I have a small mysterious wooden box.

It was a gift from a friend, and an empty house, and a departed soul. At this writing, in January 2014, I have had it for just over a year. It is old, with tiny hinges and half a lid (broken edge, worn splinter-free) and the number “21” on two of its sides.

Inside are four compartments, each carefully filled with carefully-rolled dry leaves. I can’t tell what kind of leaves they are. Something sturdy, like red oak.

There is writing on the inside of the lid: pale pencil marks I could never read before, or only almost-read. Something about the light, or my eyes, or the box’s wishes changed tonight, and I can read it. I know it much better now.

It was a typesetter’s box. box-open

Two compartments, before they held leaves, held dashes (which before tonight might have said “disks” or “darker” or “dishes”)—em dashes and en dashes, the E’s written in loops like backwards 3’s, which contrast sharply with the straight-line E’s above them (a different hand? a different mood?).

Dashes are charming to me, with their elegant herding abilities. I use them carefully and often, and won’t write a double hyphen when I should write an em dash.

The other two compartments held Italic capital X-tildes (X̃) and Y-tildes (Ỹ), which I have never had call to use but which apparently stand for an old statistical mean and a new one.

There are other numbers that are code to me. “10 on 10”, which might be “10 or 10” and on first reading said “IomiD”. “Ital cap” is clear now, when before it could have been “Stele crp” or “Stackage”.

The box felt relieved when it was given to me. It relaxed into my hands, after others had looked at it and shaken their heads and left it on its shelf. But it kept its history to itself, letting me love it on its present merits. I love it even more now, knowing a bit more of its past, imagining it is the twenty-first in a series of boxes that used to sit companionably together on a fitted shelf, or in a cabinet, ready to work, to spell, to indicate pauses and spans, and old things and new ones.


It misses its companions, but it sits among other small mysterious beloved things, and I think it is happy.

Here are all the characters:

10 on 10 | 353E Ital cap X̃
10 on 10 | 353E Ital cap Ỹ
6 on 7 7¼ set | Em dashes
6 on 7 7¼ set | En dashes

Grit in the Dish

As a detail-oriented writer, webmaster, and knowledge worker, I notice errors. When I point them out, sometimes people are grateful. Other times, I get pushback along the lines of “Nobody cares about stuff like that except you,” or “I don’t see why you’re worried about that detail.”

Have you ever eaten steamed mussels with sand in them, or salad with grit on it? The food might be perfectly cooked, creatively seasoned, and beautifully plated. But as soon as there’s grit on your palate, you notice. If there’s one piece of grit, some people might overlook it. The more grit, the less edible the dish—no matter how good everything else is, that grit makes the dish less enjoyable, or even inedible. If you go to a restaurant twice, and there is grit in your food both times, would you go back a third time? I wouldn’t. I would think their prep work was sloppy, and that would make me worry about their hygiene practices and respect for product.

“Nobody cares except you” is a coward’s defense, and it dismisses the experience of at least part of your audience. Some people will notice the details. For example, I’m passionate about words, grammar, and usage. I notice when people use a word or phrase imprecisely or inappropriately. I notice if someone is using serial commas, or not using them, or using them inconsistently. I’m passionate, though not expert, about design; I have a strong aesthetic, and I notice when people haven’t learned the same design basics as I have—when they break a grid, or choose colors or fonts haphazardly, or don’t have real people use a product before release.

Caring about these things has earned me some ridicule, but it also has made me a valuable team member—I’ll notice the things that others on the team don’t, so when we put a product out in the world people will notice the content or usefulness of what we made, and (I hope) not be distracted by awkward design choices or grammatical errors. If we don’t pay attention to those kinds of details, some people will think less of us—and think less of our expertise.

Typos, grammatical errors, awkward usage, and inelegant or untested design are the grit in any work. Having a grit-detector on your team makes the work better, and builds your audience’s faith and trust in your expertise.

On the other hand, if the salad with grit in it is made of tough or spoiled greens, that’s a different kind of problem. Don’t bother removing the grit if the greens themselves aren’t good. Spend your energy on starting fresh.

Global North vs Global South: Haves and Have Whats?

I have worked in what I consider the nonprofit sector for almost fifteen years. My current employer is a research and communication center within a university, so some might argue I’m in the academic sector now. However,  my program (and my work) is funded by USAID and operates in the global public health sphere, which makes me feel like I work for a non-governmental organization. That’s not the nomenclature problem. The problem is with the terminology surrounding the global distribution of wealth, power, and certain kinds of economic development.

