the function of the forbidden name

This post is an exercise in the kind of tactics used by regular people in a country where censorship is a $6 billion industry and where the published image of the name of the nation’s leader is controlled.

This leader has a name that may not be used publicly. To do so would invite censure. This reminds me of the prohibition to speak the true name of god that I understand long existed within Jewish tradition. Like a package, it is wrapped in abstraction that refer to the contents within. In speech and writing, the name is comprised of four letters which cannot be pronounced without training and permission.

The name has a name, it is the tetragram. And we know it means “I Am that I Am”. While Christians generally take for granted some form of pronunciation of this name, the intention in Jewish tradition appears to be to serve the name with the utmost reverence. Is the reason you shouldn’t say the name of god the same as the reason you cannot say the name of a country’s leader?

Where the vowelless tetragram is used as a referent to the holy name that may not be spoken, an app for mobile devices exists in place of the name of the leader. The app has a name, and it is a play on the unspeakable name, for as the “I Am” commands all being, the “Learning” commands all knowing.

But it is the function of the app that is similar to the function of the tetragram. While the function of the unspeakable holy name seems to me to assemble and establish reverence, the function of the app is to make and measure consent.

Here’s what I know about how the app works. It was developed by a private company, but is owned and operated by the government. It has a multimedia feed of news about the country and the leader. It has a reading and study guide of political thought, and a quizzing section with daily, weekly, and special quizzes and a scoreboard.

The quizzes cover a variety of topics and not just the thought of the leader. It sounds similar to the US and Canadian citizenship tests, but taken by everyone everyday. Points are awarded to the user for correct answers, but you also get points for engaging other elements daily in the app such as reading and sharing articles. There is a maximum of 59 points you can earn in a day.

I don’t know if you can earn a streak award for daily use, but there is a leaderboard that ranks users nationally and within a virtual study group. The study group sounds similar to Duolingo’s tournament board, but with real names and people from your community. People are strongly encouraged in the workplace or at school to get the app and join a virtual study group. Researchers say that some users face consequences at work for not participating or for maintaining a low score.

How many were punished for pronouncing the prohibited name of god? I don’t know and maybe nobody really knows how to pronounce the tetragram, apart from Moses and a line of priests and rabbis, speaking the name on one holy day of the year. In contrast, the name of the leader is more broadly known, but only the elite may say it. Censure online is the response for using the leaders name, but, if you don’t work hard to collect points, to play the learning game, you may face consequences at work or at school.

Implicit in the reverence of a name is the power of the spoken word in conduct of daily life. Working creatively around the unspeakable name of god is an act of realizing the ways of being. It is a sidewalk dance of navigation with and against the crowd, the towering institutions of power, and all the ups and downs of life.

The app is not absent of sidewalk dancing, which of course can happen with anything that presents itself as a game. People make comments about the app on social media as a proxy for criticism of the government. Apple closed comments on the app in their App Store. Others hack the point system using automation.

Knowing the right answers and scoring well on tests doesn’t necessarily mean the student agrees with the answers. It just means they know the answers and how to play the game. Adherence to what’s required can conceal resistance.

I think of the nation’s users waking in a sweat or waiting to the last minute of the day. The miffed and peeved all gathering together virtually just before the toll of midnight – there is only one midnight in the land. They log in, scroll a few articles without reading, and absently log a few answers to the daily quiz. An offering to the leader of some “learning” signed with a reluctant swipe and tap of the screen.

At a similar late hour, a man without a name grew weary of his fight with another man in the dark. He said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” The other man caught up in the struggle asked, “Please tell me your name.”

“Why do you ask my name?” replied the man and then he blessed him and gave him a new name.

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a very brief history of the streak

I’m proud to report that I’m on a 250 day streak of learning Spanish on Duolingo, a language education app. As I arrive at this momentous occasion that will earn me another achievement badge recognizing that I’ve devoted at least 5 minutes everyday for the past 250 days to learning Spanish, I pause to consider: where did this idea of the streak even come from?

From just memory, I’d say my first encounter with the word comes from my childhood in South Africa hearing about people running naked across the field during cricket games. It may have occurred to me then that it was the most exciting thing that would happen in that sport.

The idea of the streak is related to another domain of sports, though, and that’s the idea of consecutive wins or winning streaks, an “uninterrupted sequence of successes in games or competitions.”1 It can apply to both wins and losses. In Seattle right now, the Seattle’s Sounders FC are on a losing streak ending 13 consecutive years of making the playoffs while the Mariners have had a winning streak that’s ended a 20 consecutive year playoff drought.

Did the streak come from the slash on the tally mark?
“counting IIII” by marfis75 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Etymologically, the word streak shares Old English origins with the word strike meaning “line of motion, stroke of a pen”. With kicks, swings, bats, sticks, and balls in motion it is not hard to see the evolution of streaks and strikes to sports and sorts. Nor is it hard to see in the stroke of a pen or of a chalk on the board. Signifying the number five, the slash of the four line bundle of the tally mark crosses the threshold for counting a streak of wins or losses.

Sometime in the late 1880s, “winning streak” appeared in print and quickly took over from “streak of luck” in sports writing.

Streak of fortune. Streak of luck. Good streak in gambling. The earliest reference in newspapers that I could find to the idea of a “winning streak” is from August 29, 1885 in The Bridgeport Morning News: “The Bridgeport club had a winning streak and added another victory to its string by defeating the Newark club at the Barnum grounds yesterday.”2 Before this, the more common phrase in newspapers appears to be “streak of luck” as a sad story about a person that fished money out of the water illustrates.3

Baseball became a national pastime and a professional sport during the late 1800s. I wonder if in the professionalization of the sport that winning became less to do with luck and more to do with effort.

Duolingo measures streaks with one lesson per day and represents it with a calendar and badges that can be shared with friends.

As an accomplishment in our individual control, the streak becomes a component of design. To design it is very straightforward. Identify a desired repetitive action, find a good way to track it, and present the tracked action in a way that supports repetition.4 A simple plan well executed in Duolingo and The New York Time’s Wordle game. With both these examples, a clear image that can be shared with friends adds to the quality of the streak presentation – even if it isn’t necessarily a representation of the streak in the case of Wordle.

Yesterday, Erica and I celebrated our anniversary. Like sports there is a sense of profession in the effort and technique it takes to keep a home and to parent. Anniversaries are so often celebrated like a winning streak with the turn of a number to celebrate and an image evoking happiness of another to share, we declare this our accomplishment. At least the image is, but for me the early 1800s idea of the streak strikes back. In our marriage of 17 years, I feel the streak of luck for this friendship, union, and home. For this I’m grateful.


  1. Winning Streak, Wikipedia.
  2. Fine Work by Bridgeport, The Bridgeport Morning News, Aug 29, 1885
  3. The Milan Tribune, April 2, 1850
  4. “How to design a great streak”, Dr Zac Fitz-Walter.
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