The ACAN Problem – When the Shit Hits the Fan

How do we approach a problem which is inelastic to experts and siloed expertise? The problem which requires a multi-disciplinary approach in order to even identify as a problem in the first place.
Moreover, the ACAN problem demands a change in the ways in which we speak and think, what we fear, what we value, and finally the praxis of skepticism we employ.

Years ago, my team was brought in to a consumer goods company to develop its operating strategy. The challenge which lay before this number three ranked player in its business sub-vertical resided in its struggle to grow, and compete with the strong sourcing of that sub-vertical’s top operators. The top two consumer goods businesses in my client’s segment had dominated their class for two decades, through strong Walmart-styled product sourcing clout, x-factory production blocking, consolidation prowess, pervasive and exclusionary agency relationships, and a disciplined and highly efficient freight, processing, and delivery infrastructure. These players had achieved ‘best in practice’ status, and furthermore had leveraged this clout to drive lowest first cost and industry dominance by means of exclusivity with their oveseas suppliers. Such was a familiar business landscape, one which capitalized upon Chinese hegemony and played out inside American business at that time. A set of mistakes and bad crony judgment for which we are paying the piper even now. Most of the cronies who drove this strategy are now retired at their villas or deceased, leaving for us the task of resolving their messy legacy.

Cronies crave cash and revenue does not make right. Instead, flows of margin and value are king. This is why value chain analysis is a critical component of sound national, market, and business strategy.

On September 22, 480 BCE, a naval engagement occurred in the Saronic Gulf, called the Battle of Salamis. This event was part of a broader ongoing conflict between an alliance of Greek city-states under politician and general Themistocles and the Achaemenid Empire (Persia) under King Xerxes. In this naval battle, the Persian fleet greatly outnumbered the Greek fleet, and as well was equipped with superior ships. Their ‘best in class’ armada bore both the numerics and efficacy sufficient to dispatch a blue water ocean-going opponent in short order. What Themistocles elected to do, was decline to engage the Persians inside their arena of strength, fighting on the high seas. Instead, he boldly told Xerxes exactly where his fleet resided and invited him to come fight there.1

In order to compress this tale of antiquity into its moral; in short, Themistocles enticed overconfident Xerxes through a bit of sleight-of-hand disinformation (both, constituting ambiguity) to fight him inside a strait between the Greek mainland and the island of Salamis. The Persians were less skilled at the columnar-and-abreast tactics of naval engagement inside a strait (complexity), and moreover faced the reality that in this circumstance, because of the constrained engagement zone, only an equal number of ships could indeed be in actual combat at any given time. This meant that Xerxes could not take advantage of his greater numbers (novelty). Indeed, Themistocles had forced a matching of island warfare specialty ships and crews versus blue ocean warfare specialty ships and crews (asymmetry).

Xerxes in his overconfidence, had failed to spot the asymmetry, complexity, ambiguity, and novelty – the ACAN – of the battle which was about to ensue.

As a result, the Persian fleet lost several command vessels early in the conflict and became confused. In the disarray, they ended up having to retreat from their first sortie. However, anticipating this first retreat, Themistocles had an Aeginetan task group on standby (asymmetry, complexity, ambiguity and novelty all embodied inside one single strategic element), which subsequently ambushed Xerxes’ fleet and routed the armada during its exit from the straits.2

Much as in the way that the Biblical David, refused to fight with sword and shield against a tougher sword-and-shielded opponent in Goliath, instead exploiting his nearsightedness, overconfidence, and lack of mobility against him, the Greeks attained victory simply through the action of changing the playing field on the erstwhile ‘industry leader’.

In this same way, my client elected to change the playing field of their industry sub-vertical. Instead of going head-to-head against the top two companies inside their arena of strength, one of serving the customer as first priority, they elected instead to position their infrastructure to be able to respond more adeptly to the vendor industry. In this manner, they were able to respond to emergent vendor buys in much quicker fashion; physically taking possession of problem, distressed, and overstocked inventory and shipments within 24 hours.

I believe there is an innate wisdom as well, a potency within the simple ethic of refusing to do what everyone else is doing. If a naked emperor skulks somewhere inside the popular fray, you will be most sure to find it.

