Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
Keep it short
How Nevada became a state, in 735 words. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Brevity is the soul of wit. Even better: "If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."
As a writer whose first drafts can run long, I try to remember that advice. In fact, I just came across a story that drives the point home.
It begins during the Civil War, but far away from the fighting, when President Lincoln was thinking about reelection. This was no sure thing, as he faced a three-way race:
Lincoln (National Union—Republicans, but rebranded for 1864)
George McClellan (Democrat)
John C. Fremont (Radical Democracy Party—even more anti-slavery than Lincoln)
Every electoral vote would matter, and as it happened there was a U.S. territory whose residents wanted statehood, and who were likely to support Lincoln—if they could vote: Nevada.
The race began. Could Nevada pass a state constitution and transmit it to Washington before the election?
Here's the timeline:
September 2, 1863: Nevada's tiny population votes 6,600 to 1,502 to try to become a state.
November 2, 1863: Delegates in Carson City draft a state constitution.
January 19, 1864: Plot twist! Nevada voters reject the constitution! (Sticking point: taxes.)
Jan./Feb. 1864: Lincoln decides to push harder. Great quote, supposedly from Lincoln, but might have been an adviser: “It is easier to admit Nevada than to raise another million soldiers.”
March 21, 1864: Congress passes an Enabling Act that paves the way for Nevada's admission—but again, only if it can transmit its state constitution to Washington in time.
July 4–27, 1864: Delegates try again, and wrangle a 16,543-word state constitution. (Comparison: the U.S. Constitution runs about 4,500 words).
September 7, 1864: Nevada voters approve it by an 8 to 1 margin. Woo-hoo!
Now we get to the part where brevity matters. The election was set for November 8, so two months away. But in 1864, it took a long time for mail to reach the east coast.
Nevada had two options:
Messenger goes to San Francisco, then takes a boat to Panama, travels across that country, and takes another boat to Washington. Total time: ~20 days.
Stage coach to the Missouri River, then the rest of the way by train. Total time: ~25 days.
Nevada's territorial governor, James W. Nye, sent two copies, one each way. But on October 25, word came back via telegraph: neither copy had reached Washington.
With just two weeks to go, their solution was to send the entire constitution by telegraph, one character at a time. It was the longest message ever sent up to that point, and cost $4,303.27, or about $80,000 today.
Here's how Ainissa Ramirez explained things. (Her account in The MIT Press Reader got me started on this):
On the afternoon of the next day, Mr. Hodge and Mr. Ward, the region’s best telegraphers, had the job to transmit 175 handwritten pages containing the Nevada State Constitution to Salt Lake City ...
The fancy cursive writing of the document had to be translated into plain dots and dashes of Morse code and then tapped into the lines. ...
[I]t was going to be a long night.
The whole thing gets comical. There was no single telegraph line all the way to Washington, so the constitution had to be transmitted … then written down, and then retransmitted to the next station, four times.
Eventually, it reached the War Department in Washington on October 28. Lincoln proclaimed Nevada a state on October 30, and word got back to Nevada via telegraph the next day.
On November 8, Nevada voted for Lincoln. But, as it turned out—more comedy—their votes weren't actually needed!
The third party candidate, Fremont, dropped out in September, while Nevada’s constitution was en route. In a one-on-one match, Lincoln beat McClellan like a drum.
However, Nevada's votes for the 13th Amendment banning slavery did provide an extra margin of comfort in early 1865, just before Lincoln was assassinated.
Anyway, here we are more than a century and a half later. Writing this newsletter, I am reminded every single day of the way technology shapes the messages we want to share.
The one constant: If you want someone to read or listen, take another pass and edit your words again.
By the way, my first draft of today's daily newsletter ran 1,016 words. The version you're reading now runs 735. If I’d had more time, it would be even shorter!
7 other things worth knowing today
Eli Lilly will cut prices for some older insulins later this year and immediately expand a cap on costs insured patients pay to fill prescriptions. There are some technical concerns, but basically nobody should have to pay more than $35 per month under their new plan. (NPR)
Airbnb is now banning people from using its site if they are associated with other users the short-term rental company has deemed a safety risk and removed from the platform. In instances where a user is banned because of their association with another user deemed problematic, the user can only return to the platform if their problematic acquaintance successfully appeals the ban or if they are able to prove they are not “closely associated.” (Vice)
The family of the late Kobe Bryant has agreed to a $28.5 million settlement with Los Angeles County to resolve the remaining claims in a lawsuit over deputies and firefighters sharing grisly photos of the NBA star, his 13-year-old daughter and other victims killed in a 2020 helicopter crash, attorneys and court filings said Tuesday. (AP)
Detailed and highly sensitive mental health records of hundreds of former Los Angeles students were published online after the city’s school district fell victim to a massive ransomware attack last year. The student psychological evaluations, published to a “dark web” leak site by the Russian-speaking ransomware gang Vice Society, offer a startling degree of personally identifiable information. (The 74)
Two MLB teams, the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, played half an inning of an exhibition spring training game Tuesday without umpires after the officials left. This was an unneeded extra half inning, which teams apparently agree to play sometimes since the entire point of spring training is to get players warmed up for the season and give them a chance to perform, but the umpires' crew chief ruled they wouldn't stick around. (ESPN)
Columnist: I tried an alternative way to date—and it worked. The numbers game that actually works ... is to narrow the field so much that there are only a very few men left standing. "I googled, 'How do you find a needle in a haystack?' The answer, according to multiple sites, is that you burn the haystack." (The Independent)
How Amsterdam built its North-South metro line that involved carefully burrowing beneath the foundations of centuries-old architecture. Short version: Workers had to use caissons: large watertight concrete chambers, open at the bottom, from which water is kept out by air pressure. In the end, they wound up with about 10,000 archeological artifacts from the 13th century that are now on display. (h/t reader submission from Sarah Wall; CNN)
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