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Four days in Tokyo

I celebrated the new year this year in Tokyo with four intense days of exploring the world’s largest metropolitan area. Tokyo is a magnificent, modern city that is impeccably clean and safe – characteristics that will surely confound any non-Japanese visitor to the city. The architecture and urban design are breathtaking and feature the quintessential minimalist aesthetic that permeates Japanese culture. Tokyo is at the vanguard of modernity as the city was completely rebuilt in the second half of the last century after obliteration at the hands of American air-bombing squads. The greater Tokyo metropolitan area is home to nearly 35 million people, slightly more than one quarter of the nation’s population, and is the largest economic center in the world, surpassing even New York City. A unique feature of the city is its sheer geographical size composed of the 23 special wards, which together combine to form a seemingly endless concrete horizon that envelops the Kanto region and is easily visible from space via satellite images. Some of the things I did and places I visited: meticulously explored on foot the youthfully-vibrant Shibuya district with its bustling scrambled crosswalk, quirky love hotels, maze of clothing outlets full of well-heeled fashionistas; strolled through the uber-chique Omotesando dori in Harajuku lined with elegant designer label boutiques; meandered solemnly through the Meiji Shrine (Tokyo’s largest) and paid homage to the Emperor who gave birth to the modern Japanese nation; reverently perused the grounds housing the Yoyogi National Gymnasium designed by towering Japanese architect Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; went to the top of the Sunshine 60 building to take in the staggering views of the gray landscape that is Tokyo and its sprawling environs; sampled delicious unagi, soba, Kyushu white-broth ramen, takoyaki and sushi of course; spent a chilly evening relaxing at an onsen near the cavernous Tokyo Dome; meandered through Tokyo’s waterfront area – Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo Bay) – at night and stood transfixed looking up at Tange’s whimsical Fuji Television Building; drove across the 0.8km-long Rainbow Bridge from Odaiba and then through the neon-lit streets of Tokyo at night in an Alfa Romeo 159; went to the top of the Yokohama Landmark Tower (Japan’s tallest building); visited the futuristic Roppongi Hills and its Mori Art Museum with existentialist exhibition by Odani Motohiko; walked through Yokohama’s lively Chinatown and glittering Minato Mirai 21 waterfront area; celebrated the new year with a Catholic ceremony at St. Mary’s Cathedral (designed by Kenzo Tange in 1963) near Ikebukuro; explored the business district of Shinjuku and viewed the city’s horizon yet again from the 47th floor of the posh Keio Plaza Hotel while also mesmerized by the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower; paid a trip on new year’s day to the overflowing Yasukuni Shrine which houses the souls of Japan’s 2.4 million war dead; strolled through the manicured gardens of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo site of the Emperor’s residence; stared starry-eyed at the bright neon-lights of the Akihabara electronic district and relived nostalgically some memories of my childhood at the video-game arcades; reveled in the glamor of the Ginza district; briefly visited Ueno Park in the northeast of the city that is the site of a multitude of educational and cultural institutions and pondered the legacy of Saigo Takamori; visited the majestic Senso-ji Buddhist temple in Asakusa; and finally paid a visit to my host family in the outskirts of Tokyo for a celebration of the new year involving local delicacies all the while getting very familiar with Tokyo’s vast and staggeringly dense subway system. My journey was immeasurably enhanced with the tireless curiosity and ceaseless generosity of my Japanese guide and friend, Keisuke Fukasawa, who was born and raised in Tokyo and was happy to show me around. I traveled to Tokyo from Kyoto aboard the magical Shinkansen (Tokaido line) that sped at a blistering 300 km/h on carefully constructed linear tracks in a pleasant 2.5 hour journey. The high-tech Shinkansen bored gracefully through numerous mountain tunnels and swept past majestic Mount Fuji on one side and the turquoise, undulating waters of the Pacific on the other. Japan has left me awestruck.

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The Next Chapter: Kyoto, Japan

Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. Apologies for the extended absence but at last: I have returned. I am currently in the fabled, ancient city of Kyoto, Japan where I have now been for the last twenty one days; having officially started my postdoctoral research position in the Quantum Optoelectronics Laboratory of Professor Susumu Noda at Kyoto University. Life in Japan is, needless to say, quite a bit different from life in North America where previously my educational journey took me to the wonderfully vibrant cities of Toronto and Boston. Kyoto stands out as unequivocally having the longest-storied history and being the most culturally sophisticated urban environment that I have had the merry fortune of experiencing for an extended period of time. The enchanting shrines, hallowed temples, pristine parks, rolling grand hills enveloping the basin and pulsating city life imbue this former Imperial capital with a refinement worthy of its place as the cultural epicenter of the nation. I will attempt to provide a glimpse into this majestic city from the perspective of an inquisitive ronin. Let the journey begin.

