Confirmation that two-thirds of headline analyzers spout utter nonsense

On the grounds that headlines are all-important for getting potential readers to actually click through to read the rubbish I write, I’ve been spending more time lately refining them than I used to. Making sure the spelling’s correct, trying to get the length right, and including keywords, positive words, emotive words, ‘calls to action’ and so on.

This is all based upon the kind of advice that’s quite commonly bandied about, which tends to look like:

  • keep it short (8-14 words)
  • restrict the number of characters to around 70
  • focus on ‘who’, not ‘why’
  • be specific
  • put keywords near the beginning – or the end
  • consider adding a [bracketed qualifier]
  • try to optimise for your audience, search and social media

(That list is mostly a summary of an article by Corey Wainwright called ‘How to Write Catchy Headlines and Blog Titles Your Readers Can’t Resist‘ – I’d offer a hat tip to ‘The Nerdy Lion’ for providing me with that link, but his website seems to be having problems at the moment.)

The thing is: although I consider the extra effort worthwhile from the point of view of crafting a more well-rounded post, I don’t think that it’s made the slightest difference to my blog’s traffic.

Dr Bob Rich put me on to the Advanced Marketing Institute’s ‘Headline Analyzer‘ some time ago, and I’ve been using that (thanks, Bob!). It’s undoubtedly been useful in getting me to think more about the words I choose. But, while it’s useful for honing headlines – I tend to agree with its assessments when it offers different values for similar alternatives – I’ve come to realize that the ‘ratings’ it generates are more than a little bit suspect. For one thing, it provides percentage values, which imply some sort of scientific basis, and these are to two decimal places, suggestive of a high degree of accuracy; yet a suspiciously large proportion of the results I’ve seen end in ‘.00’. For another, there’s a high occurrence of duplicate numbers such as ‘22.22%’ and ‘33.33%’ (those two, in particular, appear far too frequently).

A while ago, I even stumbled on one headline that had scored a nonsensical ‘125.00%’. Unfortunately, I can’t now recall what that headline was. I used the form on the tool’s website to send them a query about it, and neglected to take a copy; I didn’t get a response. I’d pretty much forgotten about it until recently; when working on the post ‘A unique opportunity (time-limited offer!)‘ – its headline scored exactly ‘100.00%’ (!), and it was that that caused me to smell a rat.

The Advanced Marketing Institute's '100.00%' assessment of 'A unique opportunity (time-limited offer!)'

Disillusioned, I went searching on DuckDuckGo for alternative tools, and then spent some time comparing their results. What I discovered was quite interesting….

A comparison of three – free! – headline analyzers

1. Advanced Marketing Institute (‘AMI’)

https://www.aminstitute.com/process/headline.cgi

Pros:

  • no login
  • fast
  • simple

Cons:

  • minimalistic
  • suspicious results

2. isitwp

https://www.isitwp.com/headline-analyzer/

Pros:

  • no login
  • good suggestions

Cons:

  • mostly quick but sluggish at times
  • when displaying the headline, Irritatingly Transforms Each Word To An Initial Capital

3. CoSchedule

https://coschedule.com/headline-analyzer

Pros:

  • retains a history of previous entries
  • comprehensive suggestions (although perhaps over-the-top!)

Cons:

  • registration required (the data requested implies that only companies are invited, but nonsense alias information was accepted)
  • insistent nagging to ‘upgrade to premium’ (paid plan, and not cheap)

The results

I ran a couple of dozen of my most recent post titles past each of these three ‘headline analyzers’. None of them agreed on their assessments of the headlines I offered them. One that CoSchedule rated in the top three, the other two rated in the bottom three; one that AMI rated second best (85.71%), isitwp rated as worst (42), while CoSchedule gave it a noncommittal value (57).

And none of the results, as far as I could determine, bore any correlation at all to any post’s traffic, in terms of views, likes or comments.

When I took my five best-performing posts (in terms of views) in the last year and fed their titles to these tools, not one of them came up with a particularly high rating, and their average scores were much the same as the average of those I’d examined earlier.

Then, just for fun, I tried the first two lines of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe

AnalyzerRatingComments
AMI0.00%‘Neutral’
isitwp48‘positive sentiment’, ‘more likely to get clicks if it had more uncommon words’ (really?)
CoSchedule70‘easy for most readers to comprehend’, ‘message is clear and concise’ (wait, what?)
Analysis of the first two lines of ‘Jabberwocky’

What started out as just a quirky idea ended up confirming my suspicions that these so-called ‘analyzers’ are little more than self-absorbed nonsense generators. Only ‘AMI’ offered anything resembling an honest judgement of this particular ‘headline’.

And here are the results for the title of this post:

AnalyzerRatingComments
AMI22.22%‘Empathetic’
isitwp48Your headline has a negative sentiment.
CoSchedule65‘Nice work! Your headline’s message is clear and concise.’
Analysis of ‘Confirmation that two-thirds of headline analyzers spout utter nonsense’

Oh, look, there’s that ‘22.22%’ again. I think that pretty much sums it all up.

Don’t get me wrong: I still think that headlines matter. I intend to continue using the ‘AMI’ tool (unless, perhaps, you’re able to suggest a better one?); mainly because it’s fast, totally free, and doesn’t take itself as seriously as its competition. I believe that, in the blogosphere at least, what’s more important than catchy headlines is: good connections with other bloggers.

As a counterpoint, though, I offer a highly thought-provoking video from Veritasium on his experience with titles on YouTube:

Veritasium: ‘Clickbait is Unreasonably Effective’
AnalyzerRatingComments
AMI50.00%‘Intellectual’
isitwp45Your headline is too short.
CoSchedule47‘Nice work! Your headline’s message is clear and concise.’
Headline analysis of ‘Clickbait is Unreasonably Effective’

Veritasium: Can I tell you something I’m bad at? I am terrible at making clickbait. Up until two years ago, my most popular video was about a basketball being dropped from a dam with a bit of backspin. It takes off like a rocket and shoots out way farther than you’d expect. This video was embedded on literally hundreds of news websites, and in its first week it got 16.3 million views. But almost none of those views came on the YouTube platform. Why? Because I gave it this thumbnail and I called it ‘Strange Applications of the Magnus Effect’.

