Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Smiling as a second language

Welcome Cheerful Localwoman, who brought her two young children and a mother's smile that seemed to say, `It's a blessing to be here.'

Can we roll the tape on that one again, please? In some dialects, that smile is actually saying the Lord's Prayer backwards.

Or we could just keep writers from making up stuff about what people's smiles seem to be saying.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A rule of cop reporting

Here's a rule of cop reporting that you should have heard before:

Charge 'em on the front, clear 'em on the front

which is just another way of saying that the disposition of the case -- guilty, not guilty, or Let's All Go Home and Forget We Said Anything, OK? -- needs to get roughly the same prominence as the initial arrest.

So -- yeah. If you spent your 1A real estate to proclaim that the JonBenet case had been
or that the hunt for the killer had
or that the family had been
... you need to spend a bit more of it reminding your readers how wrong you got it. Yes, it's a little uncomfortable proclaiming that the family's now semi-officially UNABSOLVED, but maybe that's a nice reminder of why you shouldn't write question-begging heds in the first place.

And that's about all there is to say about that. Well, maybe one more thing. Next time somebody looks at a story this porous and says "well, maybe it's a brief if there's room," give 'em a listen, OK?

Monday morning hed roundup

Must have been a rough Sunday night at the nation's newspapers:

If the teacher's a man, the boys do better -- and vice versa
Raleigh N&O
Meaning what -- if the boys are a man, the teacher does better? Try not to have us drawing diagrams on the cereal box before the coffee's ready, OK?

Teacher's gender affects results?
Charlotte Observer
Same story, different blunder (somebody seems to have forgotten that questions in English tend to need auxiliary support). The question mark is in no way a form of attribution, but at least it's an effort.

Plane took off wrong runway
Savannah Morning News
Er, no. It might have taken off from or on the wrong runway, but "take off" doesn't want a direct object here.

Death penalty is unlikely for Karr
Boulder Daily Camera
Maybe. But do you think we might want to mention that before we get to this discussion, a few other things have to happen? Like, he has to be charged? And convicted?

Poll: America not ready for next disaster
The Columbian (Washington)
Regardless of what you think about the merits of polls, this isn't the sort of a question a poll can answer. Nor does it seem to be the question the poll asked, which is whether people think thge country is ready for another major disaster.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

OK, I'm ticked

We here at HEADSUP-L generally take a pretty liberal attitude toward complaints about journalism, partly because we do rather a lot of complaining about journalism ourselves (as a career copyed, HEADSUP-L Six has been picking on journalism for a living since sometime in the Carter administration). So we're pretty tolerant of critics who have a point -- even if, like our good buddies over at Language Log, they risk missing a lot of the really interesting variance because they're having such fun with the obvious stuff.

So having suffered through, and complained about, a number of silly seasons, we kind of grinned along when the Logsters caught the Grauniad with its linguistic pants at half-mast: waving a patently clueless language statement ("there are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than English") into print with hardly a fare-thee-well. Hey, it's the kind of thing we whinge about here too.

As it turns out, the academic side is cherry-picking. That wasn't an error the Guardian introduced. It was one created by the scholar who wrote the piece in question: "[t]he thought that was in my mind when I wrote that part of the sentence was 'there are now more Spanish speakers in some of the United States than English'."

The technical term for which, of course, is "brain fart," and step forward the journalist who hasn't gotten X and Y bassackward in a similar fashion at some point or another. We all do. You can't do much but admit it and grin. Unless, that is, you're Prof. Alan Smithers:

"I, therefore, felt justified in going for a dramatic statement. But since it has attracted attention out of all proportion to its importance in the article (which was about why we in England should not be too bothered by the decline in the learning of French and German in our schools given the increasing interest in Spanish and other languages), it should perhaps have been more qualified -- though whether a more academic sentence would have survived the subbing is another matter."

Emphasis mine, because what Prof. Smithers is saying is that he has to write stupid for the proles. If he'd tried to make a real scholarly argument, the copydesk ("subeditors" are copyeds in British English, and "subbing" is what rim rats do) would have butchered it anyway. And that's a cheap shot, which he ought to be sent off for.

I'd rather folks didn't think ill of Language Log, whose proprieters do an exceptional job of making serious science accessible and fun. And somebody should point out on the Guardian's behalf that whatever it might miss about Spanish in the U.S., it has an Arabic speaker for a Middle East editor, and if you don't think there's a sociolinguistic fault line in that neighborhood, you aren't paying attention. But for Prof. Alan Smithers: If you put your words in front of the public for a living, you're going to screw up every now and then. Suck it up, buttercup. Don't blame your screwups on other folks' allleged ineptitude. Somebody might return the favor.

Tell your statistics to shut up

Hurrah the mass media. Sometimes they get enough of the Big Picture to raise your hopes a bit -- notwithstanding the vast number of details they manage to slaughter in the bargain. Such is the latest offering in the NYT's public editor's slot, "Precisely false vs. approximately right: A reader's guide to polls" (p. 10 of today's Week in Review section).

This week's author is Jack Rosenthal, whom we last encountered in this spot when he claimed to be pinch-hitting (he wasn't, but that's another story) for Bill Safire a few weeks back. And our roving utility dude makes some overall sharp points about survey data and what to do -- or not do -- with it: Methods matter. Details matter. Sources matter. And even the mighty Times isn't above running unsupported nonsense based on otherwise innocent polling data.

However good his intentions, though, he gets off on the wrong foot early:

The Times published a correction explaining the misrepresentation, and the news media that used the story would probably agree with what Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers authority on polls, told Mystery Pollster, a polling blog: how unfair it is to publish a story “suggesting that college students on spring break are largely drunken sluts.”

One doubts they'd agree with any such thing. Usually, when you point out that a "survey" story -- like's fake tale of how much time workers waste on the job -- is bogus from the word go, the response from the "news media" is something like: Tell your statistics to shut up.*

Overoptimisim, at least, isn't a sin. Oversimplification is, and that's where Rosenthal starts to commit errors almost as awful as the ones he decries. Let's look at a few:

Beware of decimal places. When a polling story presents data down to tenths of a percentage point, what the pollster almost always demonstrates is not precision but pretension. A recent Zogby Interactive poll, for instance, showed that the candidates for the Senate in Missouri were separated by 3.8 percentage points. Yet the stated margin of sampling error meant the difference between the candidates could be seven points. The survey would have to interview unimaginably many thousands for that zero point eight to be useful.

