Naming Things

By reading this page you’re taking away some of its information content. I find in the following concepts interesting patterns that are not yet generally known.

Naming things is a creative process. In the process of defining the rules of what is and what isn’t, by choosing the sign to evoke and invoke them, something new is created — a new line that can be traced, that might get its own name some day.

Consider, for instance, such words as “backlog,” “burnout,” “micromanaging,” and “underachiever,” all of which are commonplace in today’s America. I chose these particular words because I suspect that what they designate can be found not only here and now, but as well in distant cultures and epochs, quite in contrast to such culturally and temporally bound terms as “soap opera,” “mini-series,” “couch potato,” “news anchor,” “hit-and-run driver,” and so forth, which owe their existence to recent technological developments. So consider the first set of words. We Americans living at the millennium’s cusp perceive backlogs of all sorts permeating our lives — but we do so because the word is there, warmly inviting us to see them. But back in, say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s day, were there backlogs — or more precisely, were backlogs perceived? For that matter, did Bach ever experience burnout? Well, most likely he did — but did he know that he did? Or did some of his Latin pupils strike him as being underachievers? Could he see this quality without being given the label? Or, moving further afield, do Australian aborigines resent it when their relatives micromanage their lives? Of course, I could have chosen hundreds of other terms that have arisen only recently in our century, yet that designate aspects of life that were always around to be perceived but, for one reason or another, aroused little interest, and hence were neglected or overlooked.

Analogy as the Core of Cognition [PDF] by Douglas Hofstadter

Stigmergy is a “mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an individual action stimulates the performance of a succeeding action (possibly by the same agent, but in many scenarios by a different agent)”. And so “it is the product of work itself that provides both the stimulus and instructions for further work”.

The map is not the territory, but the map becomes a territory. The signified becomes a referent. The compressed delineates a range.

Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”, or “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes”.

Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”.

The Cobra Effect occurs when incentives designed to solve a problem end up rewarding people for making it worse: “Any Government could have told her that the best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India, is to pay a bounty on their scalps. Then every patriot goes to raising them”.

The Baldwin effect “describes the effect of learned behavior on evolution. An organism’s ability to learn new behaviors (e.g. to acclimatise to a new stressor) will affect its reproductive success and will therefore have an effect on the genetic makeup of its species through natural selection”.

Amara’s law: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”.

Umeshisms: If you never fail, you’re doing something wrong.

The Red Queen Hypothesis is “an evolutionary hypothesis which proposes that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate in order to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in a constantly changing environment, as well as to gain reproductive advantage”.

Exaptation and the related term co-option “describe a shift in the function of a trait during evolution. For example, a trait can evolve because it served one particular function, but subsequently it may come to serve another. Exaptations are common in both anatomy and behaviour. Bird feathers are a classic example: initially they may have evolved for temperature regulation, but later were adapted for flight. Note here that when feathers were initially used to aid in flight they were doing so exaptively; however, since they have since been shaped by natural selection to improve flight, in their current state they are now best regarded as adaptations for flight. So it is with many structures that initially took on a function as exaptations, once molded for that new function they become adapted for that function”.

A Spandrel is a “phenotypic trait that is a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection”.

An Atavism is a “modification of a biological structure whereby an ancestral genetic trait reappears after having been lost through evolutionary change in previous generations. Atavisms can occur in several ways; one of which is when genes for previously existing phenotypic features are preserved in DNA, and these become expressed through a mutation that either knocks out the overriding genes for the new traits or makes the old traits override the new one”.

Vestigiality is “the retention during the process of evolution of genetically determined structures or attributes that have lost some or all of the ancestral function in a given species. Assessment of the vestigiality must generally rely on comparison with homologous features in related species. The emergence of vestigiality occurs by normal evolutionary processes, typically by loss of function of a feature that is no longer subject to positive selection pressures when it loses its value in a changing environment. The feature may be selected against more urgently when its function becomes definitively harmful, but if the lack of the feature provides no advantage, and its presence provides no disadvantage, the feature may not be phased out by natural selection and persist across species”. Examples of vestigial structures (also called degenerate, atrophied, or rudimentary organs) are the loss of functional wings in island-dwelling birds; the human appendix; and the hindlimbs of the snake and whale.

