What Is Hack Value? (or Unnecessarily Complex English)

There exist certain activities that are so difficult that they become regarded as insane or inane.

And there exist certain people who look at those activities and simply say
“Challenge accepted”.

These people tend to do a thing:

  • because it’s difficult/challenging
  • to make someone else look stupid
  • because it sounds fun
  • for bragging rights
  • and/or to make the rest of us scratch our heads and say “what the hell”?

Things done for these reasons have hack value. Activities with hack value do not depend on being useful or important (in fact many are quite useless). They depend on being challenging. They depend on requiring some skill.

They depend on giving the doer the right afterward to stick his tongue out and say “neener neener neener”.

Picking a very difficult lock has hack value – it is difficult/challenging (see also: fun) to do, and doing it shows off the skill of the doer. Breaking the same lock with something really heavy has zero hack value.

Picture only tangentially related (but it's cute)

Here is an example of hack value.

Do you know what the most common letter in the English language is? It’s ‘E’. In fact, ~12% of any random text (of sufficient length) should be the letter ‘E’.

In further fact, ‘E’ is so common that some people used to say that you couldn’t write anything of length and quality without the letter ‘E’.

Then there were the people who got pissed off at the first group of people. In this latter group were folks like Ernest Vincent Wright. He was so irritated by the people talking about how inescapable ‘e’ was that he decided to write
a lipogrammatic novel called Gadsby to prove them wrong.

A lipogram is quite simply when you write something and omit a single letter. That’s it. Simple. So Ernest omitted his ‘E’s.

Now, how long is Gadsby? 50,110 words. If we assume an average word length of five letters, we should expect over 30,000 ‘E’s. And yet there’s not a single one in this book.

How did he do it? He apparently tied down the ‘e’ key on his typewriter.

It’s even (apparently) a pretty decent book. I don’t know about you, but I would have a hard enough time introducing myself without using the letter ‘E’.

How about it? Think it’s easy? I invite you to write a lipogrammatic comment (omitting E) to show off your ‘mad English skillz’. 😀

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7 thoughts on “What Is Hack Value? (or Unnecessarily Complex English)

  1. [Here’s my go at a lipogrammatic comment]:

    Hi. I’m Don. If I had a strong opinion about my own blog, I’d post it in this box. But, as it is I who author it, it’s difficult to hold any contrary opinions, so I hold no opinions to post on or about this blog.

  2. Hmmmm. Good post, Don, as always! And I cannot possibly turn down a summons to go all out and run my mind into a wall with a daunting task such as writing without using what is famously known as our list which starts with ABC’s most common unit! So, what can I say about my work and history so that your fans would want to ask for additional facts? I’ll start with this first of all: I’m a translator, a linguist living abroad, and I’m also a crazy guy who is mad about words and grammar. I’m into cats. I think that body surfing is fun. I play piano and guitar and dig cryptic crosswords. And writing on my Mac what I do for about 13 hours a day.

    • Thanks. Would you believe though that the book even refuses to use things like ’13’ when the full version, ‘thirteen’, includes Es?

  3. Your post has us thinking, but I can rally around that and I insist on playing my part. Thank you for this opportunity. 🙂

    • It’s nothing, I’d say – it’s not too hard to hand out an opportunity such as this. Thanks for a good post, without that which follows ‘d’. 😉

  4. too much to say, so many words! i didn’t try to go all fancy, but i found it hard not to. i think if i had a rhythm it’d functionally work. a lipogrammatic form:

    to whom i sought
    i was caught up with my thought
    that you could subsist
    but now i succumb
    i can’t find my thumb
    ill just sit in dark

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