Saturday, September 1, 2012

Finnish suffixes with product names in translation

Wikipedia says that Finnish has fifteen inflected cases: four grammatical cases, six locative cases, two essive cases (three in some Eastern dialects) and three marginal cases. So I recently asked a Finnish translator to clear up the different ways that I've seen Finnish suffixes appended in translation, particularly with product names that are not being translated. 

Let's use the product name LOG. It rolls down stairs, alone or in pairs, rolls over your neighbor's dog. It's fit for a snack; it fits on your back. It's LOG: it's big; it's heavy; it's wood. It's better than bad; it's good! Everyone wants a LOG, so c'mon and get your LOG. (From Blammmo!)

These are the product name suffixing scenarios:
  • Suffixes are appended right onto the product name when only the product name is used. LOGa
  • When both the product name and a defining word (as in "the LOG device") are used, suffixes are appended with a hyphen. LOG-laite
  • When the product name (with or without a defining word) contains several elements that cannot be written as one word according to Finnish language rules or simply because the product name contains several elements (as in "LOG Plus product"), suffixes are appended with a hyphen and a space. LOG Plus -tuotteen
  • Acronyms get suffixes appended with a colon when a suffix has to be attached directly to a product name (as in "LOG XL:n" where "n" is the genitive suffix) for grammatical reasons. 
  • The colon also appears abbreviations, like with measurement unit abbreviations that require case suffixes: cm:n  because it would be long and awkward to write the whole word ("senttimetrin" where the genitive ending is attached to the word).

Since I'm using this copyrighted example without permission to talk about Finnish in translation, I'll also encourage you to follow the blog of John K., the creator of Ren & Stimpy. Check out his recently funded Kickstarter campaign!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Comma chameleon

Both Simplified & Traditional Chinese have two commas, and I think think the distinction is pretty useful. 

The straight comma (the first one) is a list comma or enumeration comma. "I'm going to the store to get kale, Nutella and Johnny Walker Blue." Note that ZH doesn't used the Oxford/serial comma that comes before the conjunction before the last list item and in fact most commonly doesn't use a conjunction at all.

The curly English-y looking comma (the second one) joins clauses. "I'm going to the store, and Brad is going to the strip club." Comma splicing is common which is why a lot of ZH machine translations seem extra super clunky.

Other noteworthy Chinese punctuation worth reading about: brackets & interpuncts. Brackets are really cool in Japanese too.

(I shamefully stole the title of this post from a coworker.)

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Omg, Spike is turned FIFTY last week. Where has my childhood gone? 

I love the Oxford dictionary blog for a lot of reasons and here's another one: an article summing up the jargon of Sunnydale. It touches on Whedon & Buffy writers nouning adjectives, puns and wordplay, and the Valley-meets-Sorkin low- and high-register mashup dialogue.
The OED even credits the Buffy movie & series for popularizing the use of much with a 'preceding adjective, infinitive verb, or noun phrase, forming an elliptical comment or question'. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Yiddish folk song "Mayn Rue Platz"

Today in my Internet wanderings, I came across this hauntingly beautiful Yiddish folk song, "Mayn Rue Platz" or "My Resting Place." The text is a poem by Morris Rosenfeld, who wrote about the working conditions of Eastern European textile workers in New York. The Arty Semite blog explains, 

“Mayn Rue-Platz” contrasts natural beauty and pleasure with the realities found in American industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each step begins with the hoped for American experience but ends with the inevitable and oppressive realities of the industrialized world.

Don’t look for me where myrtles are green.
You will not find me there, my beloved.
Where lives wither at the machines,
There is my resting place.

Don’t look for me where birds sing.
You will not find me there, my beloved.
I am a slave where chains ring,
There is my resting place.

Don’t look for me where fountains spray.
You will not find me there, my beloved.
Where tears flow and teeth gnash,
There is my resting place.

And if you love me with true love,
So come to me, my good beloved,
And cheer my gloomy heart
And make sweet my resting place.

I heard a recitation of this poem and one version of the song as part of the most recent episode of PRI's The World in Words, a favorite podcast. The episode was about a trip some Jewish students took to Europe to the homes of Yiddish poets & novelists -- a trip that was designed as a celebration of Jewish life and culture, instead of as a wake mourning the destruction of Jewish culture like many pilgrimages to Europe are wont to be; visits to historic sites of the Holocaust cast long, cold shadows. 

[GIF Score]

With that horrible shadow on me, I was particularly struck by lines like "Where lives wither at the machines" -- so much so that I was almost relieved to learn that "Mayn Rue Platz" was written about American factory conditions and not concentration camps. It feels strange to admit that I can weigh some horrors against others, but my mind's misstep is evidence of the difficulty and importance of remembering and extolling Jewish/Yiddish histories (and the histories of other cultures). How unfair that Jewish culture is seen as victimized, minimized and simplified. This weakened conceptualization of a rich, ancient culture is a lasting legacy of the Holocaust. 

I'm no historian, but from what I know, many would tell me that this version of Jewish culture had been crafted long before the Holocaust. 

