French & Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking

French thinking at Villandry

Having spent virtually all of my adult life within “Anglo-Saxon” cultures and institutions (not least in the hyper-English milieu of The Economist), I must have adopted Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking.

And what are those?

In this post, I’ll try to describe them, by contrasting the Anglo-Saxon mind with what I consider to be its foil or opposite.

Which is to say: French thinking.

And I’ll do that with just three little examples plucked from life:

  1. gardens
  2. cities
  3. laws

1) French and English gardens

In 1992, I spend my summer in Tours, France — allegedly learning the local language but mostly biking along the Loire and its tributaries with friends, visiting the various chateaux in that area.

I was twenty-two at the time, and gardening was not necessarily foremost in my thoughts. And yet, the gardens of those chateaux left an impression. That’s because I had an intuition that they explained a lot else I was observing in the country

Look at the garden of the Chateau of Villandry, above. Or look at the same castle from another view:

More French thinking

The principle that guides this and all “jardins à la française” is the expression of mastery over nature.

A landscaper imposes, through his reason, absolute and mathematically Cartesian symmetry and order onto what would otherwise be disorder.

It is a top-down notion of order. In fact, these gardens are best viewed from above, which is why almost all the chateaux are laid out so that there is a viewing platform above the jardins (as in the picture).

English landscaping developed largely in response to French landscaping and spread to many non-French parts of Europe.

The difference is striking. Here, for instance, is a view of the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the center of Munich, where I grew up:

Yup, those are sheep, in the middle of Munich.

Munich’s Englischer Garten was conceived during the Enlightenment by an Englishman, and the German landscapers to this day observe its “Anglo-Saxon” landscaping philosophy. Here, for instance, is a recent addition, a theater:

Let’s try to make the philosophy behind this landscaping style explicit:

If the French approach is to display top-down mastery of nature with an imposition of order, the English way is to integrate the human into nature, to adjust to the spontaneous or “bottom-up” order of nature itself.

The best way to enjoy such a garden is in fact “from below” — ie from the ground. You’re assumed to be in the garden, not looking down on it from above.

To give this the subtlety it deserves: English gardening does not deny the ability of man to create order (after all, there still is a landscaper). But the landscaper takes a much more humble approach to nature, choosing to see order in its disorder and incorporating its “accidents”.

Let me use a different phrase: The English landscaper “muddles through“.

2) Paris and London

Now think of the two cultures’ capitals as a “tale of two gardens,” writ large.

The “landscaper” of modern Paris was Baron Haussmann (Alsatian, hence the German name, but French). Between 1852 and 1870, he imposed order on the medieval street warren that Paris had been.

Here is the new Paris as he conceived it:

Haussmann's Paris

Boulevards (in red) as straight as swords now cut through the organically evolved webbing of streets, to clear vistas and let armies parade.

And that’s not enough. Along these straight boulevards, the houses must meet regulations as precise as Cartesian math. They stand in a row like soldiers being mustered:

Now London:

A century before Haussmann (and shortly after Descartes’ death), medieval London was burnt down in the The Great Fire of 1666. To the French, this would have been an opportunity to remake London in a rational and orderly way. There even was an equivalent of Baron Haussmann: It was Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect of many churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral.

What did Sir Christopher do? It was very English. He largely honored the network of streets as it had evolved over time. Using legal jargon, you might say that he respected stare decisis (“stand by things decided”).

Adhering to precedent, he then proceeded to … muddle through.

And that’s what London has been doing since. This is its street grid today:

In fact, that picture does not do its organic beauty/chaos (depending on your point of view) justice. London, unlike Paris, is not one city (even politically). It is many cities and towns that grew together. Each bit retains its own charms and problems, and the connections are haphazard and arbitrary.

London cabbies, in fact, spend years learning what they call “the knowledge” to navigate this maze. And London’s streetscapes are full of surprises, both positive and questionable:

3) Code Napoléon v Common Law

French law is a code. In some ways it goes back to Roman law, but its direct ancestor is the Code Napoléon of 1804.