Lexus unveils the LFA supercar

One of the world’s most coveted luxury automobile brands, the Japanese car-maker Lexus (a subsidiary of the Toyota Motor Company), has decided to throw its hat into the galactic mix of exotic supercars. And what a hat it is. The LFA was first unveiled at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show as a prototype vehicle that now, after more than ten years in development spearheaded by one of Toyota’s most famous engineers Haruhiko Tanahashi, is set to go into production later this year. Only a tantalizingly exclusive 500 custom-built models will be sold worldwide at the staggering sum of $375 000 which, amusingly, includes driving lessons. The LFA has been purposefully designed for all-out performance: a nimble V10 engine (lighter than a V6, size of a V8, but more muscular than a V12) can rev up to a hair-raising 9000 RPM, accelerating from 0-60mph in 3.7s and a top speed of 202 mph all backed up by an extremely lightweight carbon fiber chassis. Working with acoustic engineers from Yamaha, Lexus tuned the motor’s symphonic medley to create a sumptuous driving experience (a TV commercial demonstrates this rather evocatively). Rave reviews have poured in from anyone fortunate enough to have experienced the LFA’s exhilarating ride (see the BBC Top Gear and read the New York times review). For Lexus, the LFA represents a strategic step to elevate its brand by flaunting the company’s technical acumen which will inevitably bolster the company’s entire product line. Such is the magnetic force of a divine concoction like the LFA. Most sports-car enthusiasts will never be able afford such an exquisitely engineered machine but that is precisely the point (even with the exorbitant price tag Lexus will actually lose money on the LFA overall). Lexus has been demoing the LFA to potential customers around the United States (mostly males in the 50s) with offers of test drives at the famed German formula one circuit Nurburgring. The company has been vetting prospective buyers individually to ensure that future owners actually drive this supercar (as opposed to keeping it under wraps in their vaunted collections) to bolster the company’s image among the gawking public at large. Wrapped up in this engineering tour de force is a fantastic marketing ploy.

