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Words are Important: 800-pound Gorilla

Words are Important

The business world seems to generate more jargon and buzzwords than goods and services these days. Words are being misused and abused. This is a disaster because words are important. When words can be made to mean anything, they mean nothing. Without precise meaning, we can’t form rational thought and the world is lost. So, in the interest of saving the world, I humbly present my fifth installment of this series on words:

800-pound Gorilla

What it means

This is a metaphor for any person with enough clout to ignore all rules, restrictions and conventions.

Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?
Wherever it wants.

How it’s used

Recently, the 800-pound gorilla metaphor has been blended with “the elephant in the room” to become “the 800-pound gorilla in the room”. The elephant in the room is the big obvious problem that everyone is ignoring. Perhaps it’s being ignored because it’s a difficult problem to solve, or it would be politically indelicate to address, or would require a radical change in approach to deal with it. In those cases it’s often more convenient for people to simply look the other way and pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

My father had big, loud, hacking coughs from smoking for years right up until the day he died from lung cancer. Nobody ever really talked about that in my house.

The implication of cross-breeding the elephant with the 800-lb gorilla is that there nothing that can be done about powerful people or entities that throw their weight around. They are inevitable, and so it’s probably easier to try to get on with life as if they don’t exist. I blame this usage mostly on the moronic advertising team for AXA Equitable.

Why it’s important

We should be able to distinguish between large problems caused by opportunistic bullies and large problems that are merely uncomfortable or difficult to deal with. For example, in dealing with the Gulf oil spill, BP’s proposed solutions seem to be focused on maintaining the viability of the well rather than on quickly stopping the flow of oil. Though they possess enormous wealth, they certainly seem to be taking their sweet time, pursuing fixes in serial, rather than in parallel, always trying the least costly and drastic first instead of moving immediately to the most promising methods. We’re all on their timetable.

How does an 800-pound gorilla clean up an oil spil?
However it wants.

Why is President Obama taking so long to figure out “whose ass to kick”? That, my friends, is the elephant in the room.

Image by Raul654

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Words are Important: Technically

Words are Important

The business world seems to generate more jargon and buzzwords than goods and services these days. Words are being misused and abused. This is a disaster because words are important. When words can be made to mean anything, they mean nothing. Without precise meaning, we can’t form rational thought and the world is lost. So, in the interest of saving the world, I humbly present my fourth installment of this series on words:

Technically

What it means

Having practical knowledge of a specialized field, usually something scientific or mechanical.

“Having been an auto mechanic for thirty years, Charlie is technically skilled. He can fix any car you bring into his shop.”

How it’s used

Somehow, the word “technically” has gotten sort of mashed up with the meaning of the word “technicality”. A technicality is something like “a distinction that only means something important to an expert”. But it goes further than that. “Technically” has somehow morphed into meaning “a kind of a thing, that really isn’t that kind of a thing because most people mistake it for another kind of a thing, and the popular opinion is the one that really matters.”

“A tomato is technically a fruit.”

Why it’s important

The implication here is that if enough people make a dumb mistake, it ceases to become a mistake, and instead becomes a fact. Enough people think that tomatoes are vegetables so they somehow enter a state where they really are vegetables even if they technically are fruit.

You eat tomatoes in a salad, and salads have vegetables, so tomatoes must be vegetables. Everyone knows that.

Of course, tomatoes that aren’t the only “vegetables” that are really fruits. Cucumbers, zucchini, squash, pumpkins … all fruits. If it has seeds, it’s a fruit. By definition.

This use of “technically” always shows a defect in thinking. Sometimes it’s used as an apology for being correct (“Sorry, but technically they speak Portugese in Brazil, not Spanish.”). I do not know why learned people feel obligated to make these concessions to the ignorant. Other times it’s a poor attempt to undermine a perfectly reasonable argument (“Well, maybe technically it’s on your side of the property line, but you can’t build a fence on my lawn.”). But no matter how many people really, really want it to be otherwise, you can’t collectively wish something into being a fact (although you might technically be suffering from some kind of mass delusion).

Image by Yvwv

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Words are Important: Outside the Box

Words are Important

The business world seems to generate more jargon and buzzwords than goods and services these days. Words are being misused and abused. This is a disaster because words are important. When words can be made to mean anything, they mean nothing. Without precise meaning, we can’t form rational thought and the world is lost. So, in the interest of saving the world, I humbly present my third installment of this series on words:

Outside the Box

What it means

The phrase comes from the so-called “Nine Dots” puzzle (pictured above). The challenge of the puzzle is to connect all nine dots using only four straight lines without lifting the pencil from the puzzle. The puzzle can only be solved by drawing lines outside of the bounds of the “box” defined by the nine dots.
Outside the Box
In order to solve the puzzle, it is necessary to think “outside the box.”

How it’s used

This puzzle was used as a metaphor by management consultants since the 1970′s, reaching it’s heyday in the early 1990′s. Though the “Nine Dots” puzzle is rarely heard about anymore, the phrase “outside the box” remains a vague synonym for “problem solving.” The implication is that our creativity is “boxed-in” by conventional thinking.

