Some Components of our Various Lives

These last few days I’ve had fun wrestling with diagraming important aspect of our complex existences. Each of us has stronger and weaker component depending on luck (birth country, birth parents, health, and circumstances). The four, Psyche/Livelihood/Relations/Health, all interact. The borders are fuzzy.

I use this way of visualizing to think of the whole person and the various way of strengthening our own vitality and those of others.

Readers: Tell me word choices, categories or layouts that you imagine if you were making a similar diagram. Thanks for your ideas. Input from two folks already has helped me modify this.


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The Narrative Fallacy

Humans are natural storytellers, a trait that comes from our innate ability to recognize cause-and-effect relationships. For example, if a cup falls off the kitchen counter and hits your bare foot, you quickly learn not to place objects close to the counter’s edge. Similarly, if you’ve been hit by a car which ran a stop sign, you learn not to trust other drivers blindly.

However, this causality heuristic can also lead to what’s known as the narrative fallacy, where we overuse our tendency to create cause-and-effect relationships between events. For example, we may attribute our personality traits or life circumstances solely to a particular childhood experience or the behavior of our parents, while ignoring the role of genetics and luck.

In reality, a vast majority of self-narratives tend to fall into this trap, disregarding the complexity of factors that contribute to our experiences and outcomes. Moreover, in my post from 13 years ago, “Re-writing our history with head nods“, I discuss another mechanism that creates false narratives.

If you would like to learn more about the narrative fallacy, I recommend reading this article.

Challenge to readers: Share a story where you have seen through one of your own false narratives.

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Valorizing News Literacy

Did you read the news today? Don’t want to miss anything? Want to be up on things so you can share your opinion with others?

Below is a picture of the front page of a 1909 newspaper in the USA. Most likely you don’t care to read more about any of those headlines. They don’t matter, they are “old news”.

Today, thinking about “old news” made me reflect on some of my silly motivations to stay on top of recent news. Similarly, another way to help us laugh at our parochial news pride is to search the web for today’s newspaper in several countries (the English versions of course), For example:

Viewing these, we can also dispel our pride in our news literacy. There is so much to know, so much to care about. But is there really?

These exercises help me to resist my reflex to valorize my news literacy and to take comfort in my “up-to-date”ness.


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The Deceit of Momentum

In physics, momentum = mass x velocity. But momentum is a vector force, it has a direction. In martial arts, an opponent’s punch, kick, or lunge can be easily redirected by applying very little force to the side of the oncoming attack, thus easily deflecting the attack. The attack loses none of its momentum — only the direction of the vector direction with a timely tap.

Strong opponents are often fooled by their strength and deceived by their momentum. Likewise, we often drive our cars naively, looking only forward, not expecting anything from the side, and are deceived by our massive momentum. We feel the power of our heavy cars moving forward and forget that the vectorial component of our momentum is easily changed. For all it takes is a slight bump from the side and a heavy car can spin and flip, with its unchanged momentum causing its destruction.

In our lives, too, we are sometimes deluded by our blind expectations and the power of our efforts. We forget that a small bump from unforeseen circumstances can send our best intentions into a spin.

We should always beware of the deceit of our own momentum. We need to be aware of our blind spots, to look around us, lest our momentum spin out of control.

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Missiles & White Blood Cells

A vessel’s captain (a pilot or ship officer) sets sights on a target then the vessel’s computer, not the captain, immediately calculates the missile’s aim and firing time. The missile is fired by the computer and the circuitry in the missile continues to aim and destroy the target.

This computer used a simple form of AI. Future AI could replace the human captain and determine (by some unknowable strategy) the need to preemptively attack a target using data collected by its military. The military could have “trained” its AI on any number of selected historical or fictional scenarios and priorities. The destructive outcome is unknowable to the humans who created it. Two, three, or four militaries using their own uniquely trained, unethical, unknowable AI war system could result in unimaginable chaos.

The U.S. government can’t stop other governments from developing physical, biological, or AI warfare tools and so it’s racing to build its own, “just in case.” U.S. companies/contractors are lobbying for this technology for obvious economic reasons.

