I was walking home this evening and saw a billboard advertising ten ways to quit smoking. Another further down the street promised to divulge the ten steps towards financial independence. Then just as I got off the train at Chatswood, a video screen shouted in colour and sound to check out the ten best places to travel in within Australia and NZ while the outside world is unsafe. Classy!

Why are lists always in groups of ten? It’s either:

  • ten discrete things
  • the top ten of something
  • or ten steps reqired to do something

Except, ten is arbitrary. We think of it as this magical number because we use a base 10 number system (unfortunately), derived from the average number of digits we possess on our hands, feet, and brain hemispheres. Wait, scratch that last one… with your hands! But the universe generally doesn’t fit within the delightfully deterministic domiciles of decimalised demarcations. Dang.

This is why I don’t trust them. Save for the precious few times when there really are ten of something, these lists are artificially inflated from a smaller list, or some pruning went on. What was removed? What was added? What isn’t necessary?

Related to these are alliterative lists. The seven signs of ageing. The four flavours of riboFlaven (glaven). It’d be less satisfying to find out there are five styles of sausage native to a region of Germany and not six. Though I suppose that’d need to be fünf for frankfurters.

George Carlin’s Ten Commandments bit used to be my favourite deconstruction of top ten lists, but Philip Greenspun’s 10th rule of programming is the style I might start adopting for my future ones. Ruben’s thirteenth law of shirts: more than five words is too many.