(This video is sponsored by KiwiCo. More about them at the end of the show.)

Now I believe within YouTube, I’m used as an example of how not to package your video. As if to demonstrate just how bad a title and thumbnail this is, someone else re-uploaded the video with the clever title ‘Basketball Dropped From Dam’, and within a few weeks that video had received tens of millions of views on YouTube. This was when YouTube gave me access to Content ID; that’s the system that allows you to earn revenue when someone else re-uploads your videos, which was good, but I still wasn’t very good at clickbait. So for this video, I called in an expert.

Veritasium: I wanted to see your reaction face. Can you give me like a reaction face? Like, what’s a good thumbnail face?

Mr. Beast: Oh, I got you. This is a thumbnail face. I have like 10, I go through the motions of like we just pick the best one and probably have like five hundred of these just saved and we can just photoshop my face on my face; then I don’t really have to do it anymore.

Veritasium: When I started on this platform some 10 years ago, clickbait was less important. Subscribers were what mattered because most of the views came from the sub feed and videos went viral, usually by getting a lot of attention elsewhere – like on Reddit or Facebook – not due to the YouTube algorithm, but once you had a big video and people subscribed, well, then your next video would likely get a lot of views from those subscribers. So YouTube would take that popular video and share it with more people, and so you’d get more subscribers, in a positive feedback loop.

But soon, YouTube realized that this did not create the best experience for the viewer. They discovered that showing people only videos from channels they were subscribed to led to fewer clicks, less watch time and less engagement with the site as a whole. Plus, they knew that relying on other platforms to drive traffic to viral hits was risky, since those other platforms might disable the traffic at any time. So they needed to make YouTube a destination in itself. They wanted people to come to YouTube, see videos that interested them, click on at least one of them and watch it for a while. Ideally, get sucked down the YouTube rabbit hole and spend hours on the site without even noticing it.

The ultimate resource is people’s time and attention, and every platform is trying to capture as much of it as possible. So to make YouTube this go-to destination, they had to decrease the importance of subscribers, make it less like a podcast app where you only get the shows you’re subscribed to, and more like Reddit, where stuff with the most engagement rises to the top. But that necessarily meant increasing the importance of clickbait.

Now, there seems to be a paradox when it comes to clickbait, people almost universally claim to hate it. But you also see it everywhere. So why is this? Well, one of the problems is we don’t all agree on the definition of clickbait. When I google it, the top definition is, ‘[on the Internet] content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page’. We could call this ‘Type I Clickbait’, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. I mean, if you didn’t try to attract attention and get people to click on your links, then you wouldn’t really be doing your job. But there is a second definition, one that I think more people ascribe to, which is: ‘something [such as a headline] designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest’.

Wikipedia says a defining characteristic of clickbait is that it is sensationalized or misleading, and it also talks about teasers that intentionally withhold information to exploit the curiosity gap. They give you enough information to make you curious, but not enough to satisfy that curiosity. Here are two actual titles from a news website: ‘9 out of 10 Americans are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact’, and ‘Someone Gave Some Kids Some Scissors. Here’s What Happened Next’. I think we can all agree that these are examples of bad Type II Clickbait.

Now, imagine a clickbait space where on one axis you have how misleading or sensationalized it is, and on the other, how much information is intentionally withheld to create a curiosity gap. Well, then these two titles fall in the top right corner, and these are the zones of Type II Clickbait. At the other extreme, you have things that are so unsensationalized as to be dull. You could call this the ‘Dead Zone’. Now here is where you would find ‘Strange Applications of the Magnus Effect’. I mean, I didn’t tell you what the applications were. Now, in the middle is where you would find Type I Clickbait. But honestly, I think Type I and Type II clickbait are so different that we shouldn’t even use the same word for them.

Instead of Type I Clickbait, my friend and YouTuber Brady Haran suggested ‘Legitbait’. I mean, it might sound enticing, but it is legit. Instead of Type II Clickbait, we could use ‘Clicktrap’, ‘Clicktrick’, ‘Linktrap’, or ‘Dupechute’. What’s important to recognize is that for any given video, there is no one true title and thumbnail. Each video could have hundreds or thousands of different ‘Legitbait’ titles: for example, ‘How does a zero-g plane work?’, ‘I went on a plane that does parabolic trajectories’, ‘What happens to FIRE on a zero-g plane?!’ Now, the most enticing titles and thumbnails are found close to Type II Clickbait. I’m reminded of the infographic by Smarter Every Day showing that on social media, the greatest engagement occurs close to the boundary of what’s allowable. But remember that everyone’s definition of clickbait is different, and everyone’s perceptions of words and images are different. So these are not clear boundaries, they’re actually kind of fuzzy; what for one person might be ‘Legitbait’, for someone else could be a ‘Clicktrap’. What’s clear is that on a site where clickthrough rate is important, clickbait of all types is inevitable.

Veritasium: How important to a video success is the title and thumbnail?

Mr. Beast: Very important, of course, if they don’t click on the video, they don’t watch it. You can’t get 10 million views unless 10 million people click on the video. So, I mean, it’s literally that simple. They don’t click on it, they don’t watch it.

Veritasium: So why is clickbait everywhere? Well, because it works. More enticing thumbnails get more clicks. Despite some people’s claims that they won’t click or they’ll unsub. It’s just like evolution; whatever survives, multiplies and traits become amplified. If you don’t begrudge the giraffe its long neck so it can reach the highest leaves, can you begrudge a YouTuber the big red arrow that allows them to reach further audiences?

I talked about this in my video two years ago. To be successful as a YouTuber, you need to optimize two things: watch time, and the clickthrough rate of your videos; that’s the number of times the title and thumbnail are clicked divided by the total number of times they’re shown; that’s the number of impressions. Now, at the time, this was something of a revelation for me because I always thought my job was to make great videos and then a title and thumbnail that adequately represented what the video was about. But now I’ve realized that making the title and thumbnail is at least half the job. This is not just because better titles and thumbnails get you more clicks, but because better titles and thumbnails will get you way more impressions.