This apocalyptic thinking, is explored in David Chapman’s new free online book: “Better without AI“. This link is to his 5th page, which also has an excellent white blood cell video to illustrate his points.

Question to readers: What do you think?


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Clarifying Terms: 2 examples

This morning I Skyped with a friend who is a Polish university philosophy professor. We were talking about freedom of speech in his country and mine, or more specifically, politically correct speech. Specifically, we discussed anti-Semitism in Poland. But that complex story is not the point of this post. Instead, I want to discuss the importance of clarifying terms.

In order for my friend and I to have a fruitful discussion, we spent 15 minutes clarifying terms. I suspected that Poles and Americans use the words below differently, with different nuances. To aid our conversation, I shared my uses of the following words:

  1. Anti-Semite: against Jewish
  2. Anti-Judaism: against the the Jewish religion
  3. Anti-Zionism: against Jewish theocracy
  4. Anti-Israel: against the State of Israel

Our usages indeed differed and it took us some time to agree on a set of definitions before we discovered that although at first we seemed to disagree, in the end, we found instead that our opinions had been in agreement from the beginning. Only words separated us.

On a more domestic level: Later that morning, my wife were sharing stories about the neatness of our childhood homes. We found our conversation confusing until we drew pictures of our homes and labeled the rooms. It turned out, as I suspected, that we used the words “living room” and “family room” differently.

In both cases we were not concerned with discovering or establishing the correct definition of the words, but rather with communication. For as I have written, “definitions are myths“.

“Η έναρξη της Σοφίας είναι ο καθορισμός των εκφράσεων “
(“The beginning of wisdom, is the definition of terms.”)
–Socrates (philosopher)

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Pronouncing Chinese Ideographs

The Chinese and Japanese languages use ideographs in their writing system. Ideographs are ideas represented by graphic symbols. Ideographs is a linguist word and they are sometimes called “ideograms” or “pictographs”. The Chinese and Japanese call them “the characters of the Han people”: “Hanzi” in Chinese and “Kanji” in Japanese. Their ideographs have a problem: they contain only meaning and no hint of pronunciation. To illustrate this I created the diagram below of a hypothetical English which uses a combination of ideograms and letters. Note that the ideograms pronunciation depends on its context in the sentence. Compound words combine smaller symbols on top of one another. See if you can see the flexibility of the ideographs.

As you realized, if you worked through my diagram on your own, in this diagram:

  • the heart-symbol can be read: “love” or “heart”
  • the water-symbol can be read: “water” or “hydro”
  • the head-symbol can be read: “head” or “cephalic”.
  • the wall-symbol can be read: “wall” or in compound with water is simply “dam”
  • the bolt-symbol can be read: “electric” or “power”

Japanese has a similar writing system to my above hypothetical English that uses both letters (kana) and pictographs (kanji). Chinese, on the other hand, uses only pictographs (hanzi). The obvious burden for a language that uses pictographs is the task of learning the pronunciation of each ideograph. Chinese has only one sound for each picture, but Japanese has several sounds for each picture — just like my hypothetical English above.

To help children learn the pronunciation of characters each country has developed their own system. Each system puts little pronunciation letters (alphabets or syllabaries) next to the characters to show how to pronounce them. At each new grade level, the pronunciation letters are slowly left off and the children are expected to remember the pronunciations. My diagram below shows China, Taiwan and Japan’s three different system to teach character (pictogram/ pictographs) pronunciations, Japan uses kana (their phonetic syllabary), Chinese in Taiwan uses bopomofo (their phonetic syllabary) and Mainland Chinese used to use bopomofo but switch to using a Roman alphabet system under Mao Tse Dong called “pinyin”.

As I have learned from Jin Tsu’s book that prior to Mao’s Chinese revolution in 1949, the Chinese literacy rate was only about 10%. One of Mao’s goals was to modernize China which necessitated a more educated populace for which he felt language reform was critical — learning the characters was too difficult. Pinyin was part of his successful solution. Many of Mao’s other solutions for China were of course horrible, but PinYin did help modernize China.