I’m not denying that there are inequalities in play—countries that give or receive aid, export more than they import, have or don’t have certain kinds of industry and infrastructure, or are above or below the global gross domestic product per capita average. But I think it’s a false dichotomy, and the nomenclature around it is deeply unsatisfactory.

Right now the in-vogue term for countries that (for lack of a better term) I shall call the “economic-industrial-have-nots” is “the Global South”, or just the South. These countries, and the people who live there, are called Southern. Communication and cooperation between them is called “South-South”. This makes my teeth hurt, because of geography. Here’s a map from Wikipedia of the countries above and below the average GDP per capita line.

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.01.24 PM

Yep, a lot of the blue (more-money-than-average) countries are in the northern hemisphere–which by the way includes nearly all of Asia and about half of Africa (I’m not sure, because my brain has been warped by the Mercator projection). There are a lot of blue countries in the southern hemisphere, too. Imprecision bothers me.

I don’t object to having gotten rid of the term “third world countries”–I don’t hear it any more from people in my professional space. “Developing countries” was in vogue for a while, which seemed better, but then as the director of my project noted the other day, “It’s not like a country crosses some magical line and doesn’t have any more progress to make.” Some people were using “emerging markets” for a while (and might stil be), but I find that pretty insulting–as though people in the international development sector are there solely for the purpose of selling people things. (I’m not saying that isn’t *a* reason. But it’s not the only reason. And it’s certainly not my primary reason for doing the work I do.)

I think I’m also irritated because the “rich/poor”, “industrial/agrarian”, “democracy/dictatorship” dichotomies deal in such a narrow sphere of human value. They all split the countries up and attempt to name them as two groups by reducing people to dollars, or voters, or oppressed masses. I think it’s too simple.

And yes, I recognize that my discomfort with the nomenclature is a First World Problem, and I’m having all kinds of guilt about my carbon footprint and disproportionate consumption of all sorts of resources. But here’s a totally different map–a scale, not a dichotomy:

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 10.08.53 PM

This is the Happy Planet Index map. It’s about ecological footprint.

Surprisingly, I’m having trouble finding a map of happiness, or fulfillment, or peace, or connection, or time with family, or any of the other things that count to me as a person to my quality of life.

So, I’m on the lookout for an evolution in the nomenclature. I’ll keep you posted.

Update! Sept. 25, 2013: No evolution in nomenclature, but a new report on global happiness from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a nice post about it on Columbia University’s Earth Institute website, and a digital publication version. Sadly, still no map.

Update 2! Oct. 15, 2021: Nomenclature!! I just heard the term “Majority World” for the first time. It’s a great phrase, although I’m struggling with some imprecise nuances. I’m also annoyed that I haven’t heard it before, despite it having been coined no later than 2009 (the publication date on the article I link to above). Diffusion of innovations is an interesting thing.

Why I Became a Knowledge Manager

In 2003, my then once-and-future-boss Piers Bocock gave me a new title, “Knowledge Manager.” It felt comfortable and satisfying. Up until that point, my career had been fairly accidental and unintentional, driven mostly by other people wanting me to work for them, more than by my own professional ambitions. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the groundwork for my knowledge-manager-ness had been laid in the 1970s.

When I was seven years old and living in England, the BBC aired James Burke’s series Connections, which is about the history of technological change. At the end of the last episode of the first series, Burke gives a monologue about the importance of computers. During much of the monologue, the camera is focused on his face, as though he is speaking directly and personally to the viewer.

He talks about computers, power, and the process of “helping people toward knowledge” as keys to the future. Remember, this was produced when computers were just emerging from the military/financial/corporate sphere. The Apple II and the TRS-80 were released the year before the program aired, but in 1980 when I was in 5th grade and we got an Apple II, I was the only kid in my class with access to a “home computer”. So his prescience here is remarkable.

When I re-watched the series in my mid-30s, I realized I had absorbed his advice whole-heartedly. Listening to that closing monologue, I felt like he was reciting something I had memorized years ago, something which had become a core piece of my personal value system, but without any conscious memory of where it had come from.

The words of James Burke, from Connections, Episode 10: “Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You” (; my slightly edited transcript below starts at 40:56 of the video.)

If Part One of the specialization of knowledge happened in the 15th century when Johann Gutenberg came up with the printing press and helped scientists to talk their own kind of gibberish to each other on the printed page, easier than they’d ever done it before, then this [the computer] is Part Two. Only this is no book that you can leaf through and get a rough idea of what it’s talking about.  This is the future. Because if you tell a computer everything you know about something, it will juggle the mix and come up with a prediction: Do this, and you’ll get that. 

And if you have information and a computer, you too can look into the future—and that is power. Commercial power, political power, power to change things. You want some of that power, easy. Go get yourself a PhD. Otherwise, the way things have become, forget it.  

