Bridge of Dreams – A Review of The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris

 

Genji_screen_1
Screen depicting the Miotsukushi chapter of Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, which is the centerpiece of Ivan Morris’s World of the Shining Prince (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The World of the Shining Prince  synthesizes a vast amount of Japanese history, anthropology, and aesthetics through the prism of the world’s first novel—The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. From its sparkling prose to its lucidly conceived themes, this 1964 book by Ivan Morris must rank as one of the greatest achievements in liberal arts. Reading The Tale of Genji before reading The World of the Shining Prince is probably a good idea, and recommended, but not absolutely necessary. Morris’s book conveys most of the 1,000+ page novel’s plot—which spans 75 years around the turn of the 11th century and contains hundreds of characters—as well as its aesthetic flavor. The triumph of the book is that he adds so much more to the picture.

Morris writes that “The Tale of Genji gives a realistic and fairly complete picture of cultural life in the capital.” What his book adds is the context—historical, anthropological, political, artistic—that makes this picture more three dimensional. Reading The Tale of Genji is like being steeped in tea, soaking up dreamlike episodes linked by poems. Morris’s book is more clear-eyed, yet forms multiple bridges of understanding into the dream world.

The Shining Prince  in Morris’s title is none other than Prince Genji, the aristocratic ladies-man aesthete whose adventures are chronicled in the first two-thirds of The Tale of Genji. The author, Lady Muraski, was a noblewoman in the Heian-era court. Both main character and author are so absorbed in court life that a reader needs a guide like Morris to understand how unique, elite, and remote from other civilizations court life had become.

Genji’s era is known as the Heian, which lasted from 794 to 1185 and marked the rise of Chinese influence in Japan. The country became Buddhist during the preceding Nara period, and the borrowing of Chinese culture continued into the Heian. However, Morris makes an interesting point about the time period depicted by Muraski: that for 100 years the Japanese aristocracy had been purposefully distancing themselves from Chinese influence and retreating into a more insular and uniquely Japanese way of life.

This way of life could be extremely strange. Bureaucrats would often start their working day after nightfall and work into the pre-dawn hours, their dreary activities made more lively by drinking rice wine. Their lives were dominated by aesthetics such the turn of a poetic phrase that conjures meaning through allusion (Japanese are masters at speaking indirectly), the quality of a fabric, the thoughtfulness of an incense blend.

Why is this small cast of courtiers and their strange rituals worth studying? Because, Morris argues, they produced a unique and indelible flourishing of literature written by women (Murasaki and her contemporary Sei Shonagon being the most famous) that have not only stood the test of time but become increasingly renowned across the centuries. Only Shakespeare is trailed by more commentary.

The thing that really makes the book stand out to me—its heart, so to speak—is that Morris’s work builds upon Murasaki’s themes of dreamlike reality and impermanence. He writes toward the end:

Throughout the novel…Murasaki rings the changes on the image of dreams and thereby evokes one of her central themes—the nebulous, unreal quality of the world about us, and the idea that our life is a mere ‘bridge of dreams’ (the title of her final book), over which we cross from one state of existence to the next.

When I read this line, I thought that this theme is also a perfect metaphor for Morris’s own work.

 

A force at play: the more you pay, the less you get

One of Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s axioms in personal finance is that the more you pay to buy investments, measured by the fees, the less you get over time measured by total return. This principle is illustrated very well in the PBS Frontline documentary The Retirement Gamble in which Bogle appears to introduce the idea.

Recently I started reading Phishing for Phools (2105) by Akerloff and Shiller, which takes thesis that market competition leads to hoodwinking of consumers. Shiller is known for his work on economic models of housing prices and his most famous book Irrational Exuberance. Akerloff is an economics professor at Georgetown. Both are Nobel laureates.

I hadn’t made it very far into the book when it struck me that Bogle’s axiom could be extended to more than just the trade offs between passively and actively managed mutual funds. In the very first pages, Akerloff and Shiller introduce the concept of reputation mining. In classic economics professor fashion (harnessing the undergraduate cliché of a basket of goods at the supermarket), they use a fruit metaphor:

“If I have a reputation for selling beautiful, ripe avocados, I have an opportunity. I can sell you a mediocre avocado at the price you would pay for a perfectly ripe one. I will have mined my reputation. I will also have phished you for a phool.”

The banal fruit metaphor becomes more provocative when they proceed to apply it to the way in which ratings agencies mined their reputation for credibility in the run-up to the subprime mortgage meltdown. For a good illustration of context of this chapter of American financial history, watch the 2015 film The Big Short.

