Virtue signalling

What is the opposite of a Like on social media? These days, perhaps the closest thing is an accusation of "virtue signalling." Given the current age, one of recursive outrage hurtling to and fro through online conduits at ever increasing frequency, someone was sure to try to claim higher moral ground through accusations of lazy armchair posturing.

James Bartholomew laid claim to coining the phrase in a self-congratulatory article which seems so smug in tone that perhaps he was trying to head off even a hint of faux modesty that might be interpreted as virtue-signalling (the subhead reads "It’s a true privilege to have coined a phrase – even if people credit it to Libby Purves instead").

To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
 
Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse.
 
...
 
I bumped into Dominic Lawson, former editor of The Spectator, who remarked that my life is now complete: I have added to the English language and can retire from the scene, perfectly satisfied. I have reluctantly given up hopes of ever appearing on Desert Island Discs — a pity considering I have been preparing for it for some 35 years — but at least I can comfort myself that I have coined a phrase. I thus join, admittedly at a low level, the ranks of word-creators such as William Shakespeare (‘uncomfortable’ and ‘assassination’ and many others) and Thomas Carlyle (‘dry as dust’ and, most famously, ‘environment’).
 

Given the culture world war that is 2017, last week the NYTimes published an essay on virtue signalling. The implications of the term seem fairly self-evident, but for those who are new to the phrase, the piece provides a primer.

When people offer their vehement condemnation of some injustice in the news, or change their Facebook profile photos to honor the victims of some new tragedy, or write status updates demanding federal action on climate change, observers like Bartholomew smell something fishy: Do these people really care deeply about the issue du jour? They probably aren’t, after all, out volunteering to solve the problem. What if they’re motivated, above all else, by simply looking like people who care?
 
This sort of ostentatious concern is, according to some diagnoses, endemic to the political left. A writer for the conservative website The Daily Caller wrote this summer that virtue signaling ‘‘has been universalized into a sort of cultural tic’’ on the left, ‘‘as compulsive and unavoidable as Tourette’s syndrome.’’ There are plenty on the left who might agree. It’s not difficult to find, in conversations among progressives, widespread eye-rolling over a certain type of person: the one who will take a heroic stance on almost any issue — furious indignation over the casting of a live-action ‘‘Aladdin’’ film, vehement defense of Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices, extravagant emotional investment in the plight of a group to which the speaker does not belong — in what feels like a transparent bid for the praise, likes and aura of righteousness that follows.
 
The charge of virtue signaling, though, has metastasized well beyond this type of comical figure. Once you’ve decided this ‘‘cultural tic’’ has become universal on the left, almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false — as mere performance. It applies when people express dismay that a robotics team made up of Afghan girls may be barred from entering the United States; when someone frets about the American poverty rate; when The Associated Press shares information about a deadly oil-tanker fire in Pakistan. Every one of these things has been described online as the unholy product of ‘‘virtue signaling.’’
 

Of course, accusing another person of virtue signalling is its own form of virtue signalling. When I made reference to claiming moral high ground earlier, I should've been more clear. Whe applied to online arguments, moral high ground really means people taking turns sliding a sheet of paper under their feet in succession, ending with both sides about an inch off the ground.

My internet was physically disconnected by mistake last week and I spent a week largely offline, and in the few days since it's been turned back on I've returned back into the aftermath of the Google memo, the day or two we could afford on the North Korean nuclear weapon debacle, and then headlong into Charlottesville. All serious topics, all deeply troubling, but it's the online discourse around them which has quickly destroyed any accumulated peace of mind from my brief internet vacation.

W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" is never far from my mind these days, so spot on it is when applied to current online discourse.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 
 

Much of social media, but in particular Twitter, should be regarded as Scolding as a Service. Unfortunately SaaS has already been claimed as an acronym, but it's not too late to tout this moat as a unique feature on their next quarterly earnings call. You can go to any old social media service for some sweet, sweet confirmation bias, but if you want to be scolded repeatedly and on demand, no service can beat Twitter.

I'm not going to spend much time rehashing the usual arguments on virtue signalling. By traditional signaling theory, much of online signalling, not just instances of moral indignation, is weak by its very nature.

One of the core tenets of signalling theory is that the best and strongest signals are the costliest ones, the canonical example being the peacock's tail. Human equivalents abound; if you drive a half million dollar Ferrari convertible down a busy thoroughfare, your message gets across clearer than if you're driving a $70,000 BMW. Since so much that is done online is inherently low cost, online signals are going to suffer from an amplitude problem in general.

[Some claim that the casual dress among Bay Area billionaires is some variant of that theory of costly signals, but I consider it to be the same; the costly signal there is the demonstration of power in disregarding fashion norms. You have such reputational capital that you need not even resort to traditional signals like nice clothes, like some normie.

It is surprising that ways of attaching verified cost or Talebian "skin in the game" to one's online signals hasn't been tried online. Perhaps an avatar change that can't be made for free but can only be purchased through a donation to some charity, almost like a virtual outfit in some MMORPG. Occasionally someone will match donations to a charity, which is similar, but one of these social networks with an economist on staff is sure to suggest a platform solution at some point.]

This long detour on virtue signalling brings me back to the VC sexual harassment revelations earlier this year. It wasn't that long ago and already it seems like a scandal from another age.

I wrote about the issue from the angle of mutual knowledge becoming common knowledge. In the wake of one woman after another coming forward with their stories of being harassed by various Silicon Valley investors, many in the tech community expressed outrage, and like a moral gag reflex, many of those who expressed outrage were hit with accusations of virtue signalling.

Whether or not you believe those who joined the chorus of outrage when the scandals broke, what they were doing in that context serves an entirely different and important signaling function.

Recall that until the story about Justin Caldbeck broke, many women had held back for years on sharing their own stories, many out of concern they wouldn't be believed, that they might be blackballed by the largely white male investing elites of Silicon Valley. Based on the names of those investors who acknowledged and corroborated the stories of various accusers, the women were right to be concerned.

In fact, many people, myself included, had to update our priors about the incidence of such sexual harassment, and the types of people who might commit such acts. Some who took a fall from grace were highly respected, smart, well-known investors, and the news that yet other stories of harassment might be buried by non-disparagement clauses meant that many had to recalibrate their priors upward even more. The Google memo was a similar issue that had people updating their priors as the volume of visible support both inside and outside the company for Damore took many by surprise.

When a whole lot of people are rapidly updating their priors, signalling where you stand, whether it's virtuous posturing or not, can serve another purpose. It can help people to clarify where you lie on the distribution in question.

Sorry white male investors accusing others of virtue signalling, it may feel silly to have to publicly declare that you're not going to harass the next woman (especially an Asian woman) entrepreneur that you come into contact with, but after hearing so many stories of harassment from such a wide variety of white male investors, many in the community honestly have no idea which of you are prone to such behavior. Clearly, identifying those of you who are wasn't as simple as identifying, say, a white supremacist, who might be Sieg Heiling or waving a Confederate or Nazi flag in public. The sexual harassers didn't have any such villainous mustache or common identifying feature other than being white men. If the signs were clearer, those stories wouldn't have made for such explosive news.

Signaling for one side or the other to help people establish proper priors really matters when it comes to sexual harassment. The more female entrepreneurs believe that the majority of investors are going to give them a fair shake, rather than try to exploit the inherent leverage in the investor-entrepreneur relationship, the more those entrepreneurs will feel safe raising money and calling out bad behavior when it does occur.

In other times in history, having proper priors was a matter of life or death. So for white male investors, to take the example at hand, it could certainly be worse. You could be black, and have to signal that you're not a criminal every day you walk around in public, for fear of being arrested or worse, shot. You could be female and have to signal every day of your life that you're not passive, that you're technically capable of doing your job. For most of history, being white and a man has been the default, meaning that those lucky enough to be in that group have had no socially inherited identity debt to manage or pay down.