YouTube has limited real estate with which to show you virtually infinite content, and so it’s not enough to make a good video even if people watch all of it. You also have to make a title and thumbnail that gets clicked, especially in competition with other really good titles and thumbnails. That’s the only way you can expect YouTube to give you more impressions.

Now, the big development since my last video on this is YouTube introduced real-time metrics like views, impressions and clickthrough rate, and I suggested this would create an arms race. So, what you can bet will happen is that creators will launch a video and then they’ll be sitting there with all these different variants of thumbnails, and they’ll be swapping them out and looking at what that does to clickthrough rate and then going with the one that leads to the greatest clickthrough rate. And this is basically what has happened.

Let me give you my favorite example. Last year, I made a video about asteroids, which I thought was really good. I called it, ‘Asteroids: Earth’s Biggest Threat’, which is something Stephen Hawking said; and people were very positive about the video. They thought it was maybe one of my best, but the performance was well below average. In its first day, ‘Asteroids’ was ranked ninth out of my previous 10 videos. It was probably on target for about one and a half million views, so I tried different titles and thumbnails like ‘Asteroid Impact: What Are Our Chances’, or ‘Asteroid Impact: What Could We Do?’ But none of these changes got much traction.

And then, on day three after launch, I changed the title and thumbnail to: ‘These Are The Asteroids To Worry About‘, and, immediately, the video started doing better. It quickly shot up from almost my worst performing video – to my best. It now has 14 million views. Nothing about the video changed, just that one image and 38 characters. But because of that, the video has reached nearly 10 times as many people as it otherwise would have. And the title and thumbnail accurately describe what the video is about. I mean, sure, there’s a curiosity gap, but you couldn’t explain the whole concept in the length of the title.

So, if you see a YouTuber changing titles and thumbnails, this is why; because that effort can be rewarded many times over. I’ve seen people objecting to this practice because they think the creator is trying to dupe their audience, get them to click on the same video more than once, but that’s not it. The whole point is to get YouTube to show the title and thumbnail to more people. We’re trying to increase the number of impressions, which is heavily dependent on the clickthrough rate.

Now, a lot of my recent videos have this typical view curve: there’s an initial spike after I release the video, and then a dip, and then a second bump after I have figured out a better title and thumbnail. I change the title and thumbnail and I watch the real-time view graph: what I’m looking for is a noticeable bump in views; sometimes there’s no change, sometimes it gets worse; but on occasions when you see something like this, well, then you know you’ve found a winner. This is something all the big YouTubers are doing. Not even Mr. Beast knows exactly which thumbnail will work best beforehand.

Veritasium: Have you ever changed a title in thumbnail, and then the video did better?

Mr. Beast: Oh, of course. So like everybody, I usually make like two or three thumbnails, and then if it’s not doing as well as I want, we usually just swap them out and see if it does better. The thing is like, you don’t really know. I mean, you could know if you just were an almighty being that could just predict what people would be interested in. But, you know, usually like you do hide and seek; you don’t really know if, like, you hiding in a tree and then someone walking below you is a good thumbnail, or if you’re hiding in a trashcan in the market in front of you. So, you know, just do both and then see which one interests people a little bit more.

Veritasium: I feel the same way, but I do feel like you have a better sense of this than, like, most people.

Mr. Beast: Of course, I mean, no one gets 40 million views on video.

Veritasium: But what is the point in getting more views? Well, if you’re cynical, you might say it’s all about money and fame. And while there are certainly financial incentives to getting more views, that’s not why I do it. As an educational YouTuber, I think there are two very good reasons for using excellent Type I Clickbait over more straightforward packaging.

To understand the first reason, let’s consider two different possible titles for my most recent video. I called it, ‘The Simplest Math Problem No One Can Solve’, but it’s a video about the Collatz conjecture, so perhaps a more straightforward title would have been simply to call it that. The problem is, if I publish a video called ‘The Collatz Conjecture’, the most likely people to click on it are those who already know what the Collatz conjecture is, and the vast majority of people will never have heard of it. So for them, the title is meaningless and only the very curious or those who really like Veritasium would click. In contrast, calling it ‘The Simplest Math Problem No One Can Solve’ conveys more information about the video to everyone, and this means more people can click on it, most of whom will never have heard of the Collatz conjecture, so I get to teach them something new. And since the video has a higher clickthrough rate, YouTube shows it to even more people; so, if my aim is to increase the level of knowledge in the world by the maximum amount possible, this is the way to do it.

The second reason we need to optimize titles and thumbnails is to support the major goal of this channel. We are trying to make the best science films on every topic we tackle. That means traveling to meet experts and film experiments, hiring people to build props, make spectacular animations, research and fact check. We hire expert consultants to double- and triple-check our work. I don’t want to make vlogs; I want to make science documentaries on YouTube that put broadcast to shame; and to make this possible and sustainable, the videos have to get views and lots of them. And to do that, we have to make the best titles and thumbnails we can.

YouTuber and Patreon CEO Jack Conte has talked about ‘adjusting your packaging’: the idea is know what you’re passionate about, what you won’t compromise on; and that stuff goes in the box. All the rest, like what paper it’s wrapped in, that’s the packaging. So the video is my focus, and the title and thumbnail are the packaging that I’m happy to adjust so I can make the type of videos that are important to me. Now, is it ironic that a channel whose whole purpose is to promote a truth-seeking mindset has to experiment at the edge of what is truthful in order to fulfill that purpose? It is something that I often worry about.

Veritasium: When I did like risking my life to do X, it’s like, well, what probability of death does there have to be for you to risk your life? Like 50%?

Mr. Beast: I love how he always overthinks things. Funny. He’s like, is my life risked enough where I can put, ‘I risk my life’, you know? I only had a 9% chance of dying, and I need at least a 13% chance. He is so funny. He was the same way two years ago when he asked me all this stuff. I was like, dude, just do whatever makes the most sense.

