年底 (End of the year)

2007 December 31

A couple months ago, I was taking a hike with a friend, and he told me about a friend of his who is quite a serious pack-rat. I commented during this story that many years ago I was a serious pack-rat too (I used to joke: if it touched my hand, it went into some drawer of mine), but I’d gradually weaned myself off of that habit. But, then I had to qualify that: “Except, I’m still a serious digital pack-rat. I’ve got just about every personal email I’ve sent or received since 1986, for example.”

That comment stuck with me. It isn’t like it was a new idea. I’ve been chewing on it for many years, knowing that I’d only dealt with the most visible and painful part of my pack-rat-ish-ness. But, this time, the comment seemed to have a different character. I thought about it more for a few weeks, and then finally one day grabbed my “Historical” folder out of my home directory, and dragged it into the recycler.

The emotional impact of this was interesting. I didn’t even need to empty the recycler! And, of course, I still have a backup! But, that one simple act told me a lot of why I was keeping the stuff. I realized I was afraid that if I’d deleted something, and someday I wanted it, I’d be very sorry. Probably afraid that I’d (essentially) punish myself for having been so “stupid” as to throw it away.

I’ve been fine for the last month, though, with the stuff gone. In fact, I finally emptied the recycler. I guess this is like what I did with physical things: over a period of years, I would put stuff in boxes and say “if I haven’t touched this in a year, then I can get rid of it”. Little by little I got rid of essentially everything, until I finally decided that my need to get rid of stuff was as bad as the need to acquire stuff, and then I stopped doing that, realizing that I didn’t need to control the process any more.

It’s amazingly liberating when your stuff doesn’t control you any more!

This coincides with a bunch of other stuff I have been doing lately. For instance, recognizing that I’m afraid of conflict I’ve decided to try to stop avoiding it. Tied in with that is releasing the need to be right (which, of course, is just a way of protecting oneself from some kinds of conflict (while creating others!!)), and trying to be more decisive (because I tend to be quite a waffler, in general). Strangely, in the last month, I’ve had several instances where I’ve been mortified with shame. Somehow, this is connected with all the previous stuff, for I think by doing the previous stuff (accepting conflict, etc) I’ve taken down some defensive screens, and that’s exposing parts of my psyche to injury that haven’t been before.

The sad thing in all this is the more I practice (and, I can see it will be a long road) changing these habits of waffling, conflict avoidance, etc. the more I see ways I’ve treated people around me badly. This, too, is humbling.

So, it looks to me like 2008 will be a year of letting go of a lot of things!



2007 October 1

I was at a meeting recently, and one of the attendees (with a nice dose of Berkeley self-righteousness) made some assertion about some racist persons (I forget the details). Something about what they said pushed my buttons, and I made some response disagreeing with their phrasing of the situation. The look in their eyes suggested to me that they didn’t agree with me, but that was that.

Since then, I’ve wanted to try to better articulate what went through my mind there.

There is no such thing as a racist.

That’s a deliberately provacative assertion. But, let me tread into seemingly political incorrect territory as I explain what I mean.

My basic view is this: Very very few people wake up in the morning and think “today I’m going to do a Racist action”. Very few people create laws where they are thinking “Oh, goody. we’re going to create a Racist law!” Instead, most people probably think “I’m going to do something to protect myself from dangerous people” or “I’m going to do something to those people I dislike” or even “I’m going to prevent a situation from happening that I don’t want to happen.” Or they might be doing something to impress their friends, or boss, or lover. Whatever it is, I think few people think of themselves as doing something “bad”.

Yet, we have a tendency to label these people as racists (or homophobes, or whatever). My feeling, though, is that most people don’t like being given a negative label, especially when that label completely misrepresents their heart’s intention. They think “I need to protect my community from those dangerous folks”, then I say “you are a racist” and because this accusation is so much different than their own thinking, it creates confusion and defensive antagonism in their heart. (“Why is he accusing me of that? I’m trying to be safe here!”)

The point is that in the mind of the person, they are not being racist. “racism” exists in the mind of the viewer (the interpreter of the event). And it is the projection of one person’s interpretation onto someone else’s actions which so often causes miscommunication, argument and conflict.

Of course, some people, when confronted with such an accusation, will reflect on their actions and see that those are not good. But, I think in far more situations, the accusation does more harm than good. How much better to take the time to talk with the person to find out that they think the folks moving into the neighborhood are dangerous, and then seeking to educate them so they understand those folks aren’t dangerous. Not by beating them over the head with theory (as I’m doing here!) but by showing them.