More and more, white men, and white people, are being treated as a distinct segment, with their own cultural brand, rather than as the default. Some of this is by choice, some of it is exogenous pressure.

The transition won't be easy. It never is, because it is difficult to notice the absence of something. It's easier to detect if you reverse your surroundings. When I travel to a place like Taiwan, where the majority of people around me share my ethnicity, I feel a bit like Kal-El landing on Earth, a planet with much lower gravity than my home. I feel a weight lifted off of me. The journey many white men are taking now is the reverse.

In the trailer for the next Justice League movie, Barry Allen, the Flash, turns to Bruce Wayne at one point and asks, "What are your superpowers again?"

Ben Affleck, in what will likely be the best line in the entire movie, responds, "I'm rich."

He should have said, "I'm white." It may be suffering a bit of depreciation recently, but it's still just about the most effective signal going.

Aposematism

From Wikipedia:

Aposematism (from Greek ἀπό apo away, σ̑ημα sema sign) was a new term coined by Edward Bagnall Poulton for Alfred Russel Wallace's concept of warning coloration. It describes a family of antipredator adaptations in which a warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey item to potential predators. Aposematism always involves an advertising signal. The warning signal may take the form of conspicuous animal colorationsoundsodours or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, since both avoid potential harm.
 
Aposematism is exploited in Müllerian mimicry, where species with strong defences evolve to resemble one another. By mimicking similarly coloured species, the warning signal to predators is shared, causing them to learn more quickly at less of a cost to each of the species.
 
Warning signals do not necessarily require that a species actually possesses chemical or physical defences to deter predators. Mimics such as the nonvenomous California mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata), which has yellow, red, and black bands similar to those of highly venomous coral snake species, have essentially piggybacked on the successful aposematism of the model. The evolution of a warning signal by a mimicking species that resembles a species that possesses strong defences is known as Batesian mimicry.
 

Some wonderful terms in there like aposematism, Müllerian mimicry, Batesian mimicry. I recently wrote about the value of using rhetoric to encode one's ideas. German is gloriously efficient in its compression, with single words like schadenfreude for phenomenon that require many more words in English, but fields like science, philosophy, psychology, and sociology offer their own concise gems of language.

The rest of the entry is a good read on why aposematism might have come to be despite seeming to be an evolutionary paradox, and just what Müllerian and Batesian mimicry refer to.

What intrigues me about aposematism is how it functions as a really overt form of signaling. I find myself reaching for the framework of signaling theory often these days, perhaps because once you've lived a certain number of years, you've had a chance to see the relative effectiveness or futility of past signals, but you're not yet old enough to be at the point where your remaining days are so few or your status in the world so static that signals no longer matter.

When time stretches eon and eon

One of my favorite movies from Sundance this past January was David Lowery's A Ghost Story, which remains one of the better movies in what has been a weak year at the cinema. One reason it is so moving is a stretch of the film which decides to take a super long view of time. We're talking centuries long, as in a time lapse that bounds across years and decades in mere seconds.

[The movie also spends five minutes on one much discussed, uncut shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie, so it is a film that plays with time dilation in both directions, one of its several interesting formal tactics.]

Sometimes we can only get true perspective on life by looking at it through binoculars turned backwards. It all sounds a bit vague and hand-wavy except we have evidence that a 10,000 foot view really can alter one's mind. The overview effect is a phenomenon in which astronauts who have seen Earth floating in the vast emptiness of space return to the planet with an intense global perspective, having moved beyond the petty concerns of individual nations or communities. We humans are susceptible to perceptual hacking, but that makes us a fun kit to tinker with.

Perhaps growing older has increased my fondness for art that folds time in on itself so densely. What do we accumulate as we age as reliably as perspective? I really enjoyed the stunning graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire, every page of which takes place in the same living room in the same house, but across hundreds of thousands of years. It is a Cubist story where every frame on the page is a shard of story from a different time in that spot on Earth.

One of my favorite movies of this century, and ever, is Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which, more than any other film I can recall, grapples with the existential mystery of the universe. It begins after the Big Bang, sweeps through the age of dinosaurs, stops in a childhood story inspired by Malick's own life, and dreams of what the afterlife might hold. And in every frame, you sense the director grappling with the question of why? Why this? Why everything? Why anything?

This genre of time compressing art needs a name. Some label for its own section at the video store or bookstore. For now I take to calling it eonic art, but some reader may come up with something better, or perhaps it already has a name I'm not aware of. It need not cover the history of the universe, but it generally has to traverse at least several centuries, or at a minimum, two generations of mankind. The Three Body Trilogy comes to mind from works I've read in the past few years, as does Cloud Atlas, which I have not read but saw once on an international flight. A.I., for its coda.

I know I'm missing plenty. What are your favorite works in this genre?

The rhythm of writing

Tony Zhou's Every Frame A Painting video essay series has a devoted following online, and for good reason. His pieces are one of the few things you can honestly say couldn't work in any form other than video.

That isn't the case for most content. It's trendy to bash media outlets for pivoting to video, but like many, I can't stand receiving a link to a video without a transcript because most of the time video is the least efficient way to consume the information within. Like many infovores, I can read and scan faster than I can listen to someone talk (which is why I listen to podcasts at 2X speed, sometimes even faster depending on who's talking). Video scanning and seeking is notoriously inefficient, and if the internet has done anything it's turned us into screen scanners with even shorter attention spans than before (as anyone who has looked at data from any eye-tracking study can attest).

Back to Every Frame A Painting. The series works well as video in part because Zhou has a deep understanding of film's visual grammar, but don't underestimate the patience needed to rip discs and scan through video. Someday, that may be easier to do, but for now, it's a long time suck, involving ripping Blu-Rays and DVDs with MakeMKV and then transcoding them with Handbrake into a format editable in Premiere or Final Cut, then watching over and over to assemble the clips, then writing a script and recording the voiceover, then fine-tuning. Writing an essay isn't easy, but compared to producing a video essay it's trivial. Christian Marclay's The Clock is a remarkable piece, but a moment of silence for all the assistant editors and interns who had to rip and label all the video from which it was assembled.

The Zhou essay on Kurosawa titled Composing on Moment reminded me of something about writing that has become more salient to me over time: rhythm. Zhou's essay is about shot structure, movement, and length, but many of the lessons he discusses apply to writing.

Each shot in a movie is a sentence. One of the simplest ways to improve one's prose and to keep a reader's attention is simply to vary sentence length. I don't love editing my own writing, it's so easy to overlook errors when your mind knows what it was trying to say; it tends to fill in the blanks instead of processing what's actually on the page.

However, I don't really have any other option, so I am my own editor. To protect against my familiarity, I usually set aside anything I've written for a long time, sometimes months, until I've forgotten it completely, before revisiting it to revise and edit. Once you're estranged from your own work you can see it anew. Also, sometimes the work doesn't survive the test of time and can be tossed.

The most effective way I've found to edit myself is to read the text out loud (using my inner voice, that is). Reading the text out loud does two things. One, it slows me down. Speed readers largely increase their velocity by training themselves to not read aloud. When I started editing myself, I had to un-train myself in speed reading techniques like word block scanning.

The other benefit of reading out loud is to render the rhythm of your writing audible. Where in a block of text can you pause to take a breath, and where do you go breathless? The cadence of breathing and speaking tends to mimic the frequency of the brain's ability to process words and sentences..

Think of your reader as someone with as a limited amount of RAM. They can only hold so much of a thought in their head at once. The longer your sentence, the more structure it needs if you're hoping the reader will remember it.

There are exceptions, as there are to any rule.

Here's an opening line from Cormac McCarthy:

They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well.
 

That's from Outer Dark.

There are other authors known for an occasional colossus of a sentence, and some who seem to rely on it as the base unit for entire novels, like Joyce or Proust. The film equivalent is something like the nearly 3-minute continuous shot that opens Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. or the famous Copacabana Steadicam shot from Goodfellas.

