People, Things, Ideas

SMBC_2951I’ve gotten spoiled. Writing about the con carne topics is much harder than writing about the life stories and the off-the-cuff opinions. Meaty topics require research and fact-checking (and often I need to create the images). And I expect they’re also harder to read!

My intention here was always to write mostly about ideas with a fallback of writing about things and, to a lesser extent, writing about life (which is to say, about people).

Today’s post keys off a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon I saw a while back. At first the cartoon spoke to me, but the more I thought about it, the less I agreed with it.

conversationIt does have a point, but the thing about short, pithy statements is that life cannot be summed up or explained with a bumper sticker.  Life is one of the most complex systems we know. It is endlessly variable.

The cartoon put in pictures an old bumper sticker:

Boring people talk about other people.
Interesting people talk about ideas.

My first objection is that it leaves out something that—at least these days—we talk about a lot. (For purposes of this essay, “talk about” and “write about” are synonymous.)  Science and technical writers often write about things.

Pillars of the EarthFor the moment, we’ll assume that things are more interesting than people, but less interesting than ideas. I can already hear protests that people are much more interesting than things, but it’s possible we just mean people are more important than things. And I suspect it’s a matter of personal taste to some extent.

My second objection is that the old saying is full of shit.  Some of our best stories are about people. (And talking about some things and some ideas can be boring. Plus, there’s that personal taste thing.)


DuneNearly all fiction is about people, but truly great fiction is also about ideas. Stories that are just about people can still be great fun. though. Most murder mysteries are usually just about people. (Oh, but what great characters people some of those stories!)

Good fiction uses a story about people to also examine the human condition. The best fiction speaks to the ideas that form our core values.

One of the things I love about science fiction is that great SF is “idea fiction” that can study very unique ideas. Science fiction is also rich in “things fiction” (typically “hard” SF is all about things; “soft” SF tends to be more idea-based; “pop” SF tends to fall in the “ripping good yarn” category).

There is a distinction to be made: fiction versus non-fiction. I suspect that bumper sticker refers to people talking about other real people: gossip.  And I do feel gossip is the lowest form of conversation.  I think it has the least interesting content, yet people seemed fascinated by the lives of others.

Churchill HimselfJust where is the line between a great biography and a TV Reality Show?  Both are real stories about real people.  (Well, the Reality Show is real people viewed through an extremely distorted and lurid filter—more of an Unreality Show.)  What makes a biography of Winston Churchill fit for even the snootiest coffee table, while many people turn their nose up at those TV shows? (Others declare them as “guilty pleasures” which still points to their perceived lowness.)

Is it because Churchill was a great man, whereas Snooki is … in a word, not? (Both things are true, but are they the reason?  What if we went back in time and did an Unreality Show starring Winston Churchill? Perhaps the real answer is that—if we tried that—Churchill would probably have us shot as enemy agents.)

Is it because the biography is a “serious” work intended to illuminate important things about our history, whereas the TV shows are time-wasting chaff intended to suck people in and sell commercial time? (I’m gonna say, “Yes!” on this one.)

Brain DroppingsWhat about jokes?  They’re about people, too.  Maybe we can lump jokes under fiction in general. We’ll call them short, funny stories.

It would appear that talking about people isn’t the problem, although perhaps how you talk about them matters.  However you characterize them, Unreality Shows are hugely popular, and so are the “diary blogs” in the true tradition of the name, ‘web log.’  Say what you will, people are interested in the lives of other people.

Voyeurism or social bonding? Are they the same thing? It may be a matter of degree and perspective (and content and style).


RingworldWriting about things might be more a product of modern times. Technical writing is strictly about things, and so is a great deal of science writing.

Science deals with theories, which are ideas, so science is not solely about things.  One can argue that writing about math is only about ideas, because math is almost entirely abstract.

In part, the difference between science and technology is the difference between ideas and things.  Science starts by looking at things we don’t understand and seeks to find the ideas behind their behavior. Stuff (random things) fall as they do because of air resistance and gravity.

Zen Motorcycle MaintenanceOnce we understand the ideas behind air resistance and gravity, we can predict how any specific thing will fall. That’s science.

When we use our understanding, our science, to build things that fly (that don’t fall) or glide (that fall in a really great way), that’s technology.

In so far as technical writing is about technology, it’s about the application of the ideas of science to real world things.

And as anyone who’s familiar with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance knows, you can have ideas about things, too!


Greek philosophersWriting about ideas goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. [All the good stuff goes back to the ancient Greeks.  There’s a joke about the philosophy professor who said, “Every time I think I’ve had an original idea, I find that some damned Greek had it first.”]

Western white culture—northern European culture—descends mostly from the Greeks, but every culture reaches for science, philosophy and art along the way. Each of those three explore the world of ideas in different ways.

There is also religion, which I’ll mention now just in passing.  (Soon I plan to write about the difference between Ideas and Beliefs!)

In his book, The Trouble with Physics, physicist and author Lee Smolin writes this:
Trouble With Physics

Science is one of several instruments of human culture that arose in response to the situation we humans have found ourselves in since prehistoric times: We, who can dream of infinite time and space, of the infinitely beautiful and the infinitely good, find ourselves embedded in several worlds: the physical world, the social world, the imaginative world, and the spiritual world. It’s a condition of being human that we have long sought to discover crafts that give us power over these diverse worlds. These crafts are now called science, politics, art and religion. Now, as in our earliest days, they give us power over our lives and form the basis of our hopes.

