This month was spent in The Cave, that place of concentration and solitude where stuff gets done. The early release of the monthly curios should tell you that I haven’t completely escaped the distractions. Alas.
— Peter Stoyko (August 24, 2013)

[ Cover: Automatons at Miraikan in Tokyo. ]

JARGON

Baugruppe. This is a German housing trend that means “building group”. As David Roberts puts it: “The basic idea is that a group of people comes together to work directly with architects and designers, bypassing developers, to build a shared dwelling that they own collectively (a co-op, basically). Taking developers out of the picture saves money—25 to 30 percent in Berlin, where baugruppen are common—and opens up space for much more ambitious, innovative, and sustainable architecture.” (source) There’s a poverty of imagination among real-estate developers these days. And this form of organisation is more common than usually presumed (see Mintzberg et al., “The Invisible World of Association”, 2005)

Blunda. This is a Swedish word for keeping eyes shut and refusing to see something, or deliberately ignoring it. I suppose it’s sorta equivalent to the English phrase “keeping your head buried in the sand”, ostrich-style. I got this word from Wordstuck, a great blog for words without an English equivalent. Other finds include: rimjhim, the tippy-tappy sound of raindrops falling on a surface (Hindi); meraki, pouring your heart and soul into your work (Greek); nunchi (“eye measure”), the ability to gauge the mood or social atmosphere of a place or situation (Korean); tsundoku, leaving a newly purchased book unread (Japanese); voorpret (“pre-fun”), the sense of anticipation for something enjoyable (Dutch); vacilando, or knowing that the journey is more important than the destination while traveling (Spanish); wei wu wei (“action without action”), deciding not to act (Chinese); and verfremdungseffekt, the distancing effect of the space between a performer and the audience (German). I also learned that the English word “zemblanity” is the opposite of “serendipity”; that is, it is something that would’ve been discovered inevitably.

Bossnesia. People in authority often forget that they are the cause of a problem, particularly if that problem is a catastrophe. The anonymous blogger Meeting Boy points out that attempts by underlings to prevent the problem in the first place also get forgotten. This coinage is intended to be jokey but it is a serious foible. When something bad happens and people start to blame, those in charge will psychologically distance themselves from culpability. This is partly self-denial. It’s partly knee-jerk defensiveness. But it’s also an attribution error; the connection between actions and result isn’t so clear. That’s because (a.) people are not motivated to selflessly diagnose the causes, (b.) the causality is often ambiguous, (c.) failure often results from absences which are hard to identify (such as lack of support or resources), and (d.) information is partial, more so if the person in authority is physically distanced from the problem. Thus, what can seem like amnesia is much more complicated. You could even say there’s a bit of blunda involved too.

Change Rage. When you mess with something that has a fan base, the fans will beat the war drums.

Corporate Guanxi. This is Henrik Thiele’s word for Chinese networks of reciprocity (guanxi) between companies, not individuals. This is another example of Westerners romanticising guangxi networks, presumably because they’re considered somewhat mysterious. I continue to insist guangxi are just (a. soft version) ordinary business networks or (b. hard version) the old-fashioned notion of cronyism (in-group dealing). I’m not sure “corporate guanxi” really exists. There is no widespread use of boiler-plate legal contracts in China, unlike in the US, but that doesn’t mean there is a networking phenomenon at play, as Thiele insists. Indeed, as Margaret Jane Radin points out in the excellent Boilerplate (2012), US contractual practices are the outlier here. In China, it’s understood that contract enforcement isn’t so easy and so informal pressures dominate.

Diaosi. A Chinese term that literally means “dick string”. It refers to a group of poor, ugly nerds without girlfriends who, because of their talents, are becoming a social force (are making a social “counter-attack” or “nixi”, Revenge-Of-The-Nerds style). Once a pejorative label, it seems that some are calling themselves diaosi with pride. It’s an interesting sub-trend in China’s ongoing struggle to cope with lots of mateless males (and in some regions, mateless females).