When most customers get tricked into buying overpriced goods, collapse is possible when some part of the market wises up. My mind immediately leaped to another part of the economy that is arguably engaging in widespread reputation mining: higher education. Many people say that higher ed in the United States represents a bubble similar to the one built on bad mortgages in the United States. A few years ago the amount of student loan debt exceeded credit card debt at more than $1 trillion. Reportedly, more than 40 million Americans are paying down these loans, which tend to have more affordable interest rates than credit cards but cannot be expunged in bankrutpcy.

Have all these Americans been ‘phished for a phool?’

Much research shows that college remains a good investment. Yet as much as I love higher education, particularly the liberal arts tradition I benefited from at Kenyon College, I think a solid case can be made that the higher sticker prices of recent years, combined with the increasing use of part-time adjunct instructors, fit a pattern of reputation mining. According to PBS:   “Adjuncts now make up more than 70 percent of all college and university faculty, often juggling a course load at multiple universities, earning an average of $2,500 per course.” Meanwhile, according to an editorial in the New York Times,  “if over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.”

Thus while the job security of the typical university instructor has vanished, which I think is a headwind against teaching quality, the product has (in the case of public universities) quadrupled in price. There are many factors influencing these trends, but they don’t seem sustainable. If tuition remained the same but classes were offered through prerecorded online lessons and proctored via algorithms, teacher salaries could plummet further. This would be blatant reputation mining. It would also mean that students and their families would be paying more for less.

Just like the mortgage market, these macro-trends oversimplify a very complex set of market interactions. I think reputation mining is going on at the same time as many university experiences represent genuine value for each tuition dollar spent. I’m still a big supporter of higher education, and believe that teachers will be more important than ever in our future as many jobs become obsolete through automation. Families now have to be strategic and savvy to avoid being ‘phished.’

In my own educational experience, I believe that my Kenyon degree, though expensive, represented real value. From that base I’ve been able to build a career as a writer and editor. My Master’s in Journalism at the University of Maryland was similar. During my time as a writer working for Georgetown, I got free tuition which I applied to earning a Master of Professional Studies degree in Technology Management. The ten courses I took were taught exclusively by adjuncts. Was this Georgetown mining its reputation for dollars? Tough call. I was glad that many of my teachers in technical subjects were practitioners of those subjects rather than academics,  so I valued that they all had relevant day jobs and moonlighted their expertise. But on the value spectrum between the residential undergraduate experience at Kenyon and the night-school-style Professional Studies degree, I think I got a lot more value in my earlier studies. As much as I enjoyed studying tech at Georgetown, had I needed to pay the tuition out of pocket, I likely wouldn’t have gone for that extra degree.

A lot of financial wisdom amounts to ‘avoid getting ripped off.’ Alas, we live in a world where market forces make that a tricky thicket. I’m looking forward to delving further into Phishing for Phools.

 

 

The Q Bus Lives

Today I checked the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “better bus” webpage and clicked on the slate of upcoming service changes for 2016. To my surprise and delight, the Q bus I ride each day between Rockville and Silver Spring will survive and live another day, at least for the time being. Metrobus will put aside a plan to chop the line in half and force folks to transfer at Wheaton Station.

Last fall they collected feedback the plan that would have ended the eastern (Georgia Avenue and Silver Spring) portion of the Q line, which extends to Shady Grove at its Western end.  The plan would have stopped the line at Wheaton Station, and passengers traveling to Silver Spring would have gotten a free transfer onto the Metro line. Going the other way, passengers transferring on to the Q line from the Metro line would ride the bus free.

Why was this idea seriously considered and almost implemented? Beltway traffic on Georgia Avenue north of Silver Spring is predictably snarled, particularly during the evening northbound rush. With Y line buses already covering this part of the route, why not remove the cross-county Q buses from the congestion?

I disagreed fundamentally with the plan. The buses are a engulfed in a sea of passenger-less cars. They are a rafts of sanity and fiscal sense on these nasty currents of wasteful driving. Why punish those trying to make a positive difference by taking public transportation? I realize something has to give, but cars can’t just win because they are harder to control. Seemed like punishing those with the weakest voice (poorer riders) to accommodate people rich enough to drive solo.

