E Deo Pluribus

This is the long version of the petition on Change.org to modify the Pledge of Allegiance from “under God” to “from many”




This petition iterates on past attempts to modify the pledge of allegiance with a simple yet significant change of tack: instead of removing under God, replace it with from many.

  • I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, from many, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Learning from the Past

Past attempts to roll back “under God” reflected a failure to appreciate the consensus self-conception of America.

First, the 1954 addition was motivated by a desire to make a statement. That we did not merely passively exist as a nation, but actively stood for something. In other words, it was first and foremost a declaration of American exceptionalism, with faith a distant second. To roll back that faith is hard enough, piling American exceptionalism on top of it all but impossible.

Second, Americans find it easier to back away from a negative when accompanied by a different step towards a greater positive:

  • when the states balked to ratify the Constitution, the Founding Fathers didn’t simply edit the document inline but formalized the amendment mechanism and enshrined the Bill of Rights
  • as the civil war drew to a close, Lincoln didn’t simply outlaw slavery but positively proclaimed black freedom and equality through the 14th amendment
  • as the returns from its missions diminished, NASA retreated from lunar landings only to leapfrog to Mars
  • Apple’s 1998 released of the iMac controversially removed the floppy drive, superseded by new USB ports (OK this one’s a bit frivolous, but still illustrates the principle)

Simply put, turning the clock backwards to 1954 is not how America rolls.

Finally, the framing of the debate as a rolling back of religion (and especially Christianity) flies in the face of precedent set byLincoln at Gettysburg and needlessly antagonizes a significant demographic. Lincoln himself, who fought for goals far more noble and less abstract, knew there was never a cause so lofty as to excuse dumb politics.

The solution, then, is to make the removal of “under God” secondary to addition of something superior:

  • I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, from many, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Why Those Specific Words

The phrase “from many, one” comes directly from the Great Seal of the United States: “E Plurubus Unum“. As the only words on the front of the Great Seal, approved way back in 1776 by a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, they literally carry the Founding Fathers seal of approval.

Moreover, they cut directly to the heart of what makes America exceptional. In every generation, the new wave of immigrants would threaten to tear the cultural fabric apart:

In each case, the process of wrestling with these forces made our country stronger, not weaker. Today, Appalachians now call themselves “real Americans,” and when’s the last time you heard someone express anxieties about greasy eye-talians, Irish loyalty to the Pope, or treasonous Japanese? The American paradox is that indivisibility rests on a foundation of fragmentation.

Finally, the difference between removing vs. replacing the words “under God” is subtle yet immensely significant. Removal puts the religious on the defensive, who react like they are under attack. Whether that is the intent is irrelevant, in politics what matters is how one feels. Whereas replacement does not undermine the integrity of religion in America, it simply posits something even more integral. God hasn’t been demoted, just eclipsed. The pledge doesn’t mention him for the same reason it doesn’t mention baseball or mom’s apple pie. Still all-American, just not the most American.

Why Now?

The nation is on the brink of a transformational election. In Drumpf we have an unpredictable and serially underestimated demagogue, campaigning on an explicitly anti-immigration platform appealing to white nativism, within striking distance of the White House.

Some would say now is the worst possible moment to risk inflaming the culture war with a petition like this one. And that would would be true for most any other similar petition, but this particular one aspires not to inflame, but to resolve some of the tension underlying the culture wars.

The 2 books most valuable in understanding how our democracy came to its current fragile state are The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance*. Both illuminate – Levin from the outside, Vance from inside – how the social and economic cohesion of the post-war era broke down over the subsequent decades. While this fragmentation has opened greater opportunity for many, it has left less educated whites in Appalachia a sense of despair, leavened only by nostalgia for the “good old days”. Levin in particular makes clear that those days not only cannot return, but that they shouldn’t – plurality is not a threat, but an asset.

If this perspective were universally recognized, the steam would dissipate right out of Drumpf’s campaign. Unfortunately it requires respectful yet direct engagement of his supporters, which accusations of bullying – regardless of accuracy – simply doesn’t do. If anything, it invites contempt among the types of voters who respond to dominance. It hasn’t even won over suburban white women.

Amending the pledge does not threaten Christians to relinquish their values, but challenges them to recognize ours. It uses the very words of the Founding Fathers to directly yet respectfully challenge those who called themselves the Tea Party on their own terms.

Will this sway diehard Drumpf supporters? Probably not. But might it swing those who would only vote for him to spite Hillary that it’s not she, but we whom she represents – plural, innovative, looking ahead – that always have, and will again, make America great.