Anyway, it's a lovely poem and song.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Linkfest [4]

A collection of language-related things that caught my attention in the last month or so (IRL'd!):

  • The Triumph of English: John Adams, predicted in 1780 that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one.”
  • The Supreme Court ruled on the difference between a translator and an interpreter. (The full decision.)
  • Why QA sucks (specifically in game dev, but applies to all QA): Many QA professionals talk about "getting out" and moving to the production or design path. Don't you want good QA folks to keep doing QA? Shouldn't they enjoy and want to stay in their jobs? Isn't there something wrong with this picture?  Via Jayme (@aunicorninspace)

Inline image 1

  • The Noun Project (@NounProject) consistently makes me happy. “sharing, celebrating and enhancing the world’s visual language” -- Here's my favorite tag so far: MAGIC.
  • What the Phonics?
  •  An interactive installation set that helps people learn street name pronunciations in Copenhagen.
May you be enabled, by reading them frequently, to transfuse into your own breast that holy flame which inspired the writer! (1773)— Mulso [later Chapone], Hester (1727-1801)
Finally, I found this shirt. Somebody please buy it for me.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nuts and bolts

A large majority of documents that are translated are medical or highly technical. Today I learned about how fasteners are identified.

American bolts are identified in the following format: Diameter-TPI-Length, (TPI = threads per inch) so a 3/8-16 x 1" bolt has a head diameter of 3/8", 16 threads/inch, and it's 1" long. Similarly, nuts are listed as Diameter-TPI, so a 3/8"-16 nut has a head diameter of 3/8" and 16 threads/inch. Diameters smaller than 1/4" are given numbered sizes 0-12.

Here is a great cheatsheet on American bolt measurement. (pdf)

Metric bolts and nuts of course use SI length units instead of Imperial, but they also use Thread Pitch instead of TPI, where Pitch is the distance between threads in millimeters. So a M10 x 1.5 x 20 bolt has a head diameter of 10mm, there are 1.5mm between threads, and it's 20mm long. The "M" designates it as a Metric-measurement bolt. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Torque and pressure units

Conversions are a big part of translation. Google will convert a lot of measurements right from the search bar, but not torque. So I found two other converters (here and here).


I have had one heck of a time with these units in the past, so here’s some knowledge:

Torque is force + distance around an axis (how tightly something should be twisted or screwed, basically). Typically you’ll see the units lb-in (“pound inch” or “inch pound”) or lb-ft (“pound foot” or “foot pound”) in English source material, which should both be converted to N-m (Newton meters), abbreviated as N-m, N∙m, or N m to distinquish from nm (nanometers, length) and nM (nanomolars, concentration of solutions).

Also don’t confuse N-m with N/m2 – this is a pressure measurement (force per area). 1 N/m2 = 1 Pa (Pascal). These are the SI units where often PSI (pounds per square inch) or bars are the measurements seen in English source material. Bars are not technically SI units, but are acceptable and legally recognized by the EU and the most common conversion unit when PSI are used in the source.

Often times torque and pressure units are both present in technical documents, so be careful! 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Making a recording voice

Developing a Creative Process, part 7

This is part of a series of posts on the nature of art, how I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be, and how I'm trying to be better. For the rest, see the tag Developing a Creative Process.


A lot has happened with me creatively since I last posted here. In the few weeks before my big European trip, I stopped sleeping to instead record an EP. It's kind of a big deal to me. It'll only be three tracks: a moody acoustic song with guitar performed by the hubz Nathan Eliot, a more rockin' track about science/love, and something that I hope is going to be so awesome I don't even know how to describe it I wrote with Joseph of the band Bella Ruse. He also recorded it and is producing the tracks, which means they're going to sound really good.

Recording was a nerve-wracking, voice-fraying experience even though I had spent time prepping with Kay, the other half of Bella Ruse (@BellaRuse). She studied opera and is a voice and piano teacher, so I was really grateful when she was generous enough to sit with me a couple of hours and work with me vocally. Joseph set up so we could record, then Kay had me try all sorts of different things with my voice: focusing on just vowels or just consonants, keeping different shapes in my mouth and different physical postures, acting different emotions. Then we listened to them and talked about them. 

Oh, um, I have those same glasses.
I was a little conflicted about the idea of consciously changing my voice to sound different. Kay has a very distinct sound when she sings, her "Bella Ruse voice." It fits their music so well; it's intimate, retro, cute and girly, but harsh when she needs emphasis or emotion. (This is an old article, but here's Kay talking about how intentional she is with her voice. A lot of Kay's words from this vocabulary post are about her BR voice.) It's probably a combination of only being trained as a vocalist in a choral setting and watching too much American Idol in high school, but the truth is that I had a prejudice against stylized voices. Most people don't think about how they sound when they talk; why should you think about how you sound when you sing? 

Of course this is ridiculous. Maybe when I'm humming about the house I actually sing the way I talk, but those long, open choral vowels I think of as the "right" way to sing aren't how people talk. It's the right way to sing in a choral setting because you have specific goals: you need to sound like the people around you, and you need the sound to carry without being amplified. Kay is a professional in a different setting with different goals: stand out from other female vocalists, be remembered, effectively communicate the intimacy that most Bella Ruse lyrics evoke. (Kay said The Bella Ruse Voice was first struck upon by recording immediately after waking up -- pretty intimate.) Kay also likes to point out one other thing: it's still her making those sounds, therefore it's her voice. Those are her sounds.

