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 results.

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