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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
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18th-Oct-2017 09:35 am - Olive skin?
When I was a young and already avid reader, I saw someone described as having “olive skin.” This puzzled me. As far as I knew, most olives were green, and people weren’t green. There were also black olives, but no one was that color, either.

So what does “olive skin” mean? Now that I’m older and have the riches of the internet at my beck and call, I did some research.

According to Straight Dope and Wise Geek, it means people with a vaguely greenish, golden, or yellowish undertone to their skin. Or maybe it means the stereotypical skin color of Mediterranean peoples who live in olive-growing areas. Or maybe it means people whose skin tone is neither cool nor warm but neutral. Or maybe it means people who tan easily.

Whatever it means, why use “olive skin” at all? I’m not the only person who has doubts. According to Wikipedia background talk, the expression might come from the color of olive oil. Some of Wikipedia’s volunteers are skeptical, querulous, and even derisive of the idea of “olive skin.” I think they have a point.

If I ever use “olive skin” in my own writing, I promise to be careful, perhaps with a Pantone reference to the precise color to avoid confusion. Pantone’s “golden olive” (similar to those olives in the photo) might be suitable for an alien life form’s skin color, but not for someone from Italy.

— Sue Burke

11th-Oct-2017 10:15 am - Ready to bug out
StaffAndSword.jpgIt’s become fashionable to have a bug-out bag, “a portable kit that normally contains the items one would require to survive for seventy-two hours,” dixit Wikipedia (so it must be true).

In the corner of my office, I have a hiking staff and a sword. You can bug out to wherever you want, but I’m going through the portal into fantasyland. I’ve read the guidebook, and those are the essentials.

I’m prepared.

— Sue Burke

4th-Oct-2017 09:53 am - Leaves fall down
Let me see..
The air could not have been more still that autumn morning, yet a tree near my back door was losing its leaves. One by one, they fell of their own weight as the tree let go. At that becalmed moment, leaves were dropping to the ground.

Usually we think the wind sweeps the autumn leaves from trees, and maybe it provides an extra tug. But trees decide to shed their leaves at the moment they deem best. Though they seem almost inert, buffeted by wind, soaked by rain, and baked by sunshine, they control their fates as much as any of us. We, too, can be uprooted by disasters, attacked by illness, cut down by predators, and suffer thirst. Being mobile does not make us less vulnerable. Or less willful.

So on that chilly morning, I watched a tree prove that it was the master of its destiny. One by one, it clipped its bonds to its leaves, and they dropped off. The tree was taking action, and no one and nothing could stop it.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my writing website: www.sue.burke.name

27th-Sep-2017 09:02 am - The lion with a very shiny nose

You can find these two bronze lions guarding an apartment house around the corner from my home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.

Notice that one of them – only one – has a shiny nose. Passers-by and residents of the building have apparently been rubbing it. Why? Probably for good luck, like rubbing Lincoln’s nose on the bronze bust at his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.

Statues at Dartmouth College, UCLA, the University of Maryland, Dubrovnik, Croatia – and no doubt many others – are similarly venerated.

But I think that the lion’s nose can bring us more than bring good luck. The Phrygian goddess Cybele rode a chariot pulled by lions, portrayed here in the fountain at Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid, Spain. (Notice the Spanish spelling of her name.)

As with Santa, a lion that has a very shiny nose could guide her chariot. According to legend, she arrives with wild music, wine, and a disorderly, ecstatic following.

I’m ready and waiting right around the corner, goddess. Bring your divine power (and wine) to Edgewater! We can supply the lions, wild music, and disorderly, ecstatic followers.

— Sue Burke

As you may know, for several years I’ve been translating the medieval Spanish novel of chivalry, Amadis of Gaul, as a blog. I finally finished that this spring.

The novel was written as four “books,” each one the size of a modern novel. I’ve since been working on collecting the translation into books to self-publish, and since the whole thing would run more than a thousand pages, I’m doing it book by book.

Book II of Amadis of Gaul is now available as a paperback and Kindle ebook at Amazon.

It joins Book I, also available in paperback and Kindle formats.

Books III and IV are coming soon.

