Simplifying Simplifying

Every time physicists discover something new about the universe, they realize that the world is more complex than they previously thought. Ancient Greeks learned that the physical world can be broken down to tiny particles, and they named the particles “atoms.” They used their word for “indivisible” because they thought, surely, this is as complex as it gets.

Later, the first physicists who worked with the electron had no inkling of quantum mechanics. Now we talk about the types of quarks, and the next time we learn more, would you bet along with me that it won’t get any simpler?

It’s as if our understanding of the world is in constant movement toward the increasingly complex. And most people’s default mindset seems to have adjusted to this well.

When we work on many types of problems, we tend to favor additive solutions rather than starting with the simplification step. We fit an extra wheel to carts, use more description to explain things, or add another layer to a cake—to make it “better.” Sometimes we do these things because the additive solution appears easier, and often because we didn’t even think to consider the alternative.

Simplifying takes effort. Consider the quote, widely attributed to Mark Twain: “I apologize for such a long letter—didn’t have time to write a short one.”

j j j

Simplicity

“Simplicity is a great virtue but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse: complexity sells better.” – Edsger W. Dijkstra

j j j

What QA is

A QA engineer walks into a bar. Orders a beer. Orders 0 beers. Orders 99999999999 beers. Orders a lizard. Orders -1 beers. Orders a ueicbksjdhd. 

@brenankeller on Twitter:

j j j

Customize Referral Campaigns Like There’s No Tomorrow

People want to share their experiences with their social circles, even if nobody gives them money for it.

There are many reasons for this, from wanting to look like the most informed person in the community to simply wanting to help others. In fact, being selfless is so important to some of us that financial incentives can hinder our willingness to recommend a product to our friends.

And here we have the marketer’s conceptual dilemma. Can they make a referral look like an organic, word-of-mouth type of invite?

Consider the following sentence: “You will both get 10% off your next order.”

By rephrasing it to “You’ll get 10% off your next order. Your friend will also get 10% off their next order,” we haven’t changed the meaning of the sentence. The offer is still the same; the person sending the referral and their invitee each get exactly 10% discount, yet in an A/B test, each message will usually yield different results.

What many experiments find is that a pro-social emphasis will see better results. Interestingly, we often see that more people will submit to a campaign that says “Your friend gets 10% off their next order, and you’ll also get 10% off.” Why this happens is anybody’s guess, but it might be because the phrasing does a better job of reducing the amount of guilt a referrer may feel for being rewarded.

j j j

The Cohabitation of Two Wealthy Women

A “Boston marriage” was, historically, the cohabitation of two wealthy women, independent of financial support from a man. The term is said to have been in use in New England in the late 19th/early 20th century. Some of these relationships were romantic in nature and might now be considered a lesbian relationship; others were not.

From Wikipedia

j j j

Three Smart People on Work

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay titled, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which the economist attempted to predict the future during the bottom years of the Great Depression. Keynes wrote that within 100 years (by 2030), humanity would be so much more technologically advanced that the problem of scarcity would already be solved, and we would only have to work 15 hours a week.

Then, the anthropologist James Suzman spent 30 years studying and living with one of the world’s enduring hunter-gatherer societies. His work with the Ju/’hoansi people in southern Africa has provided a unique lens into our modern obsession with work.

As Suzman writes in his new book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, hunter-gatherer societies spent only about 15 hours a week meeting their material needs. Despite being deeply impoverished by modern standards, they considered themselves affluent.

It just so happens that, in our modern urban world, there actually isn’t a whole lot of life outside of work for most people. Some of the hardest working people are actually the ones who should have to work the least. It’s as if the reward for work were more work.

It’s not only you. When Bill Gates was asked about work-life balance at a conference, he said, “I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one.”

j j j

Mere Opinions

Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be. So the Galapagos Islands could be hell in one moment and heaven in the next, and Julius Caesar could be a statesman in one moment and a butcher in the next, and Ecuadorian paper money could be traded, for food, shelter and clothing in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next, and the universe could be created by God Almighty in one moment and by a big explosion in the next — and on and on.

— Kurt Vonnegut in Galapagos

j j j

Take Everyone Out for Lunch

A few years ago, we built a startup headquartered in Rome. Everyone on the team was Italian except for me, the only outsider welcomed into this dolce vita. I quickly learned what seemed to be the most important rule in negotiations: first we eat, then we talk business.

Italians seem to have learned that hungry people make bad decisions, probably in much the same way that tired people do. And the easiest way to make sure you and your negotiation partners are both well fed? Take everyone out for lunch.

All roads lead to Rome

Hospitality plays a key role in Italian business culture anyway, and one way or another, it usually involves eating. Refusing an invitation for dinner is likely to be taken as an insult. It’s actually polite to let your business partners invite you out. By letting them demonstrate their “Bella figura” to make a good impression on you, you are allowing them to express their goodwill and hospitality, which makes them look good.

Negotiations start by building relationships. Perhaps a sense of urgency can be seen as an attempt to weaken the other’s bargaining position, but a business discussion can only truly start once trust has been established and every last bit of urgency has been purged from the discussion. A rushed decision might invite regret later on, and a remorseful deal is not a good deal for any involved.

j j j

An Exercise in Persuasion

Writing a resumé is an exercise in persuasion, even if it doesn’t sound like one. The purpose of a resumé is simple: to communicate, with clarity, why the writer is the ideal candidate for the job, and to persuade the employer to hire them.

“Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”
– David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy, the “father of advertising,” or the original “Mad Man,” was a proponent of clear and concise writing. From him, we gain at least two takeaways that will help improve any CV.

  1. Know your audience. A good resumé will be tailored to the role you’re applying for. Step into the employer’s shoes and ask: Who are they seeking? What skills and experiences would their ideal candidate possess? Emphasize your corresponding experience, and you’re golden.
  2. Keep it short and simple. Don’t use jargon where you don’t have to; remember, your CV will probably be read by HR first, and they too need to understand your words. Include only facts and experience that help your case, and leave out things that are not relevant.
j j j

Strong Theorems on Coin Tossing

“The generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance.”
– Robert R. Coveyou

In the paper “Strong theorems on coin tossing,” mathematician Pál Révész tells a story about a high-school class. The teacher leaves the room, and the children are told to divide into two groups.

In the first group, students have to flip a coin two hundred times and record whether a flip lands heads or tails. In the other group, students have to come up with random heads-or-tails sequences, but without using an actual coin; instead, they have to “generate” random numbers in their head.

Once all the students each have 200 lines recorded, the teacher returns and tries to guess which student belongs to which group. Most of the time, the teacher guesses quite well.

Their secret is this – for the average person, it doesn’t feel right to put down five, or even four, consecutive heads or tails. That many runs just doesn’t sound plausible. However, a statistician knows that when a uniformly random coin generates a sequence of 200, it’s very likely to have runs of six or more. Its probability is close to 97 percent.

j j j