My point is, it might be reasonable in some circumstances to speak of a partiucular thing (situation, law, etc) as racist. Maybe. But, I think it’s almost never useful to label a person that way. In some way that’s hard for me to articulate, I think such an accusation is actually a taint upon one’s own heart, for isn’t that labeling of someone else (who is simply trying to do the best they understand) basically the same as that person’s labeling of a member of some other race? Both labels turn someone else into a thing, rather than a child of God groping towards their own betterment.


2007 July 27

Yesterday, I dropped by at an Apple store, and took a look at an iPhone in person.

It wasn’t entirely new to me, because I’d watched the Guided Tour a while back, and this was a surprisingly good introduction to the thing.

What surprised me most about it in person was taht it seemed a bit bigger than I’d imagined, which is actually good. And it was just as perky as the video had suggested, which was nice. It also seemed as “durable” as I’d hoped.

One of my reactions to the video was that the navigation seemed a bit confusing. Things seemed to slide back and forth, zoom in and out, and so on in almost crazy ways. I kept thinking: is this going to get confusing?

My reaction to using one for a bit is: it isn’t as bad as the video made me feel, but I think there’s a “significant” navigation issue. The iPhone still has a relatively strong “application boundary”. By that I mean, while you are in an app, you can move back and forth, but there’s no way to get out of an app without using the home button. What I found myself doing periodically was looking around for the “go back” button to get out of an app (e.g. once I was in the calculator, how do I get out???), only to then remember “oh, use the home button at the bottom of the device”. At other times, I’d reach for the home button to go back one “screen”, but stop myself realizing that was too drastic. I have no idea if I’m representative, but my feeling was that this would be served better by having a universal “back and forth” button like in a web browser (in addition to the home button, perhaps). That is, by now, a very familiar way of navigating what are essentially full-screen transitions like this. In terms of the base interaction model in the iPhone, that was my strongest complaint.

There are some smaller inconsistencies in the interaction model: why is it I can pinch to zoom in and out of pictures and maps, but I can’t do this with movies? I also found the placement and coloring of various buttons (cancel, continue, delte etc. kinds of things) a bit confusing.. not to the point of harming usability, but just to the point of making me feel a little like I couldn’t predict what to look for in any given circumstance.

Sometimes when you try to scroll something past the beginning, you’ll get a cute effect of the information being pulled and then snapping back. It’s a very effective bit of animation. Yet, I also felt it was a bit too cartoon-y when compared with the physical device, which seemes more serious in its very spartan design. It didn’t match my view of providing a consistent overall experience.

One thing which really surprised me was that the camera application ws separate from the photos. I somehow expected that to take a picture, I should go into photos and use something from there to take th picture. It took me a while to find the “camera” application on the home screen. The more I thought about it, the more the whole camera story seemed a bit wrong. My sense is that in general a camera on a phone is used pretty heavily (and will be used all the more with this phone’s integration with things like iphoto). But, to take a picture is a multiple gesture operation (unlock the phone, click on camera, click on take a picture). I can definitely understand a reluctance to put a button on the physical phone in order to minimize buttons… but, really, I think a button is justified for this. (and, yes, I’d still probably want to combine the photos and camera apps, but a friend pointed out they’re separate in other phones, so maybe my instinct is wrong).

When the iPhone was first given its preliminary introduction by Mr. Jobs early in the year, I saw the home screen, and thought “well, this looks pretty gaudy. I’m sure it is just for demo purposes, and when the product is released it will be changed.” But, obviously, that’s not the case. And I’ve spent some months, on and off, thinking about this. I still think the home screen looks surprisingly gaudy given the rest of the interface. And, I think there’s something fundamentally not right about this way of presenting functionality. It isn’t just the iphone which suffers from this. Most or all phones do, as do other various consumer devices. They dump all their “applications” into one bucket. Really, no different than the Applications folder on the Mac. Yet, why is “calculator” given the same weight in the interface as “sms” or “phone”? I’m probably going to use “phone” several times a day, and “calculator” a couple times a week, and hopefully “settings” maybe once a month. but, there they all are as peers, side by side. The interesting thing is that I am not sure how I’d arrange it differently. It isn’t an easy problem, which is why so many devices do this. Yet, I still think something different is called for here.