Seven days in Beijing

I recently returned from a nearly two week trip, my first ever, to East Asia where I visited two ancient Imperial capitals. My first stop was in buzzing Beijing to attend a friend’s wedding where I stayed for a week and managed to get in quite a bit of sightseeing. Beijing is a marvelous city with a glorious past having served as the “Northern Capital” of China for centuries and is currently the seat of power for the ruling Communist Party. A sprawling city of twelve million souls, Beijing was the first large city in China to undergo major economic reforms initiated by the late Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s that ushered in the vibrant market economy to gradually supplant static Chinese socialism, ended decades of Chinese isolation from the world and ushered in an era of profound change. The gargantuan, ultra-modern Beijing Capital International Airport that greets visitors on arrival serves as an appropriate symbol for the lofty ambitions of China’s current rulers to restore their venerable empire to its former glory. In China power is connoted by size. This is evident in the many historical points of interest as well. The enormous Forbidden City lies at the city center and once housed the Emperor and the Imperial clan is overflowing with innumerable temples, chambers and gardens. As you pass through its wide assortment of imposing door frames, your physical insignificance relative to your grand surroundings is emphasized. Across the street from the City’s northern periphery stands a mammoth Buddhist temple in Coal Hill Park perched atop a steep elevation that overlooks the City. The expansive and historically significant Tiananmen Square, adjacent to the southern entrance of the Forbidden City, is the largest city square in the world. Beijing is overflowing with pristine parks, the most noteworthy of which is the lively Beihai Park that embodies the essence of traditional Chinese landscape design with an array of weeping willows, arched bridges, seaside views and a myriad of small shrines interspersed within. I also had a chance to visit the Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing which while more manicured and sanitized in appearance (partly because it had been twice rebuilt after being destroyed by pillaging British and French invading forces in the late 19th century) than the other monuments nevertheless was a massive site full of archetypal Chinese architecture and themes. No trip to China would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall which unquestionably formed the highlight of this visit. My friends and I decided to visit the less touristy part of the Wall at Mutiyan (as opposed to Badaling which is the site visited by foreign dignitaries, including Richard Nixon in 1972, and is today overflowing with crowds). Mutiyan was a two hour bus ride from the city core and its portion of the wall was accessible via a cable car ascent to the top of a densely forested mountain range. The exhilarating feeling of traversing the miles and miles of the Great Wall is almost indescribable because you essentially have it to yourself, as we did, and are thus able to grasp its immensity. To stand atop its numerous watchtowers and contemplate the past as armed soldiers once stood guard over vast expanses of territory is gripping. Or to behold the many small openings engraved into the stone structures where archers once lay to defend their Kingdom during epic battles with invading forces was surreal. Everything about the Wall is majestic and I would recommend that everyone, once in their lifetime, have the opportunity to see for themselves this defining symbol of the Chinese people where it is claimed that nearly one million individuals died in constructing its 8000+ kilometers – a collective feat to confound the imagination. There are upscale parts of Beijing that would rival any glamorous neighborhood of Los Angeles; the thriving Sanlitun district features American-themed shopping centers (including a deluxe Apple store) along with a dense network of flourishing patio bars and restaurants. The newly paved and ever expanding superhighways that ring around the city signify the ravenous Chinese urge for motor vehicle transportation although the driving does leave something to be desired: crossing the streets of Beijing is akin to a game of Frogger, where pedestrians have to cooly navigate their way through an unrelenting onslaught of cars, bicycles and rickshaws. I found the Chinese to be a most hospitable people who delighted in seeing all the foreign visitors to their country, perhaps as further proof of their nation’s ascent in the world. The most vexing problem of Beijing is indubitably the severe environmental pollution. Of the seven days I spent in the city, six included a thick haze that limited visibility and made breathing the outdoor air quite noxious. We were fortunate that heavy rains one afternoon purged the air to reveal a majestic blue sky and beaming sunlight that unmasked the dense horizon of skyscrapers and construction cranes. We were sustained by bottled water as repeated warnings declared the tap water to be not potable. As a fitting end to the trip, I had a chance to attend an MIT Club of Beijing event where visiting MIT Professor of Political Science Edward Steinfeld discussed his new book on why the rise of China does not pose a threat to the West, an issue foremost on the minds of many Americans these days. In my private discussion with Steinfeld after his talk, he revealed to me that the first time he came to China was in the turbulent year of 1989 when many in the country felt a sense of dread of their country’s future prospects (recall the massive Tiananmen Square protests that jolted the world). Steinfeld recalled those grim days where no one could have predicted the unbelievable, two-decades old transformation that China has undergone through the present. He warned me that with China it is quite difficult to predict its future in reference to my skepticism about this massive nation of 1.4 billion people ever progressing far enough to one day truly rival the United States. I hope to be a regular visitor to China in the years old to serve as witness to its mesmerizing metamorphosis to an advanced, industrialized nation with a profound sense of nationhood and regards for its past.