Note: Preparing for Pushback

You can’t make everybody happy, and this is proposal is likely to draw more than its share of fire. There are some who will never change their belief, but we can at least brace against certain lines of attack:

  • the straw man: “under God” shouldn’t change because it doesn’t violate the establishment clause. Correct: it doesn’t – and is not cited here as a reason for the change. The reason is that religion is peripheral to what makes America great, whereas our plurality is central.
  • the zero-sum gamers: many will question the value of plurality, skeptical that it is code for shifting power from one group to another. The answer is literally staring you in the mirror: your eyes. Neither the left nor right eye are better than the other, nor should be. Only by virtue of their differentiated coexistence is 3D depth perception possible, demonstrating that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • the historians: yes, the original focus of the word “many” was the 13 colonies/states, not the “many” types of people living therein. That said, the phrase was originally lifted from The Gentlemen’s Magazine, which collected articles from many sources into one periodical. So yeah, if the reference can shift from publications to states, then it can shift again to people.
  • the translators: the motto E Pluribus Unum is often translated as “out of many, one” rather than “from many, one” This is really just a matter of flow – if we’re gonna swap out words, let’s at least preserve the existing cadence. For similar reasons, “one nation, from many” is less disruptive than “from many, one nation”
  • the grammarians: the wording “one country, from many, …” may sound like it means “composed of many sub-territories” rather than “from a variety of ethnicities/languages/cultures/religions/lifestyles” etc. I’ll concede this is slightly awkward, but it’s intended meaning isn’t that much of a stretch. It’s certainly not as confusing as the Star Spangled Banner – “Jose can you see by the donzerly light”

*Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates is also essential reading for this election, but its focus of humanizing black America and their plight of fear puts it outside the scope of this discussion

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

If there is anything that this horrible tragedy can teach us, it’s that a mental model is a precious, precious commodity

Back in the mid 1800s, the mathematics community was wracked by debate over non-Euclidean geometry. Can it exist? What does its imply about existence as we know it? How do you even have a sensible conversation about it? The fervent partisanship of a divided geekdom presaged today’s tabs-versus-spaces debate.


Pied Piper is rumored to be working on middle-out indentation

To give a sense of how intense was the debate was, consider Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll designed Wonderland as an cautionary tale of the existential dangers to our very conception of reality of a mathematics unbounded from Euclidean oversight (with the Cheshire Cat symbolizing imaginary numbers which vanish into thin air), much the way The Matrix was a cautionary tale of AI unbounded from human oversight (which adds a whole layer of meta to all those white rabbit references).

What brought the debate decisively to an end was Beltrami-Klein’s constructing a real-world model of non-Euclidean geometry: on the hyperbolic side as a pseudosphere, on the elliptical side as great circles. Once an abstract concept can be overlaid onto a tangible model, its feasibility lies beyond doubt.

The power of models works in the other direction, too. The earliest pioneers of microeconomics developed the model for perfect competition by looking at the salient attributes of an existing market – agriculture – and abstracting out the most salient features.

But what makes models really powerful is that they’re not just passive reflections of the idea, but active tools that can produce new insights and spur action.

The book Freakonomics was basically about constructing new economic theories to explain real-world observations, while conversely, Nudge was about anticipating (and steering) behavior based on attempt to anticipate (and steer) behavior based on theoretical models on information and motivation.

OK, but so what?

So in the first post, I set out a goal of defining “spirituality” with the requirement that it avoid any undefined metaphysical terms.

And in the second post, I developed that definition using a model of the mind as a Google Map, consisting of features both objective and subjective, where “science” vs. “spirituality” is defined as the cultivation of the former vs. latter types of features.


The payoff in this post: putting that model of mind-as-Google-Map to work as an actual tool in improving one’s mental health.

Case in point: CBT identifies 10 key types of cognitive distortions or negative automated thoughts (NATs). Having social anxiety disorder, my #1 NAT is catastrophizing. Basically, blowing perceived dangers out of proportion, leading to paralysis, passivity, and stress in real time. Which in turn can lead to rumination, regret, and anger.


and anger leads to terrible, terrible acting


The form of that “danger” can vary from introducing bugs if I migrate a partially-tested code change to awkwardness if I approach a woman without any idea what to say.

In our mind-as-Google-Map model, an analogous situation would be seeing red on the road ahead to the edge of the map – which may be only a few blocks – but assuming it extends forever and will hopelessly derail my changes of ever reaching my destination.

