computers explaining tricks good explanations metaphor science

Brains Be Different from Computers

Don’t leave good metaphors lying around unattended, or somebody might get hurt. Up to a certain point, a good metaphor does wonders to facilitate understanding. But as you get deeper into a subject, a metaphor will become less and less accurate. And if you don’t toss the metaphor when it starts to go bad, it will actually block deeper understanding.

So, metaphors get you over a learning hump, but you can’t be too devoted to them. They’re like training wheels that… . That one fell apart before it even got started.

Anyway, one of the biggest, hairiest, most useful and potentially most troublesome metaphors of our time is the idea that computers are brains (and vice versa). This one is so mighty, in fact, that it’s easy to forget it’s actually a metaphor. And if you take it too literally, you’ll fundamentally misunderstand both computers and brains.

In a new smarty-pants post on Developing Intelligence, Chris Chatham puts computers and brains side by side and rattles off 11 metaphor-busting differences between them. In the process, he sheds a lot of light on both. For example, difference number 8 is that in the brain, processing and memory are handled by the same components. One effect of this is that you can easily overwrite a memory with an inaccurate version in the process of remembering it. Please, remember with care.

In addition to the illuminating explanations throughout, I really like how Chatham gets some more use out of a metaphor before chucking it. Once you’ve learned all you can by seeing two things as the same, see what you can learn by investigating how they’re different. Good trick.

[via Cognitive Daily]

bad explanations maps needing explanation

Touristic Usability

Khoi Vinh over at The Subtraction Blog has a great new post about “touristic usability.” His basic notion is that an entire city is comparable to an application, and should be intuitive like a good application. As he puts it, “given any new city, there are certain things that should be easy for tourists to comprehend without assistance.”

This is an excellent point, and the way Vinh presents it, it seems so completely obvious. But most big cities I’ve been to do a pretty poor job of explaining themselves and are rife with complicated procedure and jargon. This is really weird, when you consider how much money big cities dump into promoting tourism. Vinh gives a good example of the consequences of bad touristic usability:

To call anyone anywhere from these phones [in Paris], you must possess a calling card, which must be bought at newsstands or other convenience vendors. But I had no way of intuiting that from any of the instructional signage presented with the pay phones, and no guidebook, and therefore no other recourse. It was supremely frustrating and had the feeling of a tremendous gap in someone’s municipal planning. For me in that moment, it reflected poorly — on all of Paris, not necessarily on the Parisian telecommunications infrastructure alone.

As an explainist, I mostly agree. But I do think a certain amount of unexplained usability weirdness in a city is good, since it adds character and gives locals the home court advantage.

animation art cartoons cutaway diagrams exploded infographics isometric machines video

Great Explainy Music Video

And now, a musical interlude. This video from Norwegian band Röyksopp doesn’t exactly explain anything, but it uses the tools of good explanation to thrilling effect. And it illustrates nicely how much data, complexity and remarkable thinking flows through daily life.

The artistry is clearly awesome, but the delicious topping for me is that they bothered to make so much of this stuff accurate (or at least accuratish). For example, the escalator cutaway is highly detailed and right on the money, and it’s only onscreen for four seconds. There’s a good bit of playful exaggeration too — the parts of the ear are drawn correctly, but sound waves trigger a bouncier cartoon chain reaction than you would actually see.I’ve had a hand in building animated cutaway diagrams before — the type of thing that makes up only a few frames in this video — and fitting the details together is no small chore. Kudos to those responsible, the French production company H5, according to Wikipedia and others. (My kudos are way late, apparently. The video already won best video at the MTV Europe Music Awards, way back in 2002).

I found a bit of interesting chatter in the YouTube comments on the video. Several posters took it for granted that this was a depressing view of mundane modern life. I really don’t see it that way. Normally, I do get discouraged by musical montages of workers filing into offices or even families chaotically taking off in the morning (a staple of supposedly cheery breakfast treat ads). The notion that life is hectically repetitive for no discernible reason makes me queasy. But this video was actually uplifting to me.

For one thing, I love to be reminded that there is so much to learn about even incredibly ordinary stuff. After all, there aren’t really many boring things, just boring people. It’s good to turn on the awestruck wonder whenever you can. Also, I’m comforted by the idea that even though there’s a lot of complexity under the surface of everything, I could actually figure out what was going on if I took the time to sort through the detailed, readily available information. It’s the same comfort I get walking through the library or bookstore. I may not want to learn all about building construction at a particular moment, but it’s good to know I could pick up several books on the subject (and understand them) if I were so inclined. Nice to have signs that the roads are open.

PS: I intended this post to be pure praise, since 100% of our posts to date have had a bit of finger wagging in them, but I can’t ignore the bad splainin’ on both Röyksopp and H5’s Web sites.

Röyksopp greeted me only with this and an album promotion pop-up:

Which details did you need? Shoe size? Favorite Pop Tart flavor?

H5 gave me little more:

Very strange to have such dead-end home pages in this day and age.


Let me explain

I’m a sucker for a good explanation. A well-timed, well-crafted explanation can spark brilliant ideas, lead you down a new career track, or help you solve a gargantuan problem.

Bad explanations are real trouble. A bad explanation at the wrong moment can block a train of thought, steer a promising project off course or shut your mind off from a subject forever.

To me, a “good explanation” is a clear, satisfying and true presentation of what makes something — a concept, a principle, a machine, a process — the way it is. For example, a good explanation can be an illustration of how the pieces in a machine work together, a primer on tricky scientific principles, or an essay arguing a psychological theory. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive in detail. For most subjects, that’s not feasible. It just needs to paint a complete picture.

When you explain something well, you understand what your audience already knows and pick your definitions, examples, analogies and illustrations carefully to build on that. You employ just-in-time delivery of information. You add a new fact only when your audience already knows enough to put it in context. Most of all, you establish a foundation of understanding.

This foundation is why good explanations are so wonderful and crucial to me. I’m terrible at holding onto facts until I have a foundation to build on. Technical jargon evaporates into the air if I don’t understand the guts of a machine. Numbers mean nothing to me until I see how they fall on a larger scale. If you want to see me really stupefied, try explaining the rules of a card game without giving me the ultimate objective first. It all sounds like Peanuts parents to me. I’m an extreme case — my blockage of out-of-context information verges on learning disability — but I think this quality is generally true of anybody. Even an imperfect model of how something works makes it much easier to gather more information.

There are many, many things you just won’t get until somebody does a good job explaining them to you. So it’s no exaggeration to say that human progress (personal and species-wide) depends on good explanations. That’s why it troubles me how often people jump into relaying information without establishing a foundation of explanation at all. It’s common to see TV news anchors cheerily distribute facts without providing any sort of larger context. Business life is rotten with PowerPoints that rattle off figures and acronyms without making an argument for anything in particular. Many general interest technology sites bombard the reader with tricky terminology, but skimp on defining what it means.

One reason for this is that crafting a good explanation often means going against the grain. News stories are supposed to be short, because TV watchers and newspaper readers supposedly have no attention span. Business jerks agree that business means getting down to the bottom line and sounding important. And of course only noobs need to stop for definitions. Taking the time to lay out a good explanation means asking for deeper attention from your audience and acknowledging that not everybody knows everything already. It’s rarer than it should be, so we should sing its praises when we see it.

Hence,, a celebration of explanation. Full credit to Explainist co-founder Dave for the brilliant name. Here we go.