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On Words


American Sign Language

The Structure of Silence: Time space and Force


Learning any new language can be tricky.  Culture matters. Norms and regional differences familiar to the native speaker are often elusive to the outsider. When the language is neither spoken nor written, and used exclusively by the deaf community, mistakes will be made by the hearing learner.



After teaching ASL and serving as an ASL interpretor for years, these are the core things I took away.


The hands are faster than the eyes.

Let me explain.

When interpreting from spoken word into ASL, beginning interpreters often make the mistake of trying to keep up with that which is spoken, rushing along, hands flying trying to keep the pace of the speaker and in the process forgetting that the primary responsibility is not to interpret that which is being said, but rather, the job is to effectively communicate to the deaf person, that which is being expressed.  In other words, good interpreting requires a paradigm shift, you are communicating clearly the message, in a language full of nuances that are shared inside and among members of the deaf community.  A community that, if you are not a native speaker, is in any number of ways, all but closed to you.


Syntax is tricky 


ASL has its own syntax and it also shares many of its rules with spoken and written languages.  But there are nuances that syntax, word order and choice that do not always come naturally to the student. 

Early on as I was  teaching and interpreting, I made the mistake of explaining that ASL was structured more like Chinese than English.  First mistake was arrogance, I didn't speak Chinese languages and had only a passing knowledge of their structure.  The second was trying to impose the rules of written and spoken English onto a langauge that lived in silence and in the air, where its cadence is defined by  body postion, facial expression and shifts, and hand motion simultaneously, layered, as if stacked, something not possible while speaking. 


Where volume is modulated by the hearing speaker by voice, for the deaf speakers, it is controlled, or modulated by movement in space, and time. 

The elements of movement are: time, space and force (or speed).  


Variance in time, use of space and force, (or speed), are the tools used for cadence, depending on many factors  including but not limited to personal style, regional norms and dialects (accents, if you will) and random factors ( or so it sometime appears) that include where the last thought (sign) ended.  



AI: A Few Thoughts



I have limited experience with AI.   I admit, upfront, that my interaction with the writing programs were simple test runs, driven by curiosity and viewed through a lens of skepticism. That said, I did my best to keep an open mind and silence critical voices  that have called the enemy of creativity a copyright thief, and a present and future threat to the world of books and film. I took a collaborative approach, thinking AI would act  as a coauthor of sorts, producing several different scenes.  I say that because at least half the work of creating a vivid scene requires the writer to set the parameters by defining the mood, giving characters motives, deciding what needs to be communicated and what is held back, what is the length of the scene- a paragraph, a page, two sentences, etc.?  


First, I had to define the central question to be answered within the scene: Does the character know she is being followed, what did the note say, is this the place to insert a red herring, a twist, should it contain foreshadowing, etc.? 

I found out quickly that the better the parameters and the questions were that I provided, the better the results. The bot made the scenes scarier than I had imagined, it added factual information, like weather conditions of the time and place, it knew and incorporated the number of steps inside the building (The Astor Column) and wrote inside the given parameters. 

Was it usable?

No. At this point in its development, I used the simple programs publicly available today.  What I go back were several pages that consisted of little more than a series of cliches, strange tropes and sentences that lacked the normal rhythm and cadence  found in good work. 


Was it a waste of time?

No I used the weather information, the number of stairs inside the building and one or two other facts that I would have found, but it would have taken me much more time. 


The above issues will be resolved, AI will consume more original writing that, this very minute, is being produced by more creative and innovative humans. It will probably master nuance and it will learn to generate good questions, with good parameters, and there is little doubt that it will be used in film and writing, held back or limited only by WGA, AGA and future regulatory limitations. 

The greatest appeal and threat posed by AI is its ease of use and wide access. AI writing programs offer writers, students and aspiring authors a quick, well-typed, gramatically sound products, but at what cost? 


I conclude that AI has social implications, found within the scope of book and film, that make it problematic for me. AI  is seductive because it caters to our inner sloth and allows us to follow the path of less resistance. Yawn.


We are no longer on a slippery slope when it comes to bots and the written word.  We are floating on a river moving toward the lowest resting place, before settling there.  Our laziness, and their speed and ease, may be our downfall. 


Clear writing is the direct outcome of clear thinking.  

Resist the bot. Keep struggling

Jury Consultants and Book Editors: Shared Traits


Jury Consultants and Book Editors:
Common Traits


I have been asked why I work as a jury consultant and as a freelance editor/writer. At first glance, the fields seem disjointed; the practice and study of each counterintuitive. But for me, the marriage of the two fields is a perfect union. 

At the heart of each book, and the center of each trial, there is a story that must be told, and told well. Editor and jury consultant, use their skills and intuition to help the storyteller and/ or  lawyer, identify and organize themes, to help the client discover the hook, provide just the right foreshadowing so that he or she can lead the juror through a journey of unfolding truths. 

Editors and jury consultants support a very complex and creative process. At the end of  the day, litigation scientists and editors seek to bring out the best in the attorney and/or author by focusing the client's attention, allowing him or her to discover the most compelling story.
All of the above is undertaken in a pressure cooker when the client (writer or litigator) is under great pressure, his or her reputation hanging in the balance, and in the background, there exists, always, the driving sound of the ticking clock. 


I think there exists a basic misconception about what both editors and jury consultants do for their clients. For example, an outsider to the field may think a jury consultant picks juries for high profile cases, and that an editor corrects manuscripts and pulls the work out of the writer. Surprisingly, these two things happen, but they are not always the core functions or roles. What an editor does for a writer has little to do with punctuation (see Didion below) and what a jury consultant does for a case has less to do with the letter of the law, and everything to do with identifying and evaluating the social and physiological factors surrounding the trial. 

Jury consultants focus on the cultural perception of the law or procedural justice. Their journey starts months before the trial begins and it begins with questions: What are the social factors that will influence the case? What are the filters by which jurors will see and hear the attorney's arguments? Are the attorney's arguments credible? Does this case warrant the expense of hiring a jury consultant? Will the story hold up to a group of twelve? Why? Why not? 

Is this beginning to sound like an editor's job to you?

A good editor has the ability to recognize something magical even when it is scrambled and raw, not yet fully defined on the page. He or she appreciates the energy in the writer's words and is able to identify the force within the writer that cannot be extinguished (even when the writer is faced with the daunting task of countless weeks or years of what will seem like an endless cycle of revisions, rejections, revisions...). 


Author Joan Didion, when writing about her long time editor, Henry Robbins , explains what he did for her work (AFTER HENRY, Vintage, 1992, page 20). "What editors do for writers is mysterious, and does not, contrary to popular belief, have much to do with titles and sentences and 'changes'." Didion explains that the relationship is subtle and deep, both elusive and radical, at times somewhat paternal. In the end, she explains that Henry Robbins "was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself that enabled the writer to sit down alone and do it." 

What does the above have to do with lawyers and jury consultants?

Jury consultants and editors work with people who either write about, or fight for, things that matter- things that matter to them and things that  ought to matter to all of us. 


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