Getting back to the committing code / chatting up scenario, the corrective is to take a step back and put the threat into proper proportion. Running through the worst-case scenario to establish a lower bound is helpful: “if the system breaks, you back out the change and replay any interrupted transactions” or “if she doesn’t return interest she’ll eventually go her own way and never see you again which would have happened anyway“.


if only

None of which is terribly surprising, but if you have anxiety issues like me, it’s REALLY hard to remember to do in real-time. And the real-time aspect is important, because the optimal course of action inevitably becomes apparent in hindsight, always it’s too late, and quite often at my next therapy session.


Which is where the advantage of the mind-as-Google-Map model comes in. Because the analogous corrective operation in the map is, of course, zooming out.

buttonsBut here’s the kicker: those little “+” and “-” zoom buttons are permanent features of the map. Which means the very act of modeling your problem in terms of the map simultaneously models your solution.

And that raises the odds that you’ll remember to take a step back, put the risk into proper proportion, and act accordingly, at that moment. The Google Maps isn’t quite putting the solution directly into your hands, but at least politely coughing “ahem” and tipping its head in the general vicinity.

As an exercise with my therapist last week, I went through the full list of 10 cognitive distortions defined by David Burns and modeled the solution for each in terms of the mind-as-Google-Map.

  1. catastrophizing (above)
    • distortion: overreacting to a perceived danger
    • problem model: red congestion that extends length of road to edge of screen
    • solution prompt: zoom out button
  2. Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 11.51.43 PMmind reading
    • distortion: assuming others think as you do (or you as they)
    • problem model: projecting subjective map features (position, destination, route) onto other’s screen
    • solution prompt: start/end and path selection screen
  3. black-and-white thinking:
    • distortion: seeing events in all-or-nothing terms (usually nothing)
    • problem model: losing the path or having a bad path in navigation mode
    • solution prompt: auto recalculation of a new path
  4. overgeneralization:
    • distortion: concluding negative outcome based on a limited sample size
    • problem model: taking same journey repeatedly, expecting same results
    • solution prompt: refresh button. Google dynamically recalculates results each time from scratch, and results often differ from one minute to the next
  5. mental filter:
    • distortion: dwelling on negatives without seeing positives
    • problem model: red spots of traffic congestion
    • solution prompt: green spots of low congestion
  6. discounting positives: really the same as mental filter
  7. should statements:
    • distortion: judging what “should” be instead of observing what is
    • problem model: not having a destination, or path to destination, or alternate paths, or projecting yours onto others
    • solution model: see Mind Reading solution prompt
  8.  labeling:
    • distortion: applying normative labels rather than neutral descriptions
    • problem model: running late
    • solution model: just provides ETA
  9.  blame:
    • distortion: taking or assigning undue level of responsibility – focus on perception instead of substance
    • solution prompt: updates accompanied by suggested alternatives
  10. emotional reasoning:
    • distortion: reasoning from how you feel at a given moment
    • didn’t get around to modeling this one – perhaps feeling lost between recalculation? pulling over to side of road while recalculating? or setting out on fresh journey before first getting bearing?


At some point I might go a step further in developing this model to correlate:

  • mindfulness => navigation mode vs. bird’s eye view
  • fear => stepping out of accepted boundaries private property, unmapped areas, dirt roads, buildings, switching from car to foot
  • having values, priorities, and goals => compass, path, orientation


but at this point I’m really tired and really gotta get back to work.


And since that’s a kinda weak note to end this 3 post sequence on, here’s this post’s title reference (jump to 1:41):




Posted in Uncategorized

Google Maps but not Religious



I may work at Apple, but I don’t think even Tim Cook would dispute that Google Maps still superior. Yes we’ve made a lot of progress adding public transport, but the inability to enter an arbitrary starting point for a journey is absurd.

Anyway, it turns out that in addition to being a superior app, Google Maps is a rich metaphor for the human mind, and by extension the basis for my new, non-metaphysical definition of the word “spiritual.”

Let’s take a look at this Google map of California.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 4.49.18 AM

that’s “the I-5” and don’t you forget it

Most of the features you see on the map correspond to an object out in the real world:

  • blue stuff on the left => Pacific Ocean
  • grey line at bottom => Mexico border
  • orange line going up the middle => I-5
  • green bumps => Sierra Nevada

Within the map that is our mind, analogous features would be basic facts and opinions:

  • “the sky is blue” => blue sky
  • “traffic sucks” => accident up ahead
  • “snow quality is great” => 6 ft fell last month

Of course, a map can only capture a fraction of what’s in the Territory, so this map is missing smaller towns like Fremont and Santa Monica.

