Flubbergasted

adj. How you feel when you step on the scale and discover that you’ve gained two pounds in the last 24 hours.

2

Numbers, English, and Lazy Programmers

While doing research for an episode you will likely see shortly, I went to YouTube and did a search. This is what I got back:
Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 10.46.47 AM
Note that it says I got “About 1 results”. Obviously, “results” is incorrect. There’s only one result! And About? What’s the standard deviation on that result?

This from a company that was bought by Google for a billion dollars or so. You’d think they’d have someone who could spend five frickin’ minutes to put in

if (results.count == 1) {…

and to only include the word “About” when the code rounds off the number of results (which it does for very large result sets). Neither of those things should be difficult, and I’d be embarrassed if my program were so sloppy. Yet there it is on one of YouTube’s most oft-loaded pages.

MapMyRide.com made a bit more of an effort, but didn’t test all the cases:
Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 5.13.22 PM

11st place! The rule that works for 1 and 21 doesn’t work for 11. Crazy English and the words we have for the low teens. I sent off a friendly report to MayMyRide letting them know; the bug was in a new feature, and MMR doesn’t have the resources that YouTube does. We’ll see if they fix it before I fall to 13rd place.

1

Thesaurus bot in action!

Over a stretch of a few hours, my spam blocker flagged messages with the following content:

  • I intended to send you the tiny word to finally say thank you the moment again on your awesome
  • I wanted to send you the little observation so as to thank you very much again regarding the pleasant
  • Needed to compose you a very little remark to help say thanks a lot yet again over the lovely
  • I needed to create you this bit of observation to say thanks over again with the marvelous

There were probably more, but you get the idea. There is a template sentence that might actually be grammatically correct, in which certain words are marked for replacement by thesaurus. For instance, in the above, every line has a replacement for “note”.

Two questions present themselves: What is the actual template, and (more fun) what is the most ridiculous version of the template?

My humble contribution:
“I am pathologically compelled to fire at you this wee missive to once and for all pay you the respect you are due once more for the unbelievable.”

2

Penfinal?

I just received a document named “XXX_final_v2”.

2

A New Language Low

Many of you out there have heard me rail against the verb ‘login’. You would never say ‘I loginned to the Interwebs.’

‘Log’ is the verb. In the case of technology the verb is followed by a prepositional phrase starting with ‘in’ or ‘into’ to describe where the logging happened.

Thank you, Adobe Systems, for taking my pet peeve to the new absurdity. In an official communication I have been instructed as follows (copy-paste here, so the capitalization is also theirs): Login into Your Account with the ID listed above

Yeah. Login into. Is anybody reading this before it goes out?

Tweet!

Tonight I set up a twitter account. My twitter ID is JerrySeeger.

Why did I finally do it? Here’s my first (and to date, only) tweet, addressed to Antonio Gonzalez of the Associated Press:

@agonzalezAP setup is not a verb! In fact I set up my Twitter account just to say that. #peeve

1

An Odd Preposition

I noticed this on a bottle of Listerine recently:

“Do not use in children under 12 years of age.”

Do you use Listerine in your children? What about in the other adults in your household? I imagine the writer pondered the correct preposition to employ, and finally settled on ‘in’. Personally, I don’t use Listerine in anything other than my own mouth.

1

An Odd Little Grammar Thing

I was reading a blog for Web designers this morning and I came across this little gem:

… there will be no performance affection due to…

which was intended to mean “… performance will not be affected by…” My handy dictionary labels the above use of affection as archaic (I was surprised it even got that much respect), and I wouldn’t use it in any sort of serious writing.

The thing is, I like it. It’s one of those things that, on a special occasion, I might want to pull out and use. (You have to admit, it’s pretty funny.) In my book it’s perfectly all right to break the rules of grammar if you do it on purpose. So remember when you read my occasional bad-grammar rant, or the rant of any other hard-ass, that rules are made to be broken—but when you break them, know why. Even the hard-asses will smile if you do it well.

A New Grammar Low

One of the common grammar errors that really sets my teeth to grinding is the use of “login”, “backup”, and the like as verbs. “Click to login” drives me nuts. I’ve mentioned it before, and my august sister pointed out the perfect argument to make my point: “You would never say ‘I loginned’, would you?” Today, this sentence reached me:

**EG-Delicious-Sync** backups the Delicious links into WordPress links database, and gives you many Delicious features.

I suspect that the writer of the above sentence was not a native English speaker, but has seen backup misused so often that he naturally treated it as a regular verb. This is how it begins. Backups, as the plural of backup, will get by the spelling checkers, but come on. I imagine that in another couple of decades we will indeed be reading and hearing about people who backupped their data. And I will be the crazy old curmudgeon grumbling in the corner.

Say What Now?

In an episode of Allison I used the word “rusticizing”, meaning the process of making something rustic. There’s an artifice to the process that appeals. Tonight I ran the spelling checker on Allison and naturally that word was flagged. No biggie, I made it up.

One of the suggested alternatives: rrsticizing.

Umm… wha—?

Postafrostalyptic

The state of the Universe after Hell freezes over. Things that had a snowball’s chance in hell are now near-certainties. Vows made (It will be a cold day in hell when…) are coming due. Infinite possibility, huge responsibility. It’s the postafrostalyptic world.

Insignificant Word Trivia

Can anyone think of a word other than hitchhike (and derivatives) that has a double-h?

The Heretics of Dune

I was staying at fuego’s the other night, and I was looking for something that I could spend a few minutes reading without too much commitment. The first thing I pulled off the shelf was Hemingway, but it was in Czech. An interesting project, but not the few minutes of entertainment I was looking for. Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert caught my eye. I decided to read just the opening of the book, to see how a well-known author constructs his first words to his readers. Then I would put the book back on the shelf and get on with my life, perhaps a little wiser.

I made myself comfortable and opened the book. The first sentence is a quote. Ordinarily opening with a quote is a risky move because in your head the context is there, but the reader doesn’t have a clue. So even a very dramatic statement is not going to have nearly the effect you expect. If the statement is very short, it’s not so bad, but when the reader has no idea who is speaking, not even gender or clues about how the speech is pitched, the reader will have to defer understanding the statement until he or she gets more data. It is just a bunch of words, waiting to be interpreted. A dramatic moment wasted.

I say “ordinarily” because there are plenty of exceptions. I regularly start my stories with someone speaking (though these days almost all of those openers die in revision), and other people do, too. My corollary to the above rule is “Only start with a quote if it has context and characterization built in.” Off the top of my head, the line “I don’t care who you say you are, you’re not going to see the King,” tells a lot about the circumstances, and even tells us that the speaker is probably not important, it’s who’s being spoken to that matters. It’s got setting, conflict, and is a clear marker that the following will be a fantasy story. So, it’s not bad. Still, is it any better than, “The guard’s armor squeaked with rusty joints as he stepped in front of the door. ‘I don’t care…'”? The second version says volumes about guard (and by extension the king) as perceived by the one being addressed. When the guard says his bit, we already have mild contempt for him.

An interesting project: find works that start with a quote that cannot be easily improved with an introductory sentence. Figure out what they have in common.

So, book review. Right. That’s why we’re here. Herbert opens this novel with a quote, and he most certainly has not found an exception to the above rule. I started right off with a feeling of disorientation. That feelilng did not go away. Heretics of Dune is a textbook example of how not to start a novel. I was bombarded with made-up words, names of people and organizations, leading statements that went nowhere, things left understood between characters without letting me in on it, and on and on. I read chapter 1 with a giant WTF?! hovering over my fizzing head.

It’s probably a good time to point out that I’ve read the book before. And I’m still confused. It’s been a long time, but I’m familiar enough with Frank Herbert’s universe that I made it through that chapter. I pity the poor slob who reads this before reading the many prequels.

It was, overall, a pretty frustrating chapter one. Chapter two wasn’t much better. By chapter three we were meeting new characters that don’t have histories or secrets we needed to know. And just like that I read the whole damn book.

Which leads to the central mystery: I only planned to read the first bit. It wasn’t very good. But for some reason I kept reading. This, somehow, is Herbert’s great skill. He hides things from me, both by not telling and by deliberately obscuring them behind jargon and dogma. (I ground my teeth every time I read something like, (slight paraphrase) “Lucilla understood the full scope of Taraza’s plan. Holy crap! That was the most amazing plan ever! The implications were astonishing!” and then not tell us what Lucilla figured out. AAAARRRGGGHHH!) He assumes knowledge I don’t have. He flatters his characters by saying they have qualities that their actions demonstrate they lack.

All that, and I read the whole book, even though I didn’t intend to, in three sittings.

