The whale awaits your judgment

May 24th, 2014

Robin Sloan contemplates The Moby-Dick variations:

Where does one novel end and another one begin?

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Tale of the Transcriptionist's Tape

February 8th, 2014

Matt Seidel works as a transcriptionist:

The best transcriptionist is one who doesn’t attract notice to his work. Unlike the translator, whose work is always a form of betrayal – traduttore, traditore [translator, traitor] goes the famous Italian saying – the transcriber aims for nothing short of absolute fidelity. And thus, given that my job is literally to reproduce the material as accurately as possible, I am only as good as my material. So what keeps me motivated? Well, it's the hope that one day – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon – I will transcribe an iconic line. I often think of those fast-typing legends of yore, whether their hands trembled while captioning, commas and all, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

The company I freelance for has its own voice recognition software. Its engineers run client audio files through the software to produce a rough transcript that can be quite accurate depending on the recording. After being thus processed, the files are placed on an online marketplace, at which point the editor logs on to choose one to transcribe. The editor can see information about each file: the client, running time, and price per minute. An audio and visual preview is also available so that one can avoid the most difficult files – faint recordings seemingly set in a wind tunnel and featuring multiple motor-mouthed speakers with accents that confound the voice-recognition technology, which is set to American English. These files lure in many a young transcriber by offering higher rates, but wily veterans know to search for the hidden gems that maximize one's dollar-to-effort ratio (which reflects the real hourly rate more accurately than the dollar per audio minute does). My greatest such discovery was a documentary about a wandering yogi wherein three total words were spoken, two of which were subtitled and needed only a [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] tag. I measure every new project against this Platonic ideal.

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The Jewish Mark Twain

December 28th, 2013

Speaking as someone who adores the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof but knows not a thing about the source material beyond the fact that the story had been a successful stage play before being filmed, I found William Deresiewicz's introduction to Tevye's creator Sholem Aleichem fascinating:

Dracula, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe: it takes a special kind of greatness for a literary character to achieve autonomy from his creator. Like those "folk songs" that are actually the products of a single pen ("This Land Is Your Land," say), such figures come to seem as if they'd sprung directly from the popular imagination, effacing their originators altogether. Everyone has heard of Frankenstein; not many know who Mary Shelley is.

Such is the case with Tevye, the jocular giant of Yiddish literature. With his trio of marriageable daughters and his eternal little town of Anatevka, his largeness and simplicity, he seems to come to us directly from the pages of a folktale. You'd almost have to be a Yiddishist to recognize the name of his creator, Sholem Aleichem. Yet once he was a giant, too: the voice of Eastern European Jewry by universal acclamation; the creator, Jeremy Dauber tells us in his new biography, of modern Jewish literature as well as modern Jewish humor; the man to whom the author of Huckleberry Finn replied, upon being introduced to "the Jewish Mark Twain," "please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem." His death in 1916 was the occasion of the largest public funeral New York had ever witnessed. […]

Damn. More reading to catch up on.

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133 to 1

October 21st, 2012

Michael Frayn, writing in 1995, on the problem of titles:

This year, for various reasons, four different works of mine will have reached the point where they need titles, and I've reached the point where I need hospitalisation. It's not that I can't write titles. I've written far more titles than anything else in my life. For one of these four projects I have 107 titles. For another – 74. For the third – 134. 134 titles! For one short book! 134 pretty good titles, though I say so myself. The trouble is, you don't want 134 pretty good titles. You want one perfect title.

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The Magazine

October 16th, 2012

Marco Arment1 has been teasing us on his last few podcasts about his new iOS app, which was revealed last week as The Magazine.

Basically, it's an iOS-only magazine that asks for US$1.99 a month and promises in return to give you four articles every fortnight written by geeks, for geeks, but not necessarily about technology.

The app looks good and reads nicely even on a small screen like that of my iPod Touch, as you'd expect from the man who created Instapaper.2 Navigating between articles is slick and speedy, a huge contrast to a heavier, more blatantly commercial product like the iPhone/iPod Touch edition of the New Yorker. Limitations on tweaking the way the content looks notwithstanding, The Magazine is clearly a child of the web, and all the better for it.

As to the content, essentially it's longish, self-contained pieces from people who've been publishing similar material on their blogs over the years, but who now have a chance to stretch out a bit and get paid along the way.

It probably didn't help that the jumping-off point for the first article in the free trial issue was about one of my least favourite notions to have gone the rounds of the Mac blogosphere in the last few months: the proposition that John Gruber invented the Linked List style of blogging about six years ago. Getting over that hump, I enjoyed what I read, but there's a problem.

[Where's the quote? Where's the link?]

