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Catalonia vs Wallonia

6 Mar

Ah, the lure of low attachment:

No doubt the Leave voters of Britain can empathise with Catalonia wanting to be free from Brussels’s yoke. But one suspects perhaps that “from Belgium” is meant to attach to something slightly higher up in the sentence here, such as “continue”.

Low attachment” is the tendency to read a phrase as modifying the thing closest to it, in preference to anything mentioned earlier (or “higher up”) in the sentence. As the linguist Arnold Zwicky says, “low attachment is the default, but other factors favor high attachment in certain contexts” – one very important context being “real-world plausibility”.

Even then, it’s tempting to track back only to the first word that allows the phrase to make grammatical sense, however absurd, as in the case in one of Zwicky’s most impressive examples: “a resident reported a large animal in a tree with tall and pointed ears”. Here, although the ears don’t quite attach as high up as the resident, they certainly become disconcertingly separated from “a large animal” by “a tree”.

And it frequently makes life more interesting. Low attachment can operate in a sentence as short as a headline, as Twitter user @knapjack discovered earlier this month:

And in one of Language Log’s regular features, “Linguistics in the Comics”, a schoolboy in the Frazz comic strip is doing a presentation for careers week to his teacher.

“I want to be the guitarist for Iggy and the Stooges like my dad,” he says.

“Your dad is Iggy Pop’s guitarist?”

“No, he wants to be.”

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The one thing you notice

9 Jan

This armchair-continuity-expert thing is getting addictive. Moving on from The Crown to Netflix’s excellent Manhunt:Unabomber – the birth of forensic linguistics in eight parts, featuring Paul Bettany in a beard, Sam Worthington in a suit and Chris Noth in giant ’90s spectacles – the following subtitle screen appears:

Like the costumes and the hairstyles, it all seems redolently in-period. That’s the old San Francisco airport control tower, not the new one that was opened in 2016. The 747 on the right looks convincingly retro in Air China’s old-fashioned livery.  But what about that plane on the left?

The lettering says “United”, but the logo on the tail, an outline globe over a blue background, is the mark of Continental Airlines – or it was, until United and Continental merged and decided, unusually, to adopt United’s name but use Continental’s livery on all its planes from then on. That merger took place in 2010: which means that this pleasingly period-looking footage cannot be more than eight years old.

How did I notice that? Just by chance. As a frequent flyer to the US, I eagerly hoard my airmiles. The obvious way to do that is by always flying with the same airline: that way, the free flights and upgrades come quicker than they would if you were slowly accumulating credit with multiple carriers. The airline I flew with repeatedly over the years was Continental: so I heard about the merger in customer emails, saw the name change on the website, nervously logged on to United’s loyalty programme to check that my airmiles had been transferred.

I had no idea that San Francisco had built a new control tower: I haven’t been there for years. I didn’t know that Air China was painting its planes to look like that well into the 2010s: I discovered those facts on Google. Now that I look into it, I’m not sure that the flowery logo on the 747’s tail is correct for the period either, or that that model of United Airbus was even around in ’95. But all this would have been a closed book to me before. I’m not an expert on civil aviation: the logo on the tailplane was the one thing I noticed.

And editing can be alarmingly like this as well. Internal inconsistencies in copy – variant spellings, bad maths, impossible chronologies – are obvious from the text. Names, dates and places can all easily be checked with other sources. But even with the highest levels of professionalism and diligence, some errors will only be spotted because you happens to know something.

Sometimes, it would need a baby-boomer editor to tell the difference between Bob Dylan and a Bob Dylan impersonator before broadcasting footage of the latter on the BBC. Sometimes, it would need a Gen-Xer to know where Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi first met (hint: not in the cantina). These are the kind of facts that have to be known, rather than checked: there is scarcely time in a daily news routine to compare photographs of musical pioneers or rewatch Star Wars, just in case.

And sometimes, you might need a youngster – someone who understands that users change their names on Twitter for all sorts of reasons – in order not to trip over something like this:

That’s so next year

4 Apr

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The sun is out and blossom is falling: here, spring has just begun. But on Planet Fashion, 2017 is already over; 2019 will begin in 2018, autumn and winter will happen in March, and spring and summer will start in October. Unless you’re male, of course, in which case different dates apply.

The reason I know this is that, at the Tribune, art, fashion and music reviews are mixed in with the news run as a matter of policy, so it frequently falls to we horny-handed front-section types to put down 300-word wire stories about rail strikes and address ourselves to subbing style copy.

