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Gene editing

22 Jan

Ha. At the end, this reads a bit like …

Absurd, of course, but you could almost mistake “He”, meaning rogue Chinese geneticist He Jiankui, for “He” meaning the last person who spoke, David Liu. Ha! Amusing.

I mean, only for a moment. It’s just the lure of low attachment. No one will be genuinely misled. Pointless to worry about hypothetical microseconds of confusion like this.

I mean, you don’t want to be one of those editors who insists on not splitting “15 million” after “15” at the end of a line. There are bigger fish to fry. Factual errors could be sailing past your nose while you worry about footling details.

I mean, for example, we’re specifically told in the style guide only to hyphenate compound adjectives when there’s a genuine risk of confusion, not just a hypothetical one. Edit for real-world readers, not copydesk professionals who are mordantly obsessed with ambiguity. Come on, get on with it. It’s fine.


I’ll just change it.


Zeroes and ones, part 4

27 Nov

Q: Looking at the selected paragraphs below, and before doing any Googling, is there anything wrong with this article that can be determined simply from the evidence in front of you? Answers below

A: Not a particularly difficult one by the standards of what HeadsUp calls “implied mathematics“. If Hella Pick is 90 next spring, she’s 89 now. That means she was born in 1929. If she was born in 1929, she can’t have been 37 in 1980: she would have been in her 50s. So either her age or the date of Tito’s death is wrong. A quick bit of Googling would then tell you Tito indeed died in May 1980; so Ms Pick’s age at the time can be quietly removed from the copy. “… then 51 and working for the Guardian” somehow sounds much less glamorous.

The space between the facts

6 Dec

If the nucleus of an atom were the size of a marble, it is said, then the electrons in the widest orbit around it would be a football field away. There’s “a large volume all around it that’s mostly empty space”, according to Professor Stephen Ekker of the Mayo Clinic. That emptiness is not irrelevant: it is an essential part of the atom’s nature, the “sphere” (to use the Bohr model as a metaphor) in which interactions take place that distinguish it from other elements. To collapse that space is only possible under the most extreme conditions, and, when it happens, brings about a complete change of state.

The other phenomenon of which this is true, of course, is the feature article. Here too, the air, the space around the nucleus is the important thing: the colour, the atmosphere, the writing, rather than the tiny fact in the centre. But here too, under sufficient pressure – for example, say, if a 600-word feature were unaccountably reassigned to become a 55-word picture caption* – an implosion can occur that similarly creates a material of an entirely different and unlovely type: news.

Under such extreme conditions, of course, the last 500 words of the feature are swept away at once, leaving only the first two paragraphs intact, somewhere within which the central news item is located. Here are those paragraphs in their original form:




Then the remorseless crushing begins, in which atoms of news, underlined in red, are compressed until no space remains between them:



And eventually, you end up with this:


The opening passage, shorn of any entertainment value, has been reduced in size by more than 60%, from 91 words to 34. A diaphanous stellar ornament been replaced with a neutron star: dense, grim, unsparkling, and emitting bursts of information on a set frequency. But at least there’s space for the photo credit now.


*Seriously, this actually happened

Lines below the line

2 Jun

They always tell journalists never read to read the comments, but sometimes it’s worth it. In between all the routine messages that get posted under news articles on the web – the rude, the facetious, the rambling, the diatribe on a different subject posted to the wrong piece by mistake – occasionally you find something fascinating.

Like this. It’s posted in the comments of a fine poem on climate change, “Doggerland”, written in the Guardian by Jo Bell. It’s from the author herself, and it’s not really a comment at all: in fact, apparently as the result of an oversight, it’s a very slightly different version of the same poem.

The published poem itself reads as follows:

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 18.07.28

Bell’s message, posted quite soon after publication, is sent simply to address a technical problem. “Thanks for publishing my poem but the line breaks are wrong – it should look like this. Perhaps it does in print!”, she writes, and posts the poem again underneath as a guide.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 18.07.49

A Guardian editor responds quickly: “Sorry about that Jo. It’s been restored to the correct format now.” But neither of them appears to have noticed that the poem that Bell reposted was not quite the same one.