Veritasium: Yeah, I mean, obviously, like, I feel like my instincts are not good…

But what I realized is that I don’t have to trust my instincts. This problem of getting the best title and thumbnail, well, it’s a scientific problem. We’re just asking which accurate representation of the video will get the most clicks from a general audience. And that’s a problem we can use the scientific method to solve. So I’ve hired a couple of really bright people, and we spend a lot of time brainstorming and making titles and thumbnails and testing them out.

For example, on Twitter and Patreon, Veritasium titles and thumbnails have gotten better; not because I’m better at it, but because of my team and our testing. If you have ideas about how we could do it better, please get in touch. The results have often contradicted what I expected. I mean, this video seemed to perform 10% better when we excluded the word ‘surprising’ from the title, so it became simply, ‘The Secret of Synchronization’. I thought these two titles were basically a toss up, but Patreon had a strong preference for one over the other.

What’s interesting about this research is that the more clickable titles and thumbnails often better represent the content of the video. Let me give you some examples. You know, one thing I didn’t expect when YouTube brought in the real-time analytics tools and allowed title and thumbnail changes to affect impressions was that it would also work for older videos. So, here is an old video that I originally entitled, ‘Why The Neutron Is The Hero of Nuclear Physics’. In hindsight, it’s a weird kind of meaningless title, so I changed it to, ‘Why Einstein Thought Nuclear Weapons Impossible’. It’s clearer, more accurate, and this is what happened to views after the change.

I changed ‘Strange Applications of the Magnus Effect’ to ‘Backspin Basketball Flies Off Dam’. Again, more accurate, and the video is now being watched on YouTube, probably 10 million more views than it otherwise would have had.

Even anti-clickbait has proven effective. Here’s a video I originally titled, ‘Are Negative Ions Good For You?’ which is a question nobody asked, ever. Now, I changed it to, ‘Do Salt Lamps Work?’. Seriously. And here’s the result. One and a half million more views.

I think, looking at these examples, you could easily make the case that YouTube has made me better at what I do. It has improved the clarity and accuracy of my titles and thumbnails to help me figure out what is interesting to my audience and how to encapsulate that in a single image in fewer than 50 characters.

For those of you who worry that a focus on titles and thumbnails will prevent me from picking challenging science topics, well, I simply ask you to look at the videos from the last year or two, like the ones on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, general relativity, Penrose tilings, the logistic map, Newton’s method of calculating π, the one-way speed of light. Good titles and thumbnails make it possible to tackle these topics and to reach more people who have never heard of them before.

There is a symbiotic relationship between views and video quality. The more views we get, the more people, locations, props and equipment and research we can invest in. This makes the next video better than the last. If we can be good at titles and thumbnails, the ultimate outcome is better videos. That is something I think you and I both want.

Hey, this video was sponsored by KiwiCo, a long time supporter of the channel. Now, KiwiCo makes awesome hands-on projects for kids, including big kids like me. They have eight subscription lines targeted at different age groups all the way down to newborns. What I love about KiwiCo crates is that they make learning fun and something to look forward to. I mean, when I pull out a crate, my kids just jump at the chance to make it with me, and all the materials you need come right in the box, so there’s no need to run to the store: you just open it up and go. My kids and I just built this domino machine, which, who knows, might be inspiration for a viral video. Now, the big idea is that while playing and having fun, kids learn about ‘STEAM’ concepts; that is: science, technology, engineering, art and math. And in addition to the project, there’s a magazine with a lot of additional information. So, I think this is the best way to learn; by doing something yourself and having fun. It’s how education should be. So if you want to try it out, go to kiwico.com/veritasium50, and you’ll get 50% off your first month of any crate. I will put that link down in the description.

So, I want to thank KiwiCo for sponsoring Veritasium, and I want to thank you for watching.

Veritasium: ‘Clickbait is Unreasonably Effective

The transcript above was made with the help of Sonix, which did most of the donkey work for a tiny fee (I did have to spend some time tidying it up). Note that I do not have the copyright owner’s permission to publish this transcript here. I’ve investigated the copyright rules regarding transcriptions (more about that here), and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s no defence to make a disclaimer like “these aren’t my words, no copyright infringement intended.” However, I offer the transcription here as a service to society (especially the deaf community). I do hope the copyright owner won’t object. And I hope that you find this video as interesting as I did.

Header image adapted from
Charting Goals and Progress
by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Communication, Computers and Internet, Critiques, Phlyarology, Strategy, Tech tips | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Some words, in memory of my father

Georgius Piscator, 19272012

My father would have been 94 today.

When he passed away a few years ago, I made a list of some words that I thought described him well, with the intention of trying to craft a remembrance poem.

The best-laid plans of mice and men… I haven’t got a round tuit yet. But I recently came across that list of words lurking on my PC and wanted to do something with them – before I too pass on into the Great Unknown.

And so, I am proud to present a word cloud of my list:

George: affable, buoyant, congenial, constant, convivial, dauntless, devoted, enduring, equable, equitable, gallant, generous, genial, genuine, hearty, indulgent, merry, mischievous, nonchalant, polite, sanguine, spirited, staunch, sterling, tranquil, true, vigorous, warm, whimsical
Some words, in memory of my father

Rest in peace, Dad 💗

Posted in People, Poetry, Tributes | Tagged , | 12 Comments

A unique opportunity (time-limited offer!)

Just over a week ago, I registered the domain name a-unique-opportunity.com for a specific reason. It has served its purpose; I no longer need it and intend to allow it to expire in a year.

2022-08-27T13:06:00

  days

  hours  minutes  seconds

until

this offer expires

I’m not one to let things go to waste. I no longer need this domain name, but perhaps someone else does. Might that someone be you?

There are two options:

  1. I could transfer the domain name to you, either for a mutually agreeable fee – or for free, if your intended purpose for the name appeals to me.
  2. I could give you appropriate user access to the site to allow you to develop it entirely yourself. In this scenario:
    1. I would reserve the right to editorial control; I wouldn’t allow the site to be used for any unethical purpose.
    2. I would be happy to help with site development – but if your plan for it is profit motivated, I would want a cut!
    3. We would need to come to an arrangement regarding the renewal fees, as I would be responsible for those.

