There are words that we use every day to express ideas in a some­what con­densed form. An exam­ple is the cliché think­ing out­side the box, which is short­hand for approach­ing a prob­lem from an unex­pected angle or pro­vid­ing a fresh insight into deal­ing with it, which might or might not lead to an inno­v­a­tive and cre­ative solution.

In a lot of cases, I expect this sort of ver­bal short­hand is good, since it facil­i­tates ade­quate com­mu­ni­ca­tion with­out too much essen­tial data being lost. Putting it in graph­i­cal terms, these phrases are ver­bal JPEGs. They’re lossy com­pres­sion but, in most sit­u­a­tions, they get the point across.

Of course, there are plenty of venues wherein JPEGs are not accept­able. While you’d be crazy to use a full-​​resolution uncom­pressed TIFF or PSD online, you’d be just as nuts to use a 72 DPI JPEG as a graphic source for a 30-​​foot-​​wide bill­board. (Even a 300 or 600 DPI JPEG would not be suit­able to a purist.)

That’s because JPEGs really are lossy; for exam­ple the Nikon D50 I use lets me store about 540 pho­tos on its card as “high-​​resolution” JPEGs, but only about 270 as camera-​​raw NEF files. If you think about that for a moment you real­ize this means the cam­era, even with high-​​res JPEG set­tings, is still throw­ing out about 50% of the image data its sen­sor can pick up.

Umm, no thanks; I think I’ll decide what pix­els can and can’t be be blown off, thank you very much.

Similarly, our lossy ver­bal JPEGs can con­tain sur­pris­ing lacu­nae in infor­ma­tion and awareness.

I’ve got a list of my all-​​time big three phrases that seem con­sis­tently asso­ci­ated with short­cut think­ing, the kind of think­ing that can get you into trou­ble far sooner — and far deeper — than you may ever sus­pect pos­si­ble. Thinking by short­cut usu­ally involves over­look­ing sev­eral cru­cial steps, steps which are nec­es­sary in order to com­plete a given task and, when they’re not explic­itly delin­eated, can leave you quite lost.

In reverse order, then, my per­sonal set of Danger Words, or words that raise my hack­les every time because I know where they’re going to lead.

3. You can’t miss it.

Oh yes I can. Usually such a phrase ter­mi­nates a set of ineptly-​​delivered dri­ving direc­tions, such as, “Go down the road about two miles, turn right at the inter­sec­tion there, and it’s about a mile fur­ther on, on the left hand side of the road, right next to the Quickie Mart. You can’t miss it.”

This points, I think, to a com­mon error in our per­cep­tion. While I might be aware of a given thing, not every­one else nec­es­sar­ily is — even though it seems blaz­ingly obvi­ous to me.

A good exam­ple of this is the everyone-​​has-​​my-​​car phe­nom­e­non: When you first bought what­ever vehi­cle you’re dri­ving now, wasn’t it extra­or­di­nary how many more of the same car you noticed every­where? It was like every­one else decided to get the same car at exactly the same time.

We all do this, to some degree or other. That’s why you get phrases such as you can’t miss it. The route, the tar­get, the land­marks may all be extremely well known to a given per­son, so he’ll per­ceive that route as being trans­par­ent and emi­nently nav­i­ga­ble, even when it objec­tively is not.

Whenever some­one says some­thing like that, beware; he’s taken some men­tal short­cuts in his descrip­tion of how or where to find a given thing. Ask for more details. And if you catch your­self using the phrase, pause for a moment and ask your­self if it’s really as true as you think it is.

Something that’s always baf­fled me, by the way, is why so many busi­nesses don’t dis­play their street address num­bers much more promi­nently. Navigation by busi­ness signs is gen­er­ally insufficient.

2. All we have to do is…

Oh, big alarm bells there; any phrase that seems to sim­plify a set of actions, par­tic­u­larly one involv­ing a plu­ral­ity of indi­vid­u­als, is pos­i­tively rife with peril. How many steps does it require to get more than three peo­ple to agree to any­thing? And then to coör­di­nate their actions, work con­sis­tently and well toward that com­mon goal, and final­ize a qual­ity package?