The above comments are all those of a professional interface designer. As an end consumer, I kinda liked the iPhone. If I had $500 lying around with nothing to do, it would be fun to have one. I think I’m likely to wait until “2.0” or so, though. If nothing else, right now it doesn’t allow Chinese input (in fact, the only localization I saw for the interface was English!). It is certainly a nicer phone than many and makes the non-phone parts of such a device easier and clearer to use than any other I’ve seen. There’s great potential here both for Apple and for the various other phone makers who I hope will copy many of the ideas.

Learning Theories

2007 June 20

Wow. It’s been a long time since I posted anything here.
I should add that where I left off in the last posting was wrong, as stated. Chinese sentences aren’t all of the “indicate a change” variety. That overgeneralization has been bugging me since a couple days after I made that last post.

Anyway. Having gone through a year of Chinese courses, I wanted to summarize my current thoughts on learning theories from the student’s perspective. There appear to be three “big” learning theories out there these days:

  • Behaviorist
  • Cognitivist
  • Constructivist

(plus, various papers refer to others. The most frequent “other” is some variation on constructivism with an acknowledgement of the importance of social interaction).

To summarize (disclaimer: I’m not a scholar in this field):

  • Behaviorist: People are taught by being presented info, and rewarded when they can repeat it back.
  • Cognitivist: In addition to the basic info, people are also taught general rules to help remember that info. Presumably they are evaluated not only by whether they can reproduce the basic info, but also whether they can give answers to novel questions that those rules can apply to.
  • Constructivist: People are taught the basic info, but this is done in such a way that they construct their own rules to help remember that info. Presumably the evaluation is primarily around novel questions.

So, there are two parts to this: what you teach, and what you evaluate. To me, it seems like the key difference here is: can you answer the question “why?” about any answer you give, and how rich/complex is your answer. In the behaviorist system, your answer to “why” is always “because it is”. In the congnitivist it is “because the rule (the teacher taught me) is X”, in the constructivist, the answer seems like it would be “because i’ve noticed that under circumstance y you get z, therefore…”

Given this, you’d think classical language teaching would be ocognitivist (the books tell you the grammar explicitly), and my Chinese class constructivist (since it taught me no grammar (how words and sentences are composed) explicitly.

Yet, again and again I kept thinking my courses were actually behaviorist. How is it I could keep mistaking constructivism as behaviroism?

It comes down to this: my feeling is that in any behaviroist system, the further you progress, the more likeely it is that you will implicitly or explicitly start building your own rules to help manage the memorization task. indeed, isn’t that the naive view of constructivism? hand someone a lot of data, let them build their own models?

Maybe the difference is what will be evaluated (e.g. constructivism asks novel questions, behaviroist learning doesn’t). But, this runs into problems. Again, I think any topic when you go far enough must start asking novel questions.

Furthermore, there’s a problem with the obvious approach to constructivism: you have no way of assuring that two people have built similar rules. Doing any kind of novel testing here is a bit dangerous, since your novel questions may violate the rules constructed by the students. You’d be legitimately accused of changing the world on them. (I’ll note in passing that when I found a classmate who could explicitly articulate the grammar they had about some Chinese sentence, I found their models and mine were quite different).

So, I’m left with feeling that for constructivism to “work”, you must actually be intending to teach a particular set of rules, but you just do it implicitly. You arrange the presentation of the info in such a way that people will easily discover the rules you want them to. this, of course, is impossible to do absolutely since in any classroom some students will consider your subtle presentation of the rules blatantly obvious and they’ll have no ‘constructing’ to do, while others will never pick up on the patterns enough to do any constructing.

I think my point here is that after staring at this for a while, I have (first) been left feeling that many folks who think they are doing constructivism are actually doing a variation on behavirosm. Second, that what people are trying to get at with these terms is actually not captured by those terms. What they’re probably trying to get at is: how do you get people motivated enough to put active effort into learning something? Because, of course, rich knowledge building comes when you are engaged in something and you are associating what you are learning with everything else you have done in life.

Grammar and Reality

2007 May 7

Well, I seem to have more to say about grammar. My thinking has progressed from where it was a week and a half ago when I last wrote here.

I’ve been thinking more on two parallel tracks: English verbs and Chinese sentence structure.

Let’s start with the English verbs. You may remember that I observed that the English verbal system finally kinda made sense to me. The key there was this change in my thinking: in the past, I’ve always tended to think of “past, present, future tense” as indicating that the action of the sentence was in the past, present or future. And this just isn’t the case. At moments I feel like maybe I’m dumb, and everyone English speaker but me must already know this and somehow I’ve overlooked this for 30+ years (and I must have been sleeping in Elementary school when they taught us this). At other moments, though, I suspect most people are pretty deluded about this.

