Archive for the ‘Labeling’ Category

Thu 30 Sep 2010 8:24 am   //   Posted in: Labeling, Media, Technology

Nobody knows what “social graph” means

For three years, people who write and speak about technology have been using the phrase social graph. It’s sometimes used casually like a synonym for Facebook, the company that popularized the term. But what does social graph really mean, and where did it come from?


Thu 31 Dec 2009 11:00 am   //   Posted in: Labeling

I don’t know what to call this lousy decade either

What’s the proper style for referring to the years 2000 to 2009? I’ve just been fudging it, calling this decade “this decade.” When there is ambiguity as to which decade I mean—and there will be starting tomorrow—I refer to it in print as “the 00s,” spoken as “the aughts.” Linguistically correct or just close enough? I don’t know. But neither does anybody else.

This week, columnists for both The New Yorker and The New York Times decided to hang their arguments on the fact that the decade has no name.

This is important. Names define how we think. The best way to get people to take a concept seriously is to name it with precision (“climate change,” “war on terror”); the sneakiest way to fight an idea is to give it a confusing name with sinister connotations (“death panels,” “illegal immigrants”).

What are some other things without names?


Wed 9 Sep 2009 7:37 am   //   Posted in: Labeling, The suburbs, Transit

Dumb sign


I’m sure there’s a sensible reason for this sign to exist. But the hell if I can figure it out. Aren’t most places not bus stops?

(Spotted on an unremarkable street corner somewhere around Ridgefield Park, during a bike ride exploring the New Jersey suburbs Monday.)

Thu 4 Jun 2009 7:44 am   //   Posted in: Labeling, Planet earth, Stray data

Math is important

I just read an interview in Good magazine with Richard Larrick, a Duke business professor who advocates changing the “miles per gallon” standard we use to rate car efficiency. The problem? Basically, mpg statistics mislead our brains.

Larrick and professor Jack Soll have been on a crusade to adopt a “gallons per mile” standard. What’s the difference? Here’s a story about their work from 2008. It says:

Most people ranked an improvement from 34 to 50 mpg as saving more gas over 10,000 miles than an improvement from 18 to 28 mpg, even though the latter saves twice as much gas. (Going from 34 to 50 mpg saves 94 gallons; but from 18 to 28 mpg saves 198 gallons).

“These mistaken impressions were corrected, however, when participants were presented with fuel efficiency expressed in gallons used per 100 miles rather than mpg. Viewed this way, 18 mpg becomes 5.5 gallons per 100 miles, and 28 mpg is 3.6 gallons per 100 miles — an $8 difference today.

I had never thought about this before. But it makes sense: The higher the mpg number, the smaller the significance of each mile, because you cover more distance before you need to tap that extra fuel. We are used to thinking each number in a rating scale has the same value. It’s misleading.

The professors are using their math to defend small improvements in low-mileage vehicles—a strong argument for hybrid SUVs, which are scoffed at by most environmentally minded people. In fact, it makes a big difference. Here’s Professor Soll’s argument:

“There are significant savings to be had by improving efficiency by even two or three miles per gallon on inefficient cars, but because we communicate in miles per gallon, that savings is not immediately evident to consumers.”

I’m convinced.

Mon 1 Jun 2009 8:07 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Labeling, Movies

Reboot reboot!

J.J. Abrams’ awesome remake of Star Trek was branded as a reboot. I suspect it’s the first time that word has been used to market a movie, but we all instantly knew what it meant. I’ve also heard the same word — reboot — used to describe the government’s attempts to fix the economy. Let’s take as a given: People are using the word reboot a lot these days.

It’s an elegant word that comes from computers. (Merriam-Webster: boot: “to start or ready for use especially by booting a program <boot a computer> often used with up.”) Practically everybody knows how to fix a computer bug by hitting a restart button. The computer clears its memory, runs its start-up routines, and after several minutes, presto!, everything is new again. It’s like un-popping your ears or cleaning your glasses.

These days, many of our economic systems could use rebooting. Think about where you work. Imagine if you could shut the place down for a period of time, rethink everything you do, and then restart with all the current problems solved, inefficiencies purged, bugs fixed. Imagine if a company undertook a careful study of itself, figured out what it did best, trained and redeployed its people to solve its hardest problems, and came roaring back to life. It’s appealing, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, nothing works that way. Outside of the world of computers, few problems can be solved by taking something apart and fitting all the same pieces back together again. Heck, even modern computers are designed to be stable enough that you shouldn’t have to reboot them. (If Vista gives you guff, rebooting doesn’t help much.)

If you wanted to reboot General Motors, you couldn’t just shut it down, wait, and then try again. You’d have to spend a lot of money and human energy correcting a system gone wrong. You’d have to invent new things. Creation is hard, and language needs to reflect that. The makers of the new Star Trek film didn’t just re-shoot an old sci-fi flick with better special effects. They respected an existing template, but used it to say something new. It was hard, it was expensive, it paid off.

