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Copy editors are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat. [...] The copy editor's job, to the extent possible under deadline, is to slow down, think things through, do the math and ask the irritating question.

Lawrence Downs



<April 2014>


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Update every 30 minutes. Last: 10:54 AM Pacific


posted at 09:44 PM | | |

It's probably a cliché, but it's still true: riding a motorcycle regularly has made me into a better (car) driver. Here's a list of the skills that I've been honing on the motorcycle that I think have translated back into car skills.

Watching other drivers
The most obvious skill is that when you're on a motorcycle, you become hyperconscious of what other drivers are doing or might do. You might think of this as defensive driving, except on steroids. Another term is situational awareness. Anticipating what others might do becomes essential on a motorcycle; bikers are usually familiar with the phenomenon of SMIDSY ("Sorry, mate, I didn't see you"). You just learn to assume that people don't see you, even if they seem to be looking right at you (inattention blindess). And since they might not see you, you better watch out for them. This proves to be a useful skill when driving a car, too.

Using mirrors
I think that most car drivers don't know how to use their mirrors effectively. First, mirrors have to be adjusted correctly. On a bike, it's not as easy to do headchecks, since it's often an odd angle (for me, anyway). So I've learned to arrange my mirrors so that I have a complete view of what's behind me, including my blind spots, and now I feel comfortable changing lanes and turning without a headcheck.

Second, you have to actually use your mirrors. Again, I think a lot of car drivers don't scan their mirrors regularly (like, every 5 to 10 seconds just for toodling along, and constantly when changing lanes or stopping or turning), and some seem to change lanes or make turns without looking in the mirror. Do that on a motorcycle and soon enough you'll be dead.

In a kind of related point, I also try to stay out of car drivers' blind spots. If I notice that I'm in the blind spot of a car in the lane next to me, I'll either try to hang further back or get ahead where there's a somewhat better chance they'll see me if they decide to lunge into my lane.

Braking on a motorcycle is a bit of a fraught exercise. Do it wrong—too hard, while turning, or with a mismatch between rear and front brakes—and you can earn yourself a case of road rash. A simple way to reduce the chance of bad braking is simply to slow down earlier, such as when you see a red light or stop sign ahead. (Some drivers seem to race up to stop like that and then hit the brakes.) I've become quite conscious of when I'm braking while I ride, and this has inevitably translated to thinking about it in the car.

And my other solution to better braking is …

Following appropriately
What is it with people who tailgate? On the bike I've learned the discipline of the two-second rule: when the car ahead of you passes a specific point, you should be able to count "one-mississippi-two-mississippi" before you pass the same point. I do not want to have to hit the brakes hard (see previous point). I'm still better about this on the bike than I am in the car, but I'm getting better.

Watching for motorcycles
Finally, being a motorcycle rider makes you see other motorcycles. Many bikers wave at one another as they pass, which is a nice protocol. I've become so used to this that when I drive the car I now sort of reflexively want to wave at an oncoming bike. That would be silly, but it does mean that I'm much more conscious of bikes now, even in a car.

If you ride a motorcycle, do you also have a list of skills that you feel have made you a better driver?


   |  I <3 DST

posted at 12:37 PM | | |

In the U.S. today, it's time for the semi-annual grump-fest about the changeover to Daylight Saving Time, aka DST. As we say around here, we "spring forward" an hour on the clocks, such that the first thing you do on Sunday morning is run around the house and slice an hour off your clock. You woke up at 9:00? Guess what, it's actually 10:00!

Some people don't understand why we do this, and lots of people don't like it, citing reasons from sleep deprivation to communism. It's true that DST doesn't make sense everywhere, and indeed, DST is not imposed everywhere. In the US, it's not uniform in Arizona, and Hawaii doesn't play at all.

Basically speaking, DST makes more sense the further north you go (or south, in the southern hemisphere), because it's an effort to even out, so to speak, the differences between the shortest and longest days. The closer you get to the equator, of course, the less of a difference there is, and at the equator, there is no difference (ok, only a very small difference) between the length of days on the solstices.

Ever since the beginning, offsetting the clock was proposed as a way to save energy (by Ben Franklin, who else, who calculated energy costs in terms of candles burned). The idea is to shift the bulk of daylight to the hours when people are most active.

