Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Times more" and "times less"—a contrarian view

As someone who gravitated toward math in school, I fully support, at the gut level, the proscription of the construction “A is three times more than B” and the construction “A is three times less than B.” Neither makes any logical or mathematical sense, as so ably explained by Bill Walsh on his blog, The Slot. This is not an argument about grammar; it’s about the semantic content of these expressions. Logically they have none, and yet people continue to use them and have meaning in mind when they do so.

And now I’ve come around to a view of the matter that goes against logic and against my gut preference. I think I now know how to understand where these constructions come from and why people use them.

Bear with me as I set forth a couple of vaguely analogous realities.

Retail markup
When calculating price markups, a manufacturer, distributor, or wholesaler divides the selling price by the cost. So if it costs me $1.00 to manufacture a good (would that we could manufacture good that cheaply in the world, eh?) and I sell it for $1.50, I have marked it up 50%.

However, a retailer does not calculate markup the same way. A retailer divides the selling price by the margin to calculate markup. If a retailer buys a good for $1.00 and sells it for $2.00, the margin is $1.00, and that is 50% of the selling price. So the retailer is applying a 50% markup. The same two prices, seen by the wholesaler, would result in a calculated markup of 100%.

In shoe retailing, to take an example, the standard markup is 66.7%. That means that a pair of shoes the store buys for $10 has a retail price of $30. A “50% off” sale leaves the retailer with a margin of $5, which is 33.3% of the selling price and 16.67% of the original price but 50% of the cost. To the wholesaler this looks like a 50% markup, but not to the retailer.

People who think mathematically find retail arithmetic illogical verging on deceptive. But it’s a natural way of thinking for retailers.

Baker’s percentage
Bakers have an even more bizarre approach to calculation. All ingredients are expressed as a percentage of the weight of the flour. Thus a formula for French bread (pain ordinaire) is 100% Type 55 flour, 60% water, 2% salt, 2% yeast. That adds up to 164%, which is absurd on the face of it. Yet it makes perfect sense to bakers.

Now to our quandaries …

Times more than
The positive integers (1, 2, 3, … ) are called the natural numbers. This makes sense. These are the first numbers we learn, because we can put them in one-to-one correspondence with out fingers, at least to begin with. We, along with some other species, are adept at comparing quantities, as well. We know that this pile has more sugar cubes than that pile. So understanding “more than” is a fairly primitive ability that requires no training in mathematics.

If we stay with natural numbers and never extend the number line to the left (even to zero!), we can nonetheless develop the ability to do simple multiplication (the times table). When we do that, all results are more than the multiplicand. Three times any other natural number is more than the number we multiplied by three.

Yes, “times more than” is an imprecise and logically ambiguous use of language, but it’s easy enough to see how someone who does not think about the world in numerical or mathematical terms can be perfectly comfortable with it. How important is it, in the grand scheme of things, if “four times more than” means four times as much or five times as much? All we need to know for the purpose of getting past this sentence to the more interesting parts of the article is that it’s a lot bigger. One, two, three, many.

Times less than
Still positing that we’re inside the mind of the bright, highly literate but innumerate reader who tuned out math class starting sometime around third grade, we recall that division is somehow the inverse of multiplication, whatever that means, and we know instinctively that “less than” is the inverse of “more than.” So it is intuitively obvious that “times less than” must be the inverse of “times more than.” If we multiply by 4 to get four times more than, then we divide by 4 to get four times less than. What could be simpler?

The fact that it makes no sense to those of us who were actually interested in math is irrelevant to the person who knows what it means and doesn’t care about calculating an actual number. “Four times less than” is smaller, and “a thousand times less than” is a lot smaller, and “a million times less than” is a whole lot smaller, and what more do we really need to know?

So the crux of my argument is that “times more than” and “times less than,” while they drive some of us (including me) nuts, just represent an alternative calculation system analogous to retail markup and baker’s percentage, and we should relax and let people say imprecise, ambiguous stuff if they want to, so long as the actual numbers don’t matter too much.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Be the publisher

I find myself constantly having to explain to people that self-publishing is publishing and they should think of themselves as publishers. Antipodean colleague Gordon Woolf says it better in an ezine article, “What is a Self-Publisher and Why You Should Aim Higher.”

The short version? When you walk into a room to greet readers, you’re a published author, not a self-published author. When you walk into a room to sell books, you’re a publisher, not a self-publisher. Identifying yourself as a self-publisher in any context is bush league.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You should know this about book publishing

Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers wrote The 10 Awful Truths about Publishing. Worth reading. Thanks to Amy Einsohn for the link.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Book publication timeline

Here’s a real-life timeline for a mainstream, agented book (thanks to @KOKEdit by way of @krishvenkatesh for the link).