If you’re interested, please do get in touch with me using the form on my contact page.

Posted in ... wait, what?, Business, Communication, Computers and Internet | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Pursue excellence – but accept that you’re only human

“Hi, I’m Alan Temaficoni. I’m here for my interview for the software engineer position.”

“Take a seat.”

The interviewer set Al a challenge: to identify the purpose of a snippet of program code. Al took one look at it and recognized it as some flavour of ‘c’, though, being not entirely familiar with that language, he wasn’t sure which. After considering the code’s structure, his first thought was that it might be instructions to accept an input string and reverse it, using recursion.

Unfortunately, Al had never fully grokked how recursion worked. He was fond of saying that the dictionary definition of recursion should read, ‘recursion (n): see recursion’. Naturally, this thought popped into his head right then, but he dismissed it quickly: he was on a timescale here. Not wanting to give his prospective employer his first impression of what he thought the code might do, in case it was the wrong answer, he began trying to work through an example to confirm that the code actually did what he thought it did.

As the minutes ticked by, Al began to sweat. Try as he might, he couldn’t get his head around it – and, of course, that made the task even more intractable.

“Time’s up.”

Al looked up at his tormentor, confident of just one thing: that the fear in his eyes would be evident. “I think it takes a string and reverses it using recursion,” he managed to stumble out.

“Absolutely right. What took you so long?”

As he tried to explain that it had actually been his first thought, but he wanted to check so that he didn’t give a wrong answer, and he was more familiar with ADA than c, and recursion had always been his nemesis, Al realized that he was beginning to babble incoherently.

The interviewer raised a hand, and offered some advice:

Never let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough’.

Al didn’t get that job.


Al was working against the clock to finish up a project. He’d been toiling at it all weekend and was short of sleep. Though the essential guts of the task were complete, a few loose ends and inconsistencies remained.

Al yawned and stretched. Then it struck him: these issues were relatively trivial; they might never even be noticed. And then the memory of the advice he’d been given in that interview years before wafted into his head.

Never let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough’.

He finished up his summary report using that phrase to excuse any remaining flaws. It was the last thing he wrote before hitting the sack.

Upon waking the following morning, Al was reminded that our brains don’t stop working even when we’re asleep. Forefront in his mind was the (somewhat ironic) thought that, although he’d congratulated himself the night before on having found what could be considered an acceptable resolution to the ‘almost-but-not-quite-complete’ conundrum he’d faced, in the cool light of the morning, the choice struck him as being more than a little disingenuous.

He needed a better answer, but he was out of time. The project deadline was that morning; Al had no choice but to submit it. Fortunately, his mind had worked on the riddle overnight, and it offered him a solution. He amended the closing words of the summary report, adding:

… uh, no, on second thoughts I can’t subscribe to that; it sounds to me like an excuse for sloppy work. Granted, perfection is an unrealistic goal; but if all we ever strive to achieve is just what’s good enough, and sit back on our laurels once we’ve accomplished that, not only is perfection out of reach, excellence is, too.

I think the motto I live by is:

Pursue excellence – but accept that you’re only human.

– Alan Temaficoni

Header image adapted from
silhouette photography of person
by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Communication, Computers and Internet, Core thought, Flash fiction, memetics, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

Yes, it IS possible to embed hyperlinks in titles! (but there are caveats)

Ready for a surprise?

The title of this post contains two links. The link on the first part of the text is to the post itself; this is quite normal. However, there’s a second link at the end, on the bracketed text, that should take you to the ‘caveats’ section below. (I’m assuming that you’re reading this in a standard web browser, not in the WordPress Reader.)

Let’s start with the caveats

  • Things change. This works today; it may not work tomorrow.
  • I’m referring here to WordPress.com posts/ pages created in the ‘block editor’.
  • Some of this is theme-dependent; I’ve tested on Twenty Ten, Reddle & Colinear.
  • How the link is rendered will be device/ browser/ theme dependent.
  • I’ve not found a way to reliably highlight such links: they may be mystery links.
  • If the default link on a title is to the post itself, overriding that may cause confusion.
  • You may want to check the slug before publication to ensure it’s human-readable.

How to embed links in (WordPress.com) post titles

The title of a web page is, technically speaking, no different from the rest of the page. It’s marked up using HTML. Currently, at least, it’s possible to embed hypertext anchors within the title simply by typing in the necessary code directly into the title in the editor.

What I actually entered as the title of this post was:

Yes, it IS possible to embed hyperlinks in titles! <a title="This link is to the caveats!" href="https://pendantry.wordpress.com/2021/08/24/yes-it-is-possible-to-embed-hyperlinks-in-titles-but-there-are-caveats#caveats">(but there are caveats)</a>

If you don’t know the code to create an HTML anchor element (‘<a> tag’) — which defines a hyperlink — I explain that in my post ‘How to embed links in WordPress comments‘ (or you could visit the relevant W3Schools tutorial page, which has the advantage of a ‘try it yourself’ interactive widget).

Curiously, in the three WordPress.com themes on which I’ve tested this (Twenty Ten, Reddle and Colinear), as far as I can tell, the editor removes any and all HTML (and inline CSS) except anchor elements. It won’t even allow the humble underline element (<u>), which was the first thing I tried to use to draw attention to the existence of an unexpected link in the title. The anchor’s title attribute is allowed (on all three of those themes I tested), but that’s of minimal use as it’s still necessary to hover over the text to get it to pop up, so such links remain mystery ones.

(For more on the title attribute in anchors, see my post ‘How to add mouseover tooltips to links in WordPress‘.)

In some themes, WordPress automatically creates a default link on the title to the post’s permalink (in some situations). Embedding an anchor within the title terminates that default link; the remainder of the title text will in that situation be rendered with no link at all. So (if you’re using one of those themes), if you add a link to the interior of the title, it’s probably best to insert a link to the permalink to the remainder of the title as well; alternatively, if you just want to add a single link, you can avoid this extra hurdle if you put the link at the end of the title.

You can embed several links (I’ve tried it with three): there is a limit, which is probably the maximum length of the title. I’ve done some testing that indicated that a title can contain up to (a bizarrely huge!) 64k characters, so this shouldn’t be an issue.

