Category Archives: Anecdotes

Coincidences: Herodotus and the Piazza San Marco

I’ve been reading the Histories of Herodotus. In fact, it’s the only book I’ve been reading so far this month — which is quite unusual for me, since I’m usually working on three or four books at any given time and finish one every week or so. This is what the cover of my copy looks like:

herodotus

Hanging on the side of my refrigerator is a calendar which I got for free from a Taiwanese insurance company and which, for some reason, features pictures of various tourist spots in Italy. This month it’s the Piazza San Marco. The picture below is from the calendar.

sanmarco

Yesterday I noticed that both my book and the calendar featured a winged lion and thought it was a mildly interesting coincidence. (Actually, the creature on the Greek oenochoe is presumably a sphinx, but the picture on the book cover doesn’t show its face.) Then I noticed that both pictures also included a man with a spear and shield, making the coincidence a little more impressive.

The winged lion in the Piazza represents St. Mark (in keeping with a rather odd tradition identifying the four Evangelists with the four living creatures of the Apocalypse), but I didn’t know who the man with the spear was. So I looked it up and found that he was St. Theodore of Amasea — Mark’s predecessor as patron saint of Venice. I immediately noticed (being the kind of person who notices such things) that Herodotus is a perfect anagram of Theodorus, the Latin form of Theodore. In fact, the two names turn out to be anagrams in many European languages, including French (Hérodote, Théodore), German (Herodot, Theodor) and Italian (Erodoto, Teodoro); English is an exception because we use the Latin form of the one name and the French form of the other.

I also learned that, while it is not clear in the picture on my calendar, the Venetian statue depicts St. Theodore with a crocodile — a creature which puts in a prominent appearance in the Histories. In fact, I assume that Herodotus’s is the first description of a crocodile in Western literature.

In a minor subsidiary coincidence (not Herodotus-related), just below the picture of the Piazza San Marco is the Chinese character 三 (pronounced san; the Chinese name for March is 三月, “third month”) directly above the English word March (only one letter different from Marco).

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Every time I notice something like this, I get the nagging feeling that such coincidences occur more often than they ought to by chance — but of course there is no way to define “such coincidences” or to quantify how often they “ought to” occur, nor is there any possible control against which to compare their frequency.

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Practical observations on will

In an attempt to understand the workings of my own will, I decided to try to take an ice-cold shower every day for three months. I chose this partly because of the purported health benefits but mostly just because it was something harmlessly unpleasant I could try to force myself to do, affording opportunities for introspection. I wanted to observe what exactly happened psychologically when I succeeded in acting contrary to inclination, and what happened when I failed to do so.

I started this project a month ago and have been imperfectly successful so far — only 26 cold showers in 30 days, with my longest streak of cold showers every day being (so far) 15 days. (Of course, imperfect success is what I “wanted” on one level, since my purpose was to observe the causes of both success and failure.) Here are some of my observations.

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Visualizing the intended act

I got the idea from William James (in his Principles of Psychology and elsewhere) that imagining a particular act is the same thing as willing it, and that imagination naturally leads to motor consequences unless something checks it. There seems to be some truth to this view. One of the most effective ways of making myself take a cold shower turned out to be visualizing — as vividly as possible — myself turning the faucet handle to the right.

The act itself is what must be imagined, not its consequences. Imagining the unpleasant shock of the freezing water hitting your body would obviously tend to weaken resolve rather than strengthen it. Less obviously, even imagining the pleasant consequences of the intended action (e.g., how good you will feel when the cold shower is over) turned out to be relatively ineffective. It’s best to be direct: If you want to do X, imagine X — not something which can be connected to X only by a train of reasoning. When it comes to willpower, as I shall explain below, reason is not your friend.

This technique would appear to work only when willing oneself to do something — not to refrain from doing something. Attempting to visualize oneself not-smoking or not-eating-junk-food or whatever would obviously be an exercise in futility. When trying to stop doing something, then, it would perhaps be helpful to decide in advance on a fixed substitute-behavior (“when I’m tempted to do X, I’ll do Y instead”), turning a thou-shalt-not into a more visualizable thou-shalt.

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Stupid slogans, not syllogisms

In the heat of temptation, the last thing you want to be doing is reasoning — earnestly trying to persuade yourself to do what you have already decided you ought to do. Reason is the slave of the passions, and practical reason ought not to be attempted when the baser passions (such as a caitiff unwillingness to be doused with ice-water) are in play.

