advisor Tool for the Edge 13, it only offered DDR2 RAM (and 4GB max). Checking the spec from the Lenovo site and elsewhere, I could establish that this machine comes with the AMD M780G chipset which supports DDR3 RAM, viz: 204-pin PC3-10600 DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz SODIMM. So on that basis I could find a suitable match and bought a 4GB module, part number CT51264BC1339. It was easy to install and has been accepted by the OS, which now reports 6GB of installed memory of which 5.75GB is usable (0.25GB gets swallowed up by the graphics card!)

First Impressions

I'm generally pleased with this new Thinkpad so far. It's still solid, has a streamlined yet familiar keyboard layout, a somewhat smaller form factor, lighter weight and much better battery life. So it makes it more practical to take with me, though it's some way from the Eee PCs I'm used to. :-) Anyway, last week I duly popped it in my work bag and kept it on during a two and a half hour meeting, for which I took the minutes, with reduced brightness, hardly any wifi. Afterwards 65% charge remained, which I thought was quite impressive. I do miss, however, having some indicator lights, particularly for hard disk and wireless connections. Sometimes, to check that something is happening I find myself listening for hard disk activity.

The OS looks okay and operates smoothly and I think the visual appearance and general look and feel of Windows 7 is better than XP. Here's a screenshot: in the background is a standard desktop theme of rotating scenes and in the foreground I'm running a virtual machine (see below).

Windows 7 desktop with VirtualBox running Debian Squeeze featuring WMI2

As someone who does a lot of reading on screen, I find the widescreen display (WXGA or 1366*768) offers significant benefits over the R51's XGA (1024*768), particularly useful for comparing documents side by side. It reminds me of when the HP320LX offered 640*240 instead of the previous norm of 480*240 for handheld PCs - the limited height mattered surprisingly little.

In terms of software, one of the first sighs of relief was being able to use MozBackup to migrate my Thunderbird email accounts and preferences.

Curious about the performance, the Windows Experience Index, rating from 1.0 (lowest) to 7.9 (highest) indicates middling performance:

  • Processor Calculations per second: 4.8
  • Memory (RAM) Memory operations per second: 6.5
  • Graphics Desktop performance for Windows Aero: 3.3
  • Gaming graphics 3D business and gaming graphics performance: 5.1
  • Primary hard disk Disk data transfer rate: 5.9

Curiously, immediately after I upgraded to service pack 1, I was prompted to update the index and the memory operations per second increased to 7.0. However, after a further update it reverted to 6.5!


I have tended to run Windows as my day-to-day OS, but I also use Linux for system administration and Web development. This has usually led me to create a dual boot setup, but this time I am experimenting with running virtual machines. In fact I'm already running two systems and teetered on running a third!

My first VM was installed through necessity - a few years ago I bought a combined package of HP Deskjet 950C printer and HP Scanjet 5370C scanner, but it turns out that only the printer is supported in Windows 7. To solve this, I needed to run MS Virtual PC and install as a guest OS Windows XP (XP Mode). Even then, care is needed to ensure that when the scanner is plugged in as a USB device, it is duly attached under XP and not routed to Windows 7: when running XP Mode, along the top of the VM there is a row of menu items; click on the USB menu and attach the unidentified device corresponding to the scanner.

I installed the second VM by choice - looking to use it for web application development on a Linux platform and am hoping that it will be robust as well as offer reasonable performance. First up is VirtualBox, but waiting in the wings is VMWare Player, so how does it fare so far...? Well, installation of VirtualBox itself is nice and convenient. I like the way that it can grow to use the resources as required and can readily tweak the allocations of RAM and video RAM. So, I've dived in and installed Debian Lenny off DVD followed by an upgrade to Squeeze. I strongly recommend installing the Guest Additions since without them I was finding the mouse pointer control rather unpredictable.

The first real test was to install Web Mathematics Interactive 2 (WMI2), a computer algebra system with a very user-friendly calculator-style interface. On the Web site, PHP scripts take the input and issue Ajax calls that are communicated to Maxima, which handles all the calculations and returns output for display. The screenshot above shows it in action - rather than having to remember some markup language like TeX, you can build up formulae by hitting the buttons. The system checks your input as you go along. I downloaded the package from SourceForge and followed the instructions (just one thing to note: timeout is already included in the coreutils package).

