October 3, 2013 / 3 Comments

Do You Need Mechanical Assistance?

Your minds always go there first, don’t they.  You bunch of perverts…

Some of you may remember Watson, the supercomputer that played against two Jeopardy champions and beat them. Watson was specifically built to understand human language. That was the sole point of its appearance on Jeopardy—to show that a machine could be programmed to understand subtext and clues and irony well enough that it could compete against humans using their rules.

Why am I talking about a supercomputer—a fantastic and kick-ass supercomputer, granted—when I keep insisting this place is about writing?

Do you know how big Watson is? Or how long it took to build? How many people were involved? Watson was a six year project for a team of more than twenty engineers and programmers (plus a ton of students interning with IBM). It’s a collection of processors and drives as big as my first apartment in Los Angeles (which means it’s probably the size of your kitchen).

And you know what? Even with all that computing power and information, Watson still got things wrong. Several times in warm up games and even during the main event, Watson would miss obvious clues and give the most bizarre answers. If you run the numbers, Watson didn’t know how to answer a given question almost twenty percent of the time. When it did answer, it still got one out of every ten questions wrong.

Now, again, please remember what I just said how long all those people worked on this machine. A machine that was built for the specific purpose of understanding human language. That’s going to be important when I ask my next question.

How much work do you think went into your computer’s word processor?

For that matter, how much went into just its spellchecker? Or into that automated proofreader? Do you think the people programming it were IBM-level experts in their field? And in the field of writing?

I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say these things are useless tools.  I use my spellchecker.  I usually make a pass with it during my third draft.  There’s nothing wrong with using it as a tool to help me check spelling.  But I have no illusions about the fact that I still need to be the one checking the spelling.

See, I don’t blindly accept every “correction” it offers me.  And this isn’t my entire third draft.  I still go through the whole manuscript line by line, sentence by sentence.  It can take me four or five days.  Because I know the  machine can’t be trusted to do it for me.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until people listen.  A computer cannot write for me.  It doesn’t matter how cool someone’s system is, it won’t do the job.  That’s why, whenever you ask a real writer for advice, they’ll usually say to hire a good editor, not to upgrade your software.

If I want to be a writer—a working, paid writer–I need to know how to spell and how to use words and what those words mean.

These words, for example.

fair and fare –one of these is how you get through an experience

dual and duel—one of these refers to citizenship

vain and vein – one of these refers to similar things

tics and ticks – one of these is a twitch

mute and moot –one of these is irrelevant

reckless and wreckless—one of these means rash

vain and vane – one of these makes you think this song is about you

desert and dessert—one of these has whipped cream

shudder and shutter – one of these means to shake

soar and sore—one of these relates to diseases

vane and vein—one of these shows the flow of air or liquid

wreck and wreak—one of these means to inflict

wait and weight – seriously, it’s embarrassing I have to ask.

As in the past, these are all mistakes I’ve seen in articles or books over the past few months.  When I come across one and it makes me shudder (not shutter), I know I have to add it to the list.  Yeah, I keep a list.  You don’t think I just come up with all this stuff from scratch once a week, do you?

In the interest of fairness… Two of these are mistakes I’ve made in the recent past.  One of them even slipped past me, my proofreaders, my editor, the copyeditor, and then me again while I looked over copyedits and layouts.

Did you know all of the answers?  Did you know what the other word meant, too?  If I don’t know them both (know—not sort of recognize) there’s a good chance I’ll make a mistake at some point.  And, granted, we all make mistakes sometimes.

But some people make a lot of mistakes.  And they don’t catch any of them.  Because they’re depending on their computer to do it for them.

Next time, I want to…

Actually, before I talk about next time, I’d like to break my rule about no self-promotion and guide you to the Kaiju Rising Kickstarter.  It’s a giant monster anthology featuring stories from folks like Peter Stenson, Timothy Long, Larry Correia, and a bunch of others (including me).  It’s already fully funded (even stretch goals), but there’s still a day or two left to snag a copy for yourself, and possibly a pile of add-ons.

Anyway, that being said…

Next time, I want to talk about exceptions.

Until then, go write.

0 replies on “Do You Need Mechanical Assistance?”

Hi Mr Stranger,

You always post about wrong spelling. Just to make it clear, I'm not complaining ;=) But have you heard of dangling modifiers? They're actually kind of funny, for example, like:

Stomping up the stairs, the noise wakes the whole house.

Have you come across sentences like this?


I try to make a point to go at least six months between spelling rants. It's not my fault you keep reading all this nonsense… 🙂

Yeah, I've seen dangling modifiers before(and created more than a few, too). Mixed thoughts on them. I think some are the result of people trying to imitate stylistic things they've seen or heard without quite understanding why/how the example worked. Others show up when someone tries to write prose as dialogue(which is my sort-of-style here).

Are you suggesting a post, or were you just going to mock me about having them in places…? 🙂

Hahaha..NO (as in strong all caps) I'm not mocking you. I don't have any business to mock anyone, most especially writers like you! :=) I just thought of it, and wondered how common it is. No, you're doing fine from where I stand, you don't need me to suggest a post for you. I'm content reading whatever nonsense you post here, or else I wouldn't have linked you from my site :=)

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