The background: what made me think of this

During a recent trip into the blogosphere via ?RandomRaiders!, I visited a post from last year on Goldie’s site. It’s labelled (in the post’s title) as an ‘HW’ post. Now, I try hard to avoid jargon (and abbreviations, unless they’re well-known) wherever possible, because I believe that clarity beats brevity, and jargon tends to hinder, rather than aid, communication. But I’m well aware that some people love the stuff. It seems to be a part of human nature to abbreviate even when doing so might obfuscate; I suspect there may be a cognitive bias that applies§. But I digress.

Goldie uses a variety of abbreviations on his site, applying these as prefix labels to his post titles. His intent is to assist his audience, and that’s admirable; personally, I find them confusing, and wonder why he doesn’t simply use categories — but I don’t mean to cast aspersions on my friend, it’s his site and he can do with it as he wishes. And, as always, it’s quite possible that I’m the one who’s wrong here; perhaps his other visitors find his abbreviations helpful.

So, anyway: I landed on that post of Goldie’s, and its title is prefixed with ‘HW’; and I suddenly thought how useful it would be to be able to click on the unfamiliar (to me) abbreviation in the title itself to find out what ‘HW’ means. (It stands for ‘Hashtag Week’, which is just as inscrutable to me, and perhaps explains my inability to remember it when I see it, unlike, say ‘CW’, which is ‘Creative Writing’.)

An example

The title of Goldie’s post I refer to above is ‘HW: Monday Motivation; Chase Your Dreams!

In some WordPress themes (such as Twenty Ten, which I’ve used here on ‘Wibble’ since day one, as well as the theme Goldie currently uses on his site), the title is rendered by default as a link to the post’s permalink (in some situations). In such cases, WordPress automatically employs the following code (in the background, hidden from the user):

<a href="https://dailyflabbergast.wordpress.com/2020/07/27/hw-monday-motivation-chase-your-dreams/">HW: Monday Motivation; Chase Your Dreams!</a>

If Goldie wants to retain the ‘HW’ abbreviation as a prefix, then there’s a problem, because inserting a link terminates the default anchor (as I explained above), and the remainder of the title will just be text with no link.

<a href="https://dailyflabbergast.wordpress.com/2019/08/31/nrop-cw-bt-hw-what-do-those-mean/">HW: </a>Monday Motivation; Chase Your Dreams!

One way round this would be to manually add the permalink back in again for the rest of the title. However, this is more work (especially as it would be necessary to ensure that the correct permalink is used each time — and that, of course, changes with every post):

<a href="https://dailyflabbergast.wordpress.com/2019/08/31/nrop-cw-bt-hw-what-do-those-mean/">HW: </a><a href="https://dailyflabbergast.wordpress.com/2020/07/27/hw-monday-motivation-chase-your-dreams/">Monday Motivation; Chase Your Dreams!</a>

An alternative would be to put the abbreviation at the end of the post title instead of at the beginning, relying on the default behaviour of WordPress to provide the first link. That way, Goldie would only have to add the link to the abbreviation at the end (and that’s much easier because it’s the same address for every post):

Monday Motivation; Chase Your Dreams!<a href="https://dailyflabbergast.wordpress.com/2019/08/31/nrop-cw-bt-hw-what-do-those-mean/"> :HW</a>

This would have the added benefit of visitors being able to identify from then on whether the post title had the ‘link-in-title’ feature, or not. If the abbreviation is at the beginning, it’s an older post, and there’s no link; if it’s at the end, then it’s one of the ‘enhanced’ ones. (And, assuming that Goldie were to run with this idea, he could perhaps consider amending his original ‘what do those mean?’ post to explain the difference.)

I have long used the term ‘mystery link’ to refer to links that are effectively hidden (to most users) on a web page — ever since I recognised, many years ago, that these were an irritant. In the vast majority of cases, there is very little point in embedding, within a web page, navigation that is effectively invisible, and can only be found (by most users) by waving the mouse around in the hope of finding something that may (or may not) be there. As respected HCI expert Jakob Nielsen says, “Users […] like websites that support the goals of their visit” — and hiding links from the user fiercely hinders this. According to Nielsen:

Textual links should be colored and underlined to achieve the best perceived affordance of clickability, though there are a few exceptions to these guidelines.

Guidelines for Visualizing Links, Jakob Nielsen (2004)

Although I do consider myself an expert in HCI, I am far from being a well-known one (and I am a long, long way from being ‘respected’, though that’s another story). Nevertheless, it came as quite a surprise that when I searched for the term ‘mystery link’ just today, expecting to be able to link to a relevant, informative page somewhere on the web, I was unable to find one; hence this explanation.

Is this a deliberate feature… or an overlooked flaw?

While creating this post, it occurred to me that this feature could be exploited by the unscrupulous to trap the unwary. Knowing that the default behaviour of post titles in some WordPress sites is to link to the current post, and that users, being familiar with that behaviour, might be less likely to check where the link goes before following it, this technique could be used nefariously to hijack traffic. (I’m willing to bet that the scammers I referred to in my post last week would love such a bait-and-switch tactic!)

Given that that’s a possibility, I think it’s quite likely that WordPress may make a change to prohibit manual addition of links to titles in the future. (I really don’t understand why it is that anchors are, currently, allowed, whereas other code is not.) See my very first caveat, at the top of this post: Things change.

Just in case you’re unfamiliar with links to content within pages, which I’ve used in this post several times; this is, again, standard HTML. WordPress refers to the technique as ‘page jumping‘ (which I actually think is a misnomer, as it suggests jumping between pages rather than within them). Unfortunately, these seem somewhat erratic; sometimes such links ‘jump’ to the correct block; other times, they jump to the block below the named one. I haven’t got to the bottom of that particular conundrum yet; it may be another example of the current bugginess of the ‘Gutenberg’ block editor and/or the WordPress environment (although I have seen this behaviour on other platforms in the past).

