Wednesday, September 08, 2010

If World War I Was a Bar Fight

"Fighting is like champagne. It goes to the heads of cowards as quickly as of heroes." ~ Margaret Mitchell

Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria’s pint.

Austria demands Serbia buy it a complete new suit because there are splashes on its trouser leg.

Germany expresses its support for Austria’s point of view.

Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit.

Serbia points out that it can’t afford a whole suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria’s trousers.

Russia and Serbia look at Austria.

Austria asks Serbia who it’s looking at.

Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone.

Austria inquires as to whose army will assist Russia in compelling it to do so.

Germany appeals to Britain that France has been looking at it, and that this is sufficiently out of order that Britain should not intervene.

Britain replies that France can look at who it wants to, that Britain is looking at Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it?

Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action.

Britain and France ask Germany whether it’s looking at Belgium.

Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper. When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone.

Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium.

France and Britain punch Germany. Austria punches Russia. Germany punches Britain and France with one hand and Russia with the other.

Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over. Japan calls over from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there. Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria.

Australia punches Turkey, and gets punched back. There are no hard feelings because Britain made Australia do it.

France gets thrown through a plate glass window, but gets back up and carries on fighting. Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out, suffers brain damage, and wakes up with a complete personality change.

Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway. Italy raises both fists in the air and runs round the room chanting.

America waits till Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool, then pretends it won the fight all by itself.

By now all the chairs are broken and the big mirror over the bar is shattered. Britain, France and America agree that Germany threw the first punch, so the whole thing is Germany’s fault . While Germany is still unconscious, they go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.

~Stolen from 10 Times One, who stole it from RantinRab, who stole it from Dick, who stole it from Theo Sparks.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Apple Conundrum

"In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." ~ Theodore Roosevelt
Today was supposed to be the day. The mental agony of "should-I, shouldn't-I" was finally in the past. We were prepared for bold action. I piled into the car with spouse and child and we made the half-hour drive to the promised land. We examined our proposed acquisition. We exhaustively tested its capabilities; we played with it (and discovered a must-have app called Angry Birds - you'll laugh yourself silly!). We admired it and drooled over it. Then we tried to get one of the ubiquitous blue-shirted employees to assist us in lightening our pockets to the tune of $499. Yes, we were going to buy an iPad today.

I say "were" advisedly. After futile attempts to get someone to deign to take our money, we finally lighted upon the staff member whose sole job is to take names and enter them into a digital queue for customer assistance. So we got on the list, and went back to playing with the object of our affection. My daughter played UNO, my husband played with Pages and Numbers for iPad (Apple's word processor and spreadsheet programs), and I wandered away to look at peripherals. After a while (and really, who can get too bored playing in an Apple Store?), it was our turn with an Apple Specialist. And I will say this for the customer service in Apple Stores. Every time I've been in one, we've had to wait to be helped (they're always crawling with people, even in the middle of the afternoon on a work day), but once you've finally got a Specialist to yourself, they aren't going anywhere. They will stay with you without evidencing the least sign of impatience (no matter what inane questions you ask or what tangents you go off on) until you leave the store.

We told our Specialist that we wanted to buy and iPad, and that we had a few questions about some of the functionality. She was too delighted to help us and answer any questions we might have. After playing with an iPad with her for at least half an hour, we were finally down to it. We told her we were sold, ready to buy one of the pretty shiny things - specifically, a 16GB wi-fi version for $499. And then, the letdown.

"I'm sorry," we were told. "We only have the 16GB wifi+3G ($629) or the 64GB wifi+3G (something astronomical - we didn't ask). Would you be interested in one of those, or would you like me to put you on a waiting list for the 16GB?"


After all that, after spending so much time with us and building us up, how could she dash our hopes so cruelly? And more to the point, why didn't she mention the lack of availability up front?? We missed half of the Uruguay-Ghana game hanging around in the Apple Store to buy a product they didn't even have in stock! Why isn't there a sign somewhere letting people know when they walk in exactly what they can actually buy in the silly store?

It's like the feeling that you've got a huge sneeze coming on, only for it to fade away, leaving you curiously unfulfilled. (I once read that a sneeze is the only other physical activity besides orgasm that involves your whole body - maybe that explains the disappointment...) So, our name is on a list somewhere, and we'll be notified in 3 to 30 days that we can go and pick up our new baby, with the added joy of another 50-60 minutes of driving, round-trip. (We were advised not to order through the Apple Store online, as it was likely to be much faster through the store. We'll see.) And so, we are now in the limbo of a decision made, but not acted upon, and are left feeling attenuated and annoyed. Apple really ought to be able to keep up with demand better than this. It's not like they didn't know everyone would want one...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

iBooks v. Kindle for iPhone

"Beware of the person of one book." ~ Thomas Aquinas 
I guess I'm safe as churches. Not only am I a person of more than one book, I'm a person of more than one book reader. No fear here.

But that's not quite right. Until last week, I was a devoted disciple of the Kindle for iPhone app, which finally let me access the e-book market in a meaningful way. But now Apple's iBookstore is available for iPod Touch generation 2 and higher, placing me and thousands like me at the center of the fierce battle raging for the hearts and minds of digital book readers. Fronts are open on technology and features, selection, pricing. I'll bet both Apple and Amazon are a little bit afraid of which way I and my confederates are going to spring.

After the release of iOS4, the newest version of the operating system for iPhone and iPod Touch, I installed the iBooks app, placing it right next to my Kindle icon. After launching, I delighted in the eye-friendly bookshelf GUI, so different from the Kindle library. This is what we have all come to expect from Apple - attractive, functional software that's just a little bit more fun to use than anything else out there. Also, iBooks consistently opened quickly, taking about five seconds each time to load books onto the bare shelves that serve as the app's splash screen, compared to the five to eleven seconds to open its Home screen that I counted for the Kindle in several (unscientific) tests.

I downloaded the free book that comes with the app, the ever-delightful Winnie-the-Pooh. I had read that all the charming original illustrations were included in Apple's digital version, something certainly not available for any Kindle book. Another point in Apple's favor - the iBookstore is integrated directly into the iBooks app, unlike the Kindle Store, which closes the Kindle app and opens the Safari web browser to a mobile version of Amazon's Kindle Store. So far, all the points were running Apple's way. I was ready to be an iBooks standard-bearer, despite the dozens of books I already own in Kindle format.

But then iBooks stumbled. It took me fully ten times as long to open a book in iBooks, roughly ten seconds to Kindle's one. Of course, this delay is partially explained by the more complex nature of the page interface, particularly the oh-so-fun and oh-so-pointless page curling. But there are other, more useful features that iBooks boasts, and they slow the app down compared to the light and lean Kindle app. Most of these are contained in iBooks' powerful search capabilities. Kindle includes a text search function, but compared to that of iBooks, it is clumsy, unattractive, and underpowered. Not only does iBooks search within the book's text, either through highlighting or typing, the reader is also given the option of searching either an integrated dictionary (optional free download), or searching Google or Wikipedia in Safari for the specified term, as well. Depending on your needs, these features may more than compensate for any slowness or unresponsiveness of iBooks. Or not.

Like the Kindle app, iBooks' tools icons blend in and out by tapping the middle of the screen, and offer bookmarking (with a little red bookmark, rather than a dog-ear), the ability to change font size and color scheme (b/w or sepia), a navigable table of contents (not available for every Kindle book), a link back to your library, and a sliding position search bar at the bottom. In addition, iBooks offers a choice between a half a dozen different fonts, and offers in-book screen brightness control. Like Kindle, selecting text by tapping and holding produces a context menu which offers notes and highlighting, but iBooks also provides access to its extra search and dictionary functions in the context menu. A nice additional feature of iBooks, which I particularly appreciated, is that your current page is always displayed in relation to the total number of pages - 25 of 370, for example. I hate not being able to tell how much of the book is left on my Kindle app! And if you tap the screen to bring up the tool menu, it tells you next to the page numbers how many pages are left until the next chapter.

