The Value of Words

The idea that words have some sort of tangible value appeals to me. I am not talking about their role in brands or Internet domain names but simply the written or spoken words that we use to communicate. For me, some words have a high value while others are not worth much at all. Other words have considerable value in one form of usage but not others. And then there are perfectly good words that, like currencies, have become devalued through proliferation.

A good example of a word worn out by overuse is “extraordinary”. It is hard to find a documentary that is not peppered with this adjective from start to end. Even the admirable David Attenborough utters it so frequently that it has lost its impact. After all, if so many things are extraordinary, does that not just make them plain old ordinary?

The word “leverage” has a high value for me when it is used as a noun, whether in a mechanical sense or in the context of financial markets or other areas of human interaction. But it seems awkward and inappropriate when used as a verb – typically in the annoying world of business jargon. Archimedes would turn in his grave, screw-like, if he could hear this buzzword being used in corporate conversations and presentations, typically as a simple substitute for the verb “to use”. There is an irony here as the same outcome is achieved using eight letters instead of three. Is that not the precise opposite of leverage? In any case, I had always understood the verb form of leverage to be “lever”. The extra three letters add nothing but a sense of bombast.

Continuing the theme of nouns inappropriately converted to verbs, we have the entertaining case of “podium”. I am truly a fan of athletics but sometimes our language takes a hit in a worthy cause. The idea (now reinforced by several dictionaries) that podium is a verb seems ludicrous to me. How are we meant to construct the various tenses? For the past, we apparently have the outstandingly awkward “podiumed”. Perhaps “podiated” would be better? And how about “repodiated” for someone who wins another medal?

Some words, for me at least, have negative value and contribute to a sort of “language debt”. We would be better off without them. For some reason that I cannot quite put my finger on, I feel uncomfortable with the word “selfie”, which was awarded “Word of the Year” by Oxford Dictionaries in 2013. It smacks of narcissism and instant gratification. The original “self-portrait” has more dignity. Slang has an important place in languages but there is something about this particular word that grates.

One of the worst of all modern words, bodged together in the form of a crude portmanteau, is so distasteful to me that I find it painful just to write it down or type it on the keyboard. I don’t know where “chillax” came from, but I wish it would disappear forever.  It is not a word – it is an abomination. If it entered a competition for the world’s worst word, I have no doubt that it would podium.

The Knot Garden, a supporter of Plain English, approves of the invention of new words where they contribute to the richness of the language.  But such a craft should not be taken lightly. Not all words are equal.

Good Science

Although The Knot Garden strives to be self-reliant, it acknowledges its dependency on nature. In particular, it appreciates the important role played in plant pollination by the many species of bees that visit in the Spring and Summer. The bees are the life force of The Knot Garden. Without them, it would not exist.

Having learned from Ben Goldacre’s book just how much bad science there is in the world, I am keen, in the spirit of balancing things up a little, to find some examples of good science. I recently discovered a candidate project in the form of a study published last year by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The purpose of the study was to determine the extent to which the treatment of oilseed rape with neonicotinoids has impacted bee populations in the UK. Evidence collected during the study suggests a clear correlation between neonicotinoid use and declines in bee colonies, although there is a caveat that the outcome should be seen in the context of other environmental factors such as habitat loss, climate change and mite infestations.

On the one hand, we need to be wary of taking at face value the sort of headline statistics favoured by the press in their relentless pursuit of sensationalism. On the other, we should resist the temptation to simply reject all scientific studies on the grounds that simple truths cannot be proven using statistics. In the absence of a register of research studies operated along the lines suggested by Ben Goldacre in his book, we need to have a way of critically assessing these papers for ourselves.

Given the limited time I have for evaluating scientific studies, I decided to adopt a high level framework that would help me to quickly determine a study’s value. Here are the criteria that I selected, together with my take on how the neonicotinoids study fares.

First we have impartiality. Any study sponsored by an organisation that has a commercial interest in the outcome should be ruled out immediately. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology was set up specifically to act as an independent research agency and has adopted impartiality as a core guiding principle. And the project was subject to the scrutiny of an independent scientific advisory committee.

Second comes credentials. Are the individuals well qualified to perform the research? The scientists who took part in the project have impressive CVs. Those for five of the seven authors can be read on the website of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Third , we need to examine the scope of the research. Were the scale, duration and depth of the project adequate to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn? The neonicotinoids study was conducted over a period of eighteen years, covered over 4,000 square kilometres of farmland and examined populations of bees of 62 different species.  Detailed information about the study can be found online.

