December 18, 2014

Wu Wei

tao of pooh

Wu wei [woo-wey] is an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Chinese classic text the ‘Tao te Ching’ (‘Book of the Way and the Power’) Laozi explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao (‘the Way’) behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Laozi, the attainment of this purely natural way of behaving. He likened it to the planets revolving around the the sun, without any sort of control, force, or attempt to revolve themselves, instead engaging in effortless and spontaneous movement.

Several chapters of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ allude to ‘diminishing doing’ or ‘diminishing will’ as the key aspect of the sage’s success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key. According to Laozi: ‘The Sage is occupied with the unspoken, and acts without effort. Teaching without verbosity, producing without possessing, creating without regard to result, claiming nothing, the Sage has nothing to lose.’ Continue reading

December 17, 2014

Argot

verlan

2B or nt 2B

An argot [ahr-goh] is a secret language used by various groups — e.g. schoolmates, outlaws, colleagues, among many others — to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations. The term is also used to refer to the informal specialized vocabulary from a particular field of study, occupation, or hobby, in which sense it overlaps with jargon (non-standard definitions). French author Victor Hugo was one of the first to research argot extensively. He describes it in his 1862 novel ‘Les Misérables’ as the language of the dark; at one point, he says, ‘What is argot; properly speaking? Argot is the language of misery.’ The earliest known record of the term in this context was in a 1628 document. The word was probably derived from the contemporary name, ‘les argotiers,’ given to a group of thieves at that time.

Under the strictest definition, an argot is a proper language, with its own grammar and style. But such complete secret languages are rare, because the speakers usually have some public language in common, on which the argot is largely based. Such argots are mainly versions of another language, with a part of its vocabulary replaced by words unknown to the larger public; argot used in this sense is synonymous with cant language, such as verlan and louchébem (similar to Pig Latin), which retain French syntax and apply transformations only to individual words (and often only to a certain subset of words, such as nouns, or semantic content words). Such systems are examples of ‘argots à clef,’ or ‘coded argots.’ Specific words can go from argot into common speech or the other way. For example, modern French ‘loufoque’ (‘crazy, goofy’), now common usage, originates in the louchébem transformation of ‘fou'(‘crazy’). ‘Piaf’ is a Parisian argot word for ‘bird, sparrow’ taken up by the singer Edith Piaf as her stage name.

December 17, 2014

Louchébem

pig latin

piaf

Louchébem [loo-shuh-behm] is Parisian and Lyonnaise butchers’ (French boucher) slang, similar to Pig Latin and Verlan. It originated in the mid-19th century and was in common use until the 1950s. Each word is transformed by moving the first consonant to the end; and suffixes such as -ème, -ji, -oc, -muche are added at the end; the letter ‘L’ is placed at the beginning of the new word. Note that spelling often becomes phoneticized.

Even today, Louchébem is still well-known and used among those working at point-of-sale in the meat retail industry. Some words have even leaked into common, everyday use by the masses; an example is the word ‘loufoque,’ meaning unsound of mind. In 1937, English novelist E.C. Bentley used the language as a plot point in his short story, ‘The Old-Fashioned Apache.’

December 16, 2014

Jargon

eric raymond

Jargon [jahr-guhn], or term of art, is ‘the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.’ The word ‘jargon’ is French and is believed to have been derived from the Latin ‘gaggire,’ meaning ‘to chatter,’ which was used to describe something in which the speaker did not understand. An ‘industry term’ is jargon that is associated with one particular industry. Jargon is similar to slang, both are non-standard definitions often created by and for subcultures. It is also common for each generation to create their own jargon. Whether this is because they want to identify with each other and thus create a language of their own, or conversely, if they deliberately do not want to be understood by anybody else (e.g. texting slang used by teens to communicate messages their parents won’t be able to translate).

Philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac observed in 1782 that ‘every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas.’ As a rationalist member of the Enlightenment he thought, ‘It seems that one ought to begin by composing this language, but people begin by speaking and writing, and the language remains to be composed.’ Within each field, terms have one or more specific meanings that are not necessarily the same as those in common use. In earlier times, the term jargon would refer to trade languages used by people who spoke different native tongues to communicate, such as the Chinook Jargon, a pidgin (a simplified language) that developed among traders in the Pacific Northwest. Continue reading

December 15, 2014

Creolization

nuyorican by George Garrastegui Jr

Bastard Tongue by Serifcan Ozcan

Creolization [kree-uh-lahy-zey-shuhn] is the process of two or more cultures mixing, as happened in in the Americas between people of indigenous, African, and European descent. Creolization is traditionally used to refer to the Caribbean but can be extended to represent other diasporas. The mixing of populations creates a cultural melting pot which ultimately leads to the formation of new identities. Creolization also is the mixing of the ‘old’ and ‘traditional,’ with the ‘new’ and ‘modern.’

