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The Chronicles of Ridicule 

Only the San Francisco Chronicle makes so many mistakes that it is forced to waste paper partaking in meta-meta-journalism

Wednesday, Dec 28 2005
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Back in October, the Chronicle ran a cheery little piece advertising an event at UC Berkeley, where a trio of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" writers -- who happened to have graduate degrees in mathematics -- discussed the shows' nerdy math references, with the aim of showing that math could be fun. Unfortunately, reporter Steve Rubenstein made a mistake in his own arithmetic, writing incorrectly, "1,782 to the 12th power plus 1,841 to the 12th power equals 1,922 to the 12th power."

Two months later, readers' representative Dick Rogers decided to try and set the record straight. Dog Bites isn't sure what the Chron should be most embarrassed about: writing the story in the first place, screwing up the math, or devoting an entire readers' representative column to the error. What is clear, though, is that Rogers avoided the issue at hand.

A reader's rep who actually wanted to address the problem might have investigated the paper's fact-checking policy on numbers. Perhaps he would have asked whether Rubenstein made the math error himself or just blindly transcribed an inaccurate statement made by his source, applied math Ph.D. and "The Simpsons"/"Futurama" writer Ken Keeler.

Instead, Rogers used the occasion to praise readers for giving insightful, "course-correcting feedback" that has "double-checked" arithmetic on a series of recent articles. Dog Bites doesn't know about you, but when a paper relies on its readers to correct its numbers blunders after the fact, the only "feedback" is that its reporters and editors don't understand basic math -- or don't take the time to check their facts with people who know better.

Ever the optimist, Rogers closed out his column by applauding a pair of Chronicle reporters for their supposed "mastery of math" in a recent series on the University of California's secrecy about employee compensation. While these articles drew public attention to an important issue, to call what Tanya Schevitz and Todd Wallack did mastering the "power of numbers" is stretching it. The reporters used their mathematical expertise to compute these amounts: how much UC paid its employees in bonus and benefit money (addition); annual salaries based on monthly pay rates (multiplication), and the percentage change in median payroll (long division). Hours of research and gruntwork? Yes. Multivariable calculus? Not exactly.

The pièce de résistance of this whole debacle was the fact that Rogers' correction referred to the original article as being on Nov. 15, when it really ran on Oct. 15. So the next day the paper had to run a correction on the correction. Only the San Francisco Chronicle makes so many mistakes that it is forced to waste paper partaking in meta-meta-journalism. Of course, when that happens, you know you can turn to Dog Bites to waste paper telling you all about it. (Ryan Blitstein)


Ode to Alex

As a rule, the struggles of a rookie quarterback with no touchdown passes and a rating south of 30 are not the stuff of poetry (although wasn't it the 49ers' pocket protection that led Keats to write, "What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?"?). Recently, however, Chronicle sports writer John Crumpacker watched the 49ers' Alex Smith, the No. 1 draft pick last spring, lose his grip on the football time and again in a 41-3 loss to Seattle and was moved to verse. "For a team lacking in poetry," Crumpacker began a story, "here are a few lines inspired by one of Alex Smith's recurring problems:

"The ball is hard, waxy and slick

"And he must learn to keep a grip

"Otherwise it bounces who knows where

"And with it chances to win fair

"So seize the rock with fingers firm

"And throw it so as to affirm

"The hoopla invested was not in haste

"Else abandon ship, and claim waste"

Curious to see how this stood up as a work of poetry, Dog Bites e-mailed Berkeley's Robert Hass, a former two-term U.S. poet laureate and author of the acclaimed collection Sun Under Wood, and asked him to give this bit of verse a close read. His analysis: "Well, it's almost good. Iambic tetrameter couplets, rhymed. The first six lines are pretty good, don't you think? The rhythm is wrecked by the last couplet:

"the hOOP/ la in VEST/ ed was NOT/ in hASTE

"else aBAN/ don SHIP/ and CLAIM/ (?) WASTE

"Where's the unaccented syllable in the last foot?," Hass asked. "Not to mention that the line doesn't quite make sense. As writers for deadlines know, all hoopla is hasty. And the sudden appearance of a large boat in the poem is not stunningly original. The poet should have stayed on board until he/she thought of something more interesting."

We pointed out to him that he apparently wasn't troubled by the lazy rhyme of "firm" and "affirm" in the fifth and sixth lines, to which he replied: "I'm a lazy rhymer." (Tommy Craggs)

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