… But never mind the machinery. What about the stuff this lot uses, the raw material that will change our future in ways you will never believe—information. Not the facts, it’s too late for that. What you do with the facts. Because there you’re into probability theory, choosing one of the alternate futures and actually making it happen. And how does the man in the street get involved in that game? He doesn’t.   

So when the next major change comes out of the computers, double-checked and pre-packaged, it looks increasingly like you’ve only got two options open to you. 

(1) Do nothing. Stick your thumb in your mouth. Switch your mind to neutral. 

(2) Do what people have done for centuries when machines did things they didn’t want: Overreact. Strike out. Sabotage the machines for good. Do you want that? [Somewhat overwrought montage of smashing and exploding technology.] But once you start, can you stop? Is our technology so interconnected that when you destroy one machine, you automatically trigger total destruction of the entire life-support system?  

Well, that’s no better a solution than any of the others, is it? So, in the end, have we learned anything from this look [the entire 10 episode series] at why the world turned out the way it did  that’s of any use for us, in our future? Something, I think. That the key to why things change is the key to everything: How easy is it for knowledge to spread? And that in the past, the people who made change happen were the people who had that knowledge—whether they were craftsmen or kings. 

Today, the people who make things change, the people who have that knowledge, are the scientists and the technologists who are the true driving force of humanity … [I cut out a bit here about art/politics – SP]

Scientific knowledge is hard to take [compared to the products of human emotion– art/literature/politics], because it removes the reassuring crutches of opinion and ideology, and leaves only what is demonstrably true about the world. And the reason why so many people may be thinking about throwing away those crutches is because thanks to science and technology they have begun to know that they don’t know so much. And if they are have to have more say in what happens to their lives, more freedom to develop their abilities to the full, they have to be helped toward that knowledge that they know exists, and that they don’t possess

And by “helped toward that knowledge”, I don’t mean “Give everyone a computer and say ‘Help yourself’.” Where would you even start?  

No, I mean: Try to find ways to translate the knowledge, and to teach us to ask the right questions. See, we are on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that is going to make that more possible than ever before. Or, if it [the translation/helping] is not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us who don’t have access to it as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb, and blind. And I don’t think most people want that. 

 So, what do we do about it? I don’t know. But maybe a good start would be to recognize within yourself the ability to understand anything, because that ability is there, as long as it’s explained clearly enough. And then go and ask for explanations. And if you’re thinking right now “What do I ask for?”, ask yourself if there’s anything in your life that you want changed. That’s where to start. 

Screen Shot from 47:42 of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You
James Burke’s comforting smile in the face of of a daunting future

At the end of this very serious, furrowed-brow, issues-of-importance monologue, he smiles, very slightly. It is an avuncular and gentle and kindly smile, with a hint of knowing in it. I remembered the smile. He was smiling at me, through a television in London in 1978. He was speaking directly to me, and I was listening.

Jargon du Jour

Some days, I live in a world of hurt. Some meetings, conference calls, and academic papers are too much for me to take. My name is Simone, and I am jargon-sensitive.

Firecrackers. Bio-break. Grasstops. Fireballs[1]. Realtime. Synergy. Deep Dive. Gamechangers, and their ancestral Paradigm Shifts. Leverage. Sustainable. Animert.[2]

Words like these hurt me. When I say them, I feel dirty. (I say them anyway, sometimes, because other people in my professional space expect to hear them.) When I hear them, it’s worse than nails-on-a-chalkboard; it’s like stepping barefoot on a tiny piece of glass.

A few months ago I was exposed to the word “exnovation”, and it literally made my palms sweat with linguistic consternation. It was used in the sense of “to improve something by removing outdated or superfluous features”—a process I applaud. It’s the word I have a problem with. Let’s take a look at the pieces (with some help from the Etymological Dictionary):

innovate (v.) Look up innovate at 1540s, “introduce as new,” from L. innovatus, pp. of innovare “to renew, restore; to change,” from in- “into” (see in- (2)) + novus “new” (see new). Meaning “make changes in something established” is from 1590s. Related: Innovated; innovating.

in- (2) Look up in- at Element meaning “into, in, on, upon” (also im-, il-, ir- by assimilation of -n- with following consonant), from L. in- “in” (see in). In O.Fr. this often became en-, which usually was respelled in English to conform with Latin, but not always, which accounts for pairs like enquire/inquire. There was a native form, which in W.Saxon usually appeared as on- (cf. O.E. onliehtan “to enlighten”), and some verbs survived into M.E. (cf. inwrite “to inscribe”), but all now seem to be extinct. Not related to in- (1) “not,” which also was a common prefix in Latin: to the Romans impressus could mean “pressed” or “unpressed.”

ex- Look up ex- at Prefix, in English meaning mainly “out of, from,” but also “upwards, completely, deprive of, without,” and “former;” from L. ex “out of, from within,” from PIE *eghs “out” (cf. Gaul. ex-, O.Ir. ess-, O.C.S. izu, Rus. iz). In some cases also from Greek cognate ex, ek. PIE *eghs had comparative form *eks-tero and superlative *eks-t(e)r-emo-.

