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Since I Never Get the Last Word


Tuesday, June 6, 2006
The Reality of Robochick

Today’s mystery is why anyone would design a robot in the form of a human being. Consider:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4714135.stm

In the middle of the article, the designer says: “A human-like appearance gives a robot a strong feeling of presence." He also asserts: “we have found that people forget she is an android while interacting with her. Consciously, it is easy to see that she is an android, but unconsciously, we react to the android as if she were a woman.” Yeah, right! Until she makes eye contact and doesn’t break it or she agrees with everything I say. Then, I am certain, a chill will streak up and down my spine.

I have no problem interacting with automated tellers at bank drive-ins; I have no problem dealing with traffic lights and pedestrian signals; I enjoy my PC immensely. I can’t see how having any of these in human form would improve the experience.

I wonder, too, at how we will end up reacting to humanoid robots or androids. Most of the sf that deals with this topic, seems to me, ends up concluding we will view them as a menace. In most of the stories, we will be correct to do so. There are about as many stories of “good” androids as there are of “good” aliens. I suspect humanity’s innate paranoia will doom humanoid robots to non-existence.

OTOH, I can picture the commercials. “Ladies, are you uncertain what kind of man you are looking for? Why take chances? Get yourself a programmable roboguy and find out for certain. Our programmable roboguy can be set to take out the garbage, change light bulbs, not raise the toilet seat, scrub your back, and watch “Sleepless in Seattle” as many times as you want him too. No matter the chore, routinely boring and excitingly intimate, you can experience roboguy exactly as you want him. When you know for certain what you want, you’re ready to go looking for your “perfect” man.”

Of course, it would work the other way around as well.

Posted by Dan Bieger 2006-06-06 09:02:01


Thursday, June 1, 2006
Life's Little Puzzles - #1

Ordinarily, I record the little mysteries of life but, occasionally, I am moved to write down some of the less significant puzzles as well. For example, last night lying in bed trying to think of an appropriate name for a new character, I considered Hieronymous Bosch.

What do you suppose his friends called him? I can’t imagine all the guys running up and down the streets of s-Hertogenbosch yelling “Hieronymous, Hieronymous, get your butt over her.” They’d shorten it to something more useful but what? Hier? Hiero? Or would they get much less pretentious and just yell “hey, Jerry, over here”? Can you imagine his first true love, in the throes of passion, trying to whisper seductively “oh, Hieronymous, Hieronymous, Hieronymous….”

How about Odysseus? What nickname did the kids in the Ithaca neighborhood settle on for this guy? I’d bet on pain-in-the-ass but Homer elevated the title to “son of pain.” More likely, he was the original “Odie.”

Anyway, there are six billion puzzles in the naked cosmos; these are just two of them.

Posted by Dan Bieger 2006-06-01 08:02:22


Wednesday, May 31, 2006
The Right Word

In my library, I have three books dealing with English usage. I have half dozen books dealing with word history. The trouble is that language always changes; usage always changes so that these books very quickly became mere snapshots of how the English language was being used at the time of their publication.

Not too long ago, I picked up a volume of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a second-hand book store. It took less than five seconds to realize that is was printed in Old English, the venerable O.E. of my dictionary. Although tempted, I passed on purchasing the book. Too much like work to get through it although now I wish I had purchased the book to compare Chaucer’s English to ours. This book reminded me that language is always changing so that the teachers of my elementary school days who insisted “‘ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary” were on the wrong side of the argument before I was out of high school.

Over time, the good news is that we have added words to the English language. Additionally some words assimilated, some consonants and vowels weakened, and some sounds shifted. What had been two syllables with an “e” to denote the second syllable became one syllable. Sentimentalists all, we hung onto the e in our spelling so that we have name instead of nam. OTOH, we now have a silent e to contend with making spelling bees that much more interesting.

If you pay close attention to the 15th century – and who doesn’t - you’ll discover that beginning then, all our vowels wandered around our mouths. Now, instead of rhyming with mode, food rhymes with dude. In O.E. the word was fode and in M.E. it was foda (both two syllables) and then we both shifted and weakened our vowels so that we arrived at food. A most logical question could be ‘why doesn’t blood rhyme with food?’ The answer would be because we don’t want it to do so but that would put the etymologists out of work. They get to tell us that blood derives from M.E.’s blod . That certainly explains it. It would also put the English teachers out of work and I am four-square against that thought. Someone must teach us the rules so we know why we’re breaking them.

The most disappointinglack of change came in the 1960s. I was certain that grok would become part of our language but it never did. You don’t even find it bandied about on the boards here at sffworld. Maybe I should start the revolution. From now on, when I am writing a review/crit, I’ll just state that I do or do not grok the author’s intent. That ought to be perfectly clear.

Posted by Dan Bieger 2006-05-31 08:58:13


Monday, May 29, 2006
An Ignorant Approach to Poetry

Poetry is verse but not all verse is poetry.

Verse tends to be poetry when it is characterized by figurative language, by irony, by an emergent theme that its imagery conveys.

Poetry exhibits feeling.

Such that many Mother Goose rhymes are verse but not poetry, e.g., Simple Simon. *

These ideas bother me, very likely because they expose my ignorance.

For example, I came across another instance of William Allingham’s The Faeries in a most unexpected venue., an Irish Rovers recording titled King of the Faeries. The recording begins with an Irish melody, an instrumental, then well into the piece the lyrics appear and they turn out to be verses one and five of Allingham’s poem. Like many others, I suppose, the first time I encountered Allingham’s poem was the frontispiece to Andre Norton’s DareTo Go A-Hunting. Now, I have easy access in a compilation titled The Top 500 Poems published in 1992 by Columbia Press so I can read it whenever I am tempted to do so.

Now, to my ignorance: Allingham’s poem strikes me as poetry. The fact that it is included in the Columbia Press compilation seems to support my contention. But, when I apply the norms the text book identifies, I get befuddled. Logically, this verse could be written off as another nursery rhyme, couldn’t it?

Applying the textbooks norms, then: Is there figurative language? I think so. “Crispy pancakes of yellow tide-foam” seems figurative to me but I must rely on other more expert opinion to verify that assertion. Is there irony? Probably not but the text does not claim every poem have all the attributes nor should it. An emergent theme? I get that it doesn’t pay to cross the wee folk but is that a worthy theme?

Does it express feelings? It does for me. But, I love fantasy so maybe I am biased to discover things that others will not.

Well, then, why do I think it is poetry?

Because it paints a picture I can see in my mind’s eye and appreciate.

I know; that’s pretty ignorant.

* Theme and Form, An Introduction to Literature, Beardsley, Daniel, Leggett, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969

Posted by Dan Bieger 2006-05-29 11:12:09


Friday, May 26, 2006
Reviewing Books

Sometimes, what we say about a book say more about us than about the book. Here are a few quotes from sffworld posters:

“the entire plot is a house of cards”

“the paragraphs are short, but they also don't have much in them in terms of plot or character development”

“the whole conspiracy element surrounding his story is more intriguing than the actual plot itself”
”the characters aren't important in this story -- the plot is”

“plot driven slop”

..

I find these comments interesting because each was offered as a critique of a novel. I read each and the first question I asked myself was how the hell can you have a story without a plot? Aren't all stories'plot driven'? I reacted by wondering what measure I would want to see used in their place. What points about a novel should be critiqued? Being me, I went looking for ideas. What I found:

..

From Nichols Sparks’Website:

Plot -- There are many definitions of plot, but plot is essentially the story, or the events that make up what the book is about. Plot, of course, is defined by conflict, either internal or external, and the best plots are both original and interesting. Complexity of the plot is a matter of taste, so is the setting (such as time period).

No matter what other definition is given, the very best plots are defined by readers with the simple phrase, "I couldn't put the book down." In other words, a great story.

..

Character Development – Bringing the characters to life in the reader's mind. They can range from thumbnail sketches to deep, wordy, highly detailed biographies of each character. It's important to note that different genres and stories require different types of character development

..

