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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