Vendors loved to avail themselves of this new capability and lowered inventories with abandon by means of this handy exit strategy opportunity. As the economy flagged during the endless George W Bush wars, and as the great preponderance of vendor inventory/production began to fall into these types of distressed dispositions, my client was able to cherry pick the best of this class of goods and obtain them at a fraction of the price the major competitors were paying – despite their volume buying leverage. Yes, it is true that American consumers are pampered by good service, but they love off-priced (not simply ‘discount’) merchandise even more. In our strategy, I called this method of market engagement a ‘source based value chain infrastructure’. Accordingly, my client rose from number three, to number one in its market segment, in part, because of this evolution.

Years later I would have clients in sales meetings cite this very business case back to me, framing for my team their desire to have their business employ its philosophy as means to becoming ‘best-in-class’. They would pedantically lecture me with my very own industry strategy, even citing the company (my client), fully unaware that my team had led the groundbreaking project. Then ironically question whether or not my team was capable of delivering strategy for such best practice. I would remain silent, smile, and nod accommodatingly.

Most strategists don’t even know what a value chain is, much less how to craft a strategy employing such principles. The only way to learn how to assemble, normalize, and make decisions from a value chain is to develop several species of them in the real world, and have surveyed their outcomes at a later date. Value chain principles can be topically addressed in a textbook, but cannot be fully instructed in an academic or pulp-mill publication context. It took me eight years to organically figure out what a value chain even was (through myriad successes and directly observing many business and market collapses/consolidations), and another ten years to explain its principles to the industry, major enterprise resource planning software developers, and the leading instructors at my alma mater. However, now you will find the phrase bandied about frequently by poseurs – often as a cudgel of intimidation. Much of skepticism and science functions in this same way. We are all humans after all, even if elite segments of professional domains fail to remember this reality.

Such elicits a key insight regarding arrogance among poseurs, and that of suit, lab-coat, and logo wearers in particular. They often imitate, but seldom innovate.

The simple reality is this, value chains are a methodology which affords the astute problem solver, the ability to see more clearly into the logical calculus of critical path, comprised inside the prosecution of what I call, the ACAN, or New World problem. And just as in the Penrose endless staircase depicted in the image at the beginning of this article, unless one introduces nodes and measures of value/risk into the decision calculus, the ACAN as well as most strategic problems, are often actually insolvent. As a result of our inability to see this, we as governing entities resort to levers of cash, revenues, derivatives, good-sounding rhetoric, and control – to our eventual demise and the suffering of those who are left out.

The ACAN Problem

The New World Problem or ACAN problem, is one which is ‘Asymmetric – Complex – Ambiguous – Novel’. These are top-shelf problems which are difficult to distinguish in the first place, much less negotiate and/or resolve. They require a different type of thinking – a mode of thought which is essential in identifying the ACAN problem. It is not simply that the ACAN problem requires a multi-disciplinary approach, and of course it does. But moreover, the ACAN problem demands that we change the ways in which we speak and think, what we fear (risk), how we measure and adjudicate value, and finally in order to break the entailed contrathetic impasse, the praxis of skepticism we employ.

Value and risk flow, just like product, cash, and margin. Always seek to become exposed to value flows and robust to flows of risk.

Your every decision and action as a business should be one which seeks to either capture value into your brand and/or displace risk to the market.

As a nation or market, never allow any entity’s margin to outrun their value nor marinate in excessive risk.

If one can systemically measure, model, and equitably leverage value and risk into a value chain – one can rule the world (but then of course that would not serve value nor risk).

The ability to distinguish which ACAN problems society faces in the first place, will be a top shelf skill in the New World. This has become most poignant in the post-Soviet/Nazi era, wherein the bad guys are not as easy to spot as they once were. Darth Vader does not exist in an embodied single person any longer. This is not your father’s bad guy. Now he comes dressed in the cloak of woke, with flowers and and army of people thinking they are doing good – all of whom have zero perception of what value and risk indeed are.

Accordingly, below (and as depicted in Exhibit 1 as well) are the features of a true ACAN problem. Specifically, an ACAN problem is one where the following supra-challenges imbue and enhance the normal challenges which we face with respect to run-of-the-mill problems, specifically in terms of a circumstance bearing the following features.


