Thursday, March 24, 2005

Ten questions with Steve Kleinedler

Earlier this week I reported on an article in the New York Times, highlighting a whole new crop of American lexicographers who happen to be my age (mid-thirties), former punk-rockers, and sexy as hell. Well, guess who I heard back from not even a day later - none other than Steve Kleinedler, one of the people mentioned in both the article and my entry (he of the shaved head and phoentic-chart tattoo - see the NYT article for a photo of him). Damn you, Technorati watch lists! DAMN YOU TO HELL! His email humbly pointed out that, while he does actually come from the '80s punk-rock community, mostly he shaves his head because he's going bald. Since I had his attention, I asked if he would mind doing a sorta mini-interview for [metafeed] - basically, ten random questions lobbed his way, that he was free to answer or ignore as he wanted. Mr. Kleinedler graciously answered all ten of my questions; his unedited responses run below.

1. In that NYT article I originally referenced, you are mentioned only as "the second in charge" at American Heritage Dictionary. Could you mention your actual job title, and briefly describe your main daily duties?

My job title is actually "Supervising Editor," which is one notch above "Senior Editor". I'm responsible for writing, revising, and editing material for not just the American Heritage Dictionary, but also for the numerous other reference titles made by Houghton Mifflin, and I also have some management responsibilities (thus the "supervising" bit). I spend a lot of time researching, drafting, editing, and marking up copy.

2. That article also mentions that there are currently around 400 full-time lexicographers working in the US. Do you all know each other, much like science-fiction fans and poetry slammers? Is there an annual lexicography convention where you all get drunk in hotel rooms together?

Every two years, the Dictionary Society of North America has a meeting. The next one is in early June, and this time it happens to be in Boston. I'd say about 100 or so people attend. Additionally, many lexicographers attend the American Dialect Society annual meeting in January, which is held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America. I know most of the people who go to the meetings, although there's not really that much drinking!

3. In a world where most industries are led by people in their sixties and older, I find it interesting that so many leaders in your industry are the same age as me (mid-thirties). Being part of that industry yourself, do you feel there's a reason for this, or has it just accidentally worked out that way at this particular moment in history?

Well, the article focused on the 30-somethings, but there are plenty of august personages involved in lexicography. My boss (the executive editor) is in his 50s. I know plenty of lexicographers in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Like most people, many of them retire at normal retirement age.

4. What made you decide to become a lexicographer, and what age were you when you made the decision? How old were you before you found out that there even was such a thing as lexicographers?

I started out as a theatre major, dropped out of college, moved to Chicago, hung out for a year, got bored, applied to Northwestern as a transfer student, got in, and literally had one day to choose a major, as I was going in as a junior. I weighed Linguistics versus Geography -- I'm really into words and maps. One of my professors was a lexicographer, I took one of the few lexicography courses available in the states, and after I graduated, he started farming me out free-lance work.

5. You're obviously a fairly savvy online person yourself, given that you found my entry about you a day after it was posted, without me actually writing and giving you a heads-up. Could you briefly describe your current online life, and how you feel it relates to your profession? Or does it? Do you just go online for fun instead?

It was Grant [Barrett, another person mentioned in the article] who sought out all the blogs. I actually don't read many blogs -- I just don't have time during the day. However, in my 20s I was very net-oriented. I was using BBSs in 1990, and I was really into USENET in 1993-1995 when I was in grad school. Many of my closest friends as well as my spouse are people that I met off alt.society.generation-x in that time period! Nowadays, I just use it for research or to check news.

6. What is the one common grammar mistake that drives you crazier than anything else, when you see it being done? (For example, mine is when people confuse "its" and "it's.")

Hypercorrections like "between you and I" jump out at me and make me want to shout "me me me," but usually I keep quiet. I don't like correcting people unless they ask me to correct them.

7. Is it liberating or frustrating to do your job in a language that has no "official" lexicon? For example, it's my understanding that in a number of European countries, there is actually a board of language experts appointed by the government, who literally decide each year what are going to be "official" new words of that language. Does the lack of such a board in the US make your job more exciting, or more stressful/tedious?