These are some of the observations that Kay and I made while listening to the different versions of my voice:
  • Vowel consistency matters to me. I think the same word should have the same vowel in different contexts. 
  • Clear articulation is what gives a recording character. This is what Kay said from the beginning: Make mistakes and do it differently every time because that's where the real character will shine through.
  • Front vowels are important. The tracks where I intentionally squashed my oral space into a wide, flat space (as opposed to the choral tall & narrow space) stand out as both closer to how I talk and more interesting. (Of course, I speak English, and English has a whole lot of front vowels and diphthongs to distinguish. This chart is cool.)
  • Thinking about how you sound makes a difference. It felt almost like I was communicating the pure phoneme, the vowel sound I hear in my head instead of the allophonic variations of it.
  • It is really, really hard to hold the ideas of how you want to sound in your head and how to do it while actually singing until you've had a lot of practice. Like picking up an accent, you'll eventually develop a new set of phonological rules and muscle memory so you can use the stylized voice even on new words and songs.
I'm not sure how well I stuck to these ideas while recording. It was a struggle to balance thinking about how I wanted it to sound with trying to give something more raw and emotive. I'm trying not to dwell on the possibility that my first recording could very well suck, but the other giant lesson from recording is something I've been trying to accept for a while now: it will capture a moment, some songs, some specific sounds -- and in the meantime, I'll move forward, making new and hopefully better things.

I guess now's a good time to direct you to

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rumzicken verboten

So a few days ago I'm camping in Bad Bellingen, Germany. It's just north of Basel, Switzerland, so it's a bit of a tourist trap. Firstly, never stay at the Hotel Birkenhof in Bad Bellingen. Their wi-fi is terrible, and they're two-faced, crotchety, old jerks. Secondly, Lug ins Land campingplatz in nearby Bamlach is (are?) really awesome. They have a tennis court! And a heated pool! And a restaurant with very reasonable prices where you can join the locals and watch soccer with a pint! And most importantly, HOT SHOWERS and a WASHER & DRYER!

No goats allowed?
This sign on the restaurant is pretty funny. I assumed it meant "No goats allowed," which tickled me -- but after googling about the internet, I'm wondering if it's some kind of colloquialism for "No bitching," like a goat bleats annoyingly. If you're a German speaker, please let me know! 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Greetings from Italia

Construction sign in Vastrovaglia.
This morning I'm in Porto Vastravaglia, Italy, stealing a hotel's wifi. It's day four of a 21 trek from Genoa, Italy to Gothenberg, Sweden, and last night I slept next to a crypt on a cliff overlooking a lake that looked suspiciously like Rivendell. 

So far, we've had the most success in Italy by speaking in Spanish with an Italian accent and gesturing a lot. It's still hit-or-miss, but usually does better than English. There is absolutely some truth to how much Italians gesture with their hands while speaking. Dad's rereading Tortilla Flat right now for the umpteenth time and pulled out the phrase "hands like doves" for expressive hands. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Question mark in translation

Hooray, another of the ultra nerdy Punctuation in Translation posts of mine have gone up over on
I really love that photo. I submitted it with the post for KJ, but somebody further up nixed it. Fools!

And, to quote myself,

I also really love the inverted question mark of Spanish. Isolating the interrogative clause enables the writer to use an interrogative clause as a subordinate, even without a subordinating word: No podemos dejar al perro en casa, ¿lo llevamos con nosotros? (“We can’t leave the dog at home, we’ll bring him with us?”, or “Since we can’t leave the dog at home, will we bring him with us?”) I think that this orthographical convention captures spoken language more accurately, as we so often leave out subordinating words in speech and instead rely on context for pragmatic connections.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Full stop in translation

An ultranerdy new series I'm writing for KJ International, Punctuation in Translation, has just started:

You can follow @KJIntResources on Twitter.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Trusting the translator

A new post by me has gone up on A little lipservice about how much I trust translators -- which actually isn't as much as this article may lead you to believe.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sound words from musicians

Developing a Creative Process, part 6
This is part of a series of posts on the nature of art, why I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be, and how I'm trying to be better. For the rest, see the tag Developing a Creative Process.
This post is a follow up to Vocabulary Building. In it, I explored the idea of learning music jargon as a tool to listen to music and eventually create music that sounds the way I want it to. 

So I sat down with three really good musicians I know really well and asked them to describe the ideal tone for their instrument, how they want it to sound. I wanted to share some of the vocab lists that came from this experiment because there are a lot of cool words that come up. 

