Archive for 2008

The Shut List

10 December 2008

The purpose of this page is to vent my frustration at the modern state of the publishing industry. Nowadays, copy editing seems to be a nonexistent function of publishers. Simple typographical errors crop up in nearly every book, and oftentimes missing punctuation, transposed letters, and outright misspellings run rampant throughout the pages. It’s time book buyers took a stand. If I’m going to kill a few trees, dump dioxins in a river somewhere, and pay 25 bucks of my hard-earned cash, damn it, I think it’s only fair that I get my money’s worth. It doesn’t cost much to print a book, publishers, so hire someone to do a little quality control!

It’s called the “Shut List” to make a point, however subtle. This title will pass any spelling check, and give the reader the mistaken impression that one should “shut” these books, i.e. not read them. In fact, that “u” is a typo. It should be an “i”—because the copy editing in these books is for shit.

What follows are the most heinous offenders. Many are excellent books despite their typos, so stop by your local public library and give them a read. Just don’t give money to their publishers.

coverZodiac: The Eco-Thriller by Neal Stephenson. Publisher: Bantam Spectra

Just how does a book make the Shut List? Hard to say. It’s not a “zero tolerance” policy, because every book ever published has had one or two minor flubs. For me, I guess the threshold is reached when the typos are just beginning to be annoying, but only in a subconscious way, and I have almost forgotten about them and am getting back into the book, and then find two on a single page. Apparently it’s not possible to print the word “chloracne” five times on a page without the last appearance becoming “chlorachne.” The clincher came when I had to stop for a few seconds and think to myself, “who the hell is this character Bone?” before realizing he meant “Boone.”

coverCryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Publisher: Avon Books

The text seems to have been fed directly from Neal’s laptop (or his BeBox) into the presses without even the benefit of a spellcheck. An error occurs an average of once every 10 pages throughout. (Note to Neal: we know you like the word abbatoir [sic] since you use it in both this book and your thought-provoking essay on the computer industry, but repeat after me: A-B-A-T-T-O-I-R. One b, two t’s. One b, two t’s.) Worse, both the standard-issue code example (“Attack Pearl Harbor…”) and the appendix describing the Pontifex Transform contained errata that affected the outcome of those systems.

coverChariots for Apollo: The Untold Story behind the Race to the Moon by Charles R. Pellegrino & Joshua Stoff. Publisher: Avon Books

Wernher von Bran. Lenoid Brezhnev. The list goes on and on.

coverThe Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and its Waterways by David M. Solzman. Publisher: Wild Onion Press (an imprint of Loyola University Press)

Here is a book report describing this book’s most glaring error. Of course, it also has its share of typos.

coverRockets into Space by Frank H. Winter. Publisher: Harvard University Press

Well-written and informative, despite a 1990 publishing which leaves the “Future of Rocketry” chapter very dated, and info on the Soviet moon program almost nonexistent. The text is also full of numbers: dates, engine thrusts, etc. Unfortunately (at least in the 1990 paperback first printing) the numbers cannot be trusted. I have never seen a reference to a Delta 3916/PAM (in the Delta numbering scheme the 6 contradicts the PAM. It should be a 0). Much worse is the claim that Apollo 11 launched on 18 July 1969. If not for the rampant errata I could readily recommend this book.

coverRace to the Moon: America’s Duel with the Soviets by William B. Breuer

A decent and interesting book for the first two-thirds of its length, when it focusses on the Peenemünde rocketeers. Then it goes through the motions to complete the story of the moon landing, and fact checking goes out the window. Any book on the Space Race that gets the date of the Apollo 11 launch wrong, even by a day (as this one does), deserves nomination to the Shut List. This one also conflates the names of the Gemini XI crew, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, into “Lieutenant Charles ‘Pete’ Gordon, Jr. (who apparently flew solo to an altitude record of 850 miles). And finally (as the last error I’ll mention, not the last I noticed), it states: “the Peenemünde team… developed forerunners of the full range Pershing, Cruise, and SS-20 series of missiles, which formed the backbone of the NATO armory and deterred the Soviets…” [ellipses added, but guaranteed not to change the meaning of the sentence]. Sorry, but every source I can find confirms that the SS-20 was a Soviet missile—it deterred NATO.