Consider our latitude here in Seattle. Here's a graphical illustration of the times for sunrise and sunset at the solstices and with DST (not entirely to scale[1]):

Winter solstice[2]

Summer solstice without DST

Summer solstice with DST

The general theory of DST is that more people are active on the evening side of the day than on the morning side. Or to use the numbers, more people are active at 9:09 pm than they are at 4:11 am. And being active, they need light, and why use energy (candles, electricity, whatever) when you could use daylight instead.

From the simple perspective of saving energy, it would theoretically be better to let areas impose DST that can actually benefit from it (Seattle, upper Alberta, whatever) and allow those areas that don't benefit from it (Key West, FL, Brownsville, TX) to give it a pass. But the benefits of having a standardized time system seem to (so far) outweigh the issues of imposing DST uniformly across the country.

Me, I'm not a morning person myself, so the longer the evening lasts, the happier I am. Daylight in the sky at 10:00pm? Fine by me. Sure, there's a hit today in terms of a lost hour, but that's like traveling one time zone, which is not considered that odious. And so tonight I'll be happy that there will be light in the sky well after 6:00pm.

[1] h/t to stepdaughter Emma for the Photoshop work here

[2] Altho daylight here is represented by a sunny yellow, I can assure that, what with this diagram representing Seattle, it should actually be a kind of steel gray.


   |  Show/hide revisions in Word 2013

posted at 11:13 PM | | |

I just installed Word 2013 and was disappointed to note that some of the long-standing keyboard shortcuts no longer work. For example, I've been using Alt+V,A for years (decades?) to invoke an ancient menu command to toggle between hiding and showing revision marks. Even when they introduced the ribbon and the menus went away, a lot of those old menu-command shortcuts still worked. And some still do; but this particular one no longer does, darn it.

I spent a little while trying to map keystrokes to the show-revision and hide-revision commands in the Review tab. Either I'm not finding them or (as I believe) there's no longer a single command to toggle show/hide of rev marks in the way I've come to rely on.

So, macro time. Using the macro recorder and some editing, I created the following macro and then mapped Alt+V,A to it. Macros are stored in Normal.dotm, so as long as that remains available I should be good. (Right?) However, I'll have to update Normal.dotm on each machine on which I install Word 2013.

Perhaps there's an easier mapping for this functionality. If this macro thing doesn't work out, I'll investigate further.
Sub ShowOrHideShowRevisions()
If ActiveWindow.View.RevisionsFilter.Markup = wdRevisionsMarkupNone Then
' Hide revisions
With ActiveWindow.View.RevisionsFilter
.Markup = wdRevisionsMarkupAll
.View = wdRevisionsViewFinal
End With
' Show revisions
With ActiveWindow.View.RevisionsFilter
.Markup = wdRevisionsMarkupNone
.View = wdRevisionsViewOriginal
End With
End If
End Sub

[categories] ,

   |  10 year blogaversary

posted at 06:11 AM | | [2] |

Jeez, I totally missed it: this blog just turned 10—my first entry was on June 27, 2003. I had previously used Livejournal but found that (at the time) they had no search facility. And I needed a coding project to accompany a writing project I was on, and hey, how hard could it be?

The entries have wandered around a bit through coding, writing and editing, family news, and other topics (see the Categories list over there on the left). This has reflected, among other things, job changes. The blog has also accreted a variety of blogging-related features, like a blogroll, trackbacks, an RSS feed, a Google AdSense box, a Facebook Like button, and so on—a microcosmic revue of blogging trends.

The actual code that runs the blog is a rat's nest, tho as recently as this weekend I was still poking around in it to make changes. (I would never wish that onto anyone else, gah.) Nonetheless I find it fun even now to wallow around in the code and add some small improvement.

What a learning experience it's been.

The volume has fallen off, as happens. I have a couple of other, more-focused blogs, and I contribute to a gang blog at work. And there's Facebook. One thing that hasn't changed is my tendency toward blather. Thank goodness there's the Internet, eh? :-)


   |  Your thots? Tech writing in 60 minutes

posted at 06:17 AM | | [8] |

A challenge: you have a conference room and 60 minutes to teach a group of engineers to become better tech writers. What do you tell them?

   |  Editing Worksheet -- Part 1: Answers

posted at 10:10 PM | | [3] |

Last week I posted the first half of a worksheet that we worked on during the recent copyediting class. Here are my notes for the issues in the sentences.