Fatberg. It’s a giant mass of congealed fat found in sewers, such as the double-decker-bus-sized fatberg that was clogging the London sewer system. It’s interesting how scale triggers the labelling impulse. Will every colossus of bio-waste get a name?

Fauxductivity. Trivial busywork masquerading as accomplishment (from this).

Future-made. The rhetoric of “future-proofing” an organisation or product has run it’s course. It’s a blatant over-promise. Using the term can backfire because “future-proofing” can be misconstrued as something that’s resistant to change. So the term “future-made” is in vogue. It’s an extension of the futurist (futurologist) conceit I mentioned last month: extrapolating current technology trends into the future makes futurists feel like they live in the future and, therefore, already know what’s going to happen. There’s something quite delusional about this rhetorical thread.

Gentefication.Gentrification” is a process by which a poor neighbourhood becomes affluent, with all the commercial and civic amenities that brings, but at the cost of driving out the previous residents who gave the place character. In Los Angeles, the term “gentefication” is being used for a neighbourhood rejuvenation created by the people already living there. “Gente” (pronounced “hen-teh”) is Spanish for people, in contradistinction to “gentry”, which means people of a high social class. File under populist urbanism.

HiPPO. Most organisations make decisions by HiPPO, an acronym for “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”. It’s an aspect of “rankism” (which I discuss here).

Infauxgraphics. I like this term for amateurish scrolling collages of bubblehead figures, clipart, factoids, and chartoons that are used to grab attention on the Web (as opposed to carefully designed infographics with the combination of words and visuals used deftly to explain a complicated subject). The term “digital posters” suggested by Citraro & Reese is a good alternative because it makes the motivation clear (publicising). All I ask is that netizens don’t use the term “infographic” as a substitute for “advertisement”.

Life-centred Design. Design used to be “user-centred”. Then “human centred”. Now “life centred”. It seems to me that, with each step, design is getting quite a bit less “centred” (without actually getting to “holistic”)

LOVEINT. The suffix -INT is an abbreviation for “intelligence” (information from spying). As Gorman explains, SIGINT is from spying on communications (“signals”) and HUMINT from for spying on people (“humans”). LOVEINT is from spying on former or potential lovers. File under mischief in the surveillance state.

Memenomics. The commercial implications of faddish online spectacle or, put more favourably, the rapidly spreading idea. There’s a book about “memenomics” by Said Dawlabani coming out next month.

Mujin Hanbai. This is Japanese for “unmanned stores”, basically road-side kiosks that sell (aesthetically imperfect) vegetables based on the honour system (from this). It’s interesting that this is happening at the same time as a crime spree among hungry pensioners, a cohort that is now statistically more delinquent than idle youth. I notice that “Saga lout” is the term used to describe delinquent oldsters in Britain, as in “Saga” (tour operator specialising in older travellers) plus “lager lout” (drunken hooligan). I’m guessing the behaviour of the Japanese klepto-geezers and the British oi-oi-oldsters isn’t quite equivalent.

Parallel Construction. This is a law-enforcement euphemism for “recreating” evidence that’s admissible in a legal proceeding after acquiring inadmissible evidence from spying. Notice the terminology: “parallel” is the new “post hoc”; “evidence construction” is the new “evidence gathering”. According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, it’s a “bedrock concept” of law-enforcement. That’s strange given that the usual term for that shenanigan, “evidence laundering”, is a play on the euphemism “laundering” used to describe criminal activity. File under the normalisation of the surveillance state.

Pay Thickness. A lobby group has published a sympathetic glossary for the Albertan oil-industry. They’re trying to gain control of the language of oil extraction. So “tar sands” are now “oil sands”, for example, although you won’t find the former term in the glossary—it’s all neutral-sounding technical jargon. The practice of producing glossaries is interesting because, as advertisements, they’re pretty lame. Given how much people crib from authoritative looking documents on the Internet, however, technical glossaries can become very influential over time. Interestingly, some industry jargon does highlight motives in an indiscreet way, such as “pay thickness”, which refers to the size of the oil deposit but might also be construed as a double entendre (the size of the profit money-stack).