This isn’t to everyone taste on the desk, but I quite like it. Although you might not expect it from watching Zoolander, my experience of fashion writers is that their news copy is generally clear, funny, accurate and on time, and that by and large they make a better job of explaining profit-and-loss and boardroom machinations than the City desk would of describing necklines. But when it comes to fashion weeks – the time at which catwalk reviews and commentary are most likely to appear in the news pages – the dates and seasons can become a little confusing.

The four “fashion capitals” of the western world – New York, London, Milan and Paris – hold two women’s fashion weeks each per year, one in spring (around February) and one in autumn (around September). But the clothes on the catwalk at those shows generally do not become available for several months, because of the traditionally long lead time required to get the retail and marketing operation geared up for sales. So the clothes that appear in the spring shows are in fact winter clothes for later that year, and the ones that appear in autumn are summer clothes for the following year.

The  confusion arises over how those shows are described: instead of being referred to by the time at which they are taking place, they are referred to by the season for which the clothes are intended. So the shows that took place this past February, in spring 2017, were the autumn/winter 2017 collections (AW17). The fashion weeks that will be held in September and October, in autumn 2017, will be the spring/summer 2018 collections (SS18). Next spring’s collections will be designs for the winter of 2018, and next year’s autumn collections will be for the spring of 2019. And so on.

The basic rule of thumb is, take the season you’re in now, move two seasons further on and add 1 to the year if you go past Christmas. This time-shifted mentality is second nature for fashion hacks, of course, but a bit of a challenge for news subs whose temporal horizon rarely extends beyond remembering to change “this week” to “last week” in copy destined for the Sunday edition.

The situation is slightly further complicated in the case of men’s fashion weeks, because they tend to take place in the depths of winter (January) or the height of summer (July) while still addressing the same season as the women’s shows. So the London male catwalk shows a the start of this year were also, like the female shows, for autumn/winter 2017 – a three-season “jump”.

Things have moved on, of course, since the haute-couture calendar was first set in the early 20th century. For one thing, fashion weeks are proliferating around the globe. Also, there are now “in-season” collections, in which clothes currently available in shops are shown on the catwalk, and even “see it, buy it” shows where the pieces on display can be bought at the event. But these are still new enough that you can rely on the fashion writers to explain how they work in the story.

You can rely on them for quite a lot, in fact. Although I’m still not sure about the elbow-length oven mittens.

Double exposure

27 Sep

I wish Agence France-Presse would stop doing this, because it’s perilously easy to make a mistake:

picture-31

It’s an unusual name, you think, but a resonant one: puts you slightly in mind of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia. Unfamiliar though “Alhalbiameer” may be, it has a strangely correct ring to it – a patronymic, maybe? An unfamiliar theophoric name? Except of course, it’s nothing of the sort: AFP, as is its unvarying practice, has repeated Ameer Alhalbi’s name twice without a break in the middle. And that’s the kind of thing that can easily get transcribed from the credit across onto the page when you’re in a hurry:

picture-35 picture-36

It happens with other AFP snappers with non-anglophone names too: Aref (Karimiaref) Karimi, Mandel (Nganmandel) Ngan, Louai (Besharalouai) Beshara and Ilyas (Akenginilyas) Akengin have all made it into publication.

Very obvious once it’s pointed out, of course, and very embarrassing when it happens. But in a world with naming conventions as diverse as Burma’s and Spain’s, it’s not entirely surprising that a striking-looking ‘middle name’ might sometimes slip through. As we have discussed before, pictures and captions have a shorter route into publication, and pass under fewer eyes, than anything else on the website or in the paper.

Fortunately, because it’s the Tribune’s practice to put photography credits on the end of the caption, this is the kind of thing one is prompted to notice in print – if only because there’s so little space in a standard two-column caption that your heart sinks when you see a long name. But come on, AFP: we’re working at speed here. Everyone understands why you’d want to repeat names for clarity, but at least put a space between them. Give us a break.

Citations needed

30 Aug

Wow, the episode titles of Ryan Lochte’s old reality show were eerily prescient, given what happened to him in Rio … wait, hang on. Has this been tampered with?

