His insight was simple. The wires, relays and switches that made up the types of complex circuits he encountered at AT&T could be understand as the terms and operators of logic statements expressed in the boolean algebra he encountered as a math major at the University of Michigan.
Though simple, this insight had huge impact. It meant that circuits could be designed and optimized in the abstract and precise language of mathematics, and then transformed back to soldered wires and finicky magnetic coils only at the last step — enabling staggering leaps in circuit complexity.
But he wasn’t done. A decade later, inspired in part by his wartime research efforts, Shannon developed information theory: a mathematical framework that formalizes both techniques and fundamental limits for reliably transmitting information over noisy channels.
(For a popular treatment of this theory, see this or this; for a technical introduction, I recommend this guide).
Put another way, Shannon’s master’s thesis laid the foundation for digital computers, while his information theory paper laid the foundation for digital communication.
This morning I listened to Srini Rao interview Sarah Peck. Though most of the interview focuses on Peck’s personal life, toward the end they discuss her work as a business consultant.
During this segment, Peck mentioned an interesting heuristic I hadn’t heard before (I’m paraphrasing here): relying only on unstructured communication — e.g., just give everyone an email address or shared Slack channel and then rock and roll — works fine in organizations with five or less employees, but once you grow larger there is too much communication for people to comfortably keep track of everything just in their heads.
At this size, Peck notes, organizations need to introduce systems to document communication and to support structured decisions. It’s no longer enough to simply let emails and chats fly, and hope everything works out. You need more detailed and careful approaches to how people work.
Something new caught my attention this time through the book.
Kushner revealed that id’s ace coder, John Carmack, adopted an aggressive tactic to increase his effectiveness while working on his breakthrough Quake engine: Carmack, seeking a break from distraction, began to shift the start of his workday one hour at a time, until eventually he was starting his programming in the evening and finishing before dawn.
The uninterrupted depth provided by this odd habit allowed Carmack (with help from graphics guru Michael Abrash) to reinvent electronic entertainment with the first lightening fast, fully 3D PC game engine.
As I detail in an essay I wrote for Fast Company, a big factor in Pullman’s early 20th century problems would sound familiar to early 21st century ears: communication overload.
As Pullman president, John Runnells, explained, many departments were run with “confusing unrelated systems [that] had been spontaneously developed.”
The result is that everyone was a little involved in everything — disrupting their ability to do their primary work.
If you wanted something from the brass works, to cite an example given in the 1916 articles, you would go over to the brass works and bother someone you knew until you got what you wanted– distracting both of you from your main value-producing crafts.
As Runnells sagely observed, if you don’t build optimized systems to handle logistics, the effort simply gets offloaded, in an ad hoc and disruptive manner, to everyone: “and every man contributing by that much [to these organizational efforts] demoralized his own particular work by the interruption.”
Earlier this week, I listened to Brett McKay’s interview with Mike Rowe. As you’ll learn if you listen to the conversation, following his stint as the host of Dirty Jobs, Rowe has become an advocate for the trades.
In this interview, as in many others, Rowe argues that skilled labor (think: plumbing, welding) can be both satisfying and lucrative, and yet there are still somewhere around three million such jobs left unfilled in this country. He credits this gap largely to a contemporary culture that demonizes blue collar work and preaches the best path is always a college degree, followed, God willing, by a pair of Warby Parker glasses and a job as a social media brand manager.
(I might have added that last part.)
I always find Rowe’s thoughts on shifting American work cultures interesting, but there’s a phrase he often uses in these discussions that has recently begun to draw my attention: efficiency versus effectiveness.
As longtime readers know, I enjoy tracking down the deep work habits of well known and highly accomplished individuals. This is why I was happy to recently stumble across a pair of interviews (here and here) in which the novelist John Grisham describes his professional routines.
In March, writer Patrick Rhone posted a notice that he was taking a break from online publishing to work on his next book.
“This includes my websites and social media accounts,” he explained. “No blog posts, no tweets, no status updates.”
He concluded: “I’m nonline.”
This adjective caught my attention as I hadn’t heard it before. Here’s the definition Rhone linked to in his notice:
nonline (adj.): No longer found on, made available to, or primarily accessed or contacted through the Internet.
I like this phrase and hope it catches on as something that more and more people feel empowered to use to untether from digital distraction as needed.
Perhaps more important than the phrase itself is the trend it represents. Cultural revolutions, like the one we’re currently experiencing courtesy of the internet, are disorienting at first. New vocabulary — like nonline, or deep work, or attention merchants — can play a key role in helping people sort through this confusion and figure out how best to react and thrive in a changing world.
When James Michener was writing his epic 1978 novel, Chesapeake, he didn’t have to travel far for inspiration. At the time he lived in an old house, nestled on 25 acres, near the Choptank river on a creek that emptied into the eastern waters of Chesapeake Bay.
“He loved the sounds of the place,” explained Michener friend and collaborator Errol Lincoln Uys. “He would take long walks out to the end of the dock and stand there while he tried to figure something [about the book] out. He loved the sounds of the migrating ducks. He loved the nature of the place.”
By the time a couple from Baltimore bought the house from Michener in 1995, the novelist was long gone. In the early 1980s, he moved to Austin, to immerse himself in the rhythms of the Lone Star State while writing Texas.
These were not the only times Michener used location to inspire his work. After Texas, he moved temporarily to Sitka, Alaska, to work on his novel Alaska, and his original epic, Hawaii, was written during a period when Michener lived on the island.
There’s something aspirational about this idea of deploying grand gestures (to use a term from Deep Work) to push forward creative endeavors. I’m bringing it up here, however, because I think there’s a subtle point lurking in Michener’s nomadism that’s relevant to knowledge work in general…
I'm a computer science professor who writes about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age. If you're new to Study Hacks, a good place to start is the blog archive or my new book on the power of deep work.
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