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When a Tech 'Breakthrough' Isn't Really 127

Carl Bialik from WSJ writes "'More than 8,600 press releases have been issued over the years with "breakthrough" in the headline, a majority of them by computer and electronics companies,' Lee Gomes writes in the Wall Street Journal. He examines whether hyperbole and hype has robbed the term of much of its meaning, focusing on a recently announced 'breakthrough' by Intel involving optical computing. From the article: 'Having been inside Intel's laser labs, I need no persuading that the company is doing important work here, and an Intel spokesman says the development is indeed a "breakthrough" because it shows how real-world optical products can be made with silicon. I wonder, though, how many more breakthroughs we will be reading about before optical computing becomes ubiquitous.'"
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When a Tech 'Breakthrough' Isn't Really

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @08:55AM (#16213943)
    I was so excited when I RTFA that I immediately had to post a comment saying that this is simply the BEST article that I have ever read on Slashdot and it will probably be seen as THE breakthrough in human-to-human communications that we have all been waiting for.
    I am not exaggerating

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @08:57AM (#16213965) Journal
    The word 'breakthrough' is definitely used too much.

    I'm always skeptical when it's used in a present tense. For example, "The Segway is a breakthrough in transportation technology."

    When the Segway first premiered, I heard this. Yet, it has been anything but a 'breakthrough' nor has it changed my life in anyway (with the exception of some humor at the Segway's expense).

    My point is that you can only really use the term in the past tense when something really did signal a breakthrough. Like the invention of solid state transistors. At the time, did they really realize how big it was? Maybe, but that's not always the case.

    Breakthroughs are also sometimes relative, for instance Srgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band might have been a musical breakthrough for rock but mean little to computer scientists. Likewise, proving Fermat's last theorem might have been a breakthrough for mathematics but meant little or nothing to a musician.

    So, in the end, I think 'breakthrough' is used prematurely but it also is used relative to fields a lot. I don't think the author bothered to look at the thousands of uses of the word to see if it was followed by "for physicists" or "for medicine" in which case they might have been genuine breakthroughs in that sense. The difficult breakthroughs are the ones that do affect everyone (like the transistor or radio) but they are becoming harder to pinpoint as many inventions these days aren't actual inventions but instead integration of already existing inventions to form a new utility for those devices.
    • Would the mapping of the human genome in 2000 count? At the time, it was like, "Yay! Now cancer's a snap to fix!" But all it really revealed was that there's a lot more we need to know to make that information useful. So it definitely wasn't a waste -- that is, after all, the nature of acquiring new knowledge, but is it a breakthrough?
      • Think of any technological advancement as being analagous to peeling through the layers of an onion. The really useful/ubiquitous advancement doesn't occur until after you've gotten through all the layers. Piercing one of the layers, however, is worthy of being called a breakthrough. I would posit that the term shouldn't be used if someone else has already determined how to pierce the layer in question. After all, Quantum Mechanics was not invented and refined with the explicit goal of creating lasers and s

    • On the other hand, when your team works hard for monthes to solve a technical problem and finally finds a working solution before your competition does, no one could make you admit it is not a breakthrough.

      And concerning the Segway, I can't say yet that it won't change my life, I just need to actually see at least one of them before I have an opinion :)
      • I saw one at BWI airport a couple weeks ago with "Security" emblazoned on the sides.

        I hypothesized that security guards either (a) need that to get around, or (b) are planning to use that to chase people that violate security. Neither theory made me feel good.
    • by Hoi Polloi ( 522990 ) on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @09:14AM (#16214197) Journal
      Lots of words have been pounded into dust:

      Hero - Used to be someone doing something they weren't expected to do at great personal risk. Now it is applied to everyone ("everyday hero", UGH) or people doing the job they are paid to do (i.e. firemen rescuing people from fires).

      Genius - Used to be someone who was consistantly and spectacularly intelligent (Einstein, Fermi, etc). Now it is anyone who happens to figure something out or is relatively smart. "My 3 year old can hum the national anthem, isn't he a genius?"

      Star - Anyone who is appearing on your show or in your movie. "We have a star on our show tonight, Zsa Zsa Gabor!"
      • Genius - Used to be someone who was consistantly and spectacularly intelligent (Einstein, Fermi, etc). Now it is anyone who happens to figure something out or is relatively smart. "My 3 year old can hum the national anthem, isn't he a genius?" Or Genius: the stoner-esque dudes at the apple store that fix iPods It really has lost all meaning.
      • Hilarious - Whenever I see or hear something described as hilarious warning bells go of.

        Celebrity - At least in the UK, anybody who has ever appeared on TV, or is related to or has slept with someone who has been on TV. (At least this is true in the UK)
        • Amen for hilarious. I remember buying a Michael Moore book that was described all over the back cover as hilarious and generally the biggest barrel of laughs ever. (I'm not American, I had no idea who the fuck he is. Must be some humourist, I figured.) Turned out it was non-stop bitter political whine that, far from getting me rolling on the floor laughing, just got tiresome after a while. Like whine usually does.