As a fourth element, we should consider how well the study was designed and how effectively its conditions were controlled and its measurements taken. This is the hard part and I have not had the time to perform more than a cursory evaluation. However, one of the authors helpfully gives a detailed analysis of the statistical methods used in one of his blog posts.

Naturally, The Knot Garden is very keen to understand whether neonicotinoids harm bees. But, beyond that, it advocates good science. I believe that this important study, with its implications for the future of bees, qualifies as such.

Arrogance and Academia

The Knot Garden strongly disapproves of arrogance. However, as dangerous as it is on its own, arrogance becomes especially pernicious when combined with academia. Much good work comes out of academia and we would doubtless be all the poorer without it but when academics succumb to arrogance they lose that fine sense of balance between self-assurance and open-mindedness that is so important to members of their profession.

Often, the marriage of these two traits in an individual is illuminating but falls short of causing real damage – other than to the reputation of the academic. I recall reading an article on the Internet in 2014 by a so-called “professor of finance” at a well known university in the United States, in which he predicted the demise of the Bitcoin, forecasting that the price of the cryptocurrency would fall to under ten dollars by the end of the year. The writer displayed a heavy bias towards the Federal Reserve, whose policies he unequivocally supported. I imagine that, like Ben Bernanke, he was a great advocate of the printing press as the government’s primary currency management tool.

Such a bias, when observed in an academic, might be seen as a red flag. Surely the primary functions of people of letters are to research, analyse, educate, put forward well reasoned arguments and develop hypotheses? Everyone is entitled to express an opinion – even an academic – but this one, in the form of a very precise price prediction, was made in public in a fashion that shouted out “I know what is going to happen to the Bitcoin. Forget the Market and listen to me. I am better than the Market.”

After his prediction failed spectacularly (the Bitcoin reached a low of around $200 by the end of the year and then rose to over $1,000) the academic published a follow up post asserting that his prediction would still succeed. How could that be? After the target date had already passed? Perhaps he has a different perspective on time than us mere mortals.

At the opposite end of the scale we can find examples of arrogance that do cause damage. One case in particular has a high profile, having received comprehensive coverage in Roger Lowenstein’s excellent book “When Genius Failed”. The Long Term Capital Management story was a sensational example of institutional arrogance in a company whose principals were taken from the top drawer of finance academia.

Reading Lowenstein’s book, the extreme arrogance of the players is evident. Most of them refused to associate with “ordinary people”, remaining encapsulated in their artificial world with its absolute belief in efficient markets. Motivated by avarice, Wall Street’s bankers fell over themselves to secure for themselves the largest share of the action by granting Long Term Capital Management the most valuable trading terms.

After making impressively high returns in its first three years, the company incurred losses of $4.6 billion in less than four months during the first half of 1998. A massive rescue operation co-ordinated by the US Government was launched in order to avoid a catastrophic failure of the banking system.

The ironically named Long Term Capital Management started from a dangerous base of academia allied with arrogance. Then, driven by greed, it turned the formula into a financially deadly one by building outrageous amounts of leverage into its trades. Operating within a shroud of secrecy by keeping their derivative positions off the balance sheet, the principals followed their toxic path in the sure knowledge that they were infallible. How’s that for arrogance?

The Black Art of Marketing

Wherever we look in the world today we see the tentacles of the marketing monster reaching into our lives. The dictionary benignly defines marketing as “…the business of promoting and selling products or services…”. I would like to propose some alternative definitions. How about “The black art of persuading people to spend money on stuff they don’t really need”. Or “A commercially driven method of manipulating consumers using misleading information.”

As you can probably tell, marketing is not on my list of favourite activities. That does not mean that I am completely opposed to it. But all too often I find the marketing practices of businesses insidious. I am attracted to the concept of marketing but repelled by its methods.

Some elements of marketing campaigns are laughable rather than dangerous. I was entertained by a recent television commercial claiming that you can lose seven times more weight using their well known diet system than you could by yourself. Well, that’s great. I can shed one hundred pounds of body mass if I sign up. Impressive, but I wonder whether my friends would still recognise me at my new streamlined weight of six stone? And goodness knows how much I would need to shell out for a new wardrobe.

For a more troubling perspective on marketing I recommend Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science. I read it over the Christmas break and feel it rivals Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which I was revisiting at the time, as a horror story. It may not have the literary panache or style of the original vampire tale but there are parallels. And, frighteningly, Bad Science is a non-fiction work.