  • Might serve to conceal shortages, sabotaged efforts, or flawed or incomplete processes
  • May increase exposure risk inside Force Majeure events
  • Can serve to hide the presence and impact of groupthink or bandwagoneering
  • May serve to delude governance into perceiving a false success
  • Introduces left-hand right-hand or compartmentalization ineffectiveness
  • Allows for one critical failure to sabotage a full set of successes


  • Clouds the ability of professionals to observe measurement, precision, and tolerance abuses
  • Clouds the ability of operators to follow through, design or control process or quality
  • Clouds the perception of managers in identifying and resolving complicated-ness (more dangerous than complexity) in their processes
  • Tempts management to think in terms of single indices, linearity, normal curves, or averages
  • Enables confidence to cover for lack of capability
  • May allow politics to foster
  • Allows the incompetent to survive


  • Lack of discipline in language allows goals/processes to be ill defined, and critical actors to talk past each other
  • Ignorance of sensitivity, feedback, or whipsaw conditions renders operators vulnerable to their own processes
  • The presence of neglect or Nelsonian knowledge becomes difficult to spot and eradicate
  • May introduce right-answer wrong-timing or invalid inference problems
  • Serves to conflate inductive and deductive inference
  • May obscure ability to evaluate soundness, logical calculus, or critical path
  • Allows failures to be concealed


  • Tempts players to pretend like they know what is occurring
  • Neutralizes effectiveness of script or method educated professionals
  • Encourages reliance on buzz-phrases and apothegm
  • Serves to confuse or cause dissonance in the Peters in an organization
  • Allows an appeal to authority elite class to emerge
  • Allows a lack of success to come to be expected – or even be rewarded

Anti-fragility after all, is exhibited by the organization which can best identify, measure, and negotiate complexity, novelty, ambiguity, and asymmetry. By mapping flows of value and risk, one can more readily discern asymmetry, ambiguity, and complexity from the mundanity of mere product, margin, and information flow. One can more readily negotiate a novel circumstance, and run circles around the classic experts who inhabit the domain therein.

Notice how well amateurs and ‘conspiracy theorists’ performed on comprehension of critical issues relative to the best epidemiologists and public health officials during the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 was an ACAN problem, which we as a society failed to recognize. We were erstwhile Xerxes, conflating the numbers of ships we possessed, and the cockiness of our captains, with actual competence in combat.

Develop this skill, and one will be the person to call, when the shit hits the fan.

Exhibit 1 – the essence of anti-fragility resides in a team’s ability to spot the presence of complexity, ambiguity, novelty, and asymmetry (rightmost column) – and how they serve to compound more classic organizational or process struggles (left three columns).

The solution entailed with each New World or ACAN problem of course demands creativity, persistence, and insight. There is no one formula which results in a win. But you will find, that the individual or team who can craft a keen vision of the core ACAN problem in the first place, is the only entity which stands even a remote chance of actually solving it.

Everything else is vanity.

The Ethical Skeptic, “The ACAN Problem – When the Shit Hits the Fan”; The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress, 7 Aug 2022; Web,

How You Say It Makes All the Difference

It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. I find it hard to believe, but just maybe those irritating sentence diagrams from 8th grade have paid off after all.  I believe that merit resides in splitting our categories of misrepresentation, in the Tree of Knowledge Obfuscation, into a structure producing an additional category member. That new member being – Misrepresentation through Locution or Semantics.

When I write, I tend to develop slightly longer and concatenated sentence structures than that of typical prose. This stems from decades of experience in technical writing. Technical writing tends to be composition inside of which the author attempts to anticipate and counter, in text, any imprecision which might lead later to a misunderstanding or manipulation of the material. Short, simply phrased sentences are prone to a whole host of potential problems with respect to interpretation. Everyone thinks that they fully understand a short simple sentence. But the reality is that such an approach to locution might not deliver the unequivocal or unambiguous integrity of material intended by the author.

