Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Myths to live by: a case study of communication difficulties

When I make time to go to discussion groups, even if the topic interests me, I often come away disappointed. It's happened at science fiction conventions, and at Center For Inquiry gatherings too. And I think I'm starting to see what it is.

At the Center For Inquiry Austin we had a discussion "Myths we live by". I thought it would be interesting to hear what kinds of myths freethinkers will admit to living by. But the dicsussion did not progress very far, because we could not agree on a definition of myth, despite spending the whole time trying to define it. That's not nearly as interesting as examining which myths we are susceptible to. But perhaps we could have gotten to that point, if most of us had studied this subject academically.

When a group of well-meaning dilettantes discuss topics of philosophy, sociology, society, economics, religion and such, many times the discussion goes nowhere, because it takes too long just to define the terms. This last gathering was an example of that. What exactly did we mean by "myths"? We can't meaningfully discuss "myths we live by", if we go by the strictly anthropological definition of the word. We don't believe that thunder is Sky God driving his chariot across the sky, or that a mountain range is actually a dead giant, or that a god impregnated a human woman who then gave birth to the ancestor of our clan. We only believe scientific explanations of the world. So what kinds of stories are we talking about when we are talking about myths?

Myths We Live By discussion group

Counterclockwise from the left: Patrick, Shuping, Bobbie, Stephen, Joe, Kevin, James Dee. Click on the image for a bigger version in my photo gallery.

A myth is not just any tale, but one that attempts to explain the world, and to give an individual an understanding of his/her place in it. So urban legends, Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy are not myths in that sense. Creationism -- a belief that the world was made by a creator -- might fit the bill, but that's not a myth we, CFI'ers, live by. Our myths would have to be stories that do not contradict scientific worldview, but are not verified empirically. Add to it a requirement that such a story should be able to speak to its believer on a personal level, to imbue his/her life with meaning, and it becomes clear that this concept is rather elusive. Consider also that some people think myths are by definition false (making the subject of this discussion a contradiction in terms), and it becomes clear why it was so hard for us to agree what we are talking about. This was one of rare cases when I wished that my higher education had been in the field of semiotics and literary theory, as opposed to mathematics, computer science and engineering. :-) Perhaps then I would have had a vocabulary to define what we were talking about.

To keep us from casting about futilely for a definition we could all agree on, Joe, the moderator of the discussion, asked everyone to give their definition of myth, and examples of myths they considered worthy of examination.

Joe writes definitions and examples of myths on the whiteboard

Joe Lapp writes people's supplied definitions and examples of myths on the whiteboard. Click on the image for a bigger version in my photo gallery.

The best definition was given by James Dee, a retired classics professor (surely the greatest expert on the subject matter among us). He says myths are storylines we cast ourselves in. They are structures in which we view such aspects of reality as gender and class (among others).

Myself, I consider modern day myths to be all kinds of widespread cultural beliefs, especially those that are too complex to be deemed unequivocally true or false; or those that are often evaluated emotionally, rather than by rational analysis. Examples of such myths are "working mothers are bad for kids", "women are inherently worse than men at math", "gay couples can't raise children as well as a mother-father couple", "markets regulate themselves and state should stay out"; these are all myths I personally don't believe, but despite a large amount of research to invalidate them, they are still deeply entrenched in the society.

Some CFI'ers, on the other hand, submitted examples of other modern day axioms, the truthfulness of which is even harder to determine, since empirical study of them is often impossible. Regardless, many of us believe them because they are comforting. Examples of them are "technology can find a solution to every problem", "faster-than-light travel is possible", or even "Universe is knowable". The concept of "I", of self, may also be considered a myth. Brain injury or illness can cause one's notion of self to fragment so much, it makes you wonder if "there is no there there". For example, a person might recognize only half of his/her body, and not even see the other half.

To deepen our confusion about what exactly falls into the category of myth, somebody said models for perceiving reality -- e.g. optimism or cynicism -- may also be considered myths. When asked to clarify, this person offered such examples as law of attraction, or positive thinking. "Work hard, make your best effort, and everything will work out" -- that's a myth. "You make your own reality", and other cherished slogans of positive thinking, are myths.

We could have had an interesting discussion about some of those myths, but by the time we got around to them, an hour and a half had passed. It was mostly spent, if not to say wasted, on dismissing "myths" like Santa Claus or creationism.

I've seen other discussions derailed by similar confusion of terms. This often happens at science fiction conventions. I remember a panel on religion in fantasy and science fiction at ArmadilloCon, a local SF convention. (Every ArmadilloCon has at least one such panel, and I stopped going to them soon after I noticed how unproductive such discussions are, but before I could fathom why that is.) A panelist asked the audience how many of them believed in science, and how many believed in magic. The panelist must have thought these two things are juxtaposable. To me, that's category confusion. Science is a method of gaining knowledge about the world. Magic is a way to circumvent natural laws. So really, they are in different categories. It can't be one versus another. A certain rocket-scientist-turned-science-fiction-writer, who was sitting in the audience at that time, pointed it out. The discussion might have gone differently if the panelist had asked how many of us believed that the world is governed only by laws of nature (a.k.a. scientific worldview), and how many believed that laws of nature can be arbitrarily circumvented (a.k.a. magical worldview). But those kinds of precise questions are never asked. Instead, people are left to interpret the questions as they like, and they go in circles, violently agreeing with each other without realizing it, or talking at cross purposes.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Because it's been only 10 years since it first came out...

