Archive for the 'Language' Category

11
Feb
09

Bad Science Language

115045505_621679f0ca_mLanguage in science is a challenge. Science comes with gray areas that both intrigue and confuse.  Getting it right every time is unlikely, making science a perfect example of ongoing thought evolution. However, few things make me more angry than when science is twisted to suit agendas. Consider the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield:

The doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism, a Sunday Times investigation has found. (link)

One thing in particular caught my eye a little later in the article:

Despite involving just a dozen children, the 1998 paper’s impact was extraordinary. After its publication, rates of inoculation fell from 92% to below 80%. Populations acquire “herd immunity” from measles when more than 95% of people have been vaccinated.

Herd immunity brought to mind Mark Earls and his insights into why humans do what they do. I was pleasantly surprised to see him post today on this very issue:

As I’ve noted before, vaccination is a HERD thing: its real power works at a population level. If that falls below a certain level, then diseases that used to cause significant damage can become prevalent again. Fuelling the conversation that suggests that there are risks or any evidence of risks leads to the lower level of compliance with the vaccination programme and creates the opportunity for the resurgance of once almost unknown childhood diseases. Particularly when the science is so damn clear. (link)

I will never understand why scientists elect to promote ideas that aren’t backed up by real research. It seems like these pretenders are discovered with relative ease once someone elects to take a hard look at the data. Very little seems to be gained while a huge amount is put at risk.

Scientific language becomes even more important when we’re talking about things that impact lives directly. Parents want to know what they can do to best protect their children. Inaccurate information only makes this harder to do.

As a layperson, I can think of few positions that come with greater social responsibility than that of scientist. This responsibility includes choosing one’s words with care. Each individual has a right to his or her opinion, but once it’s expressed publicly, the individual must accept the consequences.

Image via Flickr by ms_cwang.

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25
Mar
08

Language in the Financial Markets

Our economic markets are a mess. If you follow the noise on CNBC or regularly scan what passes for journalism in magazines like Smart Money, you might think the world is coming to an end. Beyond our fascination with the numbers, we forget that words play a powerful role in our financial markets. Consider the following statements with each happening approximately a week or so apart by the same person:

“Bear Stearns’ balance sheet, liquidity and capital remain strong.” (link)

“The past week has been an incredibly difficult time for Bear Stearns. This transaction represents the best outcome for all of our constituencies based upon the current circumstances. I am incredibly proud of our employees and believe they will continue to add tremendous value to the new enterprise.” (link)

Both statements, made by Alan Schwartz, President and Chief Executive officer of Bear Stearns, cover the recent action taken by the Federal Reserve (our central bank, spending our money). The Fed set up a buyer for Bear Stearns, JPMorgan, and took financial responsibility ($30 billion) for the most questionable liabilities. Note that The Wall Street Journal calls the Fed’s move “unprecedented.” (link)

Don’t Ignore the Words

While I take issue with the Fed’s actions from an economic standpoint, I’m most interested in how little attention is paid to the words surrounding the events. For example, JPMorgan, in an effort to appease both its shareholders and Bear Stearns’ shareholders positioned the purchase as a benefit for everyone involved.

“JPMorgan Chase stands behind Bear Stearns,” said Jamie Dimon, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of JPMorgan Chase. “Bear Stearns’ clients and counterparties should feel secure that JPMorgan is guaranteeing Bear Stearns’ counterparty risk. We welcome their clients, counterparties and employees to our firm, and we are glad to be their partner.”

Dimon added, “This transaction will provide good long-term value for JPMorgan Chase shareholders. This acquisition meets our key criteria: we are taking reasonable risk, we have built in an appropriate margin for error, it strengthens our business, and we have a clear ability to execute.” (link)

Long-term, the deal may end up a great one for JPMorgan, but I’d argue that the language covers up a bigger issue pointed out by The Wall Street Journal:

Consider: The whole credit crisis largely reflects a lack of good information…A spectacular bankruptcy would shine a bright line on this mess. To start, Bear’s trading counterparties and other creditors would have to show themselves and explain their positions to a public examiner. And then bankruptcy lawyers would have to pore through each and every one of Bear’s assets and liabilities, making the full autopsy public.