The first two verses are identical. But whereas the third verse in the published version begins:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading uplands sixty fathoms back; saw nettled deer tracks
pooling, inch by sodden inch, into a whaler’s channel

Bell’s posted version reads:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading high ground sixty fathoms down. He sickened for
the nettled deer track, brimmed into a whaler’s channel

They make for an interesting comparison. It seems a good choice to leave out ‘sickened’ in the published version. It’s an emotional word that tips the hand of the poem too early: the published version saves the surprise of Pilgrim’s conversion to the last verse. ‘Pooling, inch by inch’ is a good addition, providing a sense of the geological slowness of the sea’s rise, the sense that ‘time is water’. On the other hand, ‘sixty fathoms down’ in the posted version is much easier to understand that ‘sixty fathoms back’, which is an odd adverb to use for a measure of depth.

There are changes in the next verse too. The published version reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shift and shiver; saw the caverns filled, the railways rivered
and the Pennine mackerel flashing through lead mines

Whereas the one posted in the comments reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shiver; saw the caverns full and railways rivered
Pennine mackerel flashing through the lead mines

Here the rhythm of the posted version emphasises the internal rhyme, shiver/rivered, better than in the published one: the shorter 12- and 11-syllable lines in the former are 14 and 12 syllables in the latter.

It’s hard to pick a favourite between them: I’d almost prefer a hybrid version of the two. And the posted poem isn’t a perfect guide to the line breaks for the editor, of course, because some of them aren’t even the same lines.

On the assumption that no one at the newspaper would have dared to rewrite a poem, the question then becomes which one is the earlier version and which one the later – or, to put it another way: which is the work in progress and which is the poem?

Marginal differences

14 May

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 17.00.15

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 17.01.12

It’s not all that hard to count to 331, but, as we can see above, there’s more than one way to get there.

In the aftermath of the general election, it fell to me to check the paper’s giant map of the seats won and lost across Britain on 7 May. In particular, the graphics department wanted to know how many gains – gross gains, that is: gains before losses – had actually been made, so that they could list them all around the map. Out of a total of 650 parliamentary seats, that seemed like an elementary request. Or so I thought, until I found that two reliable sources (the Guardian, top, and the BBC, above) were giving completely different figures.

To take the Conservatives as an example, both sources have them winning 331 seats in total. But the Guardian has them gaining 38 seats from other parties (and losing 10), while the BBC has them gaining 35 (and losing 11). How can that be? No wonder graphics was puzzled: I was too.

Clearly, since they imply net gains of 28 and 24 seats respectively, the two sums can’t even be working from the same base figure of constituencies held before the election. So what figures are they using? Subtracting the net gains from the total of seats now held – 331 – is an obvious place to start. That reveals that the Guardian (331 – 28) is working on a basis of 303 Conservative seats already held, while the BBC (331 – 24) is working on a basis of 307.

Hmm. Odd. Can we relate either of those two figures to data about the previous election? Time for a quick trip to the Electoral Commission’s website, where we find that … oh:

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 15.13.38

Now we have a third figure for seats won in 2010: 306. What’s going on? Can we not even agree on a figure for the number of seats the largest party in the country holds from one general election to the next?

And then, after slightly longer than one cares to admit, the light began to dawn. The clue to the Electoral Commission figure is down at the bottom of the graphic: “Speaker (1)”. The Speaker of the House of Commons is an apolitical figure who votes only in the most exceptional of circumstances; nonetheless, he or she is still notionally an MP who stands for election as a representative of one of the parties. And the current Speaker, John Bercow, is a Conservative: the Tory MP for Buckingham. So if you add him to the Conservative total, you get 307: the same as the BBC’s figure. And then it all starts to become a lot clearer.

Clearly, the BBC is using the data from the 2010 election as its basis point. So what is the Guardian using? One obvious possibility is that it is factoring in changes to the makeup of the Commons that have taken place since 2010. Can we account for the discrepancy by looking at byelection results in the last parliament?

According to, there were 21 byelections in the last parliament. Three of them resulted in the Conservatives losing a seat, and all three are still reasonably memorable events for political wonks: author Louise Mensch’s unexpected resignation from her seat in Corby in 2012, which resulted in a Labour win; and the high-profile defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless from the Tories to Ukip in the runup to the election, when both incumbents won their seats back under new colours.

That reduces the number of seats the Tories held in parliament from 307 to 304, which is getting closer to the Guardian’s figure. Could it be that the Guardian is simply discounting the Speaker’s seat? It seems not: the election interactive is clear that it is talking about all 650 seats in the country, not 649 as would be the case if Buckingham were excluded.