Ill meaning forces delight in short idiomatic delivery. For in such a domain of uncertainty they can exploit meaning like a dancer, cavorting among the tombstones in the graveyard of ideas.

slept for 10 days too long - CopyAs one of my favorite comedians, Mitch O’Hedberg, quips in his monologue “I haven’t slept for ten days.  Because that would be too long.”  When one utters the phrase – ‘I haven’t slept for ten days’ – both deliverer and recipient believe that we have accurately conveyed the meaning of our original point. And in an idiomatic sense we have. People generally grasp the message one is attempting to convey through such a sentence. Mitch’s comedy lever often hinges on the humorous framing of equivocation, ambiguity and amphibology in our common language and life. But technical writing cannot rely upon the short cut of idiom and colloquial phrase. Ill intended forces, seeking control and not humor, will employ the holes in our delivery to effect outcomes and conclusions according to their preference. The most common (and perhaps least damaging) form of locution abuse occurs in attempts by Social Skeptics to place the deliverer of a message into a prescribed bucket of wink-and-nudge categorization. Oh, she’s an ‘intelligent design proponent,’ or a ‘believer.’ Uh, huh. Through this familiar, but very imprecise set of language vulnerabilities, they socially disarm a message and its proponent – before we can even consider what the proponent has to say.

As well, patent prosecutions, are submitted with just such a set of pitfalls in mind. In a patent application, one is seeking to protect the intellectual property entailed from forces which will seek a loophole. A loophole which would afford exploitation of the new intellectual property without the burden of having to honor the patent. A patent might be declined in an office action by a United States Patent and Trademark Office examiner for instance, in order to provide the applicant opportunity to clarify where semantic overlap has occurred with an existing intellectual property registry. The patent might be in need of small changes in the verbiage in order to eliminate the conflict. Technical writing, fortunately and unfortunately, is a bit like legalese; to wit, I have written many of the contracts my company has issued, with only a final review by our attorneys in many instances.  Attorneys are sticklers for ensuring that, in addition to compliance with the structure and stricture of the law, a specific set of locution introduced uncertainties are avoided at all costs.

Contracts cannot tolerate uncertainty in the terms of agreement, and neither can technical writing. Uncertainty, in the forms of the locution errors below, introduces the opportunity for cheating, skirting, misinterpretation, and misunderstanding. Things which can render a clause or an entire contract null in the inception. Things which offer a person wishing to politically manipulate the message of science in their preferred direction, if left any kind of loophole. This is done in both blatant and subtle fashion.

If the ambiguity is obvious it is called “patent,” and if there is a hidden ambiguity it is called “latent.” If there is an ambiguity, and the original writer cannot effectively explain it, then the ambiguity will be decided in the light most favorable to the other party.¹

But Social Skepticism, does not develop technical studies nor contracts. It celebrates the imprecise nature of language and locution. They are the dancers between the tombstones in the graveyard of ideas. Social Skepticism’s specialty is the promulgation of correct thought and the interpretation of science on behalf of us all, through the media. It is in this public forum where a whole series of misrepresentations occurs, both patent and latent. Below we outline our new category of misrepresentation in The Tree of Knowledge Obfuscation, Misrepresentation through Locution and Semantics.

Take for instance, a clip which might be found in a typical journalism piece on science and philosophy. The phrase at first glance might appear to the layman to make a lot of sense – when in reality it is a load of crap and non-sense.

locution errors - Copy cbg - Copy - Copy

Equivocation (Irish Pennant)

the misleading use of a term, principle or construct with more than one meaning, sense, or use in professional context by glossing over which meaning is intended in the instance of usage, in order to mis-define, change context of and inappropriately include or exclude domain inside  an argument.

Wittgenstein Error (Context) – one shifts the meaning of words to their favor or disfavor by the exploiting the context in which they are employed.

Data, sample, cohort, retrospective, evidence, study, meta-analysis

Wittgenstein Error (Footprint) – one employs words which have large grammatical footprint, in order to exploit a portion of that potential footprint of meaning in order to drive home an argument or craft a denial.

Woo, ridiculous, contrarian, outsider

Secundum Quid – when one exploits a failure to appreciate the distinction between using words absolutely and using them with qualification.

Pseudoscience, apophenia, pareidolia

Anodyne Phrasing – phrasing deliberately posed in suitable apothegms or buzzwords which are not likely to provoke dissent, offense or disagreement – so that more extreme agendas backed by such locution can be subtly approved by all. Terms such as ‘justice’, ‘hate’, ‘Nazi’, ‘equality’, ‘immigration’ – where the hearer hears one thing, but the agenda poser means another.

