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Religion and Community Building

I’ve been running this blog for a while now, so I might have already covered this topic, but it recently surfaced in my mind again, so I’m going to discuss it anyways:

I get the feeling that local communities have been slowly disintegrating over time in America. Not all communities in general – there are clearly a lot of communities being built online through social networking websites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Our overall potential to connect to people has increased greatly with the advent of the always online transition – it’s expected that your average American should have internet access and almost always at all times, through the magic of their smart phones. However, many of our inherent, location based communities have been suffering. Not necessarily as a result of the internet, but maybe.

Think of your standard American communities: family, school, church, maybe sports, work, the store, maybe? Do I meet friends at the store? Not really, now that I think about it. But I’d imagine in smaller towns it’s a more frequent occurrence. Especially if you live in one of those rural towns with only one local store. Anyways, school is still a mandatory one for most students, and work of course is still mostly localized – few jobs allow people to work remotely. Sports are still big, but apparently viewership of live sports has also been tanking recently. Though attendance in general still seems to be going good, I’d say the general feeling of attending sporting events in America seems to be plateauing or decreasing. Though I’m speaking out of my ass here. Church attendance, of course, has been declining precipitously. Evangelism doesn’t really hold the sway it once did in America. Anyways, this is all kind of beside my main point, which is this: Religion is among the strongest of communities in any area, and in my opinion it’s a bad sign that religion is declining in America in favor of atheism.

I’m not saying that I like Christian fundamentalism – I don’t – I think it sucks. However, I think the innate pull of religion is actually pretty important to societal connections. In America, we have a lot of freedom to discover or build our own communities – join a meetup of jugglers, attend a toastmasters group, whatever. However, a lot of people don’t partake in extracurricular activities – in fact, their lifestyles can be pretty isolating when you consider a lot of popular activities nowadays – after work, if you’re watching Netflix, unless you’re hanging out with friends or family, you’ll be watching it alone. It’s not conducive to meeting new people. Online social media websites have the potential to meet people, but because it’s over the internet, you’re not necessarily guaranteed to meet people that are local – meaning you might find friendships, but there’s a big difference between friends you visit regularly and ones you only communicate with online. Though this doesn’t necessarily preclude you from becoming more intimate – it’s that the online barrier does present more obstacles to intimacy than a physical face to face interaction, in my opinion. Online media in general isn’t particularly conducive to meeting people face to face – after all, the time you’re spending online literally takes away from time spent in face to face interactions.

Of course, you do have online communities specifically designed for local consumption: think of sites like Nextdoor or Meetup. With Meetup in particular, the point is to find new local communities to join, usually centered around some hobby or activity. This is good. It’s great to meet new communities. However, there’s a giant gulf between interest based communities and religious communities. Interest based communities doesn’t tell you anything about the values of a person – If you join a ping pong group, all you know is that this person theoretically likes ping pong, or is maybe curious about it. If you join a religious community, you have an idea of what values to expect from people in the community, and their overall mission. At least, in theory. This isn’t accounting for adversarial people or people who don’t follow the tenets of the religion. Of course, you’re always going to get people who don’t exactly fit the mold of the religion – you probably get like a normal distribution of people who follow the religion in terms of strictness. That’s true of any community, of course. But the religion provides a relative anchor at which to deviate from. Without even that anchor, there is no expectation of what kinds of values to expect from people, which is what you get in interest based communities. So what does this mean? I think this stronger bond will naturally create more intimate communities.

I had this cousin who’s Christian. He was visiting me from out of state to attend this Christian convention, but he only stayed with me for part of the trip – the other part he stayed at some guy’s house, who he met at this Christian convention. When he was asked why some guy would let him stay at his house even though they had just once before (At last year’s Christian convention), he said (and I’m paraphrasing here, it’s been a while) “We’re brothers in Christ – I guess our relationship just grows faster.” I do think there’s a lot of merit in that. If you follow the tenets of your religion, and you’re pretty strongly invested in your religion, and then meet someone who you judge to also be a pretty strong follower of your religion, then you guys have a pretty strong inherent bond – there’s a lot of commonality between the two of you. Likewise, if this were an interest based group, you could also build a strong bond through that connection to your interest, but as I said earlier, I think the religious bond is inherently stronger. Religion answers a lot of questions about our purpose in the world – if you’re aligned on those things with others, you’re naturally gonna be more tight.