The central thread running through Goldacre’s account of commercially sponsored information abuse is the widespread failure to use rigorous scientific method in support of claims for health products or forms of treatment. He discusses in detail several major examples of deception from the spheres of alternative medicine, journalism and the pharmaceutical industry. Ultimately the consumer suffers but one is also left feeling just a little sorry for the poor old GPs who get caught in the crossfire.

The snake oil salesman, a character we thought had disappeared with the Wild West, is alive and kicking in our modern world of technological marvels. But, instead of operating from a wagon drawn by horses, his present day counterpart inhabits wealthy businesses, multi-billion dollar corporations and national newspapers.

The Internet, that magnificent tribute to man’s technological ingenuity, extends the reach of the giant marketing octopus exponentially, multiplying the opportunities to profit from misinformation.

In spite of the views expressed here, The Knot Garden recognises that marketing can be a positive, constructive force in our world. But we should recognise the potential for using unethical practices, especially in important fields concerned with human health, where there are massive conflicts of interest at work. Armed with this awareness, we are better able to avoid the pitfalls.

The Field of Gems

Some people believe that all you need to do to bring an object of desire into your life is to harness the power of visualisation, in a “Law of Attractions” sort of way. Imagine how much fun you would have if you could turn your mind into a 3D printer. Until, that is, you have to explain to the authorities where all the stuff came from.

Simply wishing The Knot Garden into existence and building a vivid mental image of it will not make it materialise, as if by magic, from the ether. Effective planning and hard work are required and, like many projects, this one needs financing. The Knot Garden understands this and, in the spirit of independence, proclaims that it will be self-funding. When I ask it where the wealth will come from, it tells me to go to the Field of Gems.

Fortunately I already know this place, as I have been visiting it for more than sixteen years. That is how I spend my spare time – scrabbling around in the dirt on my hands and knees looking for precious gemstones.

I go to the Field (to use its abbreviated name) in the evenings and at weekends, when the workday hubbub has faded. Sparkling stones proliferate there, reflecting the light like a million tiny stars. They are scattered on the rough, scrub-covered ground or buried just below the surface.

You can buy any of the stones, which vary in price according to their size and colour. They are quite cheap but most of them have little value, just as you would expect of objects made from zirconium dioxide instead of carbon. And, in the cut-throat market of the Field, price is not an indicator of authenticity.

Simulated diamonds may look real but their distinct chemical composition and crystalline structure cause them to differ markedly from authentic gems in their brilliance, hardness, weight, density, thermal conductivity and light refraction index. And yet telling them apart, especially when working in the Field without any specialised equipment, is not easy.

Provenance is everything. Which would you rather own – a stone made in a matter of minutes in a microwave? Or one that grew naturally billions of years ago in that stable area of the Earth’s mantle known as the cratonic lithosphere?

The big problem with prospecting in the Field, as you will have guessed, lies in the very high ratio of artificial gems to real ones. Most punters buy bags full of stones, hoping to strike it rich. They work hard at selling the fakes to get their money back. Sometimes they get lucky but more often than not they are on a fool’s errand. They might as well be playing the lottery.

My strategy is different. I spend my time learning where to look for the real gems and how to recognise them. Finding a few good ones in a year is enough. I believe that in the long run the Field of Gems will reward my diligence.

The Double-Edged Sword of Technology

The generation gap, evident from observing the people on my commuter coach journeys, highlights the rapid pace of technological change occurring during our lifetimes.

The girls sitting ahead of me a few evenings ago spent the entire trip entertaining themselves with their mobile phones, comparing photos and sending texts. I could see the thumbs of one girl working feverishly on the tiny keypad, giving a fair impression of a highly animated crab, its pincers going nineteen to the dozen.

In stark contrast, the old boy who proclaims himself to be a Luddite (a label of which he is evidently proud), once ranted at a lady for using her phone on the coach – something that she is quite at liberty to do. I had to go and shut him up in the end (politely, of course), as his astonishing outpouring of rage caused far more of a disturbance than the unfortunate passenger.

Just how far things have changed in the world was brought home to me by two recent articles on MarketWatch. One was concerned with predicted arrival dates for driverless cars – an idea that would surely have been derided a decade or so ago. The other was a report on the growing legions of canine family members who can now earn up to $10,000 for a single social media post.

It was sobering to discover how many dogs have a far more lucrative and secure career than me. Even if you dressed me up in the cutest of outfits (having first overcome formidable resistance), I doubt whether I could perform at the level required to become a media star. I just don’t know any good tricks. Who says man is the most intelligent animal?

