Wednesday, January 24, 2007

One leg at a time

When I lived alone, between marriages, I watched a lot of television. But now I live in a house where the tv set is in the basement. Out of sight, out of mind. Mostly I have NPR on the radio, and that’s about as close to mainstream electronic media as I get. Yesterday, though, a commentator on NPR suggested that it might be interesting to watch for body language cues during the State of the Union broadcast. So I trundled downstairs with my wife and we watched.

What a bunch of dorks! I say that in full knowledge that I’m a dork myself and this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. But I mean it in the most loving way. The American public, for all its foibles and shortcomings, elects a lot of truly unattractive, ungainly, awkward, fashion-impaired people to the national legislature. This is a good thing. It means that in this age of expensive television advertising during every campaign cycle, when cynical pundits pontificate about how easy it is to manipulate public opinion and the extent to which we vote for the taller and better-looking candidate, people vote for content over form. I find that heartening.

I also find heartening the fact that biology was on display last night.
  • The camera was on Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff at one point when the President (yes, I still capitalize it; sue me) used the word homeland in his speech. Chertoff, who had a serious and attentive expression on his face and ramrod-straight posture, reflexively jerked his head the instant the word was uttered.
  • You know, I’m sure, of the classic demonstration of peer group pressure. Four people get into an elevator. Three of them, the experimenter’s confederates, turn to face the back of the car. The fourth, the experimental subject, turns around too. Last night, when the President introduced people in the gallery—modest, humble people—they stood there clapping wildly for themselves, simply because everyone else in the room was clapping.
On the one hand, the fact that we behave as the animals that we are means that logical and rational discourse and decision-making are always challenging. On the other, the fact that we behave predictably means that it’s at least theoretically possible to provide incentives for people to behave better (however you happen to define better). And while this is interesting to think about at the global scale, it is also instructive at the local scale—because the same psychological characteristics that affect our behavior in the world also affect our behavior as we cogitate, write, edit, read, and interact with others in the privacy of our homes and offices. Food for thought.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Fact checking

I have deadlines pressing and, as a result, I have been putting in long hours. So I decided to take a break and peruse the New Yorker that came the other day, the January 22 issue. The magazine has a well-deserved reputation for meticulous editing, even if they make odd style choices (there’s that “vender” again, I notice).

Numbers, though, are problematic. A great many people come to the writing and editing game having managed to indulge their aversion for all matters mathematical or scientific. They’re great with words—their passion—but having once decided they were math-impaired (whether that’s true or they just suffered abysmal elementary instruction in the subject), they continue through life not worrying too much if they get the fact right where numbers are concerned.

Don’t get me wrong. Fact checking is a big deal at the New Yorker. They’re quite careful with names and dates and places and quotations. But…well, let me quote the paragraph that prompted this post:
This year, Americans will consume close to four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity. In addition, we will burn through a hundred and forty-three billion gallons of gasoline, which at current retail prices will cost us some three hundred and sixty billion dollars, and twenty-six billion gallons of jet fuel, worth fifty billlion dollars. To heat our homes and businesses this winter, we will purchase sixty-two billion dollars’ worth of natural gas and heating oil, and just to grill our weenies we will buy some seven hundred and seventy-one million dollars’ worth of charcoal briquettes. In 2007, total energy expenditures in the U.S. will come to more than a quadrillion dollars, or roughly a tenth of the country’s gross domestic product.
Where to start?

Well, let me start with a copyediting nit. Where I come from, the word and does not belong in expressions like “a hundred and forty-three billion.” However, at least and was used consistently. So I suppose that’s a regional difference and I should shut up about that.

But let’s look at the numbers. That quadrillion got my attention. So I looked up the gross domestic product (one quick check on Google, no trip to the library required). It turns out that our GDP is on the order of twelve or thirteen trillion dollars. A quadrillion is a thousand trillions. A tenth of our GDP is somewhat above a trillion dollars, not a thousand times as much. But what’s a few zeros between friends?

Let’s see if the numbers add up correctly, even if we knock off the extra zeros.
“Four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity”
at roughly $0.10 each
Natural gas and heating oil$62,000,000,000
Charcoal briquettes$71,000,000
I’ll grant that the charcoal briquettes were thrown in as a joke, and somehow the diesel fuel for trucks, trains, and ships was left out. A quick Google check on diesel consumption, though, only adds another seventy or eighty billion dollars. So we’re really not very close to a trillion, let alone a quadrillion, and we’re well under a tenth of GDP.

Having gone through that exercise, I’m not sure I want to spend the time to read the rest of the article, nor am I likely to give the magazine as much credence in the future as I have in the past.

What’s the lesson? The lesson is that if you aren’t sure of your facts and you don’t know how to check your facts, you need to let someone check them who is competent to do so. Otherwise, your own credibility suffers.

Words and numbers matter.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The sky isn't falling anymore

The Big Dig is reopening today after the documented inspection and repair of over 3,000 ceiling hangers. Meanwhile an investigation continues into where the blame lies for the improper installation of two-thirds of those bolts.

Poor documentation has played a major role in some significant engineering failures (the Challenger disaster being one of the most famous examples). What I’m wondering is whether that’s going to turn out to be a factor in Boston. Apparently, the ceiling system was an innovative design. So there would not have been a pool of workers experienced with installing these bolts. Was there training? What documents were used in the training? Who was responsible for writing, designing, testing, and approving the training documents? What documents were provided with the bolts? Who was responsible for writing, designing, testing, and approving the installation instructions?

Technical documentation of all sorts—in all industries—is often seen as a necessary evil, an afterthought, something to be checked off on a list of contract deliverables. Managers hate to pay for the resources needed to do technical documentation well, and the result is poor documentation that fails to meet its goals. Sometimes people die as a result.