[If you plot the Copacabana shot spatially you realize that Ray Liotta takes a purposefully circuitous route through the kitchen to lengthen the shot, for no apparent reason other than to lengthen the shot. But it's such a great moment, and it has such a purpose in the film at that moment, that you forgive it the indulgence. Ray Liotta is trying to impress Lorraine Bracco, and the lack of a cut allows him to draw out the performance in one unbroken, escalating build. It works. No one who watches the movie ever notices the circuitous route because the shot itself is so dazzling, which is how magicians pull off many a sleight of hand.]

In both text and video, such a flourish is overtly showy, like magician wearing a tuxedo with tails, conjuring one dove after another from his breast pocket, his sleeve, his collar, back to his sleeve, and oh! here's three doves at once. Or a sporting event employing flame throwers during introductions, or a concert beginning with the artist rising from beneath the stage through billowing florets of smoke. 

As anyone who builds such an elaborate apparatus knows, such displays inevitably attract accusations of grandstanding. As soon as any film auteur releases a long unbroken shot in a film, an argument will erupt online over whether the shot is justified and breathtaking or just self-indulgent, rent-seeking on the viewer's attention. Generally it's both, and where you settle is a matter of taste.

I find my novelty-seeking sloping upwards at this point in my life, so I appreciate the occasional grasp at the sublime. Not every sentence needs to be in the unadorned prose style of The New Yorker (Tom Wolfe once described their house style it as "leisurely meandering understatement") and not every film needs to be a series of back and forth over-the-shoulder shots while two people talk, like is common in a network TV drama which must brute-force its way through a 24 episode full season order.

In my spare time, I've dabbled with creating my own writing app, a common fantasy among those who write, since no one is ever perfectly satisfied with their word processor.

[Processor, incidentally, is a terrible name for an application. "Word processor" is bad, and so is "food processor." Is there any craft that can retain the slightest bit of romance and dignity when its primary tool is named a processor? There's a reason we don't call Tinder and other dating apps mating processors, though many might argue that online dating deserves exactly such a name. Processing is a word that should be reserved for bureaucratic procedures; it feels appropriate that so many government institutions have FAQs about processing times.]

Among the many odd features I'd include in my theoretical writing app (whose goal would not just be to make it more enjoyable to write, but to write better, and which would likely make for a terrible business), one would be an editing view which would transform the rhythm of the text into a more scannable form. It might be color coding each sentence according to its word length, or turning a block of text into a graphic like a line graph, with sentence length as the y-axis. You might be able to calculate the variance of sentence length mathematically, though I suspect such a figure would be too reductive to be useful.

The longer the text, the more sentence length variation is desirable, so regardless of methodology, the goal would be the same, to make monotonous stretches of similar sentence lengths more visible to the writer. Readers can't handle being bludgeoned with sentences of the same length in perpetuity. Occasionally they need a breather.

A pause.

The next time you edit something you've written, look for places where a sentence or two needs trimming or splitting, or where a longer sentence might find an opportune moment in which to wander languidly. We may not all be poets, but even a million monkeys at a million typewriters can churn out the occasional line of Shakespeare, more so if they know what to look for.

The age of distributed truth

Apparently, for years, Nora Ephron, who was once married to Carl Bernstein, would openly tell people that Deep Throat was FBI Associate Director Mark Felt. It wasn't that Bernstein told her; she deduced it from clues and shared it with many people around her. It seems no one believed her, so when Felt finally came clean in 2005 it was treated as a big reveal.

Explosive truths that hide in plain sight are especially unusual in this age of the internet, especially with outlets like Deadspin so eager to share every rumor. How is it that incriminating stories can be floating out there for years and not spread like viral memes when headline writers everywhere are weaponizing even the most mundane of news? 

For years, many people in Hollywood knew that Bill Cosby was a sexual criminal, yet it wasn't until 2014 when Hannibal Buress called Bill Cosby a rapist during a stand-up set that suddenly everything began to turn. I've written before that how a message is encoded really matters. Buress took a dark story and turned it into viral video form, and no matter how many hung juries will let Cosby off the hook, his career is effectively over, his reputation forever tarnished beyond repair.

"I've done this bit on stage and people think I'm making it up.... when you leave here, Google 'Bill Cosby rape.' That sh** has more results than 'Hannibal Buress.'"

[I just did, and actually "Hannibal Buress" has now passed "Bill Cosby rape" in Google results. Glass half full?]

Until a week ago, I had never heard of Justin Caldbeck or Binary Capital. In the wake of the revelation that Caldbeck had been sexually harassing women coming to his firm for funding, suddenly multiple stories came to the forefront. Apparently Caldbeck had been well known for his perverse behavior among a subset of people in the tech community. Now, everyone knows him thanks to a story broken by Reed Albergotti in The Information. It's sometimes said that all PR is good PR, but like most such sayings, the qualifier is "except when it isn't."

With Caldbeck having resigned, maybe to never work in this town again, and Binary Capital likely headed for extinction, its brand now toxic, it's worth examining what feels like a distinctly modern ritual, the tipping point when highly localized common knowledge goes wide. It has happened over and over in this internet age, and it's going to happen again.

***

In Rational Ritual, the concise, readable, and seminal text on the subject of common knowledge, it is described this way:

...knowledge of the message is not enough; what is also required is knowledge of others’ knowledge, knowledge of others’ knowledge of others’ knowledge, and so on — that is, “common knowledge.”
 

Before Justin Caldbeck's behavior might have best been described as mutual knowledge: something that lots of people know, but after the story broke in the Information, and once Caldbeck and Binary Capital finally finally acknowledged the issue, his disturbing pattern or harassment became common knowledge, something that not only does everyone in tech know, they also now know that everyone else in tech knows.

In sharing their news on the record with the Information, the brave women Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu created a new world in which you cannot pretend to be ignorant of Caldbeck's behavior. Everyone around him, from his investors to his partners and coworkers to the tech community at large had to choose how to handle the news. Feigning ignorance now is to be explicitly complicit.

Rational Ritual focuses on the role of public ceremony and ritual in creating common knowledge among the public; “rituals and ceremonies are not just “texts” but also publishing processes.”

What we've seen recently in Silicon Valley is the power of the written word to serve as its own form of ritual to create common knowledge in the community. Albergotti's story was one example, but an even more salient example was Susan Fowler's blog post "Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber."

There had been plenty of rumors and stories about the toxic Uber culture before, but many were about the win at all costs nature of the company, and that will always be spun as the inevitable side effect of dogged entrepreneurs doing what's necessary to break through in a market with privileged incumbents and regulatory capture. But as soon as Fowler hit publish on her blog post, as as soon as the story went viral among the tech press, then the mainstream press, spreading around Twitter with the what seemed to approach the speed of light, the entire tech community had a new source of common knowledge with which to grapple. Uber was a company that, from the top on down, forgave sexual harassment and discrimination.

As Kara Swisher notes of Fowler's post:

But post-Fowler, you could not ignore it, because she pulled off what poet Louise Gluck wrote about in her poem, “Circe’s Power”: “I never turned anyone into a pig. Some people are pigs; I make them look like pigs.”
 
Which is to say that Fowler did everyone in tech a public service by doing nothing more than making pigs look like pigs.
 

Fowler wasn't just brave, she was also incredibly wise. With every right to take an indignant tone, she instead maintains a measured, reportorial tone from the start, beginning with the very demure title. Can you imagine what any modern headline writer would've titled her post? Thank god she was able to retain control of her tone and voice from title on down.

In calmly reciting point after point with heroic, reserved prose, she checkmated the company, doing something that countless angry screeds from tech journalists could not do, all of those opening themselves to accusations of partisan naysaying. Fowler simply told her story, and told it straight.

It doesn't take long. In her third paragraph, she writes:

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn't. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn't help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.
 

