At the Base of the Wall, You’ll Find the Spall: On Breaking Off a Piece

I have always loved the word “spalling,” ever since I first heard it in my youth. It’s the word for the process by which a large chunk of stone, concrete, ice, or some other solid material breaks down, shedding smaller fragments along fault lines and fissures, at impact points and between shearing layers. If you’ve ever seen documentary footage of icebergs breaking from the Antarctic pack, you’ve seen spalling in action. If you own a house, look around on the exterior. When the force acting on the material is stronger than the force holding it together, spalling is what you get.

spallSpalling is what happens when certain types of warheads strike armored fighting vehicles, too. Either the shock wave of the strike on the exterior is so great that the wall of the crew compartment breaks down suddenly and kinetically, flinging fragments throughout and wounding its crew or disabling its mechanisms, or the warhead pierces the armor in order to penetrate and itself produce the same effect.

But spalling is also what enables you to take a single mass and turn it into smaller parts. Been on a surface that’s designed for adequate drainage? Dig down some inches and the top layer of pea-sized stones will give way to larger ones the size of marbles. Once upon a time, all of those different sizes were broken from the same large rocks, which would have been of little use in building the gravel surface.

The same holds true with ideas. Analysts of any stripe are taught to find the ways to break a thing that’s given into smaller parts. It’s an application of mental, intellectual, or technical force. And as in these other examples, there’s a kind of violence to breaking the smaller pieces away from their original.

Now you know the name of it.

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Forgetting is Learning’s Friend

Image by Dominyka Grucyté

Image by Dominyka Grucyté

Were you to ask, I think a lot of learning and education professionals would tell you that they’re at war with entropy. They’d probably call it “forgetting,” or “failed knowledge transfer,” or the like, but the word would indicate the same thing: the general tendency for things to achieve an equilibrium, usually below whatever energy level they currently have. Cups of coffee cool off, banana peels turn to compost, and so on. It’s a tendency toward less and less differentiation as time goes on.

For example, any “just-in-time” approach is all about combatting entropy. A successful intervention not only keeps the process or situation usefully differentiated, but also has the same effect on the learner.

Of course, every learning professional might well give thanks that the problem exists and creates such rich opportunities for us. If people remembered everything, there would be no need. Differentiation taken to that extreme is as debilitating as pure entropy. Those who know Jorge Luis Borges’s “Funes el memorioso” (commonly translated as “Funes, the memorious”) will know what I mean. As the Wikipedia summary drily puts it, “Funes is the fictional story of Ireneo Funes, who, after falling off his horse and receiving a bad head injury, acquired the amazing talent — or curse — of remembering absolutely everything.” If you remember everything, then you have likely lost your ability to prioritize: remembering everything, keeping everything in its place, can only make it harder to put anything in first place.

We end up stuck in the middle, of course. And there don’t seem to be that many options. There’s acceptance (You’ll never get over it, so you might as well try to get right with it). There’s optimization (By working at smaller and more responsive scales, you can find ways to get little wins that add up over time). There’s giving up (Que sera sera, whatever will be learned will be learned).

But while everyone would likely agree that neither perfect forgetfulness nor perfect memory is friendly to learning, and that making some kind of peace with the human condition is probably the way to go, it would probably sound crazy to say  that we could actually find ways to make forgetfulness as central an element of learning as we assume memory already must be.

To be clear, I mean something different than making compassionate allowances for forgetfulness after the fact, or attempting to forestall it in the learning process itself. Our experiences are differentiated and then lose that differentiation all the time. It’s a fundamental process. Can we enlist it somehow?

Here’s one suggestion: make forgetting social and interpersonal. Everyone knows the simple typical end-of-session summary exercise where people write down the takeaways, for themselves. What if they wrote down five things that somebody else (their partner, their group, the entire participant pool) could just forget. Call it a Permission Slip for Forgetting. We have to forget some things about the session in order to differentiate enough to make it possible to remember. There could also be an accountability mechanism — the slip would give permission for the recipient to forget but the author of the slip would have the responsibility of retaining and remembering.

