Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

The Statistical Anomaly

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'” — Mark Twain*

Many years ago, I was helping a client prepare a report on primary education that made use of statistical data collected by the federal government. In the report was a table showing the math proficiency of elementary school students from first to fifth grades for a particular year. The table showed that for each grade level, the level of proficiency was less than the lower grade; i.e., first graders were more proficient at math than second graders, second graders were more proficient than third graders, and so on.

The caption for the table read, “Students become less proficient in math as they progress through elementary school.”

I pointed out to my client that the table did not, in fact, show that. The table presented a snapshot of a five groups of students in a single year, not a progression of a single group of students through five years. In fact, I said, someone could use the same data to argue the opposite, that every year we’re getting better at teaching math to elementary students.** Unfortunately, I lost the argument; because it sounded more urgent, the original caption stayed. (I didn’t work for that client much longer after that, anyway.)

We live surrounded by data. We have more numbers to crunch than ever, and we can crunch them faster than ever. But we seem to be constantly befuddled by what to do with the results. We pick a statistic and then hang everything else on it regardless of whether it can support the weight. Consider:

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Death of Blogging Watch, Part 215

So Andrew Sullivan is quitting blogging, and the blogosphere commences its latest round of hand wringing and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The annual preemptive mourning for blogging’s shedding of its mortal coil has now become such a ritual that the commentary itself has reached its own critical mass of self-referential, ironic meta-awareness. “This isn’t another ‘death of blogging’ post,” many articles begin, before going on to prove the writer is either fibbing or in need of a good editor (or perhaps both).

Pardon the snark. It’s early and I’m still on my first cup of coffee. Like everyone else who reads or subscribes to Sullivan’s “Dish,” I was caught utterly unaware of its impending demise and am grieving the loss of such a unique virtual gathering place. His was an enormous influence on the blogosphere not just for his commentary, but for his success in commoditizing his readership into a nearly self-sustaining economic model.

The unspoken fear here is, “If Sully can’t do it, what the heck kind of chance do I have?” The answer is, of course, none. Sullivan found that to blog consistently at his level required him to spend all day on a nonstop frictionless hamster wheel, despite having under his belt several decades’ worth of patient base-building, endless campaigning, and media appearances on shows you and I will never, ever, get on in our wildest dreams. And even with that kind of infrastructure, he had to run all day long just to stay in place. So Sullivan’s example demonstrates pretty clearly that self-made media empires aren’t really all that likely a thing in nature.

On the other hand, as the Vox article points out, a lot of media superstars are going back to “old-fashioned” blogging, free of all the revenue encumbrances. They’ve come full circle and realized that blogging, if it’s going to be part of a media enterprise, is fundamentally a loss-leader. Blogging doesn’t generate 1:1 revenue; you have to find another, sustainable source of revenue that gives you the stability and freedom to blog.

Hopefully they will take that lesson out a couple of concentric rings and realize that’s how the news works, too. Whether television, radio, print, or online, journalism isn’t a profit center — but the breakthrough here is to realize that profitability isn’t a useful measure of its value. News, like blogging, is a qualitative thing. Its value can’t be measured using quantitative means.

Maybe instead of “information wants to be free,” the new motto will be “information wants to be valued,” because that’s what Stewart Brand was really talking about:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

So here at the end of our latest installment of Death Of Blogging Watch, I find myself optimistic. Because this time the discussion is taking place among a critical mass of people who have finally come to understand (and publicly acknowledge) the complexity and the implications of this fundamental tension, and who by and large seem to be coming down on the qualitative side of the argument.

Despite the departure of yet another giant from the blogosphere, blogging — and by extension, professional writing of all kinds, including journalism — isn’t in fact dying.

It’s just getting warmed up for its next act.

Why It Matters

Tim CookBecause this is what a man looks like.

Because of all the other images of men we see on TV and read about online — men who abuse women, who objectify them, who hound them out of the clubhouse for daring to show that they can play too. Men who feel that they have to prove themselves by defeating someone, or by being the loudest or the strongest, or by being the most aggressive. Men who live their lives consumed with secret fears — the fear of being weak, the fear of faltering, the fear of being vulnerable — and who lash out to try and convince the world that they are not afraid.

Because here is a man who can sit with presidents and prime ministers, who can associate with the rich and the powerful, who can stand toe to toe with rivals and competitors, who can control one of the most influential companies in the world — who can do all these things and be none of those other things.

Because for so long the dominant narratives of manhood we’ve had to choose from have been the unwavering, decisive hero or the dominating, conquering oppressor. Everything in between, we’ve been told, is somehow emasculated.

It matters because in 190 words, Tim Cook has just changed the narrative of what it means to be a man.

Confessions of a David Ogilvy Fan

I was fortunate to have grown up in an era when the Ogilvy & Mather style of copywriting was at its peak. You know the style: a fearless amount of white space, a bold headline in an ever-so-mildly self-deprecating font, and dense but frictionless copy conveying a sense of — how do you describe it? Not arch, exactly, but certainly knowing. As if the copywriter is discreetly tapping the side of his nose as you read it.

The whole package feels as if the writer can’t quite believe that his client was serious when they said they wanted you to know about this product. Because someone with as good taste as you must surely already know about it already.