"Things started getting weird." That's one way to put it, but think of how many other ways she could have said it. It almost sounds naive, but it's clear she knows what's happening, and how in this high stakes game of poker, she has to be the coolest player at the table, lest she, like so many women before her, be labeled some hysteric. Her post is a masterpiece of tone and rhetorical control, and it had to be. No resorting to snark or irony or any number of tricks of the clever; she bore her own witness, and no better witness could an attorney have imagined.

It's also worth noting that she did what every employee training course I've ever taken says you should do, which is to report such incidents to HR. I've met many a kind HR person in my career, but let's be honest about what bad advice this is for employees. It's not just that Uber's HR department let Fowler down; in every company I've ever been at, HR reports into the CEO, and their job is to protect the company. I hope my readers will provide me with examples of HR protecting employee's interests in such cases, but from what I've seen and read, the moment you report an incident to HR they start building a dossier on you and a case to defend the company in court. Their work will be in that courtroom with you, but it will be on the desk of the company's attorneys, not yours. As many an employment lawyer has told me, before you talk to HR, you should talk to one of them. Until we have some independent, ombudsman-like HR group looking out for employees in the tech world, that would be my advice, too.

HR failed Fowler, but she took matters into her own hand. Her post said, “This happened. This happened. Look on the works of these mighty, and despair.”

Those in power are not stupid. They know the power of common knowledge in solving the coordination problem among those who'd oppose them. The first thing oppressive regimes facing rebels at the gates will do is cut off public communication channels like television, radio, and social media. If the opposition cannot communicate with each other, they do not know how many others will stand with them if they march on those in power, weakening their resolve.

The tech equivalent is the non-disparagement agreement. Stitch Fix founder Katrina Lake had reported to Lightspeed Venture Partners years ago that she'd been harassed by Caldbeck, and in response the VC firm had Lake sign a non-disparagement agreement, a copy of which is now online. Lightspeed could have blocked a Benchmark investment in her company, and so she signed it.

While such agreements can cut both ways, in almost every case, preserving information asymmetry is a tactic for those in power to stay there. There's a reason that airlines have rules trying to prohibit passengers from filming personnel and other passengers on flights.

I have no idea whether Fowler had to sign a non-disparagement clause when she joined Uber, and it may be that United Airlines policies prohibited the type of video that passengers shot of security guards dragging an elderly man off a flight like a sack of produce, but even if so, the history of the world is testament that justice sometimes requires a bit of civil disobedience. Or, as the kids these days call it, a bit of disruption.

***

In many stories that have been written since the original story about Justin Caldbeck broke, it seems that his behavior wasn't exactly a well-kept secret, but the fact that it hadn't seemed to have hurt him until last week is another reason Wang, Ho, and Hsu had to show real courage in going on the record. When such behavior seems to be generally forgiven among a community, one can't be certain of what the punishment for speaking out will be. It's not just the structural leverage of VC's over entrepreneurs, it's the chilling sense of feeling like an outsider trapped in enemy territory, playing a game that has been rigged against you, only you're not sure who is in on it. If you start a war, from which there is no return, who will stand with you?

This is the type of coordination problem that common knowledge is supposed to solve, but one only need study the historical treatment of women who speak out against those who harass them on Twitter or those who've sexually assaulted them to understand why so many are reluctant to do so. The personal cost, and victory is far from assured.

Ask the black community, who have actual video of police gunning them down for no reason other than prejudicial fear, how that's worked out with them. I wrote that in the wake of the Philando Castile case that soon black drivers would have dash cams turned in towards their vehicles, recording every traffic stop in full. Only a short while later the actual dash cam footage from the police vehicle involved in the Castile case was released publicly. Combined with the Facebook Live video, the evidence seemed as strong as it could be.

We need look no further than the highest office in the land to see that common knowledge often isn't enough. When the audio of Billy Bush and Donald Trump laughing it up on the bus broke, I thought for sure that would be the incident to sink him. For once, Trump had been caught on tape, when the press and public weren't in the room to serve as an explicit audience. The tape could be entered into evidence as common knowledge for the public. Then there was video of Trump mocking a disabled reporter.

And on and on and on. Trump has laid so much rope by which the public could have hung him that his feet ended up back on the ground. He is the troll who thumbs his nose at the two intellectually neutered political parties, realizing they have neither the will nor the ideas to do anything as he and his family laugh their way to the bank. In literature, the court jester is often the wisest fool in the room, but sometimes an idiot is just an idiot. If the gloves do not fit, you must acquit. Who will ever forget? What's depressing about Trump is how he seems to be an exemplar of the variant: the gloves do fit, but you can't do shit.

Still, that Trump's personal failings could be common knowledge and yet not disqualify him from consideration from the Presidency is not an indictment of common knowledge but instead speaks to just how dire the economic situation is for too many in this country. Listen to most Trump supporters and they'll acknowledge his faults. That fact that the Caldbeck case sunk a VC firm and the Susan Fowler post kicked one of the most powerful companies in tech into choppy water give hope that internet has created a new form of public ritual by which to establish common knowledge of injustice. The pen can be mightier than the sword.

I'm no expert on blockchain technology, but one of its more elegant properties is that the truth, the common knowledge, if you will, is distributed, not owned by any one entity. When the accusations against Caldbeck went public, he and Binary Capital both denied the allegations in the strongest terms.

In the blockchain, computational algorithms ensure that the truth wins out and is irreversible. Like a sort of human blockchain, Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, Leiti Hsu, and three other women came out all at once, in solidarity, backed by the reporting of The Information, and neutered the predictable Caldbeck and Binary Capital denials as the reflexive bullshit that they were. In the public ledger, the word of these women became the truth.

The internet gave everyone a megaphone, and these days that can feel like that Chinese proverb, you know the one. Perhaps the truth was better kept in the hands of a limited set of responsible stewards, but that age of the expert has passed, and that system had its own issues. As every Death Star reminds us each time they're blown up, concentrating power in a small area has its own unique vulnerability.

We live in the age of distributed truth, and it's an environment in which fake news can spread like mold when in viral form. But the same applies to the truth, and if there's one lesson on how to do your part in an age of distributed truth, it's to speak the truth and to support those who do. It may be exhausting work—is it really necessary to point out the emperor is buck naked?—but it's the best we can do for now. In this age, the silent majority is no majority at all.

The greatest sports achievement in my lifetime?

Football players seem even more like gladiators when they play in short sleeves in a winter storm, and baseball players who don't wear batting gloves feel like throwbacks to a more rough and tumble era. What category of admiration should we reserve, then, for someone who ascends a sheer rock face of 3,000 feet using only a pair of climbing shoes and a bag of chalk?

We debate whether Lebron James or Clayton Kershaw or Tom Brady might be the best ever to play their positions, and credible arguments can be made for them all, yet we're all alive during the career of someone who is unequivocally the greatest at his sport, and until a week ago most of the world didn't know his name.

A week ago, Alex Honnold free climbed El Capitan. With no ropes or climbing gear besides his shoes and chalk, Honnold became the first person to free climb what is universally acknowledged, among the climbing world, as the most daunting challenge in what most people consider to be less sport than a perverse game of Russian roulette with fate.

Like most people, my heart races just looking at videos and photos of Honnold on the wall, imagining myself in his place, trapped with no margin of error, feeling the ever present tug of gravity. It only takes a second of panic for the feedback loop of biological responses to kick in, and the moment your fight and flight response switches on, it's over. The adrenaline courses through your body, your muscles start to clench, and most deadly of all, your hands start to sweat. That fight or flight response evolved over hundreds of thousands of year, but it evolved when man had his feet on the ground, in response to predators and threats similarly earthbound. It could not have imagined a scenario in which it would serve a person who'd be hanging by a few pieces of contact between man and rock, a few toes pressing through the material of the climbing shoes, and a few finger tips dusted with chalk.