          Now I don't know, maybe he even has a point. I'm not an American, so I can't tell. I can even r
          • I figure, either it was a retarded editor, or the Liberals (re: Democrats) are _really_ a cheerful and easily amused folk if that counts as hilarious.

            Had to do some editing for you. Never underestimate their stupidity.
      • Interesting - ex. slashdot comments. Definitely not.
      • 'Ubergeek' - Used to be a geek who was consistently and spectacularly excellent at something, particularly some aspect of computer science (Minsky, Thompson, Ritchie, Larry Wall, James Gosling, etc.) now it's used for anybody who writes code for the Linux kernel.
      • Hypocrite: Anyone having opinions or beliefs you disagree with.
      • ... people doing the job they are paid to do (i.e. firemen rescuing people from fires).

        Um. No one is forcing them to be a fireman. Is being paid to risk your life a determining factor in whether you are a hero or not? If a man rushes into a building and rescues an old lady. If he is a fireman he is not a hero, if he is a regular civilian then he IS a hero? What if he was a fireman who was not on duty, is he still not a hero because he had special training? Great personal risk I think is more the thing
        • If he were a fireman not on duty, he would do something that was not expected of him and that would qualify him as a hero. And nobody is talking about payment. There are plenty of firemen who do it on a volontary basis.

          I would say that a hero is somebody who does something out of the ordenary what is normaly not expected of him or her. A fireman is expected to go into a building and save people.

          And let's face it, the fireman that went into the two towers did nothing out of the ordanary. They went up to put
        • Sometimes the cynic in me wants to say that society gives medals to firemen so that they'll keep on the job without asking for a pay hike... Why pay in cash when you can hold a ceremony every couple of years and put a medal on a grave?
      • Lots of words have been pounded into dust:

        Hero - Used to be someone doing something they weren't expected to do at great personal risk. Now it is applied to everyone ("everyday hero", UGH) or people doing the job they are paid to do (i.e. firemen rescuing people from fires).

        MAN, I could not agree with you more. It is shit like this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higglytown_Heroes) that makes this even worse. They try to teach kids that EVERYONE (janitor, plumber, baby-sitter, etc.) is a freakin hero. Th

      • I disagree.

        The definitions have not changed, and neither has the use of superlatives and hyperbole to express emotion. People have been doing it for as long as people have been talking.

        We use terms like genius and hero in a broader context than the dictionary definition warrants precisely because of the narrow dictionary definition. A more "general" word would lack the emotional punch otherwise. Like all things, it's all about context. The context of genius when talking excitedly about one's child's latest
      • Hero - Used to be someone doing something they weren't expected to do at great personal risk. Now it is applied to everyone ("everyday hero", UGH) or people doing the job they are paid to do (i.e. firemen rescuing people from fires).


        They refer to firemen as heroes so that they don't have to pay them (or at least, not as much).
    • "Controversial" (Score:2, Insightful)

      by snowgirl ( 978879 )
      Not just the word "Breakthrough", but "Controversial", I hear that EVERY STPID EPISODE OF BONES THAT FOX MAKES. "Next week, on a controversial new Bones."

      It's like, what? Did you run out of otherwise reasonably descriptive words to describe this episode, because you use it so much, I can't hardly imagine that "Bones" would be watched by anyone unless immediately after they feel an intense need to call their best friend and discuss at length the moral issues involved with creating a 3D CG representation of
    • Your right, it's easy to pinpoint "major breakthroughs" after several decades, quite another to recognise them when they happen. When I was a kid a "transistor" was the "thing" that made portable radios work, mine had nine of them. The first calculator I saw was worth a months wages (my dad was an engineer). I couldn't see them catching on except maybe for engineers, same with the first CD burner I saw. I even thought the simpsons was a "bad flintstones ripoff" until my kids got me to sit down and watch it.
    • so then the correct way of calling something revolutionary would be "future breaktrough?"
  • by TheWoozle ( 984500 ) on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @08:58AM (#16213969)
    To an MBA, a "breakthrough" is anything that will make them more money (or in the case of marketing, anything that they *hope* will make them more money).
    • by Anonymous Coward
      True visionaries and engineers like Dave Packard and Will Hewlett would be puking their guts out after seeing the sort of MBA bullshit that some of the most respectable high technology companies have resorted to (including their own) as of late. And with their open-door policy, everyone would have been able to see their partially digested lunch all over the place.