A lode of manure… sheds

17 November 2008
Categories: Research

Years ago—in 2003 to be exact—while I was first placing online my Brief History of East Lansing, I included among its pages a footnote I privately (and facetiously) refer to as “The Historian’s Lament”:

The difficulty in charting the lives of buildings such as barns and greenhouses lies in their purely utilitarian nature. A spiffy new structure, even a minor one, will often get a bit of fanfare from an historian, especially if it incorporated some important new technology (e.g., the school’s first underground grain silo, as mundane as that may seem today). However, these same historians are much less likely to mention the demise of these. The buildings become run down from heavy use; they are referred to by different names as their purposes change; they make way for much more spectacular edifices. (Or, as in the case of the greenhouses behind Old Horticulture in 1998, they are ignominiously removed to expand a parking lot.) In any case, it becomes a matter of connecting the dots: e.g., botany greenhouses were built in 1867, 1874, and 1892; but which of these, if any, was the greenhouse demolished in 1955 for the Main Library? In the absence of solid facts, one can only strive to avoid spurious assumptions.

Yes, it’s true that the mainline historians will fail to mention the demise of utilitarian buildings. Kuhn hardly mentioned barns at all. Lautner went for the larger scope of campus land use (as well as some interesting political machinations) and glossed over the less permanent buildings. And Beal—heck, Professor Beal seems not to have been able to admit to himself, let alone put into print, that his own Botany Lab had burned to the ground. When it came to the farm, he deferred to others for most of what he included in his book.

However, I have come to discover that I have been looking in completely the wrong place. Of course these historians are going to give the big picture overview. Yet just because they find a building too mundane or utilitarian to mention its demise, that’s no reason to assume that no one found it interesting, or described its fate in excruciating detail.

While attempting to determine the date of a photo of the second boiler house that I received via e-mail from a fellow alumnus (thank you Tom!), I got to wondering about the barn in the background—and took that as an excuse to attempt, once again, a catalogue of all campus buildings, including the barns and greenhouses. As I tabulated the maps I had on hand, I noticed in the 1899 map a notation for B. O. Longyear’s house on College Delta, which intrigued me.

Why it intrigued me is a tale for another time. It was in a Google search for biographical data on Longyear that I stumbled across an online treasure trove—the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture of the State of Michigan. Between Google Books and Internet Archive, nearly a complete set of the reports from 1862 through 1920 are available in several formats. (Unfortunately, the first report, from 1861, still eludes me.) Since the Board of Agriculture’s principal bailiwick was the Michigan Agricultural College, these reports tell of the school’s inner workings, often in painstaking detail—all the way down to minutiae like the cost of chalk and erasers for the classrooms.

I had been trying to figure out what all the barns had been in the original compound (around where Ag Hall is now, and east and south of there). I wanted to know when the newer compound (around where Hannah Administration and the Computer Center are now) was created, and which barns in it were new and which were moves and/or reconstructions. I knew I was getting close when I found the following comment in the Forty-Seventh Annual Report (1908) by Dean of Agriculture (and future President) Robert S. Shaw:

The farm building equipment work is now practically complete and a full description of the regrouping, remodeling, and refitting of the various buildings has been given in Station Bulletin № 250, with the exception of a manure shed erected since this report was issued.

…a Bulletin that is included, in its entirety, on page 211 of the same Annual Report.

Jackpot! If I wanted to reconstruct the farm compound exactly as it appeared in 1908, accurate down to the last timber, cupola, fence post, and horse stall, I need look no further than Experiment Station Bulletin № 250. Its level of detail is mind-boggling—in part because the College’s intent with its bulletins was to help the state’s farmers learn from the mistakes that the College farm had made. A map of the old compound as it appeared in 1902 is included, and descriptions and diagrams of each barn’s modifications as it was moved or repurposed to the new compound carry on for some seventy pages in all.

Now, to write the article for my site…

The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore

10 October 2008

coverThe excellent 1971 film of The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, has been running quite frequently on the Fox Movie Channel of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s usually on late at night, so my focus is fuzzy, but there’s a major plot point in it that always had me confused.