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The Natural Limits of Translation

C. Thriveni
M.Sc. in Physics
and a M.Phil. in Translation

Translations are fraught with limitations and thus a translator must always make compromises in their choices of words.

I have spent years in Asia, so when I watch subtitled Indian or Japanese movies with my wonderful wife, we often pause the movie so we can explore parts of the movie that don’t make sense to her but which I understand a bit more. This is simply because no translation can sufficiently capture another culture. Heck, each country has many subcultures causing translation issues even within the same language. For instance, I’m am a former Christian who has read and studied the Bible a great deal. My wonderful wife, on the other hand, has no religious temperament and was raised as a casual Christian. So often I can help explain Biblical allusions in American movies that she may miss. Language can only capture a small part of the original speaker/writer’s intent or feeling.

This post is dedicated to C. Thriveni, a reader of this blog who I first met when she ask permission to use my “The History of the English Language” diagram in her classes. Ms. Thriveni lives in Karnataka, India, where she is a lecturer and researcher in translation. She recently shared a link to her excellent article showing the challenges with translations — the natural limitations — in her article “Cultural Elements in Translation: The Indian Perspective“.

Translation issues even happen in simple conversations (see my posts on abstractions). When we share our people-encounters with loved ones or friends, we often share our dialogues with those other people not using the exact words of that dialogue. This is because we may have not only forgotten the exact conversation, but because our minds interpret their words and repackages them with our personal baggage and then we unknowingly share our interpretation of that dialogue.

Being conscious of the limits of words is valuable.

Request to readers: Please share a short example where you have clearly experienced the limits of translation.

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Kingdom of Characters

Some of my upcoming posts will be inspired by the 2022 book by Jing Tsu entitled “Kingdom of Characters” about the work the Chinese have had to do to “modernize” their language. I will slowly link those posts here:

I love Chinese characters. As for my background, as some readers know, I spent about a decade in Asia: 2 in South Asia (Pakistan and India) and 8 in East Asia (China and Japan). In Japan I graduated from an Oriental Medical school after teaching myself Japanese — I was the only non-Japanese in the school, and all lectures, exams, texts where in Japanese. Japanese is the toughest language I’ve ever learned not only because of its weird grammar but because of their use of Chinese characters — I had to learn about 2,500 of them to succeed in my university.

I fell in love with the Chinese characters both for their aesthetics and for their history-drenched meanings. Westerners who don’t know Chinese characters may find it hard to imagine their power and beauty. I’ve tried to help others feel my awe at times and not succeeded. It is perhaps similar to the frustration felt by experts in music, mathematics, art and history as they try to explain the awe they feel in their areas to the uninitiated like myself. Hopefully future posts will help.

Jing Tsu in a Yale professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature at Yale. “Comparative” studies are my favorite (as I’ve written here) way of deep learning because comparison can help us frogs to see beyond our little wells.

Question to readers: What are the subjects or experiences that you find difficult to explain to others that do not have your experiences? What insights have you gained by comparing two systems you know well, that you may not have had otherwise?


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Can non-believers really be good?

Many Christians will tell non-believers one thing to their face but say something else behind their back: during family dinners, prayer circles, or church coffee hours.

“Well, at least Mary is a very good person. I only wish she knew the Lord.” May be the start of a conversation during one of those coffee hours. And a reply her more doctrinally-informed friend could be “but Mary’s righteousness is like filthy rags without Jesus in her life.”

This reasoning comes from Isaiah 64:6 (KJV):

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. (Composed immediately after exile in Babylon)

Interestingly, this verse comes from the Hebrew Bible — “the Old Testament” of Christians — “old” because it was replaced by a new Gospel of total forgiveness by the human-god sacrifice of Jesus. But the Hebrews, in Isaiah’s time, most likely had no refined doctrine of human sacrifice for sins (only animals), they had no hell and no devil either. Instead, to Jews back then, we were all in the same boat — well, unless you were a slave or a woman or …. With Christianity came the concept of true belief, of lost and the found, the saved and the unsaved, us vs. them. This is what makes some Christians whisper behind your back. So the correct Christian horrible answer is: No, without Jesus you can’t be good.


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