Monday, May 25, 2009

Why the abacus trumps the calculator

The concrete is better than the abstract.

- If you're worried that your life has no meaning, or if you're afraid that God is dead, or if you're terrified of Global Warming, of if you're angry about The State of The Country, ask yourself if you've really gotten to the bottom of your concerns.

These big-issue, abstract worries are one (or more) steps removed from your base nature. Dogs don't care about Global Warming. Cats don't care about politics. Giraffes don't bite their nails, fretting about the meaning of life.

Most likely, what you're really worried about is the fact that your girlfriend just dumped you. Or maybe you're scared that you're about to lose your job; Or you're lonely; Or sexually frustrated.

As scary as Global Warming is, dwelling on it is generally an attempt to elevate yourself above animal concerns. And while it's great to have noble worries, people are animals: we want sex, food, sleep and companionship. If we deny our animal nature, we deny the truth of what we are. Worse: me make it impossible to fix our nuts-and-bolts problems. You can't fix a problem if you don't admit to having it in the first place.

Most preferences for the abstract are attempts to elevate ourselves above our animal nature. Which is to say they are lies. Animals are sensual. The see, hear, smell, taste, poop, etc. Yes, man has the ability to reason; he has the ability to manipulate pure symbols. But such grand thoughts must be brought down to Earth, at least occasionally, or they become totally disconnected from who we are, where we live, and what we care about. They will also always be weaker signals to our brain than sensual data. Sand sifted through the fingers will make a stronger impression than sand just thought about.

If your knee-jerk reaction to this is to lash out at me or deny what I'm saying, ask yourself why you're so threatened by classifying yourself as an animal.

(Please note that I'm not trying to thwart Global-Warming activism or suggest it's "just abstract." I'm suggesting that if you're deeply depressed about something, it's more likely to be about something more immediate to your body and social network. At least consider the mundane before assuming you're concerned about the big picture.)

- Try things.

People suck at working things out in their heads -- in the abstract -- but they think they're really good at it. If you've decided something will work (or won't work) without actually trying it, TRY IT. Don't just assume that the image in your head conforms to reality -- even if you're SURE it does.

The only time when imagining should trump trying is when the cost of trying is extremely high.

Remember: your senses are better guides than your imagination. Your imagination can lie to you. It can be influenced by all sorts of prejudice, wishful thinking, mental blind spots and "baggage." But it's much harder to deny what you see with your own eyes, what you hear with your own ears, what you grasp in your hand. Taste the soup before you add salt to it. Maybe it's already salty enough.

Note: for some reason, this gets me in a lot of arguments. I guess it's because people are impatient when they "know" something. When people say, "Obviously, that won't work," I'm the guy who says, "Well, it will only take two minutes to try it, so lets try it." That often leads to rolled eyes and exasperated sighs. But I try it anyway. I find that even if the other guy is right -- and it doesn't work -- if I try, I'm much more sure of the result than if I don't try. The result (perhaps that it doesn't work) is in my gut.

- Work with your hands.

- the purpose of a metaphor is to make the abstract more concrete (or more sensual, which is the same thing). The further an idea gets from nuts-and-bolts reality, the more it should be buttressed with a metaphor.

Example: variables (e.g. in computer programming) are like boxes in the basement. The variable name is what's written on the box in magic marker, e.g. "socks." The contents of the box are what's stored inside the variable. Note that there's nothing to prevent you from storing hats in a box labeled "socks." It's confusing to people who are searching through your basement (so it's probably a bad idea), but the box doesn't care.

Coming up with strong, evocative metaphors is hard work. Don't expect them to just pop into your head. You'll have to make lists and brainstorm. Allot time for this. The more abstract the subject, the more time you'll need. Also, metaphors should always be a work in progress. Keep tinkering with them. Keep making them more and more apt, more and more evocative, more and more sensual.

- Avoid pronouns and non-specific nouns.

I can't tell you how many times I've been baffled by someone saying something like, "When it comes in the mail, please put it in the thing next to that other thing..." You're allowed ONE pronoun per sentence. And if you can't think of the name for something, then describe it (in concrete terms, of course). "When it" -- (if you're sure I know what you're talking about) -- "comes in the mail, please put it next in that blue container next to the round object on the shelf."

- Consider using real tools.

Computers are great. But sometimes paper and pencils are better. There's a big whiteboard in my office. When I'm stuck on a difficult programming problem, I leave my desk, walk over to the whiteboard, and start making charts, notes and pictures. Occasionally, I find myself wishing for a giant screen, so that I could use Photoshop instead of the whiteboard. But then I realize that just the act of holding physical markers in my hand and moving them about cements ideas in my brain better than pixel pushing ever could. If the particular problem can be expressed with stacks of coins or groups of paperclips, even better. We evolved to manipulate 3D objects -- not pixels. If the end-result must be expressed in pixels, that's all the more reason to translate it into a nuts-and-bolts metaphor.

- Read what you've written out loud.

Out loud is concrete. It produces sounds that you hear. It forces you to move your mouth. You will find way more errors -- and learn to write in a natural, conversational voice -- than if you read what you've written in your head. If you need to keep quiet, then just move your lips as you read (or whisper). Hasidic Jews mouth words when they read. They understand that the words of God are more likely to get stuck in their craws when they're not just thought about. When they're forced into the mouth.

- The best art tickles our animal impulses. It doesn't distance us from them. This is why sensual art will always move people more than conceptual art. It's why narrative forms will always engross people more than avante-guarde, non-linear ones. We're used to beginnings, middles and ends: sunrise, day, sunset... birth, aging, death...

If you're committed to conceptual art and non-linear storytelling, then make sure the details of your work are tied to the sensual. It's fine to break the fourth wall, but when you do so, pass out pieces of chocolate, not nuggets of philosophy.

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