The brown Lincoln Continental is brought into the country, loaded with concealed heroin, by the French connection. Then Sal Boca, the American connection, takes the car from a hotel parking ramp and parks it overnight on a seedy waterfront street, where it is nearly stripped by a roving chop shop gang. Popeye has the car impounded, the cops (finally, after hours of searching) discover the drug cache, then they close it back up good as new and return it to—the French connection, who later takes it to a desolate island in the East River for the deal to go down with Sal.

So here lies the confusion: why does Sal take possession of the car, full of drugs, before the deal—and then abandon it in a bad area? Why doesn’t he just off-load the drugs right then?

The answer lies in Robin Moore’s terrific non-fiction tale of, as he hyperbolically puts it, “the most crucial single victory to date in the ceaseless, frustrating war against the import of vicious narcotics into our country.” As Moore explains, the car (in reality a tan 1960 Buick Invicta) was left by the American connection on that waterfront street because at that point it was loaded, not with drugs, but with the cash payoff from a previous import. The car soon disappeared from the street, picked up by an unseen accomplice, and returned to Montréal (and ultimately France) to begin the next, even bigger, drug smuggling operation.

The stake-out scene in the movie is tense and dramatic, and it makes sense that it was included virtually unchanged from the book. But because the filmmakers have conflated two separate deals into one big deal, the chain of events ceases to make any sense at all. I find this ironic, considering that The French Connection is one of the films that is lauded for its gritty realism, a hallmark of American cinema in the 1970s. It’s a great movie—if for nothing else than the classic, nay, iconic chase scene between Popeye in a borrowed Pontiac Le Mans and his intended assassin in a commandeered elevated train—yet its five Academy Awards completely overshadow its excellent, worthy source material: Robin Moore’s 1969 book.

A strange Star Wars pondering

1 July 2008
Categories: Star Wars

A couple of weeks ago my Lego Star Wars X-wing took a tumble off its display shelf. (I suspect a mild earthquake that morning was the culprit.) The X-wing dove off the shelf, bounced hard off the printer, and landed, shattered into major constituent pieces, on the floor near the paper shredder.

The destruction was substantial, although luckily the individual pieces (in particular the rare-if-not-unique clear cockpit canopy) were not damaged. All four wings tore off, and inexplicably the upper left and lower right wings split in two while their equally flimsy counterparts remained intact. The wingtip laser cannons went flying, one landing on a windowsill behind the curtain where it went undiscovered for more than a week. The nose section, which is an independent sub-assembly that snaps onto the main fuselage, split into three major parts; while the aft end of the fuselage evidently took a major shot because it was blasted apart, leaving only the rugged, central gearbox assembly that actuates the “S-foil” motion.

Yet, as I arranged the parts on the coffee table for post-crash analysis, I noticed that the R2 unit stayed nestled in its socket, and the cockpit section held together. In fact, in spite of the considerable disintegration of the X-wing, I got the impression that this could have been a survivable impact, much like a Formula One racer crumples when it hits the wall but leaves its monocoque safely surrounding the driver.

That led me to this strange notion…

Imagine a rebel pilot, during the attack on the Death Star, who for whatever reason—shot down, engine trouble, pilot error, etc.—crashes into the surface of the space station without dying. (Obviously, we’re not talking about Porkins here.) What could that pilot do?

He’s not wearing a pressure suit, so unless he’s carrying some kind of emergency suit he’s stuck in his ship. Even if he can get out, then what?

There were no search-and-rescue ships sent out along with the rebel fleet, just the thirty X- and Y-Wing attack fighters—each a single-seater with no room for a passenger.

His R2 unit might have rocket packs (R2-D2 did in Episode III) but would that be sufficient to launch them far enough away from the impending blast? I doubt it.

Otherwise, the pilot’s only option is to sit and wait for the ground beneath him to explode into oblivion. If any pilots did survive a crash, this is exactly what would have happened, as no pilots survived the battle without flying out of it in their own ships.

What a weird, horrifying thought.

