Mistakes to avoid in writing

From Pat Holt’s “The Ten Mistakes: Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)” (Holt Uncensored: 17 November 2008):


Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally – these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.


The “ness” words cause the eye to stumble, come back, reread: Mindlessness, characterlessness, courageousness, statuesqueness, preciousness – you get the idea. You might as well pour marbles into your readers’ mouths. Not all “ness” words are bad – goodness, no – but they are all suspect.

The “ize” words are no better – finalize, conceptualize, fantasize, categorize. … Not all “ize” words are bad, either, but they do have the ring of the vulgate to them – “he was brutalized by his father,” “she finalized her report.” Just try to use them rarely.

Adding “ly” to “ing” words has a little history to it. Remember the old Tom Swifties? “I hate that incision,” the surgeon said cuttingly. “I got first prize!” the boy said winningly. But the point to a good Tom Swiftie is to make a punchline out of the last adverb.


Once your eye is attuned to the frequent use of the “to be” words – “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been” and others – you’ll be appalled at how quickly they flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl.

Try also to reserve the use of “there was” or “there is” for special occasions. If used too often, this crutch also bogs down sentence after sentence. “He couldn’t believe there was furniture in the room. There was an open dresser drawer. There was a sock on the bed. There was a stack of laundry in the corner. There was a handkerchief on the floor….”

Why we can easily remember jingles but not jokes

From Natalie Angier’s “In One Ear and Out the Other” (The New York Times: 16 March 2009):

In understanding human memory and its tics, Scott A. Small, a neurologist and memory researcher at Columbia, suggests the familiar analogy with computer memory.

We have our version of a buffer, he said, a short-term working memory of limited scope and fast turnover rate. We have our equivalent of a save button: the hippocampus, deep in the forebrain is essential for translating short-term memories into a more permanent form.

Our frontal lobes perform the find function, retrieving saved files to embellish as needed. And though scientists used to believe that short- and long-term memories were stored in different parts of the brain, they have discovered that what really distinguishes the lasting from the transient is how strongly the memory is engraved in the brain, and the thickness and complexity of the connections linking large populations of brain cells. The deeper the memory, the more readily and robustly an ensemble of like-minded neurons will fire.

This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life’s offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. “The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”

A simple melody with a simple rhythm and repetition can be a tremendous mnemonic device. “It would be a virtually impossible task for young children to memorize a sequence of 26 separate letters if you just gave it to them as a string of information,” Dr. Thaut said. But when the alphabet is set to the tune of the ABC song with its four melodic phrases, preschoolers can learn it with ease.

And what are the most insidious jingles or sitcom themes but cunning variations on twinkle twinkle ABC?

Really great jokes, on the other hand, punch the lights out of do re mi. They work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”

This may also explain why the jokes we tend to remember are often the most clichéd ones. A mother-in-law joke? Yes…

What passwords do people use? phpBB examples

From Robert Graham’s “PHPBB Password Analysis” (Dark Reading: 6 February 2009):

A popular Website, phpbb.com, was recently hacked. The hacker published approximately 20,000 user passwords from the site. …

This incident is similar to one two years ago when MySpace was hacked, revealing about 30,000 passwords. …

The striking different between the two incidents is that the phpbb passwords are simpler. MySpace requires that passwords “must be between 6 and 10 characters, and contain at least 1 number or punctuation character.” Most people satisfied this requirement by simply appending “1” to the ends of their passwords. The phpbb site has no such restrictions — the passwords are shorter and rarely contain anything more than a dictionary word.

It’s hard to judge exactly how many passwords are dictionary words. … I ran the phpbb passwords through various dictionary files and come up with a 65% match (for a simple English dictionary) and 94% (for “hacker” dictionaries). …

16% of passwords matched a person’s first name. This includes people choosing their own first names or those of their spouses or children. The most popular first names were Joshua, Thomas, Michael, and Charlie. But I wonder if there is something else going on. Joshua, for example, was also the password to the computer in “Wargames” …

14% of passwords were patterns on the keyboard, like “1234,” “qwerty,” or “asdf.” There are a lot of different patterns people choose, like “1qaz2wsx” or “1q2w3e.” I spent a while googling “159357,” trying to figure out how to categorize it, then realized it was a pattern on the numeric keypad. …

4% are variations of the word “password,” such as “passw0rd,” “password1,” or “passwd.” I googled “drowssap,” trying to figure out how to categorize it, until I realized it was “password” spelled backward.

5% of passwords are pop-culture references from TV, movies, and music. These tend to be youth culture (“hannah,” “pokemon,” “tigger”) and geeky (“klingon,” “starwars,” “matrix,” “legolas,” “ironman”). … Some notable pop-culture references are chosen not because they are popular, but because they sound like passwords, such as “ou812” (’80s Van Halen album), “blink182” (’90s pop), “rush2112” (’80s album), and “8675309” (’80s pop song).

4% of passwords appear to reference things nearby. The name “samsung” is a popular password, I think because it’s the brand name on the monitor that people are looking at … Similarly, there are a lot of names of home computers like “dell,” “packard,” “apple,” “pavilion,” “presario,” “compaq,” and so on. …

3% of passwords are “emo” words. Swear words, especially the F-word, are common, but so are various forms of love and hate (like “iloveyou” or “ihateyou”).

3% are “don’t care” words. … A lot of password choices reflect this attitude, either implicitly with “abc123” or “blahblah,” or explicitly with “whatever,” “whocares,” or “nothing.”

1.3% are passwords people saw in movies/TV. This is a small category, consisting only of “letmein,” “trustno1,” “joshua,” and “monkey,” but it accounts for a large percentage of passwords.

1% are sports related. …

Here is the top 20 passwords from the phpbb dataset. You’ll find nothing surprising here; all of them are on this Top 500 list.

3.03% “123456”
2.13% “password”
1.45% “phpbb”
0.91% “qwerty”
0.82% “12345”
0.59% “12345678”
0.58% “letmein”
0.53% “1234”
0.50% “test”
0.43% “123”
0.36% “trustno1”
0.33% “dragon”
0.31% “abc123”
0.31% “123456789”
0.31% “111111”
0.30% “hello”
0.30% “monkey”
0.28% “master”
0.22% “killer”
0.22% “123123”

Notice that whereas “myspace1” was one of the most popular passwords in the MySpace dataset, “phpbb” is one of the most popular passwords in the phpbb dataset.

The password length distribution is as follows:

1 character 0.34%
2 characters 0.54%
3 characters 2.92%
4 characters 12.29%
5 characters 13.29%
6 characters 35.16%
7 characters 14.60%
8 characters 15.50%
9 characters 3.81%
10 characters 1.14%
11 characters 0.22%

Note that phpbb has no requirements for password lengths …