Sarah Sheard's Thoughts and Theories

Monday, July 31, 2006

Sarah's Theory of Euphemisms

I was describing an engineering case study wherein one of the teams within the class was responsible for designing the boat dock, the storage facility, and the personnel training facility. This team was called the "Facilities" team. I was describing the various teams and my son asked, "You have a team for bathrooms?"

So now the word "facilities" is a euphemism for bathrooms?
Do you know there is NO word for toilet that is not a euphemism, except one that starts with "S" and ends with "can"? All other words, including toilet, are euphemisms..."toilet" used to mean what is now a fairly rare meaning: The act or process of dressing or grooming oneself. What happened?

Well the thing is, we use euphemisms because we really don't want to think about bodily functions. So we use words that mean something else, like "grooming onesself" or "powder room" or "bath" room in place of a word we all know means "room in which one engages in bodily functions."

This works for a while, but then, everyone starts using the former euphemism, and it becomes really clear that the word "toilet" no longer is referring to dressing or grooming, but rather to a porcelain piece of plumbing. Then, it is too obvious what it means, and saying the word feels gross. So we have to invent a new euphemism.

So one euphemism now is "facilities." I predict it's not long until one can't say the word "facilities" anymore, because people will hear it and instead of thinking of sheds and docks and pipes and roofing, they will think of porcelain fixtures, or worse, what one does on them.

Another new euphemism is the word "gender". Back in my day (yeah, I know, I sound a hundred years old) the word for "f*ing" was "sexual intercourse". "Sex" meant male or female. But we used it, partly because it's a lot shorter and probably partly as a euphemism, and now it means "sexual intercourse." So the word is "gross" and we have to look to Latin grammar to come up with another word that asks the question "male or female?"

Actually in Latin, gender did not mean male or female, evidenced by the fact that agricola, which is a male farmer, is a feminine word. In Latin, gender ONLY refers to masculine case or feminine case. But we *need* a euphemism so that people don't answer the question, "Sex?" on questionnaires with "Yes." So we use gender as a euphemism.

Don't be surprised that politicians come up with new words too...the Department of Defense actually replaced Department of War, but now "defense" means "war".

Another lesson: if you want to say something politely, create a euphemism, but if you're successful in getting it adopted widely, it will have a short half-life, and you'll have to invent a new euphemism.

I would appreciate comments on other euphemisms that have evolved, where new ones are taking their place because the old ones are now gross.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sarah's Theory of Organizational Hierarchies and Tray Returns

You know when you are done eating at a cafeteria and have to return your tray to one of those racks where the trays all go on little rack shelves, and it holds maybe 40 trays, 2 to a shelf?

Well, when it's filling up, always remember Sarah's Theory of Organizational Hierarchy and Tray Returns:

There's always room at the bottom. :)


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Systems of Systems Definitions

This chart shows various definitions of "systems of systems" and how they overlap. Contact me (sheard _at_ for more information on sources.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

T-Shirt I would have bought...

I went to a wine festival today at Stonington Vineyards in Connecticut. Unfortunately, there were no t-shirts with the following saying on them, only a pack of napkins...I definitely would have bought a T-shirt had they had one for sale.

The napkins had a picture of a bottle of wine on them, and said:

I'm not getting older
I'm getting more complex.

Joint SE-Complex Systems Conference (2007)

In the summer of 2007 there will be the first joint conference between the fields of Systems Engineering and the sciences of Complex Systems (complexity theory, agent-based modeling, evolutionary computation, and the like). Plans are being worked at present; we expect to have a web-based announcement soon. We are intending a call-for-papers, web-based paper submission, paper rating, and registration processes, and a typical conference-type setup in an academic setting. Fees will be kept lower than most hotel-based conferences but some feels will have to be collected.

The Conference dates are June 21-22, 2007, and the location is UCSD (University of California, San Diego; participants will be responsible for making their own hotel reservations). Note that the INCOSE Symposium in 2007, also in San Diego, begins Sunday June 24th, with some meetings on Saturday the 23rd; these dates are intended to make it as easy as possible for people to attend both conferences in one trip. (especially important for non-US participants).

We hope that INCOSE will be sponsoring this conference but that is not yet confirmed. However, but we are firm on the location (graciously volunteered by Professor Hal Sorenson) and the date.

I am now looking for help: people willing to review papers, promote the conference in systems engineering and complex system venues, set up web resources, advise the conference committee, and of course participate by submitting papers and organizing other important aspects of the conference. Note: benefits to you include early views into the papers as well as insight into the birth of this new field.

Please indicate your interest by commenting (with some sort of contact information, please) or by writing to sheard _at_

Friday, July 07, 2006

Management Processes

Michael Hammer spoke at this conference. I love this gem.

Management has processes too. They don't like to think they follow processes. Management wants to think they're involved in random acts of genius.

Sarah's Thoughts on Managing Complex Systems

A quote from a complexity conference:

You can only manage simple tasks. You can't manage someone doing complex tasks, you can only support them.

This is fairly odd, in that for the last ten years or so I've been thinking, and even telling my bosses (at some risk!) that I neither can nor should be managed. Perhaps the two are related?

I suppose I have sensed all along that in order to "manage" someone you really have to have a handle on all the ins and outs, the whys and wherefores of what they are doing. You really have to know more about what they are doing than they do. If you have a senior person working for you, and you give them a significantly responsible job, then you give up authority over what they are doing, and you stop having more knowledge than they do over what they do. At that point, they have to be self-managing. I agree with the quote. Your role now has to be support, not management.

This also fits with the "inverted pyramid" concept of the modern knowledge-based corporation. The thought is that the job of the CEO is to support his/her executives, and the job of those executives is to support their senior managers. In fact, the job of each manager is to support those people who report directly to him or her. If indeed those people are performing complex tasks, then the quote above explains why that is true, they must be supported and not managed.

Otherwise the idea that you are managing them is illusion and you, the one having the illusion, are in trouble.


Problems we have engineering complex systems

We have problems with complex systems because...

  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time. (we assume that the last thing we did was what caused the effect, but often it's a much longer train than that) Note: the lessons of simple systems, which are easy to learn, are almost diametrically opposed to the lessons of complex systems.
  • There is a tradeoff between short-term effects and long-term effects (what's good in the short term is almost always bad in the long term...picture the short-term financial health of Enron, for example)
  • We have powerful policies established in the wrong direction. Most of the policies we have, that we believe will help, have no leverage for producing change. (What went wrong in the Katrina response, for example, was whenever people self-organized to get some help, almost without exception, they were told by authorities, "Stop doing that! you're not authorized!") In fact, most policies exist solely for the purpose of preventing change.
  • We blame others for our own errors. (If we were to take blame, we would be out of office, because people believe we ought to be error-free, and that someone else will be. Therefore we are unable to take blame, so we are unable to be truthful, so we are unable to address anything like the real problems.)

(These are based on notes takes from a talk given by Jay Forrester at the recent ICCS conference, with my opinions and elaborations added, of course.