I think the heart of the problem is that just about any explanation of verb tenses starts with the present/past tense distinction (“I work” and “I worked”). It seems clear that in “I work” the action is in the present, and in “I worked” the action is in the past. You then meet “I will work” and the action seems in the future. The perfect, progressive and perfect progressive have such baffling names with the baffling array of “auxiliary verbs” (have, has, is, had been, will have been) that one tends to just put the mind into neutral and follow along with the original assumption. If you don’t, then you meet “I will have worked” and are told this is “present perfect”, and your intuition tells you the action is in the past so how can it be present? So you give up and assume the teacher knows what they’re talking about and again the mind goes into neutral and you stop thinking.

There’s two problems. The first, as I observed before, is that actual the past, present, future distinction has nothing intrinsically with when the action occurred, it has to do with where the subject or speaker “is” in time. “I have worked”, “I have been working” and “I am working” are all present tense, which tells you the speaker is situating themselves in the present time telling you about an action that occurred in the past (in the first two cases) or that is happening in the present time.

As I observed before, the beauty of this system is that we can easily talk about relatively complex relationships of actions in time (I read something today which said something like “he has finished the task and is working on the new job”, which is all situated in the present time, but refers to two actions at different points in time with some implicit relationship between the occurrence of those actions).

The second problem, I’ve come to realize, is that I think in many ways the “simple past” is actually an anomolous tense. If you look at this entry in wikipedia, it shows a nice 12 cell table showing the verb tenses, with the simple past, present and future in a nice column. The trouble is that I don’t think it’s quite appropriate to group them that way. The simple present and simple future speak of an action either habitually occurring or kinda unspecifically occurring from present or future time frame. The simple past, however, generally refers to an action which is complete. This seems a bit odd. It seems even more odd when you realize you can say things like “When i was a teenager, I would play cards every thursday”. That “would play” seems suspiciously like it is more consistent with the simple present and simple future, in that it speaks of a habitually occurring or unspecifically occurring action.

As I read the wikipedia page more closely, I began to realize that the verb tense situation is even more complex. The present perfect, for example, seems to sometimes refer to actions completed in the past, and sometimes to actions in the past that are still ongoing, and I’m not quite sure why this is (though, I agree with their analysis). The page also refers to 9 other tenses which seem like they might legitimately belong to the base 12 cell table (e.g. “i was going to work”).

If you think about this, it may begin to give you a headache. It seems relatively safe to say that one could easily argue for a different organization of the English verb system than is conventional. Which is “true” and who decides? Given how long English grammar has been studied, and how widely it is taught, it is interesting to me how easily I can reach a point of disagreeing with the conventional view. Is it any wonder I’m pulling my hair out with Chinese?

The important point, for me, however, is not actually all these tense differences. The important point is actually the crucial importance that time plays in just about every sentence, both the position of the speaker or subject in time and the position of the action in time. You probably can’t speak good English without having internalized this system. And since I have yet to see a “learn english” web site or textbook, I guess most people must go the “constructionist” route and try to intuit this system.

This leads me back to Chinese. I’m more and more convinced that if the heart of an English sentence is time, then the heart of a Chinese sentence is change. More and more it looks to me like sentences are arranged in a way to convey a message of change. if you look at Chinese in this light, many of the baffling sentence structures begin to make sense. if you look at it through an English (or other european language) viewpoint, the elements of a sentence (subject, verb, object) have stereotyped positions which are relatively fixed. you might change the order of the parts to emphasize a part (e.g. the whole passive tense (to me) seems to be about emphasizing the object of an action). But, in Chinese the order of the elements seems like it has more to do with explaining the situation before and after an action. Even the notion of a “subject” and “object” seem a little blurry at times, for both subjects and objects (as well as indirect objects and other such entities) sometimes get marked with “prepositions”.. sometimes this seems to serve to disambiguate which is which, but more often it seems to have to do with emphasizing how they are involved in the action. Anyway, Chinese is actually remarkably rich in allowing one to express how an action has “resulted”. Again, I’ll go back to my earlier point, and say that I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about Chinese as a SVO, OVS, SOV, OSV or whatever language, for that implies that positions in a sentence are fixed in a way that I don’t think Chinese cares about.