So what’s in there that kept me going? It’s an interesting question. The writing itself flows well; despite a rich vocabulary the words did not get in the way of the story. I think what really kept me going, however, was a handful of the characters. Not all of them; the principle rivals were all crippled by flaws that undermined thier rivalness, and some of the good guys were too damn good. But there was real internal conflict in some of the characters, people fighting against known flaws and weaknesses. (To make things more interesting, some of those perceived weaknesses sound a lot like strengths to us.)

There is one little girl who comes in out of the desert in a circumstance that has ‘miracle’ written all over it. The local priesthood adopts her, and what do you know? she turns into a spoiled brat. It was nice to meet a character who will obviously be a major factor in the history of humanity portrayed with natural human frailties. She also had a knack for superpowers.

Superpowers abound in this book; some powers are shared by members of the various secret societies, while rogue superpowers manifest unpredictably in individuals (of proper breeding). Politics are everywhere as well, and the core theme of the book might be condensed to “people with superpowers wrangling over how to rule the rest of us.” Herbert, I think, would have disagreed; his good elite are the ones who still care about the welfare of the common man. All the characters in the story are among the elite, however. Even one of the most ordinary of the good guys manages to grow spectacular superpowers (super-duperpowers) by the end.

Speaking of the end, I was running out of pages and there were still a whole lot of loose ends flying around in the narrative. People who needed to interact at length hadn’t even met yet. I knew this book was part of a series, but it was starting to look like this was going to be one of my most aggravating of peeves, the book that doesn’t even pretend to end. Happily, that was not the case. It wasn’t the best ending imaginable, but the end of one of the major characters marks a fitting end to this installment in the series. We get open-ended closure for many of the others — lessons learned, resolutions made, plans revealed — and I was satisfied with that.

It occurs to me that this might be the least useful review I’ve ever written, in terms of advising people whether or not to read a book (which, to be honest, isn’t really my goal). If you haven’t read any of the prequels, do not, by any means, start with this one. If you have read Dune, you’ve already decided whether to continue with the series. I’m guessing that if you did read Dune it frustrated you, but you read the rest of the series anyway, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, and you’re glad you did.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

mausoleum

Many of us, if not most, want to be remembered long after our mortal flesh has returned to the Earth. It is common for people with the means to erect monuments to themselves, great works of stone that potentially can stand for thousands of years. One king of Caria in the 4th century B.C. hit the jackpot in this regard. Not only is King Mausōlos rememberd for his own tomb, now everyone else’s tombs are named after him as well!

First Person

I was reading a short story the other day, and for the first two pages I was entirely frustrated. I was trying to form a picture of the scene, and while I had a couple of descriptive comments about the narraror, I was missing a really, really important fact. I didn’t know the narrator’s gender. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, but this time it did. Of course, to cause that confusion one must write in the first person.

I habitually start new stories in the first person. Many of the stories I submit are still in that voice. I have yet to sell a story for actual cash money that is told in the first person (not that I’ve sold much in third person, either). I don’t think this is a matter of editorial bias, and I’m skeptical about many of the reasons editors and other writers cite. For me, it boils down to this. I can write “I” and save myself a whole lot of work on characterization. I know who I am. The problem is that you don’t. That’s surprisingly easy to overlook. While I think I’m getting intimate, the reader is saying, “who the hell is this?”

Most of the time first person is just the author being lazy.

Not always, I must hasten to add. The Monster Within cannot be told except in first person. In this case, however, the narrower perspective is all about establishing character. It’s about learning who Hunter is as Hunter does.

Tonight I’m working on a story I’m supposed to be holding until I get my almost-done work sent out. It’s in the first person. The first paragraph makes sense in first person, and as planned the end will justify first person as well. But the story is expanding, and the benefits of first person are getting lost in the story. That’s the trap, I think. As storytellers, we want to speak directly to the audience at the start of the story, to set the stage, and again at the end, a debriefing of sorts. For the rest of it, the reader can benefit from descriptions of our main character from outside. By getting away from the narrator’s perspective we can see the narrator much more clearly.

So, here’s my humble advice for writers everywhere, should you choose to accept it. Always use third person unless: 1) It is fundamentally necessary to the story that it be told in the form of a journal. 99% of all stories told this way don’t have to be, so if you think this applies to you, you’re probably wrong. 2) The narrator MUST speak directly to the audience. See Princess Bride. 3) The narrator is a liar, or at least you want the audience to consider that possibility. This can include self-deception. See Catcher in the Rye. 4) Your name is Emma Bull, and your novel is called Bone Dance.

First person does not make the story more intimate, but it definitely narrows the perspective. Use with caution.