Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More facts that lie

Goebbels advocated "the big lie": if the lie is big enough, brazen enough and told often enough, people will believe it. But why lie when you can mislead with the truth? You can't be accused of the heinous crime of lying; the worst they can pin on you is the vague offence of mendacity, and most people don't even know what that means. 

Newspapers love surveys, and I've written before about those pure little numbers we call statistics with their objective, unspinnable and above all reassuring percentage signs. 

Readers and editors should always check for outright errors in calculation – a piece I was editing yesterday claimed that an increase from 255,000 to 1.45 million was 1,292% – and for flaws in method, but usually the numbers are correct and the facts can't be denied. That doesn't mean they mean what they want you to think they mean. The next question for the sceptical reader is, so what?

A prime example appears in today's Guardian, under the headline 'Eight revolting hygiene facts'. I don't know why this appeared today: there's no story attached and no 'according to a survey released by…' tag. Just a slack day on the news desk, I guess. They must be missing Colonel Gadaffi. 

The first revolting fact is that old chestnut, "The average chopping board contains 200% more bacteria than the average toilet seat."

Horrible, isn't it? No, not really. I'm sure the chopping boards and toilet seats in my house are fairly normal, and I'm not in the mood to go knocking on my neighbours' doors to get my own representative sample. So let's use common sense. What comes into contact with your toilet seat? Your bottom. The outside of your bottom, which is little more than an extenstion of the back of your thighs. If you're showering every day and wearing clean clothes, just how dirty are the backs of your thighs going to get? Chances are, you've even kissed someone's bare thigh without worrying about poisoning yourself. 

Your chopping board, on the other hand, comes into contact with all kinds of food and gets scoured by knives, creating cosy little niches where germs can flourish. Of course your chopping board has more bacteria than your toilet seat. I'm surprised it's only 200% more. 

This bit of scaremongering works by invoking the word 'toilet' and allowing our own associations with that piece of sanitary ware to fill in the gaps with our own assumptions. Nobody lied to you. They just made it easy to lie to yourself and then left you to it.

Let's look at Revolting Fact Number 3: "The salad drawer of your fridge may contain more than 750 times the level of bacteria deemed safe." The more you look at it, the more startling that statement is. Since the safe level is presumably the point above which one person could be poisoned, 750 times that level is enough to poison 750 people. Not only is it saying that your salad drawer could poison you, it's actually saying that it could poison nearly a thousand people. One salad drawer, 750 people.

It's a classic piece of churnalism. The link goes to the Huffington Post, which itself is churning something from the Daily Mail. The Mail's piece came from a survey commissioned by Microban, which (believe it or not) manufactures bacterial protection systems. 

The numbers could have been worse because 750 was only the average. The worst fridge Microban tested (of 30) had 12,900 times the safe bacterial limit. So the Guardian could have said, "The salad drawer of your fridge could contain enough bacteria to poison 13,000 people" without misrepresenting the survey (take that rogue fridge out of the sample, and the average is more than halved). 

So, what's wrong with that? Unlike with the toilet seat, we can't rationalise it to find exactly where the flaw lies. We simply need to use common sense. If there were enough bacteria in some fridges to poison a tenth of the population of Basingstoke (and without speculating on how desirable that might be), then the population of the western world would be practically annihilated the next time there was a heatwave, leaving only a few vegans and fruitarians with smug looks on their faces. The fact is, exposure to bacteria helps improve our resistance, which is one reason why the bacterial apocalypse hasn't happened. When it does, I reckon those with obsessively clean kitchens will be the first to go.

You should still clean out your fridge and clean your chopping board more often than you probably do. But without a survey backed by statistics, where's the news story? And anyone who thinks kissing thighs is hazardous can kiss my arse.

Moral: One of the most important questions to ask is 'Really?', closely followed by 'So what?'


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How to cover a shipping story

Rena: a box ship, not a tanker (the clue's in the boxes
on deck), being assisted by Awanuia, a tanker, not a
box ship (the clue's in the pipes on deck)
There’s a maritime disaster, and you have to get a story out quickly. You have my sympathy. It’s not an easy industry to grasp in a couple of hours, and I’m surprised how few mistakes mainstream journalists make. But they still make plenty, so I’m here to help you avoid some of them.

Just because there's no passengers doesn’t mean it’s a tanker
The supertanker boom of the early 1970s was news. First there were stories of ships so big that their crews needed bicycles to get around and in one case even a mini (the car, not the skirt). Later, the stories concentrated on the amount of oil they spilled when they ran aground. Thereafter, people tended to assume that all commercial ships were tankers, even if they were carrying coal.
Tanker: noun, a ship, road vehicle, or aircraft for carrying liquids, especially mineral oils, in bulk (Oxforddictionaries.com)
One captain toured his ship in a mini
The bicycles, by the way, were either dumped over the side or sold in the next port. Imagine cycling on a sloping, moving, metal surface covered in oily water and you’ll understand why.