I started by asking my husband Nathan Eliot, who plays in Talking Tree (@TalkingTreeBand), Bella Ruse, and Cardboard Dreams, as well as his own music and a zillion other projects. He plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, and mandola. (violin : viola :: mandolin : mandola)
positive words
fatmeatywarm but clearchunkybutterypretty and gritty
chocolateydarkrounddeep, sustained

negative words
muddyboomytwangythinabrasive, buzzy
Then I spoke with Joseph of Bella Ruse (@BellaRuse). He plays guitar, piano, and drums. He also is a recording engineer. 
positive words
meaty, clean, grit, saturates the tubes, beef
even, warm, filling up sonic space, high and low, full-bodied, crunchy
dry, character, abrasive, nasty
heavy, real, resonance

negative words
tinny, harsh, shimmer, pristine, sustained
And finally, I asked Kay of Bella Ruse. She studied opera in college. Something of constant fascination to me is that Kay sings in a very stylized voice, so these words are about her "Bella Ruse voice" and a lot of them are comparative.
positive words
old-recordy, on the high end, girly, grittychild-like, imperfections, control, careful, airier
wobblier, wide, softened, dental, narrower, bright, breathy, wavy, tightened, bleating, character

negative words
So there's a bunch of words. I'd still really like to hear someone talk about drum sounds -- not drum gear, drum sounds

Monday, April 30, 2012

Style success

A new post in my series on has gone up, this time edited by Jayme. It's about using styles to ensure correct formatting in translation.
You can follow @KJIntResources on Twitter.

Can I just say -- Christopher Lee is a dreamboat. A creepy, creepy dreamboat. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Linkfest [3]

A collection of language-related things that caught my attention last week:

The two basic parameters of the type family were interpreted by musical devices. Dynamics were used to translate the weight of the letter, so the music gets louder as it the letters get bolder. The width is expressed through the use of modulation, using the 4th and 7th degrees of the C major scale, playing the same musical motive.
  • I’ve been quite enjoying The Truth podcast, “movies for your ears.” I particularly liked “Tape Delay,” the episode about recutting a conversation so it’s how it should have been... and beyond. I wish I could do this.

One more thing that's not really "wordy" -- but it's fun: Here's a video of me and the hubz singing "Total Eclipse of the Heart" for our friend Moobs.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Localizing acronyms

The third in my series on specific localization items in translation has gone up on
I also want to give a big Thank You to internet acquaintance Roman Mars (@romanmars) of 99% Invisible for sending people this way after I wrote a little about his show. It was a boost to my very modest readership and much appreciated, even though I really only wrote it so that he would read about how much I love his podcast. (There's only so much fangirly squee-ing you can fit into 140 characters.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

On having the curtain pulled back: Two perspectives

Developing a Creative Process, part 5
This is part of a series of posts on the nature of art, why I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be, and how I'm trying to be better. For the rest, see the tag Developing a Creative Process.
There is a Fender Rhodes in my living room, and last week, I asked Bella Ruse if I could see the inside of it. It was not what I expected it to be; it was better! Tines, hammers, damper, tone bars – I poked and pressed and marveled at the simple mechanics that create those smooth, clear bell tones. I really, really love seeing how something works, especially when there is someone there to walk me through it and point out what I wouldn’t see on my own. 

But sometimes... Sometimes you’re cleaning the house so you put in Twilight and decide to turn on the commentary, and then your carefully crafted self-deception that Robert Pattinson is a hot, smart guy with a British accent which you’ve worked so hard to protect by not reading anything about him ever is shattered by his constant sad, self-deprecating comments about his eyebrows and his gelled bouffant. Ugh, why couldn’t he have just stayed Cedric?

I’ve been in this weird middle ground of trying to analyze others’ creative processes – but I realized that I’m pretty uncomfortable with it. I want creativity to only be a bolt of lightning that strikes you, like god has chosen you, like the starstuff of the universe is coming out of your fingers and your mouth in a moment of divine inspiration. So to see the undercarriage of hard work is a little sad for me. 


One of my favorite podcasts is 99% Invisible, “a weekly exploration of the process and power of design and architecture.” It’s short but almost every episode has a satisfying depth, and it’s aurally pleasing thanks to Roman Mars’ (@romanmars) quiet but earnest, affable voice. It’s like he’s sharing a secret with you, and in a lot of ways he is since the show is about paying attention to the things no one else does: the shape of your toothbrush, the sound of the crowd in a televised basketball game, the bathtubs in the basement of a city hall building. 

The days that I’ve got 99% Invisible in my brain, I am more aware of the architecture around me and the soundscape that surrounds me. Because I’ve been thinking a lot about crafting music, my favorite episodes have been the ones about sound. (Go to YouAreListening.To/Minneapolis (or a different city) then listen to the podcast (23) about it and the amazingness that is RadioNet.) 

The funny thing is how much I’ve gleaned listening not just to the content of the podcast but the podcast itself. If I could capture the aural aesthetic of the podcast in some of my music, I would: calm but energized, candid, good-natured, multilayered with poignant juxtaposition... modest but broadcasting because it’s worth being heard.

99% Invisible has made my ears happy while listening and helped me remember to keep my ears and eyes open when I’m away from it. I’ve seen the strings, so now I can recognize the puppets from afar -- and that only makes me appreciate the Geppetto’s skill all the more.


Lightning list of my favorite (fiction) authors no regrets no takebacks go: Card, Wilde, Vonnegut, Dahl, Steinbeck, LeGuin, Lewis, Rothfuss, Poe, Pullman, Salinger, Kundera, Rice, Hobb – wow, that’s a pretty nerdy list. 

