html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Ideas I heard once and liked a lot.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Ideas I heard once and liked a lot.

It’s not a small world, it’s a small middle class.
Jack said this in the Loth kitchen one evening. Jack was amazingly pretty and really popular in the house. I wasn’t in the pretty and popular clique, but one evening Jack came home from somewhere or other and sang a verse of Danke Schöen while looking deeply into my eyes. That memory still makes me flush, even though the last time I saw Jack he looked gaunt enough to worry me.

A good metaphor can stop analysis for fifty years.
One of my law professors attributed this to one of the famous judges (Holmes?), but I’ve never found the original source. I've hated metaphors ever since I saw one derail a public meeting that was important to our program. I sat in the back, fuming at the phrase “cookie cutter”, and thinking that it didn’t even apply well. Any other metaphor could have been just as apt and gotten a different result. Anyway, I don’t use metaphors any more.

There are only three days in a month anymore. A day goes by, and it’s the middle of the month. Then another day happens, and the month is almost over. Then you’ve got one more day and it’s a new month.
Some guy from my former Ultimate team said this, some guy that I never see anymore and barely ever think about because I am so over him. Isn’t he totally smart and right?

God loves to make a man break his promise.
I am absolutist by nature, but I have learned that life is long and you can’t predict the circumstances you’ll find yourself in or how you’ll react. So I try not to tempt fate with declarations of what I’ll never or always do.

19 Comments:

Anonymous Melanie's brother said...

"God loves to make a man break his promise."

Wow.
Wow.

1:08 AM  
Blogger billo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:01 AM  
Anonymous justus said...

Anyway, I don’t use metaphors any more...So I try not to tempt fate with declarations of what I’ll never or always do.

I counted three metaphorical phrases in your post. Everyone loves metaphors and it is pretty much impossible to write or speak without using them. As Abraham Lincoln said of the common man, the same is true of metaphors. How can a body not love them when there are so many to choose from? Prepositional metaphors, vocative metaphors, apostrophes, possessive noun metaphors, adjectival metaphors, appositional metaphors, synesthesia, paradox, adverbial metaphors, verbal metaphors, compound metaphors, extended metaphors, controlling metaphors, conceits, telescoped metaphors, implied metaphors, dead metaphors, mixed metaphors, unstated metaphors....it is a wonderful world out there. And that's without even getting into metonymy and synecdoche...

You just hate bad metaphors. Don't be a hater.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Metaphors are just like any other mental model. You have to know the limitations of your model, and where it doesn't apply very well.

Teaching basic electronics to people for the first time, it is convenient to adopt an "electricity = water" metaphor in order to impart some basic relationships. Then, you throw that out once it has served its purpose, because the metaphor doesn't hold very well.

People just aren't very good thinkers, and a good metaphor can unfortunately captivate them beyond its usefulness.

9:56 AM  
Blogger billo said...

Hey, why is there always a dustbin* under my post? :)

Mark, does all thinking have to be "useful"?

Why do you use the word "unfortunately" when it comes to captivate? Sometimes captivating can be a good thing, can't it?

* dustbin = trashcan

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

because you can delete your own posts.

Justin

12:16 PM  
Blogger billo said...

Der*...an embarrassed thank you to anonymous Justin.

*Der=Doh!

12:35 PM  
Anonymous nuclearpoet said...

Why do you use the word "unfortunately" when it comes to captivate? Sometimes captivating can be a good thing, can't it?

Hmmm... I think that if you're captivated by a neat metaphor like a shiny piece of metal, that's not bad. I get that way myself with some of the imagery Vladmir Nabokov uses. But if you decide to actually do something based on that metaphor, I think one should know what they're doing. I think certain criteria should be applied before a metaphor becomes a paradigm...

3:29 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

Metaphor = tool for thinking.

And its a tool that works really well for people who don't have the time or the ability to get into the details. It's a short-cut tool. And you got burned by one application of it. However, they still have the potential for illumination. If you refuse to use metaphors while your opponents do, you might have to get used to more disappointment. As much as the more technical among us would love to have a discussion that deals purely at the level of the actual problem, it isn't going to happen in certain settings--particularly political ones where parties have self-serving agendas.

4:51 PM  
Blogger billo said...

you might like this:
http://www.imprint.co.uk/rama/

the third lecture talks about metaphors. (His Reith lectures, a summary of this, are also online)

For example, think of two shapes: one like an amoeba and the other like a star with lots of sharp spikes. Now , hold these images in your mind. A Martian comes along and calls one "bouba" and the other "kiki" . Repeat these words. Which is which do you think?