The murky world of street art & the people behind it

Beginning in the 1980s, a new youth counter culture (every generation has one) emerged that was based on using unadorned walls of urban blight as canvasses for a new generation of artists. Throughout the last three decades, the essence and form of street art (a hybrid form of graffiti incorporating posters and other types of visual imagery) continues to evolve as shadowy men lurking furtively at night refashion cities in their mold with nothing but mere cans of spray paint and plaster. Who are the mysterious people behind such provocative public statements of self expression? A fascinating, highly acclaimed, self-described ‘prankumentary’ entitled ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ I saw three days ago at the cinema takes us, the pedestrians, behind the scenes for an insider’s look at this much maligned though little understood underground art world. The prank includes an unexpected plot twist at the end of the film that jives with its zany subjects. The story seems to be about a quirky, 30 something, Frenchman named Thierry Guetta who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and four children. Thierry runs a thriving urban-funk clothing boutique that caters to the City of Angels’ eclectic fashionistas; whose stylish garments blend hip hop and punk rock, b-ball and skateboards. Yet Thierry also has an unusual obsession: he meticulously videotapes the mundaneness of his life with excruciating detail, a habit he describes through on-screen interviews arose during his adolescence in France after his mother’s untimely death instilled in him a profound sense of preserving the present by documenting the cherished yet fleeting memories of our unpredictable, short lives. During a routine vacation to France to visit his family in 1999, Thierry makes contact with his young cousin, the aspiring graffiti artist Space Invader who blankets Paris with his signature hand-crafted, oversized mosaics of pixellated characters from this legendary video game of the 1970s. Thierry is instantly intrigued by the cunningness and virtuosity of Space Invader’s escapades to spread his peculiar artistic vision so much so that he decides to shadow him, camera in tow, and record the artist at work (taking care to keep the artist’s identity private at all times). The process of being filmed on camera defacing public property is scandalous, yet Space Invader relents, acknowledging that the impermanence of his work (cities the world over aggressively work to expunge this ‘vandalist’ public defacement) necessitates that it be chronicled for dissemination on the nascent world wide web (this, you must recall, is still the early 2000s). This seminal experience launches Thierry into his new role, his raison d’etre, as video documenter of some of the world’s most notorious graffiti artists, a role that is tremendously enhanced during a serendipitous encounter at an LA Kinko’s when Thierry meets the then little-known Shepard Fairey, creator of the now ubiquitous Obey tags that show a caricature of the late professional wrestler Andre the Giant, and more recently the iconic campaign image of Barack Obama with the words “Hope” boldly displayed. Thierry can hardly believe his good fortunes as he begins to accompany the infamous Fairey (who gradually develops a kinship with Thierry) around the world to disseminate his unusual, subversive message of civil disobedience. Eventually, Thierry learns of and becomes mesmerized by the most notorious graffiti artist of them all – Banksy – a famously secretive Briton whose identity is shrouded in mystery but whose work is sublime (an LA art exhibit draws the city’s glitterati to a small warehouse in a dilapidated part of town, all to irreverently pay homage to the mystique). As Thierry’s reputation among graffiti artists blossoms as a reliable and trustworthy accomplice, he is unexpectedly summoned by Banksy during his trip to LA to suggest appropriate venues (i.e. walls) for exhibition given Thierry’s familiarity with the city. Banksy’s colleagues are stunned to learn that their intensely private friend agrees to be filmed; yet even someone of Banksy’s stature can appreciate the immeasurable boost that his status can enjoy if more people had access to his fleeting work. Banksy also takes to the affable Thierry and has him accompany him to document his whacky projects, eventually encouraging Thierry to go it alone and start his own career. And this is where the story abruptly takes an unexpected twist. Thierry heeding Banksy’s advice and true to his enterprising self returns to LA, sells off his only means of livelihood (his garment boutique), and decides instead to single mindedly devote himself to becoming an established street artist under the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash. After a few months of plastering LA’s walls with his trademark image of a man staring through a camera, the newly christened Mr. Brainwash boldly sets his sights on staging for himself a splashy debut art exhibition that turns out to be the talk of the town when it opens in the cavernous former CBS studios in the summer of 2008. As a shameless self-promoter, Mr. Brainwash enlists his former friends in the graffiti scene to endorse his work to drum up hype for the event. The show turns out to be a smashing success as thousands of Angelenos, piqued by all the press attention (the LA weekly features Mr. Brainwash on its cover), show up in droves to gain a glimpse into this mysterious and much-talked about new artist (who prior to this point is a but a blip in the wider underworld of street artists). Mr. Brainwash’s meteoric rise to stardom confounds Banksy and Shepard Fairey who both are aghast of their former colleague’s unexpectedly rapid intrusion into the world they once sat at the thrones of. Banksy is even more appalled since it was he who first set Thierry on this path and his subsequent support made him even more complicit (in other words, he was badly taken advantage of). A prevailing theme of this story is rooted in the quintessentially American, self-righteous individualist quest for glory that Thierry so resoundingly demonstrates. Not content to indefinitely play the role of the unknown and unheralded acolyte hidden behind the camera, Thierry’s smoldering but latent yearning for glory finally impels him to usurp the initiative and launch head first into the spotlight. The movie is also a damning portrayal of the mediocrity of today’s art world where any trite work concocted by an unskilled layman is heralded by the mainstream community as a profound statement of artistic self expression. It is no wonder that Thierry’s success was spawned in LA for in what other city is superficiality, uncouthness, and pretensions of high culture more plaintively embodied? In fairness to the genre, Banksy’s work is unique; imbued with a level of refinement and sophistication that clearly stands above the fray. Yet street graffiti is a medium that has a very thin, often times imperceptible, line separating grandness from the perfunctory that Mr. Brainwash makes manifest. Amusingly enough, it was Banksy who directed this film intending perhaps retribution: to publicly expose Mr. Brainwash as an impostor. ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’ further highlights the sobering reality of today’s attention-deficient society that finds its gratification in trivial, bland pseudo-art where any opportunist with the means to produce a visual image can become an overnight celebrity. That it took an industrious Frenchman, emanating from a grand artistic tradition and culture, to unmask the shallowness of today’s art world is a bitter irony indeed.

