Chinese Superstitions and Evil Fish

This post was inspired by something I learned today, which is why the Chinese word for "good fortune" is sometimes hung upside down.

The Chinese have some nutty superstitions based on words sounding alike. The best known of these is probably that the number 4 is considered unlucky because it sounds like the word for "death".

This "reasoning" is especially silly in the Chinese language. In Chinese, every word has one syllable, and there are a limited number of sound combinations that form valid words. For example, in Mandarin there are words that begin with a "k" sound, but none that end with one. So of course every word is going to sound like a whole bunch of other words, in Mandarin more than most other languages. If you're going to use guilt by homophonous association, EVERY word is going to have a hundred layers of meaning that have nothing to do with the word.

In the case of Chinese tetraphobia, the "logic" is especially silly because the words for "4" and "death" don't even have the same tones.

If you want to be logical about this, I'd pick a language like French, which has a tiny number of homophones compared to Chinese, and I'd look for multiple corroborating word associations, not just one. For example, in French the word for fish is "poisson", which sounds suspiciously like the word "poison", meaning "poison". Furthermore, the word for "fisherman", "pêcheur", sounds suspiciously like the word for "sinner", "pécheur". So there you have it: FISH IS EVIL.

Some Ways Wonder Woman Is Different

I saw Wonder Woman on opening night, and while pondering the many reasons I loved it, I got to thinking about differences between Diana and other superheroes.

Like Superman, she comes from a peaceful, scholarly world, but unlike Krypton, Themyscira has a warrior culture. Like Superman, she is pure of heart; unlike Superman, she does not draw a line at killing. And unlike Superman, who was rocketed to Earth as a baby, Diana grew to adulthood in her home world, and so she brings her learnedness with her when she comes to our world.

Like Daredevil and Batman, Diana trains insanely hard from childhood to be a fighter. Unlike them, she doesn't do it because she's been scarred or traumatized. She might be the most psychologically healthy superhero I can think of. She trains hard because she is a warrior at heart and rejects her mother's attempts to shelter her from that life.

Unlike Spider-Man, she doesn't need a "great responsibility" teaching moment. Her natural instinctive reaction is: something's wrong here, people are being harmed, and I have the strength to do something about it.

These differences are some of the reasons I found the movie refreshing. They don't mean one character is necessarily better or worse than another, although I will say the character that Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins have created strikes me as a better Superman than the current Superman.

Why I'm Against "Give Him a Chance"

Trump has already got the chance whether we "give" it to him or not. As near as anyone can tell as of today, he won the election. "Give him a chance" sounds like something I tell myself to feel better about my abuser. It uses an action verb, "to give", to sugarcoat my powerlessness.

Why does the clock start now on giving him a chance? Why wasn't that clock running when he encouraged violence at his rallies? Those rallies were a safe home for bigots itching to punch a protester. Why wasn't the clock running then? At what point do we decide someone has blown the chance we gave them?

I'm more inclined than many to give someone a chance. As far as I'm concerned, Trump could be as dumb as people say, though I doubt it. He could be a buffoon. He could be a failed businessman. He could be all of those things and more. Heck, I was highly amused at how easily he swept that huge Republican field — one with in a Bush in it, for chrissake.

But those rallies slammed a door shut in my mind. If that door didn't slam shut in your mind as well, then I may not stop liking you, loving you, or supporting you as a person, but I'm afraid we have a fundamental disagreement.

In no other sphere of life do we simply ignore the fact that someone has behaved so dangerously with no signs of stopping, being held to account, or caring. What happened to "Trust has to be earned"? What happened to "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time"?

I'm not saying he can't do good things. I'm certainly not saying we should mindlessly protest all things Trump simply because they come from him. I'm saying "give him a chance" is passive bullshit disguised as fairness and graciousness. What we should be saying is "Stay on his case."