It’s only when, exploring the interactive, you discover the striking fact that ultra-safe Tory seat of Kensington is described as a “gain” that you find the last missing piece. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and MP for Kensington, was suspended by the Conservative party, and ultimately decided not to stand for re-election, after being caught in a cash-for-access newspaper sting in February. Technically, therefore, as a sitting MP who has had the party whip withdrawn, he counted as a seat lost before the election, and therefore a Tory “gain” (from an “independent”) when his successor duly won. So the Guardian’s total, omitting Mensch, Carswell, Reckless and Rifkind, is also correct: 303.

So who’s right? In short, everyone. The BBC is working on a previous-election basis, using unmodified figures from the 2010 ballot. The Guardian is using eve-of-election figures, reflecting the actual position of the parties on the day before the country voted in 2015.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. If you work on an eve-of-election basis, you’re using running totals based on the quality of your own electoral research and arithmetic. If you work only on the official previous-election numbers, the maths is simpler, but you have to remember the “byelection factor”: some triumphant regainings of marginals lost in midterm will actually be “holds” for your purposes, and some routine victories for the winners of half-forgotten byelections actually “gains”.

If you’re wrestling with British electoral totals (and you might not be for another five years … although who knows?), here’s a table covering four of the most likely problems you may encounter (click to enlarge). As to how 2020’s calculations will go, if the major boundary changes and seat reductions planned by the Tories go through in this parliament – heaven only knows.

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 17.06.57


The surnames flowchart

30 Apr

For years, I didn’t know this about Burmese names:

Burmese people do not have first names or last names in the western sense (although in informal speech many people use shortened nicknames). Thus when referring to Burmese people … you should always use the full form of the person’s name. For example, Mi Mi Khaing should never be referred to as just “Khaing” or “Daw Khaing”.

It’s not in our style guide, but it is in Wikipedia’s. And not only is there no forename/last name, but the name itself may contain honorifics that disappear or change over the course of a person’s life.

Foreign names in copy are a constant trap for the unwary. For example, it might be unwise to truncate the noms de guerre of jihadists or other fighters in the Middle East: “Abu Qatada” means “Father of Qatada”, so shortening it to “Qatada” can, it may be argued, suggest the writer is talking about the son, not the father. Then there is the question of Spanish names, with their patronymics and matronymics (Gabriel Garcia Lorca) – do you mention the matronymic at all, or once at first mention, or use both throughout (or, as occasionally happens, use the matronymic alone)? Transliteration of mainland Chinese names (generally two words) differs from transliteration of Taiwanese and Korean names (generally three). And any rule for any country can be overridden by an individual’s own preference for spelling or form of address.

But before you get to the problems that foreign names present, or even the special rules for kings and queens*, you have to think about something even more complex and nuanced: domestic names.

Other cultures’ naming customs may be less familiar, but the style-guide rules for them are shorter and more definitive. With English names, familiarity itself is the problem: we are all too aware of the shades of courtesy or offence potentially contained in the use of honorifics, diminutives, first names or surnames.

So, when editing, you have to be aware that style of address can be different for different ages and circumstances; for real and assumed names; for before and after criminal convictions; and even for different sections of the newspaper. And so the question of how to refer to someone in a news article isn’t easy to sum up in a sentence or two: rules of thumb aren’t enough. For this, you really need a flowchart.

This is the decision tree for English names as it stands at the Tribune. To use it, start at the top and go down, and if the answer to any of the questions is “yes”, turn right and follow the appropriate path. We are a paper that generally omits honorifics except in leading articles: further wrinkles of complexity would be added at a paper in which honorifics are generally used but with exceptions (e.g. for criminals), or at a paper that drops honorifics for commoners at second mention but retains them for peers (which was the Tribune’s former policy).

Click on the flowchart to open it, then click to magnify. See you at one of the endpoints.



* Brief title and forename in full at first mention (“Queen Elizabeth II”); never Her Royal Highness or HRH; forename only thereafter.