Reshoring. When a company moves jobs to a different country, it’s euphemistically called “off-shoring”. Moving jobs into the country is called “on-shoring”. Moving jobs back, which is mostly wishful thinking instead of a trend, is called “reshoring”. It’s interesting how a euphemism, once popularised, will frame the coinage of subsequent euphemisms because of a general lack of imagination among journos.

Sapiosexuality. Aroused by intelligence.

Touliang huanzhu. I’ve talked about tofu buildings in China before. One activity that makes these structures so wobbly is “robbing the beams to put in the pillars”. Another is substituting cheap materials for quality ones. As you might expect, the Chinese have a summary term for those shenanigans (from this).

Workforce Asset Management. First “personnel management” (1940s). Then “human resources management” (1970s). Then “human capital management” (1990s). Now “workforce asset management”. Is the move from “resources” to “asset” an upgrade or a downgrade? I make no secret of my contempt for terminology that describes people as if they’re inanimate objects.

Also see … the UK government’s ban on some jargon. People forget that Ernest Gowers’ original Plain Words (1948) was a UK civil service guide (the 1954 version remains a classic). Bring back Gowers!

Also, also see … “postconceptual hyperbolic word creation” inside one academic’s brain, with lots of “neuroknitting” (see footnotes). Another parody article written to embarrass po-mo journal editors?

HEAD SPACE

Educational Conformism. Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach (2013) is a critique of how American universities have become vocational training academies: “For education now is not for the individual. It is not geared to help him grow to his potential and let him find out what he truly loves and how he might pursue it. No. Education now is a function of society. … We are educated to fill roles, not to expand our minds and deepen our hearts. We are tooled to slide into a social machine and function smoothly with a little application from time to time of the right pleasing grease. Education now prepares us for a life of conformity and workplace tedium … But what we want is real learning—learning that will help us see the world anew and show us that there could be more to our lives than we had thought.” Professors shouldn’t aspire to “prestige chasing” and “knowledge creation”, Edmundson argues, but reclaim teaching as a way of “liberating” people’s minds. In sum, the book is about another academic having a Dead Poet’s Society moment, but updated for the current educational morass.

Academic Jargon. Speaking of the educational morass, Michael Billig’s How To Write Badly (2013) just came out. Billig on the lamentable state of convoluted academic discourse: “Today, I can see young post-graduates struggling to understand what they know they must read. Sometimes, I see their confidence draining away in the face of big words, as if they were failing the test that defines whether they are fit to think intellectually.” (p.3) Echoing Edmundson on “prestige chasing”, Billig says: “When we write, we are constantly boasting about our approaches, our concepts, our theories, our ways of doing social science and what these products can achieve. It is boast after boast, but we scarcely notice that we are writing like academic advertisers and that we are training our students to do likewise. And we boast of our big words which have become part of the product portfolios that we promote.” (p. 5) There are a lot of good points made in this book, particularly in the chapter about conceptualising people as things.

Biases & Heuristics. Every month a new book comes along about cognitive biases, blind spots, and mental traps. It’s been that way for six or seven years. All of these books either pick off a dozen or so biases to analyse or focus on just one. My Advanced Executive Judgement Cards (2010) are one attempt to catalogue a large number of them (48). I knew it was only a matter of time before someone else attempted a big cataloging exercise. Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly (2013) is a good collection that also includes fallacies, “follies”, manias, and other human foibles. I’ve also been reading David McRaney’s You Are Now Less Dumb (2013), which is a good place to start if you’re unfamiliar with this literature. McRaney’s discussion of our bias for narratives is particularly good, although Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everthing You Think (2006) has a chapter that adds some important points. Someday I’ll get around to mapping this literature.

Fulfilment & Ego-maintainance. I blogged about some good reads on the topics of eudiamonia (personal flourishing, fulfilment, etc) and why we fall for flattery.