Absent-Minded Coffee Drinker

Today's note from Space Cadet Land:


I saw this on my friend's wall and suddenly remembered I'd put water on the stove several minutes earlier to make coffee. I made sure to get up, turn the stove off, and make the coffee before starting to write this, because knowing me I'd get sidetracked again mid-sentence and end up with a scorched pot and no coffee.

P.S. I just remembered my original plan was not to make my own coffee, but to go across the street and sit at Au Bon Pain for a while. Sigh. I guess I can still do that, and just get something besides coffee.

P.P.S. Sure enough, in the time I'm taking to write this I think my water would have mostly boiled off if I hadn't gotten up.

P.P.P.S. Before looking at anything else on Facebook I'd better get up and drink my coffee before it gets cold.

P.P.P.P.S. Before I get up, a fun fact: the mathematician Paul Erdős is often credited with saying, "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems," but apparently he actually got it from another mathematician named Alfréd Rényi.

P.P.P.P.P.S Got up and drank the coffee. It was cold.

Getting Writing Done

Every individual is different when it comes to writing. A frequent problem for me is that the words and ideas race around in circles in my head and I can't seem to round them up so that they come out of me and get onto the page. I don't care how sloppily the words come out — that's what editing and revisions are for — if they would only come out.

In those situations it sometimes helps when a friend asks one specific question via email or Facebook or chat, and when I go to answer that one person about that one little thing, I find the floodgates open and I end up blathering their virtual ear off. And then I realize all that blathering should go on my blog, if only on Scott Hanselman's "finite keystrokes" principle, so I go ahead and repurpose the stuff I wrote into a blog post. (What you're reading now is in fact an example of me doing this.)

It isn't always a question that sets me off. The person might make an assertion that isn't quite correct, and my "well, actually" reflex kicks in, and there you go, I'm blathering again.

Daniel Steinberg shared some wonderful advice about writing in 30 blog posts last September. Every one of those posts is a gem, and it doesn't hurt that Daniel is one of my favorite people.

Millennial Whoop

Fair warning: I don't have any real point here, except that this is the kind of thing I fixate on at 5:00 in the morning when I'm not sleepy.

On Facebook I came across an article by Patrick Metzger titled "The Millennial Whoop: A glorious obsession with the melodic alternation between the fifth and the third". When I saw that title I tried to think of melodies that use fifth-third repetition. The examples I came up with were older than today's pop music:

  • "JOEY, joey, JOEY, …" ("Joey, Joey, Joey", 1956)
  • "TALL AND TAN and YOUNG AND LOVELY, the GIRL FROM IpaNEMA GOES WALKING and…" ("The Girl From Ipanema", 1962)
  • "on a CLEAR DAY, rise and look aROUND YOU, and you'll SEE WHO YOU are…" ("On a Clear Day You Can See Forever", 1965)

Once I played the first example in the article I knew what Metzger meant, and recognized it from Katy Perry.

Besides coming from earlier eras, I can think of two ways my examples differ from the "Millennial Whoop":

  • My examples use fifth-third repetition, not quite alternation.
  • Harmonically, the Millennial Whoop is sung over a dominant (near as my ear can tell). In my examples, the chords may change underneath the fifth-to-thirds in the melody, but I don't think any of those chords are dominant (could be wrong, too lazy to check).

Side note: it's always amused me that the theme from "Return of the Dragon" (the movie in which Bruce Lee fights Chuck Norris) has the same first four notes as "On a Clear Day". It even continues the similarity by repeating the pattern up a step.

Saw Seven Samurai Again

Went out and saw Seven Samurai last night. I can't remember when I'd last watched it.

I was blown away as always by everything about it, especially Toshiro Mifune's towering, volcanic performance. His character Kikuchiyo is vulgar and ridiculous, but over time we come to understand his rage and his pain, and why he is the way he is. By the end — it gets me every time — my heart is breaking for him.

I'd forgotten a lot of the movie's subthreads and bits of business. For example, there's a hilarious line that I'm pretty sure I won't forget again: "How dare you pick flowers at a time like this!" Also, I'd never noticed before the different ways children are used throughout the movie.