Furthermore, creolization occurs when participants actively select cultural elements that may become part of or inherited culture. Social scientist Robin Cohen states that Creolization is a condition in which ‘the formation of new identities and inherited culture evolve to become different from those they possessed in the original cultures,’ and then creatively merge these to create new varieties that supersede the prior forms. Continue reading

December 14, 2014

Pizza Effect

general tso

The pizza effect is a term used especially in religious studies and sociology for the phenomenon of elements of a nation or people’s culture being transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported back to their culture of origin, or the way in which a community’s self-understanding is influenced by (or imposed by, or imported from) foreign sources.

It is named after the idea that modern pizza was developed among Italian immigrants in the United States (rather than in native Italy where in its simpler form it was originally looked down upon), and was later exported back to Italy to be interpreted as a delicacy in Italian cuisine. Other culinary examples include chicken tikka masala, popularized in the UK before gaining prominence in India, and General Tso’s chicken, a dish unknown in China before it was introduced by chefs returning from the States. Continue reading

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December 13, 2014

Fortune Cookie

fortune cookies

A fortune cookie is a folded wafer cookie with a piece of paper inside with words of wisdom, an aphorism, or a vague prophecy. The message may also include a Chinese phrase with translation or a list of lucky numbers used by some in lotteries (some of which have become actual winning numbers). Fortune cookies are often served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants in the United States and some other countries, but are absent in China.

The exact origin of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 20th century, basing their recipe on a traditional Japanese cracker. Fortune cookies have been summarized as being ‘introduced by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately … consumed by Americans.’ In 1992, Wonton Food of Brooklyn, NY attempted to expand its fortune cookie business into China, but gave up because the product was considered ‘too American.’

Continue reading

December 13, 2014

Oyster Pail

oyster pail

An oyster pail is a folded, waxed, paper food container commonly used by American Chinese restaurants, traditionally with a handle made of solid wire (microwave-safe plastic handles are also available). In the US oyster pails are now available in standard sizes and can also serve as self-measuring containers, so that many take-out foods are sold in pints and quarts and packed into pails of the appropriate size. They can also be found in some European countries such as Germany and England, but are rarely seen in China. The container has the advantage of being inexpensive, durable, and fairly leakproof, as long as it is kept upright. The top usually includes a locking paperboard tab. The simple origami-like folded construction also allows for some escape of steam from hot food. If the sides are unfolded, the pail can also double as a makeshift plate, but it is more common to eat directly out of the container, a feat that the long reach of chopsticks makes possible.

The paperboard oyster pail was invented in the US around 1894, at a time when fresh oysters were more popular, more plentiful, and less expensive than they are at present. Since shucking oysters (removing the raw meat from the shell) can be difficult and dangerous, it was common to ask the oyster seller open them. The oyster pail provided an inexpensive and sanitary way to bring home shucked oysters. In the early 20th century oyster pails were also used to hold honey. In the mid-20th century, overfishing (and the subsequent rise in price) of oysters left manufacturers with a significant number of unsold oyster pails. However, in the US after World War II, there was a huge increase in sales of prepared foods that could be purchased from restaurants, and heated or finished at home. Chinese food proved to be a popular choice, since it was relatively inexpensive and traveled well. The oyster pail was quickly adopted for ‘Chinese takeout.’

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December 12, 2014

Knocking on Wood

Superstition by Olimpia Zagnoli

Knocking on wood, or to touch wood, refers to the apotropaic tradition (a ritual intended to ward off evil) of literally touching, tapping, or knocking on wood, or merely stating that you are doing or intend same, in order to avoid ‘tempting fate’ after making a favorable observation, a boast, or declaration concerning one’s own death or other situation beyond one’s control. The origin of this may be in Germanic folklore, wherein dryads (forest spirits) are thought to live in trees, and can be invoked for protection.

In Italy, ‘tocca ferro’ (‘touch iron’) is used, especially after seeing an undertaker or something related to death. In Iran, ‘bezan be takhteh’ (‘knock on the wood’) is said. The ‘evil eye,’ and being jinxed are common phobias and superstitions in Iranian culture. In old English folklore, ‘knocking on wood’ also referred to when people spoke of secrets – they went into the isolated woods to talk privately and ‘knocked’ on the trees when they were talking to hide their communication from evil spirits who would be unable to hear when they knocked. Another version holds that the act of knocking was to perk up the spirits to make them work in the requester’s favor. Yet another version holds that a sect of Monks who wore large wooden crosses around their necks would tap or ‘knock’ on them to ward away evil.

December 11, 2014

Biomimicry

airfoil

George de Mestral

Biomimicry [bahy-oh-mim-ik-ree] is the imitation of biological systems in human technology. Living organisms have evolved well-adapted structures and materials over geological time through natural selection. Nature has solved engineering problems such as self-healing, environmental exposure tolerance, hydrophobicity (waterproofing), self-assembly, and harnessing solar energy.