So, iBooks had stumbled, but quickly righted itself and surged ahead once again. It gained even more in my eyes when I discovered that iBooks also functions as a fairly decent .pdf reader, and an extremely easy-to-use one, at that. Files are added either by opening them as an attachment from an e-mail, or by dragging them into the iTunes "Books" window. It beats GoodReads all hollow, both for ease of adding and for the quickness with which it resizes pages when zooming. Even if iBooks did nothing else, that would make it worthwhile.

iBooks entered the homestretch when I decided to browse the iBookstore and see how best to feed my addiction. It entered the homestretch and promptly exposed its Achilles heel. Apple may know software like nobody else, but Amazon stands second to none in e-retailing, particularly in book e-retailing. Although the integration with the iBooks app is a nice plus, that can't save the iBookstore in comparisons with the Kindle store, in any metric. The selection is a shadow of Kindle's, the navigation of the store is more cumbersome and far less intuitive, prices are not displayed in search results, and far less information is provided about each book. A point all to itself is the generally higher price of books in the iBookstore compared with those of Kindle, a result of policies and decisions taken by both Amazon and Apple that are too complex and multi-sided to delve into here. Whatever you think about Amazon's power struggle with publishers, their attempts to dictate pricing, and Apple's pricing structure deal (and there's a great deal to be said, both positive and negative), the fact is that Amazon's offerings are frequently cheaper. By several dollars, in some cases. And that's if the iBookstore even has the book you're looking for.

To add insult to injury, there is no screen rotation lock built into the iBook app itself. Apparently, the feature is available as part of iOS4 itself, but only for 3G iPhones and iPods and up (my tests were conducted on my trusty 8GB 2G iPod Touch). So I have no way to prevent my books from twisting in dizzying fashion when I read on my side in bed. This is bad news.

Thus I am unable to come to any final decision about who has earned my hard-earned e-book dollars. The iBooks app, in my opinion the far superior piece of software, is badly hobbled by both the manner and quantity of its content offerings. Kindle, which dazzles with its excellent e-store stocked with hundreds of thousands of affordable titles, falls significantly short in both the aesthetics and features of its app. And so the battle for hearts and minds rages on. I am sure that Apple will continue to add new titles all the time - Amazon has a mighty head start in this department, but it won't last forever. I wonder which will come first - a major update to the Kindle app, or a significant overhaul of the iBookstore? Until then, or until more extensive experience with iBooks gives me a better feel for the app in use and reveals a preference, the fence post is staying firmly wedged where the sun don't shine.

To see a plethora of excellent screen shots showing nearly every aspect of the new iBooks app for iPhone, visit this post at the MacStories Blog. You can find out their opinion of the program, as well.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why is cheating OK in football? |

"I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating." ~ Sophocles
Sophocles obviously never played football (soccer for uninitiated Americans). He wasn't much of a fan, either, to judge by many of the comments left on this article from the English newspaper The Guardian. And it's a shame. Because the game could use a Sophocles right about now.

This excellent article, although inspired by one particular instance of egregious behavior at the World Cup, addresses a broader problem as widespread as it is heartbreaking. That is the lack of honest sportsmanship and fairplay at the highest levels of professional sports, particularly football, in this case.

I should say, before I go into any of the specifics, that I am a wholehearted Germany fan. I hoped they would give England a good shellacking, and rooted passionately for them in their game against the Three Lions. So when I decry what I am about to describe, let no suspicion of partisanship cross your mind.

For those of you living in a WC-less bubble, the specifics are as follows: Towards the end of the first half of the Round of 16 match between England and Germany, English midfielder Frank Lampard took a hard shot that hit the crossbar of the goal and bounced down into the goal, obviously a good two feet inside the goal line. Germany's keeper, Manuel Neuer, grabbed the ball out of the air and hustled it back into play. The referees, upfield and in poor position to see whether the shot was good, did not award England a goal, a goal that would have put England even with Germany going into the locker room.

As I watched this happen, I was dismayed. What I really wanted was for Germany to shoot a deliberate own goal to correct a truly horrendous mistake on the part of the referee, although even I knew that was too much to expect. "Oh, no," I said. "Nobody wants to win like that!"  But, apparently, Neuer did. You see, in my naiveté, I assumed that Neuer hadn't seen whether the goal was good or not because he was twisting around, and simply grabbed the ball as quickly as he was able, to prevent a goal being scored if one hadn't been already, counting on the referee to stop play if a goal had been scored. Unfortunately, this best case scenario was not how it went down. When asked about the controversial call, Neuer said, "I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over."

Oh. Barf. Is this guy patting himself on the back for denying England a well-deserved goal?

Being fluent in German, I've searched the German online media for reactions to the so-called "Anti-Wembley Goal" (referring to the controversial goal scored by England in the 1966 World Cup final against Germany). It was a disappointing endeavor. Many articles mentioned the bare fact that England was denied a goal due to a ref's mistake, without making further comment, preferring to linger on the German team's dominant play and the fine performances of its young stars. A few articles cited the officiating howler as further justification for the introduction of high-tech referee assistance of one form or another. "Revenge is sweet," said some reader comments. I did not find one mention of Neuer's shameful admission.

Neuer's dishonorable action is just one of the latest, most sterling examples of an attitude rampant in the sport. The diving and injury faking that seem particularly rampant in the South American teams, but can be found everywhere, are another disgusting facet of the same problem. The shoving, jostling, jersey pulling, and occasional headlock in what is supposed to be a non-contact sport are minor symptoms. The attitude is that victory is the only acceptable outcome, and that any means to that end are justified.

What does this attitude in football say about us as a society? Because I'm afraid that this "at any cost" attitude isn't limited to the pitch. Consider all the scandals that have rocked major corporations in the past decade. The prevailing idea seems to be "anything goes unless you get caught." Want to buy hookers with company funds? Sure, just don't let anyone find out. Want to cook the books a bit to fool investors? Sure, just don't get caught. Want to speculate with other people's money? Sure, just don't lose it.

It's a chicken-and-egg problem. Have the standards of honor and fair play declined so precipitously on the playing field because we as a society no longer believe that honorable competition and fairness are valuable? Or have we absorbed this appalling attitude by growing up watching our overpaid heroes do whatever it takes to win, by any means necessary? I don't know the answers. I'm glad that the referee errors made at this World Cup are causing FIFA to revisit the question of technology, but I would be much happier if it caused us all to revisit our notions of decency and honor, on the pitch and off.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Road Rage I

"Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car." ~ E. B. White
Today's edition of road rage is inspired by two instances observed during the seven minute drive between my house and my parents' house - one of idiocy, and one of incompetence.

Idiocy incident: Instead of making use of the left turn lane, an oncoming car crossed the double yellow line, pulled into my lane, and drove at least 10 yards down my oncoming lane to reach his left turn, which he took in plenty of time before I got there, without my having to slow down to accommodate him/her.

I have been told that this is a (stupid, dangerous, illegal) tactic used by drivers to ensure that they will be able to make their left turn and not get caught waiting for long streams of oncoming traffic to go past before they can continue on their merry way. By playing chicken with the people in the other lane, these idiotic, impatient aggressors force other drivers to slow down and yield their right-of-way. The best part of this incident, though, was that it didn't even fit that questionable profile! The person could have easily turned before I got there from their appropriate left turn lane, or if they didn't have the ability to judge my oncoming speed vis a vis the amount of time they needed to get across my lane, they could have turned right after I was past! And since when is waiting for a stream of traffic to go past the end of the world? Where is a cop when you actually need one??

Incompentency incident: While stopped at a red light at an intersection, I had the distinct displeasure of observing a woman driving a massive SUV. That in itself would be a mild annoyance (I hate those things), but what tipped me into road rage territory was the fact that she was seemingly unable to cleanly negotiate the left turn. She literally did not seem to be able to correctly manage the vehicle so as to take it around the corner in a smooth arc from one street to another.

There are purposes for SUVs. I concede this. But nine tenths of the people driving them do not use them for one of those purposes. They are fuel inefficient, make it hard to find my car in parking lots, make it hard to see when backing out of parking spaces, and are a general nuisance. But the worst part is that most of the people boating around in these vehicles have no clue how to drive them properly! You can't drive an SUV like a subcompact. It doesn't work. But millions of cell-phone jabbering soccer moms haven't gotten that memo. Which elevates the SUV from a general nuisance to a deadly weapon in the hands of bimbos!