So the next time you feel a complaint rising about how everything would be so much easier or better or more efficient if people remembered what they learned, you’d best not forget that the failure of memory is not the opposite of learning. It may in fact be something that protects the learner from failing to be there in the first place.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

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Interpretation: The Most Transferable Skill

One time I was traveling for business, and I decided to list the separate data streams that the company that I currently work for could use for our operations and strategy. Final count was about fifteen, everything from what the servers show to third-party data sets about the universities and colleges that we serve, to information gained by communicating with clients. Great! But the challenge since then has been to turn that list into something useful.

Love will tear us apart... again.Pull back the focus on that situation and you can describe almost any professional environment. The world is constantly telling us things, and modern data systems (digital or otherwise, but especially digital) are increasing the scale and velocity at which we might be told. It’s with that in mind that I’ll argue that effective interpretation of what’s given (you could call it data) is the most transferable skill. It’s also the one most likely to give you a foundation to move into something new.

In the first case, I’d say that the digital doesn’t even necessarily enter into it. The human mode of being is caught up with the world as an environment of problems in need of solutions. I mean this very expansively: “the coffee cup is over there while I am over here” for me counts as much as quantum electrodynamics or global warming as a problem. We never look so closely at something as we do at the moment that it resists us. Interpretation is a name for everything that follows as we try to put it back in its place despite that resistance, whether it’s what Douglas Harper has called the “intellectual and practical maze of mechanical repair” or the most abstract virtual challenge.

In my last post, there was a riff about seeing your website as a space probe, constantly sending back data that needs interpretation. “This is why so many people have turned themselves into digital marketing savants and social media experts over the last decade: it’s nothing but data in need of interpretation. And interpretive needs always always enable the rise of a class of interpreters.” My writing partner Craig Wiggins pointed out that this more or less rehabilitates an often-despised class of professionals, those savants and experts. They’re trying to figure it out, hopefully in not too grandiose or sweeping ways. The right response is to take them as another source of input.

Of course, that’s just one piece of the much larger landscape of digital data – you’d be hard-pressed to find an outlet for forecasting what’s coming in education, business, technology that hasn’t been pushing the idea that the ability to draw insight from the wash of digital data that’s been enabled by the web, broadband, and all kinds of digital devices.

This is specific form of interpretive skill is not likely to fade away, so it presents an opportunity. Just as digitization proved to be a universal solvent for media like music, books, and games, decomposing them into strings of zeroes and ones, I think it has also had a similar effect on the world of work. There is a digital substrate to everything done now (at least potentially so). And because every major technological advance has seen a subsequent need for interpreters — both those who have to figure out what’s going on at or near the thing itself, and those who have to figure out how to explain all of that to people at a distance from it — I think interpretative ability becomes the complement to the digitization of the world. It’s not merely quantitative.

At smaller and smaller intervals, we’re being hit with the need for cogent perspective. And insofar as humans are the only ones who have the capacity to say something intelligent, we ought to make sure we do!

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Aliens and Analytics: A Meditation on Using the Internet Well

Except for the small slice that you could vouch for yourself, the rest of the Internet might as well be bots. We already know that they exist out there, driving up those follower counts. How deep does it go? Because human action on the internet is always digitally mediated, is it ever going to be possible to screen for “human” in a meaningful way?

Alien by Saneef Ansari from The Noun Project

Alien by Saneef Ansari from The Noun Project

Your website is more or less like a space probe, really, sending signals back to you about the interactions it has with others. These many clicks (of a mouse, not a radiological counter), this many “close encounters,” this many interactions with other light cones, etcetera. This is why so many people have turned themselves into digital marketing savants and social media experts over the last decade: it’s nothing but data in need of interpretation. And interpretive needs always always enable the rise of a class of interpreters. You could have priests, or accountants.