Napoleon, being not only French (well, sort of) but a product of the Enlightenment, believed in the power of reason to impose order (here meaning justice) from above on the chaos of life, the infinite number of situations that can arise and must be adjudicated. The result was a document. Here is its famous first page:

Legal thinking in France and all other civil-law systems is therefore a process of deduction: You find the general principle in the code, then apply it to the instance in real life.

English law is not a code. In fact, England does not even have a written constitution (as its Anglo-Saxon nephew America does). Sure, there are statutes, laws written by legislators over time. But the core of the system in all Anglo-Saxon countries is the common law.

And what is it? In essence, it is the history of all former cases.

For about a millennium, the English have been considering each new case by comparing it with precedents, a bit as Sir Christopher Wren built St Paul’s on the site of the former church that had burnt down.

Which issues does this case raise? Aha, then it must be like X. But it is different, so it must also be like Y. And so on.

The process is inductive: The Anglo-Saxon mind starts with the particular, searches for a general principle, returns to the particular, adjusts the general principle, and so forth.

Put differently, the English mind muddles through.

Conclusion: Churchill vs Balladur

This post has been muddling through by inducing from particulars to generals. I will leave you with two quotes by former prime ministers that I think say it all:

Edouard Balladur of France:

What is the market? It is the law of the jungle. And what is civilization? It is the struggle against nature.

Winston Churchill:

The English know how to make the best of things. Their so-called muddling through is simply skill at dealing with the inevitable.

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The search for simplicity, continued

Almost six years ago, I tried in The Economist to start a movement for simplicity and against complexity. In this Leader (ie, editorial, to everybody but us), which accompanied this Special Report, I wrote:

“LIFE is really simple,” said Confucius, “but we insist on making it complicated.” The Economist agrees. Unfortunately, Confucius could not have guessed what lay ahead. The rate at which mankind makes life complicated seems ever to accelerate. This is a bad thing. So this newspaper wants be the first to lay down some new rules. Henceforth, genius will be measured not by how fancy, big or powerful somebody makes something, but by how simple.

Alas, that was easier said than done.

But ever since then, I have been obsessed with simplicity, as you may have noticed if you have been reading The Hannibal Blog (for instance here and here).

This means that I palpitate with excitement whenever I encounter other people who share my obsession. Well, Alan Siegel, a brand consultant, appears to share it. Watch (less than 5 minutes!):


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Managing creativity: Let no side win

Ed Catmull

One of my favorite sessions at our “innovation summit” this week in Berkeley was a talk between Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, and my friend and colleague Martin Giles, who took my former beat (“Silicon Valley”) a year ago.

Ed had a soulful, unpretentious, I-got-nothing-to-prove credibility, and Martin did a great job drawing him out but otherwise not interrupting or interfering (that, in essence, is a moderator’s job).

As in any real, good conversation, the chat meandered and is hard to summarize. But the heart of it was about how to “manage” creative types so that they stay creative. Managing creativity, of course, is sort of an oxymoron. But that’s what Pixar, with its unbroken record of box-office successes, seems to be doing.

So, how?

It comes down to many, many extremely subtle gestures and techniques. For example:

Commerce vs art

There is a tension between “commercial” success and “artistic” purity, and Catmull believes that the leader’s job is to ensure that “no side wins”. The tension, in other words, is part of the secret sauce.

Geniuses or teams?

Pixar tries to “protect each film-maker’s vision”, by putting the brain daddy of each project in charge of a team. But Catmull realizes that the notion of one single, over-arching genius idea is “a myth”, and that Pixar’s films are really thousands of ideas, and thousands of problems solved. For that, you need a team.

So everything depends on how well that team functions. Catmull sees one of his main roles as observing teams, and intervening when they are dysfunctional. If the leader loses the confidence of his team, Catmull replaces the leader. He would get rid of a genius, if that genius could not work in a team, he said.

Criticism and power

But even when a team does work, and the leader stays in charge, that director must get honest and hard feedback from his peers. How does one do that? (Finding tough but constructive criticism is also one of the hardest challenges for a writer.)

You put the director in meetings of his peers, but you ensure that nobody has more power than he does. In other words, people may suggest or critique, but cannot order him to make any changes. It is up to the director to absorb the comments and to incorporate or address them in the film. (Again, this is also, in my opinion, the way a writer should relate to his “editor”.)

If the group does this well, Catmull will invite others to make the meetings bigger, so that the newcomers can observe the good dynamic and spread it to other teams and Pixar’s wider culture.

However, he then pays extra attention to see if the original group of critics starts performing, which would kill the magic.

If the group critiques badly — which usually means that they are being too polite — Catmull will take individuals aside and confront them: Why did you not say what you really meant? He calls bullshit on them. So people know that their credibility is on the line.

From fear to context

There was no silver bullet, no single secret or list of “ten steps”. There never is in real life. Instead, the conversation offered a fascinating glimpse into our new, modern work culture.

In the past, workers clocked in and had managers look over them with the tools of power. Bosses ruled with fear, implicit or explicit.

In a creative economy — and Pixar, like The Economist, represents it in the extreme — that would never work. You cannot frighten or threaten people into creativity.

Instead, all you can do is choose people well — for their talent and their teamwork — and then set and maintain a certain context that allows their creativity to come out.

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Emphasis & beauty: More … or less?

Today, two questions for you to ponder:

  1. To emphasize something (an idea, a word, an image, a sensation, anything), should you add or remove?
  2. To make something more beautiful, do you need to add or remove?

So this is a post about adding and removing.

I come at this, naturally, from the perspective of a writer. And as you might remember from my post about “color in writing,” I like to use art as an analogy for writing. Of course, I could also use sound, or smell, or touch or taste — but that is harder to do on a blog. So let’s think about words as visual stimuli.

I. Zen writing or Thai writing

Look at those two temple scenes above (both from Wikipedia). I’ve been to both temples. Both are Buddhist. One is in Kyoto, Japan, the other in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both cities are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

All of that is beside the point. If you’re like me, you will immediately focus your glance on one object: the pile of sand (or was it pebbles?) in front of the Kyoto temple. You will then scan the Thai temple for something to focus on … and give up, returning to the pile of sand.

Which style, the Zen or the Thai, is better at emphasis?

The Zen, of course. And it does that by removing details, the better to show one stunning detail.

The Thai style, by contrast, is not interested in emphasis. It is interested in sensual barrage.

So, although both are nominally Buddhist, you realize that the two styles present two separate conceptions not only of aesthetics but also of religious experience. If you are like me:

  • the Zen experience leaves you serene,
  • the Thai experience leaves you stimulated.

(Incidentally, you will generally find the same contrast between Japanese and Thai food.)

Is one “better” than the other? That’s not a fair question. But life isn’t fair, so I will answer it. The Zen aesthetic is superior.

Now, let’s say you are a designer of temples (= writer). You better know at the outset which experience you’re trying to create. If you’re trying to make people serene, you better not incorporate any “advice” from the Thai guys; if you’re trying to stimulate, don’t listen to the Japanese.

Put differently: author, know thyself.

II. “Baroque” writing or “Baroque” writing

Let’s take another example. The caricature of Baroque and Rococo art is that they are overly ornate — Thai, rather than Zen, if you will.

This abbey in Ottobeuren, Bavaria, near where I grew up, is an example:

Do you see the wound of Jesus on the ceiling?

Didn’t think so.

Now let’s try this famous painting by Caravaggio, also nominally “Baroque”:

Do you see the wound of Jesus? Of course you do. You see nothing else.

Which is “better”? Again, it is not a fair question, and let me answer it anyway. The Caravaggio is better. It is superb, in fact, one of the best paintings in art history. Ottobeuren is kitsch (which doesn’t prevent hordes of American tourists from visiting it).

But in the interests of fairness, I must qualify that the intent of the two artists was different:

  • The purpose of Ottobeuren is to overwhelm you when you come in.
  • Caravaggio’s purpose is to focus your attention on one action — with light, detail and gaze (ie, that of the disciples) all subservient to that purpose — so that you contemplate a story around that action.

What would Caravaggio have done if his patron had asked him to put, oh, a little angel or curlicue in the upper right hand corner, to “make better use of that space”? Caravaggio would have ignored him.

III. Microsoft or Apple

Let me sign off on this little meditation with the famous spoof of Microsoft “improving” Apple’s iPod packaging. As you watch and smirk, think of your Powerpoint presentation, your corporate memo, your essay, your book or whatever: Are you going to commit, with courage, to the point you want to make? Well, then cut the crap. Get Zen. Put the finger in it.


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Manuscript, Round Three, with “lessons”

And it’s off. Last night I sent the third draft of my book manuscript to my editor at Riverhead.

I’m pleased.

In this draft, I addressed the two issues that my editor raised a month ago:

  1. I made the tone consistent throughout the whole book. Neither too formal nor too informal; sophisticated but simple; myth-like in the appropriate places, accessibly modern in the other parts; personal but intellectual.
  2. I clarified “lessons” without falling off the cliff of cliché.

Since my editor “bought” my book idea two years ago, we have been playing a little game.

He has been pushing me to be more explicit about the lessons about success and failure that arise from the biographical stories I tell.

I have been coy, feeling that “lessons” are always corny and banal, and that what I’m really doing is inviting readers to “meditate” along with me on timeless stories in which they recognize themselves.

Well, I think I have succeeded at merging those two instincts. Can’t wait to hear if my editor agrees. 😉

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Bad writing in the mainstream press

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=michael+kinsley&iid=1786394″ src=”1/e/8/a/Reporters_In_CIA_d2be.jpg?adImageId=8903306&imageId=1786394″ width=”234″ height=”309″ /]
Michael Kinsley, a witty and incisive journalist formerly of Crossfire and Slate, has an amusing critique in The Atlantic of the awful writing that dominates so much of America’s “mainstream media.” My only regret is that he was so gentle, by Kinsley standards.

I have long felt the same way, especially since I taught a course at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where a lot of the students in my class were already “spoiled” by the same conventions that Kinsley here lampoons. And yet, I could not dissuade my students from using those conventions. So they produced over-long and corny writing that you might find, well, in the New York Times.

What are those conventions? First, says Kinsley, grandiose verbiage:

Once upon a time, this unnecessary stuff was considered an advance over dry news reporting: don’t just tell the story; tell the reader what it means. But providing “context,” as it was known, has become an invitation to hype. In this case, it’s the lowest form of hype—it’s horse-race hype—which actually diminishes a story rather than enhancing it.

Next, the convention of banal, pointless and stupid quotes from “experts”, which repetitively restate what the article’s author has already stated, and where identifying the speaker takes up more words than are in the (unnecessary) quote. Example:

“Now is the chance to fix our health care system and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, said as she opened the daylong proceedings. (Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words.)

Why? Because in this American convention,

it’s not [the reporter’s] job to have a view. In fact, it’s her job to not have a view. Even though it’s her story and her judgment, she must find someone else—an expert or an observer—to repeat and endorse her conclusion. These quotes then magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one.

Compare this with our view on quotes at The Economist:

…all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised … I cannot abide the constant oscillation between (a) serious reporting, and (b) meaningless quotes by non-entities. All I want is the story, clear and concise and preferably with a bit of style. As soon as I get to “Joe Bloggs, an accountant, says ‘these are big numbers’”, I turn over the page… In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting.

Back to Kinsley. The next stupid convention is the equivalent of what the software industry calls “legacy code”, meaning yet more verbiage

written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine. Who needs to be told that reforming health care (three words) involves “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system” (nine words)? … Anybody who doesn’t know these things already is unlikely to care. (Is, in fact, unlikely to be reading the article.)

Next, what I (as opposed to Kinsley) call “fake color“, the obligatory “anecdotal lede”, whether it is germane and riveting or not. As Kinsley puts it, these are

those you’ll-never-guess-what-this-is-about, faux-mystery narrative leads about Martha Lewis, a 57-year-old retired nurse, who was sitting in her living room one day last month watching Oprah when the FedEx delivery man rang her doorbell with an innocent-looking envelope … and so on.

Kinsley’s conclusion: Cut out the crap. You might be better.

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America, as observed through reader letters

After a few days during which my children had a monopsony on my attention, I am now browsing through the Reader Letters I got in response to my two articles in the Christmas Issue of The Economist. There were a lot!

I want to respond at length to some of the more thoughtful ones, because there is a theme. But in this post, I simply want to share with you a cavalier smirk at … the tone of those letters.

I’ve been getting and reading Reader Letters throughout the more than twelve years I’ve been writing for The Economist. Because I’ve changed beats and location, the demography of the writers has changed during that time. I used to get a lot of ‘Asian’ letters, for instance, then a lot of ‘techie-geekie’ letters, and now a lot of ‘American’ letters.

Speaking only of the latter category, I might generalize that 60% of my mail now serves only one purpose: to inform me that I am:

  • stupid,
  • malicious, and
  • ignorant.

Furthermore, that I (as well as The Economist generally, along with all ‘the media’) pursue an insidious ‘agenda’. That agenda is usually

  • pinko-Commie-gay-activist, although quite often it is
  • Fascist-rightist-capitalist.

Every now and then a letter writer manages to accuse me of both excesses simultaneously (on top of ignorance, see above, which is a constant).

For example, one New Yorker has taken the trouble this week to write separate letters in response to each of my articles (I have linked to those pieces elsewhere. They’re not the point here.)

In one letter he informs me that

… Minorities have more than enough protection. I have ben practicing law for 40 plus years and am amazed that a magazine of the Economist’s stature would allow the drivel contained in “The Tyranny of the Majority” to be spread on its pages. Is the Economist afraid to print a dissenting opinion from its gay activist orthodoxy?

In his other letter, he suggests that

The author of this Socratic exegesis should have his head examined. He does not define “values.” He is untruthful, ignorant. … The author of ARGUING TO DEATH, like the Economist itself, owes readers facts, not legal-sounding fabrications and unelucidated jibberish [sic] gussied up as “values.”

And thusly, a Happy New Year to all of you. More gibberish anon from your favorite ignoramus. Check in often in 2010 so you miss none of the drivel.

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“Sex” or “gender”?

I began the previous post with a parenthetical slur on Americans (of which I am half-one), propping myself up on two creaky stereotypes:

  1. that Americans can’t (really) speak English, and
  2. that political correctness is in part to blame.

Specifically, the issue was which of these two words was correct in the specific context:

  • Sex, or
  • Gender

Well, I thought I might regale you once again with the opinion of Johnny Grimond, our (The Economist‘s) doyen of usage and author of our official Style Guide, in which style quite often becomes a window into a very British, ironic and sophisticated worldview. Here is Johnny on the matter:

Gender is nowadays used in several ways. One is common in feminist writing, where the term has a technical meaning. “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” argued Simone de Beauvoir: in other words, one chooses one’s gender. In such a context it would be absurd to use the word sex; the term must be gender. But, in using it thus, try to explain what you mean by it. Even feminists do not agree on a definition.

The primary use of gender, though, is in grammar, where it applies to words, not people. If someone is female, that is her sex, not her gender. (The gender of Mädchen, the German word for girl, is neuter, as is Weib, a wife or woman.) So do not use gender as a synonym for sex. Gender studies probably means feminism.

See also Political correctness

That said, I seem to remember reading somewhere–and I wish I knew where–that Sandra Day O’Connor started using gender instead of sex when she got to the Supreme Court, because she was worried that the word sex would conjure up all the wrong images in her (male) colleagues’ minds during deliberations.

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Inspiration in a baton, a helmet, a sword …

445px-der_mann_mit_dem_goldhelm

In January I recommended to you a talk at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference that I had attended. It was by Itay Talgam, an Israeli conductor who asks us to see in the styles of the great conductors (Karajan, Kleiber, Muti, Bernstein…) the dos and don’ts of leadership, the ways to elicit or inhibit the creativity and collaboration of individuals in a group.

Talgam can make us see in a conductor’s manner of holding a baton our own experience as, or with, leaders.

He has now given essentially the same talk again at TED. (If I may observe: TED, Zeitgeist and Poptech, who are rivals, are essentially the same conference these days. As soon as a speaker does well in one, the other two pick him up too.)

So why would I recommend Talgam … again? Because his talk is so incredibly good! So watch all 20 minutes of it, below.

But I’d also like to make another point, one that might seem oblique. One thing I like about Talgam’s approach is that he draws from one area of life (orchestra music) and role (conductor) to inform another area of life (business) and role (boss).

In my very humble way, I try to do the same thing. When I think about writing, I like to think about painting–the way Rembrandt uses color so sparingly and thus effectively, for instance. I see in the highlights of a helmet the touches of good storytelling.

And in my forthcoming book, I take the story of Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio, whose role was commander and whose context was war–the sword, if you will–and I extend it to sex, science, business, sports, exploration, art, politics and intellect–and the ways we succeed and fail in them.

Sometimes, when I give my “elevator pitch” (ie, the book idea compressed into a sentence or two) I get blank stares. I imagine that Talgam does, too. But then I watch Talgam’s talk, and I leaf through my manuscript, and I realize that this … works!

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The Economist: bland, trite and worthy?

I have been pondering a recent comment by Phillipp S Phogg to the effect that, if I may amplify it, what I write on the Hannibal Blog is sometimes more fun than what I write in The Economist. Or, as he put it:

the very opposite of the blandness (and dare I say, triteness?) which permeates some (but not all, I hasten to add!!) of the Economist’s erudite and worthy pages.

  • Bland
  • Trite
  • Worthy

Ouch. No publication, writer or editor would want to be caught anywhere near those adjectives–especially the devastatingly faint-praising worthy.

Well, one of the minor purposes of this blog (besides the main one, which is to talk about my book once it comes out) is to let those of you who are fans/foes of The Economist speak truth to power in a safe setting.

Furthermore, this is the time for me to admit that I myself occasionally feel as Phillip Phogg does. And that frustrates and saddens me.

It also makes me think deeply about such evergreen writerly topics as style, voice, tone, and storytelling, because that’s what this seems to be about.

The Economist appears to succeed in part because it promises and delivers to its readers analysis that is:

  • disciplined, not florid;
  • terse but deep;
  • occasionally quirky but not self-indulgent.

Permit me to contrast that with, say, The New Yorker, which promises, and mostly delivers, storytelling that is

What that means for me as a writer for The Economist is that I usually do the same research as writers for the New Yorker but then leave most, or even all, the “fun stuff” on the cutting floor to maintain the discipline of, say, a 600-word note.

This is frustrating. As a writer, I often know that I could spin a thrilling yarn out of my experiences during research but as a correspondent for The Economist I know that much of it is inadmissible. (There are exceptions, such a piece I have written about Socrates for our upcoming Christmas issue, which arose out of a thread here on the Hannibal Blog and is almost pure, unadulterated fun.)

One device that writers for the New Yorker (just to stay with that example) have but that we lack is the First Person, ie the “I”. I have said before that I consider the First Person “treacherous” for young writers because it subverts discipline. It is a good idea to learn to write without using “I” and “me”. That said, I have also discovered, on this blog and in my book manuscript, that the First Person makes certain things easier. One of those things is authenticity. Another is fun.

But it goes beyond the First Person and into storytelling. Occasionally, we do great storytelling in the pages of The Economist. But often we don’t, because that is not always the main objective.

I still love Ira Glass’s analysis of good storytelling. It requires, he said:

  • humanity
  • suspense
  • surprise
  • momentum (or “direction”)

But implicit in those elements is detail, also known as color. I have said before that color can be excessive and is best used sparingly, as in a good Rembrandt painting. But sparing does not mean monochrome.

Perhaps, when we fall short at The Economist it is because we overdo the sparing. Perhaps we should do more First Person narrating (which does not necessarily require us to give up our anonymity). Perhaps we should paint in more color.

In the next post, let me try to illustrate what I’ve been talking about in this post by looking at the back story behind one of my pieces in the current issue of The Economist.

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