The blog will remain up in case you want to read the book for free, which you’re very welcome to do.

Why would you want to read it? Because this novel is a masterpiece. It inspired a century of best-selling sequels in seven languages and changed the way we think about knights, chivalry, damsels in distress, and courtly life in castles. During the Renaissance, it even led to cosplay!

Most of all, this book drove Don Quixote mad. What will it do to you?

— Sue Burke

13th-Sep-2017 10:12 am - To be or not to be ... copulative
I love grammar, and here comes a grammar rant. I have seen (no links to protect the guilty) writerly advice about avoiding “to be” as a linking verb.

Actually, you should consider this advice. You want to use strong verbs in your writing. The verb “to be,” when used as a linking or copulative verb, merely connects or couples the subject with the predicate. It’s a weak verb. For example:

• Becky is an expert computer programmer.
• Your dog was well behaved.
• They were zombies.

While these are fine sentences, you might not want to use too many of them in a row. They merely describe things. There’s no action.

So far so good. But what about these sentences?

• Becky is working as an expert computer programmer.
• Your dog has been behaving well this morning.
• They were being eaten by zombies.

None of these sentences uses “to be” as a linking verb. Here, a form of “to be” is acting as a helping or auxiliary verb. Do not avoid using “to be” in these kinds of sentences.

In English, verbs have few forms, but we have many shades of meaning that we want to invoke. To do that, we use a variety of auxiliary verbs to show time, questions, negation, completion, repetition, willingness, possibility, or obligation. If you’re a native speaker, you can do all this without thinking about it – but you might not precisely understand how you’re using the language. You can easily fall prey to mistaken ideas if you don’t know grammar.

In the sentence, “Becky is working as an expert computer programmer,” the main verb is “to work.” The “is” in the sentence makes the verb tense present progressive, also called present continuous. It can be used in a variety of ways. In this case, it shows an ongoing action, what Becky is doing over a period of time.

“Your dog has been behaving well this morning” similarly shows your dog’s ongoing action, but during a specified period of time expressed by the present perfect continuous tense. It says that your dog was behaving well in the past and is continuing to behave well in the present, or at least until right now. English grammar allows us to make complex statements about when things happen.

Notice that both of the above sentences are active voice.

“They were being eaten by zombies” is passive voice and past progressive tense. The eating is being carried out on the subject of the sentence, “they,” and that’s what makes it passive: the subject receives the action. I have an inordinately long rant (a ten-part workshop, in fact) about identifying and properly using passive voice here, so right now I’ll just say that the main verb is “to eat,” and both “were” and “being” are helping verbs, not linking verbs.

So here’s my point: if you see a form of the verb “to be,” this might not indicate a copulative use. If you want to strengthen your writing, look a little deeper before you make any rash decisions. Don’t just circle every form of “to be” as a way to decide whether there are too many of them. There might be just the right amount if you’re trying to say something complex.

— Sue Burke

Keep Calm
National Translation Month is September, and #NTM2017 has posted two short stories from the award-winning anthology of science fiction written by women, Spanish Women of Wonder. I translated those stories.

“The Infestation” by Felicidad Martínez offers a humorous and thrilling military space opera involving evolved plants. “Techt” by Sofía Rhei is set in a semiotic dystopia with a touch of cyberpunk, recalling novels such as Fahrenheit 451 or 1984.

National Translation Month says, “The translator, Sue Burke, does a wonderful job of capturing these two distinct voices. We hope you’ll agree and you’ll check out this mesmerizing collection.”

You can get those two stories here:


— Sue Burke

6th-Sep-2017 10:28 am - A4 versus Letter paper
Let me see..
If you do business internationally – such as, in my case, translating – you soon become aware that the world generally uses two sizes of paper. There are bigger international annoyances than this, such as getting paid across borders, but this petty nuisance deserves some attention. Why do two competing paper sizes even exist?

For those blissfully unaware of the issue, here’s the problem:

• The most frequently used paper size in the world for business purposes is A4, measuring 210 by 297 millimeters (8.27 in × 11.7 in). It originated in Europe.

• Letter, also called US Letter, is the common paper size commercially used in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. It measures 8.5 by 11.0 inches (215.9 mm by 279.4 mm).

