The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (are three different things)

This episode of Recovery is brought to you by axial tilt: It's the reason for the season. (What? It's just as funny at Solstice as it is around Christmas, dammit.)

Angela Gunn: Recovery badge (style 2)Having lately increased the amount of time I spend around small children, I have gotten a refresher course in lying. No judgment implied, but little kids are still learning how the reality thing works, and if they wish something to be so, most will at least take a shot at saying it already is. (I'm sure it's not fair to blame Walt Disney for all that wish-upon-a-star, wish-and-Tinkerbell-lives stuff, but if those people could slap a trademark on the performative utterance, they'd been richer than... um, Disney. Oops.)

There's no intent to deceive -- or, if there is, the kid's not old enough to have really worked out the supporting details and will thus usually arrive with you at the truth if everyone remains calm on the journey ("no one's in trouble for breaking the vase, but I want to understand what happened"). And kids tend to have an overriding interest in knowing the truth; they're in the data-collection-and-analysis business, after all, so they have an stake in constantly improving their stock. Kids thus spin some whoppers as they test life's waters, but it takes a grownup to really put some shoulder into a lie.

In most corners of the adult world, you run across a remarkable amount of lying. My professional brethren covering politics deal with people who lie as a reality-formulation tactic (that is, say it enough and it becomes true), who lie because their belief systems tell them it's okay to lie to outsiders, who lie because they feel you don't have the right to know. Cops and lawyers deal with people who lie for shame, for guilt, for vindictiveness, or just for the sheer jolly hell of it. And most of us watching the Jammie Thomas-Rasset trial that week wondered if the jury's jaw-dropping award decision hinged on their assessment of her truthfulness on the stand.

But tech journalists get to talk to geeks, and geeks -- like kids -- have a stake in accurate knowledge. (One of the saddest sites in this line of work is a geek being "escorted" by a PR person who very much needs him not to be quote so forthcoming with the visiting journalist. The geek speaks and the flack twitches; the flack "restates" and the geek twitches. All too much twitching for me.)

Not to say that geeks can't mangle data pretty spectacularly. The kids I'm hanging out with are young and they have geek parents, who not only hope to guide the small fry toward a better understanding of the world but who have a lot of knowledge to share. Great, but every so often a kid's question to an adult will unleash a data tsunami -- accurate information, but so much that the kid goes into a buffer-overflow situation, and ends up either missing the kernel of the answer they were after or tuning the whole monologue out. Odds are good you've seen the kids' exact expression on grownups to whom you were trying to explain some convoluted but interesting (to you) tech situation. The kids don't get info they can use, the parents feel like they're not getting through -- unfortunate all around.

Various people have talked about geek communication styles over the years. In particular, there was a blog by Michael Schwern a while back (Geek 2 Geek) that had some interesting thoughts on how the geek mind works. Sadly, it went dark some time ago; I never sent a note to Mr. Schwern telling him how much I enjoyed the blog, and honestly I hadn't thought about it for a long time until lo!, I see he's presenting at OSCon next month on this very subject.

So exciting! The only thing that could make it better if if I were actually going to OSCon. But Mr. Schwern's presentation could kickstart some good talk about geek culture's unique communication strengths and weaknesses. For those of us trying hard to speak not just honestly but with respect for our audience, that's exciting stuff -- especially if we can get the truthfulness part to catch on with the rest of the world.

And this is how we got to the previous train of thought The travel season is upon us, and why not make yours geektastic? I've been reading The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive, and now I've got all kinds of ideas for avoiding the likes of Disneyland or, here in Seattle, this weekend's Fremont Solstice Parade. (You'd think the two couldn't be more opposite, inasmuch as one has Mickey and Goofy and the other is full of marching naked Seattleites, but a misshapen furry is a misshapen furry and I don't want to stand in a crowd to see any of them.)

The book's a starting point rather than a comprehensive guide, but its nerd cred is real: author John Graham-Cumming wrote, among other things, the POPFile e-mail program. He'll be doing a webcast next Wednesday to chat about the world's greatest sci-tech destinations, so you should definitely sign up for that in any case.

Let your geek flag fly and have a great weekend.


Photo of Alan Turing memorial, Manchester, England courtesy of Lmno via Wikimedia Commons; Turing, the father of modern computing, pursued truth in the form of mathematics, was driven to his death by illogic and prejudice, and was born 97 years ago on June 23.

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