Friday Link

Ever wondered what English sounded like in Shakespeare’s time? What about Chaucer’s time (Middle English), or Beowulf‘s (Old English)?

No? You’ve never wondered that?

Well, either way, this guy has you covered.

Oddly, the author doesn’t say anything about how anyone knows the pronunciation of Old English. I’m sure linguists have ways of guessing, but given the relative scarcity of tape recorders in the eleventh century, I’m not sure how close they can really get. Still, it’s an intriguing glimpse into the past.

Have a salutary weekend!

Copyediting for Fun and (Maybe) Profit

The lack of posts this week isn’t because of depression or laziness. (I am lazy, of course, but that doesn’t happen to be the reason.) Rather, I’m studying to be a copyeditor.

What the hell is a copyeditor (and why does Chrome insist, with enormous irony, that it’s not a word)?

A copyeditor reads a manuscript carefully, checking for the “little” things: grammar, spelling, punctuation, style, word usage, biased language, consistency, clarity, tightness of expression, etc. Sometimes fact-checking is included too. This is in contrast to a substantive editor (or just “editor”), who is more concerned with the big picture: large-scale structure, pacing, which sections are interesting and which aren’t, etc.

A copyeditor can work on almost any kind of text where details matter, including novels, non-fiction books, magazines, newspapers, scholarly papers, and all sorts of websites.

I used to be a computer programmer. It’s what I went to school for. So why in the world would I want to be a grammar guru?

For one thing, I’m doing it already, whether I want to or not. My internal editor automatically yells at me when I come across language errors in anything I’m reading. I’m doing the work anyway, so I might as well get paid for it.

Also, it’ll make me a better writer, and I won’t have to spend as much time wondering about the little things. Is it A.M., AM, or a.m.? Should I use “toward” or “towards”? Does the question mark go inside or outside the quotation marks? Is it “I feel bad” or “I feel badly”? Are sentence fragments “wrong”? (By the way, the answers are, respectively – they’re all correct, “toward” is American and “towards” is British, it depends on the sentence, it’s “I feel bad,” and sentence fragments are perfectly acceptable in formal writing if used sensibly.)

Besides, programming and copyediting aren’t all that different. Both require a careful eye for small textual details while staying mindful of the larger purpose. Both require a technical understanding of syntax and semantics. Both are populated by professional geeks.

Most importantly, this stuff is actually fun for me. Reading The Chicago Manual of Style, scouring Grammar Girl’s website, finding out which rules are legitimate and which (like “don’t split infinitives”) are nonsense, learning the difference between “confidant” and “confidante” – I really get a kick out of this stuff.

The question is: can I get paid for it? Stay tuned, Hypothetical Reader!

The Witch and the Dragon – Chapters 11 & 12

Standard Disclaimer

This is fan fiction of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, which were created by Joss Whedon. If you like, you can read my thoughts on the ethics and legality of fan fiction.


[Start reading story from beginning]

[Go back to chapters 9 & 10]

Chapter 11

A young, dark-skinned woman in full-body camo gear was escorting Willow on a path through the Sri Lankan jungle. The woman refused to give her name, so Willow was mentally calling her Alice. This ‘Alice’ carried a duffel bag in one hand and a strange-looking weapon in the other.

“What is that thing, anyway?” said Willow. “Is it a spear or a gun? It kinda looks like both.”

Alice ignored her.

Soon they came to a clearing. A few rugged, dark green tents. A handful of other women in camo moving around. Alice approached the nearest and called out, “Ma’am!”

This new woman – short blond hair, blue eyes, improbably muscular – looked like she’d stepped out of an ad for some kind of dietary supplement. We’ll call you Olga, Willow decided.

“Ma’am, I found this civilian out walking in the jungle. She…claims…that she got lost from a tour group.” Alice’s sour expression showed her opinion of that story. “I’ve searched her, she’s clean. And I confiscated this.” She lifted the duffel bag.

“What’s in it?”

“I was…” Alice cleared her throat. “Unable to open it.”

“You were unable to open a duffel bag.” Olga crossed her arms. “Do you require zipper-related training, Ensign?”

“No, ma’am,” Alice said stiffly. “I believe the bag is enchanted, ma’am.”

“So we might have a witch on our hands.” Olga studied Willow, taking in her khaki jacket and pants, fuchsia boots, and smiley-face fishing hat. “Although she doesn’t really look like one.”

“Hey!” said Willow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Frankly, she was shocked that neither of them recognized her. The lost tourist routine had just been a joke, but Alice had taken her seriously. How famous did a witch have to be?

“Who are you?” demanded Olga. “What are you doing here? What’s in the bag?”

