Franklin Chen’s grain of sand

Infinity in the palm of my hand

Report on My First Day of Stoic Week 2014

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Last year, I heard about the first Stoic Week, Stoic Week 2013, but did not participate because I was distracted at the time and did not feel like focusing. This week, I decided it was time to sign up for Stoic Week 2014, and I did.

Why my interest in Stoicism?

I’ve mentioned Stoicism only briefly in my blog: once in 2012 when thinking about Thanksgiving and once earlier this year after rewatching an old TV episode. As I mentioned, it was in 2011, upon reading a book on Stoicism, that I made some major changes in my life.

It turns out that a couple of weeks ago, I decided to make major changes in my life again, but not while thinking about Stoicism.

Check Out the Unsanitized First Edition of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales Finally Translated Into English

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What do you think of when you think of fairy tales? Cutesy kiddie stuff suitable for cartoons and school skits and costumes? Or murder, rape, cannibalism, cruelty, torture?

I’ve perversely loved fairy tales since coming across a huge collection of Grimms’ and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales in a tattered album at a flea market when I was five and having my mother buy it for me. I spent four years reading this book (until all the pages fell out; the binding was horrible) as well as I could (since these were not actually children’s editions but adult translations to English and my reading comprehension was limited), before deciding that I “outgrew” the genre and moving on. I spent many nights sleepless with terror, as well as many private moments crying with sadness while reading some of the stories: the one that affected me the most (since I have a younger sister) was “Brother and Sister” from the Grimms’ collection.

I have always been so fascinated by fairy tales, mythology, Biblical and other ancient stories in general, that I even briefly considered a major in folklore and mythology in college (and took two literature courses in the subject). And it was early in college that a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that the brothers Grimm repeatedly sanitized the stories that they had originally collected in the field: Maria Tatar had just published (this was 1987) her book “The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales”, and I was excited to buy a copy (which I still have today). (A second edition came out in 2003, but I have not looked at it.)

A couple of years ago, after accidentally discovering Maria Tatar’s 2002 “The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales” while browsing a library “new book” shelf, I also learned that she was blogging, so I started following her blog, “Breezes from Wonderland”. It was from this blog that I just learned now that Jack Zipes has finally translated the first edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales into English.

I look forward to checking out Zipes’ new translation. It’s been a decade since I last revisited the Grimms’ fairy tales, and I still perversely love a dark story.

What are your memories of fairy tales as a child? Have you ever read (or read about) the original unsanitized versions of well-known fairy tales? If you are a parent, do you tell your children fairy tales, thinking of them as harmless imaginative entertainment? Would you tell them unsanitized versions of the tales, as people used to do before modern Western sentimentalized views of what is appropriate for children? Or do you think it was wrong how parents used to terrify their children?

World Toilet Day Is Not Just Another Crappy Holiday

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From an excellent blog I follow, Timothy Taylor’s Conversable Economist, I read his article about World Toilet Day.

Yes, every day is some kind of observed day somewhere in the world promoted by someone, but World Toilet Day is not just another crappy commercial holiday. It’s about a serious problem, which is that 15 percent of the world population still lives without proper sanitation. Open sanitation, especially in densely populated areas, is a cause of much serious illness (especially to children, who are especially vulnerable). So I’m happy about the invention of World Toilet Day in 2001 by the World Toilet Organization global non-profit. It’s curious that I hadn’t heard about it for thirteen years, but I’m grateful Timothy Taylor pointed it out in his blog. Because this is a serious issue.

I, for one, am grateful to live in the industrialized US where toilets abound everywhere, and even in parks such as my local Frick Park in Pittsburgh, there are port-a-potties in various locations within the park. I used to make fun of my immigrant parents for being strangely fixated on and happy about functioning and clean toilets, but the reality is that their generation and their parents’ generation in rural Taiwan did not necessarily have this luxury. In fact, even today, apparently, the sewage system is not great in Taiwan.

Ransoms, Hypocrisy, and Bourgeois Virtues

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I saw a provocative article, “The Case for Paying Ransoms”, that argued that noted that European hostages of terrorist groups, unlike American and British hostages, tend to be returned alive, thanks to European governments paying ransoms. The US and UK governments, however, have a public policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

It appears that “governments like the Spanish, the French, and the Italian, have simply found other, more clandestine and covert ways of making such payments, through sudden increases in aid budgets and the like. The next move these governments make is simply to deny that such payments have been made.”

