Sunday, May 31, 2009

I know this person . . .

A snarky but very funny take on the vendor–client relationship. Not my clients, mind you. Mine are the salt of the earth. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had close calls.

Friday, May 29, 2009

All the tea in China

You can’t make this stuff up department
The Marketplace Morning Report radio program this morning included a story about product placement on the Chinese version of the Ugly Betty television sitcom. The products featured? Dove soap. Okay. And Lipton tea. Lipton tea?!?!? As a consumer product in China?!?!? What am I missing?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results

Fact-checking department
…or why gardeners keep diaries. Two years ago, pretty much my entire yard was in full bloom on May 1. Last year, everything again bloomed in unison, but a week earlier. Surely we’re approaching the End Times, right? Next thing you know, Long Island Sound will have swallowed New Haven.

Not so fast. This year, spring has slowed to a more moderate pace. The Andromeda was blooming when we left for Europe on April 15. The magnolia, the Bradford pear, the quince, and the weeping cherry went from start to finish before we returned on May 8. But the Wisteria was only starting to bloom on that date and is still on the upswing. The Azaleas didn’t start until some days later and are in full bloom now. The Rhododendrons just began to open Wednesday, May 20.

We had a much snowier winter this year than in recent memory, which likely has something to do with the more leisurely pace of spring.

But now it is Memorial Day weekend and time to get some work done around the yard. That’s a constant from year to year, no matter the weather, no matter what date the holiday falls on, and no matter the rise in ocean levels.

Nature (or what passes for nature in the artifice that is the home garden) beckons. Paying work will have to wait a couple of days.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

B is for business bromide

B is for banal.
O is for overused.
R is for ridiculous.
I is for inspiration-free.
N is for non-original.
G is for going to retch if I ever see or hear another.

I sat through a commencement speech at a business school last night. Names are withheld to protect innocent and guilty alike. Enough said.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Things have names department
On a mailing list this morning, someone asked what to call the typographic device that sometimes appears between sections of text. As I explained in response, embedded in this question are really three questions:

Q. What is the functional significance of a break in text?

A. From a discussion of this point on another list, some rhetoricians refer to it as a hiatus, although I don’t know that there is any standard term. In fiction, it may also be called a scene break. From the point of view of an editor, the question is whether the break in flow is enough different from a paragraph break to warrant its use. Was this intentional on the author’s part or is it an artifact of bad typing or misuse of Word?

Q. What is the name of a break in text?

A. I’ve always called it a text break. (I’ve been involved with typesetting in one way or another since about 1960 and don’t recall where I learned this term.) I’m not aware of any other name for it, and if I ever was, I’ve forgotten it. From the point of view of an editor marking up text, it’s a text break, and you can safely call it that. Design is irrelevant.

Q. What is the design element used to represent a break in text?

A. The book designer (typographer) may specify a simple space, such as a one-line space between paragraphs, generally followed by an unindented paragraph. Other choices are a space followed by a drop cap paragraph, something unobtrusive such as a single large bullet or a row of three asterisks, or any sort of ornament (dingbat in compositor’s argot) such as fleurons, tailpieces, and so forth. The designer should be sensitive to the look and feel of the overall book: if the chapter openings are modest, it would be silly to have elaborate and decorative text breaks. From the editor’s standpoint, though, once the design choice is made and approved, the only concern is the proofreader’s interest in seeing that they are implemented as planned.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Not invented here

We do some things spectacularly well in the United States. And we do some things incredibly badly. Two of the latter are lunch and mass transit.

Street food
You can go out of your way in the United States to have a great lunch. And if you are in midtown Manhattan at lunchtime, you can probably get a good sandwich within a block or two or something hot and tasty from a street vendor. But outside of Manhattan, if you are where you are and it’s lunchtime, your choices are generally limited. If you’re driving, there are the fast food chains. If you are flying, there are the airport concourse MBA-ified sandwich-and-salad stands. If you are on a train or walking…no, wait, you’re in the U.S., so it’s absurd to think you’re on a train or walking.

In the parts of Europe I’ve been to, you would have to go quite a bit out of your way to have a bad lunch on the street. I suppose you could get fish and chips in England that’s merely ordinary, but almost everywhere you have choices of real food freshly and often imaginatively made, of good, fresh ingredients, many of them local, at affordable prices. The least interesting choices were American fast-food chains, which survive, I suppose, on their novelty value to populations bored with fabulous local food and on their familiarity to tourists immune to fabulous local food.