Here a good idea -- beware of spurious precision -- becomes a nonsensical, if not outright dangerous, commandment: Down with decimal points! Off with their little heads! His example shows why:

... the candidates for the Senate in Missouri were separated by 3.8 percentage points. Yet the stated margin of sampling error meant the difference between the candidates could be seven points.

Whoa. If he's referring to the July Zogby poll, the distance between candidates is correct, but the margin of sampling error would have to be 1.6 points for that sentence to make any sense. If we take the margin of sampling error from the June version of that poll (+/- 3.4 points), the "difference between the candidates" could be anything from a 10.8-point Talent lead to a 3-point McCaskill lead and still be considered a non-chance representation of the population. Why we're implicating the poor decimal point in 3.8 is a bit baffling.

...The survey would have to interview unimaginably many thousands for that zero point eight to be useful.

Here, he probably means "for the 0.2" to be useful rather than "the 0.8" (anybody who would round 0.8 downward would suck eggs). Either way ... huh? For one thing, it doesn't take "unimaginably many thousands" to make the margin of a Senate campaign relevant (Cantwell pipped Gorton by less than 4,000 in the 2000 Washington race). For another, how hard is it to come up with a case where rounding would give a false result?

Let's try some imaginary poll numbers: Talent 49.4%, McCaskill 42.5%, with a margin of sampling error of +/- 3.4 percentage points. The long and short of what that means is that for a sample of this size (about 850 people), we're 95% sure that Talent's support in the whole population is somewhere between 46 and 52.8; McCaskill's is between 39.1 and 45.9. There are no non-chance cases in which Talent is trailing.

Round the basic numbers (Talent 49.4=49, McCaskill 42.5=43) and the picture is different: Our sample could be an accurate reflection of a McCaskill lead (46.4 to Talent's 45.6). And that doesn't include rounding the margin of sampling error, where the relevance of detail is much more pronounced. The difference between 4 and 3.8 percentage points** is a difference of 50 people (n=600 vs. n=650); to get to 3 points, you need about 1,100 in your survey.

Experienced researchers offer a rule of thumb: rather than trust improbably precise numbers, round them off. Even better, look for whole fractions.

Fine. Round off the "improbably precise" 45.382 to 45.4. But don't tell me it's equal to 44.5. And whatever a "whole fraction" is (1/6? 1/8?), don't look for one.

Rosenthal nails useful points throughout: Sampling error for subgroups is bigger than for the whole sample.*** Stupid phrasing leads to stupid results. Poll respondents, being human, like to make themselves look good (that's why smart newspapers never confuse self-reported church attendance with church attendance). But he undercuts himself by getting his concepts confused and his terms bollixed:

The Times and other media accompany poll reports with a box explaining how the random sample was selected and stating the sampling error. Error is actually a misnomer. What this figure actually describes is a range of approximation.

Yeah, I wish. Some are open about their methods; some aren't. But "error" isn't a misnomer; it just means variance not accounted for stuff you're trying to account for. Call this margin a "confidence interval" if that makes you feel better.

For a typical election sample of 1,000, the error rate is plus or minus three percentage points for each candidate, meaning that a 50-50 race could actually differ by 53 to 47.

"Error rate," on the other hand, is a misnomer. "Rate" has nothing to do with it.

But the three-point figure applies only to the entire sample. How many of those are likely voters?

Dunno. Did you ask?

In the recent Connecticut primary, 40 percent of eligible Democrats voted. Even if a poll identified the likely voters perfectly, there still would be just 400 of them, and the error rate for that number would be plus or minus five points. So to win confidence, a finding would have to exceed 55 to 45.

Good start, bad finish. Remember, he hasn't said what a "typical election sample" would consist of, and that's one of the things that needs to appear in the infobox. Is it anyone "eligible" to vote? Registered voters? Likely voters? Likely Democratic voters? It could be any of those (though where he gets the mystic 400, I don't know; he seems to be multiplying stuff at random). And the margin of sampling error (at the 95% confidence level, which he ignores throughout, though you can't calculate sampling error without confidence level) for a sample of 400 is 4.9, not 5, points. I know, it's that damn decimal again, but look at it this way: for a subsample of 475, it's 4.5 points, meaning a 9-point split rather than 10.

Go forth and bear his concerns in mind when monitoring copy during the onrushing campaign season. But it's worth asking, at the same time, why journalists are so perpetually convinced that stuff needs to be dumbed down to the point where it's unrecognizable before the alleged public can understand it. Half an hour with a hard-eyed editor who survived a basic stats course would have done this column a world of good.

If his copy didn't get that half-hour because the desk was overloaded, or because it didn't have a pinch-hitter who hits bogus stats into the cheap seats, that's understandable. If he didn't get a hard edit because of his title (he was a senior editor at the NYT for 25 years, after all), that's a different matter. If you edited the writer rather than the writing, you did the readers -- and the writer -- a disservice.

* This week's trivia quiz: What favorite book among ex-Missourian hands is this the title of the appendix of?
** Doug's going to say this should be "percent," and I'm going to disagree.
*** For busy copyeds: Multiply 1.96 by the square root of 0.25/n to get the margin of sampling error for n (at the 95% confidence level).

Burn the thesaurus

Uganda, rebels agree to cease-fire in 19-year rift
KAMPALA, Uganda - The Ugandan government and Lord's Resistance Army rebels agreed Saturday to end a 19-year conflict that left thousands dead in one of Africa's longest wars, officials said.

Generally, "thousands dead" is enough to qualify for more than "rift" status. This one isn't World Rift II, the Thirty Years' Rift or even the Iran-Iraq Rift, but -- in case anyone's interested -- it's still a chance to send a small signal that the paper takes Africa seriously. Go ahead and throw out the thesaurus (if you can find it; good copyeds often don't even know where the damn thing is). Call a war a war, and save rift (or tiff, or set-to, or fais-do-do, or what have you) for the funny pages.

The lede's a nice chance to practice some basic editing skills, too. The AP's trying to pack in a few too many ideas for its own good; if you strip the modifiers out of the object complement, you get a hed on the order of

Conflict kills thousands in war!