  • One can punch holes in the conventional grammatical explanation of English verbs, which reminds one that all of how we describe reality is subjective and not absolute. (there is no One True Grammar)
  • English sentences, regardless of the exact morphological forms used, implicitly tell one a vast amount about time (with, I think, two aspects of time being conveyed by every verb).
  • English learners are not taught this explicitly, and so must infer it. Wow.
  • I’m hypothesizing that Chinese grammar is as focused on change/results as English is on time, and that when looked at in this way it begins to be sensible.


2007 April 25

During my monday evening language exchange session, my partner asked me some about the English verb tense system (past, present, future, etc). I felt a bit of trepidation. Everytime before when someone asked me about the english verbs, I felt a uneasy, because while I can use them, I don’t understand the system well.

My partner had brought along a nice summary (with descriptions in Chinese. turns out the Chinese names for the various english tenses are clearer than the english terms!), so I went through the summary examples and drew myself a little chart and thought some.

Before long, I was surprised to find that I actually understood the 12 (24 if you include the passive forms) inflections of an English verb. It’s actually pretty simple. The thing that has always confused me is that something like the “future perfect” tense (“I will have worked”) sounds like it is in some way in the past even though it is in the future… never mind the “future perfect progressive (“I will have been working”). For me, the key insight was to realize that the subject of the sentence exists in the future (or, if you prefer, the point of time the sentence is speaking of is in the future), but the action described in the sentence is in the past of that subject’s existence. I guess I’ve been confused because when someone tells me the verb is “future perfect” I expect that the verbal action is in the future, which isn’t necessarily the case…

As soon as I made this division (subject is in the future, describing an action which from their pov is in the past) in my head, the whole system fell into place. Suddenly I was able to clearly explain to my partner why his verbs were wrong. that makes me very happy.

It is also interesting to me because the way I described things to my partner was not using the model in my head… after all, it gets tedious to say “the subject of the sentence is in the future, while the action is not”. But once i had a clear model in my head, I could then “translate” it to other more appropriate descriptions given a particular circumstance. This was also interesting for me to see. How one model enables different explanations.

In the process, I also realized part of the problem with teaching grammar to people. The fact of the matter is that the perfect and progressive tenses don’t have much meaning on their own. You don’t walk up to someone and say “Last tuesday I had worked”. or “Last tuesday I was working” or even “Last tuesday i had been working” (though, the latter two might be a response to a question). All of these tenses really only make sense in the context of a larger discussion. that is, these verb tenses are only interestesting in terms of multiple events (e.g. “Last tuesday I had been working while bill was singing a song” or “Last tuesday I had worked but on wednesday the boss told me i shouldn’t come back” etc). The point is: in the presentations of the grammar, folks don’t usually mention what these tenses are for. As far as I can see, they’re all about relating multiple events to one another by time (no wonder English speakers are so hung up about time).

I’ve also been having some really deep frustrations with Chinese this week. The formal grammar texts I have give examples. One of them had been reported (in the comments on Amazon.com) as having examples that many speakers consider weird or wrong. I’ve felt the other was probably better. A couple weeks ago I asked some people what they thought of some of the examples in that book. To my surprise some people liked sentences A and B, but hated C, but some others hated A and B and loved C. My conclusion is: everyone’s got a slightly different grammar in their head. I wonder if the same is true of English. I was also frustrated because this week we learnedthe verb 蓋 (to cover) in class, and the examples in the text contradicted each other (with respect to how you point out the item that is being used to cover something else). Various discussions with various people revealed a frighteningly wide range of uses. it is also really hard to have discussions with chinese people about the “grammatical” structure of some of their words, because they only see the usage. They don’t really seem to see the patterns. (which, of course, is the root of my frustrations with every Chinese textbook I’ve seen to date).

At a couple poitns I’ve been ready to throw up my hand and say “OK, I give up! Chinese has no grammar!”. But, I’m feeling better today. It is more and more clear, though, that one must think of the language a lot differently. it is beginning to feel like: rather than thinking of a sentence as a subject, verb, object with other things like indirect objects etc, one needs to think of a sentence as a verb with a set of related entities which are positioned, relative to the verb, based on their importance to the discussion. There’s also clearly a sense of the space after the verb as having some different semantic meaning than before the verb (but I don’t quite get that yet).