When to delete Luhansk

17 Feb


Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 15.27.20

Friday afternoon, and an email comes in from our stringer in Ukraine, whose article has just gone live:

Hi guys,

I had sent an email earlier about the difference between Luhansk and Luhanske. Sorry for the confusion, but the place where I was today was Luhanske, not Luhansk as it says in the dateline right now.
Also, there is an error in the following graf; it should again be Luhanske, not Luhansk:

Burned-out trucks — some still smoking — lined the cratered highway from Artemivsk to Debaltseve, which remains in contention. Government soldiers who were trying to tow a damaged ambulance out of the partly ruined town of Luhanske admitted that anyone who went further down the highway toward Debaltseve would come under heavy fire from rebel small arms and artillery.

In this graf, however, it should be Luhansk, not Luhanske:

Two people were also killed and six wounded when a shell hit a packed cafe in the Kiev-controlled town of Shchastya near rebel-held Luhansk, a local official said, adding that other shells had struck elsewhere in the town.

In real life, there’s always some inconvenient homophone that would never be allowed to come up in fiction. Luhanske, where the stringer is, is 95 kilometres from Luhansk, right in the heart of the recent fighting around Debaltseve and one transliterated letter away from the much bigger rebel city, itself a scene of conflict in the struggle between east and west in Ukraine. And Luhansk also gives its name to the wider oblast, or province, that has declared itself a People’s Republic alongside Donetsk. (Luhanske itself is in Donetsk oblast, of course, not Luhansk oblast: that would be too easy.)

Saturday afternoon, right on deadline. The level of noise is increasing, the shouted instructions are coming faster and the production editor is handing round the international front page for a rapid press-read. The same stringer has filed a late update on the fighting from nearby Artemivsk, and it’s been hustled through the editing process and onto the page.

Although rebels have been able to virtually surround Debaltseve and pound it with rockets and artillery, the road connecting the city with Ukrainian forces in Artemivsk is not fully under either side’s control. Pro-Russia forces shelled the city 15 times and attempted to storm it early yesterday …

Yesterday a military ambulance delivered the body of a soldier killed in the village of Paschnya, which is in the no-man’s-land between Luhansk and Debaltseve, to the mortuary in Artemivsk.

Hang on. Luhansk. Is that … does he mean Luhansk? If he means the city, it’s miles away. Can there really be a no-man’s-land stretching 95 kilometres into another oblast?

Another hasty skim through the article, and there’s no sign of any reportage or sourcing from that far east: all the quotes and accounts come from forces and officials around Debaltseve. A quick check on Google Maps reveals that, yes, Debaltseve, Luhanske and Artemivsk are all close, linked by the E40 road; on the other hand, there’s absolutely no sign of a village called Paschnya anywhere. And the distraction is increased by the locator map on the page, right next to the paragraph in question: Debaltseve is marked, Donetsk is marked, and so is Luhansk, off to the east; but there’s no sign of Luhanske or Artemivsk. But then a check through the stored revisions of the article reveal that, inadvertently,  the ‘e’ was indeed deleted off “Luhanske” at an earlier stage.

The problem with journalism, or at least with newspapers, is that there’s never enough time to sort everything out properly. The fast read, panic over Luhansk, Googling and hasty conferring with a colleague has taken about two minutes. The best thing to do would be to reinstate the “e” in Luhanske, add a few lines to explain away confusion, recut the article to fit, and redraw the map at a slightly larger scale so that the town can be added to it (at its current scale, the blob for Luhanske would be right on top of the blob for Debaltseve).

But there isn’t time for that. All there’s time for is to reinstate the “e”, and, as a prophylactic against possible confusion, hurry over to the graphics desk and ask them to delete Luhansk, the city, off the map altogether, and reoutput it. There’s just enough time for it to auto-update on the page before it’s sent: at least it won’t look like a typo or lead readers astray.

Locator map

And then it was gone: the page was sent and ran like that for the first three editions. Looking back at it now, the single reference to Luhanske is a bit baffling without explanation, and, on the map, I see I completely overlooked that we’d referred to a nearby city as Horlivka in the text (which is correct Tribune style) and Gorlovka on the map (which is not).

But the stringer refiled after midnight, with a new top that explained clearly where Luhanske was: new quotes, new facts, rewritten all the way through. As the story acquired momentum through the night and into the next morning, the online version, updated regularly, was shared more than 500 times and drew more than 3,000 comments. The problems of the initial version were completely swept away.

It was just a first take; just a holding story for the early edition, before the ceasefire agreement took hold and the story really began. Some articles take a lot of effort and then only last for five hours. But you never know which ones will last and which ones will end up on the spike.

And if anyone finds Paschnya on the map, I’d be interested to know.