Writing Style – How the novel is written. Is the writing style efficient or complex?

Does the author use an extensive vocabulary or get straight to the point?

Are words used appropriately with regard to meaning, or do they seem written to showcase the "sound" of a sentence?

Style should always be appropriate for the genre or story. An appropriate style adds to the texture of the novel; an inappropriate style does just the opposite. Literary fiction tends to lean toward complex sentences with original language. Thrillers tend to use shorter, more efficient sentences, especially as the pace quickens in the novel.

Of course, basic writing rules always apply. Limit the use of adverbs when describing dialogue ("he said angrily" should read, "he said"), avoid words that add unnecessary emphasis ("he was a little tired" should read, "he was tired," or "she was very thirsty," should read "she was thirsty") avoid cliches (like, "It was a dark and stormy night,") use words appropriately and with their proper meaning, make the sentences clear and coherent, make them original without seeming to strain for originality. And most important of all, "show" whenever possible, don't "tell." In other words, don't write, "Max was angry." Show me his anger instead. ("Staring into the fire, Max balled his hands into fists. Not this, he thought, anything but this.")

For a further look at Style and Rules of Composition, see The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. [Okay, I admit this one throws me for a loop, but it's his website.]

..

Length -- Just what it says. How long is the book? The length should be appropriate to the genre and be appropriate to the story. The Notebook, which in its final form was 45,000 words, was originally 80,000 words before I edited it down. Why did I cut so much? Because the story was so simple (only two main characters and two settings, and the majority of the novel was devoted to only a couple of days) that the additional words didn't add much; in fact, all they did was slow the story to a crawl. In The Rescue, I cut 20% from the original draft for the same reason. In A Bend in the Road, I cut 25%. In Stephen King's book, On Writing, he says his general rule of thumb is to cut 10%. According to what I've heard about Hemingway, his advice was to take the first fifty pages of your novel and cut them down to five pages. Sometimes when writing, less is more. (Ignore the use of the cliche, but it's appropriate here.)

Books that are too long are the sign of laziness by the writer and also imply an arrogance of sorts, one that essentially says to the reader, "I'm the author here and I know what I'm doing, and if you don't like it, then that says more about you than me, and we both know which one of us is smarter." Not so. Who, after all, would have seen the movie Jurassic Park if the length of the movie was six hours? As much as dinosaurs are interesting and exciting, enough is enough sometimes. Why are so many books too long these days? Because being efficient is difficult and often time-consuming. It's a lot harder to capture a character's personality fully in one, original paragraph, than it is to take a page to do so. But efficiency is one of the characteristics of quality writing. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," is a much stronger opening than taking a paragraph or two to say exactly the same thing.

Likewise with novels or scenes that are too short, and though this doesn't seem to happen as frequently, it does happen at times. Sometimes, characters scream for more detail about them, sometimes settings do as well. Sometimes adding "bulk" is important to the overall pacing of a novel. If too much length is bad, so is a book or scene that's too short.

..

Working as a technical reviewer for a San Francisco publishing firm, I was provided this outline in which to couch my reviews. I find it to be very useful in organizing my thinking when doing those technical reviews. Ialso see their applicability to plot, character, style, and length.

..

What works best in the book and could that material serve as a model for other material in the manuscript?

What material works least well and what changes do I suggest to improve the material?

What do I see as the main themes and contributions of the book and how well are they developed?

What themes and topics are insufficiently developed and how would you suggest strengthening them?

Where are more details needed to flesh out ideas or bring concepts to life?

What do the authors not discuss in the manuscript that I would like them to talk about?

How well does the current organization of the bookwork and what changes would I suggest in the organization?

What do I find personally most interesting in the book and most useful for my own work and life?

What do I like least?

..

Combining these two sets of questions gives me a nice framework for writingfiction reviews as opposed to reviewing writing excerpts posted on the board. For the latter, I simply look at the logic of text. I can't do the rest without the whole story.

Posted by Dan Bieger 2006-05-26 10:09:41


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