What\’s in a Name? (Or a Nmae?)

Ego surfing: Every net user does it, either occasionally or obsessively. For me, it’s a routine daily task that I handle automatically through a collection of search feeds (that’s an OPML file) which clue me in to new online postings or conversations where my name or my projects have popped up.

My ego-surfing search feeds recently delivered a couple of gems which display some intriguing intricacies of name-based ego surfing…

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What is This Web 2.0 Thing, Anyway?

I must admit, I assumed “Web 2.0” was merely hype right from the first time I heard the term. To me, it recalled the lingo of the heady, breathless late 1990s dot-com boom.

Now that I’ve learned more about Web 2.0 I think that, as an umbrella concept, it is indeed mostly hype. That is, this term seems to be tossed around mainly in order to promote or sell conferences, books, and consulting services; or to suffuse a person, group, or organization with a vague air of techno-coolness.

Of course, not all hype is useless, or baseless. I actually believe there is considerable value in the Web 2.0 concept. However, what makes it so valuable is not at all new, but rather as old as the human mind itself…

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Verbal Abuse: \”Impacted?\” Ugh….

This morning I’m relaxing with my friend and colleague Catherine Dold before we both go down to see what’s happening at the National Association of Science writers conference in Pittsburgh. In the dead-tree version of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Catherine stumbled across a column on page 1 of the business section which had us both cheeing and groaning.

The column by business counselor and writer Andrea Kay, “Workers Need the Write Stuff to Succeed,” bemoans the deterioration of writing skills in the business world. Since I provide writing coaching, and Catherine and I both edit lots of poorly written business content, we were both cheering this message, especially since it was being delivered so prominently.

…And then, the fumble.

In the version of this article published in the Tribune-Review (which doesn’t appear to be online as of this writing), Kay includes this quote from Beth Zimmerman founder of the business consulting firm Cerebellas: “The intense reliance on e-mail to conduct business has negatively impacted writing ability.”

At this, Catherine dropped her coffee and ran screaming into the bathroom. Her fine grammatical sensibilities, honed by the efforts of her mother (Peggy Dold of Venice, FL, proud winner of the 8th-grade English medal) were grievously assaulted by witnessing the brutal torture of innocent verbs.

So what’s wrong with that sentence?

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Feed Me a Metaphor!

Many people are still struggling with the concept of feeds (RSS, Atom, whatever). I don’t blame them. Feeds are not exactly intuitive to your average person (even your average net user). The profusion of bad jargon, cryptic icons, geek elitism, and klunky tools for feeds haven’t exactly helped, either.

In my experience, once people grasp the concept of what feeds do, it’s then easier for them to understand how feeds work – which then helps them actually start to use feeds.

This is why explaining why feeds matter was the core of the talk I gave yesterday to a public relations group. I’d been asked to speak on the future of technology – and it seems to me that if people can grasp the feed concept and start using feeds, then most of the communication technologies that are likely to become crucial over the next several years will make much more sense.

Over at The Intuitive Life Business Blog, my friend Dave Taylor is struggling with a similar issue. I just read his Oct. 18 posting, “What we needs is a great metaphor for RSS,” and commented on it.

I agree with Dave, we do need a great metaphor for this linchpin technology/channel/medium. I’d love to hear what Contentious readers have to say about this issue – especially since so many of you have managed to “get” the feed concept that the e-mail alert service for this weblog is now on hiatus.

Here’s what I said in my comment to Dave’s post…

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Word Geekery Grab Bag

I remain an incorrigible word geek. Here are some items related to this theme that have caught my interest lately…

TOP OF THIS LIST: Stupid Attractors. The attractor is key concept of the mathematics of systems. Hidden Dimension Galleries describes three types of attractors:

  • A finite attractor is the solution to a system of equations which converges to a single point.
  • If the solution converges to a periodic orbit, it is a periodic attractor
  • If the solution is a fully determined, fractal curve with no recursion, it is a strange attractor (a cornerstone of chaos theory).

I posit a fourth type of attractor: The stupid attractor. Rather than create a meaningful pattern, here the “solutions” that converge are random bits of cosmic jetsam and annoying dunces. Examples of stupid attractors include shopping malls just before Christmas, or the IMAX theater just outside of the Grand Canyon.

However, in the grand design of the universe, stupid attractors serve the greater purpose of consolidating idiots in clearly identified clumps that can be avoided.

Read the rest of this list…

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WordGeek Grab Bag, Dec. 6

Being an incorrigible word geek, I can’t help but share these items…

TOP OF THIS LIST: My new hero is Steven Pinker, a linguist and psychologist (or “cognitive scientist”) from Harvard. About a month ago I picked up his 1994 book The Language Instinct: How the mind creates language just as I was sorting through a thorny style guide revision for a client. I began to see language, and the role of grammar, in an entirely new way. What timing! Pinker’s work helped me puzzle through some tough stylistic issues, which I’ll be writing about later.

All editors should read Pinker’s work! The to-read book pile next to my bed currently features his titles The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, and Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. In Spring 2005 he’s teaching a course called The Human Mind.

His work is a bit controversial, but controversy is good – it forces you to think for yourself. I like how he thinks so much that I even forgive his occasional lapses into pedantic tongues.

Read the rest of this list…

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Loaded Words and Tortured Definitions

Can actions really speak louder than words, when speech is the realm of words?

The words we choose to describe actions play a key role in shaping perspectives, opinions, and responses. When it comes to the great evils of this world – torture, genocide, war, and so on – it seems to me that muted words often are selected to publicly describe and discuss what happened – and what should be done in response.

This is not always a deliberate propaganda tactic. Indeed, some words, like “torture,” are inherently loaded. Avoiding loaded language often reflects an effort to avoid sensationalizing an issue before the facts are in. However, in some cases muted word choices may reflect an attempt to avoid running disastrously afoul of public opinion or even international law.

Case in point: Abu Ghraib…
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Putting Theory in Context

What does the word “theory” imply to you? That answer might vary depending on your familiarity with science. In other words, when you hear someone try to dismiss or denigrate an aspect of science by saying “it’s just a theory,” keep in mind that in the language of science a “theory” is actually a pretty solid proposition.

I was spurred to this line of thought by newly published book from the National Science Teachers Association, Evolution in Perspective, by Rodger Bybee. The book’s premise is that, “only those students whose schools teach them about the nature of science will truly understand evolution.”

Evolution is still derided by some critics as a “mere theory,” usually in order to have this subject presented in an uncertain fashion (or not at all) in classrooms. However, this is a classic case where a choice of word can seriously undermine an argument.

If you’re discussing a scientific theory, then the scientific definition of the word “theory” probably should take precedence over more common usages of the term. Here’s how one science dictionary defines theory:
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Voice Recognition Bloopers: Verbal Art for the New Millennium?

When does “ergonomics” become “urban comics?” When you let voice recognition software loose on your vocabulary. Voice recognition is either a godsend or a hassle, depending on whom you ask. It can also be a joke. I’ve encounted many interesting tales lately of odd transcriptions authored by various VR packages.

In my opinion, the VR blooper is becoming an art form in its own right. Someone, somewhere ought to run a contest for the best VR blooper. (If such a contest exists already, please let me know about it.)

Susan Fulton’s Computing Out Loud site offers an entertaining VR Goofs page. The examples here demonstrate not just the intriguing and amusing ways that VR packages mistranslate words, but also how they interpret stray sounds. For instance…
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