Do I claim to shun technology, like the man on the coach (although, presumably, even he approves of the internal combustion engine)? Not me, and I never will. This very blog is evidence enough of that. I embrace the electronic world in which we live. But I do see technology as a double-edged sword, giving with one hand while often taking something away with the other (to mangle a perfectly good metaphor).

I have a passion for technological innovation, especially where it can be applied to the great challenges faced by humanity relating to health, education, security, shelter, waste and poverty. But I have come to realise just how over-reliant I have become on the Internet. I depend on it completely to earn a living, for example, and it would be good to move away somewhat from that unbalanced position.

The Knot Garden supports technological innovation but urges us to find ways of reducing our dependence on it. This belief has its basis in the idea that creativity, resourcefulness, resilience, persistence, integrity and other such desirable human qualities come from within us and do not require the aid of electronic paraphernalia. This should not prevent us, of course, from applying such attributes to  the development of technological solutions to problems.

The Knot Garden whole-heartedly approves of technology when it is used as a force for good. But it does not need computers or networks any more than you or I need to watch television. Except of course for maintaining its blog. And even that, as important as it may seem right now, will eventually become redundant.

The Nature of Goals

Do we really need to complicate our lives with goals? Some disciples of Zen suggest that we should completely eliminate goals from our lives. I have a couple of issues with this idea. First, and you will no doubt already have spotted the irony, a commitment to do away with goals is, in itself, one gigantic goal. A lifetime one as, once you have shown those tiresome goals the front door, you need to to expend regular effort ensuring that they do not insidiously creep back in through an open window. And, second, how many people do you know who truly achieve anything worthwhile without having goals?

If right now you feel the need to let me know how wrong I am about this, please consider the meaning of the word goal. I have always had my own idea of what constitutes a goal but decided to check the dictionary to just make sure that I was not out of step with commonly accepted usage. A typical definition is “The end toward which effort is directed”.

Here is the point. Goals do not need to be quantitative or time-bound to be constructive and meaningful. A great example from Mirriam-Webster,  which actually coincides with one of The Knot Garden’s core themes, is “the goal of reducing waste”. This is a powerful, high value, fulfilling goal even though it has no associated quantities or deadlines. It is, in fact, all the more potent because it has neither of those frequently arbitrary parameters built into it.

I believe confusion arises over different interpretations of the word goal. The more we emphasise quantitative results and fixed completion times, the less effective – and more transitory – our goals will tend to be. Moreover, whenever we set a strict deadline for delivering a specified amount of something, we run the risk of suffering a series of adverse effects when it becomes clear that we will miss the target. We may, for example:

  • become discouraged and pessimistic
  • lose focus on our higher, more abstract goal
  • lose credibility in the eyes of colleagues, customers and friends
  • waste precious mental energy worrying about our failure

Here is my solution. Set goals that align with your belief system but do not constrain them by quantity or time. Thus:

  • I aim to increase the amount of time that I can devote to creative writing
  • I intend to become an authority on bees
  • I will implement an effective measurement regime so that I always know the state of my health
  • I will improve the quality of my income so that I can use my time more effectively

These goals emphasise the activities that I will work on in order to improve my life. But they also specify a future state that I need to work towards. They all align with my belief system and major purpose in life. Can we set smaller goals that do have quantitative and temporal aspects? Of course we can, to the extent that they are helpful – but we should not publish them or set them in stone.

You might think that “I will make a million pounds in two years” is a good, concrete goal. But I disagree. Even if this goal has a worthwhile purpose sitting behind it, you may find that you only need a hundred thousand pounds. Or perhaps you need five million. Or you need it earlier that you thought you did. Or, because you find a different way of financing your project, you don’t need it at all. You may not even be around in two years. Or technological innovation might make the project redundant.

It has struck me that setting activity-related goals is somewhat analogous to the principles used in Agile frameworks for developing software, which address the flaws found in older, more rigid, waterfall approaches. And so we can can envisage a sort of “Scrum for Life”.

The Knot Garden recommends the setting of goals that encourage us to spend each day working on our true purpose. And to enjoy our lives in the process. After all, we do not know what tomorrow will bring.

Does Four Into One Go?

Multitasking is best left to computers. Unless, of course, you have more than one brain. I, unfortunately, do not. We don’t need to consult scientific studies to understand that rapidly switching between tasks – a practice that masquerades as human multitasking – wastes time, causes stress and carries a high risk of making mistakes. Anyone who thinks multitasking is a valuable skill is an idiot. Many parents become adept at task switching because they have no choice. But it bears a heavy cost.