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Optimizing My Language Learning Methodology

As mentioned in previous blog posts, most of my 2019 was spent grinding language classes. Looking back at 2019, I feel like I have a ton of room to improve my learning methodology. Right now I’m kind of following the BJJ class model – that is, the class encapsulates all aspect of learning – one section devoted to learning new material, one devoted to practicing the new material, and then one for general purpose practice in real life situations. My language classes consist of some review in which I kind of incorporate new vocabulary / grammar in real world settings, with the constant reinforcement serving to improve my learning outcomes over time. Having said that, this format is a bit suboptimal because it doesn’t emphasize enough practice – ideally, I should be practicing at least twice the amount I spend learning to truly internalize new concepts. This format is a holdover from BJJ where, by neccessity free sparring is incorporated into class, because for most students, they have no other opportunities outside of class to pick things up – there’s kind of a lack of padded areas and mats for them to spontaneously practice. They’re limited to basically sparring in their gyms when they happen to be open.

Since I’m cognizant of this fact that my current class structure is kind of arbitrary, I can mix things up – instead of having these three part lessons that incorporate everything and minimize practice, I can simply start scheduling more classes that are dedicated to solely practice. I’ve been looking for new tutors on Italki to use as language partners – I don’t plan on referring to them to learn new vocabulary and grammar. In essence, this becomes a form of self structured practice arena or a safe space where I can feel free to experiment with the concepts I learned in class. Trying to practice my language skills in the real world is a bit intimidating because it’s a trial by fire – I don’t know what to expect back from random strangers. However, by hiring cheaper tutors to just talk with, we both have the expectation that I’m here for edification purposes and they will back me in that role. This is something I’m going to try experimenting with in the near future, maybe by February or March. I’m hoping to incorporate this methodology in at least one of the languages I’m studying by the end of February. Ideally, I’ll check in on this strategy in ~six months to see how it’s progressing. If it works, keep at it. If not, I can discard it. Ultimately, the important thing is that I continue to learn languages – the structure of learning should be open to change if I think I can make things better.

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On High Level Competition

I’ve previously mentioned my love for Chihayafuru, but today I want to discuss another topic that’s recently come up in the series – as of the latest chapter, 222.

***Spoilers abound for those who don’t read the series***

So as of the latest chapter, Chihaya is on the 2nd out of 5 possible queen matches with the current reigning queen, Wakamiya, her long time rival. One development that’s come up is how Chihaya is moving around her card order in order to disrupt Wakamiya – she considers herself the only and foremost expert on Wakamiya’s playing style, and she’s using her knowledge of the queen’s playing style to disrupt her normal flow of play. In other words, she’s trying to take away her A game.

Jack Slack is a combat sports writer I follow who does in depth analyses of elite combat sports athletes, as well as technical breakdowns of their matches and styles. He has a long running series in particular called Killing the King, which is an analysis of a current UFC champ – what their strengths are, and their weaknesses. More importantly, how to exploit their weaknesses, and how to take away their strengths, or even turn them into weaknesses. He also calls this taking away a fighter’s A game – their A game being all the things they’re good at that enables them to stay champion. Presumably, previous challengers have either failed to take away their A game or are incapable of beating them even after taking away aspects of their A game. Which leads me to Chihayafuru: Chihaya decides to beat the queen by taking away her strengths.

Chihaya has always been focused on the queen Shinobu, for the entirety of the series. Before meeting Shinobu, she had been fixated on achieving the status of queen herself. But after meeting Shinobu, she finally had a target with which to place her goal. Reaching the level of Shinobu had become her focus for much of the series, as well as achieving some other tangential achievements in Karuta – having her high school team become national champions, as well as trying to evangelize the spread of karuta as much as possible. However, her main goal has always been to reach the top, and that’s always been embodied by surpassing Shinobu Wakamiya. What I find interesting about this is how so much of the series is about Chihaya developing her own sense for the game and her own strategies to win that are faciliated by her playing style – her superior sense of hearing. But unexpectedly, she downplays the strategy of focusing on polishing her own A game to chip at Shinobu’s A game.

