O Log - Semiotics and O

[09-Jun-03] 

    Semiotics, depending on who you ask, is either a branch of linguistics, sociology, or both (or those disciplines are branches of semiotics). Semiotics was somewhat put on the radar by the Italian professor Umberto Eco, with his fusion of semiotic theory and fiction in his novels The Name of the Rose and particularly Folcault's Pendulum.

    Literally, it means the study of signs, actually, its the study of how we as humans interpret what are called "texts" (a collection of signs -- generally any content in any medium where the creator of the text is not present). One of the key concepts is the notion of semiotic "codes". A code is like a frame of reference -- texts have no frame of reference -- they are meaningless in the absence of a reader -- humans who interpret texts have codes, and if two humans have different codes, they will interpret an identical text differently. Its been postulated that codes are invisible to the person reading the text -- in other words, most people are unaware of how their internalized frame of reference is coloring their interpretation of a presented text. (This is the gist of Marxist media/semiotic theory (as opposed to Marxist political theory) which speculates how the media silently imposes frames of reference on us from childhood to the point of how we are unaware of the extent to which our interpretation of reality is colored).

    So, what does this have to do with O? I have a feeling alot. I've been thinking alot about this since Woodhill, where I just didn't grok what was going on. I've also been thinking alot about this in terms of trying to figure out why I'm half decent, why I can beat people who are faster than me and have been doing this longer. I think there is value in trying to look at why we are good, as well as why we suck.

    Anyway, I think the following example illustrates semiotic codes on an O map. This leg is from the 2001 US champs at Winona on the M35 course.

    I ran along the ridge, keeping the wetlands on the right in sight -- no big deal, I suppose this is how most people ran the first part of the leg. Then I hit the road, and was completely shocked when I did so, and I thought I was lost. I had to stop, look at the map, and say, ok, there's a road here, no big deal, I know where I am, lets press on, just a momentary brain disconnect.

    I would have forgotten about it except for the fact that two other runners described the same experience after the race! That seemed hard to believe that others could have had the same odd experience on that leg. It begged for an explanation. The consensus explanation was that the unusual straightness of the road was more typical of a magnetic north line than a road, and that the brain discards magnetic north lines as irrelevant information when navigating a leg. Thus, navigationally, we didn't expect a road, but hit one. This is a perfect example of a semiotic code -- an orienteer who navigates basically by pure map reading discards text on the map irrelevant to that task, and does so without realising it. (Its true, I never experience magnetic north lines when navigating, but only do so when orienting the map -- different codes are invoked for the different tasks (my navigation and orientation are different tasks -- perhaps that is a problem in and of itself, but a problem for another day). Only the experience of the physical road, impossible to deny, stops the runner with that code in place and makes him think about what is going on. So the semiotics is -- what we see on an O map isn't necessarily what the brain gets.

    I thought alot about this at Woodhill. I would come across multi-contour hills that simply were not on the map. I would stand there by the hill and bend them into a tiny knoll on the map. Only after the race when I sat down and carefully studied the map did I see the hill in question. I think its the same sort of thing, except in the example above, it was impossible to bend the road into something else. Hills in the woods can be bent into other hills in the woods. This happened quite often to me in the bizarre sand dune terrain.

    My explanation for what was happening was that the terrain was too bizarre for my learned codes as to how terrain should work. Hills were showing up where they simply should not. I orienteer alot on French Creek and Ridge/Valley type terrain, where the terrain forms undulations that seems to make sense, or drainage systems that seems to make sense. I believe I thus have developed the proper codes to deal with this stuff, and anticipate and optimize how it works, and that my brain automatically simplifies this stuff into chunks of stuff that easy to deal with quickly. I've always believed my greatest strength is the ability to simplify appropriately.

    So I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I do better in terrain I'm used to. But my instincts are that there is more to it than that, at least for me. I think there is something interesting to be found here with more exploration. Certainly if I orienteered a bunch on the dunes I would develop the proper codes, and it would all make sense. But what I really need to do is learn to recognize things that are odd, and adapt a different code -- a things are odd code, and just learn to look at everything on the map. Get out of my normal terrain-reactive mode and into a more map-proactive mode. There is often one or two legs on a given course that call for the application of a different code. These are the legis I boom, the "run breakers". I often recognize them as "something's fishy here, but can't put my finger on it -- run breaker". This is perhaps my biggest weakness now, switching codes, or dropping them altogether so I can see the full picture reality is presenting.

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