When I was in College, we learned that there are various languages in the world. some are SVO (subject verb object) some are SOV (subject object verb). one book I have says that Chinese looks like a language which is in transition from a SVO to an SOV or even OSV language. At this point I’m not sure this system even makes sense here. There’s an implication there that you can determine the order of lexical items based on syntactic rules. But it looks to me like the ordering of items in Chinese is at least partially driven by semantics. Which (in the realm of pursuing lingusitic universals) makes me wonder if one should look at sentence structuring of languages like English through the eyes of semantics instead.

目的 (purpose)

2007 April 22

One of the most useful words I learned this week in Chinese class was 目的, which is “purpose”.

It is useful, because part of what I’m supposed to be doing on this trip to Taiwan is getting myself aligned behind some greater “purpose”, which is really just an fancy way of saying I want to have some long-term direction to go in my life… some set of values and vision which serve as a kind of rudder for my life, and some task which is within the upper range of my abilities (many folks tell me that I’m generally not executing on my full potential).

I actually have parts of that in place, but no real vision to unify the parts. When I try, I keep getting something that sounds like some dull academic economics textbook… rather than inspire it lulls one to sleep.

Part of the need for some kind of vision is that it is very easy to get caught up in the process and forget that it is a means to an end, not the end itself. To take joy in programming or designing or whatever else rather than taking joy in them and appreciating them as steps on some greater road.

At other times, I get something more “visionary” sounding, but it ends up sounding impossibly lofty which doesn’t help me at all when chosing between X or Y.

More and more, I think that’s what the next year is for… use the bits I’ve gatherd in the context of actual work to try to say “I’m going in THAT direction”.

安全感 (security)

2007 April 18

I’ve read a bit about the sad events at Virginia Tech this week.

One of the things that i quickly ran across was people declaring that the school officials/police made a major mistake by not broadcasting news of the first shootings until almost 2 hours later.

I’m not privvy to the details, of course, and it is entirely possible that something really foolish happened. I’m willing to give them some credibility for making the best decisions they could in a difficult situation.

Still, I find myself surprisingly angry about people’s anger about the behavior of the officials. I keep asking myself: why do I even care? I have zero influence over the situation, and its outcome doesn’t evidently affect me.

I still don’t understand my own reactions. But, perhaps it is similar to my reactions to people’s reactions after 911. I sometimes (especially after 911) have been left with the feeling that Americans somehow expect that they should be guaranteed absolute safety at all times. Our outrage over injuries seems unrealistic to me.

I am, honestly, still baffled about the popular reactoin to 911. yes, of course it was an astonishing and horrific event. But, at the same time, are people really that blind to the actions of the US around the world, to be so surprised that someone might want to kick back? We have a culture which promotes violence in many ways from the small to the large. We have a culture which removes accountability between people. We strongly believe individuals should be able to have guns, and we somehow glorify the violence of these shootings in a way I don’t quite understand. So, why are we surprised when a school shooting happens? To start a fire and then get upset that you burn your hand in it seems a bit childish to me.

And, of course, I still wonder. What would have happend if in September of 2001 the president had instead made a speech where he more less said “these unfortunate people, who misunderstood their own scriptures, and have wrought injury against their fellow men. We should have pity for them. And in the memory of those slain seek to make the world a more peaceful place” and instead set about doing something constructive in the middle east. Which is to say: what if we’d taken an attitude of humble forgiveness instead?

What if after these school shootings, instead of presenting the perpetrators as dark and dangerous people (who end up looking suspiciously like some of the anti-heros in our popular media), we again looked on them as unfortunate sad people who need our pity.

If you remember both, consider your attitude towards the Columbine killers and the guy who killed the children in the Amish school last year. To me, the former seem dark, dangerous and powerful while the latter just pitiful. Do you have the same feeling?

It is funny, I think, sometimes how we create our own enemies. Even how we sometimes become so much like our vision of our enemies that we seem the same. Our anger, and hatred, and fear have this strange tendency to get reflected back upon ourselves. Just another reason why the path to “God” involves (I feel) humility, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek.

文化 (Culture)

2007 April 12



What is Culture?

After living for 10 months in a foreign country, and many language exchange discussions surrounding the question of “cultural differences”, I find I’m not particularly closer to answering that question than I was before I started.

In my UI design career (which is, after all, in large part about the organization and presentation of information), when you’ve got a term which you can’t define but which everyone uses readily to point to this or that, it usually means folks are not on the same page and the resulting software, about three quarters of the way into the project, is going to begin to look a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. Well, actually, not that good.

Still, I find myself thinking a lot about culture in various ways.