Words matter. Design matters. Documents matter.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Cool quiz: Where are you from?

Thanks to Frank Wilson for the link. The quiz nailed my dialect (born and raisedreared in Cleveland).

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Midland
The Northeast
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Best. Bagels. Ever. Really.

This post has nothing to do with editing or publishing and everything to do with bagels.

A good bagel is hard to find. Here’s how hard: I’ve been looking for a good bagel for decades. In all that time, since the first- and second-generation bagel makers all retired and industrial bagels swept America, I ran across two or three acceptable bagels but until a couple of months ago never again found a great bagel.

So what makes a great bagel and why am I telling you this?

A great bagel has these characteristics:
  • It has a thin, shiny, hard, crunchy crust.
  • The crumb is soft to bite through, with a combination of tight, fine texture and the occasional large eye.
  • At the same time, the crumb is tough and resilient enough that you can spread cold-from-the-refrigerator butter or non-whipped, old-fashioned cream cheese on it without tearing it.
This has apparently been a hard combination to achieve for both chains and independent bakers. Instead, we’ve been suffering with either soft and gummy softball-size bagels that are not much more interesting than Wonder Bread with a hole in it or dense, dry, doughy bagels that you can’t eat without drinking a quart of water.

Now I readily admit that your taste may differ from mine. If you’re under thirty and have never tasted a real bagel, you might find one not to your liking. That’s fine. If you like Lender’s or Bruegger’s or Manhattan Bagel, or H&H, or (Shudder!) Dunkin’ Donuts bagels or Bagels Plus! or Einstein Bros., then you go right ahead and keep eating those. But if you’ve been on the same frustrating bagel quest I’ve been on, then I’ve got news for you.

If you are anywhere within driving distance of Milford, Connecticut (Exit 36 on I-95), go to:

The Bagel Bar & Deli
1085 Bridgeport Avenue
Milford CT 06460

If you are not within driving distance, call them up and have them ship you fresh bagels overnight. (Don’t email, because apparently they never check their inbox.)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the real deal. These are the bagels of my youth. The best news is that the owner, Rich, who has only been in business for a few years, is a young man. He hadn’t been born the last time I had a bagel this good. But with our support he’ll be making great bagels until long after I’m too old to eat them.

We now return to our regularly scheduled discussion of writing, editing, and publishing. There’s a baker’s dozen of bagels calling to me from the kitchen.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Gerald, Our Ford

In 1975, four of us bought a run-down former dairy farm in the valley in Herkimer County, New York. That’s dairy country because milk is what the land there is best suited to produce. Being young, urban, and stupid, though, we bought the place for the purpose of growing organic vegetables.

Brian kept his day job in New Jersey for the first year or so that we owned the farm, making the long commute on weekends to help with the repairs and with the horticultural chores (growing vegetables is horticulture, not agriculture; agriculture is the growing of field crops; raising animals is husbandry; raising fruit is pomiculture; it’s all farming but words matter). Brian’s day job was with a company that exported Ford Motor Company parts. He had a good relationship with the boss and was able to get parts at a deep discount. So he quite reasonably insisted that any vehicles we buy be Fords. He was also the only one of us who had any notion of what to do under the hood or chassis of a vehicle. So he was our delegated vehicle buyer. His first purchase was a pickup truck, a used one that was old enough for a shade tree mechanic like Brian to be able to work on it.

As we had bought the farm through the L. C. Ford Agency in town, we naturally named the pickup Elsie.

Brian’s next purchase was a tractor, a , 1947 vintage. was President at the time. The President, despite being an accomplished athlete, had a propensity for stumbling, tripping, and bumping his head pretty much whenever a camera was rolling, a habit for which is heavily indebted to the man. So the first time we sank our little 9N up to the axle in mud—a clumsy mistake on our part, not the tractor’s fault at all—we decided to name it Gerald, Our Ford.

Gerald, Our Ford, is still running, as far as I know (we eventually sold it). Gerald R. Ford died at 93, the day after Christmas and just a few months after his doctor told him he could no longer swim laps twice a day as he’d been doing until then. I don’t think the tractor will survive to 93.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Horticulture: honing in on loose lead

I made exactly one New Year’s Resolution and here I am breaking it on New Year’s Day. How’s that for will power?

I resolved to be less pedantic, less critical, less petty—in short, less of a curmudgeon. Well, fuhgeddaboudit!

The newspaper of record, in yesterday’s Week in Review, printed the following sentence: “Juhu Thukral…noted that the England killings have lead to a national discussion there.…”

Yes, it’s just a simple typo and simple copyreading error. No, it’s nothing to get excited about. Yes, it can happen at the Times as easily as anywhere else. No, this isn’t really important.

But this is one of three specific errors that I keep seeing, everywhere I look, perpetrated by literate, intelligent people, that make me nuts. I am going to list them here, and I hope that your New Year’s Resolution is to avoid these three errors for the remainder of the year, regardless of what other silly mistakes you may make:
  1. When you lose something, it is lost. When you loose something, you set it free. See the difference? Lose has a z sound at the end. Loose has an s sound at the end. Got it?
  2. You hone a knife to put a sharp edge on it. You home in on a target, like a homing pigeon. Two different words. Got it?
  3. Lead (pronounced led) is a high-specific-gravity metal used in automotive batteries and for shielding us from stray radiation. The past tense of the verb to lead (pronounced lede) is led (sounds just like the metal). The first paragraph of a story is a lede, intentionally misspelled that way to avoid any possibility of confusion with the editor’s instruction to lead out the paragraph with thin strips of the metal lead, in the days of hot metal composition. Is this confusing? Perhaps. But, in immortal words, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
Happy New Year!