If one didn't know much about it, one could easily assume Seven Samurai is about a bunch of heroes who save the day. There is heroism, but more than that, there is compassion in the face of deep human suffering.

I almost changed my mind about going. Practically speaking, there's a lot of ways I could have spent those few hours more productively. I'm glad I did go, because the experience pushed some buttons in me that probably needed pushing. Plus I got to discover the Metrograph theater, which is pretty cool. I look forward to going back.

My Recent Weight Loss

Some of you know that I lost a bunch of weight after switching to a low-carb diet on January 1.

The latest news is this: my weight stopped trending downward at the end of April and has fluctuated around 143 for all of May, June, and July. Every time it dips below that I think, "Aha, I'm back on track." Every time it spikes above 144 (today, for example, it's 145) I think, "Uh-oh, here's the dreaded inevitable return of all the weight I lost." In general, though, I try to avoid over-extrapolating. This is a process of learning and experimentation.

I'm not looking for a miracle diet, nor claiming to have found one for myself, much less one that will work for everybody. Indeed, that word "miracle" irks me as it reminds me how much of our thinking about nutrition is, frankly, superstition. Understandably so, and I don't pretend to have some Spock-like immunity from magical thinking, but still. What I'm trying to do is reason more effectively about how I eat. It's sometimes hard — there's a lot of competing dogma out there — but I try to shake off my biases, or at least be aware of them, and be as rational as I can, even if that means more questions raised than answered. At some point I hope to post an update on how my reasoning has evolved; for now, this is just a status report.

To put the numbers in context: my weight on January 1 was 161 pounds. That may not sound like a lot for an adult male until you consider that I'm only 5'2" and I'm fine-boned, with small wrists and hands. You know that little guy Aziz Ansari? According to Google he is 4 inches taller than me, and he only weighs 136.

My average weight for the preceding 6 months was about 162.5, so in theory I could reasonably use that higher number as the "starting weight" for this diet experiment. Here's the raw data for the second half of 2015:

2015-07-01: 161.5
2015-08-01: 162
2015-09-01: 164.5
2015-10-01: 163
2015-11-01: 160
2015-12-01: 164

If I were to go back an additional 3 months the average would go even higher. But I decided not to use an average at all. For broad trends it feels simpler, and good enough, to just look at measured weight on the first of each month.

Depending on where I put the goalposts, I've been stuck for three months at something like 18-20 pounds below where I started. Let's call it 18 pounds — 161 minus 143. I am not unhappy about that. If you believe the "set point" theory (and I'm not saying I do), you could say I seem to have lowered my set point by 18 pounds with relatively little effort, and with an increase in satisfaction from the food I eat. I say "seem" because I've only been at this weight for 3 months, which is not a long time in the big picture of weight loss. Still, I'd rather be where I am than not, so yay for that.

On the other hand, I've still got a gut, and I think it's mostly from visceral fat (the kind that collects around the organs) rather than subcutaneous fat (which is just under the skin). The reason I think that is that when I tighten my abs there isn't much "pinch" in the skin above the muscle. There's a bit of pinchable flab, but most of my excess girth seems to be below the muscle. My understanding is that health-wise, visceral fat is worse to have than subcutaneous fat, and that it's also harder to get rid of. I'll keep this in mind in my ongoing efforts.

[UPDATE: I could have sworn I'd read that visceral fat is harder to lose than subcutaneous fat. I double-checked the other day and apparently it's the opposite. I was right though that visceral fat — the fat that accumulates around the organs — is worse health-wise than subcutaneous fat.

Hopefully I won't triple-check that at some point and find out I had that backwards too. If that happens I'll know the universe is messing with me.

Body fat isn't just "stuff" that sits on you passively like a schmear of cream cheese on a bagel; it's living, hormonally active tissue. If I understand correctly, visceral fat is the more dangerous type because it can wreak hormonal havoc on the organs it is in contact with. Something like that.]