... which is just a bit on the tautological side. If the AP can't make up its mind, the desk should offer to help. Emphasize the length of the unpleasantries:

The Ugandan government and Lord's Resistance Army rebels agreed Saturday to end their 19-year conflict, one of the longest in Africa, officials said.

or the number of people rifted:

The Ugandan government and Lord's Resistance Army rebels agreed Saturday to end a 19-year conflict that left thousands dead, officials said.

Pretend you're an usher. Work the remaining element in at a natural break in the onstage action. How do you know you'll have enough room? Well, running enough of the story to get to the background paragraphs is a nice way of hinting that you actually think 19-year civil wars are serious, isn't it?

No, but thanks for asking

In case the word hasn't gotten out (as it obviously hasn't in some provinces), this one's on the permanent exclusion list too. If you see it, slay it:

Ready for some football?
Rock Hill Herald

Are you ready for some football?
Manchester Union-Leader
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Akron Beacon-Journal

They're ready for some football
Capital Times

Hurricanes get ready for some football
Lawrence Journal-World

If you really are ready for some football, you'd better start doing your homework
Star Tribune

Are you ready for some football at Clipper?
Lancaster (Pa.) New Era

Getting ready for some football
Baltimore Sun

Prep teams get ready for some football
Ahcnorage Daily News

Are you ready for some football? The networks are!
Denver Post

Ready for some football? More than ever on way
USA Today

Reality Bytes: Are you ready for some football?
Santa Fe New Mexican

Titletown shows its ready for some football
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (winner of the Judges' Award for special merit for screwing up the its/it's issue in the bargain)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Undercutting the writers

A gentle (for now) reminder that a lot of the "framing" of a story -- to avoid getting into a full-scale lit review, let's specify that "framing" is a process in which news coverage highlights or downplays elements of a story by way of defining a problem, narrowing the set of solutions available, and sorting the cast into good and bad guys* -- comes from decisions the desk makes.

It doesn't have to be intentional. A bit of news judgment that looks like simple, reader-friendly packaging can say a lot about how you view the world, whether you want it to or not. And it can happen in a single sentence, as in today's lesson:

Padilla Case Shrinks
A federal judge in Miami on Monday threw out one count in the indictment against alleged al-Qaida operative and "Dirty Bomber" Jose Padilla and his co-defendants, concluding that it repeated other charges in the same indictment.

The clumsiness of the sentence isn't the point. The point is its position as a shirttail on this Washington story:

Bush cites urgent need for troops in Lebanon
President says Iraq war is straining U.S., but that GIs won't leave

Putting the unrelated concepts of Lebanon and Iraq together is OK here because they're both part of the president's news conference. Throwing Qaida in there is a different matter, and unfortunately it's not a neutral one. It frames Iraq and Qaida as part of the same story, meaning it does the president's work for him.

That's especially annoying in the light of some comments here about the long-range impact of the McClatchy/K-R merger: "The Knight-Ridder staff came with a reputation for aggressive Washington reporting. Before the Iraq invasion, it stood apart from other news services and national newspapers in writing stories that challenged the Bush Administration's weapons of mass destruction premise for the war."

True, if a little exaggerated. The K-R Washburo was unusually forthright in reporting that side of things (though it's never lost its penchant for manic hyperbole). Why, then, does the desk want to undercut that good work by buying into an equally dangerous aspect of the Big Lie: Al-Qaida is just Iraq with funnier hats?

Packaging isn't always innocent. In this case, it makes a distinct ideological statement. If that's what you want, hey -- it's your newsprint. But don't kid yourself about your neutrality.

* Largely condensed from Bob Entman's latest, to which the reader is referred for a thorough look at the sociology-derived side of framing.

Paging Dr. Observer

The first rule of hed writing is a short one. It goes like this:


or, Read The Story. That's the best way to keep from writing heds that are contradicted by the material beneath them, which isn't a Good Thing in any case but seems especially pernicious when you're playing doctor. As in:

Acne drug bad for liver, heart
Findings underscore need to monitor patients closely

If the kicker's supposed to be some sort of attribution, by the way, it doesn't work. But the point of concern is the main hed, which says that the acne drug in question is "bad for liver, heart." Is that what Study Says?

Not to judge from the lede, which says the drug "seems to raise the risk for potential heart and liver problems more than doctors had expected" (emphasis added). The risks that make up the hed, in other words, are already Old News. What this study shows, according to that pesky text, is that "abnormal results for cholesterol and liver function were more common than expected."

What does that mean in real life? Hey, let's ask one of the authors:

While those conditions can lead to problems over the long term, abnormal lab tests don't necessarily mean patients will develop heart or liver problems, said study co-author Dr. Lee Zane of the University of California, San Francisco.

"An elevation in cholesterol doesn't guarantee a heart attack. A high level of liver enzymes doesn't mean cirrhosis of the liver," Zane said.

Another case of good study, decent story, bad hed. Desk, if you don't have room to write the hed a story needs, go stand on somebody's fingers until you're given more.

Monday, August 21, 2006

And another thing ...

OK, there seems to actually be one more useful point to make from the collective circling of the toilet, JonBenet-wise, that Our Meedja seem unable to stop. It is this:

Asked if he were an innocent man, Karr replied, "No."

Aaaaaaagh. He was not asked if he were an innocent man. He was asked if he is an innocent man (which, dear reporter, is rather patently not the same question as "Didja do it?"). As an indication of an ongoing state, it should continue to be reported in the present indicative. Under no circumstances, it ought to go without saying, is it subjunctive. Even if we were trying him in the old-fashioned way, it'd be indicative:

We shall throw thee in the Pool of Champagne, Goodman Karr, and if thou art innocent, thou shalt sink!

The rest of the reporting is sort of like watching the shuttle explode. Over and over and over and over and over:

Before takeoff, Karr took a glass of champagne from a flight attendant and clinked glasses with Spray, who sipped orange juice.

Karr first dined on pate, salad, fried king prawn, steamed rice, broccoli and chocolate cake. He also had a beer — crushing the empty can with his hands — and then had a glass of chardonnay.

Crushed it with his bare hands! And this a guy who allegedly had his alleged facial hair removed so he allegedly could prepare to purportedly think about having an alleged sex change! Doctors say!

Karr appeared to order the drinks himself.

How 'bout that Fox News! CNN had a guy in business class with the suspect and didn't get detail like that!