...I have finally jumped on Harry Potter bandwagon. I did not want to fight bookstore crowds, line up overnight, and read a 700-page doorstop in one sitting so as to have a chance to enjoy it before people reveal spoilers. 10 years has been long enough to forget most spoilers I've heard. But the real reason why I didn't get into Harry Potter books when they were still new was that I did not find them very engaging. I tried the first couple of chapters of book 1, and about the same amount of book 2. I got an impression that the fantasy world in Potter series was no more than skin-deep, and instead of diving in and being swallowed by the book's world, I bounced right out.

This time I started with HP2, "The Chamber of Secrets", because I couldn't find HP1 in the library. (Did you think I was going to pay for it? J. K. Rowling is richer than God already.) Yes, the first few chapters still felt superficial. I'll second what was said by a New York Times or Washington Post book critic: magic in the Harry Potter world has a very specialized, domestic character. For example, there is a clock that shows what time each family member had to be home, or a teleportation method called Floo, that lets you travel through chimneys. It's like magic was shoehorned to fit domestic life.

As I got past the first few chapters, the book drew me in -- not because the Harry Potter world acquired a previously unseen depth, but because the events in it galloped at such a crazy pace. The kids were shunted from adventure to adventure without break. And while a fast-paced plot is generally a good thing, in the Chamber of Secrets the plot left no room for observation, reflection, or world-building. Nobody ever paused to think what the events mean not just in terms of predicting the enemy's next step, but also about the laws of the (magical) world that surrounded them. In the best SF or fantasy books events are just clues that point towards bigger, unseen things; by pausing to reflect, characters attain a glimpse of a deeper order of the world. I saw nothing like that in the "Chamber of Secrets". There was no strangeness there. All the "magic" fit so neatly with the mundance understanding of the world, that there was not a moment where I went, "this is odd, I don't understand this". In other words, the good ole sense of wonder was missing from the Harry Potter world.

It was also a bit disappointing that at crucial moments, such as Harry's fight with Tom Riddle, some magic artifacts appeared in the right time and the right place arbitrarily, with only a flimsy explanation.

One might say that oddness and strangeness is neither appropriate nor necessary in a children's book; but I disagree. (As an aside, I've wondered if any book with a teenage protagonist is automatically a Young Adult book. Probably not. Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials", with its 11-12 year old protagonists, is definitely not a book for 11-12-year-olds, because of the complexity of its subject matter.)

Eventually though, the "Chamber of Secrets" drew me in, and so did the third book, "Prisoner of Azkaban", which seemed better written and more engaging. The pieces fit together better. Here we finally get glimpses that the wizarding world has a fascinating history, steeped in adult drama. It's still not high-concept worldbuilding that I like in speculative fiction, but it's something.

Friday, January 08, 2010

When web interface makes you wonder if you're going crazy...

New year, slow on topics, so I'll bring up a peeve from the past.

Last year I took an online training course for work. It was not just tedious, as most work training courses are, but actively frustrating, because the test I had to take at the end seemed to purposefully sabotage my attempts to pass it. No, I don't attribute malevolence to a computer. But what are you supposed to think if you check a checkbox with the right answer, then click "Submit" -- and watch in horror as the checkbox unchecks itself! And you can't correct this, because it happens in those few seconds between you clicked "Submit" and the page submitted. (Yes, a few seconds -- my computer was that slow!) Again, I didn't believe that computer gremlins were messing with me. Like all bugs, this one had to be unintentional; but as bugs go, it seemed especially malicious.

The self-unchecking of checkboxes didn't happen on every page (there were 40 test questions, I think), but it happened enough times that I scored only 79%, while I needed 80% to pass.

A few days later I retook the test. For some reason my computer was much faster the next time. Maybe I was running fewer applications? In any case, there was no delay between mouse clicks and computer response. This time, no checkboxes unchecked themselves. And then I understood what gave that appearance last time.

It became clear that a check mark appeared in a box when the mouse hovered over it. If I moved the mouse away, the mark would disappear. The first time, with computer being incredibly slow, I didn't even notice the hovering behavior! If your computer takes 3-5 seconds to respond to a mouse event, you may not even realize UI elements respond to hovering. Perhaps you have a habit of moving the mouse over one checkbox, then another, as you wonder which answer is correct. You decide choice (A) is incorrect, but by that time you see it has checked itself, even though you don't remember pressing the mouse button. But what the hell -- you click to uncheck it. Then you click "Submit". But what actually happened is that when the checkmark first appeared in (A), it was just a response to hover. If you had waited 3-5 seconds, it would have disappeared -- but you didn't know that. So when you clicked the mouse button, it became checked -- the opposite of what you wanted. And then you clicked "Submit" and you could not undo your action.

So, all of you web developers out there, please take note! If your customer is on a very slow computer, the hover feature may do nothing but confuse them. In any case, it is not necessary. There's no particular need for a checkbox to light up when someone moves a mouse over it. And you, tech support people, please keep in mind that the user is not necessarily crazy when he/she says checkboxes are unchecking themselves. It could be that they, like me, are using the software under very different conditions than the ones in which you tested it. You may have a spiffy fast box at work, but he/she may have an old, creaky piece of junk, and it behaves very differently than yours.