The 50th Anniversary of the Laser

No invention in the post-WWII era has so thoroughly altered our way of life than the laser which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary as part of events commemorated by Laser Fest. Pause for a moment and consider its astonishing implications: the world’s entire telecommunications is sent via optical pulses generated by lasers via long-distance fibers that now envelope the Earth’s surface, the information encoded onto compact and digital-video discs is read-out by lasers, ubiquitous bar codes found in retail outlets are scanned by lasers, laser printers are found in homes and offices the world over, laser pointers are used in everyday presentations, digital displays including LCDs and plasmas are illuminated by lasers, optical scalpels powered by lasers are used in surgery as precision instruments; these are but a mere sampling of the all-encompassing presence of lasers in today’s society. Not to mention the pervasiveness of lasers in research laboratories: to probe physical and biological phenomena at ultrashort timescales, to generate intense bursts of energy for interrogating new forms of matter, to one day provide clean forms of energy, and to measure with extreme precision the force of gravity. The 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to American Charles Townes (then at MIT) and Russians Nikolai Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov was arguably the most important from a purely technological point of view. Laser is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation and describes a quantum-mechanical phenomena whereby atomic media produce monochromatic (single wavelength), unipolarized, coherent (all light waves are in phase with one another) electromagnetic radiation. These three properties, taken together, are crucial for enabling intense light sources that have found such broad scientific and technological application. The underlying physics governing the operation of the laser is based on the phenomena of stimulated emission. Electrons bound to atoms (made up of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons) reside in one of its discrete quantum states, usually the ground state having the lowest energy (unless excited by an external source of energy). When an electron in an excited state transitions to a state at lower energy, it typically emits a photon (a particle of light) to conserve energy. The salient point about stimulated emission, that Albert Einstein first pointed out, is that in the presence of a photon having an energy equal to the transition energy, electrons can be induced to de-excite and emit another photon remarkably having the same properties as the source photon (i.e., wavelength, polarization, coherence). Charles Townes key insight in 1960 was to somehow create conditions of population inversion whereby a large number of electrons were collectively excited to a higher energy state and thus when de-excited would amplify the emitted light signal via a cascade of further de-excitations in nearby electrons (this picture is somewhat oversimplified but conveys the essence of lasers). Townes fist demonstrated his principals in the microwave regime (a MASER) and was issued the first patent on his invention which has revolutionized the world. This incredibly important invention is certainly worthy of a yearlong celebration.