Enough. You newspapers that still thought this was front-worthy on Monday, you should know better.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

St. Custard's hav begun another term.

Well, almost. As ane fule kno, the new term doesn't officially start until the crack of eight on Monday. So there's still time to shake out a few kinks and aim for a semester entirely free of Forbidden Ledes and other undelights.

Boone County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a call from a resident about a man carrying a “big gun” north of Columbia on Friday night.

"Police responded to..." and all its variants are permanently banned, from all ledes, at all times, under all circumstances. The news is the arrest, not the happy circumstance of the cops' doing their job.

Localman, who the Sheriff’s Department said was intoxicated, had apparently angrily threatened three residents of a nearby housing unit with the rifle.

We have no idea what this chap "apparently" did. If we know what the POLICE SAY he did, put that in the story and attribute it. But no speculating about what "apparently" happened.

Localman is being held at the Boone County Jail. His arraignment is scheduled for Monday.

No peering into the future, which is what "is being held" does. We have no idea whether that will be true at the time of publication. Stick with what you know: "Was being held Saturday at the Boone County Jail."

On the bright side: The story follows house style, rather than Tribune style, on "Sheriff's Department" and "Missouri 763." And it's still the preseason.

On July 28, Christian music artist Caleb Rowden signed a guitar for a young fan of his music

This one's a bit trickier. Date ledes aren't banned outright, but they ought to be extremely rare because they only work in a limited number of cases. They can foreshadow:

On Sept. 10, 2001, Roscoe completed his plans for a New York vacation. He bought Yankees tickets. He made reservations at the restaurant atop the World Trade Center for that Saturday night.

And they can set up a contrast or introduce a relevant date:

On Aug. 21, 1976, Roscoe kissed his family goodbye and left for work as usual. Thirty years later, his disappearance remains a mystery.

But for kicking off a garden-variety news or anecdotal lede, they almost invariably take the reader's eye off the ball by emphasizing the wrong thing. This one isn't about the date as much as the event: "a CD signing in Columbia between gigs in Michigan and Ohio." Desk hands don't want to hack these apart on their own, but they should feel free to suggest improvements. ("Police responded," on the other hand, must be changed in all cases, though it's a good idea to notify the offending desk.)

Lucky Newcomer, a Taiwanese graduate student studying public affairs, had the winning number — 7448 — and was the lucky recipient of a new microwave.

Adjectives aren't always bad things; as the Language Logsters point out, E.B. White is a better writer when he ignores his own anti-adjective commandments. But "lucky winner," like "scrumptious sandwich," is the sort of adjectival overload that comes from watching too many commercials. We've said he had the winning number; what's the point of adding that he's "lucky?"

Unfortunately, heavy rains washed out the game.

Again, not so much wrong as irrelevant, though for a different reason. The paper's judgment on whether this occurrence is fortunate or unfortunate is of no import whatever, and writer and editors should resist the temptation to share it. (The flip side is the classic Anchorman Adverb: "Fortunately, no one was hurt." The victims' good fortune doesn't need the anchorman's blessing.)

Now for some good news, because there's a lot of it in the overnights: Story/cutline age discrepancy, fixed. Misspelled name in story, fixed. Misspelled names -- yes, that means rather a few of them -- in obits, fixed. Misstated relationship in obit, fixed. And the potentially embarrassing "closet friend" turned into "closest friend." That presages a good season of desk work. Writers owe these folks a round of applause (and, for those 21 and over, drinks).

Friday, August 18, 2006

Solved! Far from solved!

One more brief rant about the abysmal performance of the nation's news organizations in the Great JonBenet Case, and then it's off to real work.

Alert readers will recall that as of yesterday, the Decade-Old Mystery had been
by a Stunning Confession. Well, stop the press. Again. As of this morning, it's
far from solved
to hear the Raleigh N&O and the Fresno Bee tell it (at the feckless Charlotte Observer, it's "not closed just yet").

One hates to rub it in (no, actually, one doesn't hate to rub it in), but if the particle physicists who run America's budget meetings hadn't launched into feeding-frenzy mode when the alleged story first purportedly broke, they wouldn't have to be backtracking into rudimentary common sense on Day Two.

Here's a tiny reminder of what you're buying into when you bet the family real estate on official accounts of purported confessions:

Suwat also said Friday that his statement about the girl being picked from school was based on a documentary he had seen and not the interrogation.

Right. That's the lieutenant-general of the Thai immigration cops saying that the bit about her being picked up from school (the day after Christmas) wasn't from the interrogation at all. He saw it on, um, TV or something. Note that HEADSUP-L, beacon of cross-cultural understanding that he is, isn't going anywhere near any questions about what sorts of tea and cakes were served during the "interrogation."

Once again: It's not a "confession" when the cops say he confessed. It's not a "confession" when the guy talks to reporters. It's a statement of some sort whose truth value remains determinedly undetermined. Get it right the first time, you won't have to backtrack on the front the next day.

Not, of course, that everybody backtracked much:

Confession and confusion
Philadelphia Inquirer

JonBenet confession vague, puzzling
The (Columbia) State

Then there's the false dichotomy:
Killer or kook?
Beaver County Times

... with the Harvard Lampoon touch:
Killer or crazy?

How much is this misbegotten tale consuming in the way of resources? Well, it's a relief to note that some papers managed to give substantial play to the wiretap ruling (and Columbus even managed a declarative headline on it). But the picture isn't universally encouraging. The AP bilge cited above has five contributors in addition to the bylined writer. Our old buddy Linray brought up the Richard Jewell case, which is always a useful reminder. It's also worth recalling what the national scare story was five years ago this month. (Hint: Try searching your friendly neighborhood database for "shark w/5 attack" for Aug. 19-Sept. 10, 2001.)

The Jewell case is a blunder we know. The scarier ones are the ones we don't know yet. Every byline chasing another irrelevant comment about John Karr's sports car is one that could be giving a moment's thought to what isn't in the news yet but ought to be.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Still love journalism?

Sure. Don't we all? But there are days when it seems as if the next logical step is going to be sitting in a brightly lit room explaining to the detectives why you hit journalism upside the head with a tire iron if you love it so much.

This is such a day, and the reason is the return of the most preposterous overplayed train wreck of a story of the late 20th century. The one next to which the OJ case looks like Camp David. That'll be the mysterious death of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey.