Of course, such a full accounting would take at least a year and likely longer. But we’ve already endured almost a year of an opaque credit crisis. What if, in another year, we’re still in the middle of the crisis with no new real, third-party information to guide us out? The information provided by Bear’s bankruptcy would then be invaluable. (link)

Going back to an earlier post, I posit that our impatience with language and our pursuit of of immediate gratification impacts current monetary policy and not in a good way. When did we stop being a society that saw value in long-term investments? When did we start buying into the hype, as a group, that getting rich quick was not only possible but almost guaranteed to everyone?

Building Something

When was the last time you knew your money was being spent or invested on something bigger, something with a larger impact? In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey while trying to convince depositors to not sell their Building and Loan shares to the “evil” Mr. Potter or to close their accounts, has a great line about why the money isn’t just sitting in the safe:

You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?…Now wait…now listen…now listen to me. I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there’ll never be another decent house built in this town…Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other. (link)

I believe we’ve stopped thinking about our money actually working for something bigger and instead, we’ve focused on quick results that potentially leave us with liquid funds to fuel our consumer habits. What if we actually invested in companies that did things, measurable things? What if we looked around our local communities for investment opportunities? What if we picked companies that could explain, using easy words, what they do and why they add value? If companies could talk plainly about what they do, do you think we’d care as much about stock prices?

Comments?

13
Feb
08

Amazon’s Language Problem

Amazon Screenshot

I’ve debated for weeks whether to write this post (I apologize in advance. It’s long). I’m questioning my relationship with Amazon. How, you might ask, does my relationship with Amazon relate to this blog? Amazon’s language has crossed a point where I believe it warrants examination. Let’s start with a little background. I have an Amazon Prime membership, which gives me free two-day shipping and a discount on next day shipping.

From the beginning, I loved it. Then, something started happening. I started getting packages later than two days and via my postman. The shipping labels revealed that these packages were shipped via DHL. Curious, I did some checking and found that DHL didn’t deliver in my area, instead relying on USPS to complete delivery of their packages. The result? The earliest I’ll receive my package is three days, with the additional hassle of having to visit the post office myself if I’m not at home when the mail is delivered to sign for the package.

After this same chain of events happening multiple times, I decided to contact Amazon and see if I could remove DHL as a shipping option. Now, I am familiar with Amazon’s Shipping Policy, which doesn’t allow for specifying a particular shipper. However, I thought that it made sense that one could opt out of one shipper, leaving Amazon the option of all the other available companies. This idea seemed reasonable because of DHL’s inability to fulfill the expectation of an Amazon Prime Membership. I also saw I wasn’t the only one having issues with DHL via an Amazon customer discussion (link). It seemed worthwhile to contact Amazon.

First Message

Here was my first message to Amazon from last November (I wasn’t yet familiar with the official shipping policy):

I consistently have issues when anything is shipped via DHL. They do not offer delivery to my area, and any packages they receive they put in Priority Mail. UPS delivers regularly and without issues. Can I specify a shipper (UPS or FedEx) for my Prime Membership?

Here was the response from Amazon’s Customer Service:

Thank you for writing to us with your comments about DHL.

We are aware that our choice of delivery services reflects on our business as a whole, and we appreciate your feedback. I have passed your message along to our shipping department, as I know they will want to read about your experience.

Please note that, we use a variety of carriers which we have found provide the best service for our different shipping options. At this time, it is not possible to request a specific carrier for your order.

Our Standard Domestic shipping is done by the United States Postal Service, UPS, DHL, and FedEx. If you select Two-Day or One-Day Shipping, your package may be delivered by UPS, DHL, or FedEx. These shipments are delivered on weekdays only. Additionally, some exceptionally large or heavy items may be shipped by a specialty carrier such as Eagle Freight.

For more information about our shipping policies and prices, please visit our Help pages:

http://www.amazon.com/help/shipping

Thank you again for taking the time to send us your comments. We hope to see you again soon at Amazon.com.