Likewise, the map in our head doesn’t bother tracking useless info, such as the license plate number of the car in front of you.


remember when Google cars were cool? and then Tesla came along

And of course, Google expends great effort to curate its maps to ensure accuracy by sourcing data and sending out those ridiculous looking camera cars.

Likewise for us, we ensure our map of thoughts and beliefs accurately reflect the real world: that process of curation is called science.

OK, so what’s spirituality?

Take a look at this Google Map again, and notice all the things that don’t correspond to objects out in the real world:

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 12.50.33 PM

although you probably will see Prince’s sign all over Castro

  • labels: nowhere in Cole Valley will you see letters “C-O-L-E-V-A-L-L-E-Y” hovering it
  • scale: you won’t see a “2000ft______” line in the Mission
  • handles: nor a giant “+” or “-” sign near 24th street
  • route: Frederick Street is not actually different in color, brightness, or visibility from adjacent roads

In other words, there are map features which do NOT correspond to anything out in the territory. Let’s call these subjective map elements, in contrast to features that DO correspond to the territory, which we’ll call objective map elements.

If “science” is the cultivation of objective map features, then “spirituality” is the cultivation of subjective map features. And while the goal of the former is to improve accuracy, the goal of the latter is to improve usability.

Next post: putting the Google Maps model of spirituality in practice

PS: Holy shit, I just reduced spirituality to UX. Totally didn’t see that coming



Posted in Uncategorized

Don’t Throw out the Bathwater with the Baby Jesus

<ding> “breath deep through your nose … in … and slowly out …”

Since I moved to SF last month, my therapist suggested I check out meditation sessions at a place called the Shamballah Center. I haven’t actually made it there yet, but I found a similar center in the Panhandle a few blocks from my place, plus a meditation group at work that meets weekly during lunch just above one of our cafeterias.


<ding> “feel your stomach expanding with every breath…”

I was a bit ambivalent about getting into meditation. The word “spiritual” in particular bothers me, like its vagueness is deliberately designed to provide the comfort of believing in a higher power and afterlife without explicitly declaring a metaphysic (be it Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Hindu, whatever) that would then be vulnerable to questioning.

Still, there’s enough hard data on the benefits of so-called “spiritual” practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude in terms of improved mental health outcomes that I was willing to hold my nose and give it a shot. A peer-reviewed thumbs up from the scientific community carries a lot more weight than anecdotal evidence in my book.


<ding> “you are on a beach, facing the rising sun…”

I did meditation throughout my childhood as part of karate, but never for more than a minute at a time so not sure that counts as “real” meditation. I’m really not even sure what it’s supposed to feel like, so I’m not sure afterwards whether I did it correctly or not, or how. Actually, often I’m not even sure whether I was awake the whole time. But I figure I’ll roll with it and eventually get the hang of it.


<ding> “the sun is now risen overhead, feel it warming your limbs…”

I’m kinda blase about all the trappings – the chimes, the etherial music, the guy in robes quietly providing us practical instructions on how to breath or things to visualize – but it seems harmless enough. I mostly tune it out, not sure if that’s incorrect or if that’s the point.


<ding> “repeat these words: I am a spiritual being in a world of form and matter”

wait, WTF?

Did he just tell us to say “I am a spiritual being in a world of form and matter”?

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Like I said before, I’ve never liked the word “spiritual.” It’s so vaguely defined, just a hot-swap of “religion” minus the cultural baggage. I’ve been an atheist since I realized at 16 that Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman had more to teach about the human condition than all the pastors I’d met up til then.

And this second part of the mantra, contrast our “spiritual beings” against “a world of form and matter” just felt like doubling down on the metaphysical gibberish. It’s one thing to have to hold my nose at this spiritual stuff in isolation, it’s another thing to rub my face in it. It bothered me, and derailed the remainder of that day’s meditation session.

Which was worrisome, because I didn’t wan’t to abandon meditation just because I couldn’t get past its metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Both because I wanted to continue practicing meditation, and because I didn’t like the idea of being someone who’s so intellectually rigid that I had to make that tradeoff.

Well, what if I could be intellectually flexible enough to not have to make that tradeoff?

