Four Essays

The Wire

13:29 <humph> it feels good to do something about all the ideas that keep you up at night

I’ve come across a couple of essays recently that have lodged themselves in my apparatus like some swarm of intellectual candiru. They seemed to arrive all at once. I don’t know what the full impact of them will eventually be but in terms of my writing, the quality of the work that I do and the substance of what I’m working on at all I don’t know now that I can settle for what I have and have done. I’m not sure what that last sentence actually means yet, but for the last few days I’ve had these vague, jagged notions rattling around my insides. By never really choosing, I’ve chosen to be way too aimless in what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about it for way too long.

These excerpts are nothing; to get the meat of these essays, you’ll need to read them.

The first, on journalism as a conveyance of a well-informed understanding, is Matt Thompson’s essay on The 3 key parts of news stories you don’t usually get.

Read that story, and you might be surprised by how much Gawande focuses on his reporting process. At every turn, Gawande walks you through exactly what he sees, who he’s talked to, and how he comes to his conclusions. In one vignette, he gathers six doctors for dinner, and reproduces highlights of their conversation on the costs of medical care. It’s extraordinarily effective, both as a narrative and as a piece of journalism.

What Gawande did was to structure his search for truth as a quest narrative. Instead of hiding the details about how he comes by his information, he makes that the very focus. Along the way, he makes us apprentices in his quest for truth. We finish the article with a highly refined sense of how Gawande has acquired and verified the information he presents, as well as a framework for further inquiry of our own.

We get a lot more out of this type of reporting, in other words, than the vast majority of news stories, which leave these details out.

Number two is a five-year-old article by Gopal Kapur, called “I’m OK, The Bull Is Dead”, which Whedon fans will recognize as one of Joss’ favorite storytelling tools:

Early in my career, when I worked as an engineer, my boss had a process by which the engineering team was expected to report project status. He insisted that we use the following steps, in the specified order:
1. Punch line: The facts; no adjectives, adverbs or modifiers. “Milestone 4 wasn’t hit on time, and we didn’t start Task 8 as planned.” Or, “Received charter approval as planned.”

2. Current status: How the punch-line statement affects the project. “Because of the missed milestone, the critical path has been delayed five days.”

3. Next steps: The solution, if any. “I will be able to make up three days during the next two weeks but will still be behind by two days.”

4. Explanation: The reason behind the punch line. “Two of the five days’ delay is due to late discovery of a hardware interface problem, and the remaining three days’ delay is due to being called to help the customer support staff for a production problem.”

Notice the almost reverse order of these points in comparison with the common reporting style in which team members start with a long explanation of why things went wrong.

The third is Manfred Mann’s recent post, Better.

[…] to be honest, I don’t have a specific agenda for what I want to do all that differently, apart from what I’m already trying to do every day:

  • identify and destroy small-return bullshit;
  • shut off anything that’s noisier than it is useful;
  • make brutally fast decisions about what I don’t need to be doing;
  • avoid anything that feels like fake sincerity (esp. where it may touch money);
  • demand personal focus on making good things;
  • put a handful of real people near the center of everything.

All I know right now is that I want to do all of it better. Everything better. Better, better.

To underscore, I have no plan to stop making dick jokes or to swear off ragging people who clearly have it coming to them. It’s just that it’s important to me to make world-class dick jokes and to rag the worthy in a way that no one is expecting. I want to become an evangelist for hard work and editing, and I want to get to a place where it shows in everything that I do, make, and share. Yes, even if it makes me sound like a fancy guy who just doesn’t get it. Fuck it.

The last and most damning is Richard Hamming’s (inventor of what are now called Hamming Codes) talk, “You And Your Research”.

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, “Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven’t changed my research,” he says, “but I think it was well worthwhile.” And I said, “Thank you Dave,” and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, “What are the important problems in my field?”

As good as I am at what I do, it’s hard to see what that’s worth if am not putting my best effort towards most important problems I could be working on, in my field or indeed any. And I know in my gut that I’m not.

I’m not interested in being a big fish that never goes looking for the ocean. The world needs changing and my work and my writing frankly suck, because good enough sucks. Adequate sucks. Merely competent sucks, and don’t think I’m willing to set the bar at contentedness with anything that isn’t the best I’ve got on offer anymore.

[ Nine Inch Nails – Zero Sum ]


  1. Jamie
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Holy crap, Hamming’s speech/essay really does get stuck inside you.

    I do like the “Bull is Dead” one. I always try at work to express points as succinctly as possible, especially if you are describing something that has gone wrong.

    When it comes to Power Point presentations, this is a skill that the vast majority of people are missing.

  2. bella anti matter
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    …but if everyone cogitated this way, there would be little left to do! WOrk days would be 3 hours long 3 days a week.. too much leisure time, dammit!

    Hear here on the Bull is dead! HOw many of backstage day-to-day nonsense would simply evaporate if my TD would read and understand this… STOP TALKING AND FIX IT!

    I love breaking into spontaneous rounds of the peepee dance at meetings because people can’t get their point across.