“My name is Willow Rosenberg.” She searched their faces for a sign of recognition. Blank. “Seriously? What do they teach you people in school?”

“Ms. Rosenberg,” said Olga, “this is a serious matter. You’ve walked into a Sri Lankan government military base. Seeing as we’re eighteen miles from the nearest village, I very much doubt you were part of a tour group. So why don’t you cut the crap, save us all some time, and tell me the truth.”

“Gladly,” said Willow. “The truth is, your cover story is even worse than mine. A Sri Lankan military base? Made up entirely of female soldiers? With those accents? Please.”

Olga scowled. “We value diversity.”

“Oh. And here I thought you were Zeta Black, the most elite special ops team in the world, all Slayers, commanded by one Buffy Summers.” She lifted a hand. “About yea tall? Blond hair, sorta grumpy? I really need to talk to her, if you don’t mind.”

Olga and Alice exchanged grim looks. “Nobody talks to the Dragon,” said Olga.

“The Dragon?” Willow giggled. “Do you all have code names? Are you two, like, Hobbit and Chupacabra?”

Growling, Olga backhanded her.

Willow licked blood from her lip and rubbed her jaw. Her grin turned wolfish, insolent. “Hey, that hurt,” she said. “You should really use your words to resolve conflict.”

“What’s in the bag?” Olga shouted.

“A rare artifact. It’s called Nun’yah.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Well, it’s Nun’yah business.” Willow laughed harshly at her own joke. “Do…do you get it? It’s like I’m saying ‘None of your…’”

Olga raised her weapon, preparing to strike.

“Lieutenant!” someone shouted.

They all turned toward the new voice.

“Stand down,” said Buffy. “She’s a friend.”

Chapter 12

The tent was big enough for a round plastic table, half a dozen folding chairs, a chest bristling with scary-looking weapons, and a sleeping bag that lay right on the bare dirt. Willow took off her hat and made herself comfortable on one of the chairs.

Buffy didn’t sit down. “Well,” she said. “If you were anyone else, I’d ask how you found me.”

She had the uber-commando look down to a science. Black everything: boots, pants, knee guards, fingerless gloves, jacket, all black. Willow suppressed a small grin – apparently, at this level of badass, camo wasn’t required. Blond hair short and practical. The old scar, a thin white slash down between her eyes to the corner of her lips.

Like a jungle cat sizing up her prey.

“Guess I should’ve called ahead,” Willow said. “The welcome committee was fresh out of hospitality.”

“I’m not surprised. Olga has an impressive resume, but charm isn’t on it.”

“Olga? Her name is actually Olga?” Willow burst out laughing, saw Buffy’s expression, cleared her throat discreetly. “Never mind. Long story.”

Still Buffy was studying her, as if surveying enemy terrain. “Your lip is bleeding. Why didn’t you defend yourself?”

Willow ran her tongue over it and tasted blood again. “You know my magic is weaker now.”

“I also know that in twelfth grade, you killed a vampire with a No. 2 pencil, so don’t give me that ‘poor helpless Willow’ crap. You let her do that. Why?”

“Guess I wanted to see just how much she was willing to hurt an unarmed civilian.”

Buffy snorted. “We both know you’re neither of those things.” She fingered the long wooden stake holstered at her hip, as if to show that she had her weapons, too. The hilt of a sword peeked over her left shoulder. Black, of course.

Willow leaned back, trying to get comfortable in the metal folding chair. “So how long’s it been since your last vamp kill?”

“About six months. But we’re getting close here. We got a positive read on the scanners just this morning. I bet we take him in the next day or two.” Calm as a weather report. Overcast skies, with a 60% chance of impalement.

“Uh-huh. And no offense, but, um…two dozen Slayers with high-tech weapons? Isn’t that a little bit overkill for one vampire?”

“There used to be millions of vampires. We estimate there are only a dozen or so left in the world, and they didn’t survive this long on their good looks. These things are either very clever or very well-connected. Often both.”

Buffy smiled, a lean, grim smile without warmth. “Actually, it’s funny. You remember Harmony Kendall? We finally got her a couple years ago. Can’t believe she made it that long. Found her shivering in a hole at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, covered in rags, so filthy I almost didn’t recognize her. Probably hadn’t fed in a month. So much for Little Miss Prada.”

Despite the heat, Willow felt cold and a little sick. “That’s funny to you, huh?”

Buffy’s smile slipped. “Something you want to say?”

“We went to school with her, Buffy.”