Here I seem to be parting ways with William James (“to think, in short, is the secret of will”) and leaning more in the direction of Martin Luther (“the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore”), but in fact James is right even here, as the larger context of the quote makes clear.

If, then, you are asked, “In what does a moral act consist when reduced to its simplest and most elementary form?” you can make only one reply. You can say that it consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will, just as it is the secret of memory (Talks to Teachers, emphasis in the original).

The kind of “thinking” James is recommending is certainly not discursive reasoning. (That kind of thinking may be “the secret of memory,” but in the context of will it is a mere slippery slope to rationalization.) Rather, it is a stubborn refusal to let go of an idea. Bulldog, not fox. The tools you want are not arguments, but rather thought-terminating clichés.

In my attempts to make myself turn on the cold water, the most effective “thoughts” were sound bites calculated to bypass reason and enlist the passions in the service of a predetermined conclusion. I drew slogans from various sources, ranging from Spenser (“Vp, vp, thou womanish weake Knight”) to Hollywood schlock (“This is SPARTA!”), and the stupider they were, the more effective. One that worked particularly well was simply “I’m a Viking!” — because, you know, Vikings are tough and obviously aren’t afraid of a little cold water.

On those occasions when I found myself standing in front of the faucet reasoning about what I was going to do, I inevitably ended up being swayed or almost-swayed by the stupidest rationalizations imaginable: I didn’t say I wouldn’t take any hot showers, only that I would take cold showers — so I can take a hot shower first and then a cold one after that. Or I could make it a James Bond shower (start with hot water, then switch it to cold right at the end). Or I could just take a hot shower today and two cold showers tomorrow, which still averages out to one a day. Or actually, since I’ve only been doing cold showers for a few days now, it wouldn’t really make much of a difference if I took a hot shower today and started the three months tomorrow. And so on. The slave of the passions is nothing if not a hard worker, and will keep dutifully churning out justifications until one of them does the trick.

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Striking while the iron is hot

You think and think, and then at some point you say “Okay, NOW!” and make the jump from thought to action. The timing of that jump is important because various motivations fluctuate in strength. You don’t always have the luxury of choosing when to make your decision, but usually you do, and you want to time your fiat so that it coincides with your “good” motivations being at their strongest and their rivals at their weakest. What exactly that means in practical terms varies from situation to situation and can be learned only by experience. Sometimes I had to turn on the water immediately, before I’d had time to have second thoughts; other times I had to just stand there, sometimes for over a minute, “working up” the necessary willpower.

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I intend to continue this experiment until I actually succeed in doing three months straight of cold showers every day, and will post other observations as they occur to me.

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Another James-related synchronicity

I’ve been reading a lot of William James these days — eight books of his so far this year, the most recent of which, The Meaning of Truth, I just finished this morning.

Approximately four hours after finishing The Meaning of Truth, I was getting a bite to eat at a supermarket deli when a teenage boy came and sat down at the table next to mine. He was wearing a gray hoodie with this sentence written on it in big red and blue letters: “TRUTH IS WHAT STANDS THE TEST OF EXPERIENCE” — a statement, that is, of the meaning of truth, and a pretty “pragmatic” one, at that, Jamesian in its emphasis on experience and in its characterization of truth as something that happens to an idea. (I didn’t think it was likely to be an actual James quote, the focus on “testing” being uncharacteristic of him, but I googled it just to be sure. It turns out to be from Albert Einstein.)

I need scarcely mention that I have no memory of ever previously having encountered a truth-defining article of clothing of this sort, making its appearance at this time a pretty impressive coincidence.

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A further synchronicity: James makes a distinction between “facts” and “truth” — the former refers to realities; the latter, to a property of our beliefs in relation to those realities. In The Meaning of Truth, he repeatedly takes his critics to task for conflating these two things.

Just three weeks before I read The Meaning of Truth, my father also tried, in a comment to this post, to make a distinction between “facts” and “truth” (though not the same distinction that James makes), and I insisted in my reply that there was no such distinction.

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Another minor synchronicity

I was in one of my weekly sessions of English conversation practice with a student of mine who is a surgeon, and he was telling me about another expat English teacher who had just been in the ER with a broken kneecap after a motorcycle accident. Trying to describe the seriousness of the fracture, he said he was not sure of the correct English word, but he believed it was something close to comminuted. Not being familiar with that word, I looked it up in the dictionary on my Kindle and found that, yes, it was the correct word (meaning “pulverized, broken into many small fragments”).

