Sunday Reads #87: Compressed for your reading pleasure
Apr 19, 2020 1:31 pm
Hope you and yours are keeping safe. (and hello, new readers!).
I'm back again with the most thought-provoking articles I've read in the week. (in case you missed my previous newsletter, you can find it here).
This week, we first enumerate the key lessons to become better communicators. [Hint: they're fewer than you think].
A warning to carry along though: As we draw better maps of reality with our words, let's remember that the map is not the territory. That's what we look at next.
And third, how this relates to the hundreds of COVID-19 models and predictions that abound in the Twitterverse.
Here's the deal - Dive as deep as you want. Read my thoughts first. If you find them intriguing, read the main article. If you want to learn more, check out the related articles and books.
[Before we jump in, a request: If you like the stuff I send you every week, I'd be honored if you could forward this to a friend so they can subscribe. Thanks a lot!]
1. Compress to impress.
Whenever I'm rusty and I want to refresh my writing chops, I go back to this article from Scott Adams. It never fails.
As he says, any non-fiction writing is about clarity and persuasion. You can achieve both by just keeping it simple.
- Your first sentence should grab the reader.
- Get rid of extra words.
- Write short sentences.
- Active, not passive voice.
That's it. Quality writing follows a Pareto Principle, and that's 80% of good writing right there.
Paul Graham adds a third dimension - usefulness, in "How to write usefully"
As he says, a useful essay has four qualities:
- precise (not vague)
Useful writing tells people something true and important that they didn't already know, and tells them as unequivocally as possible.
Jeff Bezos is a master of clarity and persuasion. As Eugene Wei says in "Compress to Impress", Bezos has always codified ideas for maximum recall. Sample this:
It's always Day 1. Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.
Setting the culture of an 800,000 person company, working in several disparate industries, with 4 words. It's always Day 1.
And this is not an isolated example. Look at the motto of Blue Origins, his space-tech company:
Gradatim ferociter. Step by step, ferociously.
Blue Origins' mascot is a tortoise. Ask Bezos why? "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast".
You suspect this only sounds deep, until you contrast it against "Move fast and break things".
TL:DR: in emails, essays, or blog posts, compress to impress.
And on social media...
2. Reality has a surprising amount of detail
While we go forth and compress and impress, let's not forget that the map is not the territory.
Simplicity is a feature of our mortal minds and our communication. Reality remains as complex as ever.
John Salvatier says it well in "Reality has a surprising amount of detail":
You think fixing wobbly stairs is easy. Till you actually do it. Then all sorts of complications - orientation, warping, evenness - spring up out of nowhere.
If you're a programmer, any new computer language will look "fiddly". Fact is, everything is "fiddly", you just don't remember it.
"The sea gets deeper the deeper you get into it."
The details you notice about any field you're not an expert in, are the visible details. Not the important ones. And these are almost never the same.
That's why I try not to give definitive hot takes about stuff I don't understand. The sea is far deeper than I'll ever care to venture.
Once you see this "Map is not the territory" in one place, you see it everywhere:
- It's why AlphaMind can easily beat the best human players at Go, and they cannot describe how it actually did it. Turns out Go, and the universe, might not be governed by simple rules after all.
- It's also why you have many successful serial entrepreneurs in B2B, but not so much in B2C. Successful B2B startups follow playbooks, but each successful consumer startup is like the proverbial lightning in a bottle.
- The Black Scholes option pricing model assumed that market prices move in a lognormal distribution (they don't). It worked well for a while. Until it crashed and burned.
Related reading (from my blog):
3. Which brings us to COVID-19 modeling.
Like everything else, the reality of COVID-19 has a lot of detail. And we know almost none of it.
That's why none of the COVID-19 models are to be trusted. (yes, including the final trustworthy one you discovered after 3 hours of armchair research).
That's why Nate Silver, the best superforecaster around (I linked to his article two newsletters ago) refuses to build a COVID-19 model.
The prediction equation itself isn't that hard. It's quite straightforward.
N(COVID-19 Victims) = N(susceptible population) * infection rate * fatality rate
Three simple variables. But as "The wild world of pandemic modeling" (long comic but great comic) shows, the data for each of these variables is fraught with error.
The errors add, multiply, and compound. Till you have a scientific-looking pile of Garbage Math.
4. To end, wisdom from an unlikely source...
This frozen meat manufacturer delivers the nuanced, not-compressed to impress, truth. 10 times a day.
Check out the twitter feed - some solid... umm... meat in there.. Turns out Steak-umm's social media manager is quite the philosopher.
That's it for this week! Hope you liked the articles. Drop me a line (just hit reply or click on the "Leave a comment" button) and let me know what you think.
PS. "The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter" in last week's newsletter generated quite a lot of interest. So sending this poem "Vlad the Astrophysicist" around. It's a humbling listen. Thanks to Udit for sending it to me!