“No, we went to school with a young woman who was murdered by a vampire on Graduation Day. The thing my team killed was a monster. That’s sort of why we hunt them, remember?” She crossed her arms. “Or maybe you don’t remember. I guess your warrior days are pretty much behind you, aren’t they?”

Willow collected herself. Didn’t take the bait. “I’m not here to criticize you. I just worry about you sometimes. You’re the strongest woman I know, you can do anything you want, and here you are crawling into caves, chasing a handful of starving vampires. I mean, God, Buffy, it’s been twenty years. Almost half your life on this. When is it over? Are they still that much of a threat?”

“Yes!” Buffy shouted, slamming her fist in her palm. “You don’t get it, do you? It only takes one, Willow. Exponential growth – you’re the math whiz, you have to see it. We miss just one vampire, the whole goddamn thing starts over again. You, the Watchers’ Council, nobody understands. It only. Takes. One.”

The Slayer took a couple deep breaths, eyes shut.

“Enough chit-chat,” said Buffy. “You want me to come to Sunnydale, right?”

“That’s right.”

“No.” She scratched her cheek. “Anything else?”

Willow leaned forward, hands together. “You know your mother will be there.”

“I said goodbye to my mother a long time ago, which, frankly, is none of your business.”

“None of my business. Right. I guess I wasn’t there, crying beside you, at her funeral.”

Buffy didn’t answer.

“Dawn will be there too. Still alive, last I checked.”

No answer.

“I suppose, no point in mentioning that your mom’s immortal soul could be destroyed forever. You abandoning her, and your friends, I guess that’s none of my business either.”

Buffy growled and flipped the table. It clattered against some chairs and came to rest on the dirt.

Willow remained where she sat. “Temper.”

“This isn’t about my mother, or me, or Dawn,” Buffy seethed. “Just like always, it’s all about Willow. You want to see Tara. That’s what this is, right? One last kiss? Sorry I almost deep-fried the planet? Love you, sweetie. Be with you soon, sweetie. Happy tears. Right?”

Willow measured her words quietly. “The thought had occurred to me.”

“So you organize your mission, and I’m supposed to feel guilty if I don’t tag along.” Buffy was yelling at her now. “Well, guess what? I’m on a mission of my own. Have been for some time, as a matter of fact. While you and Xander and Dawn are living your quiet, comfortable lives, I’m still out here, finishing the mission. You know, the one we agreed on? Together? Because, last time I checked, it wasn’t actually finished. So don’t you tell me about abandoning my friends!”

Willow stood up. Don’t get angry, she reminded herself. Keep your voice quiet. With an effort, she managed. “This mission you’re talking about. Is it the same one where I burned out most of my power, killing the Senior Partners for you? The one where you’re commanding a team of Slayers that I created by myself? This is the mission where I didn’t contribute? Just want to clarify.”

They stared each other down.

“Are we done here?” said Buffy.

“No. You’re coming to Sunnydale. And you know why?”

“Oh, this ought to be good.”

“Because if you do, you can have what’s in the bag.”

Buffy glanced at the duffel bag. “Let me guess. A year’s supply of guilt, and a coupon for a free lecture?”

“Not exactly.”

Willow knelt, opened the bag, pulled apart the packing foam. She took the item inside and held it up for Buffy to see.

The sarcasm died on Buffy’s lips. Her mouth fell open. Her eyes, jaded and calculating, softened into awe. Willow imagined that Gentile kids on Christmas morning looked pretty much the way Buffy looked right now.

It was the Scythe, of course. Not a very good name – it was closer to an axe. At one end of the handle, a gleaming, wickedly curved, red and silver blade. At the other end, a wooden stake, enchanted so as never to break or rot. An instrument of death.

What talons were to an eagle, what claws were to a tiger, that’s what the Scythe was to Buffy.

Not a Slayer’s weapon. The Slayer’s weapon.

“How?” said Buffy.

“After that greenmarrow demon stole it in ’06, it bounced around the black market for a few years. Finally ended up at Wolfram & Hart.”

Buffy tore her eyes off the Scythe and looked at Willow in surprise. “And you stole it?”

“Didn’t have to. I talked to Charles and he gave it away, free of charge.”

“You’re kidding. He would never…” For the second time in sixty seconds, Buffy was stunned. “The favor you had, for killing the Senior Partners. You called it in.”

“No big. They didn’t have anything else I wanted anyway.” Willow thought it over. “Except for, like, eight thousand other things.”

She held it out to Buffy, who took it after a moment’s hesitation. Buffy closed her eyes and exhaled as the power coursed into her. She moved slowly through half a dozen fighting forms. Again, but faster. And again, so quick now that the Scythe flickered and flashed around her like a scarlet ghost.

