Split Peas, Distraction, and the enemies of Abstraction

by Jacob Lee

While reading Marijn Haverbeke’s book Eloquent JavaScript: A Modern Introduction to Programming, I came across this passage, extolling the virtues of abstraction:

When writing a program, it is easy to get sidetracked into small details at every point. You come across some little issue, and you deal with it, and then proceed to the next little problem, and so on. This makes the code read like a grandmother’s tale.

Yes, dear, to make pea soup you will need split peas, the dry kind. And you have to soak them at least for a night, or you will have to cook them for hours and hours. I remember one time, when my dull son tried to make pea soup. Would you believe he hadn’t soaked the peas? We almost broke our teeth, all of us. Anyway, when you have soaked the peas, and you’ll want about a cup of them per person, and pay attention because they will expand a bit while they are soaking, so if you aren’t careful they will spill out of whatever you use to hold them, so also use plenty water to soak in, but as I said, about a cup of them, when they are dry, and after they are soaked you cook them in four cups of water per cup of dry peas. Let it simmer for two hours, which means you cover it and keep it barely cooking, and then add some diced onions, sliced celery stalk, and maybe a carrot or two and some ham. Let it all cook for a few minutes more, and it is ready to eat.

Another way to describe this recipe:

Per person: one cup dried split peas, half a chopped onion, half a carrot, a celery stalk, and optionally ham.

Soak peas overnight, simmer them for two hours in four cups of water (per person), add vegetables and ham, and cook for ten more minutes.

This is shorter, but if you don’t know how to soak peas you’ll surely screw up and put them in too little water. But how to soak peas can be looked up, and that is the trick. If you assume a certain basic knowledge in the audience, you can talk in a language that deals with bigger concepts, and express things in a much shorter and clearer way. (emphasis added) This, more or less, is what abstraction is.

Now, after reading this, I could not help but think about how blogs, listserves, and other open forums for expert discussion can become bogged down by the participation of non-experts, or the badly informed and opinionated, or even people merely coming from different domains of expertise. Eventually, this can lead to the departure of those experts for less congested locales.

There is immense value in the continued existence of open forums. So the question is, how can a forum remain open, but circumvent, or at least diminish the challenges just mentioned? I can think of at least one way, suitable for highly topical forums: namely, the FAQ, or Primer.

So, for example, New Economic Perspectives, a group blog of academic and professional economists interested in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), has an extensive primer on MMT available on its blog. But a Primer or FAQ is probably not enough, unless it is tied into some kind of policy and practice of policing. An interesting, if extreme, policy might involve some kind of test of the basic knowledge presumed by the epistemic community in question. For example, New Economic Perspectives might test users knowledge of MMT in order to obtain the credentials to participate in the forum, or their scores on such a test could be associated with their comments in all cases. Annoying perhaps. But then, I am reminded of John’s idea of an online community based on concentric circles:

While agreeing fundamentally with grad student guy’s observation about the need for filtering, it is far from clear to me that any currently available technological solution is likely to solve the problem. As far as I can make out, the patterns that emerge in forums like OAC are not that different from those that emerge on listservs. After an initial period of enthusiasm in which people jump on board and stake out positions, things settle down to a handful of contributors accounting for most of the traffic and occasional outbursts of concern about why more people aren’t contributing.

The alternative is to consider filtering as a political problem, where the fundamental dilemma is the gap between the ideal of openness and ease of access and the reality that most people can’t or don’t want to spend large amounts of their day responding to a mass of material that grows exponentially and is mostly repetitious and, in event the best sense, juvenile — an endless rehashing of old arguments that rarely goes anywhere.

The only plausible scheme that I have been able to imagine is modeled on secret societies with a hierarchy of concentric circles, in which it requires an invitation to move toward the center for all but the outermost circle, to which everyone is invited. Are there other options to consider?


11 Comments to “Split Peas, Distraction, and the enemies of Abstraction”

  1. Some of it is specification of task. Grandmothers are committed to sociability in different ways than yuppie chefs – the meandering description of the soup and its surrounds create and reinforce community far more richly than a mere recipe (think every chick flick you’ve ever seen), while the ability to interpret and function according to the most telegraphic recipe may in contrast be a merit badge in a kind of status-counting virtual secret society. There can also be interactive styles, so that for example inane questions may be asked not for content, but for attention-checking, yet experienced on the other side as pure content cluelessness. And then there is cluelessness, which is manageable if it’s accurately self-diagnosed (no self-reflexively clueless person jumps into an expert discussion without first reading the faq or researching its equivalent), not so manageable if it’s not (the Dunning-Kruger effect).