I like the fact that there's no American version of the Academy Francaise. Although it would be nice to be able to do some things by fiat ("OK, let's just make it 'thru' officially, not 'through' -- I mean Webster dropped the 'u' from words like 'labour' pretty much by fiat), the current set-up in the States works quite nicely, I think. For some reason, a government run board of language evokes images of the movie Brazil in my head.

8. Who are some of your favorite contemporary writers? How much is this list influenced by the type of language these writers use? Is it possible for someone in your position to turn your "lexicography radar" off while reading a book for pleasure, or do the intricacies of language pervade your reading experience at all times?

Contemporarily, I really like William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, Donna Tartt, Mark Z. Danielewski, Cory Doctorow. [Ed: Hey, me too!] I really like the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. Tartt crafts language like no other modern writer I know. Reading The Little Friend was like eating very rich chocolate. I will be the first to admit I don't read nearly as much as I should. I wish I had more time to read. I love reading. When I read for pleasure, I of course take note of the language that they're using, but it doesn't get in the way of my reading experience.

9. In a related question, do you/would you refuse to answer a personal ad only on language issues alone? If you were otherwise attracted to someone who wrote badly, would you turn down a chance to go out with them for that reason?

You'll be interested to know that my spouse and I got to know each other over 11 years ago in a written medium - USENET and emails - it was 7 months after we started writing that we even met each other in person. So I'm very into how people express themselves in words. it doesn't bother me if people type in lowercase, in fact, i do it a lot myself to save time. Simple typos don't bother me either, if I know someone's in a hurry and is just dashing off a memo. I'm more interested in how people express themselves, so, yeah, if you can't express what you're trying to say, then it would be a problem for me to get to know you in a written medium.

10. Finally, what advice could you give people like me and my readers (mostly college-educated, intelligent fans of the arts) about improving our language skills? For instance, I've often thought of sitting down and reading one of those thick "style manuals," just to learn more about proper grammar and sentence structure; every time I try it, though, I get so bored and frustrated that I drop the project a mere five or ten pages into it. Are there better resources out there, for those of us who would like to be better writers but don't want to delve into it in a full-time, academic way? (Oh, and feel free to plug American Heritage, by the way, if your company actually produces a reference publication along these lines.)

Why, we have a whole line of inexpensive products ($4.95) that fit the bill: our 100 words series -- 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know, 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses, to name two. But, basically, the best way to improve your skills is when you're reading and you come across a word you don't know: LOOK IT UP. Keep a journal if you need to in order to retain this information. And you know, as wired as I am, I personally love my physical dictionary. I love opening it up looking for something, and browsing around -- I always find something new or interesting. Dictionaries are very, very interesting. Of course, I'm partial to the American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, but it really and truly is an amazing work.

Thanks again, Steve, for taking the time to write. And I don't care if you are balding - that shaved-head look works on you, man.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Like Roosevelt and Stalin, except for journalists

Well, a couple of organizations are making that first shaky alliance between newsrooms and citizen journalists; the Online Journalism Review has an overview of the early adopters up right now. Each paper is doing it a different way, but in all cases it generally involves the organization assigning a special editor to the citizens' bureau, who then does a basic form of journalistic review (fact-checking, proofreading, etc) to the stories being submitted. Some groups are doing it by sponsoring blogs individuals can keep, while others require citizen journalists to formally submit stories, just like any other journalist would do it; both groups are reporting that they're finding good things about the formats.

I have an opinion about all this that I don't bother to hide much, one with which others might disagree; despite all the recent scandals, I think there's a lot to gain from the formalized procedure the journalism industry has developed, in order to present credible news, and I think bloggers everywhere could benefit from following their example. I think it's great that a few organizations out there are trying out these experiments, teaming passionate bloggers with the wisdom of a journalism-school graduate, and creating something that's a hybrid of the two. I hope there's a lot more where these came from. (Thanks to Steve Rubel for pointing this out.)