There's plenty of room for debate here. Because the Chicago Manual of Style was one of the class texts, many of the edits are based on that book. Other style guides have different theories about how to manage some of these issues.

Of course, some edits aren't controversial; you do have to spell words and names correctly, for example. Anyway, see what you think. If you have questions about any of the sentences, feel free to leave a comment.

This is the key for the abbreviations used to flag errors:
  • n.n = as discussed in CMoS reference (might not have definitive answer)
  • au = consult author to clarify meaning or agree on style
  • dict = consult dictionary; in general, use first variant.
  • edb = consult The Eggcorn Database
  • ssg = consult specialized style guide (e.g. Microsoft Manual of Style)
  • TCH = as discussed in The Copyeditor’s Handbook
  • um = consult usage manual (e.g. Garner, M-W Dictionary of English Usage)
  • web = find authoritative information on the web (e.g. company website)
And here are the sentences.
  1. Gray[dict; American spelling] whales have found a safe place to breed on Mexico's coast, where programs have been implemented to try to bring the marine mammals back from the brink of extinction.

  2. Commercial radio seemed dead, but college radio gave it a new lease[dict, web, edb] on life.

  3. Madeleine Albright[8.3, web] (born May 15, 1937[9.32]) was the first woman to become the United States secretary of state[8.21].

  4. The list contained an extensive list of dos and don’ts[7.13/dict] for practicing good browsing hygiene.

  5. Reviews have found that the data is[um, ssg] flawed in a surprising number of research projects.

  6. Three hundred and twelve[9.5] people showed up in response to an ad for two[9.2] open positions.

  7. You can buy both PDF[10.52] and hard-copy[ssg, dict] versions of the book.

  8. The division generated $600,000[9.24] USD[9.22] in profit on sales of $2.6 million USD[9.4, 9.8, 9.22].

  9. We ask that you please[7.47] tidy up after yourself.

  10. The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA)[10.3, 10.4] was entered in November 1998[6.45], originally between the four[9.3] largest United States tobacco companies and the attorneys general[7.7] of 46[9.3; cf 9.7] states.

  11. The reunification of the two Germanys[7.8] was a political triumph, but culturally, the differences took a generation to resolve.

  12. The company maintained a page with an FAQ[10.9] (frequently asked questions)[TCH 228] list.

  13. The People’s History of the United States[8.166] is a highly regarded[7.82] “alternative”[7.55] text that examines the United States’[7.19] development from the viewpoint of the so-called common people[7.56].

  14. The volume of “spam”[7.55] email[7.85/380, ssg] forced the website[7.76,ssg, dict] to temporarily suspend operations.

  15. Each user has a unique name within the account, and a set of security credentials[au, 7.54] not shared with other users.

  16. When signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964[8.79], LBJ[10.12] reportedly said that the Democratic Party[8.65] had lost the South[8.64] for a generation.

  17. One vendor[dict] suggested that the certifying body simply needed to issue more thorough exams.[au for meaning; 7.85/377]


   |  Editing Worksheet -- Part 1

posted at 10:47 AM | | |

When I was teaching copyediting recently, I came up with a worksheet that contained 34 (!) sentences that might or might not have had editorial issues. We looked at the worksheet at the beginning of class, then reviewed a bunch of editing guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), then reviewed the sentences again at the end of class. Other editorial references we talked about in the class (tho these were not readily available) included dictionaries, the Microsoft Manual of Style, The Copyeditor's Handbook, and Garner's Modern American Usage.

Here is the first half of that set of sentences. See what you can make of them. I'll post my notes (not necessarily answers) for this half in a few days.
  1. Grey whales have found a safe place to breed on Mexico's coast, where programs have been implemented to try to bring the marine mamals back from the brink of extinction.

  2. Commercial radio seemed dead, but college radio gave it a new leash on life.

  3. Madeline Allbright (born May 15, 1937) was the first woman to become the United States Secretry of State.

  4. The list contained an extensive list of do’s and don’t’s for practicing good browsing hygiene.

  5. Reviews have found that the data is flawed in a surprising number of research projects.

  6. 312 people showed up in response to an ad for 2 open positions.

  7. You can buy both .pdf and hardcopy versions of the book.

  8. The division generated $6 hundred thousand in profit on sales of $2.6M.

  9. We ask that you “please” tidy up after yourself.

  10. The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (M. S. A.) was entered in November 1998, originally between the four largest United States tobacco companies and the attorney generals of 46 states.