These are the ideas upon which we build society: Science, Politics, Art, Religion. (As Smolin lists them. I lean towards a triumvirate: Art, Science, Philosophy. The last one, to me, includes Religion and Politics.)

Fahrenheit 451It’s not hard to see why many feel these are the highest topics of conversation. Admittedly, generally speaking, in many ways they’re the harder topics of conversation. The abstract often is more difficult to grasp than the concrete.

The thing is: you develop your muscles by working them—challenging them. Minds are no different. Brains are no different, even more so. The brain is just an organ like any other. The more you exercise it, the better it gets.

Use it or Lose It!” as the saying goes!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “People, Things, Ideas

  • Lady from Manila

    Just a hunch: People acquire this fascination to follow the crappy happenings in other people’s conditions because they habitually need the distraction that will make them forget the things that suck in their own lives.

    The wonder of science in concrete matters and the abstract in ideas have become the least stuff most people would welcome to grasp nowadays since we’ve been spoiled by modern technology in having access to every bit of information at the click of our fingers. We end up relying heavily on this easy means of entry to every world of knowledge, too, that we’ve started taking them for granted – resulting in us not caring much to sweat things out mentally anymore.

    Excellent post, I just have to say.

    • Wyrd Smythe


      Yes, I’ve suspected that’s a part of it — perhaps a big part of it. “There but for the grace of God go I,” as the old saying goes. And, “Well, at least I don’t have it as bad as them!

      That’s the dark side of it, perhaps? It can also be educational. “I’d be smart not to do what they did!” And, “See what they did, and look what happened to them!

      The lives of real people — gossip — is the easiest, simplest and most accessible. We’ve talked before about the role effort plays in art. Here again effort plays a role. Gossip is easy. Unreality TV shows are easy. The lack of effort is part of what makes these artless (and hence not very appealing to people like me). The content is also common and easy. If you’ve been educated by life or by actual education, the events of our daily lives can seem banal and trite. “Been there, done that, bought lots of tee-shirts.

      The amount of precision and background knowledge required to talk about science on the concrete thing level is bad enough to intimidate many people. The foundation and tools necessary for more abstract conversation begs even more from people. There’s no question these are harder topics.

      I feel there’s also no question they’re more interesting, more rewarding and more meaningful.

  • reocochran

    I think that my Dad was much more complex than I am but we had some great and fun conversations. Once in a great while, with a lot of caffeine in both of us, we would head off into interplanetary travel and the meaning of life. I am able to discuss a lot of theories and know a lot about philosophy and science due to the process of osmosis. But as far as depth, I have almost always sought friends and Unfortunately for me, partners, that were fun and enjoyed things like the outdoors, going places and less serious stuff. We did end a wonderful life together with me on his bed, asking a lot of questions about his childhood, how he got out of the Cincinnati ghetto and other things that helped form a better picture of my father, the human side. This post made me think, am I too light in my approach to life?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, you know, it’s all what you want out of life and what works for you, I guess. I personally think it’s important and valuable to explore both the fun and deep sides of life. There’s an old — and I think very true — expression, “Knowledge is power.” In my case, it’s meant doing well in a career and retiring early, so I feel it’s served me very well.

      Of course, it’s no guarantee; life doesn’t come with those!

  • reocochran

    I am glad that you can feel your knowledge got you places. It usually does! But still talking about being kind and not gossiping, I would say I am definitely a positive thinker. So, maybe I still deserve some kind of good ending and not the next 20 years of working…
    The imagination shown in the books you listed is more than knowledge, in fact I would say that some who are very intelligent still cannot create.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, very true! Creativity and any form of intelligence are separate things. I’ve known some very creative people with almost no education, and I’ve known some incredibly well-educated and intelligent people with no sense of imagination or creativity (and in some cases, no sense of fun).

  • bronxboy55

    Try this some time: Formulate a question that you can’t answer. Maybe something that can’t be answered in a definitive way. Turn it around in your mind, poke at it, get inside of it and study its nature until you understand why it’s so difficult to solve. Then pose the question to someone else and watch how quickly they come up with some lame answer. It’s as though people are afraid to think — and afraid to say, “I don’t know.” I have a list of things that concern me about our civilization and where it’s headed, and that’s one of them. But your writing, and your ability to analyze and juggle ideas, give me hope. (Hey, somebody has to fill the void left by Carlin’s death.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, wow, thank you. Comparing me to Carlin in any way is extremely high praise in my book (are you high, man? :lol:)!

      I think your assertion is correct, and I’ve already experienced the result of your suggested experiment many times! As a “computer guy” the internet has been an important resource for me since the 80s. When it comes (perhaps it should be, “when it came“) to technical questions, the truism, “You can always find the answer on the internet!” was, in fact, true. It still is, but now you have to wade through all those “helpful” people offering their guess at the answer. And then you have to sift through those answers trying to figure out if any of them are correct.

      On some level, I really hate Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for bringing computing to the masses and ruining it for the rest of us.

      You damn kids,… get off my internet lawn!

      One of my favorite online comics did one recently that struck a chord on this topic:

      (Be sure to hover over the image to get the popup gag.)

      His most recent is pretty on-target, too (again, be sure to check out the popup).

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