Thoughts on “The Geography of Thought”

First things first: I wanted to read this book because my wife is Vietnamese. I’ve spent 20 years married to Alexis and had time to observe how she handles things and I handle things. This puts me at a disadvantage. When she moved from Vietnam to New Orleans, she was five or six, so she has a good 14 or 15 years on me in observing differences and navigating her way in a culture that is different than the one she experiences with her immediate family. I wanted to do a little catch up.

She summed it up nicely when I asked if she wanted to read the book: “I’m sure it won’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”

The book’s shortcomings are apparent almost immediately:

I believed all human groups perceive and reason in the same way. … [I wrote a book] titled Human Inference. Not Western Inference (and certainly not American college student inference!), but human inference. The book characterized what I took to the inferential rules that people everywhere use to understand the world…

I’m a little more than a little surprised that someone could become an academic in human psychology and not understand that people from different cultures see the world in remarkably different ways.

Now, that aside, the book does have the some great insights that come from research the author and others have performed.

If you want a 30-second (or less) synopsis of the book, here it is:

People in the West see the world consisting of various parts. Understand how an individual thing acts and you’ll be able to make reliable predictions about how it will act in any situation.

Meanwhile, people in the East see the world more like an interdependent system. Making predictions based on how you’ve seen something (or someone!) act in isolation is foolish since context is the determining factor in what will happen now.

Of course, when you divide the world up this way, you run into the problem of over-simplification. And, as he makes apparent by comparing populations, the Eastern and Western modes of thought are not a binary system. Asian-Americans, people from Hong Kong and sometimes Germans regularly straddle the East/West divide.

The people who are the penultimate Westerners are Americans, followed by Canadians and the British. Meanwhile, Easterners start with the Chinese and Japanese and move from there.

In the first part of the book, he talks about Aristotle and Confucius and how they created two different systems of thought. The origins of these two modes of thinking, then, are presented as Greek vs Chinese.

What interested me was that Western thought later became more clearly Protestant thought – the connection to Greece was in its generation, but not the “best” modern form. In fact, a lot of my exposure to Orthodox thought has shown that there are sometimes more similarities with Eastern religion than with American Christianity.

Overall, even though this book provided some good food for thought and the studies performed were useful, I was put off by the author’s acknowledgement that he was relatively unaware of thse differences until relatively late in his career.

Brief review of Farewell to Alms

Since all I can manage are brief reviews with a pointer to the quotes I excerpted to Twitter, here is my take on Farewell to Alms:

I loved it. At least, it made me feel like I was getting enough out of it to keep on reading.  It also helped me get a better view on our modern world and how new it really is.  That, and I gained a much better understanding of how little transport is when it comes to the total cost of goods.  Why does “Made in America” not matter?  Because the real cost to ship to America is practically nothing.

(P.S. I should mention that I read this because Dan Lyke recommended it when I saw him in SF last January.  See? It only took me a year!)

Vision for the Future

I’ve got to say that Pawan Sinha‘s TED talk had me going. He leveraged the congenital blindness of some Indian children to learn about how we see (spoiler: it’s motion). In the process he achieved a very Humanistic goal: he gave children sight. I once was blind, but now I see. Our goals work best when we do this: we focus on how they can actually help people now instead of in the great by-and-by. More focus on the now is a good thing.

Facebook is EVIL

Hyperbolic subject, but a couple of Facebook related tidbits. Facebook is dying:

This week’s news that Goldman Sachs has chosen to invest in Facebook while entreating others to do the same should inspire about as much confidence as their investment in mortgage securities did in 2008. For those who weren’t watching, that’s when Goldman got rich betting against the investments it was selling.

And this great Assange quote:

What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I’m a villain. Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s Man of the Year.

Merry Christmas!

Last night in Choir we sang some traditional Orthodox Christmas Hymns along with the more typical Western hymns. Since I’m in the choir, I had to pay more attention to the words. The one that I really liked was this one that revealed the awesome presence of God in the plain setting of the Christmas Event:

“I behold a strange but very glorious mystery: Heaven — the cave;
The throne of the Cherubim — the Virgin.
The manger — the receptacle in which Christ our God,
Whom nothing can contain, is lying”.

Other than that, it has been a quiet Christmas day. My wife grew up a devout Catholic immigrant and she and I have been working to preserve “peasant traditions” (as she calls them) of a humble Christmas. Our Christmas remains (largely because of her efforts) a religious holy-day. In that vein, I am amused by the “War on Christmas” folks. While ranting about people’s season greetings, they continue to participate heavily in the consumer aspects of how Christmas is celebrated in the States. Which is not to say that I am offended by any of this: people are welcome to celebrate their holidays however they wish. God knows (and those who have even a passing acquaintance with me know) that I’ve had and will have my share of rants. I’m just a little bemused that people are offended that other people want to celebrate at the same time they do without sharing their faith. There is some special irony in the hoopla over the greetings. After all, is there any special religiosity in the phrase “Merry Christmas” (which we hear often enough here in the States from the Coca-Cola Santa) versus the Orthodox Christian greetings of “Christ is Born! Glorify Him!”