Even though these aren’t actually in order, I knew Card would be first. Heaven bless you, Karen LeSeur, for handing me a copy of Ender’s Game in ninth grade. Even though we’re not friends anymore, you hold a very special place in my heart because 1. You asked me to sit with you for lunch on my first day of school in a new state and 2. You gave me Orson Scott Card.

<3 : Also, you should read
the graphic novels.
I haven’t read all of Card – he’s quite prolific – but the Enderverse and Hatrack are places I know well. So, yeah, I bought Shadows in Flight the day it came out, and, yeah, I follow Asa Butterfield on Twitter (@asabfb) because he’s playing Ender in the 2013 movie, and, yeah, I want this framed and hanging in my home. And, yeah, this is how I define myself:
I choose to be a maker, because I love the making.
Card is a great writer. He crafts likeable but flawed characters in totally believable worlds – even though there are aliens and spaceships and magic and Jesus allegories out yer hoohah. When I start something new, I am instantly committed.

But here’s the thing: I don’t really like Mr. Card when he’s speaking in his own voice. I mean, I’ve never met him, but anytime he writes as himself, I’m turned off by his politics, his Mormonism, or his ehh conceit – even though I LOVE HIM as an author and think that he totally has earned the right to be conceited. 

I’m almost done with Keeper of Dreams, a collection of short stories by Card. Every story in it has resonated with me emotionally or given me a really cool idea to chew on for a while -- but I kind of hate it because at the end of every story, there are two or three pages of Card explaining when or why or how he wrote the story. The last few I’ve skimmed over because I realized something about myself: I hate seeing the curtain pulled aside. Card captures something really true and good and real when he writes, and I want to think that that happens magically. 

The reality of it is that he’s really good at crafting stories because he works really hard at it. He’s written books about writing. And that drives me bonkers! I want to go on imagining that he is just a mirror of a writer, capturing little moments of reality when they so fleetingly flit by him... like maybe he’s a hunter, stalking through the world with a laptop under his arm just waiting for something beautiful to happen, something so true it just burns itself into the pages. But, alas, he works at it. It’s his job

So I’m torn. This whole investigation I’ve been conducting is about peeling back the layers to see what’s in the middle, but I really prefer the outside. If I can end up hating my favorite author a little, will I end up hating my own work after messing and fussing and teasing it during the crafting process? 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Vocabulary building

Developing a Creative Process, part 4
This is part of a series of posts on the nature of art, why I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be, and how I'm trying to be better. For the rest, see the tag Developing a Creative Process.

I learned it as an inverted pyramid,
but I guess it's a hamburger now.
Oh, it’s time to write a persuasive essay? a literature review? an analysis of a set of phonological data in Optimality Theory? Give me a choice of music, caffeine, and a word processor, and I’ll hand in at least a B-grade paper in just a couple of hours. But the roadmap for how to do that has always been very clear: prescriptive rules for what makes a good sentence, prescriptive diagrams for how to organize your ideas inside a paragraph, and sometimes the basic outline of your paper is literally handed to you by the professor. One of the conversations that started this introspection into my creative process was Joseph whinging about how even if you do go to school and get a degree in music (performance, production, whatever), there’s no clear-cut career path to follow once you’re out. Creative endeavors don’t really have a roadmap like academic or professional endeavors do.

That’s why I want to make sense of all this: I am a great navigator if I’ve got the map in hand. I’m hoping that if I write enough description of my process, maybe a prescription will emerge. Amateur cartography.

Can’t describe anything without words. Developing the vocabulary to talk about something is a giant step toward understanding it. Every field has its own specialized jargon: wine tastingMMORPGs (wrote a paper about WoW jargon once), linguistics, music. Most people talk about music using words like “awesome,” but when you hear a guitarist talk about tone, you’ll hear things like “crunchy,” “syrupy”, “beefy” – which are fairly intuitive in meaning since everyone can relate to food but still odd until you’re used to the dialect. You’ll also hear a lot of comparisons to other musicians or albums, and if you’re not familiar with them, it’s like that moment when you mean to turn on the subtitles but you really change the audio and suddenly Indiana Jones is speaking French: very confusing. Also, you’re not cool.

When I played WoW, I was an undead frost mage.
Now that I know I can decide what my music sounds like, I’ve been listening to music differently. Even though I don’t think it’s my favorite album of hers, Ingrid Michaelson’s new album, Human Again, has a lot of great things about it, and I kept thinking, “THAT, right there, that part, that one moment, I want Joseph to make my music sounds like THAT.”

Knowing there was probably not going to be an opportunity for us to sit down and have an album-listening party, I took my lunch break at work to sit and listen and think and write about what exactly I was pointing at so fervently in my head. Instead of reviewing the album as a whole, or thinking about the lyrics, or even the melody very much, I focused on the instrumentation, the mix, the balance, the space between the music -- the stuff I typically let wash over me or ignore.

The album is all standard Ingrid, and I think that’s good: candor, vulnerability, hooks like woah. But what’s new and what I love most about the album is the DRUMS. It’s hard to talk about drums without the vocabulary. I need to have a date with Alex so I can learn to talk about drums. … And I want to have a date with Alex.

What I wrote about Ingrid was way longer than I thought it would be. I ended up deleting it instead of sending it because I just didn’t think Joseph would read it, but I wish I had it now. Things like: “80s booming snare,” “final consonant devoicing for a falling feeling,” “disco beat set perpendicular to the lilting melody,” “deep floor tom reverb.” Even though I don’t have anything tangible to show for that hour, I think I learned a lot from the exercise. Once we move to recording, I think these details will be more important for me to be able to express, so I want to try it again. Anybody know any good pop music featuring accordion?

(I wrote all this yesterday, and this review of the 1982 book Music: Ways of Listening popped up today in my Google Reader feed. The book proposes the “seven essential skills of perceptive listening,” which Elliott Schwartz says have been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out.” (Point number four is to develop a vocabulary for talking about music. I have the urge to say Swish!, but I don’t think anyone says that anymore.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Inflation and despondency

Developing a Creative Process, part 3
This is part of a series of posts on the nature of art, why I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be, and how I'm trying to be better. For the rest, see the tag Developing a Creative Process.


Here are a few different awesome songwriting experiences I’ve had in the last few weeks, followed by my feelings of crushing defeat after hearing the demos.

So cute you wanna punch her.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a really great collaborative songwriting experience with my roommate Kay of Bella Ruse (@bellaruse). The first song started with a mostly-formed song-poem I wrote that had a rhythm and a rhyme but no melody. Kay picked out some chords she liked and started humming to fit in the words. After a couple of tweaks to the melody to make it a little jazzier, we were cruising. Kay filled in a couple of lines for the chorus, we tag-teamed the bridge, and bam -- there it was. Joseph even sat in on the drum kit by the time we were running the whole thing (which means Kay was playing and singing, and I was bopping my head).

The second song started with a melody Kay had written but didn’t have any words for. She sang it through a couple of times, and I pulled up some words I had written that seemed like they might fit. They were rough around the edges and needed a lot of shaving and reshaping, but the idea (blood) fit the mood of the melody quite well. Kay ended up changing my favorite line to mean pretty much the exact opposite of what it had meant, but I rolled with it. I wrote the second verse on the spot to fit the melody and rhythm we had established in the first verse.

Considering how musically particular both Kay and I can be, it was a great experience, an exercise in flexibility and letting things happen with the understanding that they’re still “drafts,” like Joey’s talking about. Just get it out and stop worrying that it’s not all perfect. Heartbarf, knowing it will change later.

A few days later, I had a great co-writing session with my hubz Natey. Nate is a brilliant musician, but where I lean heavily on pop influences and general simplicity in songwriting, Nate intentionally makes music that is challenging for himself and the listener. I’m pretty sure he’s a genius. We’ve tried writing songs together before, but our approaches are really different; I think in skeletons and the “sound” of the whole song, and I think that Nate writes in a straight line, like he’s telling a story.

But this time, it was different. We started with another song-poem frame I had written and a chord and fancy-sounding picking frill Nate liked. I made up the melody for the first line, Nate did the second, and we pulled that trick a couple more times to mix things up. We didn’t finish the song, but we got through two verses and a kickass chorus, so I’m proud of it. Again, it was all about flexibility -- which Nate has told me all along I needed to work on when it comes to collaborating. The difference was that this time I didn’t have a thing that was already a thing that I was trying to make someone else make sound like what I heard in my head.

I learned how to write songs from Ghostwriter.
I’ve found it can be really valuable to separate myself from the words I’ve written with time. When they’re down and out of my head and in front of me, I don’t feel so bad about cutting them up and rearranging them. They feel more like craft supplies then: I’m supposed to cut the edges off to make it look pretty, even if I waste a little bit of the material. (Usually I keep any remnants I like that didn’t get used. I’ll make a quilt-song one day, I guess.)

Finally, last week, I wrote two songs on guitar, the first two songs I’ve played on guitar in months. It felt so good. I had been staying away from guitar because I felt constricted by the chord progressions (I can play “rhythm guitar” well-ish, but I don’t have much theory) -- but it wasn’t like that this time because I already had words that I was building the song around instead of filling in a chord progression with a song.

All of this is to say two things: I am awesome at songwriting and sometimes I really believe that, but I get intense feelings of insecurity and absolute disappointment in myself that all culminates with this idea: Why do I even bother? 

This was most apparent the day after Kay and I wrote together. Kay is completely amazing. Her voice is pristine and shiny and tinkles like a bell even on the iPhone demos of our half-written songs. Listening to them, I felt first a rush of pride that my words were coming out of someone else’s mouth, and so beautifully, but that was quickly replaced with a despondency that stayed with me for a couple of days: Even if I hired a voice teacher and worked my ass off, my voice does not and will not ever sound remotely close to how good Kay’s voice does. The same feeling struck me listening to the demos of Nate’s and my songs: I’ll never play guitar like that.

Yes, a lot of these feelings are related to the cycle of my hormones and my general fight against being pessimistic. To be honest, I have to inflate my ego pretty near to bursting to be able to continue writing and singing -- and those closest to me have either been told this explicitly and comply, have a deep well of patience for my narcissism, or are really in tune with my emotional and creative needs. They agree when I say I think I’m a genius (or at least resist dissenting), they smile when I’m clearly on a making-high, and they help me by accompanying, writing, playing, singing, recording, cheering, and sharing. Thank you to those people that help keep me afloat.

