Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Revising the Hack Test (Round One)

I disappeared for a week — holidays, family birthdays, Office Space-style printer destruction — but I’m back and still on the same subject: the hack test.

I turned my proposed algorithm over to that tool of sex offenders and bored homemakers — Facebook.

Most of my Facebook friends are smarter than me (as are most of the people I meet at the grocery store, county fair and city jail) and a few of them had some suggestions for my initial model.

First, Brian Jones noted a flaw in the system:

I don’t think this is possible. Even if the whole test is just a count of grammatical errors, sometimes those are an important part of the writing style (i.e. Emily Dickinson). I also don’t think originality is quite as simple as you’re making it out to be. If you ask me, nothing is ever truly original, so that would have to be measured on some numeric scale, as opposed to a simple “yes” or “no”.

Brian makes one great point. This system is not going to be infallible. It’s poorly suited to judge poetry and not designed for nonfiction. Also, the older an author gets, the less likely my system will effectively rate it. (Reading tastes and language itself change overtime. Chaucer, for example, would break my formula.)

As per originality, there are two schools of thought when it comes to originality: the Voltaire school (“Originality is nothing but judicious plagiarism”) and the Degas camp (“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”) My original test applied the Degas standard. Something is either original or it isn’t. Brian is arguing for Voltaire. Nothing is original, just slightly less unoriginal.

Brian’s not wrong but his proposed remedy — a numeric scale — breaks the central tenet of the hack test. No subjectivity. Ideally, I would like to create a system that can be used to impartially rank literature. A numeric scale forces us to have an opinion.

However, Brian is correct. There is a middle ground between original and plagiarist; so what if, for now, we adapted the originality scale? (This would amend the almost identical questions pertaining to character, setting and plot.) What if we had a ranking system of three? It would be uncomplicated, but more nuanced than what predated it.

Settings, characters and plot could be (1) overly familiar, we recognize this character or setting etc. from multiple pieces or work, (2) familiar but not a copy, the character or plot may judiciously plagiarize one or two ideas without committing theft, and (3) if not completely original, very close to it. This character, plot or setting would need to be unlike something we had seen before.

I think the categories here are broad enough to permit as little interpretation as possible; but I won’t know until I apply the hack test to something. (I intend to do this soon. One more post revising the hack test. Then, a test run.)

-Jason Lea,

Addendum: Tricia and I seem to have uploaded our posts almost simultaneously. I don't mean to ignore her opinion; but I prepared this post before I read it.

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