    • by misleb ( 129952 )
      Or in the case of advertising, anything they say will solve all your problems.
    • You mean something like the offshoring of jobs and destruction of industries that have held entire regions of places in the world? Yep, those are money making "breakthroughs", but they sure bring truth to the phrase "Economics is the only science where ethics is absent".
  • Most people read mainstream news stories, not press releases directly. So as long as reporters do their job and use the term "breakthrough" appropriately it won't lose its meaning.
    • Oh like. Mr Flibble made a massive breakthrough when he used a sledgehammer for percusive maintenance on a broken server.
    • Asking reporters to do their job "correctly" is like asking a 2 year old to do calculus. Reporters go for headlines rather than accuracy.
    • So as long as reporters do their job and use the term "breakthrough" appropriately it won't lose its meaning.

      That's funny. Ha ha... err... you _are_ kidding, right?

      Reporters nowadays do the exact opposite, to the extent where they practically (A) _created_ a whole class of bullshit pseudo-science, and (B) spawned a whole wave of distrust in science as a whole.

      Reporters want sensational stuff, they want headlines that sell, they want "breakthroughs", "controversy", etc, to the point where they'll even create

  • Breakthrough: any significant or sudden advance, development, achievement, or increase, as in scientific knowledge or diplomacy, that removes a barrier to progress.

    As long as there are barriers to progress (and they never seem to run out) we will have breakthroughs. As the saying goes: "If the Shoe Fits..."
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      > As the saying goes: "If the Shoe Fits..."

      You must acquit?
    • The word "significant" is key here. Whenever I put on my shoes and attempt to leave the house, there is a closed door in front of me. When I open it, AHA! a BREAKTHROUGH --- I have removed a barrier to progress!!! I think that is the main point of the article.
    • by misleb ( 129952 )
      Another definition of breakthrough: An experience on a psychedelic drug that is beyond the threshold of normal perceived reality and wholely inside an alternate world or state of mind.

      -matthew

  • The word "breakthrough" is actually no breakthrough itself. For years companies have used keywords to attract attention in consummer aspects. It was done years ago when companies used the word "Extreme" in absolutely everything that was being released to the public. (I wonder where Billy got his inspiration for W!ndows XP). By the end of the 90s everyone was using words like "Millenium" (LOL) and numbers like 2000; Example: "PruductName 2000! Out this Fall". And so the word "breakthrough" is nothing more th
  • The FA is stating that we overuse the "breakthrough" word to advertize a tech that is still years away from market, and of course editors are happy to show us another great story.
  • As technology helps make new technology, it is expected for progress to hasten. So major milestones are reached more often and more quickly. Using press releases as a litmus test to measure claims of "breakthroughs" is a little much to ask, IMO. I expect a press release to be biased and grandiose - there's no surprise there. So while maybe the term "breakthrough" is being used a little liberally by corporations looking for investment, I fully expect to see major milestones reached at an accelerating pace.
  • Two sides... (Score:3, Informative)

    by HatchedEggs ( 1002127 ) on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @09:11AM (#16214143) Homepage Journal
    There are two sides to this...

    First off, more breakthroughs than ever are being made these days. Our technological advances are being made at an almost "silly" rate. We have made so many more in the past century than in the millenium that preceeded it. Why? Better education, greater body of knowledge, and of course computing doesn't hurt. So yes, there are alot of breakthroughts taking place.

    However, the term is also used as marketing hype. It still has a buzz to it after all these years of being misused, so I don't think companies will stop using it as a marketing scheme.

    In reference to IBM in the article... they certainly use the term "breakthrough", and much of what they do deserves recognition as such as they have pushed the envelope with their R&D. Of course Intel has also done a fantastic job. Some of what these companies do isn't necessary ground breaking work, as it has been done before. So I find it difficult to determine if the term should be used still since the work has been done before, but the difference is that when one of these large companies does it, it is so much more likely to succeed.
    • I disagree (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @11:51AM (#16216315) Journal
      Actually in my opinion we haven't really made much progress in the recent decade at all.