For most of the series, Shinobu is undefeated – she may lose a match occasionally, but like tennis, she wins the overall set – until she faces Wataya Arata. Arata, Chihaya’s childhood friend, turns out to be a long term rival of the queen as well – apparently, he’d always beat her in tournaments when they were younger. Likewise, when matched up again, he beats her again, in a hard fought match. But he doesn’t do it by taking away her A game – he does it by having a stronger A game than she does. Which leads to my next point: the style matchup.

Every sport and everyone that plays a sport has different styles – there is no uniform way to play that will inevitably lead to success. Think of it as rock-paper-scissors: some styles are inherently better suited against others in the same way that rock always beat scissors, and some styles will nullify each other in the same way that rock cancels out rock. There’s no single style out there that will literally beat everyone. Even the best players in any sport has taken some L’s. If you’re playing against someone who’s style happens to match up well against you, you need to readjust – what can you do?

  1. Beat them through sheer athleticism. This won’t work if they’re more athletic than you.
  2. Just keep going as is and hope you get lucky.
  3. Make adjustments to their actions that should favor you more than it favors them over time.

For number 3, there are two forms of adjustment you can make: in game adjustments, and pre game adjustments. You can think of the difference between these two as tactics vs strategy. Tactics are the adjustments you make during the action – when you’re already engaged with your opponent. Strategy is higher level thinking – it’s the actions you make in preparation – the direction you plan on beforehand that should be specifically catered towards your opponent’s habits or weaknesses. It’s not the case that you should be doing one or the other – ideally, you should be executing on both fronts. You should examine your opponent and try to prepare strategies against them beforehand. However, you should also be on the lookout for things during the match that you can capitalize on, since you can’t always predict exactly what will happen in the real world – as Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” You can prepare all you want, but there’s no guarantee that things will line up as you expect. You need to be able to adjust on the fly as well.

Anyways, back to Chihayafuru. Arata beats the queen, without taking away her A game – this can only work if the style that you’re imposing is capable of beating the other player, obviously. If you can simply power through without ever considering the other player, well, you’re clearly far and away the best. But the odds are good that you’re going to hit a wall at some point. We see this from the two best players in the series – the king and the queen, Suo Hisashi and Wakamiya Shinobu, respectively. Their play styles don’t take into consideration the other player’s styles. They’re simply good enough that they can impose their A games on anyone and can beat them straight up. However, we’re starting to see that no longer to be the case – If your style stays static forever, eventually people will come up with strategies to nullify your strengths and impose their own strengths onto you. We’re now seeing this with Chihaya, and will probably see Arata do this to the Meijin. Otherwise, he’s gonna get smoked.

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Strong Links Vs Weak Links

I’ve been reading this book called The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now. (Amazon link. I don’t get money if you buy through here, I’m just linking for convenience as my default method for viewing books is visiting their Amazon page.) One interesting thing that gets mentioned in the book is a model the author calls strong links and weak links.

Strong links are essentially people in your network that you’re super tight to. Imagine your daily routine – they’re people you see on a regular basis – your friend group, your coworkers, family members. etc. Weak link people are the people on the fringes of your network – imagine previous coworkers you don’t really see anymore, but you’re connected on linkedin or something. The book posits that much of drastic life changes in your average twenties~ adult – job change, new spouse, new hobby, new social group, etc are almost always made through your weak links, instead of people you’re tight with. Sounds weird, right? Events that have outsized impact that changes your routine are typically caused by fringe outsiders instead of people tight in network. Why is that? One way to model it is to think of it in terms of entropy, or randomness.