My Mind Is a Raging Torrent

For years I've been wanting to make a meme of this line:

My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives. — Hedley Lamarr, Blazing Saddles

I love this state of mind, but I have to be careful. When an idea strikes, I may abruptly stop what I am doing and spend hours pondering, writing up, sketching, and researching "creative alternatives" that I just don't have time for. Before I know it, I've wandered far astray from any plan or schedule I had for the day.

The problem isn't whether these these ideas are realistic or worthwhile. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. Either way, I perceive value in the exercise of thinking about them. The problem is priorities. It is hard to tear myself away from my latest inspiration even when I know there are vastly more important things to do.

[UPDATE: I could swear I'd posted this image already, but if so I can't find where.]

Mind is a raging torrent 700x700

The Itch to Explain (Everything I Know About Trigonometry)

This post has two parts, one about math and one about explaining.

Part 1: commentary on the following animation.

A friend posted this on Facebook:

This illustrates pretty much everything I remember about trigonometry. Pick a point on the unit circle. The x coordinate of that point is the cosine of the angle, and the y coordinate is the sine. It's as simple as that: cosine is the horizontal leg, sine is the vertical leg. For any point on the circle.

If I recall correctly, everything else in trig derives from that. For example, if you forget the following formula, you can use Pythagoras to re-derive it in your head:

sin2 + cos2 = 1

Granted, not all trig formulas are so easy to reconstruct off the cuff.

One other thing: angles in trig are measured in radians, which is the length of the arc that is swept out on that circle. Since the circumference of any circle is 2πr, the circumference of the unit circle is 2π*1, which is 2π. So for example by drawing the picture you can remember that sin(90°) = sin (π/2) = 1 (it's the point at the very top of the circle, with x = 0, y = 1).

Part 2: tangential thoughts (so to speak).

I swear, this is the kind of thing where I could spend hours and hours making a 5-minute explanatory slide presentation and video. Don't ask for anything more advanced math-wise; this is all I know about trig. And I'm positive you can already find this exact explanation for free at Khan Academy or Quora or Stack Exchange or a million other places. See also Vi Hart, whose videos remind me that it's not all about bells and whistles, and that clear, insightful explanation with clever use of low-tech is extremely compelling. But still, if the planets that govern my whims and impulses were to align, I'd totally do my own take on the unit-circle explanation. At least I think I would.

In my dream scenario, I'd fuss over language and graphics and pacing. I'd like some way for people to easily jump around and either skip or re-watch some portions. I know some people learn better when they hear, so voiceover would have to be part of it. I guess that means subtitles too, and if I feel really ambitious, translations to multiple languages.

Along the way, my math-y friends would say, "You know, there's a MUCH easier way to make that animation in seconds rather than hours, using Mathematica or whatnot" (or a Swift playground — ooh!), and my brain would hurt a lot learning the whatnot, and the brain pain would make me regret my initial eager impulse to share. But hopefully I'd muddle through.

During "user testing" (as we software people call it) I'd learn about areas that people commonly have trouble understanding, and I'd reframe the presentation to address those areas.

It's crazy to want to spend all that time on something people can already get elsewhere. And truth be told, talk is cheap, and I wouldn't be quite as ambitious as I claim. But I do love that I know this one cool thing, and although I often misjudge my own ability to communicate, maybe I can help you know it too. If not you, maybe your kid. Or if you are a kid, maybe your parents. Whether you're a "math person" or not, if you understand the above animation then you understand the single most important thing about the scary subject of trigonometry.

There are a few isolated nuggets of knowledge like this, not all about math, that I get the itch to explain. Some, I'm pretty confident about. In other cases, the idea would be to explain what I think I know, and I'd be looking for feedback and corrections. Maybe I'll take up "explaining" as a hobby. Maybe I'll make "explanations" the way amateur carpenters build cabinets. And just as a carpenter tries to make a better cabinet each time, maybe I'll take multiple passes at explaining the same thing if I feel the need.

By the way, I'd love to be an amateur carpenter too, and make actual physical stuff, but who has time for that?