Thursday, May 7, 2009

Knucklerap Corner: Where a Red Hand is the Mark of an Improved Mind

By Lauren Weiner

What a humbling craft is writing. There are so many ways to do it wrong. With standards to uphold (and fun to be had) we take you to . . .

Knucklerap Corner
Where a red hand is the mark of an improved mind

“Gray Lady” Stumbles Repeatedly

New York Times, April 19, 2009. Richard W. Stevenson: “In beginning to articulate a long-term approach, the president is putting an early stamp on a debate of historic importance – and ideological underpinnings – just getting under way in the United States and around the world.”

The three-word interjection floats in strangely. Where are those ideological underpinnings supposed to be located? Under the debate? It would seem so. That would leave us with: a stamp on a debate that has underpinnings and is under way. Hmmm.

New York Times Book Review Trifecta

“These brief encounters function to communicate Sally’s belief in ‘a magical being,’ but how, or whether, such a belief informs her actions remains less certain.” Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review, April 19, 2009

“Consider that she’s got pluck enough to face down a gauntlet of drunks, a loaded pistol and a bully who beats her nearly to death, knocking out two of her teeth.” Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review, April 19, 2009

“Even minor characters have names that would render them right at home in a vintage comic strip.” Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review, April 19, 2009

Item one: “function to.” She means the encounters serve to communicate Sally’s belief. It would be correct to say that the encounters’ function is to communicate Sally’s belief. That’s wordy. Best solution: skip all that and make it, “These brief encounters communicate Sally’s belief.”

Item two: “face down a gauntlet.” No, you run a gauntlet. This conflation of idioms stems from the fact that you do face down drunks and bullies.

Item three: “would render them right at home.” This locution seems lame to the editor of Knucklerap Corner, though she admits it might not be out-and-out wrong.

# # #

Washington Post, April 7, 2009. David Ignatius: “Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a man sometimes known for being headstrong and pushy, asks the tribal leaders sweetly, ‘What attracts people to the Taliban?’ ”

To be precise, the obnoxious behavior is the sometimes thing, not the knowing of it. Holbrooke is known for sometimes being headstrong and pushy. Granted, Mr. Ignatius might not like the ring of that. At least the syntactical error is fixed.

Washington Post, April 9, 2009. Carrie Johnson: “For Holder, who got his start as a young lawyer in the department more than three decades ago, the announcements put his stamp on a building still reeling from the dismissal this week of criminal charges against former senator Ted Stevens.”

Again with the stamps (see Mr. Stevenson, lead item). This metaphor is mixed multiply: You can’t put a stamp on a building nor can that building go “reeling.”

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Dangle Alley: Where Modifiers Roam the Streets Forlornly, March 27, 2009. Mark Thompson: “Instead of lobbing missiles towards the U.S. and letting physics and gravity handle the rest, Cartwright predicted that enemy warheads will be the military equivalent of a screwball.”

Cartwright isn’t the one lobbing the missiles; the enemy is. Opening clause dangles., May 2, 2007. Geoffrey Wheatcroft: “Without quite resorting to the coarsest xenophobia or Muslim-baiting, the language he used to win 30 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting was decidedly more brutal than emollient.”

“He” should come immediately after the comma, for it was he -- not “the language he used” -- who stopped short of resorting to xenophobia or Muslim-baiting.

# # #

Oldies but Goodies

New Yorker, May 27, 2002. Malcolm Gladwell: “Yes, the middle manager does not always contribute directly to the bottom line.”

Yes, we have no bananas. Better to lead the sentence with “No, . . .” or “True, . . . ”

Weekly Standard, July 14, 2003. Joseph Epstein: “I myself have had no difficulty loving women who wanted to, and others who didn’t in the least care about, saving the whale.”

Take out the middle clause and you’re left with: “women who wanted to saving the whale.” Parallelism error. Mr. Epstein should have said he had “no difficulty loving women who wanted to, and others who didn’t in the least care to, save the whale.”

Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2003. Ben Yagoda: “. . . with an eloquence and truth that is almost never intended at the time but that becomes unmistakable with the years . . .”

Eloquence and truth are two things. It should be: “are almost never intended at the time but that become unmistakable with the years.”

Weekly Standard, February 25, 2002. Lauren Weiner: “Legs Diamond, Marcus Gorman, and Billy Phelan also figure in ‘Roscoe,’ a work that magnifies this phenomena yet further.”

Should be “phenomenon.”