If we think of an average person, they have general routines they follow in their lives. Regardless of the person, they have some things they do on a regular basis – office workers go to work 9-5 on weekdays, students go to class during the semester, etc. The average person might have a lower entropy life – it’s relatively consistent. They work in certain patterns that they’ve become accustomed to. However, we can imagine that each person they interact with also contains this great magnitude of entropy – they have randomness in their lives, but they also their consistency within their lives. Ultimately, no matter how unpredictable our lives are, they are dictated by our needs to eat, sleep, and possibly interact with others. Because of our need to do simple human maintenance on a regular basis, we eventually develop consistent systems to meet these needs – after all, you don’t see people coming up with different ways to feed themselves every day – it’s not like I’m going to work in an office to make money for food on Monday, foraging for berries on Tuesday, then eating scrap from the garbage on Wednesday. There is some sort of consistency or pattern for everyone, even the most divergent of people. Now, if we extrapolate that system of high entropy (When we start doing something for the first time) to lower entropy as we become more accustomed to the activity, we can model that onto our relationships with others. As people become more integrated into our lives, we should expect that they will introduce less entropy over time, unless something external also affects them.

There’s another famous way of modeling known and unknown entities as Donald Rumsfeld put it – known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. I’ll let him describe it, since he did it best:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Ya Boi Donald Rumsfeld

So how does this concept relate to people’s lives? We can think of our daily routines like the known knowns – things we know about our daily lives, things we don’t expect to change and we know how to anticipate. known unknowns are the calculated risks: things we know about, but not 100% – they’re things we can kind of manage. Think of a product like term life insurance: I know I’m going to die one day. I don’t know when I’m going to die. But I’m 30 years old, with a wife and two kids. If I die, they’re not going to be able to survive. What do I do? Many people accept this risk – they operate under the assumption that they won’t be dying in the near or even medium term future, and that they will be able to continue providing for their family in that interim. Some people buy life insurance. Term life insurance in particular is life insurance that basically covers you for your working years. Term life insurance operates under the assumption that you will be a healthy, working individual who will continue to be paid at a consistent rate throughout your working life. That can be anywhere between 10, 20, 30, maybe even 40 years. In all that time spent working, that money, of course, will go to support your family. However, during this working period that you are covered by term life insurance, you will be paying fees to this term life insurance policy on a monthly or annual basis, whatever floats your boat. If you happen to die during this covered period (excluding things like suicide and so forth, read your policy carefully before signing) then a certain amount of money will be paid out to your family, as a substitute for your years of salaries that your family will be missing out on upon your death. The amount of money paid out and the amount of years the term life policy covers is set upon beforehand – you and the company haggle on these numbers, based on things like your general health, smoking disposition, diseases, etc. This long winded explanation is basically a way of mitigating a known unknown – your date of death. Could be soon, could be 50 years from now. If it’s 50 years from now, the assumption is your long and fruitful career helped provide for your family. If you get hit by a bus tomorrow, then the term life insurance policy will do it in your stead.

Last is the unknown unknown – these are events you weren’t expecting and had no idea to be expecting. Imagine if you were 50 years old, and your parent on your deathbed tells you that you were adopted. That could be something that totally came out of left field, that changes your frame of reference and your life in a completely different direction, forever. These are things you didn’t expect, and basically had no way of knowing to expect.

Now, to think of this in the strong/weak links model, strong links are like the known knowns and known unknowns – you’re generally pretty knowledgeable about your friends, family etc and their behavior – so you act in predictable routines to work around them in your life. What’d be a known unknown in this case? Imagine if you were a twelve year old with an alcoholic parent – generally, you don’t exactly know how your parent will react when they’re drunk, but you do have a general method of coping with them when they are drunk. They’re one way when sober, completely different when they’re not. You learn to deal with their behaviors through a set of rigid behaviors that probably mitigate some of the fallout from their inebriated behaviors. Basically, your daily routines are all molded around the known knowns in your life and your known unknowns. Almost by definition, the things that will totally upend your routine will be the unknown unknowns – the things you didn’t expect and had no idea were going to be affecting you. Because you’re unfamiliar with these new events, you don’t have learned behaviors for these things – you can either fall back on preexisting habits, or you build new ones instead. This can be things like moving to a totally new city for a new job, destroying many of your old routines, but maybe keeping some.