Wikipedia wussiness

21 June 2008
Categories: Wikiality

The other day an anonymous IP user, who had previously vandalized Wikipedia’s John Glenn article to get onto my watchlist, twice blanked and then restored some other page within the space of a few minutes. Looking at the user’s talk page, I saw that this user had been blocked for vandalism a couple of times in the past, and had been given another final warning the day before.

This fair warning having received the response of further vandalism, I reported the user to WP:AIAV. Within a couple of minutes, the report was deleted as “stale,” and the administrator who dumped it sent me this message:

Your efforts are appreciated but please ensure you only report vandals who [are] actively vandalizing.

I replied:

You were the one who told [the user], “Although vandalizing articles on occasions that are days or weeks apart from each other sometimes prevents editors from being blocked, your continued vandalism constitutes a long term pattern of abuse. The next time you vandalize a page, you will be blocked from editing Wikipedia.” (emphasis yours) And in response they vandalized again. How does the fact that it happened 5 hours ago, rather than 5 minutes, make any difference as to whether they should be blocked?

Which got this response:

According to the blocking policy, blocks are meant to prevent disruption, as opposed to be punitive. If the IP is no longer vandalizing at the time, it shouldn’t be blocked because there is no ongoing disruption. See also the instructions at the top of WP:AIV. Best regards, [the admin]

I refrained from replying and let it slide, not wanting to get into an argument over policy. I have since pulled the conversation off my talk page so it doesn’t aggravate me any more. But that’s not going to stop me from ranting about it here.

The argument that the admin uses is specious at best, and Wikipedia policy is flawed, perhaps fatally.

To claim that timely blocking of disruption is preventative, while delayed blocking is punitive, is to say that an incident of disruptive behaviour becomes less disruptive over time. This is hardly the case; as the admin himself said to the user, long pauses between disruptions do not constitute a cessation of disruption; specifically, he called the user out for a “long term pattern of abuse.”

If a graffitist tags a wall, and then goes home and puts his feet up, does it make the wall any less defaced in the morning? No. And to follow this analogy, blocking a Wikipedia user is not imprisonment of a tagger—it’s taking away his spray can. Preventative, not punitive.

In fact, the policy that the admin cites specifically states: “Blocks are not punitive in the sense that they aren’t retribution. Blocks sometimes are used as a deterrent, to discourage whatever behavior led to the block and encourage a productive editing environment.” In other words, the use of a block does not constitute punishment. I repeat: “Blocks are not punitive.”

I know that Wikipedia feeds the know-at-all in me, and I have been guilty of mishandling policy in the past, but nothing is quite so irksome as someone with administrator-level privileges who cites policy according to whim and selectively omits those portions that don’t suit his opinions. Regardless of whether or not their ultimate goal is the improvement of Wikipedia.

Moreover, I think this incident illustrates yet another example of how Wikipedia policy, intending to support an open, welcoming atmosphere, finds itself at the mercy of disruptive, ill-intended editors because it bends over backwards to be nice to them. Wikipedia has reached the point in its development where the “anyone can edit” model needs to be reassessed, at the very least with an eye toward fettering the anonymous users who, nine times out of ten, are looking to deface rather than contribute.

I know I’m not alone in my frustration over Wikipedia. Here’s an interesting Slashdot commentary from user Admiral Ag, who goes beyond the random wall-pissers to address deeper concerns:

Wikipedia… has almost run its course. If nothing else, Wikipedia has demonstrated the power of the wiki concept, but its inability to self regulate in weeding out sociopaths, POV warriors and petty authoritarians has led to the departure of many good contributors, who simply can’t stand dealing with some of the obsessive and Machiavellian loons who populate the site. There’s no better sign of the downfall of Wikipedia than the endlessly increasing sets of rules and the endless discussions over them. I guess they just lost sight of the fact that Wikipedia should be structured to serve its users and not the obsessive people who have made it their hobby. Secret email lists, cabals, evidence of admin dishonesty oversighted, rules bent to suit the ruling clique, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Wikipedia, but we can do better.

I would rephrase Admiral Ag’s main point: we should do better. But can we?