      1942 manhattan project
      1945 first a-bomb, + hiroshima & nagasaki
      1947 transistor invented
      1949 Comet (passenger jet) Unveiled
      1951 electricity from nuclear power plant
      1952 US Airforce orders B52
      1955 U2 Tested
      1956 first O/S
      1957 silicon wafer, FORTRAN, sputnik
      1958-59 first IC, ALGOL, LISP
      1961 VTOL, first man in space, CTSS
      1962 spacewar computer game
      1964 computer mouse & windows
      1968 Douglas Engelbart demos the above, hypertext, collaborative computing and more
      1969 feb Jumbo jet (747) first flight
      1969 apr concorde first Mach 2 passenger jet first flight
      1969 apr QE 2 ship first voyage
      1969 Jul first man on moon
      1969 Multics
      1971 intel 4004
      1972 C
      1973 skylab, ethernet, UNIX, work on TCP/IP started
      1974 Altair and Scelbi
      1975 apollo & soyuz dock
      1976 viking landings on Mars, Apple I, ethernet launched
      1977 voyager 2 launched, Apple II, commodore
      1978 visicalc, vi
      1979 wordstar
      1980 TCP/IP RFCs
      1981 space shuttle, IBM PC
      1982 BSD gets TCP/IP
      1983 Apple Lisa
      1983 "Unix Review compares six Unix-compatibles for IBM PCs"
      1983 GNU project
      1984 Apple Mac, X Windows
      1985 Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, Microsoft Windows
      #Stagnation starts
      1986 chernobyl, challenger blow up
      1988 stealth fighter
      1989 stealth bomber
      1990 WWW (hypertext revisited)
      1991 Linux started (UNIX rehash)
      1992 Windows NT, NetBSD, FreeBSD
      1993 Mosaic
      1994 webcrawler
      1995 Windows 95, Altavista
      1996 pathfinder mars rover/lander (viking rehash)
      1997 google (good but not really a great leap )
      2003 spirit+opportunity mars rovers

      Looking at the past 10-20 years I can say there really hasn't been as many leaps. Most are just rehashes of the same thing done before. Some not actually done better just more popular. Linux is just UNIX revisited. Just go look at the video of Douglas Engelbart's demo in 1968 and you'll see we haven't really made that many advances in the computing fields.

      As for aerospace:

      All NASA can do is try to stop the space shuttles from blowing up.

      They're talking about going to the Moon again (so 1960s). Then there was all that fuss about sending probes to mars. Oh wow, like wasn't that done in 1976?

      Then there's the supersonic jetliner and big passenger jet... Heck the 747 design is still being used to this day (and it works pretty well too).

      Only thing new so far is the space tourism innovation by the Russians. Where on a regular schedule anyone reasonably fit and healthy with USD20 million bucks can go to space.

      Automobile tech? No breakthroughs. Now if there's practical gasoline/hydrocarbon fuel cell+filter that'll be a breakthrough.

      Nuclear fusion/fission? No significant progress at all.

      They've already spent billions and decades on hot fusion with not much to show for it, maybe they should just spend a bit more time and money investigating the cold fusion stuff - even if it isn't fusion, there's evidence that it could be an interesting phenomena. Or just spend some billions to make fission better.

      AI has been a field for bullshit artists.

      But medical tech has had some advances. You can now actually implement brain augmentation, telepathy and telekinesis with current communications/computing and medical technology. But the DMCA, RIAA and MPAA etc may hold the progress back in that field (they'll want a penny for your^H^H^H^H_their_ thoughts or more). And then there's the threat of lawsuits of course.

      Still TB and many other diseases seem to be threatening to make a comeback, so it's not been that great either.

      Lifespans are up mainly because infant mortality is down, and ER treatment is much better.

      Now, tell me of something really innovative in the past 10 years. No hypersonic jetliner to be seen. When the Concorde came out it was definitely not a rehash. The first man on the moon in 1969 was not
      • by radtea ( 464814 )
        I would go even further than this in disagreeing with the GP's claim that "First off, more breakthroughs than ever are being made these days."

        Almost all innovation in the 20th century happened in the first half, with the second half being primarily a working out of the technical details and integration into everyday life.

        My grandmother was born in 1886 and died in 1980. She was born into a "a world lit only by fire", just four years after Edison's first commerical power plant. She lived to see ubiquitous
      • by nutt98 ( 961257 )
        What an arbitrary shit-tart of a timeline. I don't know what to say, I'm just amused. QE2 launched, wow, where have we gone wrong?
        • by TheLink ( 130905 )
          Come up with your own timeline then.

          Find some great innovations that happened in the 1980s and 1990s and add them to:
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1980s
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1990s

      • Re:I disagree (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jmp_nyc ( 895404 ) * on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @12:47PM (#16217189)
        True breakthroughs in technology are best identified the way economists identify recessions -- that is to say after the fact.

        The biggest innovations come from basic research, and one of the common characteristics of basic research is that the researchers don't know what they're looking for, they're just looking.

        Just look at some of the examples you point to that we use in everyday life. The way in which most of the western world functions right now would be substantially different without all sorts of things that people barely noticed at the time researchers discovered the last piece that fell into place to make it a reality.

        No, we don't have a cure for cancer yet, but there's no saying that when a cure for cancer comes around it won't turn out that the discovery depended on technologies developed over the last 25 years.

        For a perfect example, look at RSA encryption. The major innovation of RSA was to pair together a couple of extremely old math tricks that had previously been thought of as cute but useless. Does that mean that the breakthrough for RSA should be credited to Fermat or Sun Tzu? It certainly took until the last few decades to recognize the value of their work...
        -JMP
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by PCM2 ( 4486 )
        It's always easy to be a naysayer. If you draw up a totally arbitrary list of achievements, then obviously you can decide that the list stops where you want it to stop, and includes only what you want it to include.