There has been a lot of software and data to transfer, but I am gradually emerging from this liminal state of migration... :-)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Luang Ta Maha Boowa: A few reflections

The forests of North-East Thailand have for many years been the training ground for bhikkhus undertaking dhutanga practices for the sake of following the Buddha’s escape from Samsara. These are continual practices, undertaken at every conscious moment, by day and by night, aiming at eliminating all defilements on the path to nibbana. On January 30th 2011, there was the passing of a well-known exponent, Venerable Acharn Maha Boowa Ñanasampanno, Abbot of Wat Pah Baan Taad , Udon Thani. Popularly revered as Luang Ta Maha Boowa, he was viewed by many as one who had achieved that goal of achieving what has to be done, attaining to arahantship.

photo of Luang Ta Maha Boowa Ñanasampanno

Luang Ta Maha Boowa considered as his principal teacher, Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatta, under whose wise guidance he learnt directly and with full commitment the dhutanga practices. (Luang Phor is a respectful term of address for a revered father; Luang Pu and Luang Ta are similar, for grandparents). After the passing of Luang Pu Mun, Luang Ta continued to promote these teachings and wrote a number of books. These and much other background information have been published and are available from the monastery web site,, with indices in English and German.

I feel it’s important to have respect for those who practise sincerely and earnestly for the Buddha’s sake, as did Luang Ta. I’ve learnt this from my mother, Fuengsin Trafford, who, together with a friend from Bangkok, accompanied Jane Browne, one of his disciples on a visit to Wat Pah Baan Taad in 1972. There are many people who have had much closer contact than myself with Luang Ta and his Wat, but I’d still like offer a few reflections here on a few personal connections and influences.

Although the Wat was already expanding significantly by the turn of the ‘70s, at that time there were only a few tables for offering food to the monks, so there was ample opportunity to personally place offerings in the bowls of every bhikkhu as they processed by:

[Phra Maha Boowa being offered food by Jane Browne (far left), standing next to her are Fuengsin Trafford and, I understand, Dr. Pensri Makaranon. I’m unable to identify the other Sangha members].

On the back of this photo was written a simple description: คุณเจนกำลังตักบาตร ท่านอาจารย์มหาบัว ที่หน้าวัดป่าบ้านตาด จ.อุดร ประเทศไทย พ.ศ.15. Translated it reads: "Khun Jane is offering alms food to Tan Ajahn Maha Boowa. At the front of Wat Pah Baan Taad, Udon Province, Thailand, B.E. ‘15 [1972CE]." On the back of another photo, which showed the entrance to the Wat, my mother wrote about the trip in general: "An opportunity to go back and visit all the family in Thailand and to go and cultivate moral virtue [sīla] in Udon Province, Thailand (2515)." She already knew quite well about the Forest Tradition – in her account of Hampshire Buddhists in the late ‘60s she recounted seeing Phra Maha Boowa’s photograph on Mrs. Browne’s mantelpiece.

Luang Ta paid fulsome tribute to his teacher in various ways. One of which was write the life story of Luang Pu, which was first translated into English in 1982 with the title The Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhūridatta Thera Meditation Master by Mr. Siri Buddhasukh. I found this book fascinating and greatly inspiring. There are many wonderful accounts of specific obstacles that Luang Pu Mun confronted and overcame. I particularly enjoyed the encounter with a chief of terrestrial devas, who had taken a dark demon form. By the power of his Dhamma, Luang Pu converted his heart and the deva gave up terrorising and instead took refuge in the Triple Gem. Yet my abiding recollection is simply the descriptions of how the Acariya "kept pounding the defilements," bringing full mindfulness to everything that came into his awareness and discerning therein with razor sharpness. For him, "a split-second with mindfulness absent is enough to allow defilements to whisk back in again." This determined and uncompromising approach was a great source of encouragement for his disciples, to pursue the practise with great urgency and vigour to eliminate the causes of the human predicament.

The biography carried an open license, so anyone could copy it freely. In late 2001 I felt the desire to make this book available online. Co-incidentally, around that time I had some correspondence with Lee Yu Ban, a Buddhist in Malaysia. He told me about a Singaporean friend, Lee Chun, who was typing in the entire book and asked whether I’d like to help. So I got in touch with Mr. Lee and he explained that he and his wife, Lee Lin, were indeed starting the translation. We came to an agreement to share the workload and we proceeded to carry out scanning, OCR and proof-reading. For my portion I was given a great boost by Kalyanamitta Mananya Pattamasoontorn, who arranged for a copy of the book to be photocopied, which I could collect whilst I was in Thailand early in 2002. By spring the task had been completed and the result was a new PDF version.

Shortly afterwards another translation was provided by Tan Ajahn Dick Silaratano, available from the Wat’s Web site (book section), but I already found Mr. Buddhasukh’s translation very accessible.

