Wednesday, April 27, 2011

lefty loosey, righty tightie

Visual Thesaurus
Visualization for "counterclockwise"

I grew up hearing the expression "left loosey, righty tightie" referring to threads on a screw, nut, bolt, etc. To tighten, you turn to the right (clockwise). To loosen, you turn toward the left (counterclockwise).  So, if I'm writing instructions for, say, removing a field replaceable unit from a chassis, do I tell the reader to turn the screw to the left or counterclockwise? But which way is left? Which way is counterclockwise?

Ever since I read stories about the Beloit Mindset List for the class of 2014 showing that students don't use watches to tell the time, I've wondered about how to communicate the direction "counterclockwise" to young people if they have never seen an analog clock. Maybe the Beloit freshmen have seen clocks, even if they don't wear watches, but sooner or later, clockwise and counterclockwise are going to become meaningless terms.

Then recently, I heard an episode of Radio Lab that dealt with knowing where you are. One of the speakers referred to some indigenous tribes that say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right. They supposedly have a great sense of spatial orientation. The Wall Street Journal mentioned one of those tribes in an article on how language affects the way we think. So would I tell a member of the class of 2014 to turn the screw to the west? Probably only if they belonged to one of those tribes. I'm betting the students are even less likely to know which way is west, than they are to know which way is counterclockwise.
Maybe the best way to tell a reader which direction to turn something to unscrew it is to draw a picture with an arrow pointing the correct direction.

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