So this brings up a dilemma (which of course comes up in action films all the time):

Is it better to (a) remain morally consistent, refuse negotiation and ransom payment to an allegedly evil organization, but watch your citizens get beheaded? Or (b) sign up to a principled agreement not to negotiate with “terrorists,” but then negotiate nonetheless, pay a large amount of money to release the citizens of your country, and simply deny the fact publicly?

In praise of hypocrisy?

The article argued for the second choice, which is to be hypocritical and deny negotiation while actually engaging it: “The effectiveness of the strategy depends on the fact that it is not openly acknowledged, and indeed that it is repeatedly repudiated in official statements and in international agreements by the governments in question.”

When reading this, I was not particularly shocked, because hypocrisy is everywhere and is quite official. In fact, almost all American news and political discourse revolves around hypocrisy. This is apparent when it comes to sex scandals, corporate payola, NSA domestic surveillance, complaints about government spending, railing against privatization of education while sending one’s own children to private schools, and so on. I get the impression that Americans give much more priority to the appearance of “moral outrage” than other people in the world. Nobody wants to be pointed out as a hypocrite, it seems.

The trouble is that hypocrisy is arguably the single most important bourgeois “virtue”, the collective decision to look the other way when confronted with something disturbing, to make a euphemism of it if it is seen at all. The “liberal”, tolerant society depends to a great deal on hypocrisy. This is how “tolerance” works: claiming to believe one thing while not acting entirely consistently with that claim. For example, religious tolerance was hard won: remember when Catholicism were considered anti-American by many? Was the solution really that Protestants decided Catholicism was OK after all? In part, perhaps, but also in part a result of hypocrisy. Remember when Mel Gibson said his (then) wife was doomed to go to hell?

A certain level of hypocrisy seems necessary for a liberal society. Many people who claim to believe abortion is baby murder tend to still be OK eating at a restaurant owned by someone who believes otherwise. Many “progressive” programmers seem to have no problem with buying Apple products despite suspect sweatshop labor practices at Foxconn. And so forth: in fact, capitalism itself is reliant on hypocrisy to stay alive. If people bought and sold mostly with their supposed moral conscience rather than with their wallets, markets would fall apart. Overall, nobody cares whether the gas station owner is doing drugs, beating his wife, or hates their ethnicity.

Is there an alternative to hypocrisy that doesn’t just lead back to all-out wars among every possible faction believing in their principles so strongly that they are willing to die and kill for them? I don’t know. I just know that on some uncomfortable level, complaining about hypocrisy is the essence of hypocrisy itself. This may just be how human beings have to operate. But we’re not supposed to openly admit that, are we? It would be like going to your dear friend’s parents’ home for dinner and then screaming at them for being animal killers for serving meat if you’re an ethical vegetarian. That would be such bad manners.

How do you feel about hypocrisy? Do you acknowledge its social value? Do you admit to it yourself? Do you call out those you consider hypocrites?

(Update of 2014-11-19)

Here is a critique of the original article.

SorryWatch: Good and Bad Apologies

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I try to avoid reading news, but now and then I see an article about someone or other “apologizing” for something, and most of the time, the apology is pretty bad. Personally, I admire more someone who defiantly refuses to apologize. The stupidest, most transparent copout, of course, is “I apologize if (something bad resulted from what I said or did)”, rather than the real apology “I apologize that …”

My own preferences when it comes to apologies:

  • Always apologize for something if you do believe you did wrong.
  • Never “apologize” for something if you don’t believe you did wrong.

I don’t need to feel comforted and coddled by bullshit fake apologies: but I do want to know the truth of where you stand and I’ll respect that even if where you stand might be something like “Yeah, I’m a racist and proud of it!” I want you to look me in the eye and spit at me and say that, and I will at least respect you for being honest.

By coincidence, I recently found a Web site devoted to analyzing different kinds of apologies, good or bad or bizarre. Have fun: SorryWatch.