No ropes, NBD.

Icarus, at some point, having soared too high, may have felt a sudden dip, a moment of turbulence, and then glanced to his side to see, with a sudden horror, that the wax securing the feathers to his wing had begun to melt from the heat of the sun. How long did he have to ponder the fact that it was too late, that sometimes the point of no return is literally that?

That's the rub, isn't it? The greatness of humans comes from its ability to imagine, more than any other creature on earth, that which has not been yet but might be. And that is precisely the quality of the human mind that works against someone free climbing a rock. It's been said that the fear of heights stems from a person's ability to imagine themselves jumping. I don't know if it's true but sounds credible. It takes someone physically gifted, with thousands of hours of practice behind them, to even imagine a successful free climb up El Capitan, but anyone can imagine falling to their death with a sickening crunch on the ground below.

There may be more technically gifted climbers (Tommy Caldwell, I've read, is just that). But what makes a free climb of El Capitan perhaps the greatest sports achievement of my lifetime is the mental challenge of entering a flow state for four hours straight. People marvel at a basketball player entering the zone and hitting shot after shot, but Honnold had to enter a new level of zone in which he could not miss a single shot or the game would end forever.

Caldwell knows better than most what Honnold accomplished. He and partner Kevin Jorgeson completed a free ascent of the Dawn Wall in 2015, with ropes used only as backup for those moments when they missed a hold and fell. Says Caldwell:

“If you don’t have your body position exactly right, you can easily slip and fall,” Caldwell told me. “And if you’re at all nervous, there’s a downward spiral where you pull harder with your hands and lean in closer and your feet shoot out, so it takes incredible confidence.”
 

Free climbing El Capitan has been called unthinkable, and literally so. To think about it is to shrink from it. As you might suspect, several of the only people who could even contemplate such an undertaking didn't even live to attempt it.

Climbers have been speculating for years about a possible free solo of El Capitan, but there have only been two other people who have publicly said they seriously considered it. One was Michael Reardon, a free soloist who drowned in 2007 after being swept from a ledge below a sea cliff in Ireland. The other was Dean Potter, who died in a base jumping accident in Yosemite in 2015.
 
John Bachar, the greatest free soloist of the 1970s, who died while climbing un-roped in 2009 at age 52, never considered it. When Bachar was in his prime, El Capitan had still never been free climbed. Peter Croft, 58, who completed the landmark free solo of the 1980s—Yosemite’s 1,000-foot Astroman—never seriously contemplated El Capitan, but he knew somebody would eventually do it.
 

It's difficult to avoid using the world literally when discussing Honnold's achievement because metaphors we typically ascribe to sports analysis like survivorship bias take on a different meaning in free climbing.

Even when I see him a rope, as in this photo, my palms get sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy

It's not as if Honnold is utterly immune to normal human self-doubt. In this earlier video of another free climb, around 3:00, after several hours of free climbing, he feels doubt creep into his mind, and he recalls, "I kind of stalled out and then I started to doubt if I was doing it right, if I had the right holds, why am I even here, do I want to do this."

He stops on a narrow shelf of rock, one maybe one foot length in size, and stares out at the abyss.

"Just come back if you're not feeling it," a voice says to him from off screen.

"Well, that's the thing, I'm like..." Honnold replies. And then he keeps going, and you know the rest.

Despite what he claims are moments of doubt, Honnold is also wired differently than most. You'd think he had completed many rope assisted free climbs of his route before attempting it free solo.

Nope:

The overwhelming majority of “free” ascents of El Capitan involve many falls along the way. El Capitan also has remarkably few proper ledges; almost all “free” ascents, as a result, involve quite a lot of resting on ropes and hardware between upward pushes. Nobody keeps reliable records of these things, but Honnold’s best guess as to the number of prior ascents with zero falls and zero resting on ropes was perhaps one or two, including his own final practice run with Caldwell. Virtually nobody, in other words, had ever climbed El Capitan without dangling from the safety net, which helps to explain why El Capitan was for so long the final word in free-solo hypotheticals, as in, “Do you think it’s even possible? Will anybody ever free-solo the Big Stone?” The doubt that drove those questions was skepticism that a human mind could maintain such focus — and drive such fierce physical perfection — for so unbearably long.

Many argue that climbing, with its very high risk of death, is so unsafe as to be irresponsible. Even those who admire Honnold and the sport of free climbing must grapple with the ethics of tempting fate so willingly.

Honnold’s sang froid on big cliffs is also so peculiar that even the world-class climbers who consider him a dear friend struggle to believe that it really is just sang froid and confidence, and not borderline-suicidal recklessness or at least a missing screw. Last fall, Caldwell had a nightmare that Honnold appeared at his front door bloodied and broken from a fall.
 
Jimmy Chin, himself a world-class big-wall climber and another mutual friend of Honnold’s and mine, spent much of the last year making a documentary film about Honnold, during Honnold’s preparation for El Capitan. Chin told me that he felt terrible inner conflict over his involvement in the project, at least at the beginning: What if the presence of cameras encouraged Honnold to do something he would not otherwise have done?
 

It turns out Honnold really is wired differently.

I have heard other filmmakers say similar things about Honnold in the past, and still other friends of Honnold’s joke that when Alex was a baby his mother must have stepped on his amygdala — the brain region that controls fear. Last year, fMRI testing at the Medical University of South Carolina tilted the scales toward precisely that explanation — an underactive amygdala, not a negligent mother — by confirming that Honnold’s fear circuitry really does fire with less vigor than most.
 

People have genetic gifts that favor them in all sports. An under-active amygdala, when it comes to extreme sports, may be the most distinctive and valuable gift of all, a relative superpower in any reasonable sense of the word.

Jimmy Chin, the filmmaker behind climbing documentary Meru, filmed Honnold's historic climb. I can't wait to see it.

***

In most major sports, the ones I watch the most, improvements are slight and often take decades to manifest. The reason we can still have reasonable debates around whether Michael Jordan or Lebron James is the greatest player of all time is that they are not separated by much more than a decade, and while the sport of basketball has a come a long way since the 1960's, it took a half century to evolve to what it is today.

[As a Chicago kid, I'm more than a bit biased, but given today's rules, I think Jordan could easily average 45 or maybe even 50 points a game for a season if he focused on it, though I'm not sure how watchable it would be as much of it would involve him at the free throw line.]

This gradual pace of improvement isn't that surprising. Most such sports operate at the limits of human capability, and so advances in nutrition and training and technique make incremental gains that take long periods to manifest.

We can detect this more easily in sports like track and field, the closest we have to humans using nothing but the abilities of their own human bodies, alone, with no team interaction or environmental effects, and where measured performance is highly precise.

But out of the watchful eye of the mainstream sports audience, athletes in adventure and extreme sports are achieving leaps and bounds in performance that would be unfathomable in our most popular sports. Honnold's ability to achieve flow state may have much to say about how that is possible, and what that entire group of athletes is accomplishing may be one of the great unsung advances in human performance that everyone debating whether the Warriors are the GOAT are missing because of our national obsession over the sports which have dominated American pop culture for the past century (baseball, football, basketball).

It's the subject of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, a book that Marc Andreessen tweeted he was reading recently and which I just started reading. I'll share more thoughts on it once I've gotten more than just a few pages in.

My most popular posts

I recently started collecting email addresses using MailChimp for those readers who want to receive email updates when I post here. Given my relatively low frequency of posts these days, especially compared to my heyday when I posted almost daily, and given the death of RSS, such an email list may have more value than it once did. You can sign up for that list from my About page.

I've yet to send an email to the list successfully yet, but let's hope this post will be the first to go out that route. Given this would be the first post to that list, with perhaps some new readers, I thought it would be worth compiling some of my more popular posts in one place.