So sorry to interrupt. But while I’ve got you, would you mind giving this a read?

I’m rereading Ogilvy on Advertising (I try to reread the classics every few years) and I am reminded what a superb writer Ogilvy was. Like the best of his ads, you read a story that feels like it’s being shared over a pint in a pub or over a brandy in the club, and when you get to the end, you suddenly realize — wait a minute, I learned something.

The alcohol metaphors are not accidental. Ogilvy’s writing is what a good single-malt Scotch would sound like if it could speak.

The man was passionate about writing. He understood that it is perhaps our most refined tool, and he used it with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker. His masterful understanding of the power of language allowed him to do some astonishing things with it. His words made people do things.

Most importantly, his words convinced people to do the one thing they hate doing the most: part with their money. And he got them to do it willingly. That commands a lot of resepct.

Ogilvy wrote that he liked to hire “gentlemen with brains.” People with an aristocratic sensibility who are savvy, literate, and imaginative. An aristocratic sensibility is an unfashionable character trait these days. But frankly I think commercial writing, and maybe the world at large, could use more knowledgeable snobs. They work very hard at making things fun.

Develop your eccentricities while you are young. That way, when you get old, people won’t think you’re going gaga. — David Ogilvy

Of Human Keybondage

As I have written about before, I am on something of a personal quest to develop an “inline editing language,” something that will allow me to use the alphanumeric keys to edit while I write, as quickly as I write. I call it “wred” or “wreding,” for writing and editing.

Like your average computer user, I am adept at using native keybindings (keystroke combos that involve the fn, ctrl, opt, and cmd keys) and arrows to edit. However, in order to use them I have to leave the organic flow and take the cursor away from the rockface (or typeface?). In other words, I sacrifice forward momentum whenever I have to go back into the paragraph to manipulate the text, then return to where I stopped writing, and then resume writing.

Which of course is exactly the thing that creative writers are taught is “bad” — you should never stop to edit, you should just get it all down however it comes out, and then go back and rewrite later.

Copywriters and writers on deadline, on the other hand, generally don’t work that way. As Tom Chandler pointed out, “When you’re looking for 100 perfect words, fire-hosing the first draft is a wasteful exercise.”

What I want to do is to be able to “edit forward,” with my cursor never leaving the leading edge of the sentence regardless of whether I am putting words down or taking them away. I want to be able to write the equivalent of this:

“It was the grooviest, no, the gnarliest, no, the best of times, it was the crappiest, no, worst, of times, it was a time of really stupid idiots, no, the age of silliness, no, foolishness . . . “

. . . and let the computer make those changes to the text behind me while I keep on writing.

So far, the closest I’ve been able to come to my vision is the set of powerful keybindings developed for the Vim text editor. In my spare time, I’ve been teaching myself Vim’s basic editing combos, and they do seem to solve some of the problems that I’m talking about. But with Vim, I keep hitting a snag.

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The Volunteer Matrix

Thinking of working with volunteers of the artistic or creative persuasions? Here’s a guide to the various types of volunteers that you may encounter, in handy graphic form. Cut out and save!

This graph is not based on my own recent experiences in any way. Nope, not at all.*

The Volunteer Matrix

* = NOTE: Statement may not be factually correct.

The Society of Editors Who Don’t Get Worked Up Over Typos

There’s a lot of stuff floating around Facebook of late dealing with typos of all kinds: cute homework misspellings, SMS autocorrections, misspelled graffiti, flubbed tattoos, missing or rearranged lettering on signs, blown cake inscriptions, and so on ad nauseam — and now, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s viral hit video “Word Crimes.” And since I am an editor and I am known to consort with editors, many of these items find their way into my feed on a daily basis, usually accompanied by wails over the precarious state of civilization.

The thing is, I’m one of those editors who is not a grammar pedant. I don’t get worked up over a misplaced apostrophe or an incorrect homonym choice. I find Lynne Truss and her ilk to be tiresome, boorish, condescending snobs. In my opinion people who wander the city with markers correcting punctuation on signage aren’t defenders of good grammar, they’re just vandals. An original piece of spray-painted street art under a bridge is worth infinitely more to our society than all of their smudges combined.

That’s not to say that I don’t laugh at great typos (particularly ones that convey an ironic, double-entendered, or scatological meaning). I just don’t hold to the idea that a typo is an indicator of intelligence or a sign of declining standards.

What does dismay me about typos is that they have become a cheap way for people to heave bucketloads of schadenfreude and scorn upon the heads of people they don’t know via the safe distance of social media. We do not engage or persuade using debate and reasoned argument; we merely mock. In the reductio ad absurdum of social media-driven pop culture, we overlook a tattoo’s message of empowerment and confidence and focus instead on the misplaced apostrophe that means nothing.

In my job, I correct typos made by incredibly smart people. Likewise, editors correct typos that I’ve made all the time. No one’s intelligence is doubted. No one’s credibility is damaged. If people didn’t make mistakes, I would probably have to go out and get a real job. It is that way because language is really fucking hard to do well.

Believing that you’re striking a blow for language by going after typos is like saying you’re standing up for classical music by going to a concert and blowing a raspberry every time a musician fumbles a note or misses a beat.

Pretty dickish behavior, right? Well, same damn thing. So just don’t do it. Don’t be a dick.