Hmm. Ok. My comments are passed on to the shipping department. I start to see a steady stream of UPS 2nd Day, so I figure the shipping department took the hint. Then Christmas happened.

Second Message

Based on the number of my orders shipped via DHL and the less than timely delivery, I contacted Amazon in January:

Again, my issue isn’t with selecting any one particular shipper for my order. My concern is that I’ve identified one shipper in particular, DHL, that is unable to meet the expectations set by your Amazon Prime program when delivering an order to me. Otherwise, I have no preference as to who delivers my orders whether it’s FedEx, UPS, or USPS. I’m simply asking that you address the issue of where that leaves me with my Amazon Prime membership if I’m not receiving my orders in the 2-day window highlighted as a benefit of paying for a Prime membership. Does a limitation exist within Amazon’s system that you can’t flag delivery area issues related to specific carriers? I can’t believe that I’m the only one with this particular issue.

Here was Amazon’s response. This second message is where my interest in Amazon’s language perked:

Thank you for writing to us with your comments about DHL.

I apologize for the inconvenience this issue might have caused, regarding late delivery of your orders when shipped t[h]rough DHL.

We are aware that our choice of delivery services reflects on our business as a whole, and we appreciate your feedback. I have passed your message along to our shipping department, as I know they will want to read about your experience.

Thank you again for taking the time to send us your comments. We hope to see you again soon at Amazon.com.

Based on this email, I started wondering, does Amazon have a database of accepted phraseology for dealing with customer issues?

Third Message

Then, I decided to have an order shipped overnight at the end of January, and paid for the upgrade, again via Amazon Prime. My third message to Amazon explains what happened:

Again, I’ve still received no answer about Amazon’s response to ongoing service issues with DHL. I know there’s a user forum with well over 1,000 entries highlighting the issue. I also know that you’ve forwarded my previous emails to the shipping department. I’m afraid I still haven’t seen anything to indicate that Amazon is taking this issue seriously or how they plan to solve it.

Please, I would like to know why Amazon continues to ship my orders via DHL, knowing that DHL will NEVER meet the two-day Prime shipping benefit and that they rely upon a second vendor (USPS) to complete delivery. At the earliest, I won’t receive my package for three days when DHL 2-Day is used. When DHL Next Day was used for the order number I’ve included, the estimated arrival date was January 30, 2008. I didn’t receive the package until February 2, 2008. I know weather is a factor in deliveries, but please explain to me why you’re using a service that told me my package was out for delivery on January 31, and yet it didn’t appear until February 2 via USPS.

While the extra days required for a DHL delivery are frustrating enough, if I happen to not be available when the mail is delivered to sign for a DHL-shipped Amazon package, I have to travel to the post office to pick up my package. There’s no second delivery attempt made when you send my orders via DHL. I don’t care who else you send my shipments with as long as it’s NOT DHL.

And yes, I’m fully aware of your shipping policy that doesn’t allow for the selection of shipping vendors. Does Amazon care that the service practices of one of its shipping vendors reflects so poorly on it? Are there no solutions to this issue?

Amazon’s response:

Thank you for writing to us with your comments about DHL regularly not delivering within delivery estimates.

I read your complete message and we are aware that our choice of delivery services reflects on our business as a whole, and we appreciate your feedback. As you are already aware that we have passed your message along to our shipping department, who have responsibilities to look in to these issues and take actions accordingly.

Customer service is not in a position to make changes to web site features or functions. I hope you can understand customer service limitations in this regard.

Thank you again for taking the time to send us your comments.

Amazon’s Issue

If customer service isn’t actually answering customer questions, then what are they accomplishing? To be clear, I’m not angry with the individuals who had the task of responding to my emails. I’m not even sure that I’m angry at Amazon. Instead, I’m perplexed. Why have they trained their agents to NOT answer questions or solve problems?

The only acknowledgment I get about customer services limitations comes in the third message, and it’s on a topic I don’t believe I ever knowingly addressed, changing web site features. I get that scalability is an issue for any customer service department, but is Amazon’s so disconnected that its representatives can’t see they’ve told me basically the same thing every single time they’ve contacted me? Do these actions really meet Amazon’s definition of customer service?