Luang Ta also introduced in some of his other writings some of Luang Pu’s disciples, adding their experiences as sources of inspiration. This is especially the case in Paṭipadā or The mode of practice of Venerable Acharn Mun, a weighty tome, translated by Phra Ajahn Paññavaddho, his first Western disciple. I first picked up a copy at the Birmingham Buddhist Maha Vihara and then was surprised to be presented with another copy in Thailand – by Luang Phor Sanong Katapunnyo at Wat Sangathan, Nonthaburi.

These teachings often mention working with the citta, the mind-heart, as fundamental to developing understanding and concentration. Similarly, when reading one gains by reading with the citta. That way practice becomes reinforced as one receives theme and variation – if it is read only with the head, then it will appear that there is a great deal of repetition, boredom will ensue and the time wasted. Texts like this should not be read merely linearly; rather, consider the evolution of practice as a spiral; each time you are progressing you can understand the same facets in an increasingly refined way.


When thinking about the Thai Forest Tradition, many Buddhists in the UK will call to mind Wat Amaravati and Luang Phor Chah, another disciple of Luang Pu Mun. However, the foundations of Wat Amaravati lie in the English Sangha Trust, and Wat Pah Baan Taad and Luang Phor Paññavaddho are part of that earlier history.

I would like to thank especially Jane Browne, a long-time lay supporter of the Thai Forest tradition, who was the one who originally lent me a copy of Luang Pu Mun’s biography. Her sustained dedication as a follower is evident in her essay, What is the goal of Buddhism?, where the interpretation of ancient texts comes alive through her relating them to the instructions of her teachers.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Ban Ki-moon's Cyril Foster Lecture in Oxford

[updated 4 February]

This evening I went along to Oxford's Examination Schools to listen to H.E. Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, give a speech entitled 'Human Protection and the 21st Century United Nations' by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. This was for the annual Cyril Foster Lecture organised by the Department of Politics and International Relations. Mr. Ban Ki-moon was the 4th UN Secretary General to give this speech, in front of an audience of about 400 people (mainly students) in South Schools, plus an estimated 500+ in overflow rooms, who watched video transmissions on projector screens. I share here a few points that interested me and my response.

The UN Secretary-General was formally welcomed by Prof. Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor, who explained how Cyril Foster, a relatively humble owner of sweet shops, came to make a profound difference: having no dependents, he decided to give money to serve the cause of international peace, whence the lecture series was instituted in his name. Mr. Foster stipulated that every year a prominent figure working in this area should be invited to speak.

In delivering his contribution today, Ban Ki Moon conveyed enthusiasm and optimistic purposefulness. He had a ready smile and applauded the role that Oxford has been playing, graciously indicating his appreciation for being part of the Oxford community even for just the one day. With his office following him like a close shadow, events like this that allow him to expound his vision, must come as something of a welcome interlude! Even in the relative shelter of a university lecture, the office had the first say, as though tapping him on the shoulder. Thus as UN Secretary-General, he started by addressing the situation in Egypt, and reiterated the need for political change, echoing the phraseology "peaceful transition" used by President Obama, EU leaders and others, in calling for a process of democratisation that better respects the wishes of its people.

(I'm not trained in politics, but I have noticed this statement, like many other statements I hear, especially from Western leaders, seemed pervaded by an assumption that democracy is the de facto system of workable government. Is it? If Emperor Asoka were ruling a South Asian continent today how would he be viewed...? I don't know, but I suppose it depends on what we mean by freedom. In any case, those who have surveyed history and its ideas (see e.g. The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, by Garry Trompf) probably have a more measured assessment about what has really worked. The title alone suggests that no particular system - at least not in the past few millennia - has been able to last. )

Mr Ban then proceed to embark on the speech itself, starting in touching fashion by sharing his own experiences in childhood, when his family suffered as a result of the Korean War. He described his sense of displacement during his studies, having to seek shelter outdoors, under trees when rains came. It was the United Nations who came to his rescue and his sense of gratitude is evidently deep. Yet, strangely, on this question of well-being I see these kinds of descriptions of homelessness are close to those for sramanas, those wanderers who have renounced the world in pursuit of the greatest happiness of all, the eradication of the real root of suffering...

The main substance of the speech was in three parts and conveyed a good sense of the scale and nature of the UN's operations, particularly the logistics. The first part was concerned with "fire fighting" - bringing humanitarian resources, expertise etc into desperate situations - and it's here that great progress has been made on the logistical front through the Central Emergency Response Fund. However, more important is prevention, which was the second main strand and here there was ample linkage between environmental devastation and human conflict. Putting resources into prevention is obviously going to be more efficient.

