The history of Ponzi and his infamous scheme

With the arrest last week of Bernard L. Madoff for what amounts to a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, Mental Floss asks the obvious question: just who is this Ponzi, and what exactly was his scheme?

His name was Charles Ponzi, pictured at right, and Mental Floss notes,

Anyone can work a simple swindle, but you have to be a special kind of con man to have your name become synonymous with “fraud.”

Read the article, it’s a great story. At one point near the end, when his great con was unraveling, Ponzi hired a PR flak named William McMasters,

…but the PR man saw through Ponzi’s lies and renounced his client in the press. James Walsh reprints part of McMasters’ slam of Ponzi in his book, You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man. Of Ponzi, McMasters said, “The man is a financial idiot. He can hardly add…He sits with his feet on the desk smoking expensive cigars in a diamond holder and talking complete gibberish about postal coupons.”

Certainly an apt symbol of our own troubled, fraudulent times.

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Words that sound dirty but they’re not

Here’s a discussion thread that should be of interest to the Wordlab community: Words that sound dirty, but they’re not. A sampling of the gems to be found here:

Aer Lingus
Ashram
assonance
buttress
cumin
cummerbund
Dick Butkus
diction
dongle
fluctuate
gherkin
kumquat
masticate
rectify
titmouse
vibrato
Wankel Rotary Engine

This looks like a natural thread to pick up here on Wordlab, if someone would like to start one.

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How language colors perception

Can you tell which aliens are good and which are evil, the Smoothheads or the Bumpyheads, based on whether they are called “leebish” or “grecious”? If so, you’re a good candidate for testing at Carnegie Mellon, where researchers have shown that naming things with labels creates mental categories, helping people learn faster. So reports today’s New York Times, in the article, When Language Can Hold the Answer:

The finding may not seem surprising, but it is fodder for one side in a traditional debate about language and perception, including the thinking that creates and names groups.

In stark form, the debate was: Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world?

The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too.

The gist is that language “greases the wheels of perception.” However, after that initial greasing, it can then get in the way:

In another experiment, Dr. Lupyan showed subjects a series of chairs and tables using pictures from the Ikea catalog. Some subjects were asked to press a button indicating that the picture was of a table or a chair. Other subjects pressed a button to make a nonverbal judgment about the pictures, for example, to indicate whether they liked them or not. Dr. Lupyan found that the subjects who used words to label the objects had more trouble remembering whether they’d seen a specific chair before than subjects who had only pressed a button in a nonverbal task.

Language helps us learn novel categories, and it licenses our unusual ability to operate on an abstract plane, Dr. Lupyan said. The problem is that after a category has been learned, it can distort the memory of specific objects, getting between us and the rest of the nonabstract world.

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Calling all prattling gabblers, lubberly louts, flouting milksops, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, and jobbernol goosecaps

Looking for just the right invective to hurl at someone? Give old François Rabelais a go. Specifically, Sir Thomas Urquhart’s 1653 translation of Rabelais’ classic satirical adventure, Gargantua and Pantagruel (written 1532-1542). Here’s a sample:

The bun-sellers or cake-makers were in nothing inclinable to their request; but, which was worse, did injure them most outrageously, called them prattling gabblers, lickorous gluttons, freckled bittors, mangy rascals, shite-a-bed scoundrels, drunken roysters, sly knaves, drowsy loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubberly louts, cozening foxes, ruffian rogues, paltry customers, sycophant-varlets, drawlatch hoydens, flouting milksops, jeering companions, staring clowns, forlorn snakes, ninny lobcocks, scurvy sneaksbies, fondling fops, base loons, saucy coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing braggarts, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, flutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slangams, ninny-hammer flycatchers, noddypeak simpletons, turdy gut, shitten shepherds, and other suchlike defamatory epithets; saying further, that it was not for them to eat of these dainty cakes, but might very well content themselves with the coarse unranged bread, or to eat of the great brown household loaf.

A shout out to World Wide Words for scratching at this slubberdegullion of the English language.

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Kluster to capitalize on the wisdom of crowds

There’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times – Putting Innovation in the Hands of a Crowd – about a new startup called Kluster, “the newest in a lineup of companies using the Web to channel the collective wisdom of strangers into meaningful business strategies.” That has been the Wordlab philosophy for a decade now, minus that bit about having a meaningful business strategy.

The mention in the article of ideas “proudly found elsewhere” taps right into the ethos of Wordlab and our free community forum, the Wordboard:

Don Tapscott, the business strategy consultant and co-author of the book “Wikinomics,” said executives were quickly warming to the strategic value of “P.F.E.” ideas, or those “proudly found elsewhere.”

“Throughout the 20th century, we’ve had this view that talent is inside the company,” Mr. Tapscott said. “But with the Web, collaboration costs are dropping outside the boundaries of companies, so the world can become your talent.”

Mr. Tapscott, who credited Procter & Gamble with the P.F.E. concept, said executives can go overboard with the idea of outsourcing innovation if, in seeking such help, they expose too much of a company’s trade secrets. But so far, he knows of no business that has done so.

“They always err on the other side,” he said. “They don’t do enough.”

So, if you are in need of free, crowdsourced and possibly incentive-lubricated naming help for your company, product or goldfish, Wordlab is the place to be, with many registered members waiting to chime in with advice.

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