But what would it look like to sift that data and actually find a way to help somebody? Recently, I found an example of just that: Scott Alexander’s recent post at Slate Star Codex, “Based on Your Findings, Which Theory About Alien Thickness Seems Most Valid or Most Accurate?” The entire post is worth a read. Here’s the short version:

Guy checks his inbound traffic analytics to see what keywords are leading people to his site. Among them is the phrase that gives the piece its title. Cognizant that his own wide-ranging writings probably included clusters of the phrase’s words to place the site high in the search rankings, he still wonders what situation could give rise to the phrase in the first place. Come to find out, it’s a question from 7th grade science homework in use at least one (and maybe more) school: certain aliens have a certain range of thickness, but which of several factors determines that thickness? Is it sunlight? Is it temperature? Is it random? Alexander then further traces the problem to a “web gizmo where you adjust water, temperature, and sunlight to a group of little aliens and it tells you about their changing phenotypes.” Surmising that the high traffic in search of an answer must be the result of a teacher (or a curriculum) failing to explain this piece of the homework, he spends the rest of the blog post unpacking the answer for any future seventh-grade scientists who search the original phrase.

After reading, all I could think is: here’s a guy who’s showing all the rest of us how to use the Internet right.

There you are, trying to understand others via the (textual) inscriptions they’ve made on the surface of your Umwelt. You’re using the tools at hand to build an awareness of the many invisible audiences or eyeballs around you, specifically using keywords for inbound traffic and other site analytics as a way to extend the circle of disclosedness around you. When you turn over evidence of another’s interest in something that your writing somehow resembles, do you turn up your nose? Or better, do you use inference and research to create an interpretation around you that’s good enough to direct your action in what seems a right-minded and community-minded way. Even better: you’ve worked to understand the original context of the query in a thorough way and then acted within that. And as a former but still occasional teacher, I see through this to classrooms on the other side. There’s some things to be said here about approaches to teaching: try to be comprehensive, but gaps will just open up anyway.

We should all try as much. Alexander here is like an alien himself, friendly and far from thick.

Width by Tracy Hudak from The Noun Project

Width by Tracy Hudak from The Noun Project

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Your Career is in Danger of Becoming a Very Famous Poem

Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear it, but one can end up in the same position with both a poem and a career: simultaneously overwhelmed and unmoved. I’ve seen university students stymied by John Keats and Ode on a Grecian Urn. I’ve seen adult learners — professionals of great experience and expertise — equally stymied by their work history.

What’s the problem? It’s a fundamental mistake about the scope and scale of work. Not “the scope of work” (a job description term), but the fact that it takes effort of some kind to get anything done. It’s a combination of the work that’s expended in the course of the task or the project and all the work that’s been done leading up to it that enables it and contextualizes it.

But work and effort are always falling into the background, away from the things we do and the things we encounter. Take Keats, for example. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you right here.

While it is to some extent true that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’” (remember, he’s throwing his voice into the urn in this quote), it’s also probably more nice than true. A near relative of the idea of the Romantic Poet (who just lets the poems spill onto the page so the first draft becomes the final draft) is the KISS idea: keep it simple. They’re related because they’re both abstract distillations of work that hide everything that has to happen in order for there to be something.

So when my students admitted that they like the poem but didn’t really know how to talk about it because, well, there it was? And what was there to talk about something that just is? — what they were really doing was conceding the whole field of human creative endeavor to the poet. And he was already probably kind of lonely, given that he was apostrophizing an urn. (Would Twitter call this #kettlesplaining?)

If you want to talk about something, the toughest thing in the world is to actually talk about the thing itself or the act itself. Things and acts are resistant – that’s why we have to think them and do them, because they’re not going to just manifest themselves on their own.

Job seekers can have this same species of problem, but instead of an urn, it’s worse: the urn is their work history. As experienced as these folks that I worked with had become (and I’m talking people who were responsible for business outcomes up to and including stuff with six or seven zeroes on it), a lot of them couldn’t answer a very necessary question: Name three professional successes. That’s fine, right up until it isn’t.

See, work is not only resistant, it’s shy. It slips away when we’re not looking directly at it. It’s a problem because in too many settings the only way you get meaning out of a thing, an act, or the work that led to and inheres in both is if you find a way to give it scope and give it scale.

This is why narrating your work, being mindful about work, and generally disciplining yourself to notice that you’re doing something (not “notice when you’re doing something” — that’s too luxurious for the beginner here) is the only way to authentically do a thing.