Just because it’s spilling oil doesn’t mean it’s a tanker
Most powered vehicles carry oil of some sort, either as fuel or lubrication. Ships are no exception. Puncture one in the right place, and oil will come out. The same is true of your car or a Boeing 747. It’s only a tanker if it carries liquid as cargo, in bulk, in a tank.

(Etymological aside: the British army in 1916 wanted to keep their new armoured vehicles a secret, so they told anyone who asked that those large, boxy objects being carried to the front under tarpaulins were water tanks. They’ve been called ‘tanks’ ever since.)

Just because it’s a tanker doesn’t mean it’s a supertanker
Maritime professionals frown on the term ‘supertanker’, but their own term, VLCC, isn't very attractive either. VLCC stands for ‘very large crude carrier’ and denotes a two-million-barrel ship, over 250,000 tonnes. There are also a few ULCCs (work it out) over 350,000 tonnes.

The next size below VLCC is the Suezmax (self-explanatory), over 120,000 tonnes. There are very few tankers between 160,000 and 250,000 tonnes because refineries don’t accept parcels of that size. You could just about call a Suezmax a supertanker, but it isn’t one really.

Speaking of ‘tonnes’…

Ships don’t weigh anything
That statement is obviously untrue. I mean that none of the ‘tonnages’ quoted for ships relate to their weight. The two main measurements for commercial ships are deadweight tonnes (dwt) and gross tons (gt). Note the different spellings of tons/tonnes. Naval ships are measured in displacement (don’t call them ‘military ships’; milites is the Latin for soldiers, whose theatre of operations is definitely not the sea).

Gt is a complicated measurement, but in simple terms it is a measurement of enclosed space, having its origin in the medieval wine trade from France to England, when ships were classified by how many tuns (i.e. barrels) they could carry. It has nothing to do with a ship's weight, so even if your house style is 'tonnes' instead of 'tons', you can't turn gross tons into tonnes.

Dwt measures how much weight the ship can carry (just like a 40-tonne lorry, which doesn’t weigh 40 tonnes; it can carry 40 tonnes of cargo). Although dwt includes fuel and people, on a cargo ship nearly all of it is cargo.

All ships have certificates that specify their gt and dwt, but which is more informative depends on the type of ship. If it’s a cargo ship, best quote the dwt.

…but use a measurement that means something
Despite the above, other measurements will sometimes be more useful to your readers. It might be accurate to tell them the gt of a cruise ship, but saying how many passengers it carries will mean more to them. 

We’ve all seen maritime containers being transported on the roads, so your readers will get a better grasp of the size of a container ship if you say how many boxes it carries. Since boxes come in two main sizes, 20-foot and 40-foot, the figure is usually quoted in ‘teu’ (twenty-foot-equivalent units, so a 40-foot container is 2 teu). Make sure to check whether your source is talking about teu or number of boxes.

Oil spills aren’t measured in gallons, and what’s a gallon anyway?
The shipping industry measures oil in tonnes – that is 1,000 kilos. If your readers prefer imperial tons, it’s easiest to convert 1:1. The difference is minimal, and it’s almost impossible to measure an oil spill accurately anyway (short tons – 907 kilos – are mainly used for dry cargo and seldom outside the US).

There are about 6½ barrels in a tonne, but it depends on the type of oil. A tonne of West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark crude, is 7.33 barrels. Many papers blithely quote ‘gallons’ without specifying that US gallons are 20% smaller than imperial gallons. It all leads to the conclusion that some writers don’t know or care what the numbers mean.

This piece from AP (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9889220) shows a journalist or subeditor getting into a right tangle with their conversions, apparently converting metric tonnes into short tons and then long tons. Sadly, these things are not always checked thoroughly before publication. That begs the question, if the numbers mean nothing to the journalist, the subeditor or the editor, why should they mean anything to the reader? So why are they in the story at all?

Exxon Valdez wasn’t the worst oil spill ever
As I said, it’s very difficult to measure an oil spill. If there’s a fire, some of the oil will be burnt off and some will remain in the ship, whether it’s wrecked or salvaged. But however you measure it, the most famous spill in the past quarter century isn’t the biggest. In fact, Exxon Valdez barely scrapes into the Top 40 (see the list at itopf.com).

If we wanted to measure the importance of an oil spill, we would need to measure the number of rich white people who got upset about it, weighted according to income. As far as I know, nobody is working on such an index. If they were, Exxon Valdez, Erika and Prestige would be much higher up the list (our friends at ITOPF will get you some of the way there), above the less well-known Castillo de Bellver and Atlantic Empress.

