Vonnegut on writing: Simple sentences, direct, and put the important stuff in the beginning

In the Chicago Tribune today

I mean, a lot of critics think I'm stupid because my sentences are so simple and my method is so direct: they think these are defects. No. The point is to write as much as you know as quickly as possible.

In journalism you learn to write a story so someone can cut it without even reading it, putting all the most important stuff in the beginning. And in my books, for the first few pages I say what the hell is going to happen. When I taught at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, I told my students, "Look, I want you to write in such a way that should you drop dead, the reader ought to be able to finish the story for you."

Incidentally this is good writing, period, I think.

The fall of the USSR as explained by Brezhnev bringing his mother to Moscow

In Born Red, a profile of Chinese Leader Xi Jinping (New Yorker) —

Shortly after taking over, Xi asked, “Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?” and declared, “It’s a profound lesson for us.” Chinese scholars had studied that puzzle from dozens of angles, but Xi wanted more. “In 2009, he commissioned a long study of the Soviet Union from somebody who works in the policy-research office,” the diplomat in Beijing told me. “It concluded that the rot started under Brezhnev. In the paper, the guy cited a joke: Brezhnev brings his mother to Moscow. He proudly shows her the state apartments at the Kremlin, his Zil limousine, and the life of luxury he now lives. ‘Well, what do you think, Mama,’ says Brezhnev. ‘You’ll never have to worry about a thing, ever again.’ ‘I’m so proud of you, Leonid Ilyich,’ says Mama, ‘but what happens if the Communists find out?’ Xi loved the story.” Xi reserved special scorn for Gorbachev, for failing to defend the Party against its opponents, and told his colleagues, “Nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”

Origins of conflict

I just became a new father and a friend of mine recommended I read the book "Brain Rules for Baby" by developmental molecular biologist John Medina. Parenting tips I expected. Underlying psychological phenomenon that is the basis of universal human conflict? Not so much. Medina writes:

People view their own behaviors as originating from situations beyond their control, but they view other people's behaviors as originating from inherent personality traits. Say a guy arrives late for a date. He is likely to ascribe his tardiness to external factors (being caught in traffic). She is likely to ascribe his tardiness to being a careless person (not taking traffic into account). One invokes a situational constraint to explain being late. The other invokes an insult. 


Alone in our skulls, we have privileged access... providing detailed knowledge of our psychological interiors, motivations, and intentions. Formally called introspection, we know what we intend to mean or to communicate on a minute-to-minute basis. The problem is, nobody else does. Other people can't read our minds. The only information others have about our interior states and our motives is what our words say and how our faces and bodies appear. This is formally called extrospection.

We are amazingly blind to the limits of extrospective information. We know when our actions fail to match our inner thoughts and feelings, but we often forget that this knowledge is not available to others. This disparity can leave us bewildered or surprised at how we come across to other people. As poet Robert Burns wrote, "Oh that God the gift would give us / to see ourselves as others see us."

Most conflicts do arise out of this kind of asymmetry, but that's why being aware of this phenomenon is super valuable. There are probably all sorts of introspective-extrospective asymmetries in all of our lives right now that we aren't considering. And that lack of awareness is the default state. 

Which reminds me of David Foster Wallace's "This is Water" graduation speech (PDF here) where he says:

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

We experience life in such a way that one particular perspective, our own, is all-encompassing. Mel Brooks put it best: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

What if we didn't live that way? Could such a world even exist? We can try.

Drucker on the economics of information in 1998— true then, true today

I quoted this on my personal homepage in 1999

'Current economics is merely refining the obsolete. Economic theory is still based on the scarcity axiom, which doesn't apply to information. When I sell you a phone, I no longer have it. When I sell information to you, I have more information by the very fact that you have it and I know you have it. That's not even true of money.' 

—Peter Drucker, Wired 6.03 March 1998