A footnote

§ I’ve been through Wikipedia’s extensive list of cognitive biases and haven’t been able to find an appropriate bias label; the nearest approximation is the ‘mere-exposure effect‘, but that’s not quite what I mean. I’m referring to (what appears to me, at least, to be) the tendency to overestimate others’ knowledge of something based upon one’s own familiarity with it.

Posted in ... wait, what?, Communication, Computers and Internet, Education, People, Phlyarology, Tech tips | Tagged , , , , , | 31 Comments

Be on your guard: scammers are everywhere!

BBC Panorama exposing the fraudsters (in just six minutes)

A few days ago, a dear friend of mine was lured into parting with US$9,500. This is not something I would normally reveal; but the victim himself quite openly admitted it, in an admirable attempt to alert others to the dangers posed by these fraudsters.

These criminals, many of whom are based in India, are extremely well organised. They steal billions of dollars every year by preying on the unwary, using psychological techniques to fool regular people all over the world into parting with their money.

And the threat is on the rise, as more of these unscrupulous, soulless crooks are taking advantage of the inability of national crime prevention organisations to co-ordinate a response. Authorities in India, the UK, the US, Australia and elsewhere claim that it’s too difficult to identify such crimes, and pin down those who perpetrate them, because these actions cross international borders. (It’s yet another example of how national governments are failing to come to terms with how globalization has affected society; among other things, more effective regulation of banks, and other corporations that have grown too big for their boots, is clearly called for, in my view.)

Currently, the strongest line of defence is to ensure that we all educate ourselves about the risks. If you want to find out more — and I strongly suggest that you do — a superb starting point is Jim Browning’s YouTube channel, which I recommend wholeheartedly. I’ve included below one of Jim’s more serious offerings which demonstrates his activities. Jim’s videos are informative, educational and entertaining; they’re an excellent way to innoculate yourself against being taken for a ride — and perhaps losing your shirt.

Jim Browning: a modern-day hero, caught in the act (of unmasking villains)

After all that sobering stuff, here’s a change of pace:

Jim Browning presents: Tech Support Scammer vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Posted in ... wait, what?, Communication, Computers and Internet, Education, People, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Diving deep into the blogosphere

‘Blogging’ has been with us since the mid-1990s. At the start of the 21st Century, WordPress blogging began. Currently, about 7.5 million blog posts are written every single day — and the trend is upward.

The ‘official’ view of the blogosphere is as a network. I prefer to picture it as a continuously expanding sphere in which the exterior shell is made up of current posts, while the interior consists of all the previous ones.

Most of us only get to see the outer edge of this sphere, through our ‘follower’ connections and tools such as the WordPress.com Reader, which only ever presents us with the most recent posts. A staggering quantity of content lurks within; many are articles which, it’s true, have disappeared from view (though they might still be found on the Wayback Machine), while other posts are, perhaps, outdated. But the vast majority are still worthy.

Attempting to approximate the inestimable

Actually figuring out the volume of the blogosphere is, I’ve discovered, incredibly difficult. New blogs appear all the time; while others are abandoned. I’ve not been able to find much hard data on the numbers; for one thing, there’s confusion between ‘blogs’ (websites) and ‘blog posts’ (individual articles). As far as I can make out, roughly three billion blog posts are published every year, on a rising trend, as shown by this chart of posts on WordPress.com sites since its inception in 2006:

After doing some (very rough) crunching on the data I could find, I arrived at a value of 21 billion§. That’s my best stab at the total number of blog posts that have been created so far since the inception of blogging, around a quarter of a century ago.

And that means that the blogosphere contains about six times as much content in its interior than exists on the surface. My own travels with the blog-driven time machine into the blogosphere’s depths have proven to me that there are hidden gems down there, just waiting to be (re)discovered.

An invitation to explore (and help improve) the curate’s egg

I set up a new site recently. It’s just one page; but it’s a gateway to a larger place, a portal into the blogosphere’s interior. Please visit https://randomraiders.wordpress.com/.

?Random Raiders! logo

Postscript

§ I’m pretty sure ’21 billion’ must be an underestimate. I really have no idea what the actual volume of the blogosphere is — if you have any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them!

Header image adapted from
a good starting point
by Pandry on Unsplash

Posted in ... wait, what?, Communication, Computers and Internet, Core thought, History, Strategy | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

It’s a mistake to anthropomorphise machines

(AKA ‘Feedback for NatWest: a rant’)

I read in a book somewhere, long ago, that ‘computers were going to make our lives easier’. I realize now that the ‘our’ in that promise didn’t include folks like me; it was addressed to the wealthy ones whose lives would be made easier (on yachts, probably) because they could save so much money by putting in place bloody useless telephone answering and online artificial stupidity systems instead of employing real people to, you know, actually talk to their customers.

I got another reminder today of the failure of that particular techno-promise.

I’ve banked with NatWest for donkeys’ years. You’d think that this would engender some sense of loyalty, and fairness, on their part towards me… but that’s clearly not the case.

I logged into my online banking account this morning, did what I needed to do, and then, on logging out, I was presented with a page that appeared to offer me a chance to win £1000.

No link here on the text ‘Prize draw T&Cs’….

Now, I’m most decidedly not a sucker for such offers; there’s almost always a catch. But in this case, my attention was drawn to the nature of the product they were pushing. It was a ‘Digital Regular Saver’ account. “Ah!” I thought, “I have one of those”. I opened it back in February, months before ‘5.30pm on 31st August’ — so that should mean I would be eligible for the prize draw… right? Even at this point I was willing to bet that the small print (if I could actually find that, which, initially, I couldn’t) would say ‘current holders of the DRS account are ineligible for the prize draw’, or some such weasel wording.

Having become a little intrigued (not to mention a tad irritated by the distinct possibility that they might deliberately exclude existing customers from the offer, as companies so often do) I thought I’d dig a little deeper, and determine whether I did qualify, or not.

And so I embarked upon what, for me, has become an all-too-familiar Quixotic endeavour: doing battle with another kludge of computer widgetry that has all the earmarks of being thrown together by monkeys (who are themselves probably paid only peanuts).