Reboot just sounds lazy. I submit a better word: reinvention.

Tue 5 May 2009 9:50 pm   //   Posted in: Labeling, Media, Technology

“Content” is a dirty word

This Tom Tomorrow cartoon (a portion of which appears above) articulates how insulting the phrase “content provider” sounds to creative people. A stooge in the cartoon asks, “Who do these storytellers think they are, expecting to be paid for their so-called work?”

It’s not a small point. Today, Web sites refer to all the information they publish as “content.” Yet it’s a degrading word and it’s has caused a serious branding problem. “Content” is a commodity shoveled out of a grain silo. It evokes packaged cereals, where the only variance is the difference between Fruit Loops and Grape Nuts. No wonder consumers think anything published online is cheap and interchangeable!

This label has proven impossible to shake. Tribune newspapers are handing out new titles like “content editor” and “director of content.” WNBC recently changed the name of the newsroom to the “content center” (then, to their credit, changed it back). Once you start listening for content, you’ll hear it everywhere, like nails on a chalkboard. I don’t mean to over-inflate what I do for a living, but I don’t generate content. I write stories or articles, I edit videos, I create presentations. I acknowledge the word “content” when I’m in a meeting or dealing with internal communication, but only because I don’t want to sound out of step.

By the way, the “This Modern World” cartoon I linked to above? It was published in March 1997. The more things change…

Mon 4 May 2009 8:15 am   //   Posted in: Labeling, Media

Headline writing is… TK TK TK

Headline writing is a tough job, and I salute anyone who can reliable do it well. I suck at it.

Yesterday I was working on a short item for work about a photographer who shot a portrait of a trombone player. I was trying hard to come up with a concise, pithy headline to slap on it. (The item is part of a department in the magazine, so it doesn’t demand a full headline. Short headlines are hardest to write.) The best I could come up with was “The Music Man.” Weak.

The instant my alarm clock went off this morning, I had a curious phrase in my head: “Top Brass.” There’s my headline. Not great, but 10 times better than “The Music Man.” It’s crazy the things that go on in your brain while you sleep.

Thu 16 Apr 2009 10:00 am   //   Posted in: Brooklyn, Labeling, Photos

The Bimbo truck

Grupo Bimbo is big Mexican bread company. Their bread is sold in some shops in Brooklyn, and I often see their friendly delivery truck zipping around my neighborhood.

Whatever your day brings, at least you don’t have to ride around the city around in a vehicle with the word BIMBO on the side of it.

Fri 13 Mar 2009 7:31 am   //   Posted in: Labeling

What you talkin’ bout, Willis?

Item: Chicago’s Sears Tower is going to be renamed the Willis Tower, after the insurance company.

An insurance company should know better than to pull a stunt like this: Renaming a building is a terrible risk!

Here in New York, we’re proud of our old buildings and their names.

The Woolworth Building is still the Woolworth building. The Chrysler Building will be called that long after the last Chrysler rolls off the assembly line. All sorts of office buildings (including the former Wanamaker’s building I work in, and the Starrett-Lehigh building I used to work in) proudly summon the ghosts of defunct business. Even the Met Life Building, which is branded with a giant electric sign, still triggers in some people’s minds the sign that used to hang there: PAN AM.

My entire life, the Sears Tower has been the tallest building in America. We learned this in school. You can’t just pull out the wires and undo that kind of life-long branding. Now we’re supposed to start calling it Willis? Ugh, I don’t like it.

Wed 28 Jan 2009 8:37 am   //   Posted in: Labeling

Important vs. interesting

I have been thinking about the difference between stuff that’s IMPORTANT and stuff that’s INTERESTING. For some reason, our brains do not give these concepts equal weight. We feel phobic toward big spiders, yet we find nothing scary about riding in a car – even though the odds of sudden death by car accident are far greater than death by spider bite.

This may explain why, over the last decade, America invested billions in airport security and the war in Iraq, yet did very little to patch the vulnerabilities in our financial system. Both terrorism and banks are IMPORTANT. But terrorism is INTERESTING, while banks are not.

Even by sheer numbers, a thing with influence, that’s demonstrably important, is not always interesting. Consider the things we talk about compared the things that touch the greatest numbers of people.

INTERESTING: Plane crashes
IMPORTANT: Heart disease

IMPORTANT: Reader’s Digest

INTERESTING: A handgun in your nightstand
IMPORTANT: A fire extinguisher in your kitchen

INTERESTING: Media companies
IMPORTANT: Construction companies

IMPORTANT: High school sports

INTERESTING: Saturday Night Live
IMPORTANT: 60 Minutes



Things that manage to be both? How about weather, schools and gas prices.