Pleiotropy is one of nature’s way of making an analogy. It affects all our systems and abstractions. It’s an agent of both rapid change and lockstep stasis It “occurs when one gene influences two or more seemingly unrelated phenotypic traits. Such a gene that exhibits multiple phenotypic expression is called a pleiotropic gene. Mutation in a pleiotropic gene may have an effect on several traits simultaneously, due to the gene coding for a product used by a myriad of cells or different targets that have the same signaling function.”

“Pleiotropy can arise from several distinct but potentially overlapping mechanisms, such as gene pleiotropy, developmental pleiotropy, and selectional pleiotropy. Gene pleiotropy occurs when a gene product interacts with multiple other proteins or catalyzes multiple reactions. Developmental pleiotropy occurs when mutations have multiple effects on the resulting phenotype. Selectional pleiotropy occurs when the resulting phenotype has many effects on fitness (depending on factors such as age and gender)”.

Convergent evolution is “the independent evolution of similar features in species of different periods or epochs in time. Convergent evolution creates analogous structures that have similar form or function but were not present in the last common ancestor of those groups”. One example is flight, which was developed independently by pterosaurs, insects, birds, and bats. Another is carcinisation. Wikipedia has a long list of examples.

The euphemism treadmill: Over time, euphemisms themselves become derogatory.

A cant, or an argot, is the jargon or language of a group, often employed to exclude or mislead outsiders. A shibboleth is “any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another. Shibboleths have been used throughout history in many societies as passwords, simple ways of self-identification, signaling loyalty and affinity, maintaining traditional segregation, or protecting from real or perceived threats”.

An antimeme is a meme that, by its meaning, prevents its own self-replication. Jews don’t proselytize; converts are turned away three times. The literature on trading algorithms does not include winning strategies. If the path to peaceful life is to steer clear of influencing others, you won’t hear about it.

Chesterton’s fence is “the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood”.

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

— The Thing by G. K. Chesterton

Tupper’s self-referential formula is a formula that visually represents itself when graphed:

Tupper’s Self-Referential Formula

Liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes”.

Phase transitions in humans and societies: “Usage of the term has broadened to describe political and cultural change as well as rites. During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established”.

Chapel Perilous is “an occult term referring to a psychological state in which an individual cannot be certain if they have been aided or hindered by some force outside the realm of the natural world, or if what appeared to be supernatural interference was a product of their own imagination”.

“Chapel Perilous is a stage in the magickal quest in which your maps turn out to be totally inadequate for the territory, and you’re completely lost. And at that point you get an ally who helps you find your way back to something you can understand. And then after that for the rest of your life you’ve got this question: Was that ally a supernatural helper, or was it just part of my own mind trying to save me from going totally bonkers with this stuff” (source).

The Lindy effect is “a theory that the future life expectancy of some non-perishable things like a technology or an idea is proportional to their current age, so that every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy. Where the Lindy effect applies, mortality rate decreases with time”. The longer a process lasts, the more likely it is to last longer.

In a cellular automaton, a Garden of Eden is “a configuration that has no predecessor. It can be the initial configuration of the automaton but cannot arise in any other way”.

Diegesis tells stories from within the interior of their lived experience. Diegetic music is assumed to be heard by the characters themselves. The intradiegetic level is where the characters live, think, act, and experience. The all-knowing narrator commenting on their lives is extradiegetic, and any diegesis in their own stories is metadiegetic.

A Veblen good is “a type of luxury good for which the demand for a good increases as the price increases. A higher price may make a product desirable as a status symbol in the practices of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. A product may be a Veblen good because it is a positional good, something few others can own”.

