Wednesday, April 25, 2007

There are two kinds of people in the world

There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand the binary system and those who don’t.</ rimshot> I never get tired of that joke. Wish I knew who wrote it.

Yesterday, advertising for peanuts posted a link to a marketing site for a new book. I thought the site was cool, but more to the point, I thought that other people involved in publishing would be interested in it as an example of what I assume is effective marketing. It’s certainly different from the typical one-book promotional site, many of which are churned out based on standard templates.

So I posted the link on a mailing list for small publishers.

Responses did not fall along a bell curve, as one might expect. People either love the site or they detest it; nobody is on the fence about it. The ones who hate the site can’t even see themselves making a business decision in support of a book that would lead to such a quirky and creative site.

So I’ve concluded that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who love the site and those who hate it; but I have no idea what the difference between those two groups means in terms of personality, politics, or psychological makeup. In other words, this would be a great screening test for pollsters and psychologists, if only we knew what it was measuring.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Simonyi lands safely; Schadenfreude averted

Even pacifists are allowed to have revenge fantasies. I have to admit that while Charles Simonyi, who became a billionaire as the leader of the team that developed Microsoft Word and Excel, was playing space tourist, I considered a variety of scenarios involving the phrase “has encountered a fatal error.” I suspect a lot of people who use Word every day had some of the same thoughts. Happily, Simonyi is safely back on terra firma and I won’t have to feel guilty about any of those scenarios matching reality.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The real importance of spelling correctly

You know people who spell well, almost instinctively, and you know people who are just as intelligent but who can barely spell their own names. I don’t think there’s much correlation between spelling ability and intelligence or between spelling ability and success in life by any measure.

We still have a bias toward ensuring correct spelling in print, and that’s a good thing for us editors. Beyond that, English orthography is interesting in its own right, because all those odd spellings tell us a great deal about the histories and therefore the meanings of words as well as about the way words are related to each other.

But the real reason spelling is important is that if you type the wrong word into a search engine, you end up the wrong place. Yes, I know that Google has their “Did you mean” function for common misspellings, and that’s great. But–and I know this from the traffic logs on this blog–if you think amperes is spelled ampers, Google is going to send you here before it sends you to a site that explains electrical units. (I’ll save you the trouble. One ampere is equal to one coulomb per second. Aren’t you glad you asked?)

The symbol & is an ampersand. It’s pronounced “and” (which is what it means, of course). So “ampers &” (in the blog title) is pronounced “ampersand.” It’s my own private joke, and I don’t expect anyone else to get it. But if you came here looking for “ampers,” there it is.

The other search terms that lead people here all the time really aren’t about misspellings; they’re about a habit of using Google instead of a dictionary. Ready?

People come here to find out what a virgule is. A virgule is a slanted line (/) used to separate two words. Virgule is the French word for comma, and one of the uses of the mark is to replace a comma. That’s how it’s used in two places in the title of this blog. It is also used to replace the word or, as in “and/or,” which means, literally, and OR or. And it is used to separate lines of poetry when they are run together in a paragraph: Roses are red / Violets are blue. The virgule is different, semantically and typographically, from the solidus (shilling mark), which is used in the old-style representation of British currency amounts (Unicode ). The fraction slash ( ⁄ ), used for building piece fraction, is different, as is the division slash ( ∕ ). Both have negative side bearings so that a numerator and denominator overlap them, like so: 17137 (that was a fraction slash). The division slash can be used in general algebraic expressions (miles ∕ hour) instead of the fraction slash.

People search on Google to find out how to pronounce words. Every day I get at least one or two hits from people who want to know how to pronounce kiln or au bon pain). You wouldn’t think so, but it’s true.

Getting back to my point, if you can’t spell, it’s hard to look stuff up. If you can’t look stuff up, you’re at a disadvantage relative to people who can. So, for unexpected reasons, spelling matters.

Finally, if you want to look up the definition or pronunciation of a word, use a dictionary. I like OneLook,, and Merriam-Webster Online, depending on my mood and what I’m looking up.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Katrina after the fact

An optimist sees the glass as half full. A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An engineer sees the glass as twice as big as it needs to be. I identify with the engineer.

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the first week of April with a group of volunteers doing Katrina reconstruction work in Mississippi. What everyone says who has been there is true: You have to see the extent of the destruction for yourself, up close and personal. Books, magazines, television, film, radio–despite the excellent work that has been done in all those media–cannot convey Katrina’s power or the magnitude of what the storm wrought as convincingly as seeing it in person.

I try to keep this blog nonpolitical, and I don’t know enough facts to offer any new political insight into the response to Katrina anyway. One of the things I try to do here, though, is to look at problems in the world from the point of view that the language we use to describe a problem often influences the way we approach solving it. This is the working face at which the writer’s tools–words and syntax–can have a tangible effect in the real world. So if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to explore one aspect of the recovery effort in New Orleans and points east.

In addition to the time we spent in physical labor on people’s homes, our group also spent time touring and observing some of the worst-affected areas in New Orleans and directly on the coast of Mississippi. We spoke with long-time residents about how they had been personally affected and we listened to volunteer coordinators giving their analyses, too. The question in my mind since Katrina was why so many people wanted to return to and rebuild in a place that is so obviously impractical and dangerous. The answer I came to understand is that, quite simply, it is home. People there, like long-time residents anywhere, cherish their neighbors, their families, their dead. Moving hundreds or thousands of miles away just because that’s the practical thing to do is out of the question for people who are emotionally attached to the memories of a place, the personal connections with their community, their own family histories.