        You seem to like aerospace. What about the International Space Station? The Hubble Telescope? And most scientists would probably disagree with you that the recent Mars missions were about doing a "Viking rehash."

        Similarly, why dismiss what's been done in the computing fields? Is incremental resea
        • You seem to like aerospace. What about the International Space Station? The Hubble Telescope? And most scientists would probably disagree with you that the recent Mars missions were about doing a "Viking rehash."

          Not to mention last year's Deep Impact mission.

          I mean, hitting a comet with half a spacecraft while the other half records it?

          That's like hitting a bullet with another bullet and having the ejected shell casing take pictures. That is some badass stuff, and required huge advancements in many areas of

        • by TheLink ( 130905 )
          I am not saying incremental improvement is bad. I'm just disappointed with the lack of real innovation.

          The difference is like just improving cars compared to making a plane when there was no such thing as a plane before.

          Why should I be impressed with an _ongoing_ search for an AIDS cure? It's not like they found one yet. What next, I should be impressed with someone's search for the homework his dog ate?

          BTW HIV is not very contagious and its spread can be controlled - it's because of the idiot politicians t
      • by geekoid ( 135745 )
        A specific thing that achieve it's purpose has less breakthrough because it is doing what it is supposed to well enough.

        The 747 is a great plane for what the market needs.
        There could be faster planes, but social issues put those to a halt. i.e. Noise.

        Now, if someone has a break through in 'anti gravity' then that would spawn a whole new set of industries, many of which we can't imagine.

        The problem with your list is that it is focus on your interests. add medical breakthroughs to that list and they would be
      • by HeyMe ( 935075 )
        Add: 1962 The A-12 (SR-71 precursor) tested.

        Question: When was the last time you saw something really new ?
      • Here are a few off the top of my head... - explosion of the cellphone, wireless in general I guess, allowing people and business to stay connected 24/7 everywhere (good or bad depending on how you look at it)

        - GPS

        - nanotech

        - cloning

        - lasik eye surgery (one of the greatest inventions in the world if you previously had poor eyesight)

        - global finance

        - advances in manufacturing materials (polymers, alloys, etc.)

        - You seem to ignore the internet as a whole. While the bits and pieces examined by themselves are

        • by TheLink ( 130905 )
          Uh I did mention that the medical side has been making some progress. Go read it again.

          And yah wordstar probably shouldn't be there - coz Douglas Engelbart already demoed wordprocessing in 1968. And that's way before Wordstar.

          Yeah the exponential growth of the internet and the WWW is probably one of the few major noteworthy things in the 1990s.

          I'm not saying there are have been no advances, but remember the original topic was about "tech breakthroughs".

          So forget my list, go make your own list - go look up w
  • If the headline "This isn't a breakthrough" were used, it'd still show up in the list of headlines with the word breakthrough, right? :)

  • According to one of my college instructor, most technologies have been around for at least ten years before the public becomes aware of it. The internet is a great example of a technology developed in 1969 that didn't become widely available to the public until 1995. So a technological breakthrough is all relative.
    • by Larus ( 983617 )
      Yes, but do they have to bombard the media with announcements? To crave fame is to prefer dying notorious than forgotten. This is in fact the typical buildup for the product development chasm. Initial optimism, media attention, post-buzz disillusion, fast-track managers leave for next new things, engineers start tackling the technical difficulties, and hopefully market reality. The real problem with breakthroughs is attention span. Since managers and companies must prove themselves on annual/quarterly
  • Semantics (Score:2, Informative)

    by jimmichie ( 993747 )
    The problem is that the word "breakthrough" has more than one meaning.

    1. An act of overcoming or penetrating an obstacle or restriction.
    2. A military offensive that penetrates an enemy's lines of defense.
    3. A major achievement or success that permits further progress, as in technology.
    (From www.answers.com)

    Press release writers can legitimately use the word to mean the first definition (a solution to a problem), while implying the third (emotive, hyperbolic) definition even if it doesn't actually m
  • This is the wrong crowd to preach that to ("isn't linux awesomely innovative and new? UNIX? no, never heard of it")
  • by testadicazzo ( 567430 ) on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @09:25AM (#16214349) Homepage
    I'm glad to see article like this.

    I actually do research in optical computing, but the problems aren't unique to that field. I'm always getting pressured to use words/phrases like "novel", "highly accurate", "unique", etc (basically just non quantitative positive adjectives) to make the titles of my talks or publications more sexy or provocative.

    It's annoying becuase they are just noise words. If something is really unique, a breakthrough, etc, those adjectives will be applied to your product (research, idea technology, choose your noun here) by others. Your job as an engineer or scientist should be to report the facts on your (noun here) in an unbiased and neutral fashion, giving meaningful benchmark figures regarding what it allows you to do. It's okay to focus on the strengths, but provide quantitative data, not meaningless adjectives and buzzwords. Fortunately more and more journals are stating not to use such meaningless drivel in their guidelines.

