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Let Me Unclarify That

February, 2013
By Michael Pixley

Or dark nights, free gifts...

As a graduate student at the University of Washington in the early 1970s, I thought it high time to see if I could get a scholarly article published in a respectable journal in my field.  I found an appealing subject and learned that the research resources were available at our campus library.  For the next month, I toiled away.  When completed, I looked on the results with intense pleasure.  Not only were there scores of footnotes (loc. cit., op. cit., ibid, ad nauseum) but the text was absolutely infested with Latin phrases and allusions to greater things in the history of the world (I believe, to my shame, that I managed to make reference to Ying and Yang).  I proudly submitted the article to an informal panel of peers and several of my professors and waited for them to praise my work and mastery of academic linguistic torture.

It did not go as I had planned.

When the panel convened, my doctoral adviser took the lead (English was his fifth language but he knew a thing or two about writing) and before he was done, I found that I had been skinned, skewered and sliced: the paper was deemed a disaster.  My Turkish professor, Walter G. Andrews, had not attended but he insured that his written comments were conveyed to me.  His words have never left me:  “Michael: this is bull shit. . .  NEVER  write anything your girlfriend cannot understand”.  My humiliation was complete.  But I took his words to heart.

It was probably around that same time that I encountered a book by Stanislav Andreski entitled “Social Sciences as Sorcery”.  Although rather too thick with anthropological jargon for my taste, he made some excellent points about fellow scholars writing in his field.  Many, he concluded, had the habit of making the simple appear arcane and the obvious a subject requiring sheer genius to grasp. They employed jargon not in order to illuminate but in order to conceal.  They got away with this primarily because their peers were reluctant to admit that they could not understand what scholar “X” was trying to explain lest they be branded as intellectually challenged.  He acknowledged that some academics were truly profound (Kant comes to mind for me) and difficult to understand.  To test one's self he recommended reading a difficult but brilliant work,  citing Bertrand Russell's  Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy as an example.  The point was simple: if you could read and understand Russell's book but not that of another academic, it was his fault and not yours. Point made.

It was, to be honest, not an epiphonic moment.  It did, however, convey to me the need to be self-confident when reading, hearing, and interpreting the words that surround us.  And the wonders never cease as you learn that much of what you hear is sheer, utter nonsense: the product of cluttered and ill-designed minds.  Those who engage in the creation of such poppycock (and here I use that word in its original Norwegian sense) have one advantage: they're fairly certain that no one in their audience will challenge them – and they're usually right.

And this suggests a word seldom encountered, at least in polite society.  That word is “heuristic” (from the Greek word “to discover”).  In some circles it is quite fashionable, especially when the need for clarity is distinctly lacking.  And chameleon-like, heuristics has many shadings of meaning –  in order to blend with changing context.  Consider, for example, “affect heuristics”, “contagion heuristics”, “representativeness (sic) heuristics”, “gaze heuristics”, “effort heuristics”, “scarcity heuristics”, etc.  All of this, of course, begs the obvious question: what does “heuristic” really mean?  Fortunately, there are several definitions.  Here are five that I uncovered:

  1. (Heuristic means)  to “enable a person to discover or learn something for themselves”. [sic]
  2. “Of or relating to a usually speculative formulation serving as a guide in the investigation or solution of a problem.”
  3. “A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently.”
  4. “trial and error procedure for solving problems (or reaching an unclear goal) through incremental exploration.”
  5. “Examples of this method (heuristics) include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess or common sense.”

Off hand, if heuristics comes down to using common sense, I'm all in favor of it but only if it is… wholistic…or holistic.

The word holistic has not been part of the English language for very long – it was apparently coined in the mid-1920s.  There is, however, a certain genius to the word “holistic”.  There is no significant difference between “wholistic” and “holistic”:  both refer to the idea of examining the whole of a subject or entity instead of considering the much smaller bits and pieces – treat the entire person, not just the ear.  The word “whole”, however, is….too commonplace and a bit too obvious.  Drop the unpronounced “w” and you have a “holistic approach” which now serves a double purpose: it makes the user sound intelligent and encourages others to think that the originator of this new word has come up with something fabulous, exciting and new.