Titanic wasn’t the worst passenger-ship disaster ever
Again, the rule of ‘rich white people affected’ comes into play. The loss of 1,517 people a century ago was a tragedy, but it doesn’t compare to more recent disasters such as Le Joola (2002, 1,863 Senegalese) or Doña Paz (1987, over 4,000 Filipinos). If we include wartime casualties, the torpedoing of the German refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff (www.wilhelmgustloff.com) in January 1945 holds the record at around 9,000 – six times the toll of the Titanic.

Moral: fact-checking isn’t easy on a deadline.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What is the "New Normal"?

An interesting yet flawed article in today's Guardian suggests that the latest financial crisis has created a "new normal". The writer and the subs seem very pleased with this phrase. It's in the headline, the first sentence and even on the website's front page. 

Don't touch a Frenchman
My first response was on Twitter:

I know every noun can be verbed, but can adjectives be nouned? Welcome to the new normal |

Some people pointed out quite rightly that "the unemployed", "the aged" and "the French" are all acceptable examples of adjectives turning into nouns, and there is a closer analogy in the variants of the fashion slogan "beige is the new black". This is a bit different. Beige, the unemployed and the French are all tangible concepts – literally in the last two cases, and almost unavoidable in the case of the unemployed if the article is to be believed, so numerous will they become. Just be sure to ask permission before touching.

But normal is so abstract a concept that it needs some explanation, and the article doesn't give it. You can talk of 'the normal' as opposed to the abnormal in respect of things or people, but a normal situation already has two nouns: the norm and normality (and Americans even use 'normalcy'). Talk of "the new normal" just sounds pretentious.

Launch your ship before you torpedo it
The writer's and the subs' pride might be justified if they had coined the phrase, but it's hardly new. As David Kenning pointed out, it was the title of a book published in 2004 about entrepreneurial possibilities in the new economy. But that book isn't on Amazon.co.uk, even though a search reveals literally dozens of books using that phrase in their titles, so the reference is hardly specific.

The Guardian has forgotten one of the basic rules: your key hookline has to make some sense. Readers of Larry Elliott's article will ask themselves, "What, exactly, is the new normal?" Sadly, he doesn't tell us. He simply lists several potentially cataclysmic events arising from the latest financial crisis. 

The only conclusion we can draw from his article is that the sudden collapse of the economy is somehow going to be "normal" from now on. For any situation to become normal, it needs to be stable, yet there is nothing stable about a market crash. Fortunately, Elliot answers this puzzle at the end of the article: "The new normal is not really normal at all." In other words, he's created a theory and dismissed it without even telling anybody what it was. It's quite a feat to torpedo your own flagship while it's still on the stocks. Normally, you have to stick your arm up a heifer's backside to get such pure bullshit.

Moral: If you must use nebulous buzzwords, do explain them to the rest of us dullards.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Herstory": a case study in politicised language

Don't trust this man
When I was a student in the 1980s, feminism seemed in a bit of a rut. The headline battles of 1970s feminism had been won in terms of legislation on equality, while the battlegrounds of the 1990s hadn't been properly marked out. Feminists either seemed to be agitating for rematches of the battle their older sisters had already won or were picking fights about matters that seemed frankly trivial, seemingly in order to appear just as radical as earlier generations without having found anything that was worth being radical about.

There were, as it happens, plenty of issues to be radical about, but the problems and more so the solutions weren't so easy to define. Put simply, the enemy had moved. It was almost like an army of crusaders who arrive to find that Jerusalem has already fallen and so have to satisfy their zeal and aggression by massacring the prisoners. So, male students were presented with codes of behaviour insisting, among other things, that they should never speak to a woman unless she speaks first.

You shouldn't trust my student self. I don't
It might have been a case of young, inexperienced feminists having trouble articulating the issues, though it probably says more about my own naïvety, arrogance and inability or unwillingness to understand those issues behind the aggressive rhetoric. It's just possible I've matured a bit since, though there are those that doubt it. No matter, it's too long ago for me to reassess it objectively now.

One thing I found particularly irritating was the insistence that women's history be termed 'herstory'. This word wasn't presented as a portmanteau; its proponents argued that the word 'history' actually meant 'his story' and so de facto excluded women (I'm not making this up: I saw it argued in print and a feminist friend – an English student no less – tried to persuade me it was true). The same instinct inspired the spelling 'womyn' for 'women' in order to remove 'men' from the equation. The reaction – probably inspired by Private Eye – was the derisory term 'wimmin'.