There's probably no stopping the papers that claim this as a local story (note the End Of World plays at right). But for the rest of us ... you'd sort of hope there was a voice or two out there wondering what it was we were thinking back in 1996 and seeing this arrest as a chance to start ignoring or underplaying the tale. As we should have done in the first place.

What we seem to get instead, alas, is a national chorus of STOP THE PRESS! So here are a few awards and some simple content analysis, in case anybody thinks we need a baseline to compare this against in the future.

First, the Moronic Hed Awards:

In the Guilty, Guilty, Guilty category:
New York Daily News

JonBenet suspect confesses
Bakersfield Californian (and everybody who ran a variant; he hasn't "confessed" until his "confession" is admitted in court)

In the Innocent, Innocent, Innocent category:
Key arrest vindicates family of JonBenet
Arizona Republic

Arrest absolves JonBenet's family
Fort Myers News-Press

In the Who Knows? We Don't! category:
Justice for JonBenet?
Chicago Sun-Times

Solved? JonBenet case has suspect
Charlotte Observer

Arrest in case could vindicate Ramseys
Columbus Dispatch
The judges are especially impressed with the Dispatch's inability to make up its mind about anything today, citing the lede hed ("Can we trust the voting results?") and the centerpiece ("Is it fair?")

Now, the coveted Moronic Writing Awards.

In news reporting, the prize goes to the hometown Rocky:

The decade-long search for JonBenet Ramsey's killer came to a startling end in Thailand on Wednesday.
Guys? Editors? Writers? Anybody? Thanks for sparing us the expense of the trial. Hard to see how you're going to make up for a decade of declaring the family Guilty Until Proven Innocent by doing the same thing for the suspect.

And in feature writing, step forward the New York Daily News:
The day after Christmas is usually a slow news day, and I was thinking about slipping out of the newsroom early to join my buddy Jerry down at the Terminal Bar. But the police radio on the city desk started squawking and the city editor was jumping around in his chair like somebody had thrown a snake in his lap. A big story was breaking.

Oh, for God's sake. If I wanted hard-boiled, there's a Spillane threefer hardback sitting in the window down at Acorn even as we speak. But we're just getting started:

I have covered many murders in my years as a reporter, but I had never covered one like this. When the Crips kill a Blood, no explanation is needed. But what possible reason could somebody give for beating, strangling and sexually assaulting a 6-year-old girl?

Crips and Bloods? Ah, sweet value of human life. HEADSUP-L knows an editor (cynical even by copydesk standards) who attributes the drastic differences in play certain murders get to what he calls the "White Man With Job Dies" effect. Nice of our NYDN scribe to come out and admit it, eh? Remember, eyeholes in the front of the pillowcase, big guy.

UPDATE: And the category of Irrelevant Detail, this just in from the Associated Press:
"There's no way I could be brief about it. It's a very involved series of events," said Karr, who speaks with a thick Southern accent. "It's very painful for me to talk about."

Unfortunately, pending clue arrival here, we're temporarily unable to post the full tabular set of papers and where they played the tale. Stay tuned for updates.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"How do we know ...?"

... remains one of the best questions in the copyed arsenal. Feel free (no: feel compelled) to deploy it whenever a writer leads you to a fork in the road that can only be solved with an unsupported assumption. As in:

Reallystupid Waytofly, 42, of Lexington, S.C., was arrested outside a ramp near Concourse C and charged with second-degree trespassing, being intoxicated and disruptive, resisting a public officer and injury to personal property. He was released from Mecklenburg County jail on $2,000 bond.

A woman who answered the phone at Waytofly's address said he didn't live there.

Well, that settles that. She's lying. Unless, oh, his license has an outdated address, or he fibbed to the cops, or we got him mixed up with one of the other South Carolina Waytoflys -- you don't need a very active imagination to add to the list. So if the writer isn't prepared to demonstrate how we know that the address is his, don't let it by.

Yes, that means a clumsier sentence, including a hedge on the order of "the address listed on the arrest report." Which might, in turn, raise the question of what exactly this bit of data adds to the sum of human knowledge. The reader's only interest in this -- aside from passing curiosity in the Almighty's ability to look after drunks and idiots -- is in how the lad managed to stumble out to the ramp (do they still have "tarmac" at Charlotte-Douglas, by the way?). How seriously do we expect that to be illuminated by comments from the home front? Especially when we start by presuming that the person we reach is lying?

While we're here, there's an excellent example of the Two-Minute Mile to ponder. It's a Web-only hed, but if that's your face to the world ...

1 in 3 of Charlotte's residents from outside U.S.

That sounds like news. Unless, of course, the link-writer was referring to the story bearing this hed: "1 in 3 of Charlotte's newest residents came from outside U.S."

Slight difference, you think?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Another day in the sausage factory

A few items from last week's Big Story are worth a second look, mostly to underscore the sometimes random nature of the journalistic craft. Well, not exactly "random." Let's call it the "nonlinear" nature of journalism.

This isn't by any means an exhaustive discussion of the available phenomena. No comments on presidential word choice, for example, or explanations of why this hed in the Star would have been amazingly dumb even without the godawful paint-by-numbers redesign. But as a new semester of content analyses and batty conspiracy theories approaches, it's worth noting how much stuff in journalism comes about not by design but by routine, heuristic or accident.

Here's the Times, for example, getting out-edited by one of its customers:

“Born a Christian,” was the headline in The Sun, in its account of one of the suspects, Don Stewart-Whyte. He is the 19-year-old son of a late Tory politician who was said to have converted about six months ago.

Curse those relative clauses! This one pretty clearly points to "late Tory politician." Your brain can try to talk you out of it -- you know, Dad would have had to have died between six months ago and now -- but time you're spending on arguments about the grammar of a story is time you aren't spending with the story.

Here's the same graf in the Columbus Dispatch:

“Born a Christian,” was the headline in The Sun, in its account of one of the suspects, Don Stewart-Whyte, the 19-year-old son of a late Tory politician, said to have converted about six months ago.

With "the 19-year-old son" bit moved into loose apposition, the relative clause is a lot clearer.

Was the provincial paper just guessing? Probably not, given that it had several other sources close at hand. The AP, for example, makes clear that the younger Stewart-Whyte is the convert. (Does that mean the AP's better? Well, it did let an anonymous neighbor slag the kid thus: "He used to smoke weed and drink a lot, but he is completely different now." Thanks, AP!)

