09.09 a.m. Bangkok
I normally post my blog on Friday.
But I am breaking ranks and posting on Wednesday.
It all has to do with the number 9.
For the past five days as I walked down the corridor to my study (which is located on a different floor of my living condo unit) I noticed something on the tiled floor—a silver-colored number 9 as fragile and tiny as a small bird. “9” had fallen off a neighboring office door, leaving an empty space between the numbers 3 and 8. Each day I looked for the 9 on the floor and each day it remained untouched in the same place.
Today is the 9th of September. I’ll get to the significance of that number in a moment.
In the modern age, secularist, liberals, the enlightened, athematicians and the like think of numbers as the reserve of science. They explain the cosmos. They explain the quantum world. They allow insurance companies to fix premiums on health and life insurance polices. We follow stock exchange closing numbers; the price of houses, TVs, restaurants, our weight and height. All have a firm, grounded basis in our minds.
Then there are the masses, which have their own view of numbers that sits alongside the scientific view of numbers. Some might be tempted to say this view represents the irrational, superstitious allure of numbers and has no place in the modern world. In my own culture the number 666 has biblical implications. That number we are told from birth is the sign of the apocalypse. So we have to be careful about throwing stones when other cultures produce numbers with their own magical, supernatural implications.
A 180-degree turn of 666 gives you 999. You are asking, so what?
This takes me to the number 9 in Thai culture. The front page of the Bangkok Post has been talking about the importance of Wednesday 9th September. Why is that significant? Because it is 9th day of the 9th month and the century ends in 9. On 09.09 of that day a new ATR-72-500 aircraft will be delivered to the Royal Thai Air Force at Don Mueang Airport. It is auspicious. For planes, marriages, launching a company, a product, asking for a raise or promotion from your boss, your football team to win, the boxer you support to throw the knockout punch, rolling casino dice, or playing cards. It seems that nothing can wrong on Wednesday (the 9th, that is).
Watch the Asian stock markets on Wednesday. It may be a good time to sell if you believe all this nonsense about 9 is, well, nonsense, and will lead to irrational beliefs that will push the market up, only to fall on 10th of September.
The sound of the Thai word for 9 is also the same sound (kow) for the word that means to take a step forward—(spelling, mind you, is different, what if it’s kow or kao, still sounds the same). A step forward is progress. Thus, in the Thai mind, 9 and progress are linked.
The Chinese culture has traditionally associated 9 with good luck or fortune. Chinese dragons are bedfellows with number 9. A Chinese dragon has nine attributes (assuming you believe in dragons at all) and comes in nine forms and has nine children. Though if the Wikipedia entry for Chinese Mythology is to be believed, the Chinese have 8 and not 9 dragons. The covenant you make with supernatural belief is not to raise such inconsistencies. Though 8 is also a good luck number. And so it goes.
It doesn’t stop with dragons. The Chinese have a nine-headed bird (I want one) called Nine Phoenix and it is associated with wisdom and good fortune. On to a good thing, the Chinese don’t stop with birds and dragon children. There are “Nine Declarations”, “Nine Arguments” and “Nine Fields of Heaven” “Nine Songs of Heaven” are the tip of the 9 iceberg. Pagodas have nine stories. The Forbidden City according to legend has 9,999 rooms. The Chinese imperial New Year feast featured 99 dishes.
Ninety-nine beers, Ninety-nine wives (husbands), Ninety-nine pizzas, Ninety-nine houses, Ninety-nine bank accounts—is the tip of what good fortune and progress might mean to some people. Though not many would think that number of things was necessarily wise.
The Chinese isn’t the only 9-obsessed culture. In Hindu myth, there are 9 celestial bodies. Vishnu had 9 avatars. According to Norse myth, Odin hung on the World Tree for 9 nights before secret revelations were revealed to him. The Greeks and Egyptians also have 9 embedded like an arrow into the flank of their own myths. Indeed there is a Theory 9.
The difference is in the United States, Canada, England, or Australia you wouldn’t have the president or prime minister sending ministers out to take advantage of the number 9. Or if you did, the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens’ of the chattering classes would be hot on their heels with derision. Not to mention The Daily Show and The Onion. In this part of the world, it seems just about everyone agrees that 9 has some magical, mystical properties that should be embraced. There’s no hint of embarrassment in hugging a 9. Thinking the lining of a series of 9 is a signal of progress, good luck, and fortune seems near universal in acceptance. Unless there has been an agreement among the small minority of Thai intellectuals who have decided it is better to keep silent, buy a lottery ticket and wait for some better number to come along before taking a stand against irrationality.
The 9 on the floor troubled me so I asked my Thai wife whether the 9 left abandoned for five days in the corridor had any significance in the Thai way of seeing things? She replied, of course, it meant the cleaning lady had not swept the floor in five days. It is time to return for another read of John Paulos’ Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences.