As you may know, I have a ‘weak spot’ for useful users. This week’s MVU (Most Valuable User) is Peter Mortensen, editor-in-chief.
While quack still maintains the title for most edits, that was mainly due to retagging; Peter on the other hand has over 650 edits in your answers. Basically, he’s the human spellchecker of Super User. And by fixing your errors, he probably even helped you gain some extra rep.
Well Peter how about you introduce yourself to the rest? Based on your Wikipedia profile and your edit track record, you seem to have somewhat of an obsession with grammar and punctuation, don’t you?
Professionally I hold a Master of Science degree in electronic engineering, and after a brief encounter with the European Space Agency I have primarily developed software in the field of molecular biology.
While astronomy has always been my primary interest, I have also been writing software since I was 16 year old. I learned BASIC by reading a book from the library, and shortly thereafter I got a Sinclair ZX81 that one of my father’s associate journalists brought over from the UK. I soon started writing in Z80 assembler and building extensions to ZX81 and later ZX Spectrum. For instance, an extension to be able to load the HiSoft assembler, disassembler and other programs from EPROM instead of from the slow tape drive. It involved writing the equivalent of a disk operating system in Z80 assembler.
With regard to grammar and punctuation, it is not an obsession, but rather a preoccupation with quality and reading speed. I am used to the high quality of Wikipedia and I would like Super User posts to be of similar quality. It is also a matter of reading speed for future readers (could many thousands). Will the Stack Exchange network fail because of the equivalent of Eternal September or will it become a high quality resource on the Internet? Proper grammar and punctuation is part of the equation.
Given you don’t answer that many questions yourself, what drives you to keep coming back and edit so many questions anyway? Where do you get your satisfaction from?
Often I will research questions I have by restricting a Google search to Super User and in the process noting down any low quality answer. I use a simple text file to keep track of posts to edit and have set a quota of one edit per day. I like to see the quality improve and hope others will follow my lead.
I also regard it as a form of active reading, editing (or putting it on a list for later editing) as I am reading something I am interested in.
Aren’t you afraid that people who see your name (or the name of other regular editors) as being the last editor, by now think that edit is probably a correction, and might not click to read the changes?
(I assume you refer to the list views.) Yes, when I answer a question it might not get the attention it deserves due to this effect. It would be nice with some indication of what kind of change (retagging, edit or new answer).
So where does your ‘obsession’ with grammar stem from?
Except for the most basic rules, I was not really conscious about grammar before I started with Stack Overflow and Super User. It has also been a learning process for me, and I have improved by leaps and bounds. I learned from watching edits to posts, including my own. As I started editing I had many questions about grammar and punctuation. Fortunately the Stack Exchange 1.0 site iRosetta was created by Olivier Lalonde and soon a real expert, screen name “Donald Remero”, joined and provided really, really good expert answers. For a sample, see my blog post with an overview regarding “etc.”, titled “Everything on the use of “etc.”“. Other iRosetta questions I constantly use are “Can “am” stand alone?“, “Comma before but?” and “Can am stand alone?, part two“.
As a result I have become much more fluent in writing than before. When the lower level things like spelling and grammar becomes automatic it is much easier to concentrate on the more important things, like the content! I have also become interested in writing. I don’t know if it will happen, but perhaps I will pursue technical writing.
Do you have any tips or tricks for users who want to make sure you don’t have to edit their posts? Any user scripts or cheat sheets they can use? I, for one, know you love to edit my it’s to its.
I have a few tips:
- Do bother to capitalise “i”.
- In general take a few moments to admire check your post, for instance, when waiting for upvotes to come in for an answer or waiting for answers. Just reading it a second time you should be able to spot most errors. It is not so bad on Super User, but on Stack Overflow it is very clear that many questions are write-only, never read.
- Motivate yourself to improve your post by thinking about how many thousand people will read it the next months, years and decades!
- When in doubt about spelling: use Wiktionary to check. I have set up my browsers so I can easily search Wiktionary through Google (this has the added benefit that the Google spellchecker will kick in). For the misspelling “compatability” I can write “wt compatability” in the address bar. Thus, except for the word itself, in Firefox, only five keystrokes are requried: Ctrl+T, “wt compatability”, return
- Use Wikipedia to find out what something is and how it is spelled.
- Use straightforward English, not SMS language, lolspeak, (Internet) slang, Leet, or Engrish. Be conscious that you are writing for an international audience that may not be familiar with the culture you are immersed in.
I have written Edit Overflow (a .NET application, Windows Forms) to help with corrections (mostly case corrections for names). It is still under development (for instance the word list is currently hardcoded) and needs to find a proper home, but is useful.
I also have the equivalent of cheat sheets:
- I stole this from some other user (Kyle Cronin?): “its = possessive, it’s = “it is” or “it has”"
- I have build a long list of frequently misspelled words I have observed in the wild as a way to quickly check for and with the corresponding correction. It is not automated, though. I just have it in a text file and search it when I think it is one of those words. Such lists quickly grow long, but so I created a blog entry for occasion:
I see on your profile you’re endorsing two Area51 proposals:
“New: support “Astronomy”, an upcoming Q&A site. And support the Q&A site WikiSpeedia, a Stack Exchange site proposal on Area 51, by becoming a “committer””
Is there something special about these two topics that you want to see a Stack Exchange site about them? Here are your 15 minutes of fame to convince us to support them as well!
I have many interests and the primary one is astronomy – since 1975 when the neighbor’s son got a telescope as a Christmas present… Before Eternal September I found Usenet useful, and especially group sci.astro, and I would like to see something of similar quality on Stack Exchange.
Although my Wikipedia account is older than the Stack Overflow account I only became serious about Wikipedia and other wikis after being active on Super User and Stack Overflow. Minor editing is one thing, but I sense there is much more depth to it, especially as Wikipedia works in practice, but not in theory. It would be interesting to learn more about wiki culture and practical aspects of wikis as well, and not only about Wikipedia.
Are there any pet feature-requests that would make your life a lot easier or would help keep the site clean of spelling errors?
- As the “edited” stamp on posts sometimes cause friction it would nice to be able to voluntary give up the printed name, like for Community Wiki. For instance, display as for Community Wiki after any edits after getting the Copy Editor badge.
- One or more extra score dimensions for janitorial work (like tagging, editing and finding duplicates). In the beginning there was only one dimension, reputation points. But now we have one more (not public), flag weight where moderators upvote and downvote.
- Some way to draw (more) attention to old questions that should be closed as duplicates.
- Features that allow more collaboration on tagging, editing and closing. For instance, some way to discuss tagging, editing and finding duplicates for specific posts.
- Features to draw attention to posts that should retagged, edited and closing/reopened. For instance a certain number of votes per day on posts that need editing or reviewing of the edits (including ones own!).
Boy, that’s quite a list! Is there any favorite question or answer on the Stack Exchange network that shows what you find so awesome about the site and why?
- The most awesome is one of Mike Dunlavey‘s answers: What can I use to profile C++ code in Linux? This technique is very simple, yet very effective. As a result of applying it I once improved a heavily used .NET desktop application (for processing gigabytes of data) to run 7 times faster, reducing processing time for a typical file from 16.5 minutes to 2.2 minutes.
- Though not comme il faut, I find many of the list questions very useful (not poll questions, mind you). For instance, List of freely available programming books.
- A funny answer, probably unintentional, still make me chuckle (I edited it, though): http://stats.stackexchange.com/posts/786/revisions
Do you plan to reach 10k on Stack Overflow or Super User any time soon? Or do you have any other goals on the site?
- I do plan to reach 10k. All the quality stuff has actually side-tracked me. It is my wish that we have a lot more active editors, especially native speakers.
- Both answering and learning about the subjects of the subjects I know about and/or are interested in, for example Forth.
Well I’d just like to thank Peter for improving everybody’s posts and for this nice interview. In case you have any other questions for Peter, be sure to let us know in the comments and I’ll edit them in here somewhere! Also feel free to suggest any special user, that you’re dying to know more about and I’ll do my best to interview him. Make sure to check back next week, to see who we have in store then!
Filed under Interviews