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January 25, 2015

[2b2k]’s updates: A new rhetorical form for journalism? is working hard to take the Web down a notch — the notch where, say, an announcement by NASA that they’ve discovered a possibly habitable planet in another galaxy gets the headline “Scientists find another Earth…and you won’t believe what it’s going to do to the value of your home!”

Jason Calacanis, the founder of the site, and someone I hadn’t talked with since the glory days of blogging, emphasized the site’s commitment to the “atomic unit” of journalism, a particular type of summary that he calls an “update.” It’s not often you get a new rhetorical form, especially for something as important as journalism. But does it work? Does it serve a role we need or want?

It’s an interesting exercise: If you had the opportunity to design a new rhetorical form that will fit news onto a mobile device — that’s where people will read most of their news, Jason is convinced — and will do the best job possible of conveying information without sensationalizing it, what would you come up with? Something longer than a tweet, or a headline crawling under Wolf Blitzer? Full sentences? Definitely free of clickbait. But would you use bullet points?would the headline try to summarize or capture interest? Would you have a headline at all? has its answer to the question, and it follows the form quite rigorously. An “update” — a name I find misleading since there may not be an original story it’s updating — starts with a sentence of 12-15 words in boldface that express the basic news. That’s followed by another sentence or two telling you what you most need to know next. There’s a relevant graphic element, but no headline, so there’s no need to try to flag the reader’s interest in just a few screaming words.


Screencapture of an update

An update also contains a link to the original article — the actual source article, not one that another site has aggregated — the author’s name, and the name of the person who curated the article. And tags: embedded as links in the article, and one at the bottom if needed. This seems to me to be the Minimum Right Stuff to include.Updates are written by the fifty people around the world has hired for $12/hour.

So, how does this human-crafted rhetorical form hold up against the snippets Google News algorithmically derives and features under its headlines?

Here’s Google’s report on what is the top story at as I write this:

Yemen’s President, Cabinet resign
Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down — seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a …


A report from close to Yemen’s prime minister says the government has offered its resignation. There is no word yet on whether the president will accept the resignation. Houthi rebels still hold the capital, and the president is still a virtual prisoner in his home.’s seems obviously preferable. Google (which is summarizing a post at in this case) squanders most of its space simply telling us that it’s a big deal. tells us four things, which is three more than Google’s summary.

Another example, this time for the second article at (for which you have to do an explicit search at Google News). Google News:

Pentagon Scolds Air Force for Wasting Nearly $9 Billion on 
Drones are expensive. Aircraft like General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper cost millions of dollars piece, while the cost of …

A memo from the Pentagon says the U.S. Air Force’s investment in drones is extravagant. The memo suggests that the Air Force is wasting as much as $8.8 billion in maintaining 46 Reaper drones. The memo says the Air Force has not justified the expanding drone fleet. hands down. Plus, the Google News snippet comes from Gizmodo, which seems to have based its post heavily on an article in The Guardian. links its update directly to The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with what Gizmodo has done; it’s explicit about its use of info from The Guardian and adds its own commentary and links. But I’d rather have Google News snip directly from the source.

One more example, the third item at Google News:

AirAsia flight QZ8501: black box reveals final moments
The cockpit voice recorder from AirAsia flight QZ8501 has revealed that “screaming alarms” warned the pilots of immediate danger before the …

Divers find six bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501 but are unable to enter the fuselage. It is believed the majority of victims will be found there. Indonesia’s Rear Admiral Widodo says the wreckage will be lifted to the surface Friday. So far, 59 bodies have been found.

The score is 3:0 in favor of as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that is a superior news service. Google News covers many more items at this point, and refreshes more often. In fact, in the time it took me to copy and paste these examples, Google News had a posted a fresher story about the events in Yemen. Also, Google News lets you browse among many newspapers’ coverage of the same event. (Jason responds that gets posts up in 2-7 mins after an event hits the Web, and it immediately posts submitted links even before a human has written an update for it.)

But when it comes to the actual content the two services provide,’s human-crafted text does the job of educating us quickly far better. Google News doesn’t even try that hard; it aims at giving us enough that we can see if we’re interested enough to click on the link and read the whole story.

