Meta Matters

Saturday, January 15, 2011
By dreeves

Next week's post will be about this one.

Today Messy Matters celebrates its 25th anniversary, in internet time. Here are three meta topics to mark the occasion.

Typo Bounties

The first meta topic is sort of an excuse to pay our loyal readers, which might seem backwards. With around 1000 active readers of Messy Matters and growing we like to think we must be adding real value to the interwebs. Nonetheless, the fundamentally right price for our blog posts is, I contend, at most zero. Why? First, the marginal cost of an additional consumer of our blog is zero. (Which is a fancy way to say it costs us nothing for you to read our blog, given we’ve already produced it.) But more importantly, any revenue would come at the expense of some users who wouldn’t get past the paywall, no matter how frictionless it was. And at the scale we’re at, we’d rather have those additional readers than the money. Note that that’s a purely economic calculation: the revenue would be tiny but the additional users increase our chances of snowballing in popularity to the point where we could make real revenue later on. Or maybe we just have other reasons to prefer maximum readership at the expense of revenue, like stroking our egos, or the magnanimous bequeathing of our wisdom to the world, or, you know, something.

So, fine, micropayments aren’t realistic for small-scale blogs. And by this reasoning, small-scale blogs shouldn’t have ads either, which I think is true. And then, ironically, after writing that we were offered $100 to link to Ace Online Schools. Ka-ching! Still, I would say that our making $100 by writing the previous sentence is the exception that proves the rule. [EDIT: See addendum below.]

Notice I said the right price is “at most zero”. We might well be happy to charge less than zero, i.e., to pay for more users when we’re small. That’s probably just too weird to try to do directly, and is fraught with fraud problems anyway. So how about this: We’d like to make it easy for people to notify us of typos on our blog. (The comments aren’t a great place for that, unless the typo impacts the meaning or understandability.) And we’d love to reward our most careful and loyal readers. So Bethany Soule kindly created for us the typo bounty widget you see in the sidebar. Typos are currently worth $20 apiece. [UPDATE 2018: No more $20 typo bounties on Messy Matters but we’ll honor the Beeminder Blog typo bounty which is to send you stickers.]

Meta Poll

Meta topic two. We have so many ideas for what to write about in the new year that we don’t know where to begin, so we thought we’d let you all have a say. We won’t listen to you, I’m just hoping that for the ones Sharad thinks I should not for the love of God write about (anything in which I reveal my absurd political ideas, for example) that I can point to this poll indignantly and say “but our public demands it!”

So, at risk of encouraging us, here’s a poll. Vote for as many things as you like:

If there are any of these that you want to know what on earth we’re talking about, ask in the comments! (And note that Sharad disavows this frivolous navel-gazing. These are just my ideas.)

Bonus Puzzle

Finally, we’re going to start appending some of our favorite puzzles to each post, sufficiently altered to deter googling the answer. Here’s the inaugural one:

You have a pair of dice that you suspect are loaded. How can you use them to generate a perfectly fair, 50-50 outcome? (If you’re tempted to first try to establish the probabilities for the dice empirically, you’re on the wrong track. There’s a better, exact way. Also, they’re visually identical but not necessarily loaded identically.)

The prize is a hundred dollars. Just kidding! The prize is a link to your website right here, the market value of which is apparently $100. Write your answer in the comments.


Congratulations to Alex Strehl for having the first fully correct answer to the puzzle. The problem is a variant of one proposed and solved by John von Neumann: how to get a fair result from a biased coin. The twist here is that one of the dice might be nonrandom. Alex solved that problem by alternating dice, and Bill Dirks solved it by summing them. (Various other correct and practically correct answers came in after those two.) We’re going with Bill’s as the official answer: Roll the dice twice. If the sum from the first roll is bigger than the sum from the second roll, call it heads. If it’s smaller, call it tails. If the sums are equal, start over and try again.

So, funny story about that $100 link. When they contacted us, they said it didn’t matter if the context was negative, they’d pay $100 for the link. I showed them the excerpt above and asked if that would suffice. They said no, the deal was off if I revealed that it was a paid link. And they had the gall to suggest — not realizing this had already gone to press — that if I wanted to be all meta about it I could say how we refused the offer and that it wouldn’t matter if you’re MIT [link to MIT] or Slimeball Online School [secretly paid link!], the answer is no. Well, I’m proud to say that it takes more than $100 to induce us to lie through our teeth to our readers (make us an offer!). Oh, they also realized they had given us the wrong link originally. I guess I’ll just leave it wrong, since the wrong one seems perfectly innocuous. [EDIT: Nearly a year later I finally got SEO-savvy enough to know that “seems perfectly innocuous” doesn’t really cut it and it’s presumably some kind of shady content farm. So I replaced the link with something genuinely useful.]

Next, typo bounties. So far, two sharp readers caught two misspellings: “indentical” and “charactized”. If I’m going to pretend I was being rational about this then I guess it was worth at least $40 to me for you all to read this post (like hawks)! As if that weren’t enough to call my rationality into question, I remembered after writing this post that, belying my point about small-scale blogs, I pay $4/month for this one:

“Illustration by Kelly Savage” by Kelly Savage

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