What I’m practicing now is acceptance of myself. I wish I were the kind of person who is driven by their deficits, but I’m not. I get bogged down by too much criticism, or the wrong kind of criticism, or even the right kinds of criticism when I’m not emotionally and mentally prepared for it. If I focus on what I’m not good at, I’m not focusing on my strengths. I’m a pretty okay singer, I’m an okayish guitar player, and that might change if I work really hard, but I think I might actually be getting good at songwriting, so I should work harder at it.

I’m also practicing joy for others when they are talented, reaping the benefits of hard work, or extremely motivated. There is not a finite amount of any of those things in the world, and I am a better person for being glad for others. Kay, Nate, and everyone else I’ve ever had a spiteful or jealous thought about: I love you, and I think you are amazing. Furthermore, you already know that about yourself, and I love you for that too.

So here’s me: writing frantically but still green, okay at guitar but lazy, piggybacking on my friends’ talents and hard work, easily discouraged by the awesomeness of others instead of inspired but trying to fight it. And the next thing I need to figure out: Why do I bother?

Maybe I'll figure it out. Stay tuned to find out: "Follow" this blog, follow me on The Twitter, bug me on The Facebook, etc etc. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012


I've spent the weekend in Chicago with my Busty (best + buddy) Amanda (@amandalester), who's not very busty but is hilarious. We were up late at a 90s dance party with her boyf Riley (@riley_bennett), her roommate Emily, Emily's girlf Deanna, Emily's bff Tashia, my friend Brian's brother Keith (@keithhabs) [who is Benjamin Franklin (@gogofrankie) of I Made America (@imadeamerica)], and Keith's girlf Becky. Got it?

Busty and Briley.
Busty's still asleep from this late night of painfully hip things like two-tone Oxford shoes, PBR, and early 90s hip hop BUT WHY WASN'T THERE MORE DESTINY'S CHILD? So I'm taking this time to throw up some wordy things from this weekend in the windy city.

My Daddio called me this morning to say hi because he loves me and because he had a phrase and a word to share. I get a lot of my appreciation for words from my dad. It started with him reading Superfudge aloud to me as a kid, but these days it's Steinbeck excerpts -- usually passages that are so sad they're beautiful. Here's what Dad had for me:
  • "hot day at the zoo" -- Dad suggested this be a band name, but it already is. New England blue grass. He heard it in the context of something stinking like a hot day at the zoo. A very visceral simile. I need a shower.
  • the word "cleave" -- The secret of this word is that it means the opposite of itself; that is, it has two definitions that are antonymous. It can either mean to cling fast to something, like your beliefs -- or to separate from something, or split in two ("cloven").
(Dad calls Busty "Merry Amanda" -- or maybe it's "Mary Amanda", but I'm sure it's not "marry Amanda." I don't know how it started, but he's been calling her that for nigh on fifteen years now. It makes me think of Amanda dressed up like Maid Marian.)

It's Easter weekend, so I've got a neat etymology I learned while writing a horribly, brilliantly blasphemous song. The chorus goes a little something like this:
Jesus, you’re a friend of mine; I like you too much to ever repent of my sins:
as long as they’re mine, you won’t have to pay for them.
Since I’m keeping them, Jesus, just close your eyes and pretend.
As long as we’re here at the bottom, let’s sin.
What I really pat myself on the back for about this song is that it can read two different ways depending on if you think "Jesus" is a vocative or an expletive. Anyway, the great etymology is the word "repent" -- apropos, no? It's from the Latin poenas "pain, punishment" from the Greek poine "blood-money."

Since that's now two things I've mentioned that have two interpretations, I'll take this time to point out some cool ambigrams. Joey loves these. Ambigrams can be the same word that's legible from two different directions, like this:

Or they can be different words
I wanted to be a badass so this second image is rotated with CSS. Sorry, Opera users.

But you should probably check out the Wikipedia article because there are more and they're really cool.

And finally, here's something horrible I saw in Chicago. Happy Easter.

The horriblest thing about this is that to make pretty much any word processor get those opening quotes wrong like that, somebody wrote this then decided to go BACK and INSERT the quotation marks for emphasis. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Localizing Measurements

How will the measurements in your document look different once they're translated? The first in my new series on specific localization items in translation has gone up on
Radix points, digit groups separators, and thin spaces: if that doesn't get you hot, you probably don't need to see your doctor about it. If it does, this post's for you! But I'm no doctor.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Linkfest [2]