    In my research, whenever I see phrases like "good/excellent agreement with...", instead of "this shows a standard deviation of X%", I automatically assume someone is just putting a shine on lame results. This prejudice is pretty accurate, but of course not 100% so. I'd estimate 90% or so.

    The problem of course is the overly strong influence marketing has on us. Richard Feynman had a pretty good rant about this stuff. We really need to start punishing people/institutions for insulting our intelligence with this noise. He was more concerned with advertising campaigns which insult our intelligence, but the same trend has broadened itself.

    In the end, I think it's important we become more cognisant, thus more resistant, to transparent marketing techniques. When an institution is singing its own praises, be skeptical.

    On a tangent, if someone tells you "this is a quantum leap in XXX!", reply "so you mean to say it's the smallest possible change you can make?"

    • You're right, and I think at the heart of it this really has to do with a natural progression sensationalism in a culture where individual achievement is treasured above all else -- everyone needs to be the best, have composed the greatest work, or (here it comes...) done breakthrough research in order to get noticed. Hence all the insanity in China with students trying to get into college.

      If you're really curious about this subject, read Don Watson's Death Sentence: the decay of public language [theage.com.au] (link to

      • by ConceptJunkie ( 24823 ) on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @11:01AM (#16215569) Homepage Journal
        There's a simple test for this. Take a book written from a hundred years ago. Most of the time you will see far more complex use of language, with extensive use of appositives and panrentheticals, that actually can take much effort to parse, leave alone comprehend. Now being hard to read doesn't necessarily make something better, and maybe we are just better at communicating clearly, but I have found the these older texts often are really that much better. Compare "The Wind in the Willows" or even "Winnie the Pooh" to anything written for kids in the last 50 years... I think our use of language is deteriorating significantly. Compare the speeches of Presidents Bush or Clinton to those of, say, Churchill or Lincoln. You will find that even when modern speeches are succinct and inspiring, as some of Bush's have been, or long and detailed, as most of Clinton's were, that the eloquence and beauty of orations from past generations simply do not exist any more.

        The very existence of widespread grammar and spelling errors (e.g., loose/lose, would of/would have, pluralizing with apostrophes) demonstrates to me that most people don't read very much if at all. Now good spelling is not always correlated with being well-read (one of the smartest and most well-read people, more well-read than I, that I know is a horrible speller), but when I see people claiming that they get all the useful information they need from sites like Digg or /., I can only conclude that those kinds of people are doomed to communicate at a highly illiterate level in perpetuity. Even if you were to read extensively from common magazines and newspapers, you will not be exposed to anything more than a very fundamental (read: 6th grade) level of proficiency with the language.

        I've been recently reading a book of lectures given by Max Planck in the early 1900's. While the scientific content the first couple lectures isn't above anything a typical high-schooler could (or should) be able to understand, I found the level of sophistication of his language to be surprisingly high, and yet I get the feeling that this was typical in that context for 100 years ago. Maybe we are just better at speaking succinctly... I think that is in some part true... but mostly I think we are simply losing our ability to express ourselves as well as our forefathers, that we lack much of their skill to communicate nuance and abstraction.

        A good recent example is the Pope's speech that caused such a stir. Now plenty of folks use any excuse imaginable to attack the Pope, and I doubt few if any of the people reacting with anger or violence even read (or even _could_ read) His Holiness' speech in its context and entirety. However, I cannot imagine that anyone with the capacity and will to actually understand what was said would respond with any criticism the like of which we've heard over the past few weeks. I found myself wishing for a thorough grounding in philosophy because I knew I was missing many of the implications of the Holy Father's words. My degree in Computer Science has done almost nothing to prepare me to consider the significance of Hellenistic thought and its relation and importance to modern faith.

        Does it matter? It should, but public perception, as ignorant as it may be, ends up having a much stronger effect regardless of whether it is based on fact or not, and those people, civic, religious leaders or anyone with an opinion, who have something nontrivial to say will suffer, as do we all, from a society that is indifferent, or even hostile, to in-depth communication or a use of language beyond that of a small child.

        You may have noticed that His Holiness expressed his sorrow for how his speech was received, not what he said. Far from being the usual weaselly apology of a politician who is only sorry he was caught, Pope Benedict correctly expressed the fact that the people who were angry did not, in fact, understand what he was trying to say. Could he have prevented this misunderstanding? Probably, but
        • by obender ( 546976 )
          Sophisticated language does not go terribly well with most of us that only learned English as a foreign language. I want the information as fast as possible with the least amount of ambiguity.

