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 pique 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