“And then?”

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What’s new?

Several tech columns (for example, this article at INSIDEVS) have commented recently on Tesla’s approach to batteries in which the battery forms part of the structure of the vehicle: a structural battery. Chanan Bos at CleanTechnica likens the approach to the change from fuel tanks in aircraft wings to aircraft wings that are fuel tanks. The wing doesn’t contain the fuel tank; the wing is the fuel tank. Others point out (for example, this article at Wired) that a structural battery is not a new concept. See, for example, this article from 2012.

What does it mean?

A battery stores energy. A structure supports mechanical load. A structural battery does both.

My favorite element, carbon, has properties that may make it useful for structural batteries, as explained in this 2012 article in Smithsonian Magazine about research by Leif Asp. In this 2019 review article, Asp and his co-authors discuss design issues, including selection of materials for different parts of the battery. They note that electrification of transportation depends on better design for batteries and that eventually this research could lead to electric airplanes. Their batteries are not just an assembly of components each with one function, but rather batteries in which every component has multiple functions.

What does it mean for you?

The Institute of General Semantics says “General semantics is the renowned, practical discipline that applies modern scientific thinking and language strategies to solve problems in everyday life.” More definitions are here, including this one from Catherine Minteer: “General semantics provides a method of studying the part language plays in human affairs. It emphasizes the effectiveness of human communication in (1) the awareness of the all-pervasive character of language in daily affairs, (2) the habit of looking to language as a possible clue to some of our misunderstandings and conflicts, and (3) an appreciation of the scientific method and a consideration of applying it to language.”  General semantics is an annoying and useful field of study. Often the statements are simultaneously obvious — even trite – and deep and insightful.

One of my favorite sayings is from Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics: “the map is not the territory,” or, as I often say to engineering students, “it’s only a model.” Do not mistake a map or a model for the real world. The map or the model may lead you to some result, but you need to make sure the result is actually true about the real world. Or in the 1929 art of Rene Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” which means “this is not a pipe” and is written on his painting of a pipe, titled “The Treachery of Images.”

D. David Bourland Jr took seriously a suggestion from Korzybski to eschew all forms of the verb “to be” in the interests of clarity. He recommended the use of E-Prime, English without that verb. I tried to do so in this blog, but failed: I couldn’t, for example, quote Korzybski in the previous paragraph without using the word “is.”

I am a fan of Edward MacNeal for his work on applying general semantics in decision making. In a 1986 article titled “When does Consciousness of Abstracting Matter the Most?”, Mr MacNeal cited Korzybski’s critique of elementalism, which means “our splitting verbally what cannot otherwise be split, … a serious structural flaw in language.” In that article, MacNeal deplored the linguistic split between “action” and “consequences” because this split lets us think about action without considering the consequences. He adopted the word “alternaquence” (combining “alternative” with “consequence”) and commented “If you ask me what my alternaquences are, that sticks me with the responsibility for what follows, doesn’t it? ‘Well, Ed, what are your alternaquences?’ Do you hear it? There’s no place to hide.” He stressed that decision making about alternaquences requires one to develop powers of forecasting simply by asking “and then?” One of my specialties, decision analysis, involves the use of decision trees to describe a decision situation, looking forward into time with decision nodes and chance nodes. Creating a decision tree requires exactly that outlook and exactly that question: “and then?”

Battery. Structure. Elementalism means we engineers long ago created those two separate concepts and we use the two words to keep their functions separate. “Structural battery” removes the split, a simple yet profound linguistic change. It makes me smile.

What words in the language that you use keep separate concepts that can, and maybe should, be combined?

Where can you learn more?

General semantics was first described in the book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 1933, by Alfred Korzybski. Other significant roots include S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Action, 1941 (the 1995 version is titled Language in Thought and Action), the linguistic theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf (the structure of a language affects how the speakers of that language think), and work in cognitive science and linguistics by George Lakoff (our metaphors and framing affect our thinking). The Institute of General Semantics publishes a quarterly journal, ETC: A Review of General Semantics.

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