Posts Tagged ‘Context’
All is connected, all is real, and all is metaphor.
Do you think this statement is true?
Recently I ran across a website of metaphor examples. According to its author, the site is based on the idea that metaphorical relationships can be considered to be “universal” in scope: a sort of Rosetta Stone between disciplines, if you will.
A related view is that metaphors provide a set of tools to compare two (seemingly) unlike things that are alike in at least one important way. Pick the tool of your choice – simile, analogy, personification, and others – and use it to explore and better understand the unknowns.
Then there’s this definition: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea … Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance.”
If you follow some of the links in this post, you will see that metaphors of all kinds appear to be an indispensable key to understanding as well as creating our reality. They also allow us to connect to other forms of reality and to live beyond the boundaries of our own space.
Could we write, or communicate in any way, without metaphors?
Can you think of any aspect of your life that is metaphor-free?
If you were deprived of all metaphors, could you exist?
Do you think humans are responsible for creating metaphors, or do we just notice all the connections around us and attempt to describe their interfaces and correspondences?
In a recent post titled Language: The Government Wants Your Metaphors, I discussed IARPA’s Metaphor Program, which seeks to “exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture” in order to “characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”
Although analytically and intellectually admirable, at least as a mathematical construct, such a project may ultimately prove too daunting to be practicable, because what metaphors say is so complex, interlocking and interrelated that it seems quite a challenge to untangle all the possible meanings and connections. And never mind that all of those qualities are dynamic.
If, as some suggest, metaphors are the foundation of our conceptual systems, then apparently we require them in order to think and act.
And if we can only understand or experience one thing in terms of another, that is, by using metaphors, then what don’t metaphors say?
Now it’s your turn: Do you think metaphors are the engine of communication? Could language itself be construed as a form of metaphor for life? Without communication of all kinds would life exist? Thanks for leaving your comments! Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
Meet two of my pet peeves in word usage: trooper and trouper
I am currently on a linguistic rampage about how to distinguish one from the other, because lately I’ve noticed an outbreak of misuse and misunderstanding involving these two words. Whenever I come across such an unfortunate lapse, it causes me to raise one eyebrow in dismay while staring at the offending noun through gimlet eyes.
The guilty know who they are (or, worse, maybe not).
Troop refers to a throng, crowd, herd or group. For example:
- a troop of State Police officers
- a troop (group) of friends
- a troop (flock) of birds
Trooper typically designates a member of a military unit or a police force, or a member of a Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop.
Webster’s Third New International Unabridged Dictionary lists the following as examples of troopers:
- enlisted cavalryman
- paratrooper or soldier
- mounted policeman
- one of a body of State police, usually using motorized vehicles
- Girl Scout or Boy Scout
By extension, “to be a real trooper” has come to mean “to show bravery and courage, especially in the face of adversity while on duty.”
Troupe refers to a company or group of performers on the stage: a company of actors and actresses; a theatrical troupe.
Trouper typically designates someone who is a member of a troupe, that is, an actor or an actress who belongs to a particular acting company.
By extension, “to be a real trouper” has come to mean knowing “the show must go on,” whatever it takes. Thus, a “real trouper” is a professional you can count on to help achieve the group’s goal, especially when the going gets rough. “Real troupers” will come through for you, no matter what, because they are committed, reliable and tenacious.
Once more then: Are you a trooper or a trouper?
Now it’s your turn: What are your pet “word pair” peeves? What sorts of homonymic misusage get under your skin, prompting you to think that civilization is irreversibly in decline? What confusions of meaning goad you into reaching for your red pen? What sorts of linguistic pratfalls provoke your inner editor to sally forth? Tell all in your comments – thanks! Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
Did you know your tax dollars will soon be hard at work mining massive amounts of text?
It seems that Uncle Sam’s spy researchers are building “software sieves” that will be able to parse automatically what English, Farsi, Russian and Spanish speakers say and write, and pluck out the metaphors lurking in their streams of words.
The Intelligence Advanced Projects Research Activity (IARPA) wants to analyze and evaluate how people use metaphors, and then map that usage to their worldview, beliefs and mindset.
IARPA describes the Metaphor Program this way in a synopsis on its website:
“The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture … performers will develop automated tools and techniques for recognizing, defining and categorizing linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text … the program will characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”
One fascinating aspect of the project is that IARPA sees metaphors as representing a general cultural mindset or worldview, rather than merely an individual’s expression of personal beliefs or attitudes.
This is interesting, because although it might be true that metaphors can influence your beliefs or how you perceive other people, events and issues, it is no doubt equally true that the arrows of influence can fly in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you can change your culture, even if only a little, by how you use language. Creativity and originality, anyone?
