I hate abstraction. Here are some examples.
Someone on ifMUD asks, "So at a certain point of the WIP [work in progress]
I want to give the player a binary choice. Do X, or do Y. All other actions
are impossible. My question is how should I present this?"
How on earth can anyone answer a question like that? Obviously it depends on
the specifics. Poking around in the Usenet archives I see that back in
the day when I had Inform questions, I'd just describe the bits in question,
figuring that it wouldn't be a spoiler for people to know that I was trying
to disambiguate a cassette from a cassette player. (Man, remember cassettes?)
But I also recall that when I was working on Varicella, and wanted information
without giving away exactly what my project was about, I asked questions on
the MUD using a parallel situation (implementing the board game Clue as IF).
It would never have occurred to me to describe the problem in abstract terms.
I'm currently teaching two sections of Logical Reasoning in our new Hyperlearning
LSAT course, and I've noticed the same phenomenon there. When a student is
having trouble understanding one of the arguments, my immediate reaction is
to provide not a general description of its workings, but a parallel situation.
Example: we came to a passage in which a character named Edward argues that
governments have the right to redistribute resources via taxation if they give
people the freedom to emigrate. In solving the accompanying question, we had to
determine whether Edward necessarily believed this statement: "Any government
that does not permit emigration would be morally wrong to redistribute resources
via taxation." I said no. A student disagreed and wanted to know how Edward
could possibly fail to believe that, given his earlier statement.
I would be willing to bet (if I gambled, which I don't) that the response of
most people I know would be something akin to, "Ah, but you see, 'if X then Y'
does not necessarily imply 'if not-X then not-Y'!" In fact, as I type this,
in the other window a MUD person just wrote the following: "'Bush has an
advantage in area A within the polls. Kerry has an advantage in area B within
the polls. Therefore, Bush should keep doing what he's doing, and Kerry should
refocus on A.' That doesn't make sense to me." I have actually seen someone
refer to himself as 'X' in a discussion about dating because he felt more
comfortable talking about his difficulties with women as an algebra problem.
Which, to me, sort of explains why he was having difficulties.
My mind just doesn't work that way. I can understand abstract logic,
of course, but to me abstraction makes things harder to understand,
not easier. So when I had to explain what was going on in the problem, I
immediately whipped up a parallel situation. To wit: "Okay, if I say that
I think SUVs should be banned because they're destroying the environment,
does that mean that I automatically think other cars are okay? Couldn't
I want to ban those too, for different reasons?" I could probably have
come up with a better analogy had I had more than one second to think about
it, but it did the job — she got why that answer choice was wrong.
When we're working on essay writing, I constantly have to instruct the people
in my SAT and MCAT classes to use specific examples. Otherwise, given a
prompt like, "Although it claims to promote individuality, most advertising
promotes conformity," they will write page after page without mentioning a
single specific commercial. And this sort of thing isn't limited to academic
contexts, either. I have a friend who will regularly say things like, "So
we discussed our issues and discovered that while mine are related to my
current journey, his are related to his background, and we agreed to be
more cognizant of each other's needs... what do you think?" and I have no
idea what to think because all I can picture are two of Steve Ditko's
faceless people having a conversation consisting of blank word balloons.
Someone signed Jennifer up for Netflix and put a bunch of movies in her
queue based on earlier conversations and sheer perversity. Apparently at
one point Jennifer had expressed a wish to see more Parker Posey movies,
so Parker Posey's entire filmography has been showing up at our house in
installments. One movie she was in is Clockwatchers, and though
I'd already seen it, I decided to watch it again when Jennifer put it on.
When I went to see it back in '98, the reviews had led me to believe that
it was a sarcastic film about office life, with a lot of emphasis on mocking
the guy who's really anal about office supplies and so forth. It's not.
It's not even a comedy, except maybe to people who find that wacky Franz
Kafka to be the height of hilarity. There is the occasional bitterly amusing
bit. But Clockwatchers could hardly be more downbeat.
This isn't a criticism — it's a big part of the reason why I like
it. The basic thesis of the film, at least as I see it, is that it
doesn't matter whether you're starving in a refugee camp in Chad or
fetching coffee for junior execs named Chad — a lost life is a
lost life. You only get one. And Clockwatchers presents us
with a bunch of people who wake up, take the bus to the office, kill
time playing with their swivel chairs and white-out for eight hours,
go out drinking to forget the drudgery, go home, sleep, and then they're
another twenty-four hours closer to death with nothing to show for it.
But they need to eat, and escape routes that will allow them to continue
doing so aren't exactly plentiful: marrying a junior executive purely for
the financial support; catering to every whim of a senior executive in
hopes of receiving a recommendation letter that might secure a very
slightly better job; delusionally hoping to become a celebrity, because
we live in a culture where only celebrities count as people. And
because their lives are so empty and small, incredibly petty things
(the disappearance of a tiny plastic monkey that came with a cocktail,
for instance) become huge dramas that tear friendships apart. Is this
where the supposed comedy comes from? Because it seems to me that the
smallness of the provocation only adds to the bitterness of the
Return to the Calendar page!