Determining what those are proved difficult, however. I never checked my analytics before, since this is just a hobby, and I realized when I went to the popular content panel on Squarespace that their data only goes back a month. I also don't have data from the Blogger or Movable Type eras of my blog stashed anywhere, and I never hooked up Google Analytics here.

A month's worth of data was better than nothing, as some of the more popular posts still get a noticeable flow of traffic each month, at least by my modest standards. I also ran a search on Twitter for my URL and used that as a proxy for social media popularity of my posts (and in the process, found some mentions I'd never seen before since they didn't include my Twitter handle; is there a way on Twitter to get a notification every time your domain is referenced?).

In compiling the list, I went back and reread these posts for the first time in ages added a few thoughts on each.

  • Compress to Impress — my most recent post is the one that probably attracted most of the recent subscribers to my mailing list. I regret not including one of the most famous cinematic examples of rhetorical compression, from The Social Network, when Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker tells Jesse Eisenberg, "Drop the "The." Just Facebook. It's cleaner." Like much of the movie, probably made up (and also, why wasn't the movie titled just Social Network?), but still a good example how movies almost always compress the information to be visually compact scenes. The reason people tend to like the book better than the movie adaptation in almost every case is that, like Jeff Bezos and his dislike of Powerpoint, people who see both original and compressed information flows feel condescended and lied to by the latter. On the other hand, I could only make it through one and a half of the Game of Thrones novels so I much prefer the TV show's compression of that story, even as I watch every episode with super fans who can spend hours explaining what I've missed, so it feels like I have read the books after all.
  • Amazon, Apple, and the beauty of low margins — one of the great things about Apple is it attracts many strong, independent critics online (one of my favorites being John Siracusa). The other of the FAMGA tech giants (Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google) don't seem to have as many dedicated fans/analysts/critics online. Perhaps it was that void that helped this post on Amazon from 2012 to go broad (again, by my modest standards). Being able to operate with low margins is not, in and of itself, enough to be a moat. Anyone can lower their prices, and more generally, any company should be wary of imitating any company's high variance strategy, lest they forget all the others who did and went extinct (i.e., a unicorn is a unicorn because it's a unicorn, right?). Being able to operate with low margins with unparalleled operational efficiency, at massive scale globally, while delivering more SKUs in more shipments with more reliability and greater speed than any other retailer is a competitive moat. Not much has changed, by the way. Apple just entered the home voice-controlled speaker market with its announcement of the HomePod and is coming in from above, as expected, at $349, as the room under Amazon's price umbrella isn't attractive.
  • Amazon and the profitless business model fallacy — the second of my posts on Amazon to get a traffic spike. It's amusing to read some of the user comments on this piece and recall a time when every time I said anything positive about Amazon I'd be inundated with comments from Amazon shorts and haters. Which is the point of the post, that people outside of Amazon really misunderstood the business model. The skeptics have largely quieted down nowadays, and maybe the shorts lost so much money that they finally went in search of weaker prey, but in some ways I don't blame the naysayers. Much of their misreading of Amazon is the result of GAAP rules which really don't reveal enough to discern how much of a company's losses are due to investments in future businesses or just aggressive depreciation of assets. GAAP rules leave a lot of wiggle room to manipulate your numbers to mask underlying profitability, especially when you have a broad portfolio of businesses munged together into single line items on the income statement and balance sheet. This doesn't absolve professional analysts who should know better than to ignore unit economics, however. Deep economic analysis isn't a strength of your typical tech beat reporter, which may explain the rise of tech pundits who can fill that gap. I concluded the post by saying that Amazon's string of quarterly losses at the time should worry its competitors more than it should assure them. That seems to have come to fruition. Amazon went through a long transition period from having a few very large fulfillment centers to having many many more smaller ones distributed more broadly, but generally located near major metropolitan areas, to improve its ability to ship to customers more quickly and cheaply. Now that the shift has been completed for much of the U.S., you're seeing the power of the fully operational Death Star, or many tiny ones, so to speak.
  • Facebook hosting doesn't change things, the world already changed — the title feels clunky, but the analysis still holds up. I got beat up by some journalists over this piece for offering a banal recommendation for their malady (focus on offering differentiated content), but if the problem were so tractable it wouldn't be a problem.
  • The network's the thing — this is from 2015, and two things come to mind since I wrote it.
    • As back then, Instagram has continued to evolve and grow, and Twitter largely has not and has not. Twitter did stop counting user handles against character limits and tried to alter its conversation UI to be more comprehensible, but the UI's still inscrutable to most. The biggest change, to an algorithmic rather than reverse chronological timeline, was an improvement, but of course Instagram had beat them to that move as well. The broader point is still that the strength of any network lies most in the composition of its network, and in that, Twitter and other networks that have seened flattening growth, like Snapchat or Pinterest, can take solace. Twitter is the social network for infovores like journalists, technorati, academics, and intellectual introverts, and that's a unique and influential group. Snapchat has great market share among U.S. millennials and teens, Pinterest among women. It may be hard for them to break out of those audiences, but those are wonderfully differentiated audiences, and it's also not easy for a giant like Facebook to cater to particular audiences when its network is so massive. Network scaling requires that a network reduce the surface area of its network to each individual user using strategies like algorithmic timelines, graph subdivision (e.g., subreddits), and personalization, otherwise networks run into reverse economies of scale in their user experience.
    • The other point that this post recalls is the danger of relying on any feature as a network moat. People give Instagram, Messenger, FB, and WhatsApp grief for copying Stories from Snapchat, but if any social network has to pin its future on any single feature, all of which are trivial to replicate in this software age, that company has a dim future. The differentiator for a network is how its network uses a features to strengthen the bonds of that network, not the feature itself. Be wary of hanging your hat on an overnight success of a feature the same way predators should be wary of mutations that offer temporary advantages over their prey. The Red Queen effect is real and relentless.
  • Tower of Babel — From earlier this year, and written at a time when I was quite depressed about a reversal in the quality of discourse online, and how the promise of connecting everyone via the internet had quickly seemed to lead us all into a local maximum (minimum?) of public interaction. I'm still bullish on the future, but when the utopian dreams of global connection run into the reality of human's coalitional instincts and the resentment from global inequality, we've seen which is the more immovable object. Perhaps nothing expresses the state of modern discourse like waking up to see so many of my followers posting snarky responses to one of Trump's tweets. Feels good, accomplishes nothing, let's all settle for the catharsis of value signaling. I've been guilty of this, and we can do better.
  • Thermodynamic theory of evolution — actually, this isn't one of my most popular posts, but I'm obsessed with the second law of thermodynamics and exceptions to it in the universe. Modeling the world as information feels like something from the Matrix but it has reinvigorated my interest in the physical universe.
  • Cuisine and empire — on the elevation of food as scarce cultural signal over music. I'll always remember this post because Tyler Cowen linked to it from Marginal Revolution. Signalling theory is perhaps one of the three most influential ideas to have changed my thinking in the past decade. I would not underestimate its explanatory power in the rise of Tesla. Elon Musk and team made the first car that allowed wealthy people to signal their environmental values without having to also send a conflicting signal about their taste in cars. It's one example where actually driving one of the uglier, less expensive EV's probably would send the stronger signal, whereas generally the more expensive and useless a signal the more effective it is.
  • Your site has a self-describing cadence — I'm fond of this one, though Hunter Walk has done so much more to point to this post than anyone that I feel like I should grant him a perpetual license to call it his own. It still holds true, almost every service and product I use online trains me how often to return. The only unpleasant part of rereading this is realizing how my low posting frequency has likely trained my readers to never visit my blog anymore.
  • Learning curves sloping up and down — probably ranks highly only because I have such a short window of data from Squarespace to examine, but I do think that companies built for the long run have to come to maintain a sense of the slope of their organization's learning curve all the time, especially in technology where the pace of evolution and thus the frequency of existential decisions is heightened.
  • The paradox of loss aversion — more tech markets than ever are winner-take-all because the internet is the most powerful and scalable multiplier of network effects in the history of the world. Optimal strategy in winner-take-all contests differs quite a bit from much conventional business strategy, so best recognize when you're playing in one.
  • Federer and the Paradox of Skill — the paradox of skill is a term I first learned from Michael Mauboussin's great book The Success Equation. This post applied it to Roger Federer, and if he seems more at peace recently, now that he's older and more evenly matched in skill to other top players, it may be that he no longer feels subject to the outsized influence of luck as he did when he was a better player. In Silicon Valley, with all its high achieving, brilliant people, understanding the paradox of skill may be essential to feeling jealous of every random person around you who fell into a pool of money. The Paradox of Skill is a cousin to The Red Queen effect, which I referenced above and which tech workers of the Bay Area should familiarize themselves with. It explains so much of the tech sector but also just living in the Bay Area. Every week I get a Curbed newsletter, and it always has a post titled "What $X will get you in San Francisco" with a walkthrough of a recent listing that you could afford on that amount of monthly rent. Over time they've had to elevate the dollar amount just to keep things interesting, or perhaps because what $2900 can rent in you in SF was depressing its readers.