          BTW, I read the Pope's speech and when asked what was in it I said: he complains about people using reason less an less. Sadly, what happened next only proved him right.

        • by Zarquon ( 1778 )

          The very existence of widespread grammar and spelling errors (e.g., loose/lose, would of/would have, pluralizing with apostrophes) demonstrates to me that most people don't read very much if at all. Now good spelling is not always correlated with being well-read (one of the smartest and most well-read people, more well-read than I, that I know is a horrible speller), but when I see people claiming that they get all the useful information they need from sites like Digg or /., I can only conclude that those k

    • On a tangent, if someone tells you "this is a quantum leap in XXX!", reply "so you mean to say it's the smallest possible change you can make?"

      And if the person whom you say that to knows anything - they'll regard you (correctly) as a blithering idiot, because quantum doesn't mean 'smallest' when used in as an adjective. Even in Physics it doesn't always mean 'small[est]' - it sometimes means 'discrete'.
      • Well, atually, yeah, that's kind of what quantum http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum [wikipedia.org] means, although it's a little bit subtler than I indicate. The etymology (sp?) comes from Planck, when he wanted to express that the blackbody radiation models could be unified if we assume that energy is 'quantized', divided up into small packets which can't be divided any further...

        But I'm not talking about the word quantum. I'm speaking about the phrase 'quantum leap' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_leap [wikipedia.org], which

        • by rts008 ( 812749 )
          It's sad that you even had to explain this to him. Kind of lends more weight to your argument from where I sit.
        • Thus, a 'quantum leap' is the smallest possible jump in energy an electron can make. Or at least that's what it means in physics.

          But if you use the word(s) 'quantum' or 'quantum leap' in reference to banking say... You aren't talking about physics are you?

          But hey, what do I know? I'm just a blithering idiot.

          Anyone who would the Wikipedia as a reference, especially after pretending that the meaning of a term in one field has the same meaning in another, meets the very definition of 'blithe

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by koyangi ( 926760 )
      "this is a quantum leap in XXX!"

      Hot buttered damn!!!

      Holographic pr0n at last!!!
  • So we will be getting more and more "breakthroughs" measured by last century's scientific performance, every day.

    Here for a description of the Technological Singularity [wikipedia.org] in Wikipedia.
    • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

      So we will be getting more and more "breakthroughs" measured by last century's scientific performance, every day. Here for a description of the Technological Singularity in Wikipedia.

      I suppose you can say that we are having "breakthroughs" every day compared to the past, but that's sort of a misnomer. People in the 15th Century were having breakthroughs of that type, probably every day, compared to their nomadic hunter gatherer ancestors. This is usually termed "progress", whereas a "breakthrough" se

  • by diodeus ( 96408 ) on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @09:35AM (#16214501) Journal
    Can we also add "Revolutionary" to the list?
    • I agree, unless someone die, it's not a revolution.
    • Can we also add "Revolutionary" to the list?

      I get an ironic smirk when I read/hear about a revolutionary new tech: I parse that as "a complete 360, bringing us back to point A".

      Yeah, I'm one sarcastic consummer.
  • The reporters talk to researchers. Naturally, the researchers are excited about what they're doing, and the vision they have of what could happen. I think the reporters get caught up in that.
  • A breakthrough is

    1. An act of overcoming or penetrating an obstacle or restriction.
    2. A major achievement or success that permits further progress, as in technology.

    While optical computing is a neato thing and it will probably make a splash in the computer world by enabling high performance systems to basically do things faster, is it really going to change the way we do computing? I mean, over the years, we have changed the way we do computing from a hardware standpoint. Things have advanced, technologies
  • Imagine it is 1947...

    "A Bell spokesman says the development of the transistor is indeed a "breakthrough" because it shows how real-world electronic circuity can be made with germanium. I wonder, though, how many more breakthroughs we will be reading about before personal computing becomes ubiquitous.'"

    The real breakthroughs do not have any direct, short-term effect on our lives. Instead, they happen in a theoretical setting and they eventually lead to giant shifts in real world technology. Apple moving to a
  • I gues nowadays more breakthroughs are needed to produce something new...
  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Wednesday September 27, 2006 @10:03AM (#16214843) Homepage
    "As with our colleges, so with a hundred 'modern improvements'; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

    Thoreau, of course, was a technologist and business entrepreneur whose process for combining clay with graphite was a breakthrough in the development of pencil "lead..."

  • by ajs318 ( 655362 )
    Isn't "hype" just an abbreviation of "hyperbole" ? In which case, the phrase "hyperbole and hype" is just unnecessarily re-stating the same thing again more than once without need in a tautological fashion.

    Which is not to say that there isn't a lot of abuse of the Queen's English going on. To some extent it's understandable. The world has more "newspapers" (real and virtual) than ever before, but stuff is happening at pretty much the same rate as ever; which means that, in order to fill more papers,
  • It's the same as "Thriller" for a movie.