Slack Exploitation – an arguer employs a constraining term, which at face value appears to bound the discussion, model or position contended to a specific definition or domain. However, a purposely chosen word or domain has been employed which allows for several different forms of interpretation of the contention on the part of the arguer.

Unlikely, tail condition, law of large numbers

Object or Subject Ambiguity – the construction or delivery of a message in such words or fashion as to allow for several reasonable interpretations of person, place or thing to which the message applies.

They, it, them, all, entire, those who, you, these

Hyperbolic Error – one employs words which overlap with more suitable terms, however which range into a realm of overemphasis or exaggeration which the arguer finds convenient.

Inconceivable, ridiculous, irrational, tirade

Praedicate Evidentia – one employs conclusive terms which suggest the end to a logical process, or the plenary state of its soundness or evidence, to imply something of greater inferential strength than what is indeed reality.

Consensus, conclusive, settled, indicative, points to, scientists consider, researchers have found

Accent Drift – one employs a specific type of ambiguity that arises when the meaning of a sentence is changed by placing an unusual prosodic stress (emphasis on a word), or when, in a written passage, it’s left unclear which word the emphasis was supposed to fall on.

Could, maybe, if, really, absolutely, certainly, probably, suppose, I guess

Compactifuscation – when one merges several disparate but associated concepts or definitions into one single descriptive term, so that epistemological weakness or strengths characteristic of a subset of the definitions held equivocally inside the term, can be ported over to the remaining set of definitions, without overt support or challenge in doing so.

Pseudoscience, numpty, neologism, sheeple

Portmanteau – originally a large trunk made of stiff leather, which opened into two differing but equal sized parts – which has transmuted into meaning a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others.

Fauxtography (from ‘faux’ and ‘photography’) or brunch (from ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’)

Circular Reference – one employs definitions, data or expertise which obtain their authority through reference to other definitions, data or expertise which are of a single club in their origin – usually a club which suffers from anomie.

Irrational, credulous, magical thinking, contrarian

Weapon Word – a series of fashion terms among those who consider themselves elite and intelligent in comparison to a targeted disliked group in their mind. The manufacture, instruction and deployment of key expressions into the educational, push channel media, public and social skeptic discourse, targeting a goal of social intimidation and indoctrination.

Bubba, quack, creationist, truther

Anachronistic Proxy or Reference – one employs a concept, axiom or term which only has applicability or meaning in a current time frame of reference, however which suitably lenses past principles or events to now stand as examples for their argument or denial.

Myth, sadistic, stoic, archaic, pedantic, polemic, muckraker

Hedging – the a priori employment of ambiguous words or phrases, for the purposeful instance wherein they can be reinterpreted in such a way as to appear to be in consensus, if one is later found to be wrong on a position of denial and opposition.

Concerns, gaps, inconsistency, shortfall, non-compliance, irregularity

Advantageously Obtuse (Bridgman Reduction) – a principle which has been translated, summarized or dumbed-down for consumption so as to appear to be a ‘simple’ version of its source principle; however, which has been compromised through such a process.

“Occam’s” Razor versus Ockham’s Razor, Misrepresentations of: simple, Fat Tony, Anti-fragile, Popper Demarcation

Flummery – meaningless ceremonial or sycophant journalism – often characterized by worn out catch phrases, article structures, quotes, recitations, common bad guys, phrase cloning, celebrity deference and social peer flattery, often inexpertly applied and misunderstood by the writer.

Anti-science, tin-foil hatter, Moon landing hoax, Trumper, bed-wetter

Non Rectum Agitur – one executes a purposeful abrogation of the scientific or other logical method through corrupted method sequence or the framing and asking of the wrong, ill prepared, unit biased or invalid question, conducted as a pretense of executing such method on the part of a biased participant. Applying a step of such method, advantageously out of order.

Peer review, scientific method, publication, mathematical proof, proof, “Occam’s” Razor, evidence, Baloney detection kit, p-value, amaurosis

Aphronêsis – one employs twisted, extreme, ill timed, misconstrued, obtuse or misapplied wisdom, sometimes even considered correct under different contexts of usage – which allow an agenda holder to put on a display of pretend science, rationality and skepticism.