Picture 29

That’s Wikipedia for you: somebody makes the news and the pranksters come out in force. A quick glance at the edit history of the page reveals a calm lack of activity until 18 August, at the height of the row over the alleged robbery the US swimmer suffered, at which point a brief “edit war” appears to break out:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 09.38.44

The signs are classic: the sudden influx of anonymous users; the addition of 529 characters without explanation; the deletion of 531 characters without explanation; then the intervention by an adult some 10 hours later  (“removed spurious entry”)  to restore the site to its correct state – a state in which, at the time of writing, it still remains:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 09.38.06

This is, as has frequently been pointed out, the uniquely alarming thing about Wikipedia: not that some of it is wrong, or that some of it is badly written, but that all of it might change. As John McIntyre put it years ago:

“This is the most troublesome part[:] the editing is not stable. An editor corrects an error, and an hour later or a day later, someone undoes the editing. You cannot tell, when looking at a Wikipedia entry, whether it is correct at this moment.”

That is true: it would be most unwise ever to cite a Wikipedia article in a book, if only because you would have no idea what the page might be saying in a year’s time. But as a user of the site, clicking on the page to read at any given moment, it’s often pretty easy to tell what state things are in. For example, it wouldn’t be hard to detect the damage in these examples from Wikipedia’s own list of its most vandalised pages:

Oklahoma Christian University  Vandalized a lot given the nondescript nature of the school. Students there vandalize pages and employees there revert them.

Dyslexia  Vandalized daily, multiple anonymous edits, usually with deletions, obscenities, deliberate scrambling of text, or insertion of jokes.

Taiwan  Anonymous vandal with ever changing IP addresses who turns this into an article on the Republic of China

Rove McManus Vandalised regularly by anons who insert scare quotes around the word “comedian”.

That’s not to say vandalism hasn’t caused problems – big ones – in the past. While entries about topics in the news are often monitored closely and re-edited quickly, the dusty historical corners of the site can go unexamined for years, as this hair-raising example – recounted by Wikipedia in its own article about frauds it has suffered – shows:

In May 2010, French politician Ségolène Royal publicly praised the memory of Léon-Robert de l’Astran, an 18th-century naturalist, humanist and son of a slave trader, who had opposed the slave trade. The newspaper Sud-Ouest revealed a month later that de l’Astran had never existed—except as the subject of an article in the French Wikipedia. Historian Jean-Louis Mahé discovered that de l’Astran was fictional after a student, interested by Royal’s praise of him, asked Mahé about him. Mahé’s research led him to realise that de l’Astran did not exist in any archives, and he traced the hoax back to the Rotary Club of La Rochelle. The article, created by members of the Club in January 2007, had thus remained online for three years—unsourced—before the hoax was uncovered.

And journalists have suffered too, not least in the notorious case of the Norman Wisdom Falsehood in the same year, which caught out several newspaper obituarists and revealed just how short – at least in those days – the route was from Wikipedia to the printed page. (For the record: for all his many talents, Wisdom did not write the lyrics to “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover”.)

But newsrooms have learnt something in the intervening six years. The Wisdom incident exposed some shameless cut-and-paste writing, but it also perhaps revealed an endearingly trusting approach to encyclopaedias – a pre-digital belief in reference sources as inviolate and trustworthy. A series of embarrassments over the last decade have changed that; our understanding of what a wiki is now is much more mature than what it was then.

For example, it is interesting that, as Wikipedia notes, the De l’Astran article was completely unsourced: nowadays, there would be a large flag at the top of the page pointing that out, and no fact-checker worth their salt these days would rely on a Wiki article without a single footnote. In more borderline cases, or faced with more subtle vandalism, you still have options: you can check the edit history of a page to get a feel for the bona fides of the contributor who made the amendment. Do they have a proper username, or are they just anonymous? Did they leave a note explaining what they had done, which is good wiki practice? Have they amended other pages too? What did they do there? Did anyone undo their revisions? If so, why?

To be clear: Wikipedia is not, and can never be, authoritative. The phrase “Source: Wikipedia” should never appear anywhere in a reputable publication. Nothing in it that is not cross-referred to an external source should ever be taken as true. The Britannica version of a subject is always greatly to be preferred – except that there is no Britannica entry for What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, nor for the many other ephemeral and trivial phenomena about which newspapers write. If you need some briefing on reality stars, talent show winners, Japanese video games or the Doge meme, there often is nowhere else – reliable or unreliable – to turn; just as sometimes, faced with hip-hop lyrics or regional slang that you don’t understand, there is sometimes no alternative but to resort, nervously, to the pages of the Urban Dictionary.