That concludes this edition of Road Rage.

Monday, June 28, 2010

On Translating

"Nor ought a genius less than his that writ attempt translation." ~ Sir John Denham (c. 1614-1669)
As a translator (and someone who's actually translated a book), here are my thoughts on reading and writing novel translations. (I'm always happy to barge around offering opinions.)

Here's my understanding of how the publishing/translating market works (based on my own unsuccessful attempts to get my book translation published - applies to the German publishing industry only). The author has nothing to say or do with it. A publishing house publishes their book in German. If it's good enough/does well enough, it will probably come to the attention of publishing houses in other countries/languages. This excepts English, by the way, where the number of books published in translation is distressingly small. After a foreign publishing house sees a German book they like, they buy the [blank] language rights from the original German publisher. They then commission their own translator, and publish the book in the new language. The author has almost no involvement. They just get to watch, cheer from the sidelines, and hope the translation doesn't suck.

I found this out because I tried to break in by doing things completely backwardly. (Novel translation is the equivalent in my industry of being a rock star or an A-list actor - many, many want to, and few actually get to be one.) Not too long after my German got good enough to read complicated books, I read one I really liked, but more importantly, one I thought my mother would really like. I tried to buy her the English translation, only to learn there wasn't one! Since I was new to the country and hadn't yet got a man or friends, I had lots of free time, so I decided to translate it as a learning experience and vocabulary exercise, so my mom could read it.

After I finished it many moons later, my German husband (acquired in the interim) said that it was so good, and I'd put so much work into it, it would be a shame if only my mother read it, and I ought to offer it to the author/German publisher and try and get it published (and not incidentally, get some MONEY for it). So I tried that. I sent an e-mail to the author and her publisher, and discovered that they had no use for a pre-finished translation, although the author liked it and was impressed. The publisher had either no clue how to, or no interest in using my translation to shop the book to US and/or UK editors, who then would want to commission their own translation. So I still have the translation, and the book is still not published in English, eight years later.

As for reading translations - I avoid it whenever possible. As a translator, I know that the best we can ever hope to do is to approximate. So much of what makes up a book is the author's voice and style, and that is the most elusive thing in the world to translate. Some of us do better than others, particularly if an author works together consistently with a single translator as a team. A great example of this is the relationship Diana Gabaldon has with her German translator, Barbara Schnell. But no matter how well Ms. Schnell does her job, or how much of a mind meld she has with Ms. Gabaldon, it's not the same. The German product may be equally good in its own way, but it is a different book. It's like looking at a brilliant painting through wavy glass. What you see through the glass may be equally attractive as an end product (and I can think of some artists whose works would only be improved by this process!), but it is not what the artist created. I prefer to commune directly with the source whenever possible. Of course, that isn't always possible, and hence we translators continue to have employment. The best of us know that a book is more than words - it is a voice, and we work as hard as we can to capture both. But, there are a lot of translators who are just second rate. And it frosts my cookies that they get to be rock stars, and I don't. :-)

Because of personal quirks and taste, it does occasionally happen that a reader will like a translation better than the original. This I ascribe to the simple fact that the reader doesn't actually like the original author's style/voice quite so much, and the slight and inevitable changes that happen in translation bring the book more in line with the reader's taste. I am continually astonished by the fact that my husband persistently maintains he likes my translation of the book better than the original it came from, despite the fact that the original is in his native language. I don't think he's trying to stroke my ego - not his style. lol I guess he just likes my writing "voice" better than the author's. I can only be flattered, since she's a bestseller in Germany.

And for anyone who is curious - the book is a roughly 300-page historical novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine, which the author was inspired to write by that grand old Peter O'Toole/Katherine Hepburn film "The Lion in Winter." It's much better than the movie. Its original title is Die Löwin von Aquitanien, which translates to "The Lioness of Aquitaine," by Tanja Kinkel.