How new does news have to be?

Cutting-edge update from Yahoo Canada’s “Good News” blog:

Psychological Review recently published a study that claims that the key to success is working hard in short bursts of time.

I’m all in favour of the post’s theme that successful people work only four hours a day (could be why I’m not too successful). Not so much in favour of the shameless marketing for the book of some self-help guru I won’t link to. Puzzled by the fact that the “recently published” article is from 1993.

The Yahoo blog post links to a PDF of the article, if you want to download 44 pages of fax-quality scanning. (It’s a journal article from 1993, remember?)

What next? Will CNN pounce on the magic number seven, plus or minus two?

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Screw past-tense printer me

a printshop light-tableSo I’m reviewing this manuscript for a journal which shall remain nameless (since I may want to submit something there someday). The author refers to Figure 5, but Figure 5 isn’t on that page, or on the next. No, Figure 5 and all the other figures are hiding at the end of the MS. After much fumbling, I find it. But Figure 5 makes no sense without its caption, which of course is neither on the same page as Figure 5 nor in the main text that first referred to Figure 5. No, the caption is somewhere else in the MS — was that after the references or was it after the appendix?

By the time I’ve finished comparing Figure 5 and its caption with Figure 2 and its caption and what the main text said about it, I’m left with five uneven piles of paper on my coffee table, plus a piece that somehow ended up on the floor. (God only knows where in the MS that came from.) And all I can think is: Why?

(For those of you who’ve never had the joy of writing or reading one of these wretched MSs, this footnote explains what I’m ranting about.[1])

I know the author didn’t want to slice and dice her cohesive paper the way she did. I just finished a paper myself and I sure didn’t want to. (Which is why my co-author did it. Aren’t co-authors wonderful?) I sincerely doubt the editors want to read it this way, any more than I do. Why does this reader-hostile and writer-hostile standard for MSs exist?

Basically, journals are still acting as if every single submission is going to be sent straight to the typesetters tomorrow morning without the slightest revision — even though in the last decade this has happened approximately zero times, even for authors named Chomsky. So why, please tell me, are reviewers at the beginning of the process still being subjected to MS formats whose sole purpose was to make life easier for designers who came in near the end of the process — specifically for designers who no longer actually exist?

I have no grudge against the people whose lives were once made easier by these MS formats. I used to be one myself, back in a decade that shall remain nameless. I’ve worked in a print shop. I’ve worked as a proofreader. I’ve had to make camera-ready pages by pasting up galleys with a light table, a waxer, a T-square, and the generous application of Letraset and line tape. Back in that geological era, if an MS page had both the diagram of a figure and its caption, then in order to send just the diagram half off to the PMT machine, you’d need to slice the paper up with an X-acto knife and pray that the pieces didn’t get lost.

So I fully appreciate how much easier the MS format rules made life for past-tense me. But, really, so what? I mean it. Who cares if past-tense me’s life was easier? My great-grandfather was a printer, my grandfather was a printer, my grandmother was a printer. I think I have all the politically correct cred I need to be allowed to say: Screw past-tense printer me.

Especially since there aren’t any present-tense versions of printer me. When was the last time an Elsevier or an APA Publications employee had to melt a block of wax (for their work)? When was the last time a diagram came to them in anything but an electronic file? I know modern design software can still make it a teeny-tiny pain to click-and-drag figures and captions around inside the main text, so maybe, just maybe, the MS format rules still make a designer’s life slightly easier. But hugely easier and cost-saving, like they did in the Jurassic? Not even close.

The archaic MS format continues to inconvenience everyone who has to write it or read it for content: at least the corresponding author, the editor or assistant editor, and three reviewers. For a journal with a 33% acceptance rate, every manuscript that ends up being slightly more convenient for one designer comes at the cost of more seriously inconveniencing 13 to 15 researchers. When did that become a fair trade? Am I really worth today only 7% of what I was worth in the decade that shall remain nameless? I guess that might still sound like a fair trade if you’re a ruthlessly Scrooge-like publishing company. The one designer whose time is saved is your employee. The 13 to 15 researchers whose time you’ve wasted are volunteers. Hoard all the minutes you pay for, but it’s okay to squander hours of donated time.

Hey, all you journal publishers out there, you seriously need to learn some basics of volunteer management.

Clearly, in order for anything to change, a critical mass of researchers needs to start turning down all review requests from journals whose publishers think our real time is worth less than the fictitious time of people who no longer exist. Let’s all sign a pact right now.

Am I actually going to have the guts to say no the next time an editor e-mails me? Probably not. But I can still dream.

