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Succinctness, Success Stereotypes, & Substance (Reading Notes 6.23.18)

Resource: Succinctness is Power


The succinctness of mathematical expression makes mathematical thinking possible.

When you can compress a large amount of meaning in a small amount of space, you make new ways of thinking possible.

To say that succinctness is power is not to say that succinctness is always preferable. That is, to say that succinctness is power is not to say that it is always better to say something in the most concise way possible. The idea here is that a language is more power if it gives you the capacity to say something more succinctly than other languages. An example of this could be having a car that is capable of driving 150mph. You may never choose to go that fast, but having the capacity to do so makes your car more powerful than one that maxes out at 50mph.

Thinking about how much power a language has is mostly relevant when it comes to designing new languages. Most mediums of communication can function interchangeably if you already know exactly what you want to convey. When designing languages, however you realize that some languages are better than others at allowing you to make new discoveries. As an example, you can make a drawing using embroidery as long as you know what image you’re trying to make. If you’re trying to figure it out, however, you need a more fluid medium like a pencil or paint.

The purpose of a language is to achieve leverage in communication and thought. The goal is to be able to say more with less effort. A language that requires more words to say things is like having a route to work that requires you to travel 15 miles when you could get there with a 3 mile route. A language that allows for more succinctness allows us to travel the highways of thought at a much faster speed.


“My hypothesis is that succinctness is power, or is close enough that except in pathological examples you can treat them as identical.”

“It seems to me that succinctness is what programming languages are for… think that the main reason we take the trouble to develop high-level languages is to get leverage, so that we can say (and more importantly, think) in 10 lines of a high-level language what would require 1000 lines of machine language. In other words, the main point of high-level languages is to make source code smaller. If smaller source code is the purpose of high-level languages, and the power of something is how well it achieves its purpose, then the measure of the power of a programming language is how small it makes your programs.”

“This kind of metric would allow us to compare different languages, but that is not, at least for me, its main value. The main value of the succinctness test is as a guide in designing languages. The most useful comparison between languages is between two potential variants of the same language. What can I do in the language to make programs shorter? If the conceptual load of a program is proportionate to its complexity, and a given programmer can tolerate a fixed conceptual load, then this is the same as asking, what can I do to enable programmers to get the most done? And that seems to me identical to asking, how can I design a good language?”

“Aiming for succinctness seems a good way to find new ideas. If you can do something that makes many different programs shorter, it is probably not a coincidence: you have probably discovered a useful new abstraction. You might even be able to write a program to help by searching source code for repeated patterns. Among other languages, those with a reputation for succinctness would be the ones to look to for new ideas: Forth, Joy, Icon.”

“The true test of a language is how well you can discover and solve new problems, not how well you can use it to solve a problem someone else has already formulated. These two are quite different criteria. In art, mediums like embroidery and mosaic work well if you know beforehand what you want to make, but are absolutely lousy if you don’t. When you want to discover the image as you make it– as you have to do with anything as complex as an image of a person, for example– you need to use a more fluid medium like pencil or ink wash or oil paint. And indeed, the way tapestries and mosaics are made in practice is to make a painting first, then copy it. (The word “cartoon” was originally used to describe a painting intended for this purpose).”

“I think the way to find (or design) the best language is to become hypersensitive to how well a language lets you think, then choose/design the language that feels best.”

“I think most hackers know what it means for a language to feel restrictive. What’s happening when you feel that? I think it’s the same feeling you get when the street you want to take is blocked off, and you have to take a long detour to get where you wanted to go. There is something you want to say, and the language won’t let you. What’s really going on here, I think, is that a restrictive language is one that isn’t succinct enough. The problem is not simply that you can’t say what you planned to. It’s that the detour the language makes you take is longer.”

“Restrictiveness is mostly lack of succinctness. So when a language feels restrictive, what that (mostly) means is that it isn’t succinct enough, and when a language isn’t succinct, it will feel restrictive.”

Resource: The jerk fallacy


Some jerks rise to power, but some fall as well. Some good people get squashed by jerks, but some of them rise to power as well. There’s no evidence correlating jerks with success. It’s a stereotype for success, but not a prerequisite.

The biggest losers are jerks themselves because the one thing worse than being around a jerk is being a jerk.


“For every person who has a reputation as a bully, a deal breaker, an intimidator—someone who fights for every scrap—there are many people who succeeded by weaving together disparate communities, by keeping their word, by quietly creating value.”

“Both roads can work. The presence of jerks at the top confirms this, and so does the predominance of good folks.”

“The problem with the jerk path is that not that it isn’t more effective, it’s that you have to spend your days being a jerk.”

Resource: Hollow Inside:


By framing expectations, you can regulate reactions. If you don’t set the expectation of substance, it’s possible to get away with being hollow. But if the expectation is there, you’ll create disappointment. And the tricky part is that the expectation for substance is almost always there. People expect quality as the default. If you don’t intend to provide quality, you should go out of your way to make that very explicit. But it’s better to just provide quality.


“What’s inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Nothing. It’s a hollow tube. One of the most iconic buildings in the world is empty. But that’s okay, because the building doesn’t make any promises about what’s inside. There’s no expectation, no offer of engagement. It merely is. Chocolate Easter rabbits are a different story. You can’t help but feel ripped off when you discover that they’re hollow. When we bring a brand to the world, it’s rare indeed that people are okay with it having nothing inside. The wrapper matters, but so does the experience within.”

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