Having had this blog going off and on since 2001, I only skimmed through through a fraction of the archives, but perhaps at some point I'll cringe and crawl back further to find other pieces that still seem relevant.

Compress to impress

One of the funniest and most implausible things in movies is the grand speech by the general, usually the film's protagonist, in front of thousands of soldiers in the moments just before a critical battle. Examples abound, and the punch lines lodge in the memory, from Henry V ("We band of brothers") to Braveheart ("They will never take away...our freedom!") to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King ("There may come a day...but today is not that day!"). 

[Does this actually happen in real life? Did generals ride back and forth before the start of battles in the Civil War and give motivational speeches? I'm genuinely curious.]

The reason these scenes always strike me as absurd is that the character giving the speech is never using a megaphone or a microphone. The speech is almost always given outdoors, in the open air, so his voice carries for a radius of, what, thirty or forty feet? I imagine a soldier standing in the last row of the army about a mile away from the front lines bugging everyone around him, "What did he say? Can anyone hear?" and being shushed by everyone. Maybe only the first row or two of soldiers needs to hear the motivational speech because they're the first to run into a hail of bullets and arrows?

Even with modern communication infrastructure, however, any modern CEO deals with amplification and distortion issues with any message. Humans learn about this problem very early on by playing telephone or operator, or what I just learned is more canonically known outside the U.S. as Chinese whispers. One person whispers a message in another person's ear, and it's passed on down the line to see if the original phrase can survive intact to the last person in the chain. Generally, errors accumulate along the way and what makes it to the end is some shockingly defective copy of the original.

Despite learning this lesson early on, most people in leadership positions still underestimate just how pervasive this problem is. This is why any manager or executive is familiar with how much time they spend on communicating the same things to different groups in the organization. It feels like it's all you do sometimes, and yet you still encounter people who feel like they're in the dark.

I hadn't read Jeff Bezos' most recent letter to shareholders until today, but it was just what I'd expect of it given something I observed in my seven years there, which are now more than a decade in the rear view mirror. In fact, one of reasons I hadn't read it yet was that I suspected it would be very familiar, and it was. The other thing I suspected was that it would be really concise and memorable, and again, it was.

I suspect that very early on in his career as CEO, Jeff noticed the Chinese whispers problem as the company scaled. Anyone who is lucky enough to lead a successful company very quickly senses the impossibility of scaling one's own time to all corners of the organization, but Jeff was laser focused on the more serious problem that presented, that of maintaining consistent strategy in all important decisions, many of which were made outside his purview each day. At scale, maintaining strategic alignment feels like an organizational design problem, but much of the impact of organizational design is centered around how it impacts information flow.

This problem is made more vexing by not just the telephone game issue but by the human inability to carry around a whole lot of directives in their minds. Jeff could spend a ton of time in All Hands meetings or with his direct reports and other groups inside Amazon, explaining his thinking in excruciating detail and hoping it sank in, but then he'd never have any time to do anything else.

Thankfully, humans have developed ways to ensure the integrity of messages persists across time when transmitted through the lossy mediums of oral tradition and hierarchical organizations.

One of these is to encode you message in a very distinctive format. There are many rhetorical tricks that have stood the test of time, like alliteration or anadiplosis. Perhaps supreme among these rhetorical forms is verse, especially when it rhymes. Both the rhythm and the rhyme (alliteration intentional) allow humans to compress and recall a message with greater accuracy than prose.

Fe fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.
 

It's thought that bards of old could recite epics like Homer's Odyssey entirely from memory because the stories were in verse form (and through the use of memorization tricks like memory palaces and visual encoding). I don't know many people who can recite any novels from memory, but I've occasionally run across someone who can recite a long poem by heart. That's the power of verse.

It might be impossible to recite The Great Gatsby by memory regardless of what heuristics you employed, but it would certainly be easier if it were written by Dr. Seuss.

I do not like them,
Sam-I-am.
I do not like
Green eggs and ham.
 

I never chatted with Bezos about this, so I don't know if it was an explicit strategy on his part, but one of his great strengths as a communicator was the ability to encode the most important strategies for Amazon in very concise and memorable forms.

Take one example "Day 1." I don't know when he first said this to the company, but it was repeated endlessly all my years at Amazon. It's still Day 1. Jeff has even named one of the Amazon buildings Day 1. In fact, I bet most of my readers know what Day 1 means, and Jeff doesn't even bother explaining what Day 1 is at the start of his letter to shareholders, so familiar is it to all followers of the company. Instead, he just jumps straight into talking about how to fend off Day 2, which he doesn't even need to define because we all can probably infer it from the structure of his formulation, but he does so anyway.

Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.
 

An entire philosophy, packed with ideas, compressed into two words. Day 1.

He then jumps into some of the strategies to fend off Day 2. The first is also familiar to everyone at Amazon, and many outside Amazon: customer obsession. Plenty of companies say they are customer focused, but Jeff articulates why he chose it from among the many possibilities he could have chosen for the company, giving it a level of oppositional definition that would otherwise be lacking.

There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.
 
Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.
 

The second strategy to ward off stagnation is a newer codification (at least to me) of a principle he hammered home in other ways when I was there: resist proxies. 

As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.
 
A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.
 

There are many ways one could have named this principle, but this one is just novel and pithy enough to be distinctive, and from now on I'll likely refer to this principle as he formulated it: resist proxies.

The next principle is the one that needs the most work: embrace external trends. Doesn't really roll off the tongue, or lodge in the memory. This is also universal enough an idea that someone has likely already come up with some exceptional aphorism, some of you may have one on the tip of your tongue. It maybe that it's just too generic to be worth the effort to stake a claim to with a unique turn of phrase.

The last principle I also remember from my Amazon days: high-velocity decision making (inside of it is another popular business aphorism: disagree and commit). This could be named "ready fire aim" or "if you don't commit, you've basically quit" or "if you don't really know, just pick and go" or something like that, but "high-velocity" is distinctive in its own sense. It's an adjective that sounds more at home in physics or in describing some sort of ammunition than it does in a corporate environment, and that helps an otherwise simple principle stand out.

Go back even further, and there are dozens of examples of Bezos codifying key ideas for maximum recall. For example, every year I was at Amazon had a theme (reminiscent of how David Foster Wallace imagined in Infinite Jest that in the future corporate sponsors could buy the rights to name years). These themes were concise and memorable ways to help everyone remember the most important goal of the company that year.

One year, when our primary goal was to grow our revenue and order volume as quickly as possible to achieve the economies of scale that would capitalize on our high fixed cost infrastructure investments and put wind into our flywheel, the theme was "Get Big Fast Baby." You can argue whether the "baby" at the end was necessary, but I think it's more memorable with it than without. Much easier to remember than "Grow revenues 80%" or "achieve economies of scale" or something like that.