Then there is the broader difference in what we’d like such services to do. Google News is a form of headline news. If we only read the Google News page without clicking into any stories, we’ll have very thin knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, it couldn’t get any thinner. With, if we just read the boldfaced first sentences, we’ll come out knowing more than if we read the Google News headlines. We do want to be sure that people understand that three sentences are never the whole story. Unless the first sentence contains the word “Kardashian,” of course.

I don’t know if can scale the way it needs to in order to survive; Jason is very focused on that now. Also, I don’t have confidence yet that is giving me a reliable overview of the moments’ news — and, no, I don’t know what a “reliable overview” means or how to recognize one. But I do like the update as a rhetorical form. And since Jason says that will have an API, perhaps it can survive at least as a service feeding other news sites … maybe even Google News if Google could overcome its bias in favor of the algorithmic.

In any case, the update form has created seems to me to be a worthwhile addition to the rhetoric of journalism.


October 31, 2014

R paragraphs 2 long?

Over the years as I’ve edited my own writing, I’ve come to rely on two heuristics: 1. Most paragraphs are better off without a topic sentence. 2. The ends of paragraphs sometimes make better beginnings.

My obvious hypothesis is that the Web has made us impatient readers who won’t wait to get to the end of the paragraph to decide whether the paragraph is worth reading. That’s true for me, anyway. Thorough reading takes more of an act of will than I remember.

TL;DR: Paragraphs are obsolete. Skip to the TL;DR.


August 8, 2014

The gasp of combined

“Prescription Painkillers Kill More Than Heroin and Cocaine … Combined” [Liberty Voice]

“The U.S. spent more on defense in 2012 than the countries with the next 10 highest budgets … combined.” [NBC News]

“Apple Now Worth More Than Microsoft, Google … Combined” [Time Business]1

Just when you’ve been impressed by how much bigger something is than two other things we already think are big, there’s a short pause, then: “combined!”


We love the “more than ___ … combined” trope. How could we not? It exists to surprise us. Are you impressed that the U.S. solar industry employs more people than the gas industry? You are? How about that it employs more than the coal industry? Even more surprised? Excellent! But wait’ll you hear this: It’s bigger than the coal and gas industries combined! Combined!! I bet you didn’t see that coming! Boom!

“More than … combined” is structured like a joke. No wonder we love it so.

1Three dots added to each for comic timing.

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June 22, 2013

More than 3 is many

Some book I read as a kid, possibly Mathematics for the Million by Lancelot Hogben, said that prehistorical humans could count up to three, and after that it was just “many.” I don’t know if there is any actual evidence for this, and it’s always struck me as fishy since prehistorical people had more than three of many things, including children. And, sure, there are ways to track stuff without counting — old timey shepherds would take a pebble for each sheep when they left in the morning so they could tell if they were coming back with the same number — but why 3 and not 4 or 11?

But our modern rhetoric retains a trace of this “more than three is many” idea.

Imagine you are writing an essay about what’s the last thing you’d like to see before you go blind, or what musician affects you more than any other. If you choose to structure your essay by beginning with choices you’ve contemplated but rejected, you have to list three. If you only list two, it will seem like you have singled them out as the only two competitors; two signals completeness. If you list three, you’re indicating that there are in fact many more you could discuss. For example: “Jazz is too free-form. Hip-hop is too talk-y. Folk is too kumbiyah. But show tunes…well, show tunes have it all going on.”

Notice, by the way, that the third in the list is an opportunity for a joke, because the basic structure of a joke is two + punchline. It’s “A Brit, a German, and a Jew walk into a bar,” not “A Brit, a German, a French guy, a Belgian, a Swede, a Pole, a Laplander, a guy with a parrot, and a Jew walk into a bar.” I believe this is because you need two to claim that it’s a pattern, but since the pattern itself is not amusing, adding more examples only annoyingly delays the disruption of the pattern by the third. So,joke = two + punchline.

Hey, I don’t make the rules.


January 7, 2013

Because noun

I’ve been enjoying the rise of a grammatical meme, which the less charitable might call an ungrammatical meme. It’s that thing where you upset expectations by following “because” not with a phrase or clause but simply with a noun. For example, one might say “We invaded Iraq because freedom” or “I ate all of my dessert because chocolate.”

