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

Montage of Heck - Meeting Kurt Cobain in his own home movies

Like a lot of people our generation, I grew up listening to Nirvana. In Utero was on repeat on my Walkman, and I still can lip sync the words whenever I hear it. But the rock star and the man were different things, and tonight's HBO premiere of the Cobain documentary "Montage of Heck" made the man that much more real. 

Instead than rockumentary or myth-making, most of the film is Kurt Cobain's own journal writing, art, and of course music, both released and unreleased. The home videos are the most compelling — a true window to his life. You do feel like you're spying on private moments, Kurt growing up, and his life with Courtney Love and their daughter Frances Bean. 

Any Nirvana fan would love this documentary. It's not easy to watch, but important if you, like me, felt like you were given a voice by the music. Thanks Kurdt. 

Ross Ulbricht's private journals released: Self-doubt, first steps, tribulations

Here's an excerpt of what Ross Ulbricht wrote years ago about starting Silk Road from Ars Technica:

I was calling it Underground Brokers, but eventually settled on Silk Road. The idea was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them. I had been studying the technology for a while, but needed a business model and strategy. I finally decided that I would produce mushrooms so that I could list them on the site for cheap to get people interested. I worked my ass off setting up a lab in a cabin out near Bastrop off the grid. In hindsight, this was a terrible idea and I would never repeat it, but I did it and produced several kilos of high quality shrooms. On the website side, I was struggling to figure out on my own how to set it up. Driving out to Bastrop, working on Good Wagon, and trying to keep up my relationship with Julia was taking all of my time. By the end of the year, I still didn’t have a site up, let alone a server.

I went through a lot over the year in my personal relationships as well. I had mostly shut myself off from people because I felt ashamed of where my life was. I had left my promising career as a scientist to be an investment adviser and entrepreneur and came up empty handed. More and more my emotions and thoughts were ruling my life and my word was losing power. At some point I finally broke down and realized my love for people again, and started reaching out. Throughout the year I slowly re-cultivated my relationship with my word and started honoring it again.

My relationship with Julia was pretty rocky throughout the year. We even broke up for about a month and half toward the end. I couldn’t even tell you now why it was a struggle, or why we broke up. On my side, I wasn’t communicating well at all. I would let little things build up until I got mad. We eventually got back together and even moved in together, and it has been amazingly good since.

In 2011, I am creating a year of prosperity and power beyond what I have ever experienced before. Silk Road is going to become a phenomenon and at least one person will tell me about it, unknowing that I was its creator. 

The full article is fascinating and worth the read.

The place between grey hat and white hat SEO: being wrong on purpose

There's three types of SEO. White Hat is playing within Google's rules. Black Hat is playing outside of them (think comment bots that drop links). Grey Hat is the space inbetween. "The Gawker" strategy lies somewhere between White Hat and Grey Hat.

The linkbuilding strategy called "the Gawker," is where you hire someone known for choosing unpopular positions and trolling/being unable to take criticism. That person creates a shitstorm by saying something incredibly stupid and stubbornly sticking to it. This prompts everyone to talk about how irrational they are and generates a lot of controversy. You get a lot of links to your site during the controversy. Later, you fire this person to save face.

One of the biggest rules of posting anything on the tubes is "Don't be wrong on the Internet" because everyone HAS to correct you, this strategy relies on using that that rule to your advantage. Post something absurdly dumb in a random reddit comment page, and a dozen people will feel the need to correct you, and all you are is an anonymous person on the internet. When a media entity - especially a generally respected one - posts something absurd, other media entities feel the obligation to correct them. Since their readers are probably unaware of the other media entity's wrong-headed entry, the other media company links to it. As mentioned earlier, a link from a domain that has lots of links is worth many, many times more than a link from a less endowed website.

Left unchecked, this will continue to grow as a serious problem in modern media. 

Elon Musk AMA wisdom — On knowledge and learning

Elon Musk on knowledge and learning via Reddit AMA

I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.