Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Friday November 06 2009

When I meet fellow Samizdata contributor Johnathan Pearce, I often praise him, but often only faintly.  I often thank him for those days, disturbingly numerous in recent months, when his postings have been the only postings there.  Generally, I tell him, he does a solid job, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, looking at the world - especially the financial world (which he understands way better than average because he has a job doing that) - from a libertarian point of view.  The rest of the Samizdata crew owe him a lot.

However, the not very subtle sub-textual implication of all this has tended to be that Johnathan Pearce is one of life’s worthy middle-rankers, who makes the best of his less than uniquely stellar talents.  In cricketing terms he is Andrew Strauss, but no Kevin Pietersen.  (Even if you know nothing of cricket, you will immediately have learned what sort of cricketers those two gentlemen are.)

A recent Samizdata blog posting by JP is, however, something else again, I think, definitely touched with Pietersenesque magic.  It makes one very simple point, briefly, concerning a ferocious policy debate which has exercised Brits for many years now, and especially during the last few days on account of Conservative opposition leader David Cameron’s referendum vacillations, but which is routinely neglected by all parties to the debate.

We can leave if we want to, says JP.

My point is not so much that I agree, although I do.  My point is: this is what blogging is all about.  A small clutch of words says something very large and very easily understandable.  Already, the comments are very informative and interesting, and just as much from those who disagree as from those who agree.

However, I do have one quite big criticism to offer.  I am becoming ever more conscious of the importance of good titles for blog postings, by which I mean informative concerning what is being said, rather than (at the opposite extreme) wittily opaque and punning.  I now believe strongly in sacrificing brevity to get greater accuracy, as the above title of this posting nicely illustrates.  Opaque and punning is for old school newspapers, from which the option of migrating elsewhere with one mouse click is not available.  Opaque and punning means you have to read the damn piece to find out anything of what it actually says.  (I arrived at the same rule for Libertarian Alliance pamphlets.  This made them far more influential than they would otherwise have been.)

The point is that, more and more, the titles of blog postings appear on their own.  Not just in google searches, but at other blogs and embedded in other postings.

Headings that are a bit longer, but which accurately summarise your main point (or as here: points) mean that even if all that people read is the title, they still get a lot of the point.  “We can leave if we want to” is pretty clear, if you know the kind of blog that Samizdata is.  But something more like “Britain can leave the EU any time it wants to” would have made things much clearer, and might well have caused this blog posting to travel far further and far wider, even if only in the form of its title.

JP did keep the ship of state afloat at SI. I am glad to see Perry back to regular posting but JP done good (as the sports commentator would say) when he was working almost single-handedly at times.

Of course he’s very good and of course his focus tends to be on financial issues. That’s the whole point of blogging. Blog about what you know. That is why we aren’t politicians who have an opinion on everything and knowledge of very little.

I really appreciate this following the last few months of chopping and changing staff at CCinZ.

I, for example, no longer do the science stuff on AGW at CCinZ because why have a Pa Annoyed and bark oneself?

<evil cackle>If only we can get Paul Marks and fuse his brain with Pa and we’d have something which could take-over the Universe.</evil cackle>

Know any good deals on extinct volcanoes, monorail systems, clipboards, Mao suits and Persian cats?

Posted by Nick M on 06 November 2009

This is especially true in a world of Twitter and RSS readers.  I have so much stuff streaming at me that often the titles are important for (mental) filtering.  I don’t have time to open every article to see what it’s about.

(Of course, I read every word of my favourite blogs, sooner or later.)

Posted by Rob Fisher on 06 November 2009

Too true, about the clarity and informativeness of titles.

Afraid, I’m often guilty of going for “opaque and punning”. With unintended consequence that sometimes I’m the only one who gets the pun.

The rationale behind it is, approx., is to excite reader’s curiosity. Of course, instead it might get the “WTH is she talking about?!” reaction, dismissive headshake and - phew, we just lost a customer!

Posted by Tatyana on 07 November 2009

You are dead right about the informative LA titles, Brian. I’m far too inclined to opaque and punning blog post titles, and I’m going to see if changing this practice makes a difference.

Posted by Ken MacLeod on 15 November 2009

Ken, good to hear from you again.

There is a posting at Samizdata up now, entitled “Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” Very poetic, and since it’s Guy Herbert it is well worth reading.  But what the hell, even approximately, is it about?  Who do the gods have it in mind to destroy?  How are they going mad?

I know, what it is about is right underneath, but not at all the other places where this title will appear.

Not that informative titles will save this blog from Z-ness.  My problem is the randomness of the content.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 November 2009

I often choose cute, punning titles for blog posts and then end up replacing them with something more simple and descriptive before I actually post them. (I did this for the Chernobyl post. And the Korea post. And quite a few others). In particular if the post is long, or the post is a little discursive and I do not make it exactly clear in the first paragraph what it is ultimately going to be about about, it is very important to give readers a hint about what they will find at the end somehow, and saying it simply in the title is usually the best way. There is a place for puns and obscure allusions, but the title is now always it.

Ken, you seem to love punning and opaque chapter titles. I guess one difference between this and blog post titles is that chapter titles are seldom used for indexing.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 15 November 2009

Michael - another difference between chapter titles and blog post (and political pamphlet) titles has to do with search costs in a context of time constraints and competing claims for attention. I’m sure our host could explain this much more elegantly than I.

Posted by Ken MacLeod on 15 November 2009

Ken - I very much doubt that!

But I agree about chapter headings in fictional books.  Once you start reading a book, (a) you want to finish it, whether the chapter headings make much sense or not, (b) you expect a bit of mystery.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 16 November 2009
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