John Dower, Japan expert, retires from MIT

Professor John W. Dower, renowned historian of post-war Japan, retired today after twenty years of research and teaching at MIT. Professor Dower has spent a lifetime studying contemporary Japan and is the author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII and War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. Dower had been specifically recruited to MIT in 1991 as an endowed Professor of History from UCSD where he had spent the previous five years and before that the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He began his career as an English language instructor and admirer of Japanese visual design and later literary agent for a publishing firm in Tokyo in the early 1960s where he met his wife before returning to Harvard for graduate school in Japanese studies. His storied academic life was celebrated today in a series of seminars by former colleagues and students which featured some of the leading academics in the field of contemporary Japanese studies. Herbert Bix of Binghamton University (author of another Pulitzer-prize winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan) began the ceremonies with a brief summary of the enormous contributions of his colleague (who together graduated in 1971 from Harvard’s hallowed History department in the teeming intellectual environment molded by the towering figures of Edwin O. Reischauer (US ambassador to Japan in the 1960s) and John K. Fairbank). Both Dower and Bix took up scholarly research of post-war Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s spurred by the intense civil unrest in American society that had been unsettled by the bloody war being waged in Vietnam which lead many scholars on university campuses to fundamentally question the conventional wisdom driving US foreign policy. The prevailing views of the time enunciated as modernization theory, Bix explained, was for America to act as global hegemon by dominating and forcefully remaking these under-developed, uncivilized Asian societies first through conquest, and later by colonial subjugation to fashion them as capitalist bulwarks against rising Communist aggression. Bix traced the emergence of an academic counter-culture in east Asian studies to the singular contributions of Canadian diplomat E.H. Norman who in 1940 published a provocative book, Japan’s emergence as a Modern State, that harshly criticized the over-simplified, monolithic, label-driven approach of the West to understand Japanese statehood. Norman sowed the seeds of profound change in his profession by espousing a serious study of Japanese culture with a level of refinement and inquiry that had hitherto been considered heretical (Norman tragically committed suicide in 1957 after suffering from the severe psychological duress of McCarthyism) though his bold efforts to confront dogma were repeatedly heralded today. Professor Andrew Gordon of Harvard spoke next and nostalgically recalled reading Dower’s landmark 1975 book Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman as an undergraduate at Harvard, a pivotal work of scholarship that for the first time revisited the work of Norman and proposed various new directions of research based on its premises. Dower’s instrumental 1975 survey signaled the start of a major turning point in Japanese studies by spurring researchers to probe the nuances of Japanese culture, distill its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, do away with mere generalities, and to fully appreciate the enormous complexity befitting such an advanced civilization. Peter Perdue, former MIT professor now currently at Yale, rounded out the morning session with glowing praise for his former mentor (Dower had been a recitation instructor to him while a graduate student at Harvard) and colleague by lauding Dower’s “jargon-free, eloquent prose and nuanced scholarship.” He observed that Dower’s career trajectory had been evident from the very beginning as he “stood out as at odds with establishment views in east Asian studies” even during the early years. John Dower was the final speaker of his own retirement proceedings and with his cherished friends, distinguished colleagues and family members in attendance ruminated eloquently on his career. He invoked a beautiful metaphor from Edward H. Carr’s masterpiece What is History? of the historian as a fisherman in an expansive ocean who catches fish (in this case historical facts) depending on where the fish are (the analogy with fishing is an appropriate one as Dower grew up in Rhode Island). To be an effective historian, Dower argued, one must “do history by first doing history of your own field,” in other words he claimed, “study the historian before you study the facts.” It was precisely this approach that spurred Dower to embark upon in his own career when very early on he became disillusioned with the stagnation of his field and spent the remainder of his vaunted career in pursuit of his own version of the truth. He offered some sage advice for younger researchers: 1) the boundaries of acceptable debate are narrow, yet one ought to take a critical stance without losing one’s temperament, 2) write clearly but don’t write down to your audience and 3) people will listen and eventually you will have an impact. Dower was educated in a time when modernization theory was “presented as empirical but not ideological” with little rigorous underpinnings espoused by those of the older generation who had spent little time in Asia and were badly misinformed of its culture. (E.H. Norman, on the other hand, was born in Japan to Canadian missionary parents and spent the better part of his childhood there mastering the language and absorbing the culture.) The elder statesmen in east Asian studies at the time of the late 1960s and prior obstinately refused to appreciate the intricacies of their subject matter with tragic consequences (perhaps because they had spent their entire careers proposing and refining their own theories, inadequate as they were, and were thus hostile to criticism or rethinking). Professor Dower boldly challenged the entrenched establishment of his profession and faced tremendous resistance claiming that “we had to work it out ourselves” as the new generation of scholars in Japanese studies forged their own unique identity while resoundingly breaking with the methods and conclusions of the past. He even pioneered an innovative approach to studying Asian culture through Visualizing Cultures that leveraged the power of the internet to disseminate information through visual imagery akin to a virtual museum. Yet and more importantly, he and other like-minded individuals were able to unmask a far more accurate rendering of Japanese culture that has gone a long way towards eliminating the widespread ignorance and prejudice that had existed in the past. Humanity is better off for it. You will be missed, Professor Dower.

MIT launches Entrepreneurship Review

In my final year as a graduate student, I have gotten involved with a new student-run publication that launched this past March known as the MIT Entrepreneurship Review. MITER’s aim is to provide coverage of the dazzling (& dizzying!) entrepreneurship ecosystem that has been thriving at the Institute for quite some time now. Entrepreneurship in many ways characterizes the very soul of MIT, reinforcing its legendary credo “mens et manus” (mind and hand) as well as the creative, can-do spirit of its faculty & students. Consider the following stupendous statistic. A rigorous study conducted by the Kaufman Foundation last year found that if all the revenues from active companies formed by MIT graduates were tallied up, it would form the 17th largest nation in the world. My own photonics research group has consistently been at the forefront of startup activity in this area for the last decade as three successful start-up ventures have come directly out of our work: Omniguide was launched in 2000 to develop hollow-core fibers as optical scalpels for non-invasive surgical applications, Luminus Devices began in 2002 to fabricate ultra-bright light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for projection-based televisions, and more recently Witricity launched in 2007 to provide power wirelessly. Two of the three companies (Omniguide and Witricity) were founded by current MIT faculty members, Yoel Fink of Materials Science & Engineering and Marin Soljacic of Physics who both continue to commit a significant amount of their time to these outside ventures. I have long believed in the transformative power of technology to cure many of society’s ills and have been astounded by all the innovation activity I have observed during the last six years. My very first article for MITER covered the burgeoning smart materials research at the Institute viewed through the case study of Thermeleon, a company started by a friend to make color-changing roof tiles that turn white in the summer and black in the winter and thus provide a straightforward and inexpensive method to regulate indoor household temperature. My second article explored attempts by countries abroad to replicate the MIT model of prolific research institute as innovation hub to drive economic growth, specifically focusing on one such notable attempt in the Middle East known as the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology that seeks, with MIT’s help, to become the premier knowledge-based technology epicenter in the region. My third article, co-authored with colleague John Silva, examines the synergy of MIT’s location in the teeming Boston urban environment as a major factor contributing to its vaunted success, while comparing it to other peer institutions (e.g. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago) that have not been quite as successful in similar endeavors. In the printing press is my next article that explores the challenges faced by MIT entrepreneurs vying for success in the crowded solar industry. I am currently finishing a piece on the substantial, sometimes prohibitive, costs of publishing in and accessing scientific journals and what this means for the dissemination of knowledge in an era of instant-access, always-on, intensely networked societies where technological change is happening at breakneck speed. MITER has been a wonderfully enriching experience to complement my intensive daily research regimen. I have been able to meet and interact with such entrepreneurial luminaries as Alex Pentland (one of the world’s top cited computer scientists and serial entrepreneur who started Real Networks), Bob Metcalfe (inventor of the Ethernet), Jason Pontin (editor of the Technology Review magazine) and the legendary Robert Langer (the most prolific engineer-academic inventor of all) during private sessions with the MITER editorial board. MITER has provided me with a window into the very heart of the MIT innovation engine that will flourish well into the future.

