Category Archives: humour

Long Reads and the Stockholm Syndrome

Since read­ing one of the longest nov­els I have shied away from oth­er lengthy tomes des­pite thor­oughly enjoy­ing my 1000-page adven­ture. When con­sid­er­ing this choice, I frame my decision as defend­ing against a type of lit­er­ary post-pur­chase ration­al­isa­tion: after invest­ing such an enorm­ous amount of time in read­ing a book, will I be able to object­ively con­sider both its mer­its and imper­fec­tions? After 900 pages, are the quotes I’m high­light­ing really as pro­found as I think? I’m doubt­ful.

Appar­ently I’m not alone in this, as Mark O’Connell makes clear in a light-hearted essay ask­ing how much of the enjoy­ment we get from read­ing long nov­els can be attrib­uted to a lit­er­ary Stock­holm syn­drome?

You fin­ish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rain­bow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewil­der­ment or frus­tra­tion or irritation—you think to your­self, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monu­ment­al­ity, this grat­i­fied speech­less­ness that we tend to feel at such moments of clos­ure and vale­dic­tion, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achieve­ment in hav­ing read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achieve­ment in hav­ing writ­ten it. When you read the kind of nov­el that prom­ises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow […] there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more prob­lem­at­ic­ally, is often dif­fi­cult to sep­ar­ate from an awe at the fact of your own sur­mount­ing of it. […]

And there is, con­nec­ted with this phe­nomen­on, what I think of as Long Nov­el Stock­holm syn­drome.

via The Browser

Betteridge’s Law, or: Are Questions in Headlines a Good Idea?

Pick up any tabloid news­pa­per today and take note of how many art­icle head­lines are phrased as a ques­tion. I under­stand that these head­lines are an attempt to piqué our interest (or the res­ult of lazy copy editors/writers), but are they a good idea? What is the end res­ult of using a ques­tion as a head­line or art­icle title?

Now we know, thanks to Betteridge’s Law of Head­lines:

Any head­line which ends in a ques­tion mark can be answered by the word ‘no’.

Named for Ian Bet­ter­idge, this simple max­im was first expli­citly found in journ­al­ist Andrew Marr’s 2004 book, My Trade. This is why the law tends to be “uni­ver­sally true”:

Because of a simple prin­ciple of head­line writ­ing: if a story has enough sources to have a high chance of accur­acy, a head­line will be assert­ive (e.g. “Microsoft to release OS update on Fri­day”). If sources are weak, or only a single source is found, head­line writers will hedge their bets by pos­ing the head­line as a ques­tion (e.g. “Will Microsoft release an OS update on Fri­day?”).

The Wadsworth Constant: Ignore 30% of Everything

I’ll start with a story.

Last year my girl­friend and I watched the pilot epis­ode of a new TV show and were imme­di­ately hooked. The pilot epis­ode was refresh­ingly com­plex and forced us to guess miss­ing plot details con­tinu­ously: it’s adven­tur­ous to make your audi­ence work so hard dur­ing a pilot, we sur­mised.

We later dis­covered that, due to a tech­nic­al glitch, we actu­ally missed the first fif­teen minutes of the show (about 30%). The ‘com­plete’ ver­sion of the epis­ode was less sat­is­fy­ing.


Last year Steve Yegge wrote about life at Amazon.com and what it’s like work­ing under Jeff Bezos. On the top­ic of present­ing to Bezos, Yegge gave this tip: delete every third para­graph.  Why?

Bezos is so god­damned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first real­iz­a­tion about him. […]

So you have to start tear­ing out whole para­graphs, or even pages, to make it inter­est­ing for him. He will fill in the gaps him­self without miss­ing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.


Around the same time as Yegge’s post­ing, a Red­dit user known as Wadsworth poin­ted out that the first 30% of “nearly every video in the uni­verse” can safely be skipped. As such things go, this soon became a You­Tube URL para­met­er: just add &wadsworth=1 to skip the first third of the video.

This ‘law’ soon became known as the Wadsworth Con­stant. It works.

The ‘Bad Version’ and How to Tax the Rich

A ‘bad ver­sion’ is a tech­nique used by tele­vi­sion writers to inspire cre­ativ­ity when exper­i­en­cing a cre­at­ive block. The tech­nique involves writ­ing a pur­pose­fully awful sec­tion of plot as a way of help­ing the writer find cre­ativ­ity and, even­tu­ally, the ideal solu­tion: it’s a way of “nudging your ima­gin­a­tion to some­place bet­ter”.

