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Ashwatthama (The Elephant)

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I read the comic book version of the Mahabharata as a kid (thank you, Amar Chitra Katha!) and many of its stories stayed with me. As I recollected in a newspaper column in 2005:

Yudhisthira is an incredibly virtuous man, and is in fact the son of the god of dharma (righteousness and duty).

Yudhisthira has never spoken a lie. The gods so smile upon him that his chariot floats an inch above the ground, never touching the dust.

But, as the days of war drag on, he knows that he must get a psychological edge on his opponent. So Yudhisthira has an elephant bought and named Ashwattama, the name of his opponent's beloved son. Yudhisthira has the elephant killed so that he can honestly say, with his opponent listening, "Ashwattama is dead."

As planned, this breaks the other warrior's heart, and he recedes from the battle.

But because he lied, Yudhisthira's chariot falls upon the ground, never to float again.

In the comic book version (Issue 36, "The Battle At Midnight", page 29):

battle scene, text in accompanying post

So now, he replied: "Ashwatthama is dead." Adding in an inaudible aside -- "Ashwatthama the elephant." As soon as the lie was uttered Yudhisthira's chariot touched the ground.* [We see Yudhisthira standing in a chariot in the background, and Drona in the foreground, visibly overcome.]

Hearing the news from Yudhisthira, Drona fainted. Dhrishtadyumna rushed toward him. When Drona gained consciousness, he could not gain his earlier strength. Yet he killed Dhrishtadyumna's horses. [We see him take aim at some horses with his bow and arrow.]


* Because of his righteous conduct Yudhisthira's chariot was always four fingers' breadth above the ground.

It surprised me to see this, going back to the comic, because I honestly remembered the speech bubble looking like:

ASHWATTHAMA the elephant IS DEAD.

Anyway, now you know one particular reason why Four Seasons Total Landscaping reverberates inside my being like a perfect joke outside of time.

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brennen
19 hours ago
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Boulder, CO
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An unknown gem of the internet
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brennen
19 hours ago
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Boulder, CO
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How do you write simple explanations without sounding condescending?

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Sumana Harihareswara wrote an interesting blog post Plain Language Choices recently, about writing about complicated topics using simple language and how it can sometimes come off as condescending.

I really like explaining complicated topics while trying to avoid unnecessary jargon, and I realized that I’ve thought a lot about how to do it well. So here are a bunch of things I try to do when I use simple language to avoid coming off as condescending.

use some jargon to give the reader search terms

Sometimes I see writing that completely avoids all jargon and instead substitutes simple language for all “jargon”-y words.

I like to include some jargon in my explanations because otherwise it’s impossible for the reader to search & learn more about the concept they’re trying to learn about.

write (mostly) true explanations

Something else I see sometimes in ELI5-type explanations is an explanation in plain language that’s not actually true in a useful way. I’m pretty sympathetic to why people do this – it’s super hard to write simple explanations that are also true!

And actually sometimes when I’m trying to write down a simple/clear explanation for a concept, I realize that I don’t actually understand the concept as well as I thought and that I’m not able to explain it. That’s okay!

I think there are a few options here:

  • try to say only things that are true (or at least which are a useful model for how the world works even if they’re not 100% true)
  • write things that are not really true / that you’re not sure of, but point out that they may not be true (“I think it works like X, but I realize now that it might be Y instead, I’m not sure!“)

only use “fun” visual elements on explanations that are actually well written & easy to understand

This happens more with visual aids than with simple language but I’ll include it anyway. Sometimes I see explanations which have “fun” elements to it to make it them seem more approachable where the explanation itself is still pretty unclear.

I try to be careful about this in my own work – I try to only attach “fun” elements (like a fun illustrated cover) to explanations that I’ve spent a lot of time on making really clear. Basically to me “fun” things are a signal that the content itself is really clear/accessible, and I try to not misuse that signal.

I think why’s poignant guide to ruby is a nice example of something that’s fun and clear and which has helped a lot of people learn Ruby.

Another nice example of this is: I know someone who got her master’s thesis printed as a paperback book and illustrated with some great drawings related to the topic of her thesis (trans represensentation in media). It’s called “I’m supposed to relate to this?”, here’s the paperback.

I ended up reading the whole thing because, in addition to having the fun illustrations, her master’s thesis was really well written and interesting! The fact that she did the work to print a paperback book of her thesis and get it illustrated was a sign that she’d worked on making the writing accessible to a non-academic audience, and it was true!

tell a relevant story

Stories can really help people learn! For example, something I’ve done a lot on this blog is talk about a problem I ran into in the course of my job and what I did to solve that problem.