Because for now Marco isn't posting the content on the app's web site as it's published in The Magazine, I can't link to a piece I liked to persuade you to read it, let alone to get you to subscribe to The Magazine to read more like this.3

Obviously I understand that the idea is for people to subscribe to The Magazine rather than read the authors' work for free online, but I have a nasty feeling that'll work about as well as it did for The Times of London. If you publish behind a paywall, aren't you cutting yourself off from the conversation taking place across any number of blogs? If the content isn't trying to be particularly timely then this may not be a major issue, but it still makes it harder for customers to persuade others by word of blockquote. At the very least, I hope that work published through The Magazine is displayed in full on the magazine's web site a month after publishing, so that we don't have to go haring off to the various authors' personal sites to track all that content down again.

For all that, I'm still going to let the automatic In-App purchase go through and follow The Magazine for a few issues.

  1. Who I hope will forgive me, a total stranger, from calling him by his first name throughout this piece. I've been reading his blog, using his software and listening to his podcast for long enough now that it seems weirdly appropriate to be on first name terms with someone who has no idea that I exist.
  2. I find the lack of flexibility in setting up display preferences like choice of font, line spacing and so on to be a bit odd given how good Instapaper is at letting users adjust their reading to suit their taste. I can only imagine that Marco is trying to establish a brand here so he wants the app to look recognisable.
  3. Authors retain the right to publish their work from The Magazine one month later on their own web sites, but that's not much help when I've just read the article and want to tell you about it now.

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July 18th, 2012

Author and TV screenwriter Stephen Harrigan's account of a career spent writing TV movies and miniseries includes the worst line of dialogue ever from a miniseries:

[Harrigan had been brought in by producer Robert Halmi Sr. to write the miniseries 'Cleopatra', before the arrival of a new director who brought in a writer to rework the script…] The new director brought in a new writer, Anton Diether, who had done an excellent adaptation of Moby Dick a few years earlier for Halmi. This was the first time since Moonwalker I had been rewritten, but enough of my original work was left that I'm pretty sure it's me, and not Anton, who must bear the responsibility for what has been pointed out to me as the worst line of dialogue ever uttered in a miniseries. Julius Caesar has just aided the young queen Cleopatra in crushing a rebellion in the Egyptian capital. In the battle, though, the great library of Alexandria, the repository of all the world's wisdom and knowledge, has gone up in flames. As Cleopatra tends Caesar's wounds, he turns to her and whispers, "I'm sorry about your library."

The worst ever? There's just so much to choose from. In any case, it's a brave man who would publicly claim authorship of that line.

[Via feeling listless]

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Thank God, it will soon be dark.

March 30th, 2012

Oh, My Hand: Complaints Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Illuminated Manuscripts.

As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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In the presence of a sufficient genius

February 27th, 2012

Whatever his employers are paying Dr. Kaufman to mark essays like this, it's not enough:

First, my professor told me to write a paragraph like a hamburger. Can you believe that? That is not a rhetorical question: my college professor told me that the best paragraphs are structured like a hamburger. But I must follow my muse, Montaigne, and insist that I am not interesting in stabilizing my subject, however slight, in a structure of such déclassé fare, or that if I were, mine would tower above that base alternative in direct proportion to the extent of my genius. My paragraphs will, instead, inform my audience about the manner of their composition, paying special attention not to structure or transitions but to the brilliance that I mustered to tame into interest material others might find trite.

There's more – so much more – and it Just Keeps Getting Better.

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The Small Penis rule

February 8th, 2012

The small penis rule is a tactic that writers can employ to avoid libel suits:

One way authors can protect themselves […] is to say that a character has a small penis, Mr. Friedman said. "Now no male is going to come forward and say, 'That character with a very small penis, that's me!'"

Given that the basis for the Wikipedia article that defines the rule appears to be a single New York Times article (quoted above) in which precisely one writer uses the term in passing during a wider discussion about the perils of writing about real people, I have no idea whether the phrase 'small penis rule' is a genuine term of art among libel lawyers or just a throwaway line from one writer during an interview that somehow stuck in the reporter's mind. I'd say that if the term isn't widely used then it probably should be.

[Via Pop Loser]

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Alternatively, go straight to step 9

September 10th, 2011

Georgette Heyer's advice for novelists:

1. Induce your publisher to hand over at once a sum of money grossly in excess of what the book is likely to be worth to him. This gives one a certain amount of incentive to write the thing, and may be achieved by various methods, the most highly recommended being what may be termed as The Little Woman Act.


3. Brood for several weeks, achieving, if not a Plot, depression, despair and hysteria in yourself, and a strong desire to leave home in your entourage. This condition will induce you to believe yourself to be the victim of Artistic Temperament, and may even mislead you into thinking that you really are a Creative Artist.


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