In nearly every town there are local market gardeners selling their own produce at stalls and markets. We have mostly lost the idea of buying produce from market gardeners in the U.S. Local farmers’ markets, in the places where we’ve brought them back, are tentative, partially subsidized in many cases, iffy things populated mostly by urban refugees who have learned organic gardening from books and patronized by well-off foodies who equate expensive with tasty. In Europe, the markets are part of the historic fabric of society, places where families have brought produce for generations and ordinary people shop on their way home from work. Yes, there are supermarkets. Yes, people have refrigerators. But fresh food tastes better than shipped-in food.

The difference is apparent from the air. The European landscape consists of population centers surrounded by farmland and forests. The American landscape consists of continuous sprawl in the main population corridors and vast expanses of farmland in areas with virtually no local population. It’s only the eccentric treehugger who thinks it sensible to eat locally in the U.S. We’ve paved all the good agricultural land near cities, because our money-based society deems the “highest use” of land to be that which brings the most dollars in a real estate market, not that which provides the best quality of life for the population.

Getting there
Similarly, private profit and socialized cost has driven the design of our transportation system. Trains don’t work, for the most part, because American politicians believe that trains don’t work. We need to send our local, regional, and national politicians and planners on an all-expense-paid junket to Europe. Let them go where they will and do what they want, with only a single rule: no automobiles allowed. Make them travel around by train rather than motorcade. After a day they’ll know that trains can indeed work. After a week, they’ll figure out how to make them work in the U.S. Maybe then we’ll begin moving in the right direction and by the right means.

I suppose…
I should relate all this to books and editing somehow, in furtherance of the plan of this blog. Okay, try this: The same ignorance, hubris, and narcissism that makes Americans think we know best and the rest of the world lags behind also gets in the way of authors who think they know best and don’t need the help of professionals to make their books the best they can be. A stretch? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

Rome ruins vacation

What others have said is true: travel is broadening. You can read about every place we’ve traveled to on Wikipedia or in books, magazines, and newspaper travel sections. You can see all these places in movies and videos. Being there is different.

While the Roman ruins unearthed in England or Germany are treated with a certain respect and presented with a curatorial pride, those in Rome seem largely to be neglected and abused, more obstacles to progress and efficient travel—or rich sources of tourist dollars—than parts of a living heritage. The vastness of old stuff—very old stuff—in Rome is daunting. I can see how Italians might decide it is not possible to maintain all sites and that some can be left to crumble. But even the popular attractions for which tourists pay admission are poorly maintained, with weeds rooting in millennia-old brick walls, slowly dissolving the ancient mortar.

I question too the intellectual integrity of the sites. Archaeological standards and practices have evolved since the Napoleon-era excavations, but no guidebook, map, or (infrequent) descriptive sign made clear what is original, what is repaired, what is reconstructed, what is remodeled and repurposed. I had the sense that there was something not quite honest, something cynical about much of what we saw. Even at the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel had a Barnumesque, this-way-to-the-egress (by way of the gift shop) air.

Perhaps my impression was colored by cultural differences. The , ever vigilant in the persons of opera buffa–costumed but well-armed police, seem mostly to be interested in standing around, as professional criminals extract what they can from American tourists. There are con artists, pickpockets, beggars, and thieves everywhere you turn, many of them well-dressed and well-spoken, some of them serving in their official capacity as ticket sellers. The economy of Rome seems dependent on American aid. Or on Americans’ personal aid. This kind of dependency breeds resentment and contempt, which may explain the generally unsmiling and surly service from people presumably in the hospitality business. Or perhaps it’s just visitor fatigue: When will all these stupid foreigners leave?

Everywhere we went in Rome there was evidence of poverty—not grinding, abject poverty, but clearly a stratification of society (as is typical in American cities) that was not at all evident in Germany. At least in the Rhine Valley, Germany seemed virtually classless. The streets were safe and free from beggars, spruikers, and hustlers. Having read of the two-class system that separates those of German blood (citizens) from those, such as the descendants of Turkish gastarbeiters, of non-Aryan heritage (noncitizens), I expected to see evidence of serious social tension. I did not. There were political demonstrations (it was May Day), but there was no anger. It was only in Rome, rife with cynicism and negativity, that I sensed fear, anger, and social tension.

The editor in me says that you should be careful of stereotypes. The traveler in me says that you should be careful of overly friendly strangers no matter where you are but that you are more likely to encounter them in Rome than in other places we visited.