Monday, August 01, 2011
IMPORTANT. Mr. and Mrs. CP lost a dog this weekend. If you haven't already, read the post below this one and send some love.
EXPANSION OF MINDSPACE. I was prowling through Shuteye Town 1999 this weekend when inspiration struck. The passage to blame:
How do you think a kid like Pasco [an accomplished hacker] gets from ‘use spreadsheet’ to ‘break into a vast international software system guarded by layers of brilliantly designed security systems’?
Yes. But how does he learn? Or more properly, how does he manage to learn by leaps and bounds, mastering bigger, more complex chunks of information with each new trial?
He builds on what he already knows and uses it to learn more.
Exactly. The principal mechanism in that process is pattern recognition. Another way to say it is that he’s a natural mapmaker. He learns the spreadsheet, but not just the keystrokes. He recognizes the pattern of the way it works. When he encounters a new program, he doesn’t approach it as a brand new subject and sit down with a stack of manuals. He pitches the manuals into the corner and goes right to work, using his own map of the conceptual terrain he’s covered in his prior experience.
The name of the mechanism he’s using is ‘metaphor.’ It’s not just a figure of speech from poetry class. It’s the single most powerful means of learning there is. This is like that. What else might be the same? What’s different? The search for pattern thrusts the mind instantaneously into the realm of manipulating brand new information. That’s why it’s infinitely superior to the preferred female learning technique of rote memorization, which is simply the filing of inert data.
Metaphor enables us to understand something new right away and to be systematic in exploring the unknown. It is far and away the most important application of pattern recognition.
The concept behind Metaphor Monday is simple and brilliant. If I do say so myself. And I do. Because modesty is lying.
If the Boss's theory of metaphor is right, and it is, then the more we understand, the more we can understand. The more varied the stuff in our minds, the more readily we can make sense of new stuff coming in. The more this we know, the more, and faster, that we can learn.
I propose we expand our mind space on purpose. I propose we put some theories, formulae, and stories in our heads solely for their potential conceptual value. An investment, a deposit in our memory banks.
An example: Before it slid into mere idiom, "red herring" was a potent metaphor (pun not intended, but I'll take whatever credit for it you're inclined to give). A red herring was a strong-smelling fish convicts would use to throw dogs off their scent. "Red" was distinctive because the fish got that color through the smoking and curing process that gave it said strong smell. Journalists and readers of detective fiction, when realizing a politician or writer had misdirected them, then-- to borrow Dr. Jaynes' phrase-- metaphied the idea of the red herring to describe what the malefactors had done. This-- being led to believe or expect one thing only to have a different thing be true-- is like That-- A tracking dog being made to follow one scent instead of another.
Recently I've come up with a metaphor of my own. I don't have a metaphrad-- that's the thing the metaphor is used to understand-- for it yet. But why wait?
I've been bedeviled by the art above, in one form or another, since early consciousness. If you're of a certain age, it'll stir the same feelings of nostalgia and youthful excitement in you that it does me. But take a closer look, with adult eyes:
Not... that great, is it? Love how that leg comes from the, uh, center of his torso. Uh. When we were kids, we never noticed when the box art was shoddy. Nintendo was too rad, too impressive, too legit for the thought to have even occured. But I guess the painting did the job, didn't it? To the target audience, it seemed like a noble expression of man's highest aspirations. Fat dude holding a turnip leaping many times his own height. When you're young, you don't need the symbolism explained.
Shortly after the release of Mario 2, Nintendo dispatched a staff artist to trace over the original painting, replace the turnip with a more iconic mushroom (because vegetables were only in Mario 2, duh), and keep the new cartoon near the top of the folder of promotional Mario images, from whence it would become the company's go-to stock Mario image. (or maybe the turnip painting came after the mushroom cartoon. Who knows)
A few months ago, I found what may be the most nostalgia-strong use of the image ever. If the Mario 2 box is nostalgia reefer, this is nostalgia crack:
From a 1989 Dr. Strange comic. Look at how much sheer past is present. The two Sears logos, one with the slogan you haven't heard or thought of since the very early 90s (is Sears still a thing? Haven't been to that corner of the mall this century). The "24hr. Toll Free" number in lieu of a website. The pre-Photoshop graphic design-- the Nintendo logo was clearly cut out by hand. The now-exorbitant prices for the games-- maybe a sealed copy of Zelda in mint condition would fetch more than 40 bucks in 2011. Maybe. I know I could get, like, twenty copies of Rambo on eBay for $34.95. They're good for skeet shooting.
Upon rediscovering this ad a few months ago, I hatched a scheme. Take ad to a good print shop, blow up to around 2 by 3 feet, sell prints online, light cigars with hundred-dollar bills for the rest of my life. Sadly, production turned out to be prohibitively expensive, and copyright law isn't quite as lenient as I thought. I never got past the first proof.
After the project ended, I framed the prototype and put it up on my living room wall. Looks sexy up there with those oversize print dots. My good buddy came over one weekend to play some Battletoads and try new beers. Naturally, he was super impressed with what I'd done. He had just one little observation. An observation that TURNED MY WORLD UPSIDE DOWN.
"Mario's overalls are the wrong color."
"Um, no they're not." "Oh, they so are." I looked again. Nothing seemed out of whack. "No, they're fine." So fine, in fact, I was getting very confused as to why he'd say they weren't. Was he trying to be funny? He usually doesn't miss the mark quite this wide. "They're blue, not red. See?" He handed me my copy of Mario Party 7.
My brain split open.
Mario has blue overalls. Has ever since, um, Mario 2. In the game, that is.
After that, on the box of Mario 3.
After that, everywhere ever since.
Of course Mario has blue overalls. Duh. DUH! Who ever heard of red overalls, anyway? But I'd been seeing that image of Mario in red for forever. I'm accustomed to it. It looks as normal and natural to me as the sky. I never, ever would have noticed the red overalls if they hadn't been pointed out to me.
That's this week's metaphor. Red overalls: The forehead-smackingly obvious thing you can't see because you've seen it your whole life.