Why isn’t Amazon talking to its customers? And why is the language that is used so obviously copy and paste? Perhaps Amazon’s size gives it a sense of invincibility. However, for a company that prides itself on a delivering a quality experience, my experience feels leaves something to be desired.

Consider the words of CEO and founder Jeff Bezos:

  • “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” (link)
  • “A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.” (link)
  • “And the reason I’m so obsessed with these drivers of the customer experience is that I believe that the success we have had over the past 12 years has been driven exclusively by that customer experience. We are not great advertisers. So we start with customers, figure out what they want, and figure out how to get it to them.” (link)

This language seems completely opposite to the responses I’m getting via email. Why the disconnect?

Lesson Learned

I suspect Amazon will never stop using DHL for my orders, and I’m willing to bet that any message I send them will inform me they’ve sent my comments to the shipping department. In an earlier post I wrote about predictability vs. consistency. I wonder if Amazon is wise enough to recognize that their customer service is falling into the trap of predictability and not in a good way.

Amazon succeeded where other companies failed because they were different, but it’s becoming harder and harder to see the difference as they start to sound like everybody else.

Comments?

11
Feb
08

Taking Language to the Extreme

Of late, the extremes that we use in language caught my attention: best vs. worst, highest vs. lowest, most vs. least, and always vs. never. The flexibility of language extremes makes them so fascinating. Sometimes, you don’t want the thing described as the most or the highest. Other times, you’ll refuse to settle for anything that isn’t the best.

When we choose extreme language, we’re saying something. We’re taking a position. In the political world, some people will never vote for certain candidates. In the business world, shareholders only want the highest return on their investment. In our personal lives, we only want the best for loved ones.

Extreme language can lead to extreme behavior. Consider the words of Robert F. Kennedy:

What is objectionable, what is dangerous, about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents. (link)

Certain subjects and actions seem to attract extreme language and behavior (religion, politics, anyone?). But what are we really saying when we use extreme language or resort to extreme behavior? What wiggle room do we leave ourselves once we’ve crossed that line?

Growing up, I regularly told people, usually my parents, I’d hate them forever for some slight. Luckily, my parents ignored me and my childish certainty that I meant what I said. I appear to have discarded this habit and can’t recall the last time I told someone I hated him. While I can’t claim I’m totally above extremes, I do know what stops my tongue and my hand is the thought expressed so eloquently by Kennedy: extremism easily slides into intolerance. However, we can’t ignore the flexibility of intolerance, too. Should one ever tolerate racism or sexism?

That’s the underlying power of language. We have the ability to shape it into something of value. Language extremes have a place, but we’ve got stop pretending that using it doesn’t bear consequences. For example, doing a Google search for “I’ll never,” returned 1.4 million results. Of those 1.4 million, I wonder how many people had to take back their “I’ll never.” I think I might be of them. Are you?

Comments?

19
Nov
07

The Business of Incentives

Business incentives handed out by communities and states are interesting things. Government officials are quick to point out how such incentives benefit the area as a whole. Company officials are quick to highlight the benefit of working in a particular community and how much they appreciate said community (i.e., government) support. The language becomes very interesting in these cases.

For instance, last week I saw a story in The Salt Lake Tribune that discussed how Utah is offering Goldman Sachs up to $20 million to hire more employees in Salt Lake City. The goal? To add 375 more jobs with an average salary of $75,000. Goldman would receive payment of the $20 million in the form of a tax rebate over 20 years.

In an email from Goldman Sachs, the managing director wouldn’t comment on the specific situation, but he did say that:

Goldman Sachs has had an excellent experience in the state of Utah over the past seven years. We strive to be an employer of choice and look forward to growing our business here in the future.

The state explained why it offered the incentive this way:

…the large incentive is merited because of the company’s high wages. The company’s average wages are significantly higher than the Salt Lake County median wage of $32,828. In addition, the company is making a capital investment in the city of more than $20 million.