Willow smiled. “Should I leave you two alone?”

Eyes open. Still drinking in her new toy. “You’ll give this to me if I go to Sunnydale? Help you fight off the monsters?”

“You and the rest of Zeta Black. Yes.”

“And what happens if I ignore you and keep it anyway?”

Willow’s smile never faltered, but her answer was delicate as a black widow’s web.

“Try it and see.”

After a long moment, Buffy threw back her head and laughed.

[Chapters 13 & 14 coming soon…]

Friday Link

This one’s kind of random: the etymology of “OK.” Apparently, use of the word can be traced to a single newspaper article on March 23, 1839. After that, its rise to popularity came courtesy of Martin van Buren. An interesting read, if you’re into weird things like that.

Have a great weekend.

Sekrit Projekt Revealed: Buffy Music Video

For the past week, I’ve been working obsessively on something. Here it is: a Buffy music video, set to Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.” Silly? Yes. But also a hell of a lot of fun to make, and maybe even a little fun to watch. I spent dozens of hours on it, correcting and adjusting and fine-tuning, and although it’s still not perfect, I’m pretty happy with the result.

Enjoy!

Warning: contains strong language.

By the way, if you like that, I also did an Avatar video to the same song.

Imperfect Ten

A few weeks ago, I took Betsy’s car in to the dealership for some repair work. When they were done, they handed me a customer satisfaction survey, which said the following (paraphrasing):

We consider anything less than a 10 to be a failing grade. If you can’t rate us a 10, please tell us how we can improve.

It’s a nice sentiment – they have high standards, and they want to get better. But the statement really bugs me anyway. Here’s why.

First, there’s no definition for what a 10 means. Is it really good service? Astoundingly good service? The best service I’ve ever had at a car dealership? The best service I’ve ever had anywhere? The best service I can hypothetically imagine? (That last definition, by the way, could lead to other problems.)

I have no idea what a 10 means, and I’m not sure they do, either. So their statement is like saying “We are absolutely committed to hitting the bullseye, which is…somewhere.”

But let’s say we did have a definition, something like “extremely good service,” which is still vague and arbitrary but better than nothing.

Well, for starters, “extremely good” is inherently subjective, so the dealership is considering itself a failure if it doesn’t meet the highest expectations of a wide variety of conflicting quality scales. There’s no way to make everyone very happy (or even a little bit happy). They’re guaranteed to fail.

But even if getting a 10 from everyone were theoretically possible, it would still be ridiculous. Think how much time and money and effort and preparation and training it would cost to make everyone’s experience extraordinary. Think how exhausting that would be for the staff. All to ensure that they don’t “fail” by getting a 9 from me.

You can’t run a dealership that way. I wouldn’t even want them to.

I realize I’m being a little crazy here. I’m dissecting and over-analyzing an innocuous statement. I get that.

I guess the statement just bothers me because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s disingenuous. It puts me, the customer, on a pedestal that I didn’t ask for and that wouldn’t be possible anyway. Just fix the car, and I’ll pay you. That’s the extent of the relationship I want.

Rant over. Next week I’ll complain about how my sofa is excessively comfortable, and you can feel sorry for me about that, too.

Revelations

My ten-year-old niece and her father came to stay with us this weekend. She’s smart, inquisitive, and a lot of fun to talk to. Ten is a great age, because you know so much already, but there are so many horizons left.

I showed her the Spinning Dancer optical illusion. You can see it at the top of this page. The dancer on the left is spinning clockwise, the one on the right, counterclockwise. But the one in the middle is ambiguous – it can be perceived as spinning in either direction, and you can “switch” it by looking at the left or right image. (Actually you can “switch” it without the help of the other images, but it’s harder.) Here’s some more information.

This is pretty cool for a lot of people the first time they see it. But I showed it to my niece, and it blew her mind. She spent five minutes staring at the screen, trying to figure out what was going on. For her, the illusion wasn’t just new or different. It conflicted with her understanding of reality on a fundamental level. I could almost see her mind adjusting its rules to accommodate a universe where this sort of thing is possible.

I imagine this kind of feeling happens to almost everyone. It certainly happens to me.

I still remember the high school math class where I learned that 0.999… is precisely equal to 1. (Multiply both sides of ⅓ = 0.333… by 3 for an easy proof.) I didn’t believe it at first – it was just so foreign to the way my brain worked. I think it took me a full day of thinking it over before I could accept the truth. Apparently skepticism about this particular equation is very common.

Truly world-altering revelations like this seem to get rarer the older you get, but I hope they still happen once in a while. You need a good mental revolution every so often to keep you honest.

Has something like this happened to you?