The Surprisingly Popular answer is “a wisdom of the crowd technique that taps into the expert minority opinion within a crowd. For a given question, a group is asked both ‘What do you think the right answer is?’ and ‘What do you think the popular answer will be?’ The answer that maximizes the average difference between the ‘right’ answer and the ‘popular’ answer is the ‘surprisingly popular’ answer”.

When treatment does more harm than good: Iatrogenesis is “the causation of a disease, a harmful complication, or other ill effect by any medical activity, including diagnosis, intervention, error, or negligence”.

An Ablation Study aims to understand a system and its critical components by removing its parts one-by-one.

Clever Hans was “a horse that was claimed to have performed arithmetic and other intellectual tasks. After a formal investigation in 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reactions of his trainer. He discovered this artifact in the research methodology, wherein the horse was responding directly to involuntary cues in the body language of the human trainer, who had the faculties to solve each problem. The trainer was entirely unaware that he was providing such cues”. In a way, this indicates much higher intelligence from Hans.

a Conflict-Free Replicated Data Type (CRDT) is “a data structure which can be replicated across multiple computers in a network, where the replicas can be updated independently and concurrently without coordination between the replicas, and where it is always mathematically possible to resolve inconsistencies which might result”.

Brandolini’s law, also known as the bullshit asymmetry principle: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it”.

if the text of each phrase requires a paragraph (to disprove), each paragraph - a section, each section - a chapter, and each chapter - a book, the whole text becomes effectively irrefutable and, therefore, acquires features of truthfulness. I define such truthfulness as transcendental.

The Gish Gallop is “a technique used during debating that focuses on overwhelming an opponent with as many arguments as possible, without regard for accuracy or strength of the arguments”. And so

The Firehose of Falsehood is “a propaganda technique in which a large number of messages are broadcast rapidly, repetitively, and continuously over multiple channels without regard for truth or consistency”.

Proxemics is “the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication, and social interaction. Proxemics is one among several subcategories in the study of nonverbal communication, including haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time)”.

Chirality is an asymmetry where an object is not identical to its mirror image. More specifically: there is no way using only rotations and translations to map it to its mirror image. A metachirality is a stronger form of chirality in which the symmetry group of the mirror image differs from the symmetry group of the original.

Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den (Chinese: 施氏食獅史; pinyin: Shī-shì shí shī shǐ) is “a short narrative poem written in Classical Chinese that is composed of about 94 characters (depending on the specific version) in which every word is pronounced shi when read in present-day Standard Mandarin, with only the tones differing”.

Mushroom Management: “Put them in the dark, feed them shit, (and watch them grow)”. Seagull Management: “fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, then fly out”.

Conway’s law: “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure”. Put another way: “The structure of any system designed by an organization is isomorphic to the structure of the organization”.

Looking into the VAX, West had imagined he saw a diagram of DEC’s corporate organization. He felt that VAX was too complicated. He did not like, for instance, the system by which various parts of the machine communicated with each other; for his taste, there was too much protocol involved. He decided that VAX embodied flaws in DEC’s corporate organization. The machine expressed that phenomenally successful company’s cautious, bureaucratic style. Was this true? West said it didn’t matter, it was a useful theory. Then he rephrased his opinions. “With VAX, DEC was trying to minimize the risk”

The Soul of a New Machine By Tracy Kidder

Unique, I think, is the Scottish tartle, that hesitation
when introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten.

And what could capture cafuné, the Brazilian Portuguese way to say
running your fingers, tenderly, through someone’s hair?

Is there a term in any tongue for choosing to be happy?

And where is speech for the block of ice we pack in the sawdust of our hearts?

What appellation approaches the smell of apricots thickening the air
when you boil jam in early summer?

What words reach the way I touched you last night—
as though I had never known a woman—an explorer,
wholly curious to discover each particular
fold and hollow, without guide,
not even the mirror of my own body.

Last night you told me you liked my eyebrows.
You said you never really noticed them before.
What is the word that fuses this freshness
with the pity of having missed it?

And how even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us,
even in this small country of our bed,
even in this language with only two native speakers.

— The Small Country by Ellen Bass