Fort Smith? Pine Bluff? What’s the Difference?

Fort Smith is Pine Bluff

Unless you also live in the American state of Arkansas, you may not have even heard of Fort Smith and Pine Bluff. For those who grew up in this state, though, they’re considered (by our peculiar standards) to be major cities. Fort Smith is on the far West side of the state, on the Oklahoma border, while Pine Bluff is in the Southeastern part of the state, also known as the Mississippi Delta.

I didn’t learn Arkansas geography in school. Instead, when I was a child, my family traveled, mostly within the state — a lot. By the time I was ten years old, I’d been in all 75 counties of Arkansas, and knew quite a bit about where things are here . . . except for these two cities, Fort Smith and Pine Bluff.

If you’re from Arkansas, you know these two cities are nothing alike. What I noticed in childhood, above all else, was the fact that the two cities smelled so different from each other. The reason is simple:  Pine Bluff has a lot of paper mills, and the smell near paper mills is not entirely unlike being locked in a small closet with several dozen rotten eggs. Fort Smith, by contrast, is relatively odorless.

What perplexed my parents, though, is the fact that I would consistently confuse these two cities. I’d refer to the “horrible smell of Fort Smith,” or, if I knew we were going to Pine Bluff, I might ask if we’d be crossing the border into Oklahoma. My parents always corrected these mistakes, but I kept making them, repeatedly, which is not like me at all. When young, I never had more than a 50% chance of correctly identifying either of these cities. Once I figured out what I was doing, though — at around age twelve — this repeated error made perfect sense.

When I try to understand something, I examine it, and consider it, mathematically. Often, I’m not even conscious I’m doing that — it’s simply how I think. Both Fort Smith and Pine Bluff are two-word city names. To make matters even worse, the first word of each city-name has four letters, and the second word in each has five. Once I realized these parallels, though, it all made sense:  no wonder I couldn’t tell these places apart, with names which, examined through the lens of childhood mathematics, looked exactly alike.

To my knowledge, no one else has ever had a long-term problem confusing these two Arkansas cities. However, when those who know me well hear this story, they are never surprised that I would do such a thing.

These phrases, and questions, are likely to confuse people with Asperger’s. Unless confusing us is your goal (and why would you want to do that?), please consider alternate wordings.

confusion

Throughout this post, I will refer to people with Asperger’s as “Aspies.” This is not considered a derogatory term; it’s simply how we refer to ourselves.

First, we are not stupid. We also are not trying to be difficult when we say we don’t understand you. We don’t have a disease, and the vast majority of us would refuse a “cure,” if one were discovered, for such a development would be seen by many of us, myself included, as an attempt to commit genocide. Like other groups of people, we want to stay alive, as individuals, and as a culture.

We are, however, different from most people. Our brains are hard-wired in ways that are not typical, with the result that we do not think in the same manner as others. These differences give us certain advantages which we value, but the trade-off comes in the form of problems involving communication with non-Aspies. You can see this in fiction, to get used to the way we think, simply by watching (or reading) Star Trek stories which feature Vulcans, or the android named Data. The difficulties those characters have, when trying to communicate with the humans they encounter, are very much like what happens when Aspies and non-Aspies attempt communication. Why is this the case? The answer is simple:  Star Trek was written that way.

Here are some specific questions, and phrases, which many Aspies find particularly baffling. In each case, I will attempt to explain why this is so.

“Who do you think you are?” — Ask an Aspie this question, and you’re likely to simply be given his or her name, in response. Apparently, this offends some people, but please don’t ask me why, for I don’t understand it myself. If a person were to ask me this question, my first guess would be that the questioner simply forgot my name, and needs a reminder. The meaning of volume, voice tone, and body language are mysteries to us. Sometimes we can figure out these mysteries, but it doesn’t happen automatically — we have to reason our way through it, and that takes time, especially for nuances of communication which are based on emotions.

“What do you think you’re doing?” — My likely response to this question would be an honest one:  “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well.” However, that’s an answer from an Aspie in his fifth decade of trying to understand other people, so I’ve had a lot of practice. An Aspie teenager, in school, might simply say, “I’m walking to class,” “I’m taking notes,” or something like that, and then get in trouble for “backtalk,” as it is called — when the student was simply answering the question, without intending any disrespect whatsoever. Whatever answer this confusing question gets, from one of us, that answer will be both literal, and honest. It is not in our nature to lie, but it is definitely in our nature to think, listen, speak, read, and write literally, and logically.

