Category Archives: Journalism

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‘Comity’ Tonight

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“Morals tomorrow, comedy tonight!” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

 

When do we need comity? Probably most when we’re facing tragedy.

The New York Times reports that the White House and the Senate majority leader seek to patch up their differences or, as the paper words it, pursue comity. 

Back in August, the Los Angeles Times titled an article “Will the Senate Return Us to Comity and Civility?” Like The New York Times, the West Coast paper consigned comity to a headline and …

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300 Posts, Still Getting It Wrong

geoff_as_dunce I have just arrived at a small milestone: This post is my 300th on Lingua Franca (see the full listing here).
In August 2011 we started publishing every working day of the year, and I’ve done 50 posts a year with no breaks. That’s a lot of practice. But I’ve hardly ever managed to write a post that is flawless in the eyes of our wonderful and dedicated editor, Heidi Landecker.

The Chronicle does serious editing. We were all told from the get-go that we had to follow New York Times guidelines no…

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The Subtle Art of English Ethnic Slurs

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Ryanair, a cut-price airline, made serious managerial errors in predicting pilots’ leave time this fall, and had to cancel scores of flights. Here’s how the story was introduced, under the headline “Ryanair chief forced to grovel over cancellations,” in the tabloid newspaper Metro (front page, September 19):

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has promised compensation after the airline decided to cancel flights for up to 400,000 passengers over the next six weeks.

The Irishman made a frank apology ye…

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Our Alt-Universe

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A year ago, on the day after April Fools’ Day, the Associated Press announced that soon internet would no longer begin with a capital letter. No fooling.

This was the announcement:

“We will lowercase internet effective June 1, when the 2016 Stylebook launches.”

And they explained:

“. . . the lowercase spelling is in line with the public utility aspect of the net, just as radio and television are spelled down as generic terms in mass communications.”

When the AP changed its internet style, other…

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Plain Talk About Public Murder

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What is the point of classifying public mass murders as being (or not being) “terrorism” or “terror related,” as opposed to simply criminal? Why should some maniacs and assassins be accorded the honor of promotion to a higher grade of homicide? There is no generally accepted definition of terrorism, so why are such terminological distinctions even attempted when news about public slaughter is breaking?

The fashion for “lone wolf” low-tech killing sprees in public places came to the pleasant por…

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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

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I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…

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Back to the Real World

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I spent last week in Konstanz, Germany, on the shores of Lake Constance, at a small conference devoted to a theory of syntax called lexical-functional grammar (LFG). Among the attendees were two language engineers who attend almost every year: Ron Kaplan, co-developer of LFG (with the Stanford syntactician Joan Bresnan) and an industrial computational linguist since the 1980s, and Tracy Holloway King, a 1993 Stanford linguistics Ph.D. who also has a long career in Silicon Valley industrial rese…

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Blessed Are teh Copy Editors

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Copy editors AWOL? The Washington Post was embarrassed this year when it placed the wrong gender symbol on Page One of its Express.

In a recent Lingua Franca post, I had reason to mention Rogue Riderhood, a character from Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend. Even though I had just perused the relevant passages, I wrote the name as “Rough Riderhood.” The mistake did not appear in the published post. That’s because a copy editor, Heidi Landecker, caught it and fixed it.

It wasn’t a rare occurrence. …

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The Ken Burns Effect

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Ken Burns is responsible for dozens of distinguished historical documentary films, most famously The Civil War (1990) and most recently The Vietnam War, a 10-part series co-directed with Lynn Novick that will air on PBS in September. One characteristic of these films is zooming in and out of and panning across archival photographs. The device is so striking that it’s come to be known as “the Ken Burns effect”— not only informally but officially in Apple editing programs like iMovie and Final …

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Of Cadillacs and Prairie Dogs

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On a summer evening years ago, I dined with a group of friends at a rural Midwest restaurant where the parking lot was a patch of rough ground without marked bays. We came out to find a Cadillac parked close in beside our car. Edging into the gap between the vehicles (the other side was also tight), we did our best to get the doors far enough open to slide in without dinging the Cadillac. Our close approach triggered the Cadillac’s motion-sensitive theft alarm. A loud synthesized voice told us:…