Gimme dat Indo-European groove
If all you care about is the purity of language, then the issue is simple. 'History' comes, via French, from the Latin 'historia'. 'His' is English, not Latin (the Latin for 'his' is 'eius'). The 'his' element of 'historia' comes ultimately from the Indo-European 'wied' (know), and is related to the words 'wise' and 'vision'. Gender doesn't enter into it. 'Woman' comes from the Middle English 'wif-man'. If you're a stickler for consistency, you'd insist that anyone using 'womyn' should also use 'humyn'. However, that would mark you out as excessively confrontational, or simply as a bit of an arse. Still, you'd be right to insist that neither 'womyn' nor 'hersory' has any etymological justification.

For me, that's not enough. I still object to 'herstory', but not as strongly as I used to. I'm quite happy for new terms to enter the language, which is why I always call this collection of essays my 'blog'. However, I will never use the term 'webinar', for the simple reason that it's too damned ugly, and I dislike 'herstory' for the same reason. 

Ghetto academia
Nevertheless, women's history is a completely valid sphere of research, especially since the role of women in history was neglected for so long ("geography's about maps and history's about chaps", as they used to say). However, calling it 'herstory' breaks the link with the rest of history. Instead of bringing women into the mainstream of history, we risk creating a separate ghetto where politicised female historians only talk to each other, leaving historians on both sides of the wall impoverished. At its worst, it can become narrow-minded and ideologically driven, leading to a cult mentality and undermining the objectivity necessary for any academic study.

When women's history (or, better, the role of women in history) is considered within the wider context of history as a whole, we get fresh insights into subjects we thought we already knew. Just as an example, I'll point you to an episode of In Our Time discussing the role of women in Enlightenment science. The research might have been inspired by a feminist outlook, but the result is fascinating for anyone who is interested in the history of science. 

None of this sounds like an acceptance of the term 'herstory', but the term does have its uses as a shorthand (especially in the character-restricted world of Twitter). But I don't think its users should take it too seriously.

Moral: Beware of unintended consequences when inventing new words.
PS. My thanks to @MadamMJo for initiating the Twitter conversation that inspired this post. I respect her very much, but her opinions don't exactly align with mine.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Is this word alright?

About the time of my last romantic catastrophe, a friend asked me how I was feeling. "I'm alright," I shrugged. I certainly wasn't all right. I was just alright: not bad, could be better but surviving.
Leslie Nielsen's on my side

Corresponding with a lot of American editors and language enthusiasts, I'm surprised to find just how appalled they are that anyone would be ignorant enough to use 'alright' as if it's a real word. I've wanted to write about it for a couple of months now, but first I wanted to find out why so many people object to it. Having failed to find a reason beyond a screech of horror, I tweeted the following on Friday:
Altogether, always, although: all fine. So why get uptight about 'alright'?
The response was disappointing. A few tweeters echoed my sentiment…
Good call. I much prefer it to all right... I know it's wrong but it feels so alright. (CJ Wheeler, @Wintriguing)

No good reason. It's a stubborn shibboleth. (@StanCarey)
Give it ten years. Publishers only just coming round to split infinitives. (Eleanor Crawford, @el_crawford)
…but no one wanted a fight. However, the admirable Mark Allen (@EditorMark) sent me a link to his recent blog on that very subject, commenting, "It's one of the top search terms leading people to my blog." Mark has also done us the service of citing all the main dictionaries, so I don't have to. Their conclusions ranged from the hostile to the placidly accepting, but they all stopped short of saying it was correct.

Believe it or not, I'm quite prepared to change my opinion if someone comes up with a persuasive argument, or sometimes I'll change if it seems like I'm in a minority of one among language professionals (the latter explains why I've recently started writing 'no one' without a hyphen).

But I can't see any problem with 'alright'. As with the similarly formed 'altogether', 'always', 'already', etc, the linking of two words creates a new word with a different meaning (see also 'without' and 'anyway', but not 'anytime' or 'anymore', which serve no purpose and are simply wrong). The fact that 'alright' took a longer time to enter the language is immaterial. 'Proactive' didn't join 'active', 'inactive' and 'reactive' until very recently, but it's been embraced like a long-lost child and quite rightly so. 

'Alright' means OK or acceptable, and the construction harks back to the Middle English use of 'al' and 'ful' as modifiers of adjectives. 'All right', on the other hand, means what it says: everything right ("I answered ten questions and got them all right"). Since the two are synophones, it's advisable to split 'all' and 'right' in spoken English to avoid confusion (as in, "I got all of them right") or stress the 'all', which is what we do with other constructions. It doesn't usually cause a problem, unless you're Leslie Nielsen.

'Alright' is so readily accepted in Britain that it even has a phonetic equivalent: "Orright"; which is a Londoner's way of asking, "How are you?" In Manchester, it's "Arright?" and as you get closer to Scotland it's more like "Arreet?"

The reasons to allow 'alright' aren't compelling, but the only argument against it seems to be that it's non-standard, which is no argument at all.

Moral: 'Alright' is alright. If you want a battle, take arms against 'anymore'.