In The Wall Street Journ­al, Scott Adams offers some “ima­gined solu­tions for the government’s fisc­al dilemma” – bad ver­sions of ways to incentiv­ising the rich to will­fully pay more tax. Those incent­ives:

  • Time: Any­one who pays taxes at a rate above some set amount gets to use the car pool lane without a pas­sen­ger. Or per­haps the rich are allowed to park in han­di­capped-only spaces.
  • Grat­it­ude: The gov­ern­ment makes it a con­di­tion that any­one apply­ing for social ser­vices has to write a per­son­al thank-you note to a nearby rich per­son […] It’s easy to hate the gen­er­ic over­spend­ing of the gov­ern­ment. It’s harder to begrudge med­ic­al care to someone who thanks you per­son­ally.
  • Incent­ives: Sup­pose the tax code is redesigned so that the rich only pay taxes to fund social ser­vices, such as health care and social secur­ity. This gives the rich an incent­ive to find ways to reduce the need for those ser­vices.
    Mean­while, the middle class would be in charge of fund­ing the mil­it­ary. That feels right. The coun­try gen­er­ally doesn’t go to war unless the middle-class major­ity is on board.
  • Shared Pain: I doubt that the rich will agree to high­er taxes until some ser­i­ous budget cut­ting is hap­pen­ing at the same time. That makes the sac­ri­fice seem shared. […] Change the debate from arguing about which pro­grams and how much to cut, and instead to do what the private sec­tor has been doing for dec­ades: Pull a ran­dom yet round num­ber out of your ear, let’s say a 10% cut, just for argument’s sake, and apply it across the board. No excep­tions.
  • Power: Give the rich two votes apiece in any elec­tion. That’s double the power of oth­er cit­izens. But don’t worry that it will dis­tort elec­tion res­ults. There aren’t that many rich people, and they are some­what divided in their opin­ions, just like the rest of the world.

On Titles, or: Titles: Is There an Optimal Solution?

As a co-edit­or of the open-access journ­al The­or­et­ic­al Eco­nom­ics, Jeff Ely has seen his fair share of aca­dem­ic papers and their asso­ci­ated titles. Inev­it­ably Ely has con­struc­ted a the­ory on how to title a paper (or any­thing else, for that mat­ter) for max­im­um expos­ure, impact and intrigue.

In his hil­ari­ous tongue-in-cheek art­icle detail­ing this the­ory, Ely offers his price­less advice on how to decide on an aca­dem­ic paper’s title. The con­clu­sion: keep it as short as pos­sible (one word, prefer­ably), avoid colons and avoid ques­tions.

A paper titled Law and Fin­ance is guar­an­teed to be the sem­in­al paper in the field because if it were not then that title would have already been taken. You can go ahead and cite it without actu­ally read­ing it. By con­trast, you can safely ignore a paper with a title like Valu­ation and Dynam­ic Rep­lic­a­tion of Con­tin­gent Claims in a Gen­er­al Mar­ket Envir­on­ment Based on the Beliefs-Pref­er­ences Gauge Sym­metry even if you don’t know what any of those words mean. The title is essen­tially telling you “Don’t read me. Instead go and read a paper whose title is simply Valu­ation of Con­tin­gent Claims. If you have any ques­tions after read­ing that, you might look into dynam­ic rep­lic­a­tion and then beliefs, pref­er­ences, and if after all that you still haven’t found what you’re look­ing for, check here for the low-down on gauge sym­metry.”

Two pieces of advice fol­low from these obser­va­tions. First, find the simplest title not yet taken for your papers. One word titles are the best. Second, before you get star­ted on a paper, think about the title. If you can’t come up with a short title for it then it’s prob­ably not worth writ­ing.

The abso­lute worst thing you can do with your title is to insert a colon into it. […] As in, Tor­ture: A Mod­el of Dynam­ic Com­mit­ment Prob­lems. Or Kludged: Asymp­tot­ic­ally Inef­fi­cient Evol­u­tion. In the first case you have just ruined a sem­in­al-sig­nalling one-word title by adding spuri­ous spe­cificity. In the second, you just took an intriguing one-world title and turned it into a yawn­er.

The second worst kind of title is the ques­tion mark title. “Is the Folk The­or­em Robust?” This says to the read­er: “You picked this up because you want to know if the folk the­or­em is robust. Well, if I knew the answer to that I would have told you right away in the title. But look, all I could do is repeat the ques­tion, so you can safely assume that you won’t find the answer in this paper.”

via @TimHarford