Pulpwood Proofing by Rodney Schroeter
The Clown-Infested Manuscript or How the Human Brain Has Not Yet Been Rendered Obsolete
The title of my first column in this series, “A Thousand Fops,” might have conjured up sugar-plum visions of a gigantic ballroom filled with men in tuxedos, each holding a martini in one hand, sipping it with pursed lips, and holding a monocle in the other hand. With pithy comments like, “I say!” and “Jolly good, ole chap!” each looks askance at the other, and wonders if his neighbor might be the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Zorro, or someone of that ilk.
This column’s title refers to my most recently-finished proofreading project, The Compleat Adventures of The Suicide Squad, by Emile C. Tepperman (forthcoming, as I write this).
The characters of the title are three G-Men, each one a loose cannon as ferociously tough as Dirty Harry. Now, they don’t work in a circus. And they’re not called on to solve any crimes in a carnival (that’s another project I worked on, for another column).
But there were clowns all over. The manuscript is crawling with them! They kept coming, and coming, and coming… as if the manuscript were a little Volkswagen…!
Now, I am not one who thinks clowns are creepy. I know such people. And I’m usually able to suppress the little derisive laugh that wants to break free, belch-like, when someone jitteringly describes their own personal hellish coulrophobia. But after finishing this manuscript, well–I can almost sympathize.
It would be a cheap, completely unjust shot for me to blame this on the OCR program. No, I readily admit that programs like this are incredible time-savers. I’d hate to think of keying all the source material for these projects. Computer programs like this have greatly enhanced our civilization’s ability to get things done.
So the OCR program saves us an incredible amount of time. But it can’t be held personally responsible when it scans a not-the-clearest photocopy, made from a text page that’s not-too-sharp in the first place, sees the letter “d” with a slight break in it, and interprets it as a “cl”.
That’s where the human brain comes in. Specifically, my human brain.
It’s my job to walk through the result of that scanned text, keeping my eye on what’s happening in the story, until I–oof!–grunt!–THUD–stumble clown-like over something like the following examples. Please savor the sweet visual implications of each.
“His eyes gleamed. He was to be caught between two fires here. If he tried to go up, the gunner on the next landing would get him. If he tried to go clown, the gunner on the first floor would get him.”
“The hallway was still thundering with gunfire. The gunner on the next landing was firing burst after burst clown the stairs.”
“The girl reached clown and turned on the ignition, and got the coupe going. It was cramped driving with the wounded and bleeding gunman slumping against her.” (Better a bleeding gunman than a creepy clown.)
“One of the thugs reached over to the bar and picked up a half-full whiskey bottle. He raised it by the neck, started to bring it clown in a smashing blow to Johnny’s face.” (Background research for this article uncovered some exciting recipes for sugar glass bottles, by the way.)
“He was swaying on his feet, and there was sweat on his face. Blood seeped through his coat on the right side, and also clown his right trousers leg. But he held himself erect.”
“The car came careening clown the street, and Dan Murdoch opened up with his revolver.” (Maybe it was a Volkswagen?)
“Far below, over the river, he caught the lights of a ferry, crawling across the Jersey shore like an immense, squat tortoise. An excursion boat, brilliantly illuminated, was working clown the river. Life, and gaiety, and music. While up here on the bleak cliffs above the city, there was stalking peril and lurking death.” (How could it be anything other than life, and gaiety, and music?)
“Time passed in that room, with each second ticking slowly, like an aeon of time. If only one of those men should decide to shoot, that would be the end of Stephen Klaw. He would go clown, taking with him many of these rats. But he would be dead.”
“They couldn’t face hot lead in the open. Half of those remaining on their feet went clown under the first volley from Kerrigan and Murdoch. The rest screamed in panic and turned to flee. They barged into panic-stricken patrons, stumbled over tables and chairs, as they gave way to blind terror.”
“Kerrigan and Klaw once more raised their guns. Murdoch thrust Martha Gray behind him, and threw clown with both revolvers on the hurtling roadster.”
“This latter one was holding a small, sawed-off sub-machine gun, with the foreshortened muzzle poking out of the window straight at Klaw. His face was clown low, sighting along the barrel, and his finger was on the trip.”
“Kerrigan scowled, and nodded. ‘I thought so, when we drove up and saw the shade clown.’”
“He leaned forward and pushed open the pane of glass which separated them from the driver’s seat. ‘Take us clown to police headquarters!’ he ordered crisply, and slid the pane shut again.”
“‘Go on clown there, you heels, an’ check on the water pressure, an’ don’t argue!’” (We all know how that’s going to turn out, as he looks into the nozzle. “Everything normal, sir–GLUB-DUB-FLUB-BLUB!!”)
“Something swished viciously clown past his shoulder blades, and then there was a dull thwack as a knife-point embedded itself in the veneer of the wooden bench upon which he had been sitting.”
“Hand over hand he climbed clown to the window below.”
“He plopped the Boston bag clown on the desk. It was so heavy it almost cracked the glass top.” (To say nothing of his wooden head.)
“Slugs smashed clown into the hall, burying themselves in the bodies that lay there.”
“Klaw held the blind aside, his automatic ready, as the ghostly shapes came clown the fire escape ladder from the roof.”
“There was nothing but darkness clown below.”
Gasp! Sputter! Choke! You know, sometimes reading a lot of this type of pulp fiction at one sitting can get a little intense! But I’m not sure this type of comic relief improves anything.
Thirty-nine clowns in this manuscript. And not a single one of them of the carnival species. Sounds like a lot, but let’s be fair to our friend, the OCR program: The same manuscript had 932 instances of the word “down”, which were translated properly.
Decades ago, there was much fear-mongering from Luddites who claimed that the computer would render the human mind obsolete. Despite the incredible improvements in computers since then, that fear no longer seems to be common. The sophistication and capability of the human mind is still safely ahead of the smartest artificial intelligence.
I believe a partial explanation for this lack of progress in AI is that the science of epistemology–the study of the nature and validation of knowledge–is still in its infancy. Or, perhaps, it has retrogressed the past couple of centuries. If significant advances are made in epistemology, we might someday see OCR programs smart enough to do the proofreading; we’d undoubtedly also see the same kind of magnificent advances in the social sciences (which currently are anything but “science”) that we have seen, the past centuries, in applied science (technology).
In the meantime, I’m happy to contribute to cultural advancement–or, more likely, slow its decline somewhat–by helping to proofread.
Wisconsin, March 5, 2009