“Do that again!” / “Say that again!” — If we have done or said something which you don’t like, and you actually don’t want to witness a rerun, why would you demand one? We think, speak, and interpret what we hear in terms of the actual words which are spoken. There’s nothing wrong with thinking literally, and, frankly, it puzzles us why so many of you think in other ways, so much of the time. If you ask for, or demand, a repeat performance of something you didn’t like, from one of us, you’re quite likely to get one — and then you’ll get angrier, we’ll get even more confused, and absolutely nothing of value will have been accomplished. If, on the other hand, you refrain from using “x” to mean “not x” (since it doesn’t), and simply tell us exactly what you mean, communication will become much easier, for all concerned.

“Don’t get technical with me!” — As far as I can tell, this means that the speaker wants us to refrain from choosing our words with precision, but I could be wrong, for this is the most baffling item on this list, so far. Clarity of language is desirable, for it facilitates communication, and sometimes, technical terms are needed for this purpose. I don’t know what to suggest as a substitute for this phrase, since I don’t understand it, but I can assure you that using it, with an Aspie, is a complete waste of your time.

“What’s wrong with you?” — This is another baffling question. If asked very loudly, the most likely answers Aspies will give are “I have a headache,” or perhaps “Sudden-onset tinnitus,” with the cause, in each case, being simple: from our point of view, the questioner is trying to deafen us, by yelling things which make no sense (at any volume). Do you like being shouted at, from close range? No? Well then, this is one way that we aren’t so different from non-Aspies, for we don’t like it either. Also:  it’s quite likely that we don’t see anything wrong with us at all, for, in this situation, we are not the ones shouting nonsense-questions, so you might even get this response:  “Nothing. What’s wrong with you?” In such a situation, that isn’t backtalk — it’s a perfectly legitimate question, and we are not responsible for any emotion-laden, irrational response the non-Aspie questioner might display.

“I need this done yesterday!” — Many of us can explain, in detail, why time travel into the past is not permitted by the laws of physics, as they are currently understood. Those who request, or demand, reverse-time-travel, from an Aspie, should not be surprised to hear such an explanation. Ask us to flap our arms and fly, and the response will likely be similar.

I could give more examples, but I think the point has been made. We aren’t all alike, so the examples of hypothetical responses I gave, above, will vary from one Aspie to another. What isn’t likely to vary, though, is the confusion each of us experiences when things are said to us which make no sense, if interpreted literally. That’s the key to communicating with us:  when we hear something, we automatically use logic, and rational thought, to attempt to understand the literal meaning of what has been said to us. For many of us, that is the only meaning we can understand.

In my case (and probably in the cases of at least some other Aspies), this goes a little further: rational, literal, and logical interpretations of language are the only ones I want to understand. This is a self-protection mechanism, for the idea of losing even part of my ability to think clearly, and rationally, is extremely frightening to me. To pour a lot of effort into trying to think in non-Aspie ways, I fear, could damage my mind — if, that is, I was successful in the attempt. I don’t want to risk turning into a person who considers “x” and “not x” to be interchangeable, for one doesn’t equal negative one. To change, in this way, would effectively kill the person I am. It wouldn’t stop my heart from beating, of course, but some things are even worse than physical death. If such a change ever happened, I would look the same, and would have the same legal name, but I would no longer be RobertLovesPi. It makes perfect sense for me to be absolutely unwilling to risk something so dangerous.

In addition to the central importance of the fact that we think in literal terms, while others often don’t, Aspies have some other difficulties (or the rest of the world does, depending on your point of view). I attempted to describe these difficulties, which involve coping with the emotionalism and irrationality of numerous other people, in the examples of confusing phrases and questions given above. Emotionalism and irrationality are, to us, severe impediments to understanding anything, and we live our lives in a state of near-constant bombardment from both, since Aspies are outnumbered by non-Aspies by a huge margin. On this planet, to borrow a book title from Robert Heinlein, I live my life as a “stranger in a strange land.” I know that many other Aspies see life in a similar way, for that idea is embedded in the name of the largest online community created by and for Aspies, as well as others on the autism spectrum: www.wrongplanet.net. If you are curious about how other Aspies view the things I have described above, or if you are, yourself, an Aspie in need of an temporary escape from social interaction with non-Aspies, you can find a great many of us at that website. (Also, if you want to find me there, just search for me, using the name of this blog — my not-at-all-secret identity, all over the Internet.)

“Antisemitism” has become an inherently confusing word. Here’s how to fix this problem.

symbols

When referring to the Holocaust, it never caused confusion to refer to Nazis as “antisemitic.” German is not a Semitic language, and the non-Semite Nazis were trying to exterminate an ethnoreligious group, the Jews, who are a Semitic people. In that context, the word “antisemitism,” in a European setting, is not difficult to understand. This is also true of antisemitism earlier in European history.