Another time, as we looked out and saw the $1B revenue milestone approaching, one of Jeff's chief concerns was whether our company's processes could scale to handle that volume of orders without breaking (I'll write another time about the $1B revenue scaling phenomenon). To head off any such stumbles, we set aside an entire year at the company for GOHIO. It stood for "Getting our house in order".

As the first analyst in the strategic planning group, I produced an order volume projection for $1B in revenue and also generated forecasts for other metrics of relevance for every group in the company. For example, the customer service department would have to handle a higher volume of customer contacts, and the website would have to handle a greater traffic load.

Every group had that year of GOHIO to figure out how to scale to handle that volume without just linearly scaling its headcount and/or spending. If every group were just growing their headcount and costs linearly with order volume, our business model wouldn't work. The exercise was intended to find those processes that would break at such theoretical load and begin the work of finding where the economies of scale lay. An example was building customer self-service mechanisms to offload the most common customer service inquiries like printing return labels.

I could continue on through the years, but what stands out is that I can recite these from memory even now, over a decade later, and so could probably everyone who worked at Amazon those years.

Here's a good test of how strategically aligned a company is. Walk up to anyone in the company in the hallway and ask them if they know what their current top priority or mission is. Can they recite it from memory?

What Jeff understood was the power of rhetoric. Time spent coming up with the right words to package a key concept in a memorable way was time well spent. People fret about what others say about them when they're not in the room, but Jeff was solving the issue of getting people to say what he'd say when he wasn't in the room.

It was so important to him that we even had company-wide contests to come up with the most memorable ways to name our annual themes. One year Jeff announced at an All Hands meeting that someone I knew, Barnaby Dorfman, had won the contest. Jeff said the prize was that he'd buy something off the winner's Amazon wish list, but after pulling Barnaby's wish list up in front of the whole company on the screen, he said he didn't think any of the items was good enough so instead he went over to the product page for image stabilized binoculars from Canon, retailing for over $1000, and bought those instead.

I have a list of dozens of Jeff sayings filed away in memory, and I'm not alone. It's one reason he's one of the world's most effective CEO's. What's particularly impressive is that Jeff is so brilliant that it would be easy for him to state his thinking in complex ways that us mere mortals wouldn't grok. But true genius is stating the complex simply.

Ironically, Jeff employs the reverse of this for his own information inflows. It's well known that he banned Powerpoint at Amazon because he was increasingly frustrated at the lossy nature that medium. As Edward Tufte has long railed against, Powerpoint encourage people to reduce their thinking to a series of bullet points. Whenever someone would stand up in front of Jeff to present, Jeff would have rifled through to the end of the presentation before they would've finished a handful of slides, and Jeff would just jump in and start asking questions about slide 35 when someone was still talking to slide 3.

As a hyper intelligent person, Jeff didn't want lossy compression or lazy thinking, he wanted the raw feed in a structured form, and so we all shifted to writing our arguments out as essays that he'd read silently in meetings. Written language is a lossy format, too, but it has the advantage of being less forgiving of broken logic flows than slide decks.

To summarize, Jeff's outbound feedback was carefully encoded and compressed for maximum fidelity of transmission across hundreds of thousands of employees all over the world, but his inbound data feed was raw and minimally compressed. In structure, this pattern resembles what a great designer or photographer does. Find the most elegant and stable output from a complex universe of inputs.

One of the great advantages of identifying and codifying first principles is how little maintenance they need. Write once, remember forever. As testament to that, ever year, Bezos ends his Letter to Shareholders the same way.

As always, I attach a copy of our original 1997 letter. It remains Day 1.
 

It's his annual mic drop. Shareholders must feel so secure with their Amazon shares. Bezos is basically saying he figured out some enduring principles when he started his company, and they're so universal and stable that he doesn't have much to add some twenty years later except to point people back at his first letter to shareholders.

Other CEO's and leaders I've encountered are gifted at this as well ("Lean in" "Yes we can" "Move fast and break things" "Innovation is saying no to a thousand things" "Just do it" "I have a dream") but I gravitate to those from Jeff because I saw them arise from distinct needs in the moment, and not just for notoriety's sake. As such, it's a strategy applicable to more than just philosophers and CEO's. [Sometime I'll write about some of the communication strategies of Steve Jobs, many of which can be gleaned from his public keynotes. He was an extremely skilled and canny communicator, and in many ways an underrated one.]

Tyler Cowen named his latest book The Complacent Class. It's a really thought-provoking read, but the alliteration in the title helps. Now economists everywhere are referring to a broad set of phenomena by the term "complacent class." It wouldn't be nearly as memorable if called Complacent People or The Dangers of Self-Satisfaction. Can you name the subtitle of the book? It's "the self-defeating quest for the American Dream" but no one remembers that part.

Venkatesh Rao once wrote a memorable post about management principles encoded in the American version of the TV show The Office. Anyone familiar with the post probably remembers it by the first part of its title: "The Gervais Principle." Very few, I'd suspect, remember the rest of the title—"Or The Office according to The Office"—though it does employ a clever bit of word repetition.

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton as compared to Donald Trump as Presidential candidates, I'd venture that more people can recite Trump's mantra—Make America Great Again—than Clinton's. I don't know if she had a slogan, or if she did I don't remember what it was. Her most memorable turn of phrase from the campaign trail was probably "then deal me in" at the end of a much longer phase, “if fighting for women's healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in." It's difficult to think of a phrase more emblematic of her problems in articulating what she stood for. The first part of the sentence is long and wonky, and I couldn't recall it from memory, and she never followed up on the second enough.

If she'd used it repeatedly in a speech, it could have been a form of epistrophe like Obama's "Yes we can" or Martin Luther King's "I have a dream." Imagine if she had an entire speech where she kept hammering on what other cards she wanted to deal. "If ensuring that everyone in the country has an equal opportunity to reasonable healthcare is playing the [?] card then deal me in. If ensuring everyone in this country has the right to a good education is playing the [?] card then deal me in." And so on. But she would only use it once in a while, or once in a speech, whereas Obama had entire speeches where he would circle back to "Yes we can" again and again. [Maybe there isn't an equivalent to "woman card" that makes this epistrophe scalable but the broad point about her weak use of rhetoric holds.]

That's not to say "Make American Great Again" is some slogan for the ages, but it is succinct and has a loose bit of trochaic meter (MAKE ah-MERIC-uh GREAT a-GAIN) which grants it a sense of emphatic energy which all political movements need. His supporters compressed it into #MAGA which became a more liquid shorthand for social media. In general it seems the populist backlash and the alt-right are stronger at such rhetorical tricks than the Democrats or the left, but perhaps it is bred of necessity from being the opposition party?

Rhetoric can get a bad name because some lump it in with other language tricks like those used in clickbait titles. "You won't believe what happened next" or "This will restore your faith in humanity" or "ten signs you're a Samantha." Those aren't ways for making something stick, those are ways for making someone click. [Quiz: what rhetorical techniques were used in that last sentence?] Rhetoric isn't inherently good or bad; it can be used for ideas both inspiring and appalling.

There will come a day when you'll come up with some brilliant theory or concept and want it to spread and stick. You want to lay claim to that idea. It's then that you'll want to set aside some time to state it distinctively, even if you're not a gifted rhetorician. A memorable turn of phrase need not incorporate sophisticated techniques like parataxis or polysyndeton. Most everyone in tech is familiar with Marc Andreessen's "software is eating the world" and Stewart Brand's "information wants to be free." Often mere novelty is enough to elevate the mundane. You've spent all that time cooking your idea, why not spend an extra few moments plating it? It all tastes the same in your mouth but one dish will live on forever in an Instagram humblebrag pic.

If you're stuck and need some help, I highly recommend the delightful book The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase, whose title I remembered as simply Eloquence, which might, come to think of it, be the more memorable title.