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Narrating Your Work is the Opposite of Asking For Too Much

If you have an audience–especially a client-audience or a customer-audience–you have to talk to them. Unless you’re in the business of taking advantage of your audience, you need to find a way to open lines of communication with them that allow for reality checks and feedback along the way. Most clients or customers will feel better about the interaction if they come away understanding what just happened, so it’s up to you to be very attentive to the information crossing between you and them.

So what kind of information needs to cross from professional to client in a service situation in order for everyone to feel like they’re in a good situation? Consider two examples.

The first could be seen as a riff on a theme emerging from the world of workplace performance and support: narrating your work. (Two of the best-known exponents of this idea are Jane Bozarth and Harold Jarche, for those of you who like a bit of bibliography.) The second example illustrates the inherently double-edged nature of a communication channel — perhaps what happens when the narration is unreliable, perhaps completely so.


My eye doctor is incredibly efficient. I’ve seen him a few times now, and entry to exit lasts about 20 minutes. He keeps to his schedule.

I think he manages to do so because he’s very efficient in the way he attends to a patient, especially to a pretty normal case like myself. His moves remind me of the kind of efficiency you see in any practitioner who has performed the set of discrete tasks over and over. For this guy, everything is a fundamental. It’s like he took the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, and made it into his professional routine. But like a drummer (or somebody’s fantasy of a production line worker), there’s a real rhythm and cadence to what he does.

By itself, his efficiency is surprising enough – especially if you contrast it, as I do, with other experiences in larger medical establishments with very different relationships to the temporality of the patient. But efficiency is not the most striking characteristic here: it’s the constant stream of commentary that goes with it, and even supports it.

It goes like this. It’s not small talk, but very crisp requests, directions, and announcements, especially as he conducts the exam. He knows what he should see in a normal set of eyes of a man my age, and he verbally checks them off as he sees them. “No redness on the inside of your lower lid. Corneas are nice and clear. Optic nerve is good and fulsome.” I know what he’s seeing when he’s looking into my eye.

This contrasts with many other medical professionals, who carry on their examinations in near-silence, asking only if you feel some sensation or another. They don’t narrate while they examine. He’s also the only person in his practice: no administrative or medical assistant is there to capture everything he’s doing.

I always leave his office feeling like I had a good experience.

While I’ve not studied/preached narration of work as much as Harold or Jane, most of the examples that I’ve seen have been about recording work in some way for review or exploration later. (This may just be the limits of my knowledge of the universe of examples for the narration of work, I admit.)

But everything I’ve learned from their narration of their own work suggests that it can only be beneficial to bring the technique directly into the moment of work itself. After all, what is more invisible than work as it’s being done?


Contrast that example with the experience of a friend with a nonprofit dog rescue. She has one dog, and wants another. On this nonprofit’s website, she saw one who looked promising and pursued him.

The shortest possible version of the story is that before they ever even let her meet the dog, they put her through an intense series of hoops. Not only did they demand that she fill out a very long and personal questionnaire, they also asked for several references–and then checked them.

When I heard about this, I thought: well, they must love dogs, and they’re probably very dependent on the work of volunteers who may be taking things a little too seriously on the basis of that love. (I’ve worked with all-volunteer nonprofits, and the flip side of the way that personal initiative is often driven “by the mission” is that the volunteers may not have the most strategic vision of the mission.)

But when she finally met the dog and then took him home for a few days on a trial run, a lot more emerged. The nonprofit had played down the dog’s serious medical problems while also rather creatively embellishing his many fine points. Even my friend’s iron-clad dogwalker found him a lot to handle. Doggo’s explosions of anxiety even stressed out the other dog in the household, an adult hound of great canine savvy.

After a week or so of this, my friend got back in touch with the nonprofit and asked to bring the trial period to a close. There was just not a good fit there, given everything that she’d learned.

The response: “Well, we’re sorry it’s not working out. Of course, you’ll keep him until we can line up another foster for him, right?”

When she told me this, my reaction quickly changed from concern about the amateurishness of this group to a clearer recognition of what they were really about: finding a person that they could manipulate into taking what must have been one of their most borderline dogs.

They were, in fact, acting much like the Nigerian email scam artists described in one of my favorite research papers of the last few years: Cormac Herley’s “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?” published by Microsoft Research in 2012. (PDF here.)