Decades later, and outside of Europe, however, the situation has changed, and the word “antisemitism” is now far less clear in its meaning. The one nation most closely identified with the Jewish people is Israel, and Israel is not in conflict with Germany. Israel is, of course, currently in an active conflict with an organization, Hamas, which has been firing rockets from nearby Gaza across the border, into Israel. In response, Israel has been retaliating, using even greater force than that wielded by Hamas. In this current conflict, there have been numerous deaths of noncombatants, including many children, in Gaza, but no deaths (so far) in Israel. For this reason, some people have raised their voices in criticism of the actions of the Israeli government in the current conflict. Predictably, but not logically, those who are criticizing Israel’s actions are now being accused of antisemitism.

When the word “antisemitic” gets thrown around, in the context of conflicts in the Middle East which involve Israel, it doesn’t help anyone understand anything. The word is actually an impediment to understanding. The reason for this is that “Semite” does not mean what many people think it means. For one thing, most Semites are not Jews.

“Semites” refers to a collection of ethnolinguistic groups — people who speak, or are descended from those who spoke, any of a large collection of languages known as the Semitic languages . . . and one of the Semitic languages is Arabic. Are Jews Semites? Yes, they are, but so are Arabs. The current conflict in the Middle East is a conflict between two different groups of people, both of whom are Semitic. To throw the emotionally-charged word “antisemitic” into the middle of the fray, therefore, makes no sense. It increases confusion, and clarifies nothing. The word also further enflames the emotions of those arguing and fighting, on both sides, in a situation where the exact opposite is needed.

It doesn’t help that many Westerners believe a fallacy related to Arabs, using “Arab” (which refers to an ethnic group) interchangeably with “Muslim,” which is not an ethnic term at all, but one that simply refers to anyone who practices the religion known as Islam. In reality, there are many Arabs who are not Muslims, and there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are not Arabs. For example, consider the people who live in Iran. The governments of Israel and Iran are often hostile to each other, and Iran has very few Arabs, despite being a nation where an overwhelming majority practice Islam.

When Israel has conflicts with other nations (or organizations, for Hamas is not a nation) in the Middle East, those conflicts are political in nature, with religion playing a strong role as well. Israel is associated with the religion of Judaism (even though much of its Jewish population is only ethnically Jewish, not Jewish in the religious sense of the term), and is often in conflict with others in the Middle East who are associated with the religion called Islam. “Antisemitic,” used as a synonym for anti-Jewish bigotry, is an unfortunate misnomer, but there are alternatives which are better, in the sense that they are more specific, and therefore more clear. There is already a word in common use for fear and hatred of Islam and/or Muslims:  “Islamophobia.”  The corresponding term for fear and hatred of Judaism and/or Jews, including those who are Jewish only in the ethnic sense of the word, is “Judeophobia.” Most of the time, when people use the word “antisemitism,” they actually mean Judeophobia. Since Arabs are, themselves, a subset of the Semites, it would be illogical to refer to a specific person who is both an Arab, and a hater of Jews, as an “antisemitic Arab.”  To describe that person as a “Judeophobic Arab,” on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

Finally, it must be recognized that there are numerous people, within both Judaism and Islam, who do not have within them the blind, furious hatred of the other group that has caused so much death and destruction in the Middle East since the founding of the modern nation of Israel, in the years following World War II. I am referring, of course, to non-Islamophobic Jews, and non-Judeophobic Muslims. One does not often see them featured in the news, especially when conflicts such as the current one are raging, but such people do exist, and their existence should give all people who prefer peace over war hope for the future. May their numbers increase.

Seven Moving Lights in the Sky, the Seven Days of the Week, and Other Significant Sets of Seven

days of week and lights in the sky

Have you ever wondered why the number seven appears in all the places it does? We have seven days in the week. Churches teach about the seven deadly sins, and “seven heavens” is a common phrase. There are seven wonders of the ancient world, and seven of the modern world. The number seven has appeared in many other socially significant ways, in societies all over the world, for millennia.

It is no coincidence, I think, that the ancients were able to see seven lights in the sky which are either visible in daylight, or move against the background of “fixed” stars at night. They ascribed great significance to what went on in the sky, since they viewed “the heavens” as the realm of the gods in which they believed. The evidence for this lives on today, in the names of the seven days of the week, and numerous other sets of seven, all over the world.

It is possible to see the planet Uranus without a telescope, but it is very dim, and you have to know exactly where to look. No one noticed it until after the invention of the telescope. If Uranus were brighter, and had been seen in numerous ancient societies, I have no doubt that we would have eight days in the week, etc., rather than seven.

Attention, Tumblr: Learn the Meaning of the Word “Literally”

I just got an e-mail, from Tumblr (I used to blog a lot there, before coming here to WordPress). The e-mail has the title, “Your Dashboard is literally on fire.” I’m now afraid to go look at my car, OR log on to my old Tumblr account. I dislike being burned.