Here's an even stranger bit of editing. First, the Times, from another chunk of its Saturday coverage:

The suspect, identified as Rashid Rauf, was arrested Wednesday in the eastern city of Bahawalpur, the officials said, just hours before the authorities began a series of raids across Britain to break up the plot they say was rapidly unfolding here.

Here it is in the Dispatch:

The suspect, identified as Rashid Al Rauf, was arrested Wednesday in the eastern city of Bahawalpur, the officials said ...

Hmm. How did an Arabic article (or homographic noun) wind up in the middle of a Pakistani guy's name? The Central Ohio Bureau avers that "Al Rauf" is how the copy arrived from the NYT's news service. A non-exhaustive check suggests that no other agencies used it.

Here's a possible explanation, and comments or additions are welcome. Times style differs from AP on a number of points, so to make life easier for NYTNS subscribers, the Times runs its copy through an exchange program meant to iron out some or most of those differences before the stuff hits the wire. Without the human touch, of course, the program is likely to decide that "Windows ME" needs to be "Windows, Maine." I don't think there's a Times rule that calls for deleting the Arabic article (as the Post prefers to do), but I wonder if some kind of computer trickery might have been at play here.

Long and short of that? When you see that talismanic "New York Times" creditline, you might or might not be seeing what the Times ran. And that might or might not be a good thing.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

"I'm not dying," said Yossarian

Just when you thought you could turn your back on the Stupid Question, it surfaces again:

Guilty of murder, but will he die?
GEORGETOWN, S.C. -- A Georgetown County jury found Stephen Stanko guilty Friday night of killing his live-in girlfriend and raping a teenager in her home.

Stand by for a news flash. Yes, he's going to die. We're all going to die! It's sort of what happens at the end of life. If the Stupid Question you're trying to raise is "Will the jury vote for a death sentence?" (which is still rather far removed from "Will he be executed?"), you picked a particularly silly way to raise it.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Clouseau on the transit desk

Not to be rude or anything, but how many translation engines was this lede run through before it was posted?

Charlotte fliers should expect the long delays at the airline counters today where more passengers checking baggage with new security measure in place after a thwarted terror attack in Great Britain.

"Long delays" are indefinite, so they shouldn't take the determiner until they become a second reference: The threat is creating long delays. Charlotte fliers should expect the long delays at ... would be correct, if weird. The text sounds like a bad ESL parody:

What kinds of fruit are you growing?
* I am growing the peppers and the tomatoes.
I am growing peppers and tomatoes.

And the "where" clause ought to be set off with a comma, and it needs a complete verb, and "measure" needs to be plural. And, though it's kind of off-topic: At the BBC, where it's a distinctly local story, writers are still calling this a "suspected" plot. Is that just too cautious for our tastes, or do we know better'n they do?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Demons are often summoned ...

Mention it one day, it pops up somewhere the next. Such is the great game of participial whack-a-mole that is copy editing.

Anyway, re:

Pair acquitted in killing Pee Dee woman now face federal charges

No, you can't be "acquitted in killing" somebody. You can be acquitted of killing her, or acquitted in the killing (or in her death), but not acquitted in killing her.

While we're at it, time for all good persons and true to join the campaign against "face up to" in cop tales. Here's the proximate cause:

If convicted of the robbery charges from earlier this year, Clarett could face up to 26 years in prison, including six mandatory years for using a weapon.

... but you can find dozens from the past week alone without breaking much of a sweat. Trouble is, "face up" is already a phrasal verb, meaning "confront." It's not an implausible meaning, but if you're meaning to convey the maximum sentence, it's confusing. Why not dump the cliche altogether: faces a maximum sentence of 26 years in prison or could face 26 years in prison?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

By their briefs shall ye know them

... and that doesn't mean "Rose goes in the front, big guy." It means that news outfits that pay attention to details in the briefs columns are likely to pay attention to them elsewhere too. And, conversely, that if the briefs aren't worth your time, your readers are likely to wonder what you're saving all that energy for. Hence:

Former office manager embezzles $16,000
A former Mooresville office manager was arrested Tuesday on charges that she embezzled more than $16,000 from Carolina Family Medicine & Wellness and the M.D. Laser Studio, authorities said.

Hey, thanks for keeping the court system clear of all those pesky people who think they're innocent until proven guilty.

A Lincoln County woman was arrested Monday in connection with selling marijuana at her work place. ... [Naughty Woman] was taken to the Harven A. Crouse Detention Center in Lincolnton under a $3,000 bond.

Two things: One, "in connection with" is not a cut-n-paste solution to the problem of reporters who write "arrested for":

Smith was arrested in connection with two deaths.
* Smith was arrested in connection with killing two people.

Just say she was "accused of" selling the stuff at her workplace. If, indeed, the cops assert that, instead of just suspecting it.

Second, this is up on the Web Wednesday morning, and the arrest was Monday. There's no excuse for not telling us whether she made bail.

A man whom police said took his children from their grandmother's house in Lincoln County Tuesday morning was charged with felony larceny of a motor vehicle.

Him did?

Please, pay attention to the briefs. Readers do.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Fake news alert

Quoth "Al's Morning Meeting":

Two Hours of Slacking Per Day
According to a new survey by America Online and
The average worker admits to frittering away 2.09 hours per eight-hour workday, not including lunch and scheduled break time.

Let's not fall for this one again. It isn't "new" ( got a bunch of news orgs to bite on the same bogus data last year; scroll down a bit here for the July '05 screed), and in no meaningful sense is it a "survey."

Monday, August 07, 2006

Punishment and crime

This is a correction to a News & Observer story featured on on Sunday:

This report on the Durham lacrosse case Sunday contained an error involving the timing of a discussion between District Attorney Mike Nifong and Investigator Michelle Soucie.
On April 4, Nifong instructed Soucie to nail down what the accuser in the case had done on the day prior to the alleged rape. That was nearly two weeks before the first two indictments in the case.

This error changes the implication of the first five paragraphs of the story: that the conversation between Nifong and Soucie was an example of the words and actions of police and prosecutors outpacing the facts in the file.

I'll go along with that. The story has the investigator trying to close the gaps after the indictments had been handed up. "Changes the implication" is, to put it politely, an understatement.