  1. Far too many journals still force their would-be authors to format the manuscripts they submit according to ancient rules: each figure and table has to be on a page of its own at the end, each caption to each figure or table also on a page of its own at the end,[2] and scattered through the text are several notes like “Insert Figure 5 around here.” So reviewers never get to read anything that looks like the eventual journal article will. Instead we get to read the paper in a form that’s close to unreadable. For nigh on twenty years every writer’s computer has been able to “insert Figure 5 here” automatically, but they’re not allowed to, because apparently the peer-review system works better when you force the peers to hunt through pages and insert the figure in their imagination, instead of concentrating on reading.
  2. Some journals think it’s the height of modernity to allow several captions on the same page! Careful, I’m not sure the masses can handle such rapid social upheaval.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Ryan Joy (atxryan)]

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Unite the left already

Here’s the graph that CBC’s Vote Compass drew for me, while trying to advise me who to vote for in today’s Canadian federal election. There’s something seriously wrong with this picture. (And it’s not the fact that the check-mark that supposedly represents me is in a corner you might not like.)

Canada’s political parties in a two-dimensional graph: social liberalism to conservatism and economic left to right. Four parties (Liberals, NDP, Greens, and the Bloc Québécois) are crowded together in the social liberalism/economic left quadrant; the Conservatives have the social conservatism/economic right quadrant to themselves.

For non-Canadians out there, the blue CON party that has a quadrant all to itself just won a majority government with only 40% of the vote.

This is almost the mirror image of how it was in the 1990s. Back then, three parties were piled up in the corner the Conservatives now have to themselves, splitting the right-wing vote and allowing Jean Chrétien to rack up successive majority governments with, you guessed it, just about 40% of the vote. Only Stephen Harper’s and Peter MacKay’s drive to re-unite the rich and the redneck wings of the former Progressive Conservative party finally put an end to Chrétien’s decade of sleaze.

If we’re not going to be doomed to another decade of Harper sleaze, those three and a half parties now splitting the vote in “my” quadrant had better get their act together and manage a similar feat of unity.

Jack, Iggy, Liz: get some guts, swallow your egos, and do the right thing — for a change. For any change. I’m begging you.

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The best thing to do will be to choose the path

macaque monkey at an Indian temple

The best thing to do will be to choose the path to Galta, traverse it again (invent it as I traverse it), and without realizing it, almost imperceptibly, go to the end — without being concerned about what “going to the end” means or what I meant when I wrote that phrase.

So begins The Monkey Grammarian, the novel… uh, poem… um, well, book by Octavio Paz (translated by Helen Lane).

The instant I saw that book almost twenty years ago in the remainder bin of the McGill bookstore, I snatched it up. After all, I’ve heard of Octavio Paz, I like monkeys, and I like grammarians (many of them anyway). You could even say I am a grammarian. So how could a monkey grammarian not be coolest thing in the world?

The monkey grammarian in question, what the book is “about”, is Hanumān of Hindu mythology — trickster, king of the monkeys, god of strength and enterprise, son of the wind, faithful sidekick of Rama, epic poet (unpublished), and “the ninth author of grammar”.[1] What better muse for a blog about linguistics than the primordial and ultimate linguist?

But the book isn’t really about Hanumān, or even about Paz’s touristic day-trip to see Hanumān’s temple in the ruins of the city of Galta. It’s about what it means for him to remember that trip, to think about it, to write about it, to think, to write, to use language at all. The book is about the nature of “about” — with all the limpid clarity you’d expect from a poststructuralist surrealist Wittgenstein meets stream-of-consciousness mash-up.

There’s one interpretation of the opening passage that I can easily imagine passing through Paz’s head as he sat safely in his study in Cambridge, trying to work himself up to begin his book:

“Stop trying to plan everything in advance. Just get off your butt, get moving, and make it up as you go along.”

What better advice to somebody who’s never quite worked himself up before to actually start a blog?[2]

So I name this blog in honour of the Monkey Grammarian, both book and monkey. And also in honour (or appeasement) of the colony of monkeys that have taken up residence inside my skull. (“Shut up, Luit, and sit down! Yeroen, stop playing soccer with my hypothalamus!”)

In an inaugural post like this, I’m supposed to announce what the blog is going to be about, what its theme is, what its philosophy is. Well, I don’t have one. Most of my posts are likely to be about language and the discipline of linguistics, ’cause that’s what I do with my days. Maybe some will be about the relationship between academia and society. Probably none will share what I ate for supper or the last movie I saw.

But there’s no theme, no mission statement, no agenda. I’ll be inventing the path as I traverse it. Maybe, without realizing it, almost imperceptibly, I’ll figure it out — without worrying about what “figuring it out” means. Oh, wait a minute. I’m a linguist. Of course I’ll worry about what it means.

  1. So there were eight other divine grammar writers, which is impressive, though I presume none of them were also monkeys, which is disappointing.
  2. Okay, I’ll admit the reading is strained. But if even Octavio himself doesn’t worry about what he meant when he wrote a phrase, why should I?

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Thomas Schoch on Wikimedia Commons]

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