Got an error or infelicity to report? Send it to:

Weiner, a Gotham team member, is a speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why (and When) to Use Personal Anecdotes in Speeches

When writing a speech, personal anecdotes go far -- assuming they correspond to the topic at hand. Hal Gordon, a speechwriter who worked in the Reagan White House, as well as for General Colin Powell, shares his tips on a recent MyRaganTV post. He recommends avoiding collections of stories (often stale) and icebreakers (the audience will smell nervousness from a mile away), and instead finding stories on your own -- from a biography, history book, or (ideally) a personal anecdote.

-Blog Runner

Friday, May 1, 2009

Analyses Hold Stock Market Warnings to be Heeded

By Arthur Hoffman

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran in St. Louis Business Journal on April 17, 2009.)

It seems like a very long time ago. But in October 2007, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain said he’d appoint octogenarian, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to lead a review of the U.S. tax system, joking that “if he’s dead, just prop him up and put some dark glasses on him, like ‘Weekend at Bernie’s.’”

McCain made that remark days before Oct. 9, 2007, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its all-time record high close of 14,164.53.

In those heady days, long before the financial system began to come apart, no one questioned McCain’s adulation of Greenspan’s acumen, even dead.

Today, no politician talks about appointing Greenspan — to anything. While Greenspan has rejected the thought that he bears any responsibility for our economic meltdown, he has ruefully admitted that he made “a mistake” in believing that bankers would act in their self-interest to protect their shareholders and institutions. By way of explaining his error, he pointed to “a flaw in the model... that defines how the world works.”

This brings us to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” published in 2007 (Random House). Taleb argues that models, like the one Greenspan trusted, are inherently unreliable and, indeed, worthless because they cannot predict the highly improbable, or black swan, event.

As a quant, or expert in quantitative finance, Taleb understands sophisticated mathematics. But Taleb has little faith in highly complex models. Indeed, he cites research by Spyros Makridakis and Michele Hibon of actual forecasts and their conclusion that “statistically sophisticated or complex methods do not necessarily provide more accurate forecasts than simpler ones.”

Taleb also describes the work of psychologist Philip Tetlock involving 300 specialists (one-fourth economists) and thousands of their predictions that showed “an expert problem: There was no difference in results whether one had a Ph.D. or an undergraduate degree.” In fact, those who had a big reputation were worse predictors than those who had none.

How can this be? Taleb speculates that our inherited instincts reflect a relatively primitive environment eons ago in which highly improbable events were limited to encounters with new predators, human enemies or abrupt weather shifts. Today’s global, intensely informational and statistically complex environment bears no practical resemblance to the primitive world in which those instincts were learned.

“Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions” by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins, 2008) expands on human frailties in making even simple decisions. A professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely devises experiments that prove people do not act according to the assumptions of economics. Instead of making rational decisions based on information, we succumb to a variety of irrational influences from the environment, called context effects, and make predictably irrational decisions.

Many of these influences, like the power of “free,” are well-known to retailers and advertising copywriters. Still other forces Ariely identifies — for example, how pricing affects the efficacy of placebos — are not well-understood outside the world of pharmaceuticals and medical ethics but should be. Also, Ariely’s research on honesty has profound implications, except for the extreme case such as the 30-year fleecing of friends and nonprofits by Mr. Madoff in which societal norms obviously did not influence his behavior.

If we’d read Taleb’s “The Black Swan” in 2007, would we still be mired in the stock market today? I believe the sad answer is yes.

There are many reasons found in both these thought-provoking books. One example: Anchoring, or relativity, is a classical mental mechanism in which a starting reference point, say a Dow Jones of 14,164.53, will mean dismay, or worse, when an investor expects the Oct. 9, 2007, record closing high to continue to be exceeded.

The reality is that the Dow Jones Industrial Average began in May 1896 at 40.94. So, half the index value created in more than a century has been wiped out in less than 18 months. Anchoring to the 14,164 level can lead to depression and perhaps even more irrational behavior.

Both authors write about the power of anchoring or relativity. Ariely says, “We fall in love with what we already have,” and, “We focus on what we may lose, rather than what we may gain.”

This does not bode well for short-term market performance — not to mention investors’ emotional well-being.

But the reality is that most of us stayed in the market well after its October 2007 high, at least in part because of anchoring — and the belief that past trends that demonstrated our genius would continue.

Arthur Hoffman is an executive speech writer and president of Hoffman Creative, Inc. in St. Louis.