Category Archives: Philosophy & Religion

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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Causes of Revivals

The spirit of God is moving across America’s Bible Belt colleges – “he” has first clearly manifest at Asbury University in Kentucky. The the Holy Spirit’s power then lit up Lee University in Tennessee. And after this, Cedarville University in Ohio and Samford University in Alabama.

This is how Christian would describe this. Use of the word “revival” in Christianity varies a great deal but it usually has several of the below qualities:

  • emotionalism (fervency, inspirational, joy, worship)
  • signs of the spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8-10 : wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirit, speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues)
  • spontaneous group contagion
  • restoring commitment: (I left this out in my original post because it seemed obvious, here is a definition of “revival” from Oxford Reference: “A term applied to mass movements which are based upon intense religious excitement. Periodic religious revivals, which seek to restore commitment and attachment to the group, are a regular sociological feature of religious traditions.”

I don’t think that a spirit or a god is causing this phenomena. Instead, my head goes into a comparative analysis to make sense of these remarkable happenings. I am interested in what social settings, human temperaments and theological expectations make these phenomena occur. It seems to me that there are at least two necessary ingredients that these cross-religion phenomena share:

  • emotional theologies: Charismatic or Holiness movements in Christianity; Bhakti sects in Hinduism; Shiite imamism in Islam. That is, theologies that expect or yearn for such expressions. For this reason, revivals are less likely in non-Evangelical Episcopals, Hindu Shaivism or Islamic Wahhabism.
  • social tension / existential fears: Covid blues (social isolation, sadness, frustration, anger), social insecurities (war, poverty, lack of jobs) and lack of meaning (due to the emptiness of a materialistic, superficial culture)

Question for readers: What are your thoughts?


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Adjectives for Abstractions: “Freedom”

Abstractions are nouns but they don’t exist in the way concrete nouns exist: like dog, chair, festival. Abstractions are words highly loaded with vagueness, assumptions, baggage, manipulation and more — as my series of posts on abstractions illustrates.

Abstractions can be very convenient for two speakers who agree on the contents of those abstractions, but otherwise the abstractions can cause unnecessary misunderstandings. It is safe to say that each of us often do not share similar packages inside our abstractions. Using adjectives can be one of the best ways reveal the packages hidden in our abstractions. We should try hard to avoid abstractions which are naked of adjectives. Abstractions are best left as tools for manipulation or inspiration, but not for deep understanding.

“Freedom” is an abstraction that can have many sub-packages. For example:

  • religious freedom
  • representational freedom
  • sexual freedom
  • speech freedom
  • property freedom
  • safety freedom
  • health freedom
  • political freedom
  • gun freedom
  • abortion freedom

Imagine two speaker, each saying “ I believe in Freedom ! “. Yet if we explored which adjectives these speakers are not saying, the adjectives may look like this:

Speaker #1: sexual, abortion, religious, health, representational
Speaker #2: property, speech, political, gun

It is easy to imagine these type of speakers. If these two people tried to abstractly argue about freedom stripped on these adjectives their dialogue would be fruitless. Arguing about “freedom” intellectually or philosophically without these particulars would be a waste of time. And even in these cases, further exploring the sub-packages may be needed for deep understanding.

Question to readers: What particulars are inside your word “Freedom” when you use it?


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Our shared limited options


Humans can only make so many stationary, single-hand signs with our five fingers. Thus it is inevitable that disparate groups of people develop different meanings for the same symbol, some of which I illustrate below:


Like our hands, human mouths can only make so many sounds. Thus, it is not uncommon for different languages to have shared sounds with very different meanings. Let’s call that intra-language homonyms or “false friends” as language learners call them. Some quick examples:

  • English fart / Polish “good luck”
  • English but / Polish “shoe”
  • English kiss / Swedish “pee”
  • English barf / Hindi “snow”
  • English gift / German “poison” / Swedish “married”

Martial Arts

Like hands, humans limbs have only so many possible movements — there are only so many ways to attack an opponent using our limbs. It is common for various martial arts to declare themselves as unique, yet sharing more methods than they are willing to admit. This is the result of either intentional borrowing or spontaneous, independent development from among a limited number of movement options.


Finally, a common theme of this blog: religious thinking. One of the main reasons I left the exclusive religion of my youth was exposure, while traveling and reading, to shared thinking between religions (though each religion thinks themselves unique) due to the limited dilemmas shared by all humans. Like hands, mouths and limbs each human mind experiences a common limited set of dilemmas. Each religion dresses their similar solutions in different myths and theological clothing:

  • Free Will
  • Suffering
  • Works vs Faith
  • Magic Words
  • Guaranteed Afterlife
  • and many more …


Because we do not often recognize our shared limited options, we are frequently and unnecessarily surprised by our overlaps. I could have gone further by exploring government types, sexual practices and more, but I think I’ve made my point without being too risky. Our insights are bound by the limitation of what sort of organism we are — a limitation we often forget.

Notes: Here are Wiki articles on single hand signs: List of gestures, Shaka symbol, OK gesture, Horn Sign. BTW, I was inspired to write this post because of one clue in the Vox crossword puzzle this week about Heavy Metal bands (the Horns sign) — ah, the internet rabbit holes. I am thankful to my son for editing my writing.

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