Scam free books through Google Print

Amateur programmer Greg Duffy recently pulled off a neat trick - he "baked" Google Print's cookies (in other words, tooled with them so they were giving back false information), so as to access a lot more PDF pages of random books through their service
than a visitor is supposed to be allowed to - the entire book sometimes, in fact. This is cool in a geeky way itself, but then at the end of his post he throws up this tidbit, almost as an afterthought: "I could view an entire book on Google Print with one click every time. I later modified the software to spit out a PDF of the book." If I'm reading this correctly, he was basically collecting up all the loose pages of a book, then stitching them together in PDF and outputting it as a standalone book. Pretty impressive, I think, considering that a PDF copy of a book is pretty much the next-best thing to actually owning a paper copy.

For what it's worth, Mr. Duffy claims to have done it because he wants a job at Google, and he figured how better to get their attention than to exploit an actual weakness of their system. His post has the full technical explanation of how he did it, for techies who are interested; be warned, however, that Google has already patched the hole that was allowing this to originally take place. (Thanks to if:blog for pointing this out.)

UPDATE, 2:30 PM: Mr. Duffy just wrote! He doesn't have a Blogger account, so instead emailed his comments to me; I thought I'd go ahead and run them as part of this entry:

"Hi Jason,

"I don't have a blogger account, so I'll just send this over email:


"- the hole is not patched, the exploit still works
"- I originally contacted Google about this 5 months before I posted the article, and since they ceased contact after the t-shirt bit I decided it was OK to publish

"And another, more personal nit pick (no hard feelings): I'm not an amateur, take a look at my resume :)

"Thanks for the link!"

My response: Oops, sorry for the 'amateur' wording in this original post. I just meant that you're not working for Google or any of their major competitors, is all. Thanks for the updated information, Greg!

Okay, maybe that Oprah thing wasn't so great

Ad-industry experts practically wet themselves last year, after Pontiac gave away a free G6 to every audience member of a particular episode of Oprah Winfrey's talk show. Well, as reported by the Detroit Free Press, actual sales of the G6 are down 30 percent from expectations, and Pontiac's getting so desperate that they recently started offering $3,600 in incentives. It just goes to prove something surprisingly old-fashioned - that the most spectacular marketing campaign in the world still isn't going to work, if underneath it all your product is crap. (Thanks to Brand Autopsy for pointing this out.)

Everest climber is newest blogger

In a few weeks, a Brit named Gavin Bate is going to be the next to attempt a solo summit of Mount Everest. What's new is that he's going to be the first person to actually blog the trip as he makes it! Yowza! Plus he's got Audioblogger, so will be leaving cellphone audio reports along the climb as well. The first leg of his trip (from the UK to Nepal) starts March 28th; here's where you can find it. Gentlemen and ladies, start your RSS aggregators. (Thanks to the staff of for pointing this out.)

Ah, to be a marketer's kid

Jay Lipe, a marketing blogger, recently had this unintentionally hilarious entry, concerning forcing his son to come up with a marketing plan to "sell him" on the idea of buying him a new Game Cube. I say "unintentionally" because the entry's trying to make a serious point (that marketing plans never work until you give up on your own happiness and concentrate on your client's), but I couldn't stop laughing at the idea of this poor marketer's kid having to go through all these elaborate experiments every time he wanted something from his parents. "As this ROI analysis plainly shows, my chances of getting laid on Prom night increase by 419 percent, if you let me use the Porsche."