    Because all of these things and more are happening, it’s a dynamic multivariable problem and the temptation is to clean out dynamics and variables, which John’s solution would do. The problem there is obviously an epistemic siloing that threatens all the downsides of communal insularity.

    Just shooting from the hip here. Needless to say, this sort of puzzle pops up every day in any classroom where you let the students speak.

  2. Btw I make split-pea soup all the time and much prefer the long-cook method without a pre-soak.

  3. Do either of you know of a successful organization at any point in human history that has not combined active outreach to worthy candidates with enough exclusiveness to make membership worthwhile?

  4. The United States?

  5. . Of course!

    Though, I’d guess some would argue that US citizenship (or even residence) is not so easy to get if you or your family are not already in the club. That said, I’m not sure that the exclusiveness of US citizenship or residency is not quite what makes it so worthwhile.

    But (and yes, I know, you’re not supposed to start sentences with ‘but’), I think this conversation has veered in a direction quite contrary to either Jacob Lee’s or John McCreery’s intent.

  6. Well, I lost my long reply. What a pain in my Gravatar.

  7. Actually JL, that was DV’s new quality-assurance filter kicking in. Didn’t you read the faq?

  8. Well, I admit, I was only half-sorry to lose that comment. It was longer than I intended, and resembled a pile of spaghetti. It *even* had the world spaghetti in it, though I was not clever enough for it to have been intentionally self-referential. More seriously, I spent more time on it that I should have, and less time than it needed–I’m in the middle of something else.

    Let me just say that I agree with you Carl, about pretty much everything you said, except for your preference for the long-cook method. Well, also I would reiterate that highly specialized domains of discourse need to be protected and nurtured when they occur in public forums for that discourse to produce much of interest at all, and to retain the interest of the highly skilled and highly informed participants involved; it is simply too easy for even a well-intentioned troll to disrupt the flow of conversation. At the same time, I highly value the fact that the culture of online forums is exactly that of an open invitation to participation (and not just access), regardless of class, race, gender, profession or even reputation. The challenge is to channel that in way that is truly productive, given the task for which the forum was created to achieve. Nor do I want to suggest that this is the only sort of challenge that is faced by a group trying to get something up off the ground.

    Re: John’s question: I would only point out that exclusivity is not the only medium through which participation or membership can be made worthwhile, though it may indeed heighten its prestige, which could indeed matter, especially to folks that compete aggressively in a “prestige economy”, as academics do. Of course, exclusivity does not equal prestige by itself. John’s question may be phrased a little too broadly, but I think I know what he means. Still, I’ll let him speak for himself.

  9. First, to Al and Carl. Your examples reveal two additional factors my initial models neglected, a concrete objective and an enemy. Whether the goal was to secure decent working hours and a living wage or the independence of the country, a clearly defined objective was there to rally around and a visible enemy, the owners or the British military stood in the way. But do these conditions apply at all to the task of building what is, in effect, an online club? I don’t see any evidence for that.

    Then, to Jacob, “privilege” is perhaps a too rhetorically loaded term. Perhaps “reward” would be better. The key point is how to ensure that active participation provides more positive feedback than lurking or disappearing. In my experience most online venues, from listservs to blogs to forums, display a predictable pattern of behavior. They begin with what my Japanese marketing colleagues would call a shin hatsubai (new on sale or launch) spike. The initial flurry of activity eventually subsides, a handful of regulars emerge, then, after a while, things go quiet. The issue is how to sustain interest once debates fueled by staking out now familiar positions on basic issues die down. One approach is to recruit newcomers, which, in my view, takes active outreach. Another is to do something, if only something as rudimentary as the chance to join an inner circle, to sustain activity. These tactics won’t end the underlying issue, but they will forestall its effects, as long as enough new active participants join in to replace those who drift away. Without them, groups settle down to the same old crew saying pretty much the same old things and staying together because the feeling of having a small crowd to belong to and swap gossip with is reward enough. I would be happy to discover that this analysis is flawed. Please bring on the evidence.

  10. Just wanted to drop cred here that this post was almost eerily prescient, as it happened. Kudos, JL!

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