Critical thinking, rationality, science, investigation, research, skepticism

Tangenda – one forces the critical path of an argument to be constrained to term which sounds applicable, but entails or enforces a completely different logical calculus.

Virtue, democracy, aid, slavery, nationalism, unemployment


the construction or delivery of a message in such words or fashion as to allow for several reasonable interpretations of the context, object, subject, relationship, material or backing of the intended message.

Organic Untruth (verum mendacium) – a constructive form of argument which exploits concealed ambiguity or altered premise as the core of its foundational structure. A statement which is true at face value, but was not true or was of unknown verity under the time frame or original basis, soundness, domain or context under discussion.

Not a Logical Truth – It is not that this type of statement is false. The basis of this type of assertion may even reside in scientific validity, or may be only categorically true – i.e. only true if given a specific set of circumstances. However the statement is not a logical truth – a truth of syllogism which is comprehensive, unqualified and unequivocal. Logical truth is the state of syllogism which a deceitful person is wishing for you to infer when they state a categorical truth, yet do not specify its conditions. It is a means of lying through stating something which is only conditionally accurate – hoping that their victim will accept the statement as one which addresses all circumstance.

Slack Exploitation – a form of equivocation or rhetoric wherein an arguer employs a term which at face value appears to constrain the discussion or position contended to a specific definition or domain. However, a purposely chosen word or domain has been employed which allows for several different forms/domains of interpretation of the contention on the part of the arguer. Often this allows the arguer to petition the listener to infer a more acceptable version of his contention, when in fact he is asserting what he knows to be a less acceptable form of it.

Uti Dolo (trick question) – a question which is formed for the primary purpose of misleading a person into selecting (through their inference and/or questioner’s implication) the incorrect answer or answer not preferred inside a slack exploited play of ambiguity, interpretation, sequence, context or meaning. The strong version being where the wrong context is inferred by means of deceptive question delivery; the weak version being where the question is posed inside a slack domain where it can be interpreted legitimately in each of two different ways – each producing a differing answer.


is a situation where a sentence may be interpreted in more than one way due to ambiguous sentence structure. An amphibology is permissible, but not preferable, only if all of its various interpretations are simultaneously and organically true.

Context Dancing

the twisting of the context inside which a quotation or idea has been expressed such that it appears to support a separate argument and inappropriately promote a desired specific outcome.

Wittgenstein Error

Descriptive – the inability to discuss, observe or measure a proposition or contention, because of a language limitation, which has limited discourse and not in reality science’s domain of observability.

Contextual – employment of words in such as fashion as to craft rhetoric, in the form of persuasive or semantic abuse, by means of shift in word or concept definition by emphasis, modifier, employment or context.

Epistemological – the contention that a proposition must be supported by empirical data or else it is meaningless, nonsense or useless, or that a contention which is supported by empirical data is therefore sensible, when in fact the proposition can be framed into meaninglessness, nonsense or uselessness based upon its underlying state or lacking of definition, structure, logical calculus or usefulness in addressing a logical critical path.

bedeutungslos – meaningless. A proposition or question which resides upon a lack of definition, or which contains no meaning in and of its self.

unsinnig – nonsense. A proposition of compromised coherency. Feynman ‘not even wrong.’

sinnlos – useless. A contention which does not follow from the evidence, is correct at face value but disinformative or is otherwise useless.

Accent Drift

is a specific type of ambiguity that arises when the meaning or level of hyperbole of a sentence is changed by placing an unusual prosodic stress (emphasis on a word), or when, in a written passage, it’s left unclear which word the emphasis was supposed to fall on.²

Subject Ambiguity

the construction or delivery of a message in such words or fashion as to allow for several reasonable interpretations of person, place or thing to which the message applies.

There are of course more errors of locution and semantics which are included in The Tree of Knowledge Obfuscation, but they all in reality stem from a more complex employment of these eight base errors in locution and semantics.

Enjoy truth. Epoché Vanguards Gnosis.

¹  Encyclopedia of American Law: Ambiguity. (n.d.) West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. (2008). Retrieved August 29 2015.

²  Accent (fallacy), Wikipedia; Retrieved August 29, 2015.