    It used to mean that, well, a movie "thrilled."

    It's become so overused now that it can only be taken to mean a genre of movie, and not as an adjective describing it.

    -------------
    Web Thinkers Congregate here [htpp]
  • People seems to use too many words without really considering what they are, what they mean and where they come from. Breakthrough is just one more example.

    Borrowing from another example, lets go back to the solid state transistors. At the time, there was a barrier for semiconductor based technology. Transistors made it possible to (here we go) break through that barrier. Not just some concept, or exciting tecnology or invention.

    I don't know how much of a barrier this (borrowing again) semiconductor laser f
  • How many times have I seen people describe themselves as "intelligent", "successful", "ambitious", "funny", "creative", "outgoing", "easy going"? And here's the best part: on dating platforms, they're all 'looking for bf/gf just like me'.

    Puh lease.
  • If you have a problem that lots of people are working on, and nobody is making consistent progress solving, and then someone does, that person has broken through a developmental bottleneck. That's a breakthrough. But, like the evolution/creation fight over what 'theory' means, there's a popular-advertising/research fight over what a 'breakthrough' is, insofar as they happen all the time, at an increasing rate, as technology advances, but the word is still regarded by the public as being something monument
  • Doesn't everyone tend to just skim past this kind of verbal garbage these days? Even non-marketing/advertising people talk like that now. Sometimes, I think it is a company directive to use certain language in describing the company's product or processes.

    I remember LOL at a radio interview a few years ago of a Microsoft Office project manager talking about making changes to their document format, ostensibly to make improvements, but mostly just to keep OpenOffice users from opening word documents. The quot
    • Yeah. There's a long list of words that have been completely raped by marketing types:

      Usage (for "use")
      Impact (for "affect")
      Innovate (for "gratuitously change")
      Open (meaning "published, but unusable")

      I'd keep going, but my increased keyboard usage has adversely impacted my ability to innovate.
  • Every one of those 8400 breakthroughs got front page billing.
    On slashdot, breakthroughs are lauded no matter how trivial. It is considered a breakthrough for the space elevator when they reach a consensus on what muzak will be playing over the elevators speakers.
  • I know the companies need to get word out about their projects to get investments, but you get jaded when they say these technologies are coming, but 3 years later you look back and it never happened. Give me news on things that are really happening, not what might happen.

  • They just don't make genuine [slashdot.org] breakthroughs like they used to.
  • Articles with buzzwords like "breakthrough" are written to get attention. Do you blame them? That is the PR person's job.

    If the article headline was "Intel Tries Something with Optical Computing" then it wouldn't catch as many eyeballs.

    People love to blame the media for their overuse of buzzwords, exaggeration of truths, and focusing on petty things like celebrity's lives. But remember it is us who read/buy/click based on their headlines, and sadly it works.

    If they didn't do it, we wouldn't read/buy/clic
  • by Chacham ( 981 )
    Now, if we can just change the word "priority" to be useful again.
  • "You keep using sat word. I don sink it means what you sink it means."
    -- Inigo Montoya

    While I'm at it, another one:

    "A word means what I say it means. Nothing more and nothing less."
    --Tweedledum

    Face it, folks, between politics and marketing, nothing really "means" anything anymore.

  • Awesome products rarely inspire much actual awe. Gigantic things are rarely of adequate size for giants. Fantastic holidays never seem much like a trip to some kind of fantasy land to me. Massive is often applied to things without mass, such as savings on sale items.

    It's actually hard to express yourself when you really need to evoke some kind of extra-ordinary image with an adjective.

    I have noticed that a lot of companies are no longer satisfied with supplying you with a simple product any more either. The
  • Paragraph 10 of TFA:

    Having been inside Intel's laser labs, I need no persuading that the company is doing important work here, and an Intel spokesman says the development is indeed a "breakthrough" because it shows how real-world optical products can be made with silicon. I wonder, though, how many more breakthroughs we will be reading about before optical computing becomes ubiquitous. An Intel spokesman says the laser chip is indeed a "breakthrough" because it shows how real-world optical products can be

  • ...I read this [newscientist.com] in New Scientist...

    WHAT makes a scientific paper "surprising" or "unexpected"? Michal Jasienski believes the rapid increase in the frequency of these words in papers' titles is simply a bid by the authors to stand out amid the deluge of publications."

    "If grabbing attention is the goal, it is not working. Jasienski took a sample of 100 "surprising" papers and found that on average they were cited by other researchers no more often than 100 matched papers from the same journals."

    ...just the

  • I never purchase products, described as "breakthrough", "revolutionary", "amazing" and "miracle". These words are the warning sings of crap.

"Lead us in a few words of silent prayer." -- Bill Peterson, former Houston Oiler football coach

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