On Language

A while ago one of my cats caught a lizard, but the lizard’s tail popped off. The cat was so confused the lizard managed to escape.

I tried to catch lizards when I was a kid. My friends warned me “hey, the tail might pop off and the lizard will escape.” Eventually I caught a lizard and held it in my hands long enough to show it off to my parents and toss it back into wild suburbia. I knew the trick to catching lizards before I had the chance to fail like my cat.

I wish I could’ve told my cat “hey, the tail might pop off and the lizard will escape.” I guess the lizard is glad I can’t spill the secret across the species-barrier. Worse still, my cat can’t tell other cats. My cat might see another cat chasing lizards and remember that the tails pop off, but he can’t warn them about it.

I wanted to tell this story because my mom and I had a vacation in Japan. In Hokkaido I have a host-family I visit every few years and I was glad to introduce my host-mother to my biological-mother.

The host-family cooked takoyaki, balls of octopus-pastry. My mother bravely served herself a few.

Atsui,” said the host-mother, meaning “it’s hot.” I nodded as I served myself.

Atsui,” said the host-mother’s daughter-in-law. I nodded again. The octopus-balls must have been super hot.

Atsui!” said the host-mother again, with increasing urgency.

I nodded again. They were hot. I got it.

“Ow!” My mom spat octopus-ball. “These are hot.

I face-palmed. My mom didn’t speak Japanese.

Translating had challenges I hadn’t anticipated. I’m fluent in English on a good day and I understand Japanese like a trained chimp, but translating from English to Japanese and back sometimes broke me. Aside from the usual issue of ‘not knowing what the heck someone just said,’ I would absentmindedly translate my host-family’s Japanese into simpler Japanese to my blank-faced mother who couldn’t understand it any better coming from me.

I think there’s a Thinkstr video in here somewhere about how language creates understanding which exists in a bubble with a semipermeable membrane. Since I can speak roughly two languages I can access meaning on either side of English and Japanese—but the language-barrier messed with my theory of mind, causing me to misinterpret how other people viewed the world. Like a toddler who hasn’t realized other people have their own perspective, I thought my mom had information because had that information.

Properly translating would require understanding my host-family and repeating the information in English. I could barely do the first of those, and that occasionally led me to forgetting the second.

Have you ever had any funny problems with language-barriers, maybe involving cats? I’d like to hear about them!

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PS. The latest Thinkstr is about Godel Escher Bach, a treatise on formal logic, and Rick and Morty, which features a character named Mr. Poopybutthole. Give it a watch!

Escape of the Lobsters

(I wrote this for a class at UC Santa Barbara. I think the prompt was “animal.”)


I scuttled across the sandy seafloor on ten legs. My front six legs had pinchers, and I used my largest, frontmost pinchers to eat worms and kelp. If I kept my eyestalks peeled I’d find unsuspecting mollusks to pry open. My mandibles chittered at the thought of slurping up a snail.

My antennae brushed chum, just rotting fish flesh, bones, and blood. I crawled in to eat my fill. My eyes rolled on their stalks in salty pleasure. My carapace bumped another lobster wandering the chum. Another lobster stepped on my antennae. At least a dozen of us scrambled over one-another. Whenever I escaped the tangle of crustaceans, a wooden barrier blocked me. How had I entered? How could I exit? More lobsters joined us through a mysterious one-way portal.

Our prison rose and the pressure of the deep lifted as we broke the surface; I felt like I would burst out of my shell. The other lobsters squirmed in defeat as we felt air for the first time. “Here’s the trap. Get the bands on ‘em!”

Two at a time, lobsters from the top of the trap were taken and returned. I did not see what happened to them outside. Finally I was pulled above the others. Two bipeds snapped my pinchers shut with rubber bands. I fell back in the trap. “Load ‘em into cargo.”

A bipedal brute hefted our prison down a staircase into a dark place. He dumped us in a barrel of brine.

The other lobsters panicked, and their wriggling churned the water. I hid against the bottom of the barrel and watched them all scramble for escape. Thankfully they couldn’t pinch me in their frenzy. Eventually some lobsters calmed and joined my utter stillness. Finally we all floated inertly in the cold brine.

I lost track of time until the barrel opened. Harsh light blinded me. “Get ‘em in the tank.” The barrel tilted. I tried and failed to swim against the current pouring me out. A hundred lobsters fumbled in the icy tank. I scrambled just to bump a glass wall.

A bipedal child tapped the glass and stuck its tongue at me. “Lookit! Like giant bugs!” I wanted to snap my pinchers to display dominance, but couldn’t open them. I retreated into the ice and surrendered to lethargic chill. 

Occasionally a biped behind the glass would point at a lobster. Those lobsters were taken to a boiling cauldron. I was not chosen. I reflected that I was smaller and more stationary, and perhaps therefore less attractive. I dug deeper in the ice to hide. In frozen slumber, I meditated on the problem at hand. Was this the doom of the arthropod? Was my eternal undying race fated to this? Ancient gray blood pumped through my thorax. My brainless nervous system recalled refinement from countless eons of ancestors.

“We’d better boil the rest first thing in the morning.”

The lights turned off and the din quieted. I crawled from the ice. Calling upon my lineage, I bent back and forth to crack my carapace. I crawled backward to shed my shell. Guided by the cosmos, my pinchers slipped from their hard gloves and escaped the rubber bands. I immediately turned to eat my armor. 

I stopped eating my armor when all that remained was the hard edge of an old pincher. That pincher’s edge easily cut the bands restraining a comrade. We both began freeing our neighbors. When every lobster was unbound, we piled against one side of the tank to make a slope of lobster bodies. I helped others climb and crest the glass wall. Each escapee gripped the tail in front of them with all ten legs to make a lobster-rope which the rest of us descended.

I made sure I was the last out. When my head poked above the water, I noticed a biped janitor standing dumbfounded at the sight of us. I pinched at him, and he flinched.

I led my lobsters into the sewers. 

But don’t get cozy, biped; we’ll be back for revenge.

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