SOCIAL SPACE

Loyalty. Eric Felten’s Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue (2011) is a great exploration of loyalty. We tend to be conflicted about loyalty. On the one hand, loyalty is an admirable quality. Society relies on those who commit themselves to each other (or to ideals) in a reliable way. And loyalty holds teams and friendships together when the going gets tough. On the other hand, we tend to think that overly loyal sycophants and dullards are contemptible. Docile, obedient hacks are the ones who are easily manipulated, sometimes to do unethical things, such as cover-up misdeeds. Thus, we’re conflicted about loyalty. And loyalty puts us in conflict because we often have competing obligations. Mediating between those obligations isn’t so easy. Indeed, given the emotional push and pull of loyalty, mediating loyalty conflicts isn’t even rational. So loyalty is a very complicated set of informal social bargains. It’s amazing that Felten is able to discuss all these complications in a fairly breezy read.

WORKPLACE

Awareness & Freedom. David Foster Wallace’s speech This Is Water (2005) has been turned into annotated video. For those rat-race moments.

Bureaucratic Hero. Merve Emre wrote an interesting piece about a new breed of bureaucratic hero in cinema and what that says about attitudes towards heroism: “Bureaucratic heroes are not cartoon heroes, heroes for children who do not yet understand that the social world places limits on their actions. Nor are they adolescent, “dark” heroes like Batman, alternately rebelling against and ingratiating himself to lame authority figures. Bureaucratic heroes are “ultrareal” heroes for working, law-abiding adults: beholden to, yet eager to please, the systems of governance in which they operate. The rules they follow are not universal rules of justice, morality, or even common sense. They are rules that only make sense—that are only justifiable—within a particular institutional context …” This is a reference to films such as Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Soderberg’s Contagion. Marina Hyde wonders if the worlds of superheroes and bureaucracy are converging more generally: “The American government now openly acts like a superhero. Historically, the thing about superheroes is that they’re secretive and extrajudicial—they are vigilantes, who know you can’t trust government, and they dispense swift justice outside the parameters of ordinary law enforcement. … But these days, even the government appears not to trust the mechanics of the state, given its reliance on extrajudicial solutions—so you have to think superheroes have ceded their natural territory to the very establishment whose failings were supposed to have made them a necessity.” (from this)

Executive E-mail Discipline. Brown et al.: “… executives underwent training to reduce their e-mail output by taking more-deliberate actions: not forwarding messages unless strictly necessary, limiting messages’ recipients, and choosing the form of communication that would most efficiently accomplish the task at hand. … Within three months the team’s total e-mail output dropped by 54%. The output of the 73 other London-based employees soon began decreasing too, even though those employees received no training or feedback. In fact, this drop was even greater—64%. The result was an annual gain of 10,400 man-hours, which translates to a 7% increase in productivity.” (source) There’s real money to be made correcting executive foibles that cause low-value busywork downstream.

Public Management Atlas. A new portal. Glitchy. Over-promising. But early days.

TRENDS

Raven Mothers for Prosperity. Demographics and economy shrinkage in Germany: “In its most recent census, Germany discovered it had lost 1.5 million inhabitants. By 2060, experts say, the country could shrink by an additional 19 percent, to about 66 million. Demographers say a similar future awaits other European countries … Germany, however, an island of prosperity, is spending heavily to find ways out of the doom-and-gloom predictions, and it would seem ideally placed to show the Continent the way. So far, though, even while spending $265 billion a year on family subsidies, Germany has proved only how hard it can be. That is in part because the solution lies in remaking values, customs and attitudes in a country that has a troubled history with accepting immigrants and where working women with children are still tagged with the label ‘raven mothers,’ implying neglectfulness.” (from this)

Police Militarisation. Bruce Schneier has a good review of Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop (2013), which is about the steadily growing use of military tactics, weaponry, and attitudes in US law enforcement.

Grant’s. The free summer issue of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer is out—always a good read. An occasional dose of monetary economics and finance-industry wonkery is good for you. This issue helps put into perspective the coming end of “quantitative easing” (the euphemism for when central banks print crazy amounts of money). I notice that countries holding lots of US$-denominated debt are getting very nervous. I also notice some US pundits are referring to the current era as The Age of Stagnation. James Grant add some interesting elaboration in his discussion of excess bank reserves and business slackery caused by zero-percent real interest-rates.

