Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cows...and more, alas!

The redoubtable John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun, about whom I wrote earlier today, has responded in a post titled, McIntyre is having a cow about Wikipedia (title taken from a statement I made in my post).

In his post, McIntyre puts forth his brief as to the inherent unreliability of Wikipedia. As a copy editor for close to 30 years, he feels that Wikipedia is a refutation of what he has worked for:

I work as an editor. My whole professional effort for nearly three decades has been to make sure that the published texts at the newspapers for which I have worked are, as far as human fallibility and the pressures of time will allow, factually accurate, grammatical and clear.

To do this requires knowledgeable, trained editors. To become a copy editor at The Baltimore Sun, an applicant has to run the gantlet of the usual scrutiny of resume, interviews and reference checks — and a grueling test that covers a dozen categories of general knowledge and an extensive section of texts to be edited. Those who have taken it remember it.

The book and magazine and newspaper publishers who have been dismembering their editing staffs have been doing so in desperation, for economic motives. What leaves me spluttering is the Wikipediaphiliacs’ apparent belief that such editing doesn’t matter; everything will even itself out.

McIntyre correctly points out the fallacy in that last theory, concluding:
The consequence is that you can trust Wikipedia only when you already know the information.
That seems right on the money, as I indicated when I stated that I link to Wikipedia only when I'm sure it provides a reasonable summary of a topic I know fairly well (I am deliberately ignoring the case where the information changes after I link to the entry; that gives me a headache). McIntyre then links to a post by David Sullivan, who writes (and I'm going to quote even more of it than McIntyre did):
Yet certainly the idea underlying Wikipedia is: We have met authority, and if it is not all of us, it is illegitimate. The idea of editing -- the idea of newspapers -- in the end rests upon, yes, dear reader, we do in fact know some things in more depth and detail than you do, and are better trained to judge them, just as you may be better trained to design a house or repair an electrical system. I believe this. Yet a voice in my head still says, yes, and Robert S. McNamara said he knew better than the American people did what needed to be done in Vietnam. Just as it can be hard for a parent who recreationally used drugs to draw a firm line for children, it can be hard to oppose proferred advances that aim to give all power to all the people. Yet standards cannot result from universal input on standards, because who then has the right to say, alas, it is your ox that shall be gored?
So here's my story: I felt, and likely still feel, just the way that McIntyre and Sullivan do, that there need to be standards, that we just can't plunk down words or computer code any old way we happen to feel like it and have any hope of being understood. That doesn't mean I want to take away playfulness in language, or observe rules of foolish consistency (I do end sentences with prepositions sometimes, and I've probably split a few infinitives), but there is value in defining things in a consistent manner. I've done a bit of informal translation, and it was amazing to me just how difficult it can be to find just the right word.

But, behaviorally, I've relaxed my standards considerably in dealing with the outside world. I'm reminded of a project I worked on, and I have two anecdotes:

First, I had a manager who would run memos by me for correction and annotation. He was a great guy, but not much of a writer, so I would mark them up fiercely. After a time, he began calling me "Mr. Picky." After a few days of this, I turned to him and said, "Just how un-picky do you want your programmers to be?" He returned to calling me by my name, but I realized something.

Second, same project, to pump up our clients, someone would put posters up telling how great this lousy project was going to be (it turned into a big lawsuit later). These posters were seasonally-oriented, a seemingly dubious choice given that the biggest problem was how late the project was becoming. At any rate, one day a new poster was spread across the walls of the client, and it said, "Alas, spring has sprung" (and then some other words about how great everything was going to be).

All of my readers are smart and see the problem right away. "Alas" is a term of sorrow or regret, not one of celebration. (It was actually an appropriate choice, but that was not the place for honesty.) No one who saw this poster in preparation, not from the client, not from the high-priced big-city consultant, pointed out the actual meaning of this word.

That same evening, a partner in my firm happened by. He was a man known for his emphasis on quality, even a certain fastidiousness. I said, in my offhand way, "Didn't anyone notice the problem with the first word of the new poster?" He looked, grunted, shrugged, and walked away.

And there's the essential problem of standards and Wikipedia and all the things that McIntyre and Sullivan (and I) are writing: no one cares. Imprecision is seen as spontaneous and genuine, precision is the province of stuffy lawyer types.

When I say to a manager that we should get the menu items and order consistent in an application, and he says we don't have time for the "extras," we know that no one cares. When I point out that a word in documentation doesn't have the right connotation, I can see that no one cares.

So now I tend to let things like that go, and I'm not real happy about it, but my desire for correctness, at this time, in this culture, can only be perceived as negative, as fussy. I have to go along with Anything Goes, or risk calling attention to my age in a field where 40 is suspect, 45 questionable, and 50 too old (because only old people are so picky). I swallow my feelings that customers are ill-served by this lassitude.

I'm not proud of that, because it means I'm contributing to it, but that's the way of it.

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