Along with 473 other riders, I filled out survey on the proposed change (in my case by going to their website). The results of the survey reflected some of my own concerns and are nicely summarized in the service change document, and I quote them below:

Route Q1,2,4 Service and Tariff Proposals (referred to as Q Line)
Q Line customers weighed two proposals which at first blush are offsetting: the first is to receive a free transfer between Q Line and Red Line and the second is to cut the Q service back at Wheaton station forcing a transfer. As you might expect, Q Line customers rated the free transfer as positive and the service reduction as negative.
A closer look was taken to segment customers who were positive of both changes, one or the other, or were negative about both changes.
Just 11 percent of Q Line customers were positive about both the free transfer and service proposal. Another 46 percent preferred one or the other, mostly positive toward the free transfer and negative by the service reduction. Finally, 43 percent were negative toward both proposals.
Written sentiments seem to echo this negativity. An additional in-house survey was conducted by the CSCM team on-board the Q2 and Q4 bus lines between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 29th, 2015 to collect additional data for the equity analysis. The survey results were consistent with the predominantly negative
sentiments reflected in the feedback gathered through the online survey, as described above.
Overall, service changes to the Q line would affect 76% of the riders surveyed on-board. The results showed a strong preference for bus over rail, with only 19% of respondents saying they would switch to the Red Line for access between
Wheaton and Silver Spring, if the Q Line service were to be cut. In terms of ridership, empirical evidence showed the north-bound Q line buses to be mostly full between 7:00 a.m. – 8:30 a.m., while the south bound buses were generally full throughout the day.
At the end of the document, Metrobus staff give their recommendation: “do not implement.”
Hurrah.
To put this in a larger context that’s easier to understand, I believe this represents a significant win for poorer riders–those who don’t have cars or can’t afford parking in particular–who need to commute across Montgomery county. Those going almost the entire route won’t be forced to transfer. Although this doesn’t solve the problem of snarled traffic, it at least doesn’t punish those who contribute to a more sensible commute for everyone. Now let’s start working on a better, cheaper, cleaner, transportation system.
Reading the document was also a refreshing taste of democracy in action. I learned how seriously Metrobus takes socioeconomic equity issues, and support the methodology overall. I might be signing a slightly different tune had the decision been opposite, but I still believe I’d respect the amount of work they put into their surveying (including sending out surveyors to capture the voices of riders unlikely to fill out online forms).

No more Dave Ramsey podcasts

For the last few months, I’ve tuned into Dave Ramsey’s radio show via podcast. There’s a lot to like about his simple method of getting and staying out of debt. America would be a better place if more people did something to get a better handle on debt. Henry David Thoreau made a similar point about signing one’s life away, and lamented how most men led lives of quiet desperation.

But I’ve decided that despite Dave’s strength as a teacher, the human interest of the people who call into the show, and the clarity of Dave’s ‘baby steps,’ aspects of the show trouble me enough that I have a hard time listening any further.

The things that bother me are:

  • The endless promotion of his network of financial advisers, insurance agents, and staged appearances
  • His rejection of DIY passive investing (the kind you can learn about on Bogleheads.org), which is a good option for individual investors who hope to avoid being ripped off
  • The clear relationship between the first and second points above
  • And then personally, the references to collecting guns as a hobby. I kind of enjoy his political rants, even through I usually disagree with them, because I can learn more about the perspective of the religious right. Collecting guns for fun, though, just reminds me of America’s tragic problem with guns.

So while I am grateful to Dave for constructing a good system to think about debt, I’m not about to become his customer.

**

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius coached himself to  “waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” That was about 1,845 years ago. His words, and those of Thoreau, echo through time. Easy to say, hard to achieve.

What is my risk profile?

Sophisticated algorithms are constantly gauging us online, calibrating the likelihood of various outcomes without our knowing about it. In financial life, these computations mostly involve risk. But they are hidden. What if, as financial citizens, we were able to view our own risk profiles? It would be an effective educational tool to know exactly where we stand. Too much debt to income? You might get a heads up about that. Something tells me this stuff is hidden because few people have asked for it. I think a startup could launch a  free “scan me” risk profile feature for those who don’t mind inputting their data using some of the industry-standard stuff that businesspeople use.

If this post seems short, it’s because I’m composing it while riding on a bus, and I just got to my stop.

“Legioni di imbecilli”

“Legioni di imbecilli.” That’s how Italian author Umberto Eco recently described social media users and their opinions. The man has style.

Keep the phrase in mind, particularly on social media where, in Eco’s estimation, the Internet has “promoted the village idiot to the bearer of truth.” Although Eco’s observation may seem arrogant and condescending, I think that the idea animating it is rather humble.