Some kinds of stories that I think work well:

  • a real problem that someone ran into, to motivate why the concept is interesting / important to learn
  • something that’s happening on a computer, framed as a “story” (for example https://howdns.works/ tells a story about how DNS works. Everything in the story literally corresponds to exactly what happens when you make a DNS query)

Sometimes I see stories used to explain concepts that don’t fit into either of these and feel kind of pasted on, like they’re there to help the concept seem “fun” but don’t actually illustrate the concept or motivate why it might be useful to learn it.

have a specific audience in mind

I try to write relatively simple explanations, but when I write I also generally assume a lot of knowledge on the part of my audience.

Sometimes I see explanations of complicated concepts that start with explaining the very basics of the topic. This usually isn’t that effective: if someone is trying to understand some super technical aspect of containers, they probably understand the basics of containers already!

“Have an audience” is more of a general writing tip so I’ll leave it at that.

on using simple language as a joke for people who already understand the idea

Here’s a very fun explanation of a complicated thing using simple language: Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable.

On one hand, this is fun! I enjoyed reading it. On the other hand, I think the main audience for this is probably people who already more or less understand Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem.

For example, someone pointed out that “if math is a not a load of bunk” in this text is code for “Peano arithmetic is consistent” with (“math” being “Peano arithmetic” and “not a load of bunk” meaning “consistent”). Which I find very charming, but also I found it a little hard to decode when reading it.

And (as we talked about before about jargon), if you know that “Peano arithmetic is consistent” is the relevant bit of jargon, you can find all kind of fascinating things, like a blog post by John Baez from 2011 discussing an attempted proof that Peano arithmetic was inconsistent)

(I’m also reminded here of the XKCD up goer five, which is very delightful, but I don’t think I learned anything about spaceships from reading it)

that’s all!

I’d love to hear more thoughts on this – I think there are probably more ways that simple explanations can feel condescending that I’ve missed!

I really don’t think they need to feel condescending though – to me the point of writing a clear/simple explanation is usually that I think the idea is not actually fundamentally that complicated and so I’m just explaining it in a way that’s exactly as complicated as it needs to be.

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brennen
5 days ago
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jepler
19 days ago
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Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
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brennen
5 days ago
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Each frame is drawn by a particular student, using...

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Each frame is drawn by a particular student, using glyphdrawing.club

Source

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brennen
7 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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A rabbit hole of turkey proportions

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I'm searching Youtube for the “WKRP in Cincinnati” turkey clip when I fell into this rabbit hole I was never expecting. The bit from “WKRP in Cincinnati” (one of the funniest bits on television) was inspried by an embellshed story of a real event decades prior. But I was completely gobsmacked by this 2016 news report of an actual, real life, “live turkey drop,” in Arkansas.

WHAT?

My mind is blown. Comedy and satire just can't compete with real life anymore.

So I start down this particular rabbit hole, and while the Yellville, Arkansas Chamber of Commerce no longer sponsors the festival, it's still unclear if the turkey drop has actually stopped?

WHAT?

The FAA apparently can't stop it:

“FAA regulations do not specifically prohibit dropping live animals from aircraft, possibly because the authors of the regulation never anticipated that an explicit prohibition would be necessary,” an FAA spokesman told HuffPost in an email. “This does not mean we endorse the practice.”

The FAA Can't Stop People From Throwing Live Turkeys Out Of Planes | HuffPost

WHAT?

Well, yeah, that makes a weird type of sense, but still …

… “The Federal Air Administration has deemed it legal for this act to occur at our festival as long as it is performed within the parameters that they have set forth.”

“The phantom pilot is named as such for a reason. There is no airstrip in Yellville and therefore we do not have any authority in terms of flight control,” it added. “Furthermore, Chamber board members, Turkey Trot sponsors, and Chamber members have absolutely no affiliation, jurisdiction, or control over what any individual does in his or her private plane in the air.”

The FAA said Monday it was aware of Saturday’s drop. The agency hasn’t intervened in past years because the birds aren’t considered projectiles.

FAA looking into Arkansas festival's turkey drop

WHAT?

All the articles I can find on this date from 2015 to 2018. I can't find anything that has said definitively that the turkey drop has actually stopped for good, but it may appear to have stopped. I don't know.

But this is not something I was expecting to find—an actual turkey drop.

Sheesh.

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brennen
7 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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