Herley asks, quite rightly, if it’s true in these advanced digital days that so many people have heard about (and hopefully not fallen victim to) the typical “Dear Friend, I write with news of a great opportunity if only you will help me on one favor” style, why do the scammers continue to use these tactics? Put simply, what appears to many as a laughably obvious ploy need only succeed with that small subset of people who are both just credulous enough to say, “Well, what if it is real?” and over time prove themselves unable to resist the goad of sunk costs spent advancing the Friend some money in pursuit of a promised larger sum.

Or, as Herley puts it:

Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.

By clotting the channel of communication between yourself and your audience with demanding (this nonprofit) or ridiculous (Friend) discourse, you are creating a selection process that winnows those who will not believe you, and puts you in touch with those who will. A terribly ill and unsuitable dog goes one way; a steady stream of cash goes another.

Now, one always wants to learn more about an audience, customer, or client in the course of an interaction. But that knowledge needs to be collected transparently, under the guiding principle of finding the best outcome for both parties.

Whether you’re narrating your work, asking a series of preliminary diagnostic questions, or even at the final point of sale, what you communicate to your audience is as important as anything else involved. As both of these examples show, every interaction of this kind is really a selection process: you’re giving your audience a chance to select to stay or to go. Make sure they do it of their own free will.

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It’s [a] Privilege, Sir.

A few weeks ago, Adam Kotsko hypothesized a connection between privilege and austerity that relies on the grounding idea that a privilege is a possession rather than a feature – “something extra” that can be lost or taken away. By that definition, he questions whether a privilege is in fact more like a right: something “that’s been denied to a great many people.” As he states at the post’s very outset, all of this takes place within a highly individualized society, in which it’s extremely difficult to get anyone to really absorb the idea that larger structures might play a role in the disposition of people’s lives.

For me, the leap from “privilege” to “a privilege” skips some things, especially as it lands squarely in the the rhetoric of austerity. If a privilege is something that can be taken away, then almost inevitably there will be conditions under which somebody calls for it to be taken away. Thus privilege feeds into the anti-democratic crabs-in-a-barrel scrum through which austerity usually functions.

No argument about the reality of these mechanisms, but Kotsko doesn’t make it to every place where privilege lives. Not every privilege is “a privilege,” I would say, because not every privilege is something you can point to and say “Take it away, that’s not deserved.” There’s a whole class of layers of things that one doesn’t have to think about because of who one is within the larger systems of value and structures of power. At some point, everyone is a fish who never knew about the water.

That said, the visible and mutable privileges that can be taken away and the largely invisible privileges that cannot be taken away (only kept in mind) sit together on a spectrum. When I had occasion to try explaining this to folks, I kept the word but varied it with one of two adjectives. “Positive” privilege refers to those things that are bestowed and can be taken: like an allowance, or the ability to run a tab at your favorite bar. “Negative” privilege, by contrast, is those things that one doesn’t perforce need to think of or recognize, because they never come up until something breaks down. They’re institutional, they’re systemic, they’re most of all structural. They’re often expressed in the expectations and assumptions that we forget we even have.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with negative privilege. It’s an epistemological, cognitive, and ontological fact, but also something that one will have difficulty “seeing” and may therefore often deny exists. We’ve been upvoting value-laden hierarchies of difference and worth for millennia. And so I stand in many of the same places where Kotsko touches down over the course of this post, the comments on it, and a strong follow-up: our individualism makes it really tough to get with the idea that there are things unseen – like gravity, like structural inequality.

Yet and still, I’m not ready to call privilege a “rhetoric of zero-sum despair.” Privilege is a language that we’re not supposed to learn how to speak. One of the things I’ve long thought that African American intellectual and vernacular traditions have in common with European philosophical traditions is never ceasing to draw our attention to aspects of existence to which we can’t really attend. I used to have a whole riff about how ex-slave narratives in the antebellum United States were Heideggerian decades ahead of the man himself, insofar as they were demonstrations of what happens when Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit become subject positions in a hierarchy. But if that’s true, there’s also a bluesy mutuality to the relationship I wonder if Heidegger was in a position to get, even as a reader of Hegel, unless he somehow did make it to Lenox and West 125th.

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