The third part seemed the one that was dearest to Mr. Ban, the operationalisation of human protection. Sovereignty should be respected, but carries a responsibility, a moral imperative, to protect its citizens and their human rights. In this connection we were informed about Responsibility To Protect, an emerging project that I think he greatly cherishes. These appear to be expressions of basic precepts - not to take life, not to take what is not yours etc.

Apart from his opening remarks about his upbringing it was only here that my mind was brought fo focus more on the individual personal situation. Whilst the general picture was admirable for having a compassionate and humanitarian outlook, I felt deeper meanings of human protection were left largely untouched. This is where I'm sure a Buddhist perspective can help: its focus is on intentional actions, where protection is fundamentally protection from various forms of suffering that arise from actions that are cloudy, i.e. born of greed, hatred and delusion. There are two watchwords (in Pali): hiri (moral shame), which is an internal sense of shame at the consequences of a misdeed; and ottapa, its external counterpart, the fear of consequences. These are true guardians of the world.

Whilst claiming not to be used to speak for more than 10 or 20 minutes at a time, Mr. Ban's hour-long speech flowed well and there were many who wanted to ask questions at the end. I think just three people had the chance; I was pleased that one was from the UN Association of the UK, who sought further guidance on how to support the 'operationalisation' of human protection. In his response, the UN Secretary-General acknowledged the key role that members play as instruments of change within societies. Continued focused involved seemed to be the message.

As for the other would-be questioners, the audience was promised use of the department's blog, Politics in Spires.

The session concluded with warm applause and friendly hand waves in return!


The UN Web site now has a full transcript of the UN Secretary-General's speech.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Wander around Chulalongkorn University

In between conference preparation, pilgrimage, visits and general sight-seeing, I was given a special tour of Chulalongkorn University, by Khun Tewee, a long-time family friend who used to play with my mother as a child. Both of them had studied at Chula - Khun Tewee physical sciences and my mother (then Fuengsin Sarayutpitag) liberal arts. On this occasion I wanted just to get a feel for the environment, and see how much it resembled the scene depicted in group photos from the late 50s (my mother is standing, 5th from the left):

Chulalongkorn University occupies a privileged position in Thai history and culture. Even its Thai wording claims the linguistic distinction of having the word ‘university’ following the name: จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย [Chulalongkorn Mahawitthayalai] so it reads in the same order as in English, whereas all other universities would put Mahawitthayalai before the name.

The University has its roots as a civil service training school, founded during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) at the end of the 19th Century CE to help in Siam’s administration. It gradually expanded its remit and so emerged Chulalongkorn University, formally granted its new name and status in 1917, the first university to be established in Thailand. It is located fairly centrally in Pathum Wan district of Bangkok, with the nearest BTS station being National Stadium and occupies a rectangular plot of land plus a number of surrounding buildings.

When Khun Tewee proceeded to showed myself and one of her friends the central site, she led us first of all towards the original entrance across playing fields. There looking out from a raised platform were the University's two founders commemorated in a memorial statue:

King Rama V and VI, founders of Chula

Seated is King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and standing beside him is King Vajiravudh (Rama VI). Whilst we were there, a couple of students were paying respects, lighting incense sticks. Nearby there were some elaborate floral kratongs, very likely student creations, now looking somewhat bereft after the Loy Kratong festival, but still nice and colourful.

Next we retraced some steps and approached some of the original buildings (or, at least, the oldest that are still standing). Particularly prominent is the main auditorium, where the conferral of degrees and other major ceremonies take place in a grand theatre:

Auditorium, Chulalongkorn University

We then carried on to the Faculty of Arts building, close by, and naturally I was keen to explore.

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

The first thing that struck my was the lightness of the building. By modern standards it doesn't have many floors, but as I wandered around, I could gaining a feeling of great solidity and substance, an imposing presence, with lofty spaces. It was a very distinguished environment and not hard to imagine students feeling like princes or princesses. Every angle seems to be pleasing architecturally, certainly worth protecting with the nagas!

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

The only disappointment was learning that these buildings are now used mainly for administration. So where do the Faculty of Arts students have their classes, if not in these buildings? Looking from the centre, there are new buildings dotted around:

Chulalongkorn University

The tall building in the distance is บรมราชกุมารี Borommarajakumari (Supreme Daughter of His Majesty the King), an epithet for HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who herself was a graduate from the Faculty of Arts in the 1970s (details in a biography). It is a multi-purpose building: as well as lecture spaces, there are exhibition areas and academic staff have rooms towards the top.

Inevitably a lot of change, but it seems to retain a distinguised ethos and it looks like the staff and students continue to build on the heritage. It still looks an attractive place to study.