Just minutes later I had a short break between classes and decided to do a little reading. I picked up that same Kindle and opened up the book I am currently reading (William James’s Essays in Radical Empiricism) — and in perhaps the third or fourth paragraph I read, I found this:

In these respects the pure experiences of our philosophy are, in themselves considered, so many little absolutes, the philosophy of pure experience being only a more comminuted Identitätsphilosophie.

I was not aware that I had ever encountered that particular word before — though I have, it turns out, at least twice; a search of my Kindle reveals that it occurs once each in Bacon’s Novum Organum and H. S. Maine’s Popular Government, and of course I have no way of knowing how often I may have run across it in my on-paper reading without noticing it. However, I think I can reasonably assume that comminuted crosses my path certainly no more than once or twice a year, so meeting it twice in a matter of minutes was quite a coincidence.

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A minor precognitive/synchronistic dream

I had a dream Saturday night in which I was walking down a deserted street naked, trying to find a towel or something so I could cover up. Then I saw a person approaching, so I put my hands down to shield my privates from view. After standing in that position for several seconds, I looked down and noticed that I was not actually naked after all, but was wearing a pair of light gray boxer shorts — so there was no need to hold my hands over my crotch.

The next day, my wife was watching the Singaporean film “Taxi! Taxi!” on TV, and I saw parts of it. In one scene, some passengers get out of a taxi and run away without paying, and the driver (played by Gurmit Singh) chases them down. In the altercation that follows, one of the passengers forces the driver to strip down to his boxers — and the driver stands there with his hands over his crotch, as if trying to cover up what is already adequately covered by the shorts.

The shorts I was wearing in my dream were almost identical to the ones worn by Singh in the movie, and quite unlike anything I wear in real life.

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Well, why do birds suddenly appear?

Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!

— Bullwinkle

Many years ago, “Professor Doodles’ Just For Kids Corner,” in our local newspaper’s Sunday comics supplement, ran the following riddle:

Q. What bird is with you?
A. The swallow.

The question was presumably supposed to have been something along the lines of “What bird is with you at every meal?” — but somehow the last few words had been omitted, transforming what had been intended as a lame pun into something more like a kōan.

Naturally, we kids thought this was, by a very wide margin, the Professor’s funniest riddle ever, and we quoted it incessantly. “What bird is with you?” — or just “What bird?” — came to be used as a general-purpose expression of complete bewilderment.

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Yesterday, I happened to be thinking about this expression and its history as I was riding back home from my morning classes, when I noticed something odd-looking in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was just some random piece of rubbish and rode right past it, but then the thought registered, “Wait, was that a roadkilled swallow?” I turned my motorcycle around and went back to check — and, sure enough, it was a swallow, though not a roadkilled one. It was a live swallow — to all appearances, perfectly healthy and uninjured — but it was just sitting there in the middle of the road, waiting to be hit by a car or nabbed by a stray cat.

This would not do, so, putting on some gloves, I picked the bird up. It perched on my finger, holding on tight and twitching its tail a bit, and looked at me. This was the first time I’d ever seen a stationary swallow at such close range, and it was really an exquisite little creature. The feathers, which look plain black when you see a swallow zipping past you at high speed, are actually iridescent blue; and the bird blinks with milky reptilian-style eyelids that close from side to side. I set the swallow down under a tree by the roadside, dropped off my motorcycle at home, and came back on foot. It was still there where I’d left it, so I picked it up again, thinking I’d probably take it to an avian vet I know. This time, though, it only perched on my finger for a few seconds before taking off and flying away into the distance. Apparently it could fly all along; I have no idea what it was doing sitting in the middle of the road. (Something similar happened with a little brown bat that showed up on my doorstep one morning. It let me pick it up, and I was quite sure it was unable to fly, but after drinking some milk it suddenly spread its wings and began flying around the living room.)

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This is not the first time I’ve been thinking of a particular kind of bird, only to have an actual bird of that species suddenly materialize and walk into my life. Back in 2011 (as described in this post), I had just been reading about a boy who had had a racing pigeon with a number band on its leg show up at his house — when a racing pigeon with a number band on its leg showed up at my house!