What if I could define “spiritual” on my own, purely secular terms? A definition that avoids any trace of religion-by-another-name from slipping in. Such a definition would need to:

  1. address what is out of scope of conventional science and technology
  2. directly impact our mental and emotional well being
  3. exist strictly in the physical real world
  4. offer a narrative at least as robust as metaphysics (souls/god/afterlife)

Next post: the definition I arrived at


Posted in Uncategorized

Toilet Fail

Toilet Fail

On the SW face of Namsan Mountain is Yongsan Public Library.
Set aside people in the hallway not caring to see straight into the bathroom.
Or the urinals not having dividers.
Or pink generally not being the ideal color scheme for the men’s room.
No, what really makes it great?
The TP roll hanging *OUTSIDE* the stalls.


Image | Posted on by

Awww … My First Hater

I just got lambasted by some reader who followed my link through ExpatHELL.  Apparently he was displeased by the lower level of quality, humor, insight, and/or anti-Korean angst compared to ExpatHELL.

Banger: thank you for the kick in the pants.  Now please go fuck yourself.

That said, I really should get back into the groove of writing …

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s YOUR Problem. Now DEAL With It.

My mom recently went to DC to give a lecture on ADHD in the Asian American community.

One of her colleagues in the audience sent her the following article:


The piece started with an intriguing question:

What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?

which was predicated on a very thought-provoking observation:

“But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have ­proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it.”

At this point, I was ready for the article to start talking about during or after college these guys find that their lives simply stall, or at best plateau.  The cause?  The abrupt removal of parental pressure keeping accelerator pressed to the floor and of academic structure keeping the steering wheel straight.  Without these, these men find themselves coasting along directionless at best, stalled and/or lost at worst.

Instead, the article swerved towards listing the typical complaints of the “traditional Asian” household:

“When you grow up in a[n Asian] home,” he says, “you don’t talk. You shut up and listen to what your parents tell you to do.”

and ultimately devolves into just another victimization narrative:

Huang had a rough twenties, bumping repeatedly against the Bamboo Ceiling. In college, editors at the Orlando Sentinel invited him to write about sports for the paper. But when he visited the offices, “the editor came in and goes, ‘Oh, no.’ And his exact words: ‘You can’t write with that face.’ ” Later, in film class at Columbia, he wrote a script about an Asian-American hot-dog vendor obsessed with his small penis. “The screenwriting teacher was like, ‘I love this. You have a lot of Woody Allen in you. But do you think you could change it to Jewish characters?’ ” Still later, after graduating from Cardozo School of Law, he took a corporate job, where other associates would frequently say, “You have a lot of opinions for an Asian guy.”

How disappointing.

What could have been a searing, soul-searching introspection turned instead a litany of cliche grievances:

  • blame your parents
  • blame university racial quotas
  • blame the white-alpha-male paradigm
  • blame anybody but yourself

Bitch, bitch, bitch.  Whine, whine, whine.  Bitch-moan, bitch-moan, bitch-moan.

Of all the characters in the article – the author included – the only one who demonstrated any agency over his environment was the pick-up artist.

Where Are They Now?

A more interesting angle – or at least, the one I was expecting – would have been to play it like an E! True Hollywood Story profile.  You know, where they take former child stars who faded from the limelight as adults, showing how they dissipated into alcohol and memories of faded glory. Think Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone or Haley Joel Osment from The 6th Sense but with SAT scores instead of Oscar nominations.

“These bright starlets showed so much promise as children – where are they now?”

For instance, the version from my life might have charted my descent from high school 2nd degree black belt karate instructor with some stupid number of AP classes to college where, absent parental pressure, I failed class after class until I found myself on academic probation.

Then jumping forward 8 years, finding myself adrift in London: overweight, overworked, stressed and depressed from a job where I was promoted to Vice President at a company whose business I didn’t understand and in an industry that was slowly imploding.

Both phenomena can be traced to the sudden loss of drive (parental pressure) and direction (academic linearity).  And I agree with the article that this trajectory is probably common among Asian American males.

But where I disagree with the article is in deflecting the blame on these external factors: parents, colleagues, female norms of attractiveness, etc.  I’m not saying these aren’t real factors, but that they’re irrelevant.  The article is denying ownership of these problems, which in turn denies agency to fix it.

In my case, I was sick of my job, sick of my city, and sick of my life in London.  But when I acknowledged that this job/city/life were mine and mine alone, I recognized the option of walking away from it all.  Which is what I did: quit my job, went backpacking for a year, and blogged the shit out of it.

Solutions are possible only insofar as one takes ownership of the problem.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged