Deeply ancient history

clippings.JPG What's the worst crime a blogger can commit? High on the list is leaving old newspaper clippings lying around on the desk until they go yellow and crumble. Today I found a couple under the debris of un-reviewed books and un-lifted weights.

About 3 weeks ago (ahem) there was much excitement about a certain government Minister who famously disdains to read official reports. In this case, he announced that a staff member had read "the top of it". The Dominion Post editorial explained kindly: He has more important things to do, like his hair.

I was thinking about the way these reports are written. Public servants who write reports for politicians are usually trained to put danger signals at the top. Any part that risks arousing controversy absolutely must be seen first. It's the key message of the key message, the executive summary of the executive summary.

We're all skim-reading these days, none more so than pressured politicians. Especially ones with high maintenance hair. Every day Ministers are given a pile of reading material that is taller than my tower of un-reviewed books, namely 33 cm.

Almost every government document should be structured by default this way:

  1. Start with a highly descriptive document title or headline.
  2. Then add 1-2 sentences that summarise the whole document.

If there's something controversial in a general report, you may have a reason for burying it deep down. But if you're addressing your own Minister, that very point is top priority.

My other yellow clipping summarises an article in Nature about language change:

the more a word is used, the less likely it is to change in time.

The journalist calls this the law of language evolution. As the research covered how 200 basic words diverged over thousands of years, I guess this information is not so stale.

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