Naming Things

I find in the following concepts interesting patterns that are not yet generally known. If any of these ideas are worth anything, in time they will become obvious and implicit, hardly worth pointing out. The act of reading this page diminishes its value.

Naming things not only anoints an up-to-now undistinguished feeling of commonality and generality. By specifying the sign and demarcating what is and isn’t, we offer new lines of representation to be traced and explored. Lines that, if proved fruitful, might get their own names in time.

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

How can we talk about and name impossible things. Utopia and Uchronia are nowhere and never. Unobtainium cannot be materialized. It is noteworthy that in the intuitionistic fight against the nonconstructive and the infinite, the law of excluded middle has to be dropped. The opposite can be a figment, impossible to incarnate, but in the world of signs and symbols it’s never unthinkable, always within reach of a negation.

Stigmergy is a form of indirect coordination between agents through their environment, without any central planning or control. The environment serves as the memory state; its condition instructs, stimulates, or inhibits further work, leading to better fitness for the individuals either directly or by emergent population behavior.

I have deliberately used the word “marvel” to shock the reader out of the complacency with which we often take the working of this mechanism for granted. I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind. Its misfortune is the double one that it is not the product of human design and that the people guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do. But those who clamor for “conscious direction”—and who cannot believe that anything which has evolved without design (and even without our understanding it) should solve problems which we should not be able to solve consciously—should remember this: The problem is precisely how to extend the span of out utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind; and therefore, how to dispense with the need of conscious control, and how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.

The Use of Knowledge in Society by Friedrich Hayek

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: a component should not be changed until its reason for existence and its effect on the system and its dynamics as a whole are 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

A high-concept is an idea that can be presented succinctly. In contrast, a low-concept is valuable due to its intricacies and subtleties and cannot be easily compressed without loss of meaning.

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).

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.

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”.

Braess’s paradox: Adding a new connection to a network can slow down overall traffic flow. Reminiscent of Brooke’s Law: “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. We can try to intuitively explain the general case as:

(1) A classical tragedy of a self-interest equilibrium at odds with the cooperative global optimum.

(2) A subset of the Jevons paradox: Improving a bottleneck in a growing system only works to increase the demand. (See also Lewis-Mogridge position, Marchetti’s constant).

(3) How Complex Systems Fail: In a complex dynamical system with feedback loops, any change which seems to have beneficial first-order effects to the structure of the network might result in unintended and unforeseen second-order effects on its dynamics.

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.

Tendril Perversion is “a geometric phenomenon found in helical structures such as plant tendrils, in which a helical structure forms that is divided into two sections of opposite chirality, with a transition between the two in the middle. A similar phenomenon can often be observed in kinked helical cables such as telephone handset cords”.

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”. Wikipedia has a list of linguistic example sentences.

Arrow’s impossibility theorem describes how, when voters are given more than two options, no ranked voting system can avoid tactical voting and accurately reflect the preferences of all voters.

The fundamental theorem of software engineering: any problem can be solved by introducing an extra level of indirection. Except for the problem of too many levels of indirection, often resulting in abstraction inversion.

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

Mental Models Fodder

While worth mentioning, these concepts are subjectively less interesting, or have already diffused into the zeitgeist and regurgitated ad nauseam:

Barnum effect is “a common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them, yet which are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people”

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 Overton window is “the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. The window frames the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office given the climate of public opinion at that time”.

Simpson’s Paradox is a statistical phenomenon in which “a trend appears in several different groups of data but disappears or reverses when these groups are combined”.

The Tragedy of the Commons “describes a situation in economic science when individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action”.

Amdahl’s law is “a formula which gives the theoretical speedup in latency of the execution of a task at fixed workload that can be expected of a system whose resources are improved”.

The Lindy effect: The future life expectancy of some things, such as ideas or technologies, is proportional to their current age. The longer a process sticks around, the more likely it is to last longer. The more things stay the same, the more things stay the same.

An illegal prime, or more generally an illegal number, “represents information which is illegal to possess, utter, propagate, or otherwise transmit in some legal jurisdiction”.

Sturgeon’s law: “ninety percent of everything is crap”. Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.

Betteridge’s law of headlines: Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with no. And the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

A garden-path sentence is most-likely to be read incorrectly the first time around, as common assumptions lure the reader into incorrect parsing they must backtrack from. For example: “The complex houses married and single soldiers”.

The bouba / kiki effect is a form of synesthesia (or ideasthesia), an abstract analogy between modalities, where sounds are associated with certain shape qualities.

A micromort is a unit measurement of risk defined as a one in a million chance of death.

Hapax legomenon are words or phrases that only appear once within a corpus.

Serendipity is an unplanned and fortunate discovery. The Baader–Meinhof phenomenon is when you learn something and suddenly start seeing it everywhere. Synchronicity is to believe there is meaning to these coincidences.