First, look at Goldman Sachs’ statement: it’s “had an excellent experience in the state of Utah.” Based on this “excellent experience,” couldn’t Goldman make certain projections about the value of increasing its presence in Utah, minus the incentives? Second, look at the state’s explanation. Its rationale is even more curious.

Notice the use of the word “average.” From that usage, one can speculate that some salaries will be more and some salaries will be less, potentially affecting the tax rate. Even more intriguing is the state’s expectation that Goldman will make “capital investments…of more than $20 million.” Ultimately, there’s no promises or guarantees associated with either party.

For example, what happens if the state pays out a tax rebate over three years, totaling $3 million, and then Goldman Sachs downsizes its Salt Lake offices? Do the potential taxes from those salaries over three years make up the $3 million paid to Goldman? I’m sure minds smarter than mine have already done the math, but incentives rarely benefit both parties because no guarantees exist. I’m inclined to believe that businesses usually come out ahead on a regular basis, otherwise they wouldn’t continue to take the incentives.

Incentives don’t make sense, at least not the way they are currently explained. If all involved parties admitted that a certain taint of bribery comes with the concept of incentives, I might find the whole thing more believable. Instead, everyone tries to make it sound as if they are really doing a favor for the other. In this case, the state is doing Goldman Sachs a favor, helping to cushion the overhead of hiring 375 more people. Goldman Sachs is doing the state a favor by hiring 375 more people, increasing the tax base.

Ultimately, Goldman Sachs, and any other business for that matter, should make decisions based on the validity of the value to the business, not on artificial money provided by government incentives. And governments shouldn’t kid themselves that these deals are always in the best interest of the community.

Comments?

31
Oct
07

Reporting A Scandal: When Everyone Knows

I came across a post today that related a story about a supposed scandal brewing concerning a presidential candidate. I don’t care about the scandal. I’ve mentioned before that personal antics are of no interest to me. However, the language used to describe the situation is interesting:

So I was down in DC this past weekend and happened to run into a well-connected media person, who told me flatly, unequivocally that “everyone knows” The LA Times was sitting on a story, all wrapped up and ready to go about what is a potentially devastating sexual scandal involving a leading Presidential candidate. “Everyone knows” meaning everyone in the DC mainstream media political reporting world. “Sitting on it” because the paper couldn’t decide the complex ethics of whether and when to run it. The way I heard it they’d had it for a while but don’t know what to do. The person who told me (not an LAT person) knows I write and didn’t say “don’t write about this”. (link)

These phrases stuck out to me: “everyone knows,” “sitting on,” and “complex ethics.” Everyone knows? If everyone knows, then how complex can the ethics can be? And when you add “sitting on” to “everyone knows,” the contradictions just keep piling up.

Maybe this kind of thinking has played a role in why we’re paying less attention to the MSM and  more attention to people who are invested in ideas bigger than “everyone knows.”

Comments?

27
Oct
07

If We Like You, You Can Buy An iPhone

I’m always intrigued when a company puts limits on how you can buy its products. Most recently, Apple instituted a policy that only allows buyers to purchase two iPhones (previously five) and they must do so with a credit or debit card to track the purchase.

“Customer response to the iPhone has been off the charts, and limiting iPhone sales to two per customer helps us ensure that there are enough iPhones for people who are shopping for themselves or buying a gift,” Kerris said. “We’re requiring a credit or debit card for payment to discourage unauthorized resellers.” (link)

Huh. Apple is notorious for “caring” what customers do with their products and software after purchase, but the verbiage in this case is so interesting. The new policy is couched in terms of protecting potential iPhone customers from dangerous, “unauthorized resellers.” I don’t recall Apple attempting to protect its customers from itself when it sold the iPhone for $600, then dropped the price a few months later.

Perhaps I’m drawing a connection where none exists, but Apple’s attitude that only it can use market demand to advantage is funny. Why didn’t Apple’s new policy simply state, “Depending on our mood, we’ll sell you an iPhone.” Better yet, “If we like you, we’ll let you buy an iPhone.”

Comments?




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