DESIGN

Colour. There’s a new ipad app version of Joseph Alber’s classic Interaction Of Colour (1963). Colour palettes are an aspect of my design practice that I’ve been trying to improve lately. Reviewing a bit of colour-theory 101 can’t hurt, especially when it comes in such a nice package.

Experience Mapping. Adaptive Path’s guide.

Pictorial Maps. I’m still reading through Mark Monmonier’s How To Lie With Maps (1996), a classic in cartographic information design that I just recently got around to buying. Gestalten has just published Antoniou et al., A Map Of The World (2013), which is about pictorial maps that have any pretence about accuracy. It contains some lovely looking designs, nonetheless.

FITNESS

Tracking. I have one of the higher-end Garmin GPS watches. Usage isn’t filling me with brand loyalty, especially with the erratic elevation readings (laps on a single route should look similar, non?). I’m looking at Tom Tom’s forthcoming entrance into the market with some interest.

MEDIA

Too Much Deference. An analysis of why the American press gets big stories wrong.

Omni Reboot. Omni, the pop-science and sci-fi magazine from the 1970s-80s, has been brought back to life. I’m mostly looking forward to the republication of retro-futuristic artwork.

QUOTATIONS

The Pace of Change. “Our culture has conditioned us to expect instant results and overnight success; this impatience runs so rampant that we dress it up in terms like ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’. But really what’s happening is we are conditioning ourselves to get what we want now, all the time. This mindset robs us of the lessons that waiting can teach us, causing us to miss out on the slow but important stuff of life. Most growth happens this way: slowly, over time. You don’t see it happening—in fact, sometimes the circumstances feel more like inconveniences than opportunities—but then one day you wake up, amazed at how far you’ve come.” — Jeff Goins (from The In-Between, 2013, p. 21)

Data Cred. “The wonderful thing about being a data scientist is that I get all of the credibility of genuine science, with none of the irritating peer review or reproducibility worries. … The clustering [of my data points] was produced by me squinting at all the lines, coloring in some areas that seemed more connected in a paint program, and picking silly names for the areas. I thought I was publishing an entertaining view of some data I’d extracted, but it was treated like a scientific study.” — Pete Warden (from this commentary)

Gaming The Numbers As Official Goal. “Unfortunately, instead of taking on the issue of stopping the misconduct, [US Government Accountability Office's] focus was on how [the Transporation Safety Administration (TSA)] “could strengthen oversight of allegations of employee misconduct,” the safe issues of process oversight, management of the accusations and data gathering versus digging into the controversial root causes of the actual misconduct.” — Kip Howley (the guy who used to run the TSA, from this lament about thieving “security” personnel; can someone remind me what I was saying about “rateocracy” last month?)

Because. “When futurologists say ‘because’, be very cautious. When historians say ‘because’, be even more cautious.” — Costas Papaikonomou (from Twitter)

Scientism. “The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that ‘science is all that matters’ or that ‘scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.’ Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like ‘simplistic,’ ‘naive,’ and ‘vulgar.’ … [Scientism] is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science.” — Steven Pinker (from this commentary)

Cynic’s Fatigue. “I’m tired of my own bullshit. What chance does your bullshit have?” — Alex Baze (from Twitter)

There Is No Word. I really like this poem by Tony Hoagland, probably because it’s about words.

FORTHCOMING

Signal Detection. Stephen Few is writing a book on visual data analysis for the Big Data age. There are a lot of books about visual approaches to “exploratory data analysis”, as statisticians call it. And critiques of software that “automagically” find patterns in the noise are also widely available (such as Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness, 2005). Few’s book will probably be more accessible and constructive than most, I expect.

The Self. Review copies of Jennifer Ouellette’s Me, Myself, and Why (2014) are circulating among a select few. It seems to be a pop-roundup of the science of human identity. Out in January.

Focus. Daniel Goleman, populariser of the “emotional intelligence” concept, has a new book in the pipeline about the psychology of achieving focus in a world full of distractions. Focus (2013) is out in October.