No one knows how Letter size started, but the American Forest & Paper Association believes it goes back to the days of manual paper-making. A paper-maker created a page as long and wide as his arms could reach. The page was later trimmed into quarters, so a page is one-fourth of the span of a man’s arms.

Europeans, however, can explain exactly why A4 paper is that size. In the late 1700s, scientists created an ingenious series of sizes of paper. It starts with a meter-square sheet, which is then cut in half with an aspect ratio involving the square root of 2. It has technical advantages for scaling printed material to make it fit a larger or smaller standard-size sheet.

This discovery was briefly used in France, then forgotten for more than a century, when Germans reinvented the meter-and-√2 system.

What’s interesting is that both A4 and Letter became standards at about the same time. The international zeitgeist was striving for efficiency.

Germany adopted the A4 system in 1922. It slowly began to be adopted by other countries, and in 1975 it became an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard.

The Letter size became an industry standard in the United States in 1921. For a time, the federal government used a slightly smaller size, but it adopted the Letter size during the Reagan administration – there’s something to thank him for. In 1992, the American National Standards Institute defined it as an official standard.

Why two standards? Why couldn’t the same standard have been adopted in the early 1920s all over the world?

It’s hard for us now to imagine how isolated Europe and North American remained from each other in the 1920s. Airplanes could barely cross the Atlantic Ocean. Radio operators had just begun to talk to each other. Ships took more than a week to cross the ocean in good weather. The two continents didn’t need the same standard.

Now, the internet unites the world with sometimes distressing immediacy. Would a single standard make sense now? Yes. But I think computers may actually make a single standard less likely. I can type up a document in Letter, then push a button and convert it to A4 instantly with no muss or fuss. (Except for MS Word documents. In that program, altering the least little thing may cause a meltdown.)

So here we are and here we may stay. Seen from space, the world is a single beautiful blue marble in the heavens. On the ground, we can’t even agree on what size a sheet of paper should be. But we needn’t live alike to love alike.

The 20th century faced the challenge of standardization with reasonable success but failed disastrously with the challenge of world peace. The 21st century could make peace a worldwide standard. Translators are standing by to help word by word.


Here are some links to learn more about this fascinating subject:

This article delves deep into paper size specifications, including where to punch holes for filing purposes and how big the holes should be. Yes, of course, there are rules about that.

And Now You Know: “A4 versus US Letter - Battle of the paper sizes” is a 4:15-minute YouTube video that praises the A4 size and its mathematics. It closes by addressing President Trump: “Do you want to make America great again? Adopt ISO-216 (and while you're at it, check out the metric system too!).”
My friend, we can barely restrain him from blowing up our health care system or North Korea. You ask for too much.

Ars Technica offers an entertaining but pointless debate – except for the following quote: “Letter is 93.5 square inches of space, while A4 has 96.67 square inches of space. That extra four square inches probably never saved anyone’s ass, but it can’t hurt either.”

As often happens with Wikipedia, this article explains paper sizes in greater detail than you may ever need to know, although the charts are lovely. And here’s everything to know about the US Letter size.

Finally, check out “A4 and Before: Towards a long history of paper sizes,” by Robert Kinross. It is indeed a long history going back to the Middle Ages, although he only explains A4 paper. This 30-page PDF is taken from a lecture given at the National Library of the Netherlands.

— Sue Burke

Cross-posted at my professional writers website.


The ARCs of my novel Semiosis have arrived from Tor!

I’ve already sent a few out. The book itself comes out in February, and you can pre-order it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

(The doily, by the way, was made by my great-grandmother, and is protected by a tabletop plexiglass sheet. The plant is an Oxalis, also called a shamrock plant, although it’s not a real shamrock.)

— Sue Burke

28th-Aug-2017 02:49 pm - How big is the flood?
Let me see..

The flood in southeast Texas has been described as the size of Lake Michigan. To help visualize that, here’s a picture I took of Lake Michigan this morning at Contemplation Point in Lincoln Park, Chicago. The horizon is 4 or 5 miles away. Lake Michigan is 118 miles across at its widest and 307 miles long.

-- Sue Burke

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