99% say kiki is the star. Sound with shape. Connectivity. Metaphor.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Justus, I agree. It's bad metaphors people hate.

Mark, you know, I used to have this whole soapbox about what using the metaphor for electricity flowing like water. A lot of the local ed majors thought light switches are actually a physical crimp on the line, just like when you kink a water hose.

During an internship (in physics education), I hauled that thing out. I promptly got schooled when someone showed not that they were wrong about light switches but that I was wrong about kinking a water hose. In both situations the correct analysis is to realize that the cross-section of a potential flow is going to zero, constraining the particles to be unable to flow further. Fundamentally its not a metaphor at all, it's a correct physical description, despite the ed majors inability to recognize why they're the same. (This works even for when you can't constrain the flow: water hoses toss firemen around, a circuit gets completed by a spark arcing across a gap.)


agm

1:20 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

So when I went to take the EIT, I had never taken circuits, because my professor hated them and didn't think I would need them to design sprinklers. I also hadn't taken any heat transfer or strength of materials or a bunch of other subjects. I knew about five of the nine subjects. I filled in "C" for the entire electricity section, left the test three hours early and drove home crying.

When I got home and told my Dad, he looked at me and said "but electricity and water are the same, and you know hydraulics".

I was appalled that I still passed the EIT.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

Not to derail the subject, but is it or isn't it? I was telling TJ last night that even though I took E&M in high school, I never felt comfortable with developing a visual metaphor for electricity, thus I never felt I understood it. (Same thing with probability. I loved calculus but hated probability, I guess because my mind wants to visualize.)

So a water flow metaphor is acceptable? Or not? How can I think of this in a way that will help me work on wiring in my house? Or allow me to talk to electrical engineers (something I do for work and want to understand)?

9:04 AM  
Anonymous nuclearpoet said...

Dubin, hopefully you wouldn't mind if I jump in with some sort of response... I'm not an electrical engineer myself, but I've been trained in EE and work in the electric industry.

The water flow concept is an accurate representation of electric flow, to a point. In this paradigm, water molecules translate to electrons, fundamental losses (friction loss is probably the closest equivalent, since electron flow doesn't necessarily experience significant losses going around bends or what-not) translate to resistance, water flow translates to current, and the delta-pressure translates to voltage. The equivalence is not perfect in terms of the physical laws, but the concepts are essentially the same.

There are a couple of major limitations, though, that result in most EE folks thinking of it as more of an useful fundamental metaphor, as follows:

1) While the constraint to water movement is simply the presence of space to move to, the constraint to electron movement is a somewhat more complicated combination of factors. Electrons try to travel the path of least resistance, but they have to deal with all the surrounding protons trying to hold on to them, other electrons, etc. Water spraying out of a hose does not behave quite the same as electricity arcs... water just travels in a straight path that is influenced by other forces (gravity, etc.). Electrons are continually trying to find the path of least resistance, which may not always be the "straightest" path.

2) When it comes to alternating current, the water-flow concept becomes somewhat cumbersome. Most EE's analyze AC circuits using phasors, which have a real and imaginary component. Mathematically, it's much simpler to work with these concepts than it is to follow traditional water-flow mathematical analysis. I'm not sure if one can realistically apply some sort of water-flow-oscilliation concept since water is generally considered as an incompressible, while electrons can build up in a single location (that's the basis of the concept of capacitors).

3) Most importantly, electrons come with their own force field... water molecules don't (or at least not a very strong one). Induction, electromotive forces, and a whole plethora of other concepts that underpin the modern dynamic of electricity used as a power source would be very difficult, if not impossible, to describe using water flow as a underlying concept.

Perhaps that confuses you more, but...

12:54 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

Megan, did you take your PE exam yet?

I think your experience on the EIT isn't unusual. I think I knew just enough circuits to be do a bit better than you on that portion. Something like 95+% of the engineers from my school pass the exam. Additionally, the infinite retakes makes it not worth shedding too many tears about.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hey Bob V.
Haven't taken the PE, although it is vaguely on my mind. I'm not doing enough engineering work to ask my boss to sign off on my work time. Once I do have enough work time to take the PE, I think I want to take the PE and the bar exam in the same year, just because that would be attitude.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

I have to admit that would be pretty impressive. And the PE might actual be useful in your field.

This talk has me wanting to take the EIT again. I have no hope for getting a PE, but it would be nice to know i still have the fundamentals.

5:54 AM  
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8:22 PM  

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