“Know-it-all” is a common stance. Being more oriented toward uncertainty and discounting claims about the unknown are rarer qualities. In the opening to The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes Umberto Eco’s book collection as an “anti-library.” The most valuable titles are those yet unread. They contain depths yet fathomed.

The same could be said about the Internet when information is approached with the skeptical mind of a scientist. Everything must be tested, or as physicist Richard Feynman said, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Eco said that idiots making drunken comments in wine bars don’t do too much damage to the community because they can be “quickly silenced.” The Internet has taken away this natural restraint.

The machine never died

After a long journey with my friend Runzour, this Polar RS200 has been reborn to serve a new master.
After a long journey with my friend Runzour, this Polar RS200 has been reborn to serve a new master.

Today I spent $27 on batteries to relaunch a circa-2007 “running computer” given to me by my friend Runzour. While I was deleting his data, I noticed that he had logged more then 4,000 kilometers with it. The chest strap is weathered from use. This is ancient by today’s running-watch standards, but that gives it some character. Many physical objects don’t acquire much character during their first decade of use. The torch is passed. The machine never died. It was just sleeping, temporarily out of juice.

For someone who does as much running as I do, I’m a bit of an anomaly in that I’ve never used a running watch. Thus this is my first foray into this technology. One upside is that all the data the watch produces is intrinsic to this machine, as it has no connection to GPS.

Ubiquitous Wireless Connectivity Should be a Right

Imagine a world where every American could tear up their internet contract.  All those contacts are great for Verizon and Comcast, etc., but I think they are causing a big economic drag — for both individual pocketbooks and for broad-based economic development. I hope within my lifetime to see the moment where business and the market force a positive change.

Now that SpaceX is planning to blanket the US in better satellite coverage, things may start to get more interesting. The internet of things, in which sensors everywhere fix problems and make suggestions, requires ubiquitous connectivity.

Business councils could argue that if WiFi  were considered more of a right than a service, a flood of new economic activity and opportunities would result. And not only businesses would prosper. Poor people, who often use libraries because they cannot pay for internet contacts, could more easily seek new opportunities and create their own enterprises.

Until this happens, they providers are lording it over subscribers. My neighbor, who uses an antenna to get free TV and just needs internet, told me his provider informed him his new rate would rise from $50 to almost $100 when his two-year contact elapsed. The only way to get the contract back down was to agree on a promotional deal that included cable TV.

The providers are not plain dealers. I believe that they have engineered a useful system, but are stuck in short-term revenue maximization mode. The way they behave makes me think of them, as vampires. Hopefully the market undercuts them in a way that promotes human lives and greater prosperity.

Two Simple Rules for Fitness and Nutrition

Everyone navigates by their own lights when it comes to fitness and nutrition.These ideas are often like belief systems–best not to argue with a true believer of any particular stripe.

Here are the two ideas that guide me:

  1. Animal products and processed carbohydrates tend to be behind unhealthy weight gain and preventable disease.
  2. Exercise, particularly natural forms of exercise, lead to positive reinforcement loops.

The two authors whose ideas strike me as the clearest and most compelling are Andrew Weill and David Agus.

Marion Nestle is our best writer when it comes to seeing the food business and food politics for what they are.

Forks Over Knives opened my eyes to certain properties of animal foods. It deserves viewing.

Less is More

Recently I’ve been reading a collection of essays called Less is More.

This book gives me some hope about the world. Specifically, essays like “Simplicity isn’t ‘Voluntary’ Anymore” envisions what may begin to happen when our markets and ecosystems begin to evolve toward less for each human. The author, Ernest Callenbach, sees positive aspects in this evolution.

On the other side of adjustment lies a trio of self-reinforcing virtues that Callenback calls the “green-triangle approach”:

“As you look over your daily life, imagine a triangle whose points are environment, budget and health. It miraculously turns out that if you make a change aimed at improving one of those points, it will also help the others.”

This rings true to me, and it points to how each person can be part of an evolution toward a saner, wiser, more joyful, commonwealth type of society. Rather than top-down social programming, people begin to make the most of increasingly limited resources. In doing so, they wield power within their own spheres of influence and begin to temper environmental destruction, poor health during the prime years of life, and rising wealth inequality.

The part about looking over your daily life also speaks to me. It reminds me of stoic wisdom, the way Marcus Aurelius would scrutinize those things over which he had control in order to make the best decisions.

Contemporary life in America may be madness, but ideas like these offer some pleasing side trails. They may or may not lead to a better destination, but every thoughtful person should consider taking them.