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3 June 2017

The other day a reader asked us why they sometimes see strange characters in our Around the Horn articles. The simple answer is "editorial lapses." But the explanation turned into an adventure.

Editorial lapses are inevitable. Any publisher who thinks two eyeballs are sufficient to proofread a text -- especially if they are the eyeballs of the author of the text -- clearly has no experience in the business.


We certainly try to swab the decks here.

We don't have the resources for fact checkers and proofreaders and we regret that.

But here's what we can do.

Each story we write is spell-checked as we keyboard it. Then we read through the full text before, in the case of anything but news stories and editor's notes, we put it aside to chill for a while (to simulate multiple pairs of eyeballs).

After a fresh pass through it, we run it through a batch spell checker (which always finds one error), then convert it to HTML. We read that HTML with the original text open to make it easy to polish our prose and correct any errors introduced in editing. We make repeated conversions to HTML, checking our changes each time.

Still, that's not enough.

If you spot an error in one of our stories and take the time to tell us about it, we thank you immediately after fixing it. We're grateful for your help.

Typos, like accidents, happen.


But the case our reader pointed out turns out not to be inevitable. And that's where the adventure comes in.

Our Web pages do not use typographic punctuation like smart quotes, em dashes and ellipse characters. We want to make full text searches easier. You don't have to know how to enter a curly apostrophe, for example, to search for something with an apostrophe in it.

But much of the Web does use typographic punctuation (and more power to them, we wish we could join them). When we copy text from a site we're curating in a Horn article and paste it into our simple ASCII file to quote it, we get the site's smart punctuation.

When we run that through our HTML generator, we get the strange characters.

Sometimes we catch them as we read through the HTML but, because they're the same "color" (as typographers like to say), they're camouflaged and sometimes missed.

We do have a style macro to filter the text but it's a separate operation. And we don't like to run it over links or other code like embedded video. So sometimes a Horn gets published with an unswabbed part of the deck.

How, we wondered, could we address this problem?


When we saw this late model sedan on the street the other day, we smiled without breaking stride. But we had to go back to take a photo.

The otherwise nicely detailed (the tires were even blacked) vehicle had a cracked bumper with a part missing. Accidents happen.

But the owner of the vehicle had applied a little imagination to the repair, presumably while saving up for a new bumper and some body work. They had drilled intervals of four holes along the split and used inexpensive but colorful plastic ties, one for each two holes, to strap the two pieces of bumper together.

The colorful ties draw attention to the damage but with a sense of humor generally missing when duct tape is used. We had to smile. It almost made us want to wreck our own bumper so we could do the same thing.

A creative solution to a problem is just more fun for everyone.


In our case, the copy-paste process was the key to solving the problem, the color plastic ties to hold the text together.

When we copy text from a Web page it is written to the clipboard. And when we paste it into our working file, it is copied from the clipboard.

What if we filtered the text on the clipboard before it was copied into our working document? We wouldn't have to do anything different and yet the strange characters would have no way of getting into the document.

So we did that.

At first we redefined Cmd-V (Paste) using Keyboard Maestro to run the clipboard through our Perl script that we usually swab the decks with.

But then we realized there are times we want a straight copy. So we added a modifier key to our command that swabs: Control-Option-V. It's sort of a Super Paste. And just as fast as a normal Paste.

We didn't use the more aggressive style macro but a safer subset of it that addresses typographic punctuation.

You won't see those strange characters any more -- as long as we remember to use the new paste command.


We've mentioned Keyboard Maestro before. It's our indispensable assistant, our box of plastic ties as it were.

Recently we made a couple of contributions on its forum. One properly capitalizes headlines (something we don't do here) and the other is actually a system for automatically minifying and unminifying CSS and JavaScript code (which we do use here).

On second thought, it's more our body shop than just a box of plastic ties. Highly recommended.

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