First, i think a bunch about what culture is. Before I came here, I’d at least gotten far enough in my thinking to realize that there’s one school of thought which is a bit off the mark (imo). For instance, it’s common for Chinese folks in the US to try to teach people about “Chinese Culture” by teaching a bit of how to write Chinese characters, or tea ceremony. Tzu Chi, as an organization, does much the same to try to teach Tzu Chi culture. But, this is a bit like teaching someone to play Cowboys and Indians and thinking they’ll understand American culture that way. A friend of mine took to reading her son some martial arts manga, and we both agreed this was more likely to be doing a better job of teaching culture.
(with that said, in the defence of those folks teaching caligraphy, tea ceremony, etc. Confucious did pretty much say (if I recall right) if you do the rituals, everything will be fine. So, teaching these rituals is consistent with that teaching).

The more you look for culture, the less it can be seen. Chinese signs are written in Chinese, and have references to various heros and gods and animals. Would this place be any less Chinese if you removed these? Men in Taiwan and China no longer wear their hair in queues, women do not wear chipaos, people do not live in buildings that look either like the imperial architecture or yore or the huts of yore. Yet, they’re still undoubtedly Chinese.

I’ve reached the point of feeling that “culture” is really a word that covers behavior. Or maybe you could say culture is the framework which conditions particular behavior. But, no specific behavior is clearly the definition of culture. Yet, that still seems like a nearly useless definition.

Sometimes I think culture is interpersonal relations. Sometimes I think it is economics. On rare occasions i think it is politics. But both politics and economics boil back down to interpersonal relations. Which ultimately takes me back to the issue of behavior. The meaningless definition.

Sometimes I reflect that I’ve been in Taiwan for 10 months, and I feel like I’ve basically learned nothing about “Chinese culture”. It seems like somehow I’ve missed the opportunity here. Sometimes that makes me angry. Sometimes sad. Sometimes just “oh well”. Things are undoubtedly different than in the US… but then in language exchange sessions people ask me about “what is the US like in regards to …” and most of the time I find myself saying “America is big. People there come from all over the world. There’s no single answer to your question. Do you want east coast culture? Midwestern culture? West coast culture? Geek culture? Other?” I went to a nightclub/bar not long ago. That was emphatically not a culture I belong in. Nor was it Chinese culture. Or was it?

Some say that when you go somewhere else, you learn more about where you came from than where you went. I find that’s rather true. For, if I’ve learned anything about culture in my time so far here, it has been more about American culture.

I’ve gradually noticed a couple things here. One is that from one point of view, Americans tend to think (implicitly) that everyone in the world is American. Oh, I think if you asked most of them they wouldn’t agree with that. Yet, there’s an unquestioning assumption that (a) everyone really wants or should adopt american values and (b) american values can be applied universally. in some ways this is dangerously naive. In some ways this is arrogant. But, in other ways it is actually sound. I’ve noted to folks that 200+ years ago, to be a full-fledged american, you had to be white, male, own property, and be christian. As the years have trickled by, bit by bit this has been changed. Broadened. Everyone points to the “all (people) are created equal” stuff in the declaration of independence and uses this to force a broadening of the definition.

Stereotypically, Japan has traditionally adopted many things from other countries, and proceeded to japanify them. China has done the same with every invader over the millenia. To a degree, I suppose India has done the same. I’m not sure I know of another country that adopts things from without and then forces itself to change to accomodate those things from without. Oh, to be sure, the things from without get changed too. Folks must accept the laws of the land and all that goes with that. Yet, those laws are phrased in a way to often allow a lot of manuverability.

American culture is about (to oversimplify) finding oneself (as a buddhist, that makes me laugh, for I know there’s no self! But that’s ok, it’s the journey, not the destination), and the only way to find oneself is to build a system that tries very hard to give everyone maximal freedom to do what they want to do.

I’m not going to say the life of an immigrant is easy. That the huge cultural strife that goes on in families between first and second, and second and third generations do not exist. I’m not saying that assimilation pressures do not exist, for they emphatically do. But, still, I’m left with the feeling that overall American culture is one that in the long run chooses to change itself rather than force others to change (or all the voters, decision makers, holders of wealth/power/influence would be white, male property holding christians).

I view the very prominant battles over acceptance of homosexuality and the much smaller scale issue of dealing with those of an islamic persuasion as examples of the long process of the culture changing itself. If one trusts the course of the last 200+ years, it is inevitable that the culture will change to allow these groups to be respected members as well.