So, following these pieces, we see that “innovation” means “the process of imbuing something with newness”, and thus can parse “exnovation” as “to remove or expel newness”. I don’t think that is what the coiner (apparently A Sandeep, or so his blog states) meant. I think he meant “edit” or “improve” or “iterate”, all of which are words that cause me no central nervous system distress.

I don’t mind people coining new words for new ideas (like “meme”, which will probably get a post of its own eventually). In the case of “exnovate”, my objection is to the disregard for venerable prefixes.

[1] “Fireball” hits my jargon-nerve only when used to mean “fans” or “champions”—that is, “People who are on our side, and are vocal about it, and may attract more people to our cause”. I like the word “fireball” when it denotes big globs of flaming pitch, dragon-breath, explosions, meteors, or cinnamon-flavored jawbreakers.

[2] Honorable Mention: After years of it being common parlance, “webinar” is now just below my pain threshhold, thanks in part to the comparative horror of “eSeminar”.


One day this might be a real site.

Well, this is embarrassing.

I set this site up (actually, Jeanne Kramer-Smyth set it up for me) as a place to muse about my professional interests (mostly; see “About”).

Sadly, as you find it now (it’s September…), it’s mostly a demonstration of my lack of follow-through on things that aren’t my highest priorities. We set this site up in March. (Hence the putative “published” date of this post. At that point, this page was the standard “Hello World” WordPress example.) I moved house in May. I began pursuing a new job in June. I started that new job in August. So this lovely little site has not received a great deal of my time and attention. It eventually showed up in my Google results anyway, so I figured I should actually put content here that didn’t make me ashamed of myself.

Kindred spirits

Check it out: A jargon-checker called, beautifully, “Bullfighter“.

It just gives me a warm, I’m-not-alone feeling.
I haven’t tried it out yet. I’m just happy someone developed it. And it’s free.

[Postscript, Sept. 2014: It is with deep sadness that I discover the Bullfighter link is broken. It used to be supported by a big consulting firm, but then they dropped it and no-one picked it up, which is a shame. I think the plug-in stopped working circa 2011. The people who wrote the content for the plug-in also wrote this book, which is still available: Why Business People Speak Like Idiots.]


While taking my pulses this morning, my Chinese doctor asked me if I had a cold. “Mmmaybe,” said I. “Not a cold, I don’t think. Just the sniffles.”
During my lunchtime walk I was meditating cheerfully on the pleasingness of the expression “the sniffles”. All onomatopoeiac and quaint, like “the ague.” Plus it’s fun to say. Sniffles.
Now I’m pretty sure I do have a cold. All kinds of sneezing and nose-blowing and itchy throat. Booooo. But good on him for being able to tell me I had a cold eight hours in advance of me becoming aware of it.

The joy of variety

Tiny Garnet sweet potatoes are much, much yummier than big ol’ Beauregard sweet potatoes.
Also, re. the “yam” vs. “sweet potato” question: This has bothered me for ages, and this is a summary of my informal research:

YAMS (from Wolof “nyam” meaning “to taste”) are a food plant grown across Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Oceania. The tubers involved are often ginormous, and they have oxalic acid (an irritant) in their skins. They don’t look anything like sweet potatoes to me, except for the general shape and starchiness.

SWEET POTATOES are a food plant grown across Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, North America, Asia, and parts of Oceania. Some varieties (mostly the very-orange ones) are colloquially called “yams” in the U.S. and Canada; speculation is that this is a linguistic transfer from kidnapped Africans who stuck the word “nyam” on the closest parallel big starchy tuber widely grown in the American South.

So, it’s not wrong to call a sweet potato a yam; it just might get you the wrong thing if you’re in an international market.

I guessed wrong!

I was walking down Old Georgetown Road this morning and passed a newspaper box for the Montgomery Gazette, and I started wondering if “Gazette” was a newspaper name in the same way as “Mirror”–e.g., if “gazette” was some kind of archaic word for mirror, like “little gazing glass”. I liked the idea, but I was completely wrong. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it’s because of magpies, and coins.