In its initial formulations — which is to say, the first times I saw it — it had a mocking edge, indicating that the explanation for an event was inadequate; people didn’t think past a blind, simplistic support for freedom. Now it’s becoming more of a tribal marking than a statement about the adequacy of the explanation.

I think there’s a good chance it will stick, because efficiency.


May 29, 2008

The Wikipedia style

Mark Bauerlein has a terrific piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed that compares the flat style of Wikipedia to that of other encyclopedias. It suffers from taking a single example — the entry on Moby-Dick — but it rings true. At least for some of Wikipedia.

Mark is undoubtedly right that Wikipedia’s stylistic flatness is due in part to the fact that professional writers often write better than amateurs and crowds do. But, it also seems likely to result from Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality. Perhaps in the process of constructing this article together, the color was driven out as non-neutral.

Of course, we can find out by checking the article’s history. But, there is a complicating factor: The section of the Wikipedia entry Mark cites is the first paragraph of the article. It attempts to characterize the novel as a whole, whereas the passages from the other encyclopedias seem to be introducing Ahab in particular. So, for an apples-to-apples comparison, here is the Ahab section in the current Wikipedia entry:

Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby-Dick, the whale that maimed him on his last whaling voyage. A Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion’s well-known pacifism. Ahab’s name comes directly from the Bible (see 1 Kings 18-22).

Little information is provided about Ahab’s life prior to meeting Moby-Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck it is revealed that he first began whaling at eighteen and has continued in the trade for forty years, having spent less than three on land. He also mentions his “girl-wife” whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.

In Ishmael’s first encounter with Ahab’s name, he responds “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).[10]

Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (excluding Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby-Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his final harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:

. . . to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

The harpoon becomes lodged into Moby-Dick’s flesh and Ahab, caught in his own harpoon’s rope and unable to free himself, is dragged into the cold oblivion of the sea with the injured whale. The whale eventually destroys the longboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.

Ahab has the qualities of a tragic hero — a great heart and a fatal flaw — and his deeply philosophical ruminations are expressed in language that is not only deliberately lofty and Shakespearian, but also so heavily iambic as often to read like the Bard’s own pentameters.

It’s not clear to me that this writing is substantially worse than the positive examples Mark quotes. It could stand some line editing, but it’s not particularly bland.

Nevertheless, Mark may well be right that overall, Wikipedia is written more flatly than commercial encyclopedias. That would not be a surprising effect of the quest for neutrality. For example, the Moby-Dick article started in September, 2001, with just a few lines. On July 14, 2004, the plot and symbolism sections were still entirely blank. By October 5, 2007, the following passage is in the symbolism section:

The Pequod’s quest to hunt down Moby-Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone’s goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man’s struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab’s vision is seen through the Pequod’s occasional encounters with other ships, called gams. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:

This writing is indeed pedestrian. For example, the hedge phrases, “widely viewed as” and “can also be expanded” vitiate it. To which I have three replies:

1. These flatfooted reminders that interpretations are not universally shared are in fact salubrious for readers and other students. 2. The article was revised hundreds of times after this. 3. Yes, Wikipedia’s style often isn’t as muscular or punchy as that of commercial encyclopedias aimed at family usage. Sometimes — perhaps even often, although with 2 million articles, it’s hard to be certain — its style could be improved. And should be. But there is also a useful and scholarly humility in a reference work that is written plainly. [Tags: ]


February 1, 2008

Silver-tongued or eloquent?

Bob Katz, the author of Elaine’s Circle and not so incidentally the guy who manages me as a public speaker, has an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor asking us to pay closer attention to how politicians speak. The piece well expresses our American ambivalence about political rhetoric. (It reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s old game: “I’m articulate. You’ve got the gift of gab. He’s silver-tongued.”)

And this is exactly not what Bob has in mind, but: Last night, Hillary impressed me by changing from “the differences among us” to “the differences between us” when she remembered that now there were only two candidates on the stage. On the other hand, she said something about “between him and I,” a far less obscure error. (Yes, this is the most trivial possible comment about the debate that does not refer to the candidates’ wardrobes.)

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