It is, I think, one of the beautiful (if imperfect, for change may still take several generations) things about American culture. Or is this just modern developed-nation culture? is there a difference?

Another thing I note is something made most visible when one looks at the place of education in American culture. Six months ago, I would tell people that America has a contradictory attitude about education. On the one hand, we value it highly (our college system is by most accounts, the best in the world), on the other hand we routinely look down our noses at it (witness Andrew Jackson, Ronald Regan, maybe others). We extoll Einstein and applaud Bill Gates (who dropped out of college).

Yet, when something seems like a contradiction, it means you’re looking at the wrong thing. And more recently it has dawned on me that it isn’t that Americans have a contradictory attitude to education. it is that American culture most values (for lack of a better word) results. If the best way to get results is education, then we’re all for it. If the best way is to not get an education, then we’re all for it.

And that’s the thing, I guess. We’re not that interested in tradition, or face, or even stability (indeed, there’s strong trends in our culture, I think, that seek instability), but (like the Germans) we really care about results.

By results, of course, I do not mean just financial results (though, I think that’s achieved a bit too much prominence lately). I mean do you program well? Do you act well? Do you make entertaining or meaningful movies? Does your reasearch advance the field? Do your students learn? Do the applications get processed on time?

This, also, as an aspect of American culture (as I see it) that makes me proud of being an American.

My chief worry about my culture-of-origin is not the growing influence of China and India, the fight we’ve picked with the middle east, the fact that 60% (or whatever) Americans don’t believe that evolution is a reasonable way to understand the world, or that we decide based on sound-bites rather than thinking. No, my chief (and, really, only deep) worry is the degree to which money seems to be running our government behind the scenes. With sub-concerns about things like salaries of CEO’s and the like.

Anyway. That’s my view of culture at the moment.


2007 April 9

Well, a few years ago, because of my meditation practice, I gradually began to believe that my consciousness really wasn’t controlling much of anything I did. As time went along, I came to the conclusion that my consciousness didn’t controll anything. It was perpetually looking in the rear view mirror and somehow not aware of that.

I have explained this to some folks, but they mostly think I’m loony.

Let’s add that by “consciousness”, I mean (a) the “subsystem” of my mind which is actively processing sensory input (e.g. I am aware I am seeing my computer screen at this moment) and (b) awareness of my thinking.

That is really to say that to my mind “consciousness” means “awareness”. All the other “thinking” that happens really really just seems to magically happen. There’s no “conscious” decision to think something (though, of course, part of my mind tends to think that there is consciousness involved with decision making, but I have yet to find any experiential evidence of this).

Then, today, when I was reorganizing my piles of vocabulary cards while listening to Ze Frank, I was surprised to find that some guy in the 70’s may have stumbled across some measured (“scientific”) support for this notion. how about that?

I found the NY Times article (at a strange place, since the NY Times wants to sell you the article). I actually think I read this a while back.

Sometimes articles like this are frustrating for me. Their whole premise on what reality is is subtly different than mine. too much meditation, perhaps. I’m not Christian enough, I guess, to buy into some border areas of western scientific thinking anymore. (boy, I bet that comment offends my atheistic but science-minded friends). Of course some of this is pop-science writing, with sloppy definitions and then elaborate discussions around those sloppy definitions.

What exactly is free will? They never really define it. So, can we get upset about someone’s claim that it doesn’t exist or does exist if they don’t define it?

Just because, it seems to me, the conscious mind is looking in the rear view mirror perpetually, doesn’t mean we have no free will, it just means that we have no conscious free will. Our mind still makes decisions based on experience, biology, and our sensory input, it seems to me. That seems free enough. The trick, for those wanting to procribe that behavior, is to make sure those parts of the mind have learned what we want them to learn. They’ll then make the right decisions.

(of course, at some level, I suspect all is determinism, in the sense that all the inputs into the decision making process are well defined, and a sufficiently complex machine could predict the outcome. Yet, this article does obliquely allude to the fact that it may be that for a machien to do that prediction, it might essentially have to be the organism that we are trying to predict (in that you’d have to model it so perfectly that the model and the original would effectively be identical). But, actually, that raises the entire question of what it means to be “determined”. Naively, it implies “planned”, but “planned” effectively means “exactly predictable” (with some connotation of deliberately creating the outcome). And so everything is “predictable”, if you can simply run a copy of it faster than the original. As for deliberately creating, well that preassumes some deliberating being. That’s a whole different issue).