At the opposite end of the scale from the myth of multitasking can be found the principle of The One Thing. This postulates that in order to become successful we should devote our entire life to doing one thing really well. Some people have achieved notable success by developing a single skill to a very high level. We need look no further than athletics, and the likes of Usain Bolt, to see this idea in action.

Although I became familiar with the concept of The One Thing before I read Gary Keller’s book of the same title, I gained many valuable insights from his excellent work. One key theme from the book is Keller’s assertion that a balanced life is a lie. I know exactly what he means. We hold inside our heads some perfect model of balance that is unattainable in the real world and constantly fail in our attempts to implement it.

The problem I have is that my own One Thing requires that I maintain a balance between the four important areas of my life. Damn – that is awkward. The Knot Garden tells me that this is non-negotiable. And who am I to contradict The Knot Garden?

The Knot Garden is predicated on the rule of four. It is like a four-legged stool. You take one leg away – or merely make it shorter than the others – and, before you can say “Bless my soul!” (or something less polite), there you are, lying in a heap on the floor. All tangled up, like the rope in the summer house.

So what are we to do about this bothersome One Thing business? Well, what would you do about it? You would no doubt develop a strategy to deal with the whole four-into-one conundrum.

Here is my own plan, for what it is worth. I will pursue my Four Things, as The Knot Garden advocates. But I will be careful to focus on one of them at a time. I will use the simple expedient of timeboxing, familiar to Agile practitioners in the IT world, to prevent the four strands from becoming ensnarled. But, at the same time, I will seek opportunities for mutual reinforcement.

To put it in plain terms, I will focus on the creative quadrant by writing about methods for acquiring wealth, for example, thus contributing to a second quadrant. Or, I will undertake a strenuous walking excursion with friends, simultaneously serving the other two quadrants.

How about combining all four activities into one? Perhaps by discussing creative approaches to building new business ventures while trekking with my companions? That would really be pushing my strategy to its limits. Or would it just be, after all, good old multitasking? You decide.

The Knot Garden

I enter the dilapidated summer house and see, among shards of glass from the broken windows, a dusty old rope sitting in a tangled heap on the floor. Outside, in the overgrown garden, the faint impression of geometric shapes can still be glimpsed beneath the proliferating thistles, chickweed and stinging nettles. The disorderly knot and the neglected garden convey a sense of waste. Missed opportunities, squandered resources, lost time. Perhaps, however, this place is simply a tangible manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics?

Once there was a knot garden here. It existed, not in isolation, but at the centre of a human system, a great estate, surrounded by wild flower meadows buzzing with bees and by ancient woodland, informal gardens and parkland graced with stately cedars. A fine house stood nearby, built centuries ago from honey-coloured stone quarried locally. This place was full of energy, industry and optimism. It must have had many good stories to tell.  I wonder about the plants that grew in the knot garden. What herbs and vegetables thrived inside the neat, orderly compartments and what decorative species?

I am going to build a new knot garden in a location yet to be determined. This might, on the face of it, seem like an odd undertaking for someone who has neither the horticultural qualifications nor the required resources to contemplate a project of this nature. But absence of credentials and lack of means should never stand in the way of an important endeavour. And, if one has the necessary commitment, then what is in short supply at the outset will surely become available in abundance once matters get under way.

In fact, because this project is as much about resourcefulness and creativity as anything else, starting from scratch is pretty much a requirement. It is important, I think, that we should be capable of making something from nothing. This stands, by the way, in direct opposition and stark contrast to the rather unworthy notion of getting something for nothing.

Since I was young, I have had a fascination for numbers and, to this day, always attempt mental arithmetic before reaching for the calculator. The number four has a special significance for me and will find expression in the quatrefoil form of The Knot Garden, its symmetry representing the balance between the principal elements of my life. These areas of activity, inextricably linked together, will be bound to each other by the knot, which will impose a sense of order and harmony.

On a less abstract level, I will explore through The Knot Garden a number of specific themes that are interesting and important to me – and perhaps to others too. On the one hand these themes will be symbolised by aspects of The Knot Garden and on the other hand they will be instrumental in creating it.

Ultimately The Knot Garden is intended to be a concrete representation of a belief system – my belief system. But this blog is not really about me. It is about all people who hold beliefs that genuinely create value and in some significant way improve the world. It is therefore my sincere wish, dear reader, that you will join me on my journey.