Paul Samuelson & the rise of MIT Economics

A memorial service this morning at Kresge auditorium on the MIT campus celebrated the remarkable life of towering liberal intellectual and long-time economics professor Paul Samuelson who passed away last year at the ripe old age of 94. Samuelson is widely credited for introducing mathematical rigor into the economics profession and using scientific analysis to promote Keynesian ideals as one of the foremost economists of the 20th century. He had a storied career that spanned a staggering seven decades: becoming an MIT assistant professor at age 25, earning tenure at 32, winning the first ever John Clarke Bates medal given to an outstanding economist under 40 also at age 32, winning the first ever Nobel Prize in Economics in 1970, receiving the National Medal of Science in 1996. An extraordinary man who singlehandedly elevated the stature of the MIT Economics department upon his arrival in 1940 after entering the University of Chicago at age 16 as an undergraduate, two years in graduate school at Harvard and three more as a Junior Fellow. When Harvard would only offer him the menial position of instructor (his advocacy of a prominent role for governmental involvement in the economy was then-considered controversial, also he was Jewish), the nascent economics department at MIT cunningly lured him away with an offer of a tenure-track position. At that time, the economics department at MIT amounted to little more than a small staff offering two required undergraduate classes based on classical economics to its largely engineering-focused student body. Samuelson’s arrival at MIT heralded the beginning of sweeping changes: he initiated a graduate program, used his stature to attract top-flight faculty and transformed this once sleepy side of east campus into a mecca of scholarship. Today’s memorial service featured eulogies from a number of his notable colleagues and former students: Susan Hockfield (President of MIT), Ricardo Caballero (head of MIT Economics), William Samuelson (eldest son), Larry Summers (nephew, and former President of Harvard), Stanley Fischer (Governor of the Bank of Israel), Paul Krugman (former student, colleague and now professor at Princeton), James Poterba (colleague and current member of MIT faculty), Helmut Weymar (former student and acclaimed commodities trader) and finally his long-time colleague, friend and fellow Nobelist Robert Solow as the master of ceremonies. Caballero began by reminiscing a faculty lunch during a snowy winter day in 2002 where few attended, unexpectedly among them the elder Samuelson who proceeded to mesmerize his younger, star-struck peers with his clairvoyant summary of an obscure technical detail. The younger Samuelson, William, recounted his father’s overriding passion for research as he would habitually evade his household chores and six children to escape to his office sanctuary in E52 to write academic papers or popular articles for Newsweek. Paul Krugman, who once shared an office suite with Samuelson and Solow while a young assistant professor at MIT, remarked that Samuelson should have received eight separate Nobel prizes for initiating eight major fields of research. The always charismatic Larry Summers offered a couple of amusing anecdotes of his late uncle. Once, at a dinner party in 1972 at the Samuelson house in Belmont to celebrate the announcement of the Nobel Prize to Kenneth Arrow, Summers remembered that his two uncles, Paul (his father’s brother) and Ken (his mother’s brother), spent the entire evening debating turnpike theory in a separate room until all the guests had eventually left. This memory left a lasting impression on the young Summers, then a sophomore at MIT, on Uncle Paul’s profound commitment to his work. Summers also recalled a car ride many years later with his uncle to the Belmont tennis club when news on the radio announced that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had closed higher for the day to which Summers quipped “That’s a good thing!” and his perplexed uncle wryly responded “Now does that mean people will be buying or selling their stocks?” Poterba described several instances of Samuelson’s young career where his early mathematically-inclined papers were continually rejected from the top academic journals where skeptical referees derided its unconventional methods. Some of these papers are now among Samuelson’s most highly cited works. Solow retold the unforgettable story of Samuelson’s oral qualifying exam in front of his doctorate committee at Harvard, when at the very end one of the professors, Joseph Schumpeter, asked: “Our dear Paul, did we pass?” Samuelson was a man so singularly fixated on economics research that he continually turned down offers to act as an administrator or take up a job in the government as policy planner (most notably at the request of JFK in the early 1960s). He once famously said: “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, as long as I can write its economics textbook.” And that he did, Foundations of Economic Analysis and the curtly named Economics; the former was a technical tour-de-force that introduced for the first time methods from theoretical physics into economics and the latter has become a standard textbook in the field having sold more than four million copies. Though I share vastly different views on the role of government in the free market, I am no doubt mindful of the seminal contributions of this titan to his profession. It was awe-inspiring for me to witness so many accomplished individuals sing the praises of a former colleague whose legacy is now fully enshrined in the profession. Samuelson’s life is a lucid demonstration of the power of unconventional ideas emanating from a lone individual in the face of fierce opposition to transform a whole field.

