The frustration of writing about concepts and ideas

One of my frustrations when writing is that I’ll often come up with a way of illustrating a concept or idea, only to have somebody ‘correct’ me because some minor detail only they know of is an exception to the trend I’m describing, and therefore I am a worthless idiot who is ignorant of my subject.

Music is ALL ABOUT concepts! So is writing… not that anybody notices…

The problem is that exceptions can’t be avoided when dealing with wide themes, particularly when trying to summarise them in a few words. You have to generalise to get the big picture, and there will always be a specific exception to the general. Indeed, being able to discover the general trend out of a mass of exceptions is the essence of technique in most ‘social sciences’.

The underlying problem, it seems, is that there are two different types of thinking. One is conceptual – an ability to find wider shapes and patterns. The other is literal. Despite often being layered with sophistry, what’s in front of the face is the whole and only truth, it’s black-and-white, and anybody who doesn’t parrot this is wrong and ignorant of the entire subject.

I heard a story, a while back, about a software developer who’d produced one of the first computer-aided design packages and demoed it to a car manufacturer. It happened that the prototype system was using an aircraft to demonstrate its modelling and manipulation ability. And after watching the demo the CEO said, ‘Well, that’s impressive, but of course we can’t use it because that’s an aircraft and we’re a car maker’. The story is probably apocryphal, but you get the picture.

Or take the Minimoog synthesiser (the first synth I learned how to play). One of the base sounds it produces is a ‘square’ wave. The name is derived from the shape of the sound if it’s rendered as a graph – which for a square wave means it has vertical sides and horizontal top. No surprises there. But a Minimoog ‘square’ wave isn’t literally square – it’s more of a half-parallelogram with sloping top.

So is calling this ‘square’ an ‘error’? Was Bob Moog too stupid to build a circuit that could make a true square wave? Of course not. A perfectly square wave sounds harsh and buzzy, and is able to penetrate other sound – especially at lower frequencies. It’s sometimes used in aviation alert tones, and has been proposed for home smoke detectors, for that reason. In raw form square waves aren’t exactly mellifluous.Want proof? Go here: click ‘square’, type in ’60’ into the hertz box, and listen (I think sawtooth waves are pretty buzzy too).

What Moog did was design a circuit that created a ‘conceptually square’ wave which was distinct from a triangle or sawtooth, and which sounded very pleasing to the ear. In short, Moog knew exactly what he was doing. And that meant not being literal.

I keep trying to figure out ways of phrasing things that won’t trigger the ‘literal’ mind set – but it’s incredibly difficult to satisfy people who miss underlying concepts and instead use some minor discrepancy between sources that report different numbers of rivets for the same locomotive (or similar), as a device to invalidate a study of a whole railway system (or something) whose meanings are defined by wider issues. And I keep getting surprised by new ways in which metaphor or hyperbole can be taken to be literally true, thus proving me an idiot, apparently. Sigh.

Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017


9 thoughts on “The frustration of writing about concepts and ideas

  1. I hear ya! (And I also agree with tomburkhalter and Aurdrey)
    I usually try to do a final read through from the mindset of one of those pick-aparts. But after having also been proven an idiot (“apparently”) countless times I have to make sure I don’t overthink things and mess with my flow. I wonder how these literal readers think about relationships? I prefer to gloss mine over with glorious metaphorical abstraction lol.

    1. Metaphorical abstration is wonderful! It’s amazing how many people seem to be immune to it… and to hyperbole. Especially hyperbole, which has to be one of my favourite ways of making a point. Only to be told things like ‘Nobody can make a burger that’s the size of Jupiter’ or some such… (sigh…)

  2. hehe I don’t think you can avoid the literal police, but I think most people are forgiving of this sort of thing and I agree that you have to make generalisations for interesting metaphors sometimes- it’s unavoidable.

    1. I guess abstraction and oblique metaphor finds its audience, as it were – it’ll be appreciated by those who ‘grok’ it. And hey, those who don’t… also don’t know what they’re missing!

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