He has not…  but it sounds good and quite wholesome...

Academics may be among the major offenders in trying to create a special language which they and they alone can grasp.  One of the currently favored over-used words is “globalized”:  it is happening at a faster rate.  Did you know that “the world is increasingly globalized” or that we are facing “globalized deterritorialization”? (Maybe sea levels are rising faster than previously thought). And international trade is no longer simply that –  it has become globalized. 

Yet it is a bit unfair to single out academics for their sometimes absurd abuse of the English language. 

It's a lot like harpooning a sleeping walrus in a swimming pool – much too easy.  A better example is how the abuse of language continues to spread among intelligent laymen, of whom I know precisely five.

Last year in California there was a series of forest fires, firefighters were sent in to battle the various blazes and in one tragic episode two of them died as the result of a car accident.  The local fire chief decided to hold a press conference to discuss the incident, but what he said made a mockery of what had happened.  The men died, said the fire chief, as the result of a “lethality, life ending accident.”  I am fairly sure that ears, unlike eyeballs, cannot roll around but mine came close to it.  Was the fire chief trying to sound intelligent or simply pulling words out of a hat?   It is hard to say but I think it was a little of both.  This sort of thing surrounds us – especially on local television news.

Several days ago whilst listening to NPR , I heard a commentator discussing how company X had endured a “66 fold” reduction in sales.  For a moment, I wondered if someone in that company had taken the accounting sheets and used them for origami – in which case, 66 folds might be plausible.  If only I could have asked the commentator what, precisely, a “one fold” reduction in sales would have meant. Maybe what he intended to say is that sales declined by a certain dollar amount from one year (the base year) to the next and then in the third year sales declined by 66 times the previous year's figure.  I have absolutely no idea what he really meant and, I suspect, neither did he.  It made almost as much sense as the observation that company Y's  sales had dropped over 200%.  Dropping 100% is bad enough (no sales at all) but to double that (or, should I say, two fold it) is even more remarkable.  It gives new meaning to the phrase “to double down.”  I think…

Many years ago during a difficult time of my so-called career, I had cause to wear a bullet-proof vest for a few hours.  In explaining how it worked, our Embassy Regional Security Officer corrected my language when I said that I'd never worn a bullet-proof vest before:  “It is a ballistic-proof” vest  he said with considerable grandeur and authority.  I gave him a steely glance and said… “OK”.  What I wanted to say is that I'd never been attacked by a ballistic, nor had any of my friends whether I liked them or not.  I was not even sure what a ballistic looked like or how they were raised.  Could one win them over with goodwill or thoughtful bribes?  What are their origins and is their language related to Chinese, French or Algonquin?  What were their cultural traits and did they have any heuristic or holistic sensibilities?  Did they impact their options or were they grounded in globalized time immemorial?  Or…. was the security officer simply repeating the instructions issued to him by a Higher Authority:  i.e., “bullet proof vest” is far too graphic and it should be made more elegant and abstract, if only to make the word inventor look better in the eyes of his boss.

When in Virginia, you should consider visiting Chincoteague Island.  There is a wild life sanctuary there that also includes a herd of around 100 wild horses that have been there for decades.  En route to Chincoteague Island, there is also a small museum called the “NASA Wallops Visitors Center.”  It's easy to spot because of  the highly visible rockets.  While small, it is fascinating: who wouldn't be attracted to an array of rockets?  One of the objects on display, however, really caught my attention: it was a drone aircraft, sometimes referred to as an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle”.  Not so this one: to add to its uniqueness, it was described as an “Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle”.  Remarkable.  The fact that it was uninhabited should have been obvious considering its small size and lack of sanitation facilities.  I approached the woman at the guest center desk and asked her where I could find an inhabited aerial vehicle.  After all, if this piece of engineering was different because it was uninhabited, it seemed only fair to conclude that, somewhere, the more normal inhabited aircraft should be lurking about.  I did allow that I had seen inhabited islands, jungles, towns, etc. so I was keen to observe an aircraft with its inhabitants.  She frowned, I smiled and we left it at that.  I felt vaguely petty but wondered at the obvious conundrum: how could a set of engineers be so clever as to design such an aircraft, yet allow others so untutored in basic English to describe them?  The answer is simple: find a bureaucrat.