Wikipedia is still a hazard for the unwary. Of course it isn’t “safe”. But journalists make a living from assessing the probity of sources, and we can apply the same talent here. After the initial upheavals over vandalism, incompetence and mutability, we are starting to make a mental accommodation for a new kind of reference source: ones that are extremely useful but not entirely reliable. Wikipedia can never truly provide an answer; but sometimes it’s the only thing that can help you understand the question.

Zeroes and ones, part three

11 May

One of the occupational hazards of being a journalist is that when a howler appears in the paper, all your friends know exactly who to call. Especially when they’re highly qualified science and maths graduates, and especially when the howler in question is a pretty glaring failure to check the sums.

So when this the first paragraph appeared in an article from the US office:

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Followed by this information in the third paragraph:

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Followed by this handy graphic as an explainer:

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It wasn’t long before this appeared on my Facebook page:

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Fortunately, because they’re all highly qualified science and maths types, when the bumbling former English student has questions, they have the explanations ready to hand:

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 12.51.43

So, for future reference: any percentage increase from 0% to any higher percentage is an infinite increase; but any percentage-point increase from 0% to a higher percentage is as simple a sum as can be: <higher percentage> – 0.

Meanwhile, the web news production editor has just sent this chastening email round to all subs:

Hi
A common error has popped up again so I just wanted to remind everyone that converting differences in temperatures is different to converting actual temperatures.
For example:
A temperature of 2C is 35.6F
but …
a difference in temperature of 2C is 3.6F.
 Thank goodness my friends didn’t see that story before it was corrected.

 

Snap judgments

6 Jan

The web production editor writes:

A reader has pointed out that generally when a Greek place name begins with Skala eg Skala Kalloni on Lesbos, the skala part means “harbour” or “landing place for boats” and it is used to distinguish it from a nearby inland town of the same name (minus the “skala”) eg Kalloni on Lesbos.

As such, please avoid just using the name Skala to refer to a town because it is nonsensical (unless, of course, that is its only name).

The caption on the agency photo on page 6 today referred to refugees arriving at the village of Skala on Lesbos. This was all the information provided by the agency so if we can’t verify the full name of the village it is better to avoid using it altogether if we can. (Emphasis added)

Mistakes in photographers’ caption information are a problem. They bypass the experienced eyes of the writer of the article; even when a photographer accompanies a reporter on the job, the reporter rarely sees the pics and almost never the caption details. They also often bypass the commissioning desk: news editors will try to familiarise themselves with their picture options when briefing the page designer, but not in every case; no one consults the head of foreign news on every downpage cutout or mugshot. And at the Tribune, with the amount of news being edited and published online every day, sub-editors have direct access to the photo library to select their own pictures, so many photographs launched on to the web even bypass the picture desk.

The result is that photographs and their captions have a shorter route into publication than any other piece of content except the Sudoku puzzle. In a fact-checking process that runs from reporter to news desk to sub to revise sub to (if you’re lucky) proofreader, the caption skips the first two stages altogether and, on the web, gets published after the third one, to be revised later on.

That explains why newspaper captions can tend to echo the present-tense descriptive style peculiar to agency photo information (“a man is seen waving …”) and their all-too-familiar verb choices (“celebrates”, “gestures” etc); captions get less polishing than other parts of the body text. It also explains why so much classic corrections-column material arises from how photographs are treated in the production process.

But when the error originates with the agency, what little protection there is against error disappears. If, as in the uncomfortable case of this Guardian correction, a reputable photo agency sends out a picture of a private individual who has been thrust into the news, and it turns out to be the wrong person, it’s basically uncheckable:

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Just as a sub-editor can be the single point of failure on picture choice and caption-writing, the photo agency is the single point of failure on veracity. Very few people except those acquainted with the individual in the news will know it’s a mistake, and not many of them are likely to be in the newsroom, so the first person to hear about it will probably be the readers’ editor. In the Guardian case, there was also internal miscommunication over a recall from the photo agency, but in any situation where there is a significant delay between release and retraction, the picture will be all over the web, and in Google’s caches, long before remedial action can be taken.

Many things have to fall into line for a mistake in raw copy to get all the way through to print: a misapprehension by the reporter, a fumbled effort at clarification from the desk, a sub who lets through an ambiguous paragraph, a revise sub in a hurry on deadline. But a mistake over an online photograph can happen, as it were, in a flash.