In my experience, self-publishing is a more compressed process. It typically takes about six months from the time I receive a draft manuscript from an author until ARCs are printed (if the marketing plan for the book includes ARCs) or until finished books are printed. Some books go faster than that. Some go slower. The variable is usually the author’s turnaround time on revisions. The reason I can turn out a book faster than the traditional trade publishing industry is that I can focus on just a few projects at a time rather than having to fill a pipeline with dozens or hundreds of titles. Their process takes as long as it takes. For particularly time-critical books (occasioned by the death of a celebrity, for example), a large publisher can put a team together and knock out a book in three days. That’s not a process I can compete with.

Many first-time authors have unrealistic expectations about how long it takes to publish a book. Go ahead and click the link.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wax on. Wax off.

Earlier today, on an editing list, Odile Sullivan-Tarazi posed an interesting question. She wrote in part (and gave me permission to post here):
A terminology question for those of you working with software applications or websites.

Our group is looking at these sets of terms:

log on / log off

log in / log out


sign on / sign off

sign in / sign out

From your point of view, is this a valid distinction? Does it matter whether a user is working in an application that resides on her local machine, a company server, or on the Internet?

What distinction, if any, do you make between these two sets of terms, or do you see in your work being made between these two terms? Then when it comes to log on or log in, which do you think is more correct, more standard? And with sign on, sign in?
Here’s my two cents’ worth on the subject. See if you concur.

First, I vote for consistency across a company’s public interface (packaged software or Web presence). Either choose log in / log out or sign in / sign out and stick with it. (I’m not fond of the on/off variants, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.) And drum into the interface designers and software developers that you log in at the login prompt. Login is not a verb. If you can accomplish just that, you’ve performed a feat.

Second, I think the choice depends on which metaphor the anticipated audience is going to find more comfortable. Log is short for logbook. Logbooks are used by navigators and commanders of vessels (sea or air); by police department property clerks; and so forth. There’s something a little stiff, professional, technical, bureaucratic about logging in and logging out. This will be part of your permanent record, as they used to tell us in elementary school. Signing in is something you do when you visit a building, go to your doctor’s office, attend a funeral. It has more of a social, personal connotation. Your counterpart wants to remember who was there that day, and maybe the record will be put in a filing cabinet somewhere, but it’s a process accessible to anyone, not just the officially designated keeper of the logbook. And finally, signing on and signing off are what broadcasters do at the beginning and end of the broadcast day. So that just seems like the wrong model altogether.

In practical terms, logging in to a network and signing in to a network are identical. But in connotative terms, I think they’re subtly different. And that’s the basis on which I’d choose. Log in to a database administration interface; sign in to a social network.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The secrets to publishing success

Jane Friedman’s 2009 Tough Love Guide is an index to lots of solid articles on the Writer’s Digest blog. Plenty to read there. What I’ve sampled so far has all been excellent. Thanks to Joel Friedlander for the link.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

And as long as I'm being grumpy

The New Yorker, October 5 issue, page 25 (“The Talk of the Town”). Four-count-‘em-four editing errors on a single page. Possibly a new record for the magazine that used to pride themselves on the excellence of their copyediting and fact checking.
  1. carat instead of karat
  2. Hooters (capped) instead of hooters
  3. “hot-air balloon—you need the helium to get it up…” Okay, this was in a direct quote and Madeleine Albright should know better, but unless the point is to mock Albright’s unfamiliarity with how balloons work, the quote should not have been used.
  4. “Smokey-the-Bear” instead of “Smokey Bear”
And I don’t know that a ranger’s hat is necessarily made by Stetson, although perhaps it is. So that might be five.

The storm is over, 'kay?

I’ve had it with “it was a perfect storm.”

Great book. Great movie. Great coinage. But it was about a storm. You know—one of those rainy, windy thingamabobs?

Just because conditions converged that made an event in your life likelier, that does not mean you experienced a perfect storm.

So stop already. Storm’s over. Sun’s out. Get used to it.


NPR interview editors take note.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Believing the hype

So simple anyone can do it.
That’s the promise of today’s communication tools. You don’t need to know anything about all that messy HTML coding or what “plain text” means or what ASCII stands for or the difference between an email client and a web browser or how to keep your computer secure or how to wipe your—oh, wait, where was I? Right. All you need is to buy our whatever and all your problems are solved.

Managers—and this seems to apply to more of them the higher you go—buy into this hype and assume they can hire unschooled, unskilled subordinates to carry out their firms’ communication tasks.

The only trouble with this is that it isn’t true. If you rely entirely on software you don’t understand to encase your message in the fragile shell of a computer language you don’t understand, something is going to break and you will end up with egg on your face.

The solution? If you’re the subordinate, go out and educate yourself about your tools. If you’re the manager, empower your subordinate to get the needed education. Or hire someone who already understand the technology better than you do.

This message brought to you by an email my wife received this morning, purportedly from a competently managed conference services provider about an upcoming conference, but you wouldn’t know that from trying to decipher it. Broken doesn’t begin to describe it.

Competence matters.