All we have to do, to end world hunger, is dis­trib­ute sur­plus food to the nations that need it. Sure: Of course, that food has to be trans­ported some­how, which can be phe­nom­e­nally expen­sive; it should be non­per­ish­able, which often requires pro­cess­ing, can­ning or cook­ing: More expense; and of course we’re assum­ing that once the food arrives in a given nation, it will actu­ally be dis­trib­uted to the peo­ple that need it, as opposed to being hoarded by gov­ern­ment lead­ers. (Hey, it’s happened.)

All we have to do to reverse global warm­ing is employ more solar power, wind power and hydro­gen fuel cells. This ignores, of course, the fact that nuclear is still the best bang for the buck in terms of power gen­er­a­tion. Individual homes can’t run on solar par­tic­u­larly well, and rely on stor­age of power in bat­ter­ies with con­tain either lead and acid, or nickel-​​metal hydride; in both cases, these bat­ter­ies are toxic waste when they become unus­able, and the car­bon debt involved in mak­ing them is enor­mous. Windpower suf­fers from sim­i­lar con­cerns. All other power gen­er­a­tion mod­els involve burn­ing fos­sil fuels or damming rivers.

All we have to do, to end world­wide ter­ror­ism, is destroy the ter­ror­ist train­ing camps and unseat the gov­ern­ments that sup­port them. We know where that’s led us.

If you’ve ever tol­er­ated any kind of com­mit­tee meet­ing, you know I’m right. And any­one who says some­thing like “all we have to do is…” in a com­mit­tee meet­ing should be pelted with bagels until he qui­ets down. In any other sit­u­a­tion, use your best judg­ment for appro­pri­ate response to this per­ni­cious phrase.

But the number-​​one ver­bal irri­tant that comes my way is:

1. Why can’t you just…

Yurrg. Of all the death phrases, this is by far the worst. It’s usu­ally uttered by some­one with absolutely no skill in a given area, and usu­ally directed toward an expert in that same area.

I used to run into it all the time when I was hack­ing code. I had a sales rep ask me one time if we could cre­ate a desk­top soft­ware pack­age that would have an ani­mated icon that bounced and jig­gled when­ever an update for the pro­gram was avail­able, even when that pro­gram wasn’t run­ning.

How, exactly, was this feat to be accomplished?

Why can’t you just have it find out if there’s an update when the com­puter starts … or something?

Why can’t I just wave a magic wand and invoke a heap of pure gold out of thin air?

Questions such as this one betray a two-​​tiered level of incom­pre­hen­sion of a process. On the one level there’s the nonspecialist’s lack of aware­ness of a given process. This is under­stand­able; pro­gram­ming is eso­teric, dif­fi­cult to acquire, and absolutely not for every­one. However, the sec­ond gap in com­pre­hen­sion involves the mag­i­cal think­ing betrayed in the belief that an expert can sim­ply cre­ate some­thing ex nihilo, par­tic­u­larly with­out warn­ing; or despite its being sub­stan­tially at vari­ance from the cur­rent design.

That is, usu­ally changes asked for by such fash­ion (in soft­ware, any­way) are so rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from the orig­i­nal pro­gram con­struct that you’d be look­ing at a top-​​down rewrite to effect them.

My cur­rent career path is nowhere near as fraught; I’ve more or less jet­ti­soned the pro­gram­ming side to focus much more heav­ily on graph­ics pro­duc­tion, and I’m much hap­pier for it, though I still get some peo­ple who seem to expect me to sim­ply waft some­thing into exis­tence at a moment’s notice; or cre­ate a stun­ning ad cam­paign based on lit­tle or no aware­ness of what’s being adver­tised and who the demo­graphic is; or cre­ate the per­fect prod­uct with­out guid­ance or input. Whenever pos­si­ble, I avoid these people.

These, of course, are just my own per­sonal annoy­ances; I’m sure oth­ers have dif­fer­ent per­sonal trig­gers. Anyone care to share?


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