Words we need but don’t have, versus words we have but don’t need


Guac? (Photo credit: Lady Madonna)


Lately, there’s been developments on both sides of the language spectrum – many new words that we really don’t need have entered the language, while at the same time there are things we’d need to describe for which there are no words, at least not real ones.


First, on the unnecessary side, the Oxford Dictionaries Online (not the OED itself, as pointed out by Slate here) just announced their latest batch of words, and it’s a humble-jumble of words that I’m sure some teenagers out there are using, but that really don’t feel like they will be around long enough to be included. Atlantic has a fun take on it here. What’s up with all the abbreviations and acronyms? Is it a pure result of a texting society, or are we just in a hurry? Guac and apols are not words, they are abbreviations only.


Why invent all these new words at the same time as we don’t use all these great existing words? Atlantic just had a piece on which words get removed from dictionaries, detailing the harsh fate that words such as landlubberliness and ostmark have encountered. Perhaps they can be consoled by the fact that they survived a lot longer than twerking and fauxhawk probably will.


On the other side of the spectrum, there are also all these words that don’t exist, but whose existence actually would enrich our language. The recently published Afterliff covers new fun words created from signposts, and defines common emotions such as a person worth emailing, but not phoning (eworthy). In this earlier post, I looked at some other great resources for this, above and beyond Urban Dictionary, such as the Emotionary.


One example of something that really should get its own word is the “yeah no”-combination. Lexicon Valley had a great podcast on its use. In our ambiguous society, that could definitely be a concept that deserved its own proper word.


What will become of the new global middle class in light of the emerging markets storm?

In the current storm surrounding emerging markets, it’s interesting to analyse what this means for the new emerging global middle class that has been one of the key global demographics stories over the last decade.
At the same time as the middle classes in the developed countries has been squeezed both from the top and the bottom, millions of people from developing countries have joined their ranks. In countries as diverse as China, Indonesia and Brazil, a wide swath of people have seen increased incomes and have started to be referred to as middle class. Over the last years, there has been plenty of excitement regarding how this new middle class will deliver the next wave of growth. BBC has been running a major investigation into the topic lately.
Now however, we are seeing a host of negative news regarding emerging markets, and their growth is coming into question. Does the latest developments mean that the promise of the new middle class will falter? Has the stellar growth we’ve seen in emerging markets over the last years just been an effect of liquidity from developed countries flooding the world with nowhere to go? Will the end of the commodities super cycle spell an end to the boom for emerging markets economies? Or is there a solid underlying growth story?
It is of course not really helpful to talk of emerging markets as one homogeneous category, but that is the way the markets seem to think about them, given the last week’s outflow of money from any country that seems remotely emerging, so let’s look at the story overall.
In a country such as China, we have seen millions already join the “new middle class”. At least if we define a person who saves up a month’s salary to buy a Coach handbag as middle class. China might now be running out of its unlimited supply of labor, and the debt overhang in its cities and companies suggests that it’s in for a significant slow down in growth. But at least they have seen true productivity growth. We will not see the millions of new middle class denizens quietly return to the countryside. Rather, they might start fulfilling that other classic tenet of being middle class – to start demanding political freedoms corresponding to their economic ones.
In Africa, we’re seeing huge steps forward, which has led to some spectacular growth rates, and a more savvy population. The FT argues here that this has the positive benefit of making elections harder to steal over time. Although the ease of the recent Zimbabwe election tells a different story.

One big group of countries is the India, Indonesia and Brazil of the world. The ones who haven’t done the structural reforms they should have when times were good, and the liquidity might just have masked the lack of real economic progress. Even if it’s often said that countries don’t do the needed reforms until the crisis hits, these countries will face a hard time doing so. There will likely not be huge increases in their middle classes soon.

So what’s going on with the middle class in developed countries? Robots are taking its jobs, and the new jobs that are created by technology seem out of reach for the average middle class person, and pay less in any case, as we can see in the app economy. All industrial technology revolutions before the Internet seemed to create more jobs than they destroyed, but so far, the Internet has created no new middle class jobs. The developed world’s middle class seems to be in for a continued decline, with unemployment becoming structural over time, as more and more industries turn more and more digital. 
This will lead to more outrage and radicalization, as we’ve seen in the support for more extreme parties all over Europe. In Greece with 50% youth unemployment it could be understandable that voters turn to more extreme alternatives, but in Germany where growth is still strong? It shows that the content middle class is shrinking even there.
What we should see that would address both these issues is a much larger amount of migration, within countries, and between countries. We’re seeing a little bit of this with the reverse colonization between Portugal and Angola, but we’d need to see a whole lot more. Paradoxically, both in the US and in Europe, we’re seeing much less migration than historically, and, of course, much more resistance to it.
A renewed push to simplify migration globally, maybe as part of TTIP and TPPA, could solve both these issues in one go, as the continued growth of the middle class in emerging markets, and thereby the global economy, would be pushed forward by a medium-tech workforce from developed countries who escape unemployment and early retirement. Even if unrealistic in large scale at the current time, I think we’ll see more of this as these trends all carry on, and are joined by climate change redrawing countries’ boundaries.

More Twitter pre-IPO experimentation

Following my post on Twitter’s upcoming IPO yesterday, there were several good articles today on how they’re going about preparing for it. FT reported that Twitter had appointed their first head of commerce, to generate revenue from e-commerce, probably driven by the “cards” they use already. The Washington Post had an article on how Facebook’s stock price resurgence has opened the door to Twitter and how Twitter will be judged by Wall Street in a similar way as Facebook (i.e. the slightly formulaic if you don’t have mobile revenue, your stock is worth less than a cup of coffee).

Another story that shows further experimentation with Twitter as a media channel came on The Next Web, which described an experiment that the Times is running, of letting users tweet specifically chosen highlights from a story. This kind of ready-made tweet has long annoyed me on other websites, since it never seems to say the same thing that I’d like to say. It’s a diametrically different approach to the one I mentioned earlier that Gawker was testing out, of letting the users even change the headline of the story as they forward it. Both might be valid for different kinds of stories, however. The only thing that is for sure is that we’ll continue to see a lot of experimentation from Twitter in the lead-up to the IPO.

If you have any other examples of interesting Twitter experiments you’ve seen, please let us know in the comments. Follow me on Twitter (of course) for more updates.

The Secular Age, On Being, De Botton and finding God everywhere

A recent David Brooks op-ed discussed Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age. I think my key takeaway was the quote that people are “incapable of being indifferent to the transcendent”. People are rejecting organised religions since they are too educated and too well-informed to be able to accept the questionable parts that come with them. But that doesn’t mean that they are content with a daily life that has no spiritual aspects.
One of my favorite books of recent years, as I’ve mentioned before, is Alain De Botton‘s Religion for Atheists. De Botton highlights a number of ways for today’s secular, hurried and discerning person to regain some of the aspects that religion would have given them had they been born a hundred years ago. Some of my favorites include treating museums as churches that open our minds to new influences, and filling our calendar with regular times for ritual, the way the church year makes introspection structured and regular by designating specific days for it.
According to Brooks, Taylor says people are moving toward a galloping spiritual pluralism. Everyone wants to have their own religion in our age of individualism. De Botton’s structured approach could help them get there. A podcast that looks at spirituality in a similar vein is APM’s On Being. In it, Krista Tippett explores all today’s differing facets of spirituality, and all the ways people have of finding their own God, and their own connection with a higher sense of being. It offers many interesting takes on where faith pops up in our secular world. For me, the most interesting ones are the ones where religion, technology and philosophy intersects, such as this episode on string theory and this one on exoplanets.
With the growth of meditation in Silicon Valley, and Tim Ferriss offering his version of meditating, we’re seeing more and more examples of people being able to marry spirituality with science and knowledge. Seems like there is still hope that we can all achieve spiritual fulfillment even in this secular age.

Twittered away with an IPO

There was a wonderful piece in the Economist the other week, which detailed the largest Twitter spike in volume ever, and its reasons. Apparently all the Super Bowl wardrobe malfunctions and royal or reality TV-royal babies have nothing on the dedication of Japanese Miyazaki fans (the director of Spirited Away). The spike in volume came from them all simultaneously tweeting a spell at the corresponding time in the movie Castle in the Sky.

Cover of "Spirited Away"

Spirited Away

So we knew already that Japanese fans are extremely dedicated to their anime, and like to do things in a coördinated fashion, but why is Twitter telling us this? According to the Economist’s corresponding Babbage podcast, it’s Twitter bragging about its capability to handle the huge amount of tweets (143,000 in a second!), to show that it’s overcome its earlier capacity issues (the beloved fail whale) in anticipation of its upcoming IPO.

There are a couple of privately held tech companies (Spotify, Airbnb, etc) out there who are getting very valuable and who should be on the verge of doing their IPOs soon. Facebook just surpassed its offering price. In a normal world, that would hardly be a cause for jubilation, but given how much beating that stock has taken, apparently just getting your initial money back is a good thing. Facebook being under water has acted as a barrier keeping all these other companies from proceeding with their IPOs.

English: Tweeting bird, derived from the initi...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Now Spotify for example should get their IPO done as soon as possible, before someone else eats their lunch, and would probably only be useful for both shareholders and users, but the inevitable Twitter IPO might turn out to be an unfortunate thing for users. As was argued a while ago, Twitter is a completely unique media channel, and is practically a global public good in its distribution of news more than just another social media “network”. No other channel distributes news so equitably (a Middle Eastern activist has the same voice as a Middle Eastern President), and so rapidly (where else can you get informed second-by-second of events anywhere in the world?)

There is a legitimate worry that an IPO would damage that. The need to monetize the user base might over time decrease the simplicity that makes Twitter so useful all over the world. So far additions have been hit-or-miss (sponsored tweets annoying / related articles illuminating), so I really hope that they can explore subscription and sponsorship models that don’t interfere with the clean user experience.

Musings on aging in the digital age

Was reading the great op-ed on turning 80 that Oliver Sacks wrote in the New York Times recently, on the joys of aging, which got me thinking about what aging will be like for my generation and the generations to come. Judging from Mr Sacks’ experience, 80 is clearly the new 50 – healthy enough and with enough wisdom compiled over the years to feel content.

Hopefully, in the decade in which I’ll turn 80, the 2050’s (it sounds fascinatingly futuristic to assign to decades yet to come the -ies endings we are so used to seeing for past decades filled with a personality of their own like the roaring 20’s, or the neon 80’s), enough of today’s trends (the beneficial ones) will have come to pass that our lives will be quite different than those of 80-year old today, and yesterday.

I remember the generation of my grandparents sitting in their 80’s and 90’s and being incapable of doing much at all. As for me on the other hand, in the 2050’s, I’m hoping that the wearables and computer miniaturization trend will have come so far that I will have Internet not only on my glasses (which is so 2010’s), but directly linked into my brain. Content will be ubiquitous, as it almost is already, and neuroscience will have progressed to the point where I can search my brain like a Google Drive, which means I can relive any memory in full HD (10800 by then, at least) just thinking about it.

Organs will be 3D-printed in one’s house, with robots that can perform simple surgery, which means that our life quality should be much improved. Digestible computers should be able to alarm our doctor in case any of our critical values change, and can release medicine appropriately automatically.

Well. It’s either that, or some of the less positive trends come to pass and we’ll end up regressing. With or without the technology, we’ll always have the wisdom.


Internet for the 9 billion

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The announcement yesterday that Facebook and a consortium of tech companies have set up internet.org to bring Internet to the whole world’s population is interesting. As I discussed in an earlier post, Facebook has for some time introduced various initiatives aimed at bringing Facebook to more people. This is obviously a necessary goal for them given that they already have almost half of the world’s Internet users (1.2bn out of 2.7bn), and they have to continue to show growth from somewhere. And, as mentioned, many users in developing countries who are new to the Internet consider Facebook to be Internet, which is not a bad position to be in (if the day would come, I don’t think Facebook would make the Kleenex/Xerox complaint of saying that their brand has become synonymous with the generic product!)

However, the internet.org initiative is definitely laudable, as it aims to make the access to Internet a human right, as it should be. In today’s world, not having access to the Internet is perhaps not yet as debilitating for a young person as not having access to education or shelter, but it’s definitely a direction we’re moving in. Providing Internet access as aid can be important for sustainable development, as mentioned in the UN.

English: Internet Penetration (% Population). ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

There are a number of initiatives aimed at increasing connectivity to the Internet for rural and remote areas. The BRCK is a very exciting and innovative product that aims to solve the problem of spotty connectivity in rural areas. Support it on Kickstarter here. This article by Ethan Zuckermann in Wired discusses the BRCK in more detail. As discussed in an earlier post, Google X’s Project Loon is of course also a great initiative in this vein.

The growth of Internet access in the world is currently just under 9%, which is impressive, even if it used to be higher, and hopefully will be with this latest batch of innovations. Since the growth rate of the world’s population is 1.1% and slowly declining, technically the day of Internet access for all could come in less than 15 years. Of course, this won’t happen due to all the factors complicating reaching the remaining 4 billion (not to mention the 2 billion that will be added between now and 2050), but here’s to hoping that it can be done.

Schrodinger’s cat on the Internet

It seems to be a beautiful happenstance that at the same time as we get new discoveries in quantum mechanics, such as this bits teleportation, we also have a new technology – the Internet – which according to some very knowledgeable people, or at least people on Reddit, which may or may not be the same thing, seems to be mostly geared toward looking at pictures of cats.

Cats were of course the subject of one of the most famous thought experiments in quantum mechanics – Schrodinger’s cat in the box. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, it was the observer that “ruined” the experiment, and made the cat come down from its state of being neither dead nor alive.

English: Diagram of Schrodinger's cat theory. ...

Fortunately, a new technology solves this problem. Enter Snapcat. With Snapcat, we no longer need to live in fear of there being an infinite number of alternate universes, since we no longer need an observer. Give the cat an Android phone, and off it goes. It can take pictures of itself all day long, in its neither-dead-nor-alive status.

Only issue is what happens when someone looks at the photos. Does the cat then fall into one state over the other?

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Things I thought would have been invented by now

There are some things that I think would be extremely useful, which I’m surprised that they don’t exist. Here are some examples:

  • USB-drive with LED-text display of its contents.
  • Sound notes. Sometimes you want to capture the sound of a moment, the same way you’d like to capture a photo. Apart from doing voice memos, which can’t be tagged, or shooting a video, which might have distracting visuals, I haven’t seen a way/an app to do this.

Here is my on-going list of these items.

Anyone has seen/heard of any of these? Please let me know in the comments.


Key learnings from last week – August 17