Jeff Bezos on Amazon.com

One company stands above all others in epitomizing the digital revolution’s transformation of the economy. Since its obscure origins during the dawn of the world wide web (ca. 1994), Amazon.com has quietly continued to flourish and expand its offerings to an even wider marketplace. Amazon popularized customer reviews that have evocatively enriched the buying experience of online shoppers, provides what is indubitably the largest selection of products at the lowest prices (from shoes, TVs, dry goods to books, music, appliances), and now remarkably makes and manufactures its own hardware device the Kindle, a highly successful e-reader (powered by MIT Media Lab startup E-INK’s displays). I have personally contributed a number of reviews on books that I have purchased and delight in the clever recommendation feature that suggests items to me based on my viewing and purchasing history. To really understand the fountainhead of this company’s rocketing growth, you need only glimpse behind its well-crafted website and listen to its exalted CEO Jeff Bezos who appears candidly for hour long interviews on the Charlie Rose show here in 2007 and here in 2009. Bezos’ ability to enunciate clearly and eloquently his company’s strategic vision, its singular devotion to its customers, and his talent at anticipating new trends beyond the always muddied technological horizon are extraordinary. Take for example his vision for the Kindle: “to deliver any book ever written, in any language, within 60 seconds.” Astounding. Or his analysis on the key design philosophy responsible for the Kindle’s meteoric success (that had foiled previous failed attempts); the imperceptible quality of printed books to “fall away” when the reader is engrossed in its contents so as to render the ink and paper pulp irrelevant to the reading experience. I particularly enjoyed Bezos explain his company’s focus on setting and pursuing long term goals, its ability to rise above the fray of unrelenting quarter-by-quarter competition to take a bird’s eye at emerging trends & technologies (the Kindle is an obvious example). Bezos always remains calm and collected during his interviews and speaks pointedly with little obfuscation (even while politely refusing to release sales figures for the Kindle he exudes classy professionalism). His charisma and charming demeanor are effective at winning over skeptical pundits — witness the mesmerized Charlie Rose sitting starry-eyed across the table from him during the two interviews. Amazon, like all shrewd companies seeking to prolong growth well into the future, has already embarked upon cunning global ambitions of its own. The emerging economy of China with its current primitive infrastructure is still no deterrent for Amazon’s expansion into this nascent market: the company employs bicycle couriers who receive cash upon delivery from customers of purchased goods. This while the gargantuan highways are built, the airports sprout, and credit cards become ubiquitous in a country of 1.3 billion budding capitalists. Amazon is even anticipating the future arrival of personal space travel by deploying its resources to build a prototype facility in Texas to launch wealthy tourists into sub-orbital flight. And befitting every well grounded CEO who maintain hectic schedules, are routinely inundated with facts, have to constantly make very consequential decisions, while charting a path forward for their company, Bezos regularly seeks solitary downtime for himself. He describes in the 2007 interview his habit of spending four days by himself each quarter (away from his wife and kids even) in order to brainstorm new ideas, catch up on the latest trends in “hacker world,” and privately reflect on the company’s direction. With a guy like this at the helm, Amazon’s prospects continue to burn bright.