Friday, February 21, 2014

Fiction Friday: Balzac VS. Hemingway

So the Latest Thing is something called "hemingwayapp." It's a site - and a download - that will help you write like Ernest Hemingway. Because you want to do that for some reason. Dreamed up by the Long brothers, it claims to apply Hemingway's style to determine if a given text is clear and concise in its meaning. Nominally developed for business emails "to help us achieve clear writing... [with] short, declarative sentences."

Like a shotgun blast to the face!

So I decided to test this thing out empirically: Copy a shorter work by that gold standard of prose, Honore de Balzac, and paste it into the Papamatic. Naturally, it threw a fit. "150 of 948 sentences are hard to read." "262 of 948 sentences are very hard to read." "Beep-boop this writing is only 23% efficient." Okay, I made up that last one. But I think it captures the spirit of the hemmingwayapp. Or lack thereof...

Just for a lark, I tried to edit The Ball at Sceaux down to something that would plug Hemingway's socket. And what I got was this travesty:

The Comte de Fontaine fought in the war in La Vendee against the Republic. He liked to joke, "I am one of the men who gave themselves to be killed on the steps of the throne." And the pleasantry had some truth in it, as spoken by a man left for dead at the bloody battle of Les Quatre Chemins. Vendeen refused the lucrative posts offered to him by the Emperor Napoleon. He obeyed his aristocratic faith when he thought it fitting to choose a companion for life. He married Mademoiselle de Kergarouet, with no fortune, but belonging to an old Brittany family.

When the second revolution burst on Monsieur de Fontaine he had a large family. He took his wife's advice and moved to Paris. The greed of others made him sad. He received a ministerial dispatch. He'd been nominated as marchel de camp. He then later received the Legion of Honor and Saint-Louis crosses.

This shook him and he wanted to see the king in private. The audience, at once granted, was in no sense private. The royal drawing-room was full of old people. The Count met some old friends who were cold to him. He found the princes ADORABLE. No one asked about his finances. They weren't good. Later, he thought about making a joke at his own expense...

"C'est quoi ce bordel?"

That's not the whole thing but I'm not desecrating Balzac any further to make my point.

"But hey!" I hear you say. "Aren't you a writer yourself? Don't you have a novel available through fine online retailers like Amazon and Smashwords that can be had for a low low price of 99 cents per download or $9.99 for a paperback, plus shipping and handling?" In fact I have two novels available through fine online retailers but I see where you're going with this. Chapter 1 of Fiend - Hemingway-ized!

I'm a vampire.

Such an improvement...

My point here is that you still can't program writing. The Long brothers, despite their claims, have produced nothing but a very specific grammar check like you have in Microsoft Word. As the New Yorker put it, even Hemingway fails the Hemingway app standards because they're rote, literal, and dreamed up by a pair of chucklefucks in the grips of Dunning-Kruger.

It really highlights something that I've been thinking about lately... Thanks to its hippy-libertarian brainwave, the whole IT industry is turning into a massive circle-jerk for privileged First World dweebs. Open Source - while useful in some respects - has become such an article of faith among programmers that third party software is employed even in corporate environments without respect to utility or stability. Development processes actively discourage documentation and standardization, instead emphasizing a utopian fantasy of "Everyone should be free to program how and what they want because freedom and free software and free porn on Pirate Bay!"

And while the Longs and all the other software "engineers" are faffing around with their glorified spellcheckers,  materials scientists just created a steel-strong polymer with a micro-lattice architecture. You didn't hear about it on Twitter because it has nothing to do with the latest version of Mint.

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