Happy 10th Birthday Firefox! Thoughts on Using Firefox, Abandoning It, and Returning to It Again

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Today Mozilla launched a 10th birthday celebration for its Firefox Web browser. Mozilla just released both a developer version of Firefox as well as a new feature in regular Firefox to help users control their privacy

Check out their video “Firefox: Choose independent”:

My use

I use Firefox daily on all my work and personal machines (including my Android phone), have it installed on Abby’s, and on the computers of my parents as well as my parents-in-law! I love Firefox for its independence, adherence to open standards, high performance and reliability, syncing of my preferences and other data across multiple devices, and fantastic ecosystem of extensions.


I have used Firefox since before it was called Firefox. I used it when it was Phoenix. I used it when it was Firebird. (For a long time, the user profile information was still stored in a directory named “phoenix”!)

Before Firefox, I started using the Web twenty years ago through Netscape Navigator, the ancestor of Firefox. It was so exciting using the Web in 1994 when the Web was brand new; I would dial up through my modem hooked up to my Macintosh SE/30 and patiently wait for pages to load.

I continued to use Netscape in the late 1990s (when I switched to Linux for my personal and work machines) until it started stagnating, and I switched to Galeon around 2000. I switched to Phoenix in 2003 because Galeon was just too buggy, then lived through its short rename as Firebird before it became Firefox.

Confession about a brief abandonment

At some point in 2012, Firefox entered an unstable phase in which it was slow and buggy and became unusable to me. I was very sad. In fact, for the first time in my life then, I tried out Google Chrome. It worked great, and I ditched Firefox. I was very sad about my decision, because I want Firefox to succeed, it being a truly independent browser, not owned by any for-profit corporation. Microsoft used Internet Explorer to damage the open Web, and I do not want a repeat of the same story. But the reality was, Firefox had become unusable to me, so I had to switch!

Luckily, several months later, when I tried out Firefox again, it was usable again, and also kept improving as well, being no longer just adequate but very reliable for me, and I switched back happily.

I am grateful that Firefox exists and continues to thrive. Thank you, Mozilla!

Which is your preferred Web browser? Why? Do you care about the implications of independence, or do you only care about the technical and user-end aspects of Web browser choice?

Understand and Use Motivation Contagion: Everyone Matters

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When I was a child, my parents always concerned themselves with whether I was hanging out with the “right” schoolmates. I never agreed with their definition of “right”, but they were onto something. I only accepted this truth when I was already in my thirties and reflected on choices I made in my life and why, and was surprised by correlations between what I did and who I happened to be around at the time.

An excellent article by running trainer and coach Steve Magness reminded me how important motivation contagion is in our lives, whether we recognize this consciously or not.

Smart Versus Unpredictable People: Whom Do You Prefer?

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I saw an excellent Ribbonfarm blog post, “Don’t surround yourself with smarter people”.

You should read this post; in fact, you should follow the blog in general, as it is one of the deepest-thinking blogs out there. Furthermore, it is an unpredictable blog. I never know what will be discussed there, but whatever it is, I always find that it is new to me, not something following a standard school of thought or template.

In other words, I follow this blog precisely for the reasons the post advocates learning not only from “smart” people but specifically from unpredictable people:

I am only interested in people as long as they are unpredictable to me. If I can predict what you’ll do or say, I’ll lose interest in you rapidly. If you can keep regularly surprising me in some way, forcing me to actually think in unscripted ways in order to respond, I’ll stay interested.

My experience

This is how I feel about whom I follow online through blogs (RSS) or through Twitter. I’m always looking for something different. People have different reasons for reading what they read, or following whom they follow. Personally, my goal is to better understand the world. Sometimes, this comes from following people who offer useful news and information that I wouldn’t otherwise know. Other times, I learn from being offered a perspective that is completely contrary to or foreign to mine; in fact, I have changed my mind about a lot of things through deliberately following people who make me uncomfortable.

If I can predict everything you might say, or you can predict everything I might say, then there seems not much point in communicating; we might as well just fire up computer programs to spit out “virtual” conversations that add no new information. So I like to hear about your weird ideas, or stuff that goes against the dominant scripts of your tribe.

Do you value independence of mind or do you think it is overrated? Why? What sort of balance do you try to achieve?