The error does not affect the accuracy of the remainder of the story, which reported gaps between the prosecution's words and its evidence.

Hope so. Meanwhile, in light of the paper's recent firing of a photographer who "inappropriately altered" the color in a metro front photo, thus violating one of "our most sacred journalistic values," could y'all provide some insight on what sorts of offenses bring on the death penalty these days?

Understand, I'm not calling for more firings; if anything, the pendulum seems to have gone too far toward the Inquisition side. I haven't seen anything yet that convinced me the cooked photo was a hanging offense, and news organizations need to distinguish between an overeager burn-in and the sort of doctoring Reuter is now scrambling to remove. But this story looks like a pretty serious affront to those sacred journalistic values. How about an outline of the ground rules?

Teen sex, iPods, rock 'n' roll

This looks like a Bad Science entry, but it really isn't. It's about Pretty Good Science and what happens when it collides with Bad Journalism. Most of what follows isn't the copydesk's fault, but some of it is, and plenty of chances for copyeds to step up and save the world appear to have gone begging.

The usual lessons are going to apply: Featurizing is inherently suspect. Stories that get sexier usually get worse. Study Says is a very different animal from AP Says. Inserting new facts in a study is the same thing as "making stuff up." And so on. Exercises are at the end.

Here's the budget line from the Sunday midafternoon AP News Digest, embargoed for Monday ayems. You can see why it got some attention around newsrooms:

CHICAGO -- Teens whose iPods are full of music with raunchy sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs, a study found. Its influence on behavior appears to depend on how sex is portrayed, the researchers found.

And here's the hed play from a nonrandom sample of front pages at the Newseum site. We'll start with the worst and work through levels of sin toward the best. If your paper didn't front the story, good. If you spiked it or toned it down, even better. If you wrote one of these heds, well ...

The Stupid Science Grand Champion? Step forward the Yakima Herald-Republic and its top-left hed:
Teenagers are jumping to the jive
Sexually explicit lyrics another reason for makin' whoopee

Runner-up, for not bothering to attribute the causal relationship the study doesn't claim to find:
Lyrics incite teens to sex
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (downpage left)

Second runners-up, for buying the aforesaid causal relationship:
Study: Raunchy lyrics prompt teens to start having sex
Anniston, Ala. (downpage right)

Raunchy lyrics prompt teens to start having sex earlier, new research says
Pensacola (bottom strip)
The judges are particularly impressed by the mug of an iPod that illustrates this effort, since the study has nothing whatsofreakingever to do with iPods.

Raunchy lyrics lead to early sex, study says
Des Moines Register (downpage right)

Raunchy lyrics trigger teens' sexual behavior, study finds
Las Vegas Review-Journal (downpage left)

Raunchy lyrics spur teen sex, study concludes
Akron (downpage strip
The illustration of the teenager with earphones is especially compelling, since they aren't even the iPod the study has nothing to do with.

Faulty causal relationship, but important distinction:
Degrading lyrics lead to early sex, study finds
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (midpage right)

Missed the distinction but appropriately skeptical about cause and effect:
Study: Teens who listen to explicit lyrics begin sexual behavior earlier
The Tennesseean (downpage left)

Study: Raunchy lyrics influence teenage sex
Modesto, Calif. (downpage left)

Meaningless "may" hed, which at least avoids some damage in this case:
Explicit songs may tempt teens
Study links racy lyrics to sex at young age
Columbus Dispatch (midpage left)
Not content with the AP's featurization, Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper goes out and finds its own teens. Things get worse from there, and the heds miss almost all the relevant points.

And, at last, a properly skeptical, specific, nondirectional, long-enough-to-get-it-right 1A hed. Take a bow, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Study finds link between degrading sexual lyrics, early sexual behavior

OK. As you might gather, quite a few copydesks made a bad decision much worse by being careless with the hed (and the urge to dress up the page with a silhouetted iPod isn't exactly smiled upon either). But there's more to editing than avoiding harm. An aggressive look at the story finds plenty of reason to hold it or kill it.

Job One in editing a story about a piece of research is to find the study itself (given the AP's penchant for providing links, that shouldn't be too hard). Look first for the abstract, in which trained researchers try to turn a couple months' worth of work into a news brief, and be sure you can find the methods and results sections.

Let's compare the AP's lede with the real thing and see what we get.

CHICAGO (AP) -- Teens whose iPods are full of music with raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs, a study found.

Hmm. Problem One, as noted above, is the annoying pop-culture reference. The study isn't about iPods or what they're full of. Then the writer takes another leap: Is the study really about "raunchy, sexual lyrics"? No, according to the abstract, it's about "degrading and hostile" sexual content. Is it about what kind of songs the little darlings "prefer"? No, it's about their levels of exposure to different kinds of sexual content. So we've taken three featurization steps in the lede and we've already misstated the boundaries, the purpose and the findings of the study. Not bad for 24 words.

Now, whence the cause-and-effect idea that so many heds fell for? The AP writer doesn't use it, and it's not in the budget line, but it is in the AP suggested hed (reminder: Never use an AP suggested hed until you've verified every assertion in it). It's not in the abstract. Look for a section called "limitations" or "future research" (sentences like "This underscores an important limitation to our study" are a big honking clue). If they aren't there, try "discussion." You'll note that the authors don't claim a causal link either:

Our results suggest that the relationship between exposure and behavior may be causal in nature, because we controlled for teens’ previous sexual experience, as well as factors like parental monitoring, religiosity, and deviance; however, our correlational data do not allow us to make causal inferences with certainty. (Martino et al, 2006, p. 437; emphasis added)

Indeed, one of the things that makes this a good study is that the researchers address and try to control for the other explanations. One is the chicken-and-egg issue (sexual leanings predict musical tastes); another is the they're-both-eggs problem (something else predicts both sexual behavior and musical tastes). They think they have enough evidence to be worried about, but they don't pretend it's something it ain't.

How do a bunch of researchers decide what's "degrading"? Look at the methods section; you get a good idea of why "raunchy" is a poor choice for the lede. "Just one night with you could set
me free. ... I’m dreamin’ day and night of making love." On the study's terms, that's explicit but not degrading; whether it's "raunchy" or not is up to the listener.

