A Note on Formatting, Plus More on Bartleby of the Skies

Adding new signals to the new look. Also, reading and mis-reading the causes of "air rage."
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As mentioned earlier this week, the Atlantic has introduced a new layout for its online "article pages." You get the new look if you click on any headline for a specific post or article, including the link in the previous sentence. For now you can see the old look if you click on names in what was previously the "Voices" column -- for instance, Alexis Madrigal's or Ta-Nehisi Coates's, or Derek Thompson's, mine, etc.

The new look has bigger fonts, more white space between lines ("leading"), wider margins on each side of the screen, and a narrower column of item-text in the middle. Together these changes mean that you see fewer words per line of text; fewer lines of text per viewable screen; and thus (fewer words x fewer lines) many fewer words on the screen at a time. The changes are meant to make any given passage of text seem more approachable and less encyclopedia-looking. Also, moving the author-bios from the top to the bottom of each post makes more space for words or pictures in the very first screenful. [Note: these old/new changes are much more apparent on desktop or laptop web-browser versions, rather than on mobile devices.]

The changes have two other effects I've been thinking about.

One, it seems, is to reduce the visual cueing as to what is "normal" text and what is a quoted or excerpted passage. Two days ago, I quoted a long note from a reader (in the "Bartleby the Scrivener Joins the Air Marshals" item). The overwhelming majority of people who wrote back to me missed the fact that it was a quote, rather than a story I was telling about myself. Ideally, excerpts would always stand out because of their background shading and indented margins. But enough people are now missing the cues to make me think I should add new signals. Rather, I should return to a signaling system I used before a previous redesign, when the same problem kept cropping up -- and people thought I was speaking for myself when I was quoting Dick Cheney, etc.

Thus, from now on I will signal the beginning and end of excerpted passages with double marks like this:  >> and <<.  And, to err on the side of clarity, I'll mark each new paragraph within an except with its own single > mark.  [Nah, on reflection that would be overkill.] I can work out a macro to handle this, and it's better than the risk of confusion. For instance, a reader writes about the new formatting:

>> I think confusion about who is speaking in your blog entries [may]... result from continuing formatting imperfections.  There may also be some difference in the clarity of formatting between the version that arrives via RSS feed and the version one sees when one gets to it by clicking on the link.
 
In any event, despite some improvements, it is still not always possible to tell with immediate certainty whose words one is reading.  Most often, in my case, it is the boundary between your words and those you are quoting that sometime seems unclear. <<

And on the other hand, another reader writes:

>>I too thought the "Bartleby" story was about you and your wife.  Looking at it again, you clearly introduced it as sent in by a reader, and it was offset in grey as well (I of course trust implicitly that you haven't subsequently edited in those elements).

I can't begin to comprehend why I and so many other people misread it that way; it's a fascinating little accidental psych experiment you happened to conduct there.<<

The other effect of the new-look presentation may be to make individual paragraphs seem more approachable -- but to make medium-length-or-longer posts seem less so, since it now takes many more screen-scrolls to get through them. I'll try to use this as discipline to make things shorter, more often -- and also to provide a link and reminder on longer posts to "Try reading this one in 'Classic' view."

OK, now for some closing info that bridges the purely procedural and the at-least-semi-substantive, here is one of the (several hundred!) replies that have arrived on the Bartleby-of-the-air question. I've set it off with the new coding. And you could consider looking at this in Classic view. A reader writes:

>>You must have been distracted by so many people mistaking you for your original correspondent, but the responses suggest a staggering inability to read.

The original report was clear. Your correspondent arrived early to the airport and had book the two seats, "but we checked in about two hours before the flight, and received our tickets. Two seats in the middle of the plane (I like that because in business the configuration is 2-2-2, and either of us can get up without disturbing the other) as we had booked."

I am more mystified by the responses,

1) "I get your desire to be together, but why should that trump the desire of someone else to sit where he selected?  Would it have been nice?  Sure.  But it was still his choice.  Not one that you are entitled to make for him." [JF note: these quoted passages are from a previous reader.] The alleged air marshall didn't reserve that seat, they did. A reservation is an entitlement.

2) "I like to get there early to get the seat I want, not only on an airplane, but a tour bus, or sightseeing excursion, or a table or stool at a bar. You'd be surprised at how often I am asked to inconvenience myself and move to a less desirable seat in order to accommodate some guy who wants to sit by his wife or vice versa. Sometimes I don't mind. But a lot of times it is a great inconvenience to have to hoist up all the bags et cetera just to accommodate some guy or his wife who may have come in late and feels entitled to preempt any lower person who is traveling alone." Agreed. The couple had a reservation and had arrived early. They in exactly the position of this female traveller. They are being asked to sit somewhere else for his convenience.

3) "But I always do so understanding that I'm asking a favor, and if they "prefer not to" -- for whatever reason, or for no reason at all -- then to me, that's that.  In my view, no one has any social obligation to trade seats." Exactly. The air marshall was not asking, but demanding a favor from them.

I could go on, but I think that those responding to the original article either are not reading the details correctly, or they are just being too obsequious to the air marshall and the airlines some-people-we-just-can't-move security theater.<<

And, from another reader:

>>I think the emails you posted yesterday miss the mark in a couple of ways.

1)The man and his wife purchased seats together, confirmed they were sitting together, and only didn't know the wouldn't be sitting together until they boarded the plan.  It's only at that point did they try to shuffle the seating in the cabin.  It's not like the had separate seats and started badgering other passengers so they could sit together.

2) While I certainly empathize with the woman who feels the pressure from the tyranny of couples, her shrill response misses a key point.  People (mates, friends, spouses, business companions) who travel together do so mostly because they want to be TOGETHER.These folks are trying to have a shared experience, and I think it's fair to ask a single traveler to move if there are other single seats available..  Single travelers certainly have the right to sit where they want, but understanding and empathy go a long way.<<

And why not, one more. Another reader writes:

>>First on air marshals:

 [My wife] and I heading to Seattle from PHL. Big Birthday trip. Booked months in advance. Paid up for first class. Selected good seats. She hates to fly. Sitting together helps with her fears. They are real to her.

We are boarding the plane, and we are pulled aside. "we are sorry but your seats have been reassigned and we have selected other seats for you". They weren't together. I raised quite a fuss. USair. They 'found' seats together.

The marshals slept the whole way back. WTF. They were off duty. No follow up questioning was replied to.

Second:

I travel for work: (GA 250 hrs+; 700 mile legs and less) and USairways 50k miles per year (long haul).   Almost every trip is for 'work' Why is it that when I am going to work I have to make way (while in the TSA line) for those who work at the airport/airlines? Frustrates the shit out of me (and most everyone around me). We are all going to work. As my kids emote: "just sayin".

P.S.  TSA Pre-check is wonderful, but when they randomly force you through the regular lines it costs 30 mins. So much for 'planned' time saving.<<

More to come.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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