One of the early examples of biomimicry was the study of birds to enable human flight. Although never successful in creating a ‘flying machine,’ Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was a keen observer of the anatomy and flight of birds, and made numerous notes and sketches on his observations as well as designs of rudimentary ornithopters based on bats. The Wright Brothers, who succeeded in flying the first heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903, derived inspiration from observations of pigeons in flight. Their airfoil was based on a design by German ‘Glider King’ Otto Lilienthal who published ‘Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation.’ Velcro, another famous example, was inspired by the tiny hooks found on the surface of burs. Continue reading

December 10, 2014

Handedness

leftorium

Handedness [han-did-nis] is a better (faster or more precise) performance or individual preference for use of a hand. It is not a discrete variable (right or left), but a continuous one that can be expressed at levels between strong left and strong right. While in an ordinary disclosure the terms left and right are used to define handedness, there are actually four types: left-handedness, right-handedness, mixed-handedness (favoring one hand for some tasks and the other hand for others), and ambidexterity (equally adept with both hands). Left-handedness is somewhat more common among men.

Global studies indicate that 10% of people are left-handed, 30% are mixed-handed, and the remainder are right-handed. Ambidexterity is exceptionally rare, although it can be learned. However, a truly ambidextrous person is able to do any task equally well with either hand, whereas those who learn it still tend to favor their originally dominant hand. Ambilevous or ambisinister people demonstrate awkwardness with both hands. Parkinson’s disease in particular is associated with a loss of dexterity. Continue reading

December 9, 2014

Lumpers and Splitters

How I Killed Pluto

Lumpers and splitters are opposing factions in any discipline which has to place individual examples into rigorously defined categories. The lumper-splitter problem occurs when there is the need to create classifications and assign examples to them, for example schools of literature, biological taxa and so on. ‘Lumpers’ take a gestalt view (looking at the whole rather than the parts) and assign examples broadly, assuming that differences are not as important as signature similarities. ‘Splitters’ prefer precise definitions, and create new categories to classify things that don’t fit perfectly within an existing group.

The earliest use of these terms was by Charles Darwin, in a letter to botanist J. D. Hooker in 1857: ‘Those who make many species are the ‘splitters,’ and those who make few are the ‘lumpers.’ They were introduced more widely by paleontologist George G. Simpson in his 1945 work ‘The Principles of Classification and a Classification of Mammals.’ As he put it, ‘splitters make very small units – their critics say that if they can tell two animals apart, they place them in different genera … and if they cannot tell them apart, they place them in different species. … Lumpers make large units – their critics say that if a carnivore is neither a dog nor a bear, they call it a cat.’ Continue reading

December 9, 2014

Gypsy Brewery

Mikkeller

evil twin

A gypsy brewery is a beer company that does not have its own equipment or premises; it operates on a temporary or itinerant basis out of the facilities of another brewery, generally making ‘one-off’ special occasion beers. The term may refer to the brewmaster, or to the brand of beer. The trend of gypsy brewing spread early in Scandinavia. Their beers, and collaborations later spread to America and Australia.

Gypsy brewers typically use facilities of larger makers with excess capacity. Often, their beers are made with herbs, spices, and fruits, use experimental styles, are high in alcohol, or are aged in old wine or liquor barrels. Prominent examples include Pretty Things, Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Mikkeller and Evil Twin.

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December 8, 2014

Overchoice

too many choices by carl richards

jam experiment

Overchoice, also referred to as ‘choice overload,’ is a term describing a problem facing consumers in the postindustrial society: too many choices. The term was first introduced by futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, ‘Future Shock.’ Overchoice is the result of technological progress. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, each year, more and more products are being offered. Consumers have more disposable income to spend, and producers can more easily and cheaply introduce product variations.

Having more choices, on the surface, appears to be a positive development; however it hides an underlying problem: faced with too many choices, consumers have trouble making optimal choices, and thus as a result can be indecisive. When confronted with a plethora of choices without perfect information, many people prefer to make no choice at all, even if making a choice would lead to a better outcome. Toffler noted that as the choice turns to overchoice, ‘freedom of more choices’ ironically becomes the opposite—the ‘unfreedom.’ Continue reading

December 7, 2014

Behavioral Economics

decoy effect

nudge

Behavioral economics is a smaller part of economics that combines what we know about psychology with what we know about economics. Normally, economics does not consider the way humans actually think, but instead, abstracts complex decision-making into comparatively simple mathematical models.

Normally, economists assume people are rational, meaning they make good decisions at the right times using all information. In reality, people are subject to problems with self-control, limitations of time and physical resources, and make different choices depending on how decisions are presented to them. Continue reading

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