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Another sign of the end of the world: ‘Freshly ground black people.’

April 22, 2010

Pepper. Freshly ground black PEPPER.

Did you hear the one about the cookbook with a recipe that calls for “salt and freshly ground black people?” This is not the beginning of a bad joke, but a true story — as scary-sad in its small way as anything I’ve heard lately.

The offending term turned up in a new cookbook published by Penguin Australia, reports the Guardian. In a recipe for tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto, to be exact.

Tellingly, Penguin remained unaware of “the one-word slip” until readers pointed it out, after which the company pulped the 7,000 copies of The Pasta Bible still in its warehouse.

Doing the right thing, in this case, will cost Penguin $20,000. Copies of the book already shipped to stores will not be recalled, although the company issued a boiler-plate apology “for any offense this error may have caused.”

Penguin also offered to “”willingly replace a copy of The Pasta Bible owned by anyone who feels uncomfortable about having a copy of the book in their possession.” Willingly, as opposed to, you know, at gun point.

Publisher Robert Sessions is understandably touchy on the subject — who wants to be associated with a racism controversy over what was clearly, as he terms it, “a silly mistake?” Surely no one can believe Penguin perpetrated this error on purpose.

What I find dispiriting, though, is Sessions’ defense of the company’s proofreaders: He blames the misprint on a spell-check program. To which I say: If you have sufficient professional proofreaders, why are you using spell check?

As anyone who’s used spell check knows, it’s as likely to insert errors as it is to catch them.

The real moral of this story has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with the inexorable dehumanizing trend of digital automation.

When I went to work for the Sun-Sentinel in 1986, there was a room deep in the bowels of the building where 12 or 15 specifically trained people did nothing but proof copy — news stories, ads, everything that went into the paper. By the early ’90s, all these people were gone, sacrificed on the altar of computer automation.

You can bet these guys had plenty of proofreaders.

Let me point out, parenthetically, that proofreading is not just a matter of scanning a text for errors. It is a craft that takes training to master and professionalism to practice. Like most skills of handicraft, it is being lost — if indeed it’s not lost already.

Not coincidentally, calls and letters from readers complaining about typos in the paper increased exponentially.

At the same time I saw typos and other errors in finished books, sent from New York for review, skyrocket, and assumed publishers were dispensing with professional proofreading, too.

That’s because there’s no substitute for the human eye and the human brain that lies behind it. But companies will continue to get rid of people, as a cost-cutting measure, whenever a digital replacement comes along.

I can see the effects in my industry — books, magazines and newspapers today are rife with typos. I tremble to think what mistakes digital technology is seeding into professions I know nothing about: Air traffic control, for instance. Radiology and other medical services. Nuclear power plants. Food safety.

Yikes. Where’s my blankie?

So get used to living in an increasingly shabby, error-prone and inhuman world: A world without proofreaders.

Can you name any ways digital automation has made your profession less human? And less reliable?!?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2010 12:13 pm

    Let us get real here folks. This was not an error. It was to get publicity. They got it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 22, 2010 3:53 pm

      I assure you that’s not the case. No one wants this kind of publicity. This is the kind of publicity that costs people their jobs. And from being in the newspaper and magazine business, and near the book publishing industry, I can tell you this is the kind of error — let us call it a breakdown in quality control — that’s become ever more prevalent in the past twenty years.

      Plus, what good would such publicity do? You can’t sell a book after you’ve pulped your last 7,000 copies.

  2. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 22, 2010 12:57 pm

    I did hear about this a couple of days ago. I thought it was pretty funny that a mistake this big wasn’t noticed. I hadn’t thought of the publicity conspiracy angle till just now, so thank you Mr. Mayor.

    How could such a large company rely on spell-check. It’s okay at finding some errors, but like you say Chauncey, it is no replacement for a human pouring over the text. I find errors in the books I read all the time. I used to write to the publishers and inform them but I have stopped doing that because I never got a response, and began to feel like a bit of a wackjob.

    Automation in my profession? I am not currently working, it’s not as fun as it sounds, so I have no input there. In my personal life automation has infiltrated my grocery shopping, and not for the better. A local grocery store has these automated checkout machines, which when they first installed them I thought were great. That is until I had to use one. Something always goes wrong, then I am left standing waiting for a human to come and fix the machine. So convenient. What’s worse is the machine says “Welcome to so-and-so” endlessly. I joked with one of the human cashiers, after waiting in line of course, that I bet she hears that stupid machine in her sleep. She looked at me, sort of, really she looked through me, and said “Welcome to so-and-so”.

    P.S. Everyone knows you use ground white people in a pasta dish. White having a more subtle and refined taste, a strong black peppercorn would just clash with the flavors of the prosciutto and anchovies.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 22, 2010 3:55 pm

      Ah, Tommy, but when the machines take over, once and for all, even unemployment will be automated. And, like everything else, so much cheaper than the human version.

  3. Alexis permalink
    April 23, 2010 9:19 am

    I myself am a horrible speller and frequently fall into the spell check trap. I think it is really a shame that the people whose job it is to put out the written word rely on a machine and not the human brain.

    I found these extreme examples of how spell check can mess you up and thought they were pretty funny.

    Eye halve a spelling checker
    It plainly marks four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
    Eye strike a quay and type a word and weight for it to say
    Weather eye yam wrong oar write.
    It shows me strait a weigh as soon as a mist ache is maid.
    It nose bee fore two long and eye can put the error rite.
    Its rare lea ever wrong.
    Eye have run this poem threw it,
    I am shore your pleased to no.
    Its letter perfect awl the way.
    My checker told me sew.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 23, 2010 9:43 am

    Very amusing, and only slightly exaggerated. Where did you get the poem?

  5. Alexis permalink
    April 23, 2010 9:59 am

    I searched the internet for examples of spell check not working.

  6. April 23, 2010 10:02 pm

    Man, pepper to people. I’m still amazed at that one. I’d had my eye on this story, but I hadn’t heard their explanation, so thanks for including that bit. I wonder how it pepper had to have been spelled originally for the spell check to change it to people. I suppose “peppel” might have worked. One letter off, right?

    Alas, there’s far too little respect for really good copyediting these days, and a typo hunters work is never done.

  7. April 23, 2010 10:03 pm

    hunter’s work. You see? I need to take my own advice and reread.

  8. Juliet permalink
    April 25, 2010 8:09 pm

    Great article. I really thought it was a joke at first. It is sad that someone did not catch this error before the book went to press. This is a perfect example of why human copyediting is so critical. I am sure the publisher is wishing that they would not have cut back on the proofreading staff.

    Keep up the great writing. Great Blog.


  9. Candice Simmons permalink
    April 26, 2010 3:13 pm

    I am so tired of hearing human resource people talk about streamlining operations….

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