Why it’s important

The reason why the “Nine Dots” puzzle was so effective, and why the phrase caught on as widely as it did, was because it functioned at two levels. The first level was the frustration people felt at trying to solve the puzzle, and the catharsis after seeing that the simple answer was right in front of them the whole time. “Why didn’t I see it?” they would ask themselves. The second level was that it served as a powerful visual metaphor. Our minds were boxed-in by our own preconceptions. There is no box around the dots, but our brain drew one for us anyway, and we were confined by it. It was a powerful Zen-like answer, “I didn’t see it because I didn’t let myself see it.”

Knowing that you have to think outside the box is a very different thing than being able to think outside the box. Our education system is set up to eschew the notion of questioning anything — the class materials, the teacher, the principal, the whole system. While certainly knowledge begins by learning the known problems and the known solutions, mastery comes when you gain the ability to unlearn what you know and solve new problems in new ways. But our school lives lead directly into our work lives. The institutions operate under the same credo — keep your head down and your mouth shut and do what you are told. So, if management was saying “think outside the box,” they were doing something very different. Nobody ever got promoted for throwing company policy out the window or telling the boss that his idea wasn’t going to work.

The promise of thinking “outside the box” was only so much talk. Schools didn’t prepare people to think that way, and companies were compounding the issue in their yearly employee reviews. Commonly, the phrase was shortened to “out of the box”, which to me rather connotes something more like “off the shelf” — the opposite of the intended meaning. Inevitably, the call to think “outside the box” became a mere platitude until finally the phrase became a cliché and collapsed under the weight of its own irony.

It’s a shame because the world is getting weirder and weirder, and we need unconventional thinkers now more than ever. But, our educational system is in shambles, and our corporations keep breeding cultures where conventionality is a merit. The situation seems dire and intractable. How can we fix it?

I guess we’re going to have to think outs… nah, I can’t say it.

Images by me

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Words are Important: Transparency

Words are Important

The business world seems to generate more jargon and buzzwords than goods and services these days. Words are being misused and abused. This is a disaster because words are important. When words can be made to mean anything, they mean nothing. Without precise meaning, we can’t form rational thought and the world is lost. So, in the interest of saving the world, I humbly present my second installment of this series on words:

Transparency

What it means

The transparency of an object refers to how well light passes through it without being refracted or otherwise disturbed. The more transparent an object is, the more light passes through, and thus the better you can see objects behind it. Thus, a perfectly transparent object would be invisible.

How it’s used

Transparency is now commonly used to mean a forthright accountability to the public by making your own business practices visible.

Why it’s important

This new use of transparency is the exact opposite of the true meaning of the word!

Even Merriam-Webster has is all screwed up. One of the definitions is “easily-detected or seen through.” Folks, these are two mutually exclusive states. If I was trying to avoid being detected, I would prefer to be seen through (Note: all true Star Trek nerds know this is the principle behind the Romulan cloaking device).

With a quarter-million gallons of crude oil being vomited into the Gulf of Mexico per day, people have been screaming for BP to be more transparent. “Show us the underwater video! Tell us what you’re doing! Tell us what you intend to pay for! Transparency! We need transparency!”

To that, I say they have been perfectly transparent. I haven’t seen them do a damn thing.

Image by Bpw

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Words are Important: Straw man

Words are Important

The business world seems to generate more jargon and buzzwords than goods and services these days. Words are being misused and abused. This is a disaster because words are important. When words can be made to mean anything, they mean nothing. Without precise meaning, we can’t form rational thought and the world is lost. So, in the interest of saving the world, I humbly present the first installment of this series on words:

Straw Man

What it means

A “straw man” is a kind of argument where you don’t attack your opponent’s position. Rather, you construct a flimsy, superficially-similar position to your opponent’s and then attack that. In other words, you don’t fight a real man, you fight a man made of straw. Obviously, this is not a valid kind of argument, and so is called a logical fallacy.

How it’s used

The phrase “straw man” is increasingly being used to mean something like “first draft that you intend to pick apart”. The only bit brought over from the real meaning of the phrase is “flimsiness.” Even more hideous, the phrase is sometimes used as a verb, meaning “to create a flimsy first draft” (e.g., “Let’s setup a meeting and straw man the new sales pitch”). Even writing that as an example of what not to do makes me want to throw up a little.

Why it’s important

First, we have a perfectly good English word that means “draft”. It’s the word “draft”. Second, by diluting the meaning of “straw man” we are less likely to recognize these bad arguments camouflaged in our public discourse. The reason why straw man arguments are so nasty is that they sort of seem to hold water.

For example, during the public debate over the recent health care reform legislation, Sarah Palin famously posted on Facebook that the law would institute “death panels” that would sit in judgement of a patient’s worthiness to society, and force Medicare to euthanize those the panel saw to be unfit. Surely, nobody wants death panels, or wants to encourage suicide as a cost-saving measure. The only problem is that the law in question didn’t include any provision like this whatsoever. What the law actually said was that if a terminally-ill patient wants end-of-life counseling services, then Medicare has to pay for it. Patients aren’t mandated to get the counseling and doctors are not obligated to offer it.

So, Palin deliberately misrepresented the content of the health care bill to build opposition to it. This was not just a lie. It was a special kind of lie – a straw man argument.

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