Welcome to the
Devil’s Data Dictionary

Making Fun of Data
A glossary by Jim SterneJim horns

When Stéphane Hamel coined the description of Big Data as ‘That which doesn’t fit in an Excel spreadsheet’, I realized it was well past time for the datarati to have some fun poked at us.

There is no better example for what I had in mind than Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1906); an absolute gem that includes such treats as these:

Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.
Politeness , n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
Self-evident, adj. Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.
Success, n. The one unpardonable sin against one’s fellows.

Bierce also included anecdotes, phrases and verse.

With no hope of meeting Bierce’s intelligence, wit or stamina, I nonetheless offer up my own accumulation of definitions for the data obsessed, or as Bierce himself would describe it,

Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

After years of seriously delving into the value of data for business and with the onslaught of BIG DATA this and BIG DATA that, it was time to take a poke at the whole thing.

So I spent about a year and a half writing silly definitions and another few months having others correct my over simplifications, guide my misguided permutations and force me to cut out some of entries that were just too clever by half.

I’m very grateful to them.

And then I had a brain storm that pushed this project over the edge – I asked Yevgenia Nayberg to illustrate it. I’ve been an admirer of her work since I first saw her posters for the Lit Moon Theatre company’s plays. Several have hung in my home for more than ten years. As you can see from the cover, Yevgenia does not pull any visual punches and her sense of humor is just what was needed to turn this from a series of blog posts to a collectible work of art – or at least something you can be confident makes a great gift for the data-obsessed person in your life…. which might just be yourself.

Like Stephané’s definition of Big Data, some of the definitions in this volume were borrowed perforce from George Box, Albert Einstein, Stephen Colbert, Aaron Levenstein, Andrew Lang and Stan Kelly-Bootle.

I owe great thanks for those data scientists, data detectives and data junkies who tore themselves away from their pivot tables, dashboards and visualizations to correct, advise and enhance these terms. Specifically, Bob Page, Dean Abbott, Eric Siegel, James Taylor, Jim Novo, John Marshall, Ken Rona, Lisa Morgan, Mark Gibbs, Ned Kumar, Sam Michel, Pramod Singh, Ronny Kohavi, Rufus Evison and Vicky Brock. Without them, I’d only have myself to blame.

The joy of writing this format is that there are so many entries, I’m sure you find something funny and tweetworthy in it.

Jim Sterne
Santa Barbara, August 2105