  11. The reunification of the two Germanies was a political triumph, but culturaly, the differences took a generation to resolve.

  12. The company maintained a page with an FAQ (frequently asked questions) list.

  13. “The Peoples History of the United States” is a highly-regarded “alternative” text that examines the United States’ development from the viewpoint of the so-called “common people.”

  14. The volume of “spam” email forced the website to temporarily suspend operations.

  15. Each user has a unique name within the account, and a set of security credentials not shared with other users.

  16. When signing the Civil Rights act of 1964, L.B.J. reportedly said that the Democratic party had lost the south for a generation.

  17. One vender suggested that the certifying body simply needed to issue more thorough exams.

9 April 2013: Notes/answers for this set of sentences are now posted: Editing Worksheet -- Part 1: Answers.


   |  Copyediting Principles

posted at 12:13 AM | | |

Over the course of five Saturdays in March, I taught a class in copyediting at Bellevue College. The class is a requirement for students in the Technical Writing certificate program, and an elective for people in other cert programs.

We try to cram a lot into the 15 hours of class, though not at great depth, obviously. Things like what the different levels of editing are—developmental editing, substantive editing, and copyediting. (This class focuses only on the last.) What copyeditors do. What sorts of resources editors draw on. How to interact with authors. How to use revision marks and comments in Microsoft Word. How to create a project style sheet.

The texts are The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn and the Chicago Manual of Style. We spend a lot of time riffling through Chicago in search of guidance for specific situations: Where do commas go? How do you format a book title? Do you use a hyphen with anti- ? Still, the point is not actually to learn a lengthy list of rules for all occasions. Instead, we’re trying to illustrate for the students how and when and why to use a guidebook like Chicago. We had ample opportunity to discuss the limitations of One Rule to Rule Them All, and how the real task is much more pragmatic—help the reader, help the author, help yourself by keeping a style sheet.

For the last class, I put together a list to try to summarize the aspects of the class that weren’t just about finding the right chapter and verse in Chicago or APA or MLA or MMS. I can’t take much credit; I lifted pretty much all of it from people who really know what they’re talking about when it comes to editing.

Here’s my list; annotations follow.
  • Do no harm
  • Know the audience
  • Prioritize the work
  • Look things up
  • Have a reason for every change
  • Ask the author, nicely
  • Record your decisions
  • Do things consistently
  • Review at least twice
  • Advocate for the reader
  • Remember it’s not your name at the top
  • Relax

Do no harm. A mandate from the uber-sensible Carol Fisher Saller. Surely nothing harms the editor’s credibility more than introducing errors.

Know the audience. This is fundamental to writing, of course, but it’s essential that the editor likewise understand what the reader does (and doesn’t) need to know. Scott Berkun has a great blog post that pertains to UI design but that covers some of the same ground. Along with Scott, I wish that I, too, had a t-shirt that said “It Depends.”

Prioritize the work. In TCH (pg 19–21), Amy Einsohn has a brief but critical section on “Editorial Triage” in which she describes how to use your editorial time wisely. “The copyeditor’s first task is to ask the editorial coordinator to help set priorities: Which editorial tasks are most important for this particular project, and which niceties must fall by the wayside?”

Look things up. It might not be inaccurate to observe that the less experienced the editor, the more they trust their own judgment. One way that I can gauge my own level of experience is to think about how often my editorial mentors have answered a question by looking the answer up, and to what extent I’ve learned to do that myself.

Have a reason for every change. John McIntyre: “The whole integrity of editing rests on the editor's ability, when challenged, to give a reasonable and persuasive explanation for every change in the text — and that disagreements over judgments can be worked out collegially, in discussion.”

Ask the author, nicely. Before assuming that the writer is mistaken, why not ask? And don’t be cranky: Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s advice is simple: “Respect the writer. ” Gary Kamiya: “An editor needs to remember that writing is much harder work than editing. Sending something you’ve written off into the world exposes you, leaves you vulnerable. It is a creative process, while editing is merely a reactive one.” See also McIntyre’s adverb in the preceding point: “collegially.”

Record your decisions. Whatever decision you’ve come to, write it down; that’s what style sheets are for. Melanie Spiller: “If you put your decision in a style sheet, you won’t find editors changing it to suit themselves.”

