Noah Brier | October 26, 2022

The Language Compression Edition

On acronyms, codes, and shared culture

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Hey everyone, just a reminder that we’ve moved Wednesday’s edition to be subscriber-only. We have some fun ideas for things to do with WITI, but part of that will be about building up our base of subscribers. As part of being a paid subscriber, you now have access to WITI Subscriber’s Discord, which you should sign up for if you haven’t (you’ll need to verify your sub to get access to the channels). Thanks for reading and subscribing! - Noah & Colin

Noah here. WITI contributor and Special Forces vet Chris Papasadero started up an excellent newsletter called OODA Soup. It is all about connecting military concepts to entertainment and creativity. I was particularly struck by a piece from last week on funny-sounding military slang. It compiles a small collection of amusing language used on the battlefield, including midrats (“midnight rations … reserved for those who are coming back after a long night of running and gunning”), battle rattle (“used to describe the webbing, rigs, helmets, pads, armor, magazines, radios, wires, and other bullshit a soldier must carry when going into the thick of it”), and gerbil launcher (“the M203 grenade launcher”).

Ostensibly, the point of the article is to better arm writers with real military language, but there’s a deeper message in there about the role of this kind of language that connects with a few ideas that have been bouncing around in my own head for the last few weeks. 

Part of the story is that slang like this is generated by close-knit groups who share a lot of context and culture. Anyone who has worked inside a company will recognize the way a unique language starts to develop, complete with acronyms and phrases that would make little sense outside the walls of that organization. While that can make it difficult for newcomers who need to learn this new vocabulary, it also carries with it some real benefits.

Why is this interesting?

Specifically, as pointed out in the OODA Soup piece, this kind of language is effectively a form of compression. “when I shout ‘Get the pig!’ to my machine gunner,” the piece explains, “it saves me having to ask him politely and using proper rank and decorum if he would please bring the machine gun to bear on the source of enemy fire and create suppressive fire so that we may maneuver to safety, thank you.” Just as zipping a folder brings down the total file size, slang like this allows you to quickly communicate complex concepts. 

In that way, it fits nicely with the ideas of information theory. Here’s how I described the basic concepts in the recent Semantic Bleaching Edition:

Put entirely too simply, information theory says that information is a measure of uncertainty: words, pictures, and events that are unexpected have a higher information content than ones that are more easily predicted. A coin toss carries less information than a dice roll which has far less information content than the swirls generated by poring milk in your coffee. (Bits, a word Shannon introduced, effectively measures the number of yes/no questions to come to the end result.)

When you compress something, you bring down its information content and, therefore, its file size. Typical lossy compression, such as formats like JPEG for images and MP3 for audio, removes uncertainty in the file as a way to bring down its size. That’s why your compressed photo starts to get pixelated: it’s reducing the complexity (read: uncertainty) of the colors/pixels and, in doing so, leaves some funny-looking remnants. Zip files and similar compression formats, on the other hand, are lossless—they still reduce file size in the same way, but they’re designed so that whatever goes in will come out exactly the same way.

Organizational slang, at its best, is lossless: it carries with it all the information from the original with a far smaller footprint. But there’s a big catch. It only works when the person on the other end has the tools to decompress the language. This is why so many companies try to cut down on too much internal jargon. It makes it hard for newcomers who haven’t yet “downloaded” the tools to decode the foreign words. While I can see the argument against this kind of language in the corporate world, I ultimately think there’s both cultural and compression value to company slang and acronyms.

Speaking to Chris about this, he pointed out that in the military context, the fact this stuff is hard to decompress is a feature, not a bug. You’re surrounded by people you’ve trained and lived with, so shared culture is natural, and its important strategic language is hard to parse for outsiders, particularly when they’re enemy combatants. In this way, not only is this kind of slang lossless, but it also effectively becomes encrypted. And while it’s certainly not the best encryption, being able to quickly say a lot in a way that isn’t easily understood has obvious value. Here’s how Chris explained it to me in an email:

In the fog of war, clear communication is far more important than beans and bullets. Military jargon, in its purest form, carries both sign and signifier. Let’s say we’re setting up an ambush in thick jungle, in the black of night. There’s great danger of getting separated after the ambush occurs; we want to maintain accountability of our squadmates. In a well-planned ambush, we might have time to say, “Our limit of advance is 25 meters beyond the objective (location of the ambush).” What is 25 meters in the dark? What if we didn’t have time to plan? Instead, one tactic we use is to simply shout “LOA! LOA!” (the sign) to each other, so that everyone in the squad knows to stop moving (the signifier). You can also use it colloquially of course. Had too much beer? “I’ve hit my LOA for tonight, boys.” It’s universally understood—within that small subculture, of course—to indicate the end or limit.

In the end, information theory is one of those ideas I return to again and again. It has wide-ranging implications in communications and science, but it also rears its head in just about every other sphere I encounter (probably because communication is everywhere). I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how great “insights” in the world of marketing, for instance, are actually just highly compressed knowledge. At their best, they take massively complex ideas and manage to encode them down to just a small sentence or phrase. Just like “battle rattle” and “gerbil launcher” do. (NRB)

What You Missed on Discord This Week

As I’ve mentioned a few times, we now have a subscriber-only Discord up and running. If you want to join, follow this link, and then be sure to verify your subscription to get access to all the channels.

We had a long conversation about camouflage in #ask-a-question. Prior to the new digital variety, the splotchy camouflage used by the Army was US Woodland. Camo has an interesting history, which includes surrealists. And, of course, OODA Soup wrote about camouflage last week.

We had an interesting conversation about company culture and the different artifacts and processes that people come to believe have a big impact on company performance in #media-tech-code-etc. Ideas like OKRs, which were famously used by Google, have spread out to the rest of Silicon Valley with mixed results. It’s not popular or internally helpful to point to a company’s product-market fit as the reason it was successful and so other narratives emerge. And while things like OKRs or V2MOM (Salesforce) are certainly useful, they don’t work for every organization, and they almost certainly were not the reason that Google or Salesforce became the massive company they did.

A convo about backpacks in the #gear channel surfaced a few interesting picks: the Epperson Mountaineering Packable Parachute Bag, the REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack, and the Filson Rugged Twill Backpack.

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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