Google as transcription Ace in the Hole? First try finds buddhism, pot, KGB

mistranslated caption mentions buddhism, not part of the conversationI’ll teach a class about movie portrayals of journalists this fall, so I’ve been exploring video clip resources at YouTube. I’m also teaching a Web production class, where I talk about screen-capturing and multimedia plug-ins from the likes of YouTube, so this post will function as a demo, as well as an excuse to share a memorable quote or two, along with links to the movie clip and a 60-year-old New York Times review of the film.

Add some recent problems with my hearing, and I couldn’t help noticing that YouTube offers  Google voice as a way to create closed-caption transcriptions of film clips. So testing that became the “hook” for this item. For the seriously hearing-impaired, Google does call the technique “better than nothing,” and perhaps it will be improved. For instance, I wonder if the system could use some kind of “contextual dictionary” dealing with the time and place of the video, in this case early-1950s New Mexico. As you’ll see below, a few words don’t fit the time and place… and a couple may fit well enough to be misleading.

The transcription program hears "about smoking" as "pot smoking"

We have a shop rule here,” an editor warns: “No liquor on the premises.” The caption  looks like an unrelated policy, “we have a shop rule here electoral promises.”

And the reporter’s quick rejoinder, “How about smoking?” (almost a newsroom requirement in 1951), becomes “how pot-smoking,” making the editor’s “which of course” reply seem quite liberal for its day.

As some of you may have noticed, I tested the transcription feature with a scene from Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” one of the darkest movies about reckless, ego-driven journalists. The result was a near-Zen experience, as the “caption” on