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Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance

Some of the readers of this blog, I discover, get it in an RSS feed without paragraph divisions.

I’m at a loss to explain this, having no technical knowledge of the mechanics. The Movable Type service on which this blog is published allows me to write in Microsoft Word and paste the text on Movable Type. I don’t know HTML coding (never learned DOS, either) and am at the mercy of other members of the staff with technical expertise who are trying to figure out how to fix the problem.

I am reminded of the reporter at The Sun who, when confronted with a gross error in mathematics in one of her stories, answered, “Well, I never was any good at math.” It is possible to detect in that statement a kind of perverse pride — I concentrate on the big, important things, not on mere numbers; that is for other people to check out.

And if pride does not lurk in that remark, then complacency surely does.

Reports of the failure of our educational system to produce graduates trained in mathematics and science — partly because of lack of interest among the populace in pursuing these studies — point out that we have to import college students from other countries for these majors, and also export technical jobs. That appears to be just fine with us, because, you know, we’re just not really any good at math.

My own defective education was highlighted recently when I read Charles Seife’s Decoding the Universe, which has interesting things to say about information theory and entropy. But my own grasp of mathematics is so sketchy that I had difficulty grasping this popularization of science.

An ugly realization, made uglier by awareness that at my age, it’s unlikely that I will do much to remedy the defects.

But maybe at the least I can get some tutoring on how to operate this blog more effectively.

When a lady asked Samuel Johnson why he had defined pastern as “the knee of a horse” in his great dictionary (It is part of the foot just above the hoof), he did not make any elaborate effort to explain away the mistake but answered simply, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.” Admitting one’s errors and failings is healthy. Accepting the ignorance as a given is not.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:48 AM | | Comments (2)


Hi, John. The underlying code of your blog is fine, so it's possible that the problem lies in the person's RSS reader.

I had a subscriber to my blog complain that the block-quoted material was not styled differently from the regular text. Well, the underlying code is rendered as a block indent by every Web browser -- and also by the two RSS readers I tested it in. Conclusion: That person must be using an RSS reader that's doing something odd.

You see, it's not you. Blame the software.

Mindy's right, John--RSS readers (and browsers, actually) interpret the various formatting codes embedded in HTML however they've been told to do it. I read your blog via NewsFire, for instance, which skips many format display options in the name of compact programming. But I can (on NewsFire, at least) hit the "B" key to open the blog in a browser, thus revealing your impeccable paragraphy in all of its splendour. ;-)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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