At any given moment, does your use of metaphors represent you, the individual, engaged in expressing your own ideas, which might run counter to those dominant in your culture or group? Or you, the “member of a culture” who merely echoes the received thematic mindset and attitudes associated with your kind?
And how could an outsider, a third-party someone (or software application) truly make that distinction with any accuracy?
As Alexis Madrigal points out in his superb article in The Atlantic: “[T]his project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people … The assumption is that common turns of phrase, dissected and reassembled through cognitive linguistics, could say something about the views of those citizens that they might not be able to say themselves. The language of a culture as reflected in a bunch of text on the Internet might hide secrets about the way people think.”
Alright, then. What do the following metaphors say about Americans – not you as “an American,” mind you, but “Americans”? Because one implication (or perhaps, better: assumption) of the project appears to be that we are each more or less cultural cogs than we are individuals and, therefore, our use of metaphors shows “the consciousness of a people,” which tidily presumes we all agree on what a given metaphor means and only apply it to agreed-upon contexts and situations. Some American metaphors for your consideration:
That’s as American as motherhood and apple pie.
It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings.
The best defense is a good offense.
He’s wearing cement booties and sleeping with the fishes.
A stitch in time saves nine.
He made it by the skin of his teeth.
May the force be with you.
Beam me up, Scotty.
Sow the seeds of progress.
They’re in default mode.
And those examples represent just “we the people” inventing and using common, every-day metaphors. What of those created by great writers, poets, scientists and thinkers?
Read any of Shakespeare’s works, say, or Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. What do the metaphors in those works say about their authors and their respective cultures?
For example, should the meaning(s) of Neruda’s metaphors be understood as saying something about the consciousness of the culture to which he belongs? And what, exactly, would that be? Do Neruda’s readers interpret his metaphors in the same way he does? If they repeat one of his metaphors, do they merely pass along the original (Neruda’s) meaning, or modify it, re-shape it, alter it and re-cast it to fit their own thinking, experiences and intent?
Let me tangentially note that many writers and editors (and readers, too) would call cultural metaphors, such as the examples in the list above, boring and unimaginative platitudes, or tired figures of speech, or hackneyed phrases, and frown on using them. Cultural metaphors are not, by definition, very original.
But do they capture the consciousness of an entire people? The truth of an entire culture?
Do they show how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world?
I think even attempting to build such a cultural-linguistic knowledge database that possesses the slimmest margin of accuracy will prove to be an extraordinarily challenging, complex, very long-term undertaking. The research will have to focus, in part, on word relationships, frames, logics, structures, processing rules, cognitive linguistics, syntactics, pragmatics, semantics, morphologies of various sorts, linguistic biases, permutations and combinations, probabilities, literal versus figurative speech, and … on and on it goes.
Language is a living substance. It is one of the outward expressions of the functioning brain. In essence, this project seeks to build a sort of linguistic Fast Fourier Transform to ingest the metaphorical statements of hundreds of millions of functioning brains and convert them into patterns that show the worldview, the consciousness, and the beliefs of their respective cultures.
What are the odds of such a project producing anything coherent, much less generating accurate, usable, actionable intelligence or insight?
If you view metaphors as cultural memes, you would do well to remember that a culture is a living organism, a society of minds in which ideas and thoughts constantly arise, emerge, evolve, transform, grow, replicate, mutate, decline, and die. Although the metaphors of any given time might mirror something about an individual as well as societal life, and vice versa, what is it?
The Metaphor Program promises to be great fun. This is one of the yummiest projects I’ve heard of in a long time.
What do you think of it? Do you feel like circling the wagons and hunkering down, or are you raring to saddle up and head out to join the effort and offer your metaphors to your country?
To help you decide, you might find it useful to read: What Do Metaphors Say?
Now it’s your turn: What do you think about the government poking around in your metaphors? Do you think such a project can capture the ceaseless realtime exchange of information between individuals and their culture, decode the meanings encrypted in metaphors, and interpret them in accurate and useful ways? Do you even like metaphors? Do you use them? Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
- Topology data
- Epidemiology data
- Sets of time series
- Medical data
- Geographic maps
- Network connections
- Financial data
- U.S. Government Budget
- Billions of customer transactions
- Radiation doses and their impact over time
Improving large-scale analysis of these and many other massive data sets presents an ongoing challenge for businesses, academia and government. Using information visualization techniques, however, allows us to explore visually and perhaps arrive at some understanding of patterns and groupings that might otherwise remain invisible.
Essentially, information visualization allows you to extract meaningful information from a sea of data.
And those data do not have to correspond only to the physical and concrete. They can be abstract, drawn from the domains of the symbolic, the textual, the logical, the tabular, the networked, and the hierarchical, among others.
Example: Accessing the Geosocial Universe via Mobile Devices
How popular are the various geosocial networks with mobile users? This infographic is a good example of “compare and contrast.”
