Sunday, May 08, 2005

Game theory

The BBC Magazine has an interesting article on how to win at everyday games like Connect Four and Reversi. One surprising one for which I would have thought no strategy possible is Scissors, Paper, Stone (the Americans call this Rock, Paper, Scissors as I recall). This was the game that decided which of the two great auction houses, Sotheby's or Christie's, was to have the opportunity of auctioning off Maspro Denkoh's $20 million collection of Picassos and van Goghs. Christie's consulted the 11-year-old daughters of one of their directors, who proposed the following strategy:

1. Stone is the one that "feels" the strongest
2. Therefore a novice will expect their opponent to go for stone, and will go for paper to beat stone
3. Therefore go for scissors first

I think my initial choice is rather random, but from now on I may keep their advice in mind.

Another interesting article I've read over the past few days is "On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile" by Michael Allen (also known as the Grumpy Old Bookman). It's a little monograph - almost a screed - on the publishing industry and what's wrong with it. Basically, the methods publishers use to determine the value of a book are completely wrong, and the machinery behind publishing is badly broken, and if you want to become a writer and earn fame and fortune, like Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, you might as well give up now. He also suggests methods for reforming the industry, and his basic advice to would-be writers is: go ahead and write, but don't give up the day job.

It's a very quick, informative read. I especially liked how he threw in some insights from statistics, in particular Nassim Taleb's books about chance as well as the theory of the Long Tail.

I wish more books were like that - short and to the point. What happened to the old practice of writing monographs rather than books? I see so many books in the bookshops these days that talk about interesting subjects, but - honestly, who wants to read 200+ pages about, say, Daylight Savings Time? Or salt? Can't it be compressed down a bit? And made cheaper? Then I could spend less time finding out more, with less pressure on my wallet.

Writers wouldn't have to spend so much time fluffing out their books, either - they could just state their piece and be done with it, sell it for less but probably have more readers to make up for it. We need to make <100-page books fashionable again. They would be perfect to distribute electronically, too. "On the survival..." is 70 pages long, and doesn't hurt the eyes. I couldn't imagine reading 200+ pages at a stretch at the computer. But 70 pages, with generous margins, is pretty good, with a few minutes' break at the halfway mark.


Blogger Ivan Chew said...

I thought "Monographs" meant "books". But you seem to say they are different. Care to elaborate? (btw, I'd be the first to admit that I don't know about this, even as a librarian!)

7:48 AM  
Blogger C. Callosum said...

Looks like I employed the word "monograph" wrongly. Definition according to "A scholarly piece of writing of essay or book length on a specific, often limited subject." A monograph can therefore be as long as it likes, and must be scholarly, not popular.

I confess that my idea of a monograph is totally instinctive (and wrong): I have always conceived of it being a fairly short non-fiction piece. Perhaps it is because I base my definition on my memory of the Sherlock Holmes books, and in two of the five mentions of it in the SH corpus, the word monograph is prefixed by the adjective "little".

I guess I don't really know whether there ever was a tradition of churning out short books. But if there wasn't, there should be!

Thanks for making me look up the definition!

7:45 AM  

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