How a UW-Madison professor’s algorithm helps find The New Yorker’s cartoon caption

A praying mantis sits eagerly at a dinner table, as a mustachioed and bow-tied waiter unveils a dish containing the steaming head of, well, another praying mantis.

“I take it the Honeymoon is over?” one caption reads.

“Shall I pack the rest of your date in a to-go box?” says another.

Under the caption sits a choice: unfunny, somewhat funny or funny.

Voters of The New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest decide what witty line will appear in the magazine to accompany the praying mantis, an insect whose females notoriously decapitate its mates.

But which captions of the thousands of submissions voters are shown is not random.

The New Yorker relies on an algorithm from Robert Nowak, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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