## 06 November 2013

### "Man as machine"

A sharp-eyed anonymous reader of this blog noted this curious juxtaposition in an online article at The Wilson Quarterly.  A read time not of "about 15 minutes," but of "15m 39 sec."

This kind of false or needless precision crops of in lots of places, and drives me crazy too.  But the use in an article with this title is particularly odd.

1. My "favourite" needless precisions are conversions of money and units of measurement.

Being in Australia, we often hear in the news stories where American prices converted to Australian prices. For example, some expensive thing that the US media reports as costing \$300 million US dollars will be reported in Australia as costing \$314.7 million Australian dollars.

Another annoyance is heights of people. A bank robber might be described as "approximately 183 centimetres tall" when it's obvious the description given was "about six foot tall".

1. For me the one that recurs most often is the local nightly news weatherman tediously saying that the current temperature is "57 in Platteville, 55 in Portage, 56 in Whitewater and Monroe..." when in fact the temperature isn't a single number in any one of them.

2. Microclimates, Stan!

2. I suspect the author is having a bit of fun.

1. ?? (It's a recurring feature on articles in that publication)

3. I am sure a computer algorithm computes the read time based on empirical data for average human reading speeds.

It will parse the text, count the number of words, add / subtract a second here or there for more difficult / easier words and compute a reading time (likely to the nearest millisecond). The programmer was nice enough to render it to minutes:seconds for the soft fleshy humans.

Here is an online tool where you can paste in any text you like and get an estimated reading time.

The precision isn't necessarily "needless" the programmer just failed to consider the number of significant figures. I might care if a very short article has a 1m 30s reading time or a 1m 59s reading time. But surely the seconds are useless by the time you haven entered the tens of minutes range.

4. I wonder if this is because the host website is tracking how much time elapses every time a user clicks on the story and subsequently navigates away. Theoretically, a computer would consider all visitors - whether they stay for 10 seconds or half an hour - as having "read" the story. Perhaps the 15 min 39 sec time really is an accurate average time.

1. Many times, I will start to read an article and stop after a few paragraphs, meaning the time elapsing before clicking away won't be accurate at all. Surely others do the same. It's more likely that the estimate of 15m 39s is from software like the online tool mentioned above. Either way, wouldn't it be sensible to simply say that the reading time is "about" whatever number of minutes is? But then we wouldn't have our little laugh for the day, ha ha!