Okay, I can understand that. They want to continue to live there and we, as a nation, owe them a chance to do that. And so they struggle with the bureaucracies and the insurance companies in an effort to be made whole in their homes again.

As we drove in our vans along Interstate 10 in New Orleans on our trips to and from Kiln, Mississippi, we passed through one large area where block after block of houses sat empty, most of them boarded up or else abandoned, the blue tarps on their roofs long since tattered by sun and wind, with a house here and there showing signs of reconstruction. Whole shopping malls had been cleared to their concrete pads. Here and there we’d see a new mall risen from the dust. And there were two new, decent-size, fairly attractive condo developments, too, that developers had thrown up quickly.

It was the contrast between the many square miles of devastated houses–unimpressive, small, one-story brick houses on tiny lots–and the two blocks of condos that prompted a thought. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might find you get what you need.”

I do get that, in terms of family history, struggling against racism and climbing just far enough out of poverty to finally say that this plot of land and the house sitting on it are ours at last creates a powerful totem that nobody would want to desecrate or abandon. At the same time, it is obvious when you are there that replacing all those tens of thousands of individual houses on their lots, brick by brick, stick by stick, will take decades even if the money starts to flow today.

So here’s my challenge to the people who lost their homes: What’s more important to you–returning to your community, your people, your life (sooner) or being made whole in your specific house on your specific lot (later)? Faced with the problem, not of your making to be sure, that putting you back on your lot with a raised, storm-resistant (hence more expensive) house is going to take more resources than are likely to become available; that stick-built, detached, single-family houses covering a flood plain are not something we should have built in the first place; that, as Admiral Rickover said, “the best is the enemy of the good”; would you consider supporting a different plan, one that envisions large construction companies with skilled crews erecting condominium complexes quickly; swapping your insurance claim and reconstruction money for a unit in one of them, and making do in that less-than-ideal housing (we have to assume these will be cheaply built condos that won’t last forever); and getting on with the process of rebuilding a life in New Orleans for now, with the goal of owning your own house later?

That’s not a solution I’ve heard discussed. I’ve heard only about, on one hand, people in limbo, waiting for the money to rebuild their homes on their own lots; and, on the other hand, urban visionaries debating grand master plans. I haven’t heard anyone asking the question, How do we get people housed adequately and as soon as possible? I think it’s time to frame the question that way. It isn’t a perfect solution, and nobody is going to be thrilled with the results. But it’s better than no solution at all, which is where we are now, despite the many thousands of volunteers who pitch in every month to push the rebuilding process forward.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Jumpin' up and down yelling "KILN! KILN!"

In the linguistic equivalent of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” speech is always primary and writing secondary. That is, the infant learns to speak before learning to write, and this recapitulates the development of a language from that which we speak to the writing system we use to preserve it, however imperfectly. (I’ll save for another day the irony that we demand a greater degree of so-called correctness in writing than in speech, an irony that puts food on my table).

Some words, and here I’m talking about English words that have been with us for a long time, fall into disuse in wide geographic areas. They become part of people’s reading vocabulary, the words they know because they’ve encountered them in newspapers or books but have not heard in ordinary conversation with people who learned them before they could read. Rather than look up the pronunciation in a dictionary, people often guess, based on the spelling. This reading pronunciation, as linguists refer to it, becomes widespread. Eventually dictionaries report this new pronunciation as standard and the original pronunciation, passed parent to child, mouth to ear for many generations, is lost. At least it is lost most places.

I was reminded of this particular form of linguistic change over the last week, which I spent in Kiln, Mississippi. I was there with a group of forty-some volunteers from Connecticut, doing Katrina reconstruction work. (I’ll blog about that later, when I have pictures to share.)

Rural communities like Kiln do not attract a lot of in-migration. As a result, they tend to be linguistically isolated and thus relatively stable over long periods. And place names, because they are often used as shibboleths, are particularly stable. There are no kilns in Kiln anymore, but the name is pronounced as it always was—kil. (Phonetically, that short i in the middle sounds more like a long eeeey to this Yankee, but the word rhymes with bill or mill in the local dialect.) There is no n sound at the end of the word. Aside from asking locals how they pronounce the name of the town (a notoriously unreliable way to find out that information, as locals everywhere like to preserve their shibboleths and make fools of strangers), I confirmed this pronunciation independently by noting that the local video store is Kiln-n-Time, not Kil-n-Time.

But I had a hard time convincing my traveling companions that the local pronunciation is in fact the older pronunciation and that kiln is a reading pronunciation. Everyone in the group had encountered the word away from its social context—perhaps in a pottery class or in a history book, but not in a place where one’s father or the father of one’s friend went off to work every morning at the local kiln.

The 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary shows only the single pronunciation kil. Recent dictionaries show kiln as the more common pronunciation and kil as less common. Given the percentage of the population for whom a kiln is not an everyday thing, this is not surprising. But the good people of Kiln, Mississippi, don’t pronounce the name of their town the way they do out of ignorance. The rest of us pronounce it the way we do out of ignorance.