Do things consistently. It doesn’t really matter that much whether you follow one rule or another rule or you ignore them both and make up your own. Just do it the same way. Readers actually do notice—and wonder about—inconsistency. Carolyn Rude: “Consistency gives useful information to readers. […] Consistency enhances usability.”

Review at least twice. Another voice-of-experience recommendation. On page 243 of TCH, Amy Einsohn lays out her strategy for reviewing tables in three passes, looking for different things with each pass. The wise editor will do the same for headings, figures, and every other element that can benefit from oranges-to-oranges comparisons. That aside, the editor (you) should always review the edits and comments to the author before handing a document back—not only will this catch inconsistent edits and ones you’ve changed your mind about, it will help you tweak the tone of your comments.

Advocate for the reader. The point of all the work is to make the text comprehensible for the reader. The rules exist only for that purpose. Michael Swaine (on writing): “You don’t have to worry about rules of punctuation, spelling, grammar, or usage. It’s not that they aren’t useful, and you ignore them at the risk of impairing your communication. I’m just saying keep them in their place: so far as you as a writer are concerned, those things are just possibly helpful heuristics to help you say what you mean to say, and not say what you don’t mean to say. Writing is communication. Don’t lose sight of that fact and you’ll be all right.”

Remember it’s not your name at the top. It’s the author who ultimately gets the credit (or blame). You help, but they own.

Relax. It’s just editing. Get it done, and then let it go. Carol Fisher Saller again: “The manuscript does not have to be perfect because perfect isn’t possible. […] It simply has to be the best you can make it in the time you’re given, free of true errors, rendered consistent in every way that the reader needs in order to understand and appreciate, and as close to your chosen style as is practical.”


   |  Terms of venery, IT style

posted at 11:36 AM | | |

Everyone knows about a herd of cows and a clutter of cats and a murder of crows, right? These are called collective nouns or terms of venery. (The latter, more interesting, term refers to hunting, should you be wondering.) Many such terms are listed here, here, and on Melanie Spiller's site.

For fun the other day, we came up with terms of venery for the many species that can be found in the world of IT. Herewith our list. Can you come up with more?

A compilation of programmers
A unit of testers
A click of QA engineers
A spec of program managers
A package of builders
A deployment of SysOps -or- A distribution of SysOps
A bundle of network engineers
A row of DBAs
An interface of UX designers
A lab of usability testers
A snarl of IT admins
A triage of Helpdesk engineers
A pixel of graphic artists -or- A sketch of graphic artists
A meeting of managers
A retreat of general managers
A scribble of writers -or- A sheaf of writers
A revue of editors (haha) -or- A scrabble of editors
A project of interns
An oversight of auditors
A tweet of tech evangelists
A quarrel of patent lawyers

Contributors: me, David Huntsperger, Peter Delaney, Scott Kralik

[categories] ,

   |  Together in a small, crowded, moving box

posted at 11:52 PM | | |

These days I work in a tall office building, which means that I spend a lot of time in elevators going up and down between office and lobby, not to mention up and down for meetings. Sometimes I run to co-workers in the elevator, but often it’s a bunch of strangers.

I don’t know how international it is, but the protocol for Americans—or let’s say Seattleites, anyway—is essentially to ignore strangers, and to stand facing the doors. Phones help ease the awkwardness of this situation (strangers are so near, yet so ... non-existent), because people can look down and fiddle busily with their phones instead of desperately trying not to make eye contact with other passengers.

But our elevators (and, I assume, those in many other buildings) have a feature that changes the dynamic in interesting ways. Above the bank of floor buttons is a 12-inch screen that displays a rotating selection of news bites, weather, traffic, reviews, deals, and so on. (According to the provider, this “reaches smart, busy, upscale professionals on the move and struggling to ‘do it all.’” Sure, whatever.)

People now have something to look at in the elevator besides the closed doors, or their phones, or the back of the person in front of them. This subtly changes the feel of the constantly changing group going up and down together. They’re watching TV together!

The headlines that are displayed will occasionally move someone to make a remark, or at least to grunt in acknowledgment. This can be an ice-breaker for others … it’s a conversation starter!

Sherry TurkelTurkle, who teaches "the Social Studies of Science and Technology" at M.I.T., has recently started to worry that we’re using devices to mediate human relationships for us in ways that actually increase our isolation. Maybe that’s true. But I like to think that our elevators, thanks to technology, might actually now be breaking down the barriers between people in our building.