How good are the data as a whole? The music variable is based on coding lyrics from albums by 16 artists (for a total of 193 songs), then asking respondents how much they listen to those artists. All the data about sexual behavior and the covariates -- the other things (socioeconomic status, race, sex, previous sexual experience, performance in school, risk-taking and the like) brought into the equation as controls -- are self-reported in telephone interviews. Is that perfect? Well, research is about trade-offs. Get used to it.

End of sermon, and if you're saying "about time," you're probably right. But there is a moral. Lots of the routines that go into making "good stories" -- reaching for the pop-culture tie-in, making a relationship sound stronger than it is, asking Real People to react to a reporter's misperception of the research at hand -- end up making for very bad journalism. If we really think the reading public is too dumb to understand what scientists do, maybe we're underestimating the skills of the reading public. And, worse, overestimating our own virtues.

1) See how long it takes you to find a copy of the study as published (Martino, S.C., Collins, R.L., Elliott, M.N., Strachman, A., Kanouse, D., & Berrry, S. H. (2006). Exposure to degrading versus nondegrading music lyrics and sexual behavior among youth. Pediatrics, 118, 430-441.)
2) How would you try to improve on the definition of "degrading"?
3) Find the "interrater reliability" scores for how "degrading" was measured. What's the consensus among social science researchers on how good those results are?
4) Here's a lyric that's mentioned in the study but not categorized. Would you code it as degrading or nondegrading? Compare your decision with those of some friends.
When it comes to sex don’t test my skills/Cause my head game will have you head over heels.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Cycle mania

When Christmas comes early (as it always does) at HEADSUP-L Manor this year, maybe Santa will bring peace on earth and an end to second-cycling of cops tales.

Second-cycling is another of those bizarre holdovers from the days when dinosaurs stalked the composing room and "news" came in two flavors, evening and morning. If the pyems got the overnight house fire, the ayems were morally bound to lead with "Investigators sifted through the ashes" -- notably less interesting than the fire itself, but at least an apparent advance over what the competition had run.

It's an outdated practice at best, but it looks even worse when you second-cycle your own breaking news -- in other words, burying the lede in favor of the procedural routine of investigation. As in this, more or less just in:

Police investigate 2 fatal shootings
Plus, a near-fatal stabbing

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are investigating two fatal shootings and a stabbing that left its victim with life-threatening injuries -- all of which occurred this morning.

The first was at 2:35 a.m. at 2401 Wilkinson Boulevard. Officers responded to a report of shots fired.

It isn't news when cops investigate stuff. It's their job. "Police are ignoring two fatal shootings" -- now that might qualify as news. But particularly when you're posting barely eight hours after the event itself, go ahead and give the event the prominence it deserves.

No whingeing about the passive voice, either. If you don't like two "Two people were fatally shot," try "Two people died in overnight shootings."

And, as it's been noted here more times than we care to count, sentences never -- that's "never" as in "change buses when pigs fly, then go another six stops" -- begin with "Officers responded to." The phrase is permanently banned. Right-thinking reporters don't use it. Alert editors kill it on sight. No exceptions. Likewise "shots fired"; if they weren't fired, they weren't shots.

Sloppy shorthand

Hed writers, be careful when you reach for the shorthand shelf. You might come away with an error like this one:

Tough resistance surprises Israelis
Young soldiers used to ragtag PLO are caught off-guard by Hezbollah

... After years of battling untrained and ill-equipped Palestinian militants, Israel's young soldiers now find themselves fighting a disciplined, well-armed Hezbollah force putting up surprisingly strong resistance.

"Ragtag PLO" is a comfortable old cliche in the vein of "war-torn Lebanon" (and the newer "restive Anbar province"). Trouble is, this particular piece never specifies what brand of Palestinians the soldiers had in mind:

Many have spent time fighting Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Few considered them worthy adversaries.

There might be a reason for that. Several Palestinian groups of varying motive and ideology are likely candidates, but the PLO proper -- which signed its Declaration of Principles with Israel when the soldiers quoted in this story were about 8 -- isn't a very good one. By turning a loose generalization into a specific reference, the hed writer has created an error that can't be blamed on the writer. Moral(s): Don't guess. And stay away from the cliche shelf anyway.

The ragtag-force-stands-and-fights bit, of course, isn't particularly new. In the neighborhood in question, you could date it to Karameh. Or you could reach back a few years before that to see how the Ragtag Force manages to surprise the assembled experts:

Josephus knew that the invincible might of Rome was chiefly due to unhesitating obedience and to practice in arms. He despaired of providing similar instruction, demanding as it did a long period of training; but he saw that the habit of obedience resulted from the number of their officers and he now reorganized his army on the Roman model, appointing more junior commanders than before.

You can imagine what the Anderson Copernicus CCCLX show looked like when Jotapata fell.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Same stuff, different dateline

SAN FRANCISCO -- Another obligatory dateline post, this time to remind everyone that great big papers on the distant coast are heir to the same sins as our own.

First, a quiz: Name a novel on the HEADSUP-L All-Time Favorites shelf in which the protagonist eats in the restaurant shown at right.

Now this from the hypercorrection front:

Hutchinson's conviction is one of three highlighted by the Mercury News that has been overturned since the newspaper published its series "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice.''

Diagramming party to action stations. It's one of three convictions that HAVE been overturned since the horn-tooting series began. Somebody was thinking too hard and failed to think hard enough.

Tropical Storm Chris
may become hurricane

Indeed it may. As can be said of every tropical storm since Cro-Magnon Person started building condos on the Atlantic coast. And then again, it might not. As appeared much more likely as of this post, from midday today:

Tropical Storm Chris rapidly ran out of steam Thursday morning as it pushed across the eastern Caribbean, and forecasters said it could weaken by evening to a tropical depression.

"May" heds: Tool of the weak! Don't use 'em. Don't approve 'em.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Brief off-topic news update

Limited posting the next few days as Your Editor heads to the coast and conventionland. Expecting to hear some good stuff and meet assorted escapees from similar venues, including some of the fine editors who check in here every now and then. Make the double-secret hand signal if you're there.

Now. If you're wondering why your recent (or, um, several weeks old) note seems to have gone unattended, it's because one of the summer's amusements was doing comprehensive exams and reaching the exalted ABD status in time for the said convo. That goal formally in hand (no appplause, just throw money), prompt correspondence -- and the subscribers-only edition -- will resume shortly.