Tech for the Rabble

By Anand Singh

Writing a newspaper story about technology is tricky. Journalists who are laymen to the subjects of their stories have to educate themselves, and then explain technical details in a way newspaper readers can understand.

The problem is that reporters aren't educating themselves, and no one seems to mind. Statistics that don't apply to a story, are misinterpreted or are simply fabricated often are included.

The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote recently about the Internet's potential role in terrorism. The column obviously ran unedited since there are glaring errors that don't require special technical knowledge to catch. This critique will be limited to the Internet-related parts of Friedman's column.

“And get this: only one-third come from inside the U.S. The rest are in 88 other languages.”

There are a few logical errors in those statements. He's saying that everyone in the United States is using the same language for Google, presumably English. He's also saying that people from countries outside the United States don't use English on Google. That aside, Google offers 87 other languages, not 88.

“Verisign, which operates much of the Internet's infrastructure, was processing 600 million domain requests per day in early 2000.”

That sentence is vague enough that it can't be deemed untrue, but it is misleading. Verisign, through its purchase of Network Solutions, maintains the registries for the .com and .net top-level domains. That means it is responsible for maintaining the list of all registered domain names that end in “.com” and “.net” A domain name is the part of a URL between the “http://” and the third “/”. Maintaining that list is a huge job, and an important one. It would be disastrous if that list were lost, but maintaining that list is not “operating much of the Internet's infrastructure.” Although .com is by far the largest top-level domain, there are more than 250 top-level domains that are not maintained by Verisign. Even the word “infrastructure” is misleading. When you load a .net or .com web page, seven to 15 servers are typically involved. Almost never do any of those servers belong to Verisign.

“A domain request is anytime anyone types in .com or .net.”

A “request” is not a time. Friedman might think his language makes his column more accessible, but it's insulting. From a technical point of view, the statement is false. When you enter a URL in your browser, the first thing the browser does is find an IP address that belongs to that domain name. Computers don't understand domain names. “Testycopyeditors.org” means nothing to a computer. An IP address is sequence of four numbers, such as “64.227.143.252.” Once a computer knows the IP address, it can connect the browser to the proper site. The purpose of a domain request, or DNS (domain name service) lookup as it's more commonly called, is to find an IP address that belongs to a domain name. All domain names require DNS lookups. Notice that in the example I used, “testycopyeditors.org,” the domain name does not end in “.com” or “.net.”

Entering a URL in a browser isn't the only thing that would cause a browser to initiate a DNS lookup. Images, Java applets and Macromedia Flash, among other things commonly found in Web pages, may require DNS lookups, depending on how a Web page is designed. Browsers aren't the only applications that request DNS lookups. Any application that connects to the Internet—such as e-mail, instant messaging or those handy Windows updates—might require a DNS lookup.

“Broadband—a much richer Internet service that brings video on demand to your PC ….”

I suppose that Robin Wright might define a telephone as “a service that lets you reach out and touch someone.” I realize that is a quote, not Friedman's words, but Wright is presented an expert on the subject. Friedman is responsible for making sure that what his experts say is true. Since Wright was talking about WiFi just before mentioning broadband, I assume he is saying that broadband is richer than WiFi, and by “richer,” I assume he means “faster.” Broadband is certainly faster than analog dial-up connections, but WiFi is just as fast as the type of broadband available for residential use. The term “video on demand” makes sense for cable companies and satellite content providers, but is vague when applied to the Internet. Everything on the Internet is available on demand. This Web page is text on demand. It is possible for a video file to be downloaded on demand, but not viewable until the download is complete. An example of this would be downloading a video clip of the latest ACES conference from a file sharing network such KaZaA (don't go searching KaZaA, it was just an example). The term “streaming video” refers to video on demand that is viewable while it is being downloaded. Streaming video requires a fast connection such as broadband, but is also viewable with other types of connections such as baseband. WiFi, for instance, uses baseband technology.

It is true that most readers will not notice or care about such errors and oversights, but mistakes can be easily avoided. As the Pulitzer-winning Thomas L. Friedman reminds us, the information is readily available at our fingertips. All we have to do is search Google.

Anand Singh is Testy Copy Editors' technical adviser.

Hacks

By Phillip Blanchard

L was a superb city editor in his day. When I was a “cub reporter,” he watched as I hyperventilated about the difficult logistics of covering a big fire. “What’s my deadline? What if there’s no phone? What if the chief won’t talk to me? Will I have enough time to talk to the neighbors? What if they don’t let my car through the lines?” I prattled.

“Just cover the damn fire,” L told me. He had little patience for major productions. I learned a lot from him.

Fourteen years later, when I returned to L’s newspaper as a copy editor and slot man, I was at first delighted to find him on the copy desk. What a font of information, I thought. How lucky it was that the reporters of 1986 had such a resource from which to draw.

But L was just marking time. He came in at 5 every day, sat down and plowed through whatever was tossed his way, quickly and without comment. His copy editing was competent but just barely so. His headlines were serviceable but nothing better. He went home for lunch at mid-shift every night and came back carrying bad novels to read during his down time and, also, a hint of the Scotch he professed to love so well.

My first role model had become a hack.

L retired a couple of years after I left the paper for Chicago, and died not long after that.

Throughout my career I have encountered hacks. Most of them were personable. Most of them went through the ritual of juggling eyeglasses with various prescriptions so they could read copy on their VDTs. A good number of them were drunks or reformed drunks.

Almost all of them were frank about their ambition: They had none. They talked a lot about retirement, and most of them had hobbies or other avocations that they clearly cared about more than they did newspaper work.

They generally could be depended upon to move copy quickly. Usually one of them was the guy who got the Page One story that moved an hour and half past deadline, because he (exclusively, the hacks I knew were men) would fix the spelling and write a usable headline in no time.

We could always go back between editions and do it right.

As I move through my 50s, hacks are on my mind because of a dreadful fear of becoming one. In my more rational moments, I realize that while I may, regrettably, have become mildly eccentric in my middle age, I would have to slide considerably to become a hack. (Most hacks are eccentric, but not all copy-desk eccentrics are hacks.) It is true that I have to go through the eyeglass-fumbling ritual when I arrive at work, but I can’t be blamed for failing eyesight.

My strategy for avoiding hackdom is simple: I try to remain engaged. In previous positions, that was not a problem; as what might be laughingly called a “key” editor, I had specific responsibilities for entire sections of the newspaper.

Now, as a “pure” copy editor, I find it necessary to stick my nose into other people’s business to maintain the level of engagement I require to stay reasonably sharp. No doubt others find this annoying at times, but I am willing to accept that judgment if it helps me avoid obsession with fly-fishing, building a vacation home, or investing to finance a “comfortable retirement”—a term I consider oxymoronic.