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More recently — a week or two ago — I pulled off a similar Jumanji-like trick with a centipede. I’m usually in the middle of three or four different books at any given time, and at that time I was reading (among others) C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters and Piers Anthony’s Centaur Aisle. Shortly after having read in Centaur Aisle about “nickelpedes” — described as being like centipedes but five times as big and fierce — I turned to Screwtape and found that I had come to the part where the title character inadvertently transforms himself into a large centipede. I was just about to mention this not-terribly-impressive coincidence to my wife when I noticed something big and black wriggling across the living room floor. It was, of course, an enormous centipede — only the third centipede I’ve encountered in the past decade.

(Years ago I designed a vaguely tarot-inspired deck of picture cards, and one of the cards depicted a big black centipede crawling out of an open book. That card seems a little creepy now.)

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Obviously these experiences can’t possibly be anything other than freak coincidences, but — well, let’s just say I’m making a point of not reading any books about cobras these days.

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Burping

After that philosophical post, it’s time for a post about — burping. Too many bloggers underestimate the importance of the element of surprise.

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My four siblings and I were homeschooled for most of our childhood. (I, the eldest, spent four years in public schools; my younger siblings, less than that. My youngest sister never attended school at all.) Because of that, and because we lived in the middle of nowhere with no real neighbors, we spent a lot of time together. One outgrowth of that was the family dialect known as Lingyo. (It was originally Lingy Lingo, named for the characteristic word lingy, meaning “cool.” The contracted form was created when I typed up a dictionary on the word processor and there was a six-character limit on filenames.)

Quite a lot of Lingyo vocabulary revolved around the topic of burping.

The term that started it all was baked hiccup — which originally just meant a burp but quickly acquired a more limited meaning, referring only to burps which were done on purpose. As a general term for eructations, without reference to intentions, belch was preferred. The word burp itself was then applied only to unintentional or “naturally occurring” eructations. Between these extremes was the baked burp — either an intentional belch which comes out louder than expected, or a natural belch which is deliberately amplified or elaborated. There were also deep fat fried hiccups — farts — but we didn’t use that term much because we just weren’t much interested in bodily functions other than burping. An apple baked hiccup was an exceptionally loud and long baked hiccup produced after eating an apple. The theory was that apple baked hiccups are caused not by anything in the apple itself but by smacking your lips while you eat. Sometimes trying too hard to produce a good baked hiccup would result in a baked sickup, a term which I suppose requires no explanation.

The act of belching intentionally was called “eating a baked hiccup.” As for the baking itself, no one was really sure what that entailed, but it was done by Athena, one of the family dogs. Every now and then my brother would announce that Athena had just baked a batch of hiccups. Then, of course, we would eat them.

There were other, non-hiccup-related terms for burps as well. Burp was modified to brup, which gave rise to the term abrupt ending — as in “That was an abrupt ending. I brupped out the ending.” We also decided to commandeer brachiate — a perfectly good word with no obvious synonyms — and use it as yet another word for “burp.” For some reason this became associated with the catchphrase “No brachiating in the locker room!”

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As a way of quantifying how long a particular belch had been, you could try to say something while you burped. Some of our friends would recite as much of the alphabet as they could, but for us the thing to say was “Cranium House Pasta Company.” I don’t think anyone ever managed to say the whole thing in one burp, but we sometimes got as far as “Cranium House Pasta Com–,” which is the equivalent of getting all the way to the letter G. (Cranium House Pasta Company? I think this was originally inspired by a story my brother wrote, in which one of the characters referred to brains as “cranium-housed noodles.” Not that that really explains how it came to be a thing to say during a baked hiccup.)

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As I mentioned, we never got much entertainment from farts, only from burps. We completely ignored flatulence.

Later, during my college years, a roommate was reminiscing about the farting contests he had participated in as a kid and asked if I had ever done anything like that. I said I hadn’t, but that I had won the “Tons of Tone” award at the first annual Boy Scout Belch-Off. He was surprised and said something like, “Really? I always thought that farts were funny but burps were just disgusting.”

The exact opposite of what I always thought — but I guess most people would agree with my old roommate, since farting clearly outguns burping in the world of lowbrow comedy. At least Bill Watterson is on my side.

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Finally, a classic poem by one of my brothers:

Burping

If you gulp glug and slirp
up your pop you release a Big old Burp
then your dad will say don’t Burp
that way it is Just plain Bad
if you try and tell him why
he will say don’t Burp that way it’s Bad

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