Actually getting help is ludicrously difficult

I went hunting for an answer to the question in my mind, which was, “I already have a ‘Digital Regular Saver’ account; do I get entered into the prize draw?” I found a box that was headed ‘Type your question here’. So I typed in that very question, and, naturally, hit enter when I’d finished.

Oh, look: the clueless “it’s” has reared its ugly head, too.

Well, that’s rude (and grammatically incorrect, to boot). I backtracked, and realised that I couldn’t simply ask my question directly, oh, no: once I’d put some text in, I was then offered a set of choices. And, naturally, none of those were in any way relevant.

NatWest’s ‘Support’ page encouraged me to ‘Ask Cora’, which is, apparently, a ‘digital assistant,’ available (so they say) ’24/7′, and I can find ‘her§,’ allegedly, ‘on the bottom right of my screen’ when on the NatWest website. Uh, no, actually, I can’t find ‘her’ like that at all (it’s probably a browser issue). The ‘Support’ page also suggests I can ‘talk to her’ by clicking on ‘Chat Now’ on my ‘home screen’ when I log into online banking.

I logged into online banking: the default landing page had no ‘Chat Now’ option. Go figure.

While logged in, I also looked for an option to send a message to the bank; other online banking systems I use have ‘secure messaging’ systems, so I expected to be able to find one here, too. But, nope, no ‘messaging’ option.

Returning to the main NatWest website, I looked for an email address: and found (eventually) the statement, ‘We don’t have an email address’. Wait, what: seriously?

So, I resorted at last to the telephone — and was forced to wade through the usual moronic multi-layered menuing system, until it finally presented me with an option to talk to someone. Whereupon I was presented with the now ‘normal’ notice, “We’re currently experiencing an extremely high number of calls” — and so, I was obliged to wait.

I did, eventually, get through to a human being (or reasonable facsimile) who listened to me, patiently and politely. After ascertaining that I would only be eligible for an entry in the prize draw if I were to open a new ‘Digital Regular Saver’ account, I asked whether I would be eligible if I were to cancel my existing account and open a new one. She then said that she would be happy to assist me with that; but, as she was speaking, I realized that I really didn’t want to be bothered with jumping through the necessary hoops. So, I asked her to simply feed the message up the chain that she had a disgruntled customer on the phone who objected to loyal customers being excluded from rewards being offered to others.

She asked me to hold the line so that she could see what she could do for me.

I said I would, and waited patiently.

And some minutes later, an hour and a quarter after the call had started, the line went dead.

I did eventually stumble, more by luck than judgement, on a link to the terms and conditions for this offer. They begin, confirming my suspicion that this ‘offer’ was only aimed at new customers, with:

a. Prize draw open to all customers aged 18 or over who are UK residents (excluding Northern Ireland) who open a Digital Regular Saver between 1 and 31 August 2021.

Near the end, it also says:

i. The promoter reserves the right to alter, amend or foreclose the promotion without prior notice.

I wouldn’t put it past them to ‘alter the promotion’ to specifically exclude those who might close existing accounts and open new ones just to get into the prize draw (justifying that action, probably, on the grounds that the whole purpose of the promotion was to gain new business). Nor, for that matter, would I be at all suprised were they to quietly flag any such accounts as ‘ineligible for prize draw’ — you know, because they could, and nobody would ever be any the wiser.

OK, so, now to hunt down their complaints department — Ah! Here we go….


§ On anthropomorphising machines

It really is a mistake to anthropomorphise computer systems. Referring to them as though they are real people, especially when the AI is as thick as two short planks and twice as useless, is a serious mistake. I learnt that, possibly from a book, many decades ago.

(Oh, and there’s another excellent reason not to attribute human traits to machines: they don’t like it.)

Footnote

On the fact that I ripped off the NatWest logo for the header for this post:

The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit… the people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff… any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours, it belongs to you, its yours to take, rearrange and reuse. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

Banksy
Posted in ... wait, what?, Business, Communication, Computers and Internet, Critiques, Phlyarology | Tagged , , , , , | 20 Comments

There is no ‘planet B’ – yet we’re using it already

Happy§ Earth Overshoot Day! Time to celebrate: we’re now using almost three-quarters of ‘planet B’.

Shame it doesn’t exist.

Back in 2014, I wrote a set of edicts I would apply ‘If I ruled the world‘. One of those (#4) was:

If it should ever happen that Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) in any year is determined to occur later in the year than the previous year’s EOD, a global day of rejoicing shall be proclaimed on that day.

Source: earthovershootday.org (used with permission)

*The calculation of Earth Overshoot Day 2020 reflects the initial drop in resource use in the first half of the year due to pandemic-induced lockdowns. All other years assume a constant rate of resource use throughout the year.

Source: earthovershootday.org

Well, it looks like we should have had a party last year. Only we couldn’t, of course, due to the very pandemic-induced lockdowns that reduced the global resource use. Ironic.

This year, it looks like we’re back on track, ravaging the planet like never before. Yay, us.


§ Everything’s relative.

Posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Biodiversity, Communication, Core thought, Education, Energy, Environment, History, News and politics, Phlyarology, Strategy | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Experience the numinous total solar eclipse

Veritasium experiences the Great American Eclipse of 21Aug2017

The Sun is 400 times the size of the Moon.

It is also 400 times farther away — so both Sun and Moon appear to be the same size.

It hasn’t always been this way; the Moon is moving away from the Earth.

About as fast as your fingernails grow.

When the Moon eclipsed the Sun aeons ago it did so with far less spectacle.

We happen to exist at just the right time to experience these numinous events.

Coincidence? I think: maybe not.

I wonder whether total solar eclipses may have been the sparks that ignited thought.

The flashes that inspired intelligence. That gave rise to us.

I’m no astrophysicist. I’ve reached out to some — to resounding silence.

I guess they probably think I’m nuts (understandably; there are a lot of nuts around).

I did get encouragement from Dr David Brin, who offered me some links.

Those led me to the Rare Earth hypothesis.

My own hypothesis goes beyond, suggesting that intelligent life is very rare.

And therefore all the more precious.

What do you think?

Posted in ... wait, what?, Core thought, Phlyarology, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments