Syzygy #11: simple, not simplistic | gravy, not data
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Syzygy #11: simple, not simplistic | gravy, not data

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Be simple, not simplistic

Simplicity is difficult. In artificial intelligence, there's a saying that goes "hard things are easy; easy things are hard".

It's relatively easy to programme a robot to defeat a chess grandmaster, but it's infinitely more difficult to have a robot cook a good pizza from scratch.

A big chunk of any communicator's job is making things understandable. Unfortunately the word 'simple' has a bad reputation.

People need to get better at understanding that simple does not mean simplistic in the way complex doesn't mean smart.


I was called 'simpleminded' by a colleague not so long ago and I certainly didn't react favourably.

But, after I stopped sulking, she explained that she appreciated my ability to boil concepts down to their essence (still, don't go around calling people simpleminded...).

Richard Feynman was well known for his ability to explain complex ideas in a clear way.

He was also open about what it meant when he was unable to explain something in clear terms:

"Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students.
Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.”
But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”" - David L. Goodstein, Feynman's Lost Lecture

At Apple, engineers are expected to explain a complex technology or product in clear and simple terms for executives to prove they understand it inside out.

Science versus complexity

We're seeing the paradox of difficult simplicity today with the COVID-19 vaccines.

It seems like a miracle that multiple vaccines have been produced in such a short space of time and are being deployed across the globe. That was hard.

But in fact, the hardest part appears to be the next step: getting people vaccinated.

It's political, people are hesitant, logistics are complicated, and so on - despite the fact millions of people are vaccinated for other diseases every year.

Systems and habits should, in theory, be in place.

You see, the vaccines themselves were in a sense easier to create because their development relied on the vagaries of science. The vaccination programme is a challenge because it opens itself up to human complexity.

Put another way: the vaccine design is a chess programme, the vaccination rollout is an Italian and American arguing over how to make pizza.

Informed simplicity

Before going on, it would be remiss of me not to note that I've had one big benefit in my career: I'm a native English speaker working in English (plus a white male...).

Having worked abroad for nearly 15 years, I appreciate it's easier for me to combat many of the multi-clause jargon speakers haunting office hallways.

In my first job writing press releases, I recall facing a draft document that was both six pages longer than one page and full of so much jargon I wasn't certain it was in English.

I was up against a colleague who was adamant that every line was critical and should be maintained. It seemed like the cost of deleting a few sentences might lead to World War Three...

We sat in the office, in cafes, and in bars negotiating the document line by line as if it were the Magna Carta. Gradually, we stripped away the complexity.

How did we get there? Honesty and empathy.

I put the hours in with him, allowing him to explain to me in (painful) detail what he wanted to get across.

He could see he was being heard, that I began to understand far more than I needed to know, and gradually we found something called informed simplicity, captured by architect Matthew Frederick:

  1. Simplicity, the child's world view.
  2. Complexity, the adult's worldview.
  3. Informed simplicity, the enlightened view of reality.

Empathy and curiosity are important.

It's easy to throw your hands up and say 'they just don't get it!'. I certainly have many times. Indeed perhaps they don't, but it's not their fault - it's not their job 'to get it'.

It can be difficult to have empathy when you're in deep into the weeds of any field. What seems like a foreign language to you may seem like the every day norm to them.

It's my job to try and guide them out of their forest - even just for a moment - to understand that we need to get to sketch a map of what's happening, rather than draw each and every tree in that forest.

Getting to simple isn't easy, but it's worth it the effort.

Little big ideas: when things are tough, make art

Author Neil Gaiman always gives good advice.

When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious.
Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art.
Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.

This was from his commencement speech at Philadelphia’s University of Arts in 2012 which inspired this book. It's worth 20 minutes of your time.

How gravy will make your data more tasty

I get uncomfortable when people talk about 'harnessing the power of big data'. In my younger years, I thought this was because mathematics was my weakest subject at school and I just didn't get it. But, it turns out my lazy brain might have been on to something.

As you may have noticed, I enjoy words, images and design. They are the soul of our cultures and society.

They also cannot be measured and for that I am pleased because these are things that transcend life, as well as spreadsheets.

"If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn't go and look at horses. They'd sit in their studies and say to themselves, "What would I do if I were a horse?" - Ronald Coase

The never-ending unpredictability of the world reveals how we are unable to create systems that determine with accuracy what will happen.


Because us humans have imperfect perceptions, memories and cognitive functions. To fill the imperfect gaps we rely on beliefs and heuristics to make decisions.

The thing is, because we keep convincing ourselves that we are thoroughly logical, we'll go to great lengths to attribute past actions to clear thinking.

Billionaire George Soros' back gets notoriously painful when he senses an opportunity to make money, but once he's cashed out he'll happily explain his rational approach in great detail.

Trying to understand and predict the world's past, present and future would be a useless endeavour without attempting to understand what is happening inside people.

And how do you step inside people? Not just through clicks and columns, that's for sure.

Instead, we do it by being historians, piecing together the world through images, words and design.

That, my friends, is what produces thick data.

Or, put another way, gravy.

Thanks for reading!

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