Monday, March 21, 2005

Performance space for transient companies

There's a cooperative here in Chicago called Spareroom, near North Ave and Western, that is offering an opportunity that sounds fantastic for emerging performance companies, writers' series, film societies and the like. The group is basically creating a professional performance space, three rooms total, but which is shared by a whole variety of different artistic organizations, much like a timeshare condo in Disneyworld. The rates are amazing - a mere $50 a month gets you five to ten exclusive hours of the space, meaning every month a group could host a two-hour weekly event and still have time left over. (Or, a theatre company could host a show four or five days in a row per month.) And only $100 a month gets you up to ten hours a week at the space, great for a place looking for rehearsal room. And best of all, you can announce Spareroom to your audience as your permanent performance space, building brand recognition and loyalty, versus the musical chairs of venues most performance groups in Chicago have to contend with. Anyway, I urge you to check it out, if you're a group in need of a space here in the city. (Thanks to Gapersblock for pointing this out.)

Plain-language translations of early modernist writers "A project of a retired college professor that aims to present works of early modern thinkers (Descartes, Kant, Hume, etc) in language that can be understood by students." And, um, all of us who never actually got around to reading these people when we were students, and are sick of embarrassing ourselves at cocktail parties. (Thanks to the if:book blog for pointing this out.)

Portable, customized Firefox on your USB drive

Well, will you look at what finally got invented: A version of the insanely popular web browser Firefox, specifically that you keep permanently stored on your portable little USB drive (or in the spare memory of your iPod), so that anytime you plug up at a random internet cafe or Kinko's ever again, you'll have access to the browser with your bookmarks, your history, your droplets, your preferences, and your cookies. Well, hallelujah to all those stuck in the same situation as me, without home or work internet access, and so have never been able able to have a permanently customized version of a browser. I've been waiting years to have this kind of ability, so am looking forward to downloading USB Firefox myself and using it regularly, whenever I'm on the go. It'll certainly make sending entries to this blog a hell of a lot easier, that's for sure. (Thanks to Jeremy Wagstaff for pointing this out, and to MAKE magazine for pointing out Jeremy Wagstaff.)

Journalists defend bloggers (for once)

The Rocky Mountain News has an editorial up, arguing that bloggers should be protected under the same shield laws that journalists are. Favorite quote: "In a free country, news is what consumers and journalists say it is." In other words, let's not even bother with the debate over whether bloggers are journalists; as long as they're providing what the public considers "news," they should get the same rights either way. (Thanks to Steve Rubel for pointing this out.)

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The hidden costs of the long tail

Yesterday I reported on Chris Anderson, author of the "Long Tail" feature in October 2004's Wired, and the upcoming book he has coming out on the subject, along with a blog. Well, today Kevin Laws of Hewlett Packard posts a cautionary supplement to the theory, concerning the sometimes hidden costs that come with a long-tail purchase. Once you've gotten rid of the monetary cost of an object, he argues - that is, once something is cheap enough that you've definitely decided that you're going to buy it - you still have to deal with two major other costs of purchasing, neither measured in monetary figures. First there is the search cost - the time and effort it took to actually find the thing you're going to buy; then there is the psychic cost - how easy or painful it is to let go of that money, in order to own this object.

For the long-tail theory to work correctly, he argues, a company must slash these search and psychic costs as much as the monetary ones. Amazon wouldn't work as a long-tail company, for example, if they didn't also make it so incredibly easy to find the exact thing you're looking for; or offer the official and fan reviews of products right on their order pages; or offer a sophisticated suggestion system, giving you just three or four very high-quality recommendations based on what it is you're currently looking at, along with your past buying history. If you offer a million things very cheaply, but then make it difficult to actually sort the list, he argues, in effect it's like not offering the million things cheaply to begin with.

This has other implications outside of traditional business issues, too. Like, he argues how the concept of micropayments is inherently flawed as well, because people don't like being reminded every single day that they're paying for something. Like video companies and cellphone services have shown us, subscription models are getting increasingly popular in our society, where a flat fee is simply paid and the benefits enjoyed limitlessly, without ever having to think about how much you're paying until the next month's flat-fee bill rolls around. These hidden costs can also be applied to blog pages as well, and specifically the habit of so many bloggers to run so much crap along the edges of their pages; as Mr. Laws argues, you might as well not be running any at all, because the overwhelming amount of choices stymies people from making any kind of decision.