Example: Ranking Themes in Documents
If you’re curious about the relationships among documents, this visualization shows clusters of themes and their strengths in health- and medical-related literature.
Example: Ordering News Topics by “Interestingness”
Ever want to find out what are the hottest news topics within a given time period? In this visualization, the most reported (hottest) topics are in the center column. Less-reported topics appear in the side columns.
Using Information Visualization to Improve Your Publications
For your visualization to be effective, it must be useful to your audience as well as aesthetically appealing. This requires thoughtful analysis, attention to detail, imagination, and no small amount of perseverance. This YouTube video provides some examples and techniques. You may also find inspiration in Edward Tufte’s website.
The idea is that you do the heavy lifting, so your audience doesn’t have to.
To guide your work, ask the following questions:
Does your visualization have a purpose? That is, what is the story you are trying to tell with this visualization? What information are you trying to tease out of the data and put into visual form?
Is your visualization the best one to convey the story? That is, when your audience sees the visualization, will they immediately grasp the “big picture” of your analysis of the data? Will they easily grasp the meaningful patterns in the subject? If details are also important, does your visualization scale to that level in a way that makes sense for the subject and the audience?
Is your visualization interactive? Interactive views allow you to guide the story and are especially helpful when there is too much detail to show all at once. Although interactivity works best online, it can be approximated in print by breaking out information into related visualizations.
Is your visualization beautiful? Beauty influences comprehension. How you present something can determine its usefulness. Visual attributes such as fonts, colors, sizing, orientation of view, scaling of graphic elements and placement of graphic elements have a large impact on the user experience. For an example of WOW! beautiful maps, check out Maps: Visualizing Twitter and Flickr Data.
Tell me, do you think information visualization is the new frontier?
Now it’s your turn: What do you think? Do you use information visualization in your work? Do you generate your designs by software or have a graphic artist create them? I’d really like for you to keep the conversation going by leaving comments. Thanks! Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
Around 1980, some companies and organizations, notably the aerospace industry and the branches of the U.S. military, began to re-think how they presented technical information. Their products were complex, and their maintenance, troubleshooting and product-support requirements were stringent and time-consuming.
They knew they needed to improve performance, reduce errors, and shorten learning timelines. But how?
As it happened, they looked at emerging computer technologies and wondered if moving from paper to an electronic format would improve results. Among their questions:
- Would users find it easier to learn and use the material?
- Would they reduce errors and improve performance?
- Could they integrate documentation with other systems?
- Could they save money?
Tests with interactive electronic formats showed positive results and so, encouraged, the companies and the military forged ahead into the world of Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM).
Since that time, we have seen IETM systems develop a variety of features, with most using one or more of the following:
Linear Structure. This sort of electronic document is based on the structure and layout of a printed book and uses navigational aids, such as a table of contents and a list of figures, that hyperlink into the content. A PDF file is a good example.
Nonlinear Structure. These online documents are organized around the logic of the product or task, for example, instead of following a linear book-type structure. However, the concept of a static page remains. As you would expect, there are lots of hyperlinks and other navigational aids. This type of document is often authored in a markup language.
Dynamic Data. These online documents are very nonlinear in structure. Content and pages are dynamic, drawing much of their data from relational databases and data dictionaries. Background programming automatically updates the dynamic data when the databases and dictionaries are updated. Hyperlinking in these documents is typically very complex and is, therefore, usually handled by programming. Content may also be context-specific and user-specific.
Integrated with Expert Systems. As companies build databases of heuristics and expert feedback, these can be integrated with the IETM system to improve the user experience and results. This information can be dynamically mapped into documents in all sorts of ways. For example, feedback by expert troubleshooters about errors and how to resolve them is sought after by companies across the product and process spectrum.
New Frontier—Multiple Devices. Many companies are now changing the way they and their customers think about IETM. From design concept to reality, they are experimenting with unleashing product support through all sorts of channels, for example: Mobile devices such as tablets and phones, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, websites, CDs, PDF, print, wikis, and blogs.
The new frontier of IETM seems to call for a “basket” of delivery platforms, each carefully selected for a certain type of content.
And no matter the platform, content rules. As ever.
Content must be organized in a way that suits the product, the audience, and its intended use. Content must be consistent across multiple platforms, well structured, properly modularized, cross-referenced and completely accessible by a full range of search and navigational features.
IETMs and their spin-offs present design, writing and production challenges, but produce a better user experience and greater performance improvements over stand-alone paper documents.
For more on creating an interactive user experience, see my recent post Let Your Customers Tweet in Your Documents.
Now it’s your turn: Does your company use IETMs? On which delivery platforms? How would you describe your experience implementing IETMs? Do you think the results are worth it? Please share your thoughts and questions about IETMs in comments. Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas