Monthly Archives: July 2010

It Just Doesn’t Work That Way

I’ll wager that most of you who have elementary-age children have been asked the same question during these difficult economic times: “Why don’t they just print more money?” Depending on the child’s grasp of economics, you may have been able to explain the phenomenon of runaway inflation, but some of you probably resorted to some variant of “It just doesn’t work that way.” This response highlights a common problem: Often a proposed solution is simple and obvious and the reasons it doesn’t work are subtle and complex.

For instance, when I was in high school, I knew a parent who was convinced that early-morning classes would be no problem if teenagers would just go to bed earlier. Having done a bit of reading on sleep psychology, I tried to explain about REM cycles and such, only to be met with the same repeated response: “Just go to bed earlier!” It seems so simple. Sleep psychology is a subjective and poorly-understood field, so it’s hard to make absolute statements about why this strategy is flawed, but if you start school at seven, teenagers will sleep through their first couple of classes. Even the ones who went to bed earlier.

If you’ve encountered this problem with middle management, you know that the consequences can be much more serious than a child’s hampered understanding of currency. A boss schooled in business supervising a technical team schooled in science or engineering is a recipe for trouble. You can’t deliver ultimata to your boss. It’s likely that he or she will fall within the level of knowledge that spots the simple solution but not the complex problems with it; if you fail at explaining the latter, you may end up wasting a lot of time and effort in service to the former, or being labeled a poor employee for your inability to deliver on an unworkable idea.

The above are prescriptive examples–where a course of action is proposed–but the problem can also crop up descriptively, when an explanation for a phenomenon is proposed. The entire intelligent design/creationism movement is one big example. Every tenet, from start to finish, seems totally sensible and reasonable to a layperson and only reveals its critical flaws to someone with a strong understanding of the field. These theories may be egregiously stupid (dinosaurs died because they couldn’t outrun the Flood), generally implausible (carbon dating doesn’t work), or mildly compelling (scientists’ prejudices keep them from incorporating God into the scientific method), but they share the commonality that they simply don’t work, period.

I find the creation/evolution debate to be enormously uncompelling. However, I am interested–mostly out of a sense of scientific necessity–in why people hold untrue beliefs even in the face of an expert on the topic trying patiently to explain why the belief doesn’t work. Remember this discussion? Steamed ID proponents fumed, “What, are you saying I’m not smart enough to understand this stuff?” In answer to which…yes! You do not understand this stuff. If you did, you would not have put forth such an unworkable theory in the first place. As to whether you could ever be capable of understanding, I can’t speculate, because to gain understanding you’d have to allow yourself to be taught by people who know more, which you won’t allow because you aren’t willing to admit that there’s more to know.

There is more to know.  There is always more to know.  But here’s the insidious part of this problem: When you’ve struck upon a simple, elegant solution, it doesn’t appear that there’s more to know.  Your answer explains everything (everything you’re aware of, that is).  It appeals to Ockham’s Razor.  It wraps everything up so neatly that there is nothing left to figure out and explains it so simply that a child could understand it.  All this would be beautiful if not for that basic difficulty that it’s wrong.  But all you have to do is ignore the expert, convince yourself that he or she doesn’t really know more than you, and that difficulty goes away.

I think that the vast majority of the populace falls into the category that can understand a simple solution but not the complex reason it doesn’t work on most topics.  For me, one such area is computer programming, in which I’ve only dabbled.  I often figure out a seemingly-brilliant way to do what I want: “That’s it!  I just need to use a jagged array!”  As I work out the details, the idea that it might not actually work seems preposterous.  Fortunately, I am beholden to the compiler, an authority that cannot be subverted.  Thus I am forced to face the truth that my plan won’t work.

In most areas, though, it’s easy to ignore the experts.  It’s easy to write them off as pretentious fools for not accepting a perfectly simple explanation.  One may not even realize that anything is being written off, and in most cases, a strong majority will agree with you.  But a majority of foolishness is still foolishness, and makes no more sense than getting out of financial trouble by printing more money.

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Ruminations VII (Ideas)

Are any of my ideas as good as the infamous ice cream of wheat?  You decide.

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A new idea in online media: Cthulu.  TV that sucks your brain, literally.

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Write computer virus.  Patent.  Infect.  Sue for infringement.  I call this the Monsanto Strategy.

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There is a delicate art to product naming for a company that markets to both professionals and amateurs.  The higher-end product line needs a serious name; the lower-end line needs a name that emphasizes the “fun and easy!” side of things for casual users while also sounding patronizing and silly enough to be a turnoff to professionals so that, no matter how well the cheaper product works, they’ll gravitate to the more expensive line.  I’m pretty sure this was the thinking behind Wacom’s Bamboo Fun.

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Oddity of the Week

I think Twitter memes should be called “flash memes” (or “hash memes?”) because of how quickly they rise and fall, even in internet terms*.  Far from the regular meme’s lifespan of a couple of years, hashtags can appear and disappear in a week.  For instance, #funnierthanleno, from May, has been coming up empty for at least a month.  An interesting implication is that the mainstream media, always lagging in their coverage of Internet culture, will never catch on to Twitter memes, because they’ll have vanished into the unsearchable portion of the database before anyone in the media ever discovers them.

The upshot is that, soon, the #ShakesPalin hashtag will be moribund and people reading this post won’t be able to see it in action.  Which is too bad, because it’s very entertaining.  It has all the elements of a good joke (incongruous elements unexpectedly combined), a good meme (small, simple individual contributions adding up to a large overall canon), and a good Twitter topic (epigrammatic-style short witticisms).  Some favorites:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?  It is the East, and I can see Russia from my front porch.

Neither a thinker nor a reader be / for thought oft loses both itself and friend / and reading dulls the edge of Fox TV.

To hope-y and change-y, or not to hope-y and change-y, that’s the gotcha question.

If we drillers have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while BP oiled your gulf so dear.

To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous liberals, or to quit halfterm, and by opposing, rake in speaking fees.

If you missed the story behind this meme, it arose after Palin used the nonexistent word “refudiate” on Twitter, a gaffe hardly worth mentioning, let alone mocking.  But instead of letting it vanish into the aether, Palin tweeted again, defending her mistake by…comparing herself to Shakespeare.  The internet knows a good opener when it sees one.  What could have been a quickly-forgotten mistake will now probably haunt her for a long time.

Honey, the difference between the two of you is that Shakespeare made words up on purpose.

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*Happily, “twemes” doesn’t seem to have caught on.

Picture found here.

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Our New Neighbor

We heard it for weeks before we spotted it.

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