Sometimes it may be the result of boredom, but from time to time I've found it profoundly rewarding to invent old Chinese sayings. When it comes to government, my current favorite is  “the role of a good bureaucrat is to make the obvious obscure and the simple impossible”.  Nowhere is that more manifest than in documents drafted by government agencies.

At the moment, I'm glancing at one I found on the internet. It is a fairly short piece from the General Accounting Office (GAO) with the following marvelous title:  “Critical Infrastructure Protection. An Implementation Strategy Could Advance DHS's Coordination of Resilience Efforts across Ports and Other Infrastructure.”  It was issued in October 2012 and its reference number is remarkably simple:  GAO-13-11.  The first line of the report essentially says it all: “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is developing a resilience policy, but an implementation strategy is the key next step that could help strengthen DHS resilience efforts.”  In order to make this happen, DHS has  created a “Resilience Integration Team” (RIT) and the “Office of Resilience Policy” (ORP).    What I find fascinating is that if or when DHS completes the formulation of a “resilience policy”, it can do nothing until the “implementation strategy” is complete.

Without the strategy, there seems to be nothing that RIT and/or ORP can do to make the policy work.  They have other friends in government, however, who are probably going to assist them in this venture.  They can, for example, rely upon the 2012 document entitled “National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security”  which, in turn, will be assisted by the “Office of Infrastructure Protection” (OIP). ).  OIP cannot do this alone, so they will apparently be helped  by the Regional Resiliency Assessment Program (RRAP). 

Lest we be unfair, it is important to recognize that the OIP is a body within the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) which, in turn, is part of the DHS.  Separately, the DHS has also drafted the “National Infrastructure Protection Plan” (NIPP).  There may be cynics out there who wonder what NIPP does.  That is also defined within the GAO document as follows:  “DHS, National Infrastructure Protection Plan, Partnering to Enhance Protection and Resilience (Washington, D.C.; January 2009).  The NIPP provides DHS's overarching approach for integrating the nation's infrastructure protection initiatives in a single effort.”  There it is, a single effort… except for OIP, RRAP, RIT, ORP and, of course, the PSA (Protective Security Advisors).  All of these are also assisted by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) which is also influenced by the “State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Government Coordinating Council”.   The Area Maritime Security Committee (AMSC) also contributes to resilience as does the “Maritime Security Risk Analysis Model” (MSRAM) and the “Port Security Grant Program” (PSGP).   With all this national resilience (a good thing), why do I feel the need for a very stiff martini, impacted, not stirred?

At one point in this remarkable document, some bureaucrat made the unpardonable error of citing a specific problem: backup generators at most ports were insufficient to operate the cranes which, in turn, unloaded ships.  This was noted in a section of the GAO report which had discovered that “Port operations involve a complicated system of systems”.  System of systems?  King of kings?  Laugh of laughs?

And yet, I must confess that I actually admire the author of the GAO report.  The task of assembling all these acronyms and strange entities could not have been easy.  I certainly couldn't have done it without suffering from an acute case of physical and mental indigestion.

If governments can create such wholesale gibberish with a straight face, perhaps we should no longer vex ourselves over smaller bits of nonsense: “free gifts”, “raining outside”, “completely surrounded”, etc.  Still, I prefer to call a spade a spade instead of an  “all-weather neural guided excavation system”.  And whatever my thoughts on illegal immigration, I still get testy when I hear the phrase “undocumented immigrants”.  They are documented (maybe) …just not here.

Michael M. Pixley served for 22 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State, with 17 of those years overseas,primarily in Turkey and Iraq. He began his second career as a bookseller (Eastern Approaches Books, Annapolis MD) in 1999, specializing in the Middle East.

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