A collection of language-related things that caught my attention last week:
  • Arabic typography links: Joey (@joeyverse) gave me a book on Arabic design which is cool. (But holy cow it has its own design flaws. So many widows; it makes me sad.) Other cool things -- 
  • Jayme (@aunicorninspace) thought this infographic on the history of western typefaces would be relevant to my interests. She was right. 
  • I loved diagramming sentences in middle school. So did this lady over at the NYTimes, so she wrote about it.
  • Idioms & The Eggcorn Database
    • From the site: In September 2003, Mark Liberman reported (Egg corns: folk etymology, malapropism, mondegreen, ???) an incorrect yet particularly suggestive creation: someone had written “egg corn” instead of “acorn”. It turned out that there was no established label for this type of non-standard reshaping. Erroneous as it may be, the substitution involved more than just ignorance: an acorn is more or less shaped like an egg; and it is a seed, just like grains of corn. So if you don’t know how _acorn_ is spelled, _egg corn_ actually makes sense.
    • In my family, there's a related phenomenon called a "Robism" after my sister Haley's husband, Rob. He's a brilliant man (cf. Untamed Science), but his brain is... different. To Rob, an idiom is just a random string of sounds. It's a toss up if he'll get the words or the usage right. I am taking the liberty of publishing some of Haley's running list here. Love you, Bert.
      • Let's crack a rip
      • By the skin of their sheets
      • Fundamental tablestone of belief
      • Smartie two shoes 
      • Bite off more than we can handle
    • When she heard me giggling over the fact that Rob doesn't know the words to "Jingle Bells" (Jingle bells, jingle bells, marching all the way), Jayme told me about the Turian race of aliens in the Mass Effect universe because she's a dork like that. Turians try really hard to incorporate human idioms into their speech and writing, but usually do it wrong:
Subject: A fly in the lotion...
Commander Shepard,
I've come to have a lot of balls in flight, as you humans say. It was brought to my attention that you're still around, working on something secret. Frankly, I hope that whatever you do keeps you far away from Noveria this time, but if you must come back and, what is it, upset the fruit cart, let me know, and I'll clear a path for you for old times' sake.
A please as always,
Lorik Qui'in, Administrator, Port Hanshan

  • Votes and Vowels: A Changing Accent Shows How Language Parallels Politics
    • Vowel shifts and this article are neat. Remember Mitt sayin' "y'all?" What a conniving little weiner.
    • Instead of blogging about anything I want, I've been trying to keep my writings here loosely gathered around "words," which is a pretty broad topic. But since we're already talking politics and it's my blog, I just have to say what I've been feeling explody about lately: Seriously -- Let's get back to that SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE thing. Government can and should operate outside of the realm of personal and religious morality. Christianity dictates evangelism, not zealotry. From what I know of the guy, Jesus wants people to choose him, not be legally required to comply with interpretations of his teachings. It offends my Christian heritage and really all the rest of me that politicians warp goodness into a tool to mobilize the ignorance of their constituents to get them elected so they can make policy that makes them rich. Whew.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

& Other Delights

I've never seen 30 Rock, but I really like Alec Baldwin, if only because he drops "'twas ever thus" like it isn't a totally nerdy thing to say. He does this podcast called Here's the Thing, and it's just him talking with people. He's a pretty fantastic host, sharing just enough about himself to make the interviewee forget he's being interviewed and instead respond openly. Usually he's talking with actors, but my favorite episode so far features trumpet player Herb Alpert.

My hubz made me listen to the Tijuana Brass one time, and for a year in college, Whipped Cream and Other Delights, Rufus Wainwright's Poses, and Cloud Cult's Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus were the only albums I listened to while drawing or painting. (Some of that old stuff is on my DeviantArt. Hadn't looked at that in a long time, wow.) I was pleased to learn that Alpert's also a painter and sculptor -- but I also had no idea that he was a big deal producer: The Carpenters, Cat Stevens, The Police.

Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Alpert's conversation feels like a synchronicity of a sort, fitting perfectly into this discussion I've been having lately about creativity and writing and music (tagged Developing a Creative Process). Here are some lines that really resonated with me:
Alec Baldwin: Do you feel that all this technology and all of the power that comes with that has made people lazy, like people can’t get in a room and they just can’t play a song all the way through anymore?
Herb Alpert: No. I don’t think it makes them lazy. I think it gives them too many options. Now, with the digital setup, you have umpteen tracks and you can just keep going and keep going, and then you can tune them up and you can shift it around, take something that was happening at the end of the song and move it up to the front. Too many options. I think it takes some of the heart away.
Herb Alpert: I’ve been painting for 42 years. I started painting in 1970. I’m not a Sunday painter. I’m not a Sunday artist. I do it every day. Traveling in the ‘60s with the Tijuana Brass around the world, I used to go to museums, and I’d go to the modern art section for whatever reason. That just appealed to me. I see these paintings, like a black painting with a purple dot or something, hanging on the wall, and I think, “Let me try something like that.” I wasn’t doing it to think something would come of it.
I’ll tell you what’s great, and I know, Alec, you know about this. There’s something about being an artist – being a musician, being a painter, being a sculptor – when you’re doing it, you’re in the exact moment of your life, and that’s rare. When you’re not in that mode, you’re thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or some other chazerai that really doesn’t make any sense. But when you’re doing it, man, it just feels so right on the moment.
Alec Baldwin: You had no training?
Herb Alpert: No training. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think there’s an advantage to that. I think when you’re an amateur and you’re just fooling around, you have infinite possibilities. If you go to a professional, they’ll tell you what not to do, what to do, and how to do it, and blah-blah-blah, and I didn’t know about that. I just did whatever. I’m always going for a feel. I do that in music, in sculpting, in painting. It’s like I’m not looking for something that’s going to excite my eyes. I want something that excites my soul, something that really resonates.

I drew this.