magistrate: The arc of the Earth in dark space. (Default)
Because definitely what I need is more webapp ideas that I don't have time to develop.



Anyway, following on from a Twitter conversation, I'm wondering how it would work to make a writing program which could track the genders of a number of characters and then arbitrarily shuffle them. What I'm picturing is, simplified, something like this:

• At the top of the document are a number of fields which ask for a character name (or a list of character references, such as name and nickname and other variations) and pairs the name with a gender (and its associated set of pronouns).

• Each character you add is arbitrarily assigned a color (or icon or other distinguishing visual marker).

• As you type, a parser will keep track of which name (or referent) has been typed last for each of the original genders. When you type a pronoun, it will look at the last character reference matching that pronoun's set, and highlight the pronoun (or assign it the correct icon) to associate it with the specific character. It'll also have some kind of (mouseover?) menu to allow users to correct its assumption about which character it refers to.

• When you finish writing, each pronoun will be associated with a character. So you can hit a shuffle button, and then the characters' genders will be shuffled, and each pronoun can be brought back into compliance with the character's gender.

Needless to say, this would fail in a lot of situations. Take, for example:

• Dialogue. "He's not coming today," he said. (I mean, I guess I could set up a sub-parser which kept track of the last character reference inside a set of quotes?)

• Ambiguiety. We'll just call this the Randall Munroe exploit. I guess people would just have to make close, personal friends with the drop-down menus?

• Gay porn. I am reliably informed by people who have tried to write gay porn that pronouns are a nightmare anyway. And humans are better at parsing language than computers are.

• Unexpected cases. Language is complicated, yo!

I feel like there should be a way to handle this, and that it probably involves algorithms. I'm a bit worried that trying to write a general-purpose pronoun shuffler would actually require re-inventing Google Translate. Any computational linguists out there who want to point out things I'm missing?
magistrate: The arc of the Earth in dark space. (Default)
You know, it took me until today to really put my finger on why I prefer a certain style* of asterisking/footnoting things in blog posts and web documents over another.

* That style being this one, in which the "footnote" is placed directly after the paragraph in which its asterisk appears.

It's because when reading a physical book, when I see a footnote, I can glance down to the bottom of the page and read the addendum. Even if the footnote occurs in the middle of a very long chapter, I can easily glance down and back up to my spot again because the chapter is formatted into discrete pages, the footnote is placed at the bottom of the page, and I can hold an entire page in my field of vision.

Internet texts, though, generally work with a long vertical scroll, and there's no convenient way of marking your position. (I usually resort to highlighting passages so that the highlight will catch my eye if I have to scroll away and scroll back up to find it.) Once you add in the fact that you often don't know where the footnotes will be, where the scrollbar is concerned – if you have a blog post with a large number of comments, for example, the end of the page is the end of the comment section, not the end of the post; finding the footnotes involves moving the scrollbar to some ill-defined middle point – you're either left with the hassle of scrolling/searching down and back up every time you encounter an asterisk (which I find really disruptive to my reading experience), or just encountering all the footnotes at the end, shorn of their context unless you want to go back up and search through the text to re-find them.

By contrast, placing the footnotes immediately after the paragraph in which their asterisk occurs doesn't interrupt the flow of the asterisked sentence, but it still places the additional information within the same field of view as its context.

Incidentally, this is also why I have a grudge against the term trans*, and refuse to use it to refer to myself**. ("trans," fine, though I prefer the specificity of "neutrois". "trans*," fuck no.) Because the first time I encountered it in a blog post, I spent several minutes looking for the footnote and becoming increasingly annoyed that I couldn't find it. Because while * is used as a wildcard character in certain contexts? In the context of writing out discussions on the internet, * has another, more-well-established meaning, and that's the promise of additional information to be fulfilled within the document, at some point following the *. When that promise isn't fulfilled, well, XKCD may have said it best.

** If you prefer that I use the term trans* to refer to you, I will, but I will also persist in thinking that it's an extremely poor piece of information design.

Anyway, there's no real point to this entry, except to note that the formal reasoning behind my gut preference finally snapped into place, and that was cool.
magistrate: The arc of the Earth in dark space. (Default)
Sometimes I'm reading along, and I'll hit a word – usually a really common word – that I've never thought of in terms of etymology before (usually because it's a really common word, and thus kinda invisible in my day-to-day goings-about), and encountering it in a new context makes the etymology just... click into place for me, and it's like I've uncovered a new nugget of meaning and a secret pedigree, and it makes me really happy.

Frex: I'm reading the astronomy textbook I got from Launchpad. I come across this passage:

Evidence that asteroids and comets really are leftover planetesimals comes from analysis of meteorites, spacecraft visits to comets and asteroids, and computer simulations of solar system formation. The nebular theory actually predicts he existence of both the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt—a prediction first made in the 1950s. Thus, the discoveries, beginning in the 1990s, of numerous objects orbiting in the Kuiper Belt represent a triumph for the nebular theory.


(Emphasis is the book's.)

My mind caught on the use of that first predicts. Looking at it stylistically, I first thought it should have been predicted, so I started testing my assumptions to see if I still thought they were correct. I thought about the word predates, and how that could be used in present tense and I'd have no issue with it. So, I took a closer look at predict – something I'd never been prompted to break down before.

pre, before. dict, from the same roots as dictate, dictum. I didn't have a Latin dictionary (dictionary!) at hand, so I didn't look up the exact meaning – but I had enough grounding at that point that my concerns were washed away. Dict; an authoritative or forceful assertion. A pre-dictum. The science dictates that it shall be so, and (in this case) it is revealed that it is so. How fabulous. A much more forceful etymology. Gleaming little declarative bones in a soft skin of supposition.

Moments like this make me love linguistics.

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