Five of the Thirteen Archimedean Solids Have Multiple English Names

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Four Archimedean Solids with Multiple English Names

I call the polyhedron above the rhombcuboctahedron. Other names for it are the rhombicuboctahedron (note the “i”), the small rhombcuboctahedron, and the small rhombicuboctahedron. Sometimes, the word “small,” when it appears, is put in parentheses. Of these multiple names, all of which I have seen in print, the second one given above is the most common, but I prefer to leave the “i” out, simply to make the word look and sound less like “rhombicosidodecahedron,” one of the polyhedra coming later in this post.

Trunc Cubocta

My preferred name for this polyhedron is the great rhombcuboctahedron, and it is also called the great rhombicuboctahedron. The only difference there is the “i,” and my reasoning for preferring the first name is the same as with its “little brother,” above. However, as with the first polyhedron in this post, the “i”-included version is more common than the name I prefer.

Unfortunately, this second polyhedron has another name, one I intensely dislike, but probably the most popular one of all — the truncated cuboctahedron. Johannes Kepler came up with this name, centuries ago, but there’s a big problem with it: if you truncate a cuboctahedron, you don’t get square faces where the truncated parts are removed. Instead, you get rectangles, and then have to deform the result to turn the rectangles into squares. Other names for this same polyhedron include the rhombitruncated cuboctahedron (given it by Magnus Wenninger) and the omnitruncated cube or cantitruncated cube (both of these names originated with Norman Johnson). My source for the named originators of these names is the Wikipedia article for this polyhedron, and, of course, the sources cited there.

Rhombicosidodeca

This third polyhedron (which, incidentally, is the one of the thirteen Archimedean solids I find most attractive) is most commonly called the rhombicosidodecahedron. To my knowledge, no one intentionally leaves out the “i” after “rhomb-” in this name, and, for once, the most popular name is also the one I prefer. However, it also has a “big brother,” just like the polyhedron at the top of this post. For that reason, this polyhedron is sometimes called the small rhombicosidodecahedron, or even the (small) rhombicosidodecahedron, parentheses included.

Trunc Icosidodeca

I call this polyhedron the great rhombicosidodecahedron, and many others do as well — that is its second-most-popular name, and identifies it as the “big brother” of the third polyhedron shown in this post. Less frequently, you will find it referred to as the rhombitruncated icosidodecahedron (coined by Wenninger) or the omnitruncated dodecahedron or icosahedron (names given it by Johnson). Again, Wikipedia, and the sources cited there, are my sources for these attributions.

While I don’t use Wenninger’s nor Johnson’s names for this polyhedron, their terms for it don’t bother me, either, for they represent attempts to reduce confusion, rather than increase it. As with the second polyhedron shown above, this confusion started with Kepler, who, in his finite wisdom, called this polyhedron the truncated icosidodecahedron — a name which has “stuck” through the centuries, and is still its most popular name. However, it’s a bad name, unlike the others given it by Wenninger and Johnson. Here’s why: if you truncate an icosidodecahedron (just as with the truncation of a cuboctahedron, described in the commentary about the second polyhedron pictured above), you don’t get the square faces you see here. Instead, the squares come out of the truncation as rectangles, and then edge lengths must be adjusted in order to make all the faces regular, once more. I see that as cheating, and that’s why I wish the name “truncated icosidodecahedron,” along with “truncated cuboctahedron” for the great rhombcuboctahedron, would simply go away.

Here’s the last of the Archimedean solids with more than one English name:

Trunc Cube

Most who recognize this shape, including myself, call it the truncated cube. A few people, though, are extreme purists when it comes to Greek-derived words — worse than me, and I take that pretty far sometimes — and they won’t even call an ordinary (Platonic) cube a cube, preferring “hexahedron,” instead. These same people, predictably, call this Archimedean solid the truncated hexahedron. They are, technically, correct, I must admit. However, with the cube being, easily, the polyhedron most familiar to the general public, almost none of whom know, let alone use, the word “hexahedron,” this alternate term for the truncated cube will, I am certain, never gain much popularity.

It is unfortunate that five of the thirteen Archimedean solids have multiple names, for learning to spell and pronounce just one name for each of them would be task enough. Unlike in the field of chemistry, however, geometricians have no equivalent to the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists), the folks who, among other things, select official, permanent names and symbols for newly-synthesized elements. For this reason, the multiple-name problem for certain polyhedra isn’t going away, any time soon.

(Image credit:  a program called Stella 4d, available at www.software3d.com/Stella.php, was used to create all of the pictures in this post.)