I'm finding this whole theory of the long tail to be quite fascinating, to tell you the truth, because I see implications that could be transferred to this arts center I'm trying to open here in Chicago right now. Frankly, our entire business is going to be based around the long tail - we'll be publishing books, producing live shows, sponsoring classes, accepting members, printing merchandise, pressing CDs, and never having to make very much money on any one of these things on their own, so will be able to instead concentrate on highlighting underground artists. Mr. Laws has given me some things to think about, though; like how to best filter this information to our future customer base, so that the amount of options don't literally overwhelm them into inaction. It's an intriguing challenge, I admit. (Thanks to the always excellent Nick Wilson at Threadwatch for pointing this out.)

Winer tells it like it is

Why do I like Dave Winer so much, inventor of the RSS 2.0 protocol and co-inventor of podcatsing? Because unlike most tech developers, Mr. Winer uses his blog sometimes to talk about his personal life, and his personal opinions, many of which clash directly with a lot of other famous tech developers, and in fact are usually offensive to them as well. Take this one he recently posted, for example, where he discusses two recent developer conferences that it seemed everyone in the blogosphere was talking about in glowing terms this week; far from praising them himself, he notes how they are in fact these inherently elite circle jerks, designed mostly so the same 30 people can get together and clap each other on the backs over how well they're all doing, instead of actually hearing about the newest cutting-edge technologies, and having lively, balanced debates on the related issues. I've never been to these conferences myself, so don't have an opinion on how right or wrong Mr. Winer is in his accusations; if they're anything like science-fiction or poetry conventions, though (and come on, a hotel full of former-punk-rocker XML developers? of course they are), I have a feeling that Mr. Winer is more on the nose than most of these other developers want to admit.

Mr. Winer is always throwing in tidbits like this at his blog, personal opinions that directly attack the way his peers seem to collectively think about the industry themselves. I admire that, and am also usually entertained, which is why I like subscribing to his blog. Of course, this is a double-edged sword; maybe part of the reason Mr. Winer never gets invited to these conferences himself, like he was complaining about in that entry, is precisely because he's always making statements like this, and his peers have gotten pissed off at him to the point of not wanting him around. This is always the flipside of public candor, and I guess it's important to remember that politics never completely go away, anytime you bring a small group of peers together for a one-time special event. It was true for Dr. Who fans in the '80s, and poetry slammers in the '90s, and it's true for web developers now.

Godin: "Go ahead and alienate your customers"

"The organizations that have the most impact and grow the quickest are those that frequently alienate their existing customer base." Does this sound like a harsh statement? Read marketing expert Seth Godin's elegant justification of it right here, and become a believer yourself.

Those sexy, sexy lexicographers

The New York Times has this great article up right now, concerning the new wave of professional lexicographers in America, all of them my age (mid-thirties), punk rock and sexy. The profiles include such people as Steve Kleinedler, second in charge at American Heritage Dictionary, with a shaved head and a phonetic vowel chart tattooed across his back. And then there's Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary, who National Public Radio has dubbed "America's lexicography sweetheart," and whose picture in the article shows that you could easily, easily mistake her for one of those hottie amateur punk-nerd porn stars at And she lives in Chicago, too - and in the neighborhood right next to mine, too. Ugh! Too many hot impressive nerdy sexy women in this city, I tells ya!

A tour of the "hidden" Loop

Chicago architectural photographer Devin has started a new series at his blog, highlighting the various strange little half-block courtyards and other recessed areas of Chicago's downtown district, otherwise known as the Loop; here's part 1, for example, highlighting MacChesney Court. (MacChesney Court?) I admit, I've gotten fixated on these little hidden areas of the Loop as well, where there is no through-traffic and most of the public effectively doesn't even know it exists. For all the fame and history of Chicago's Loop, there are still a surprisingly large number of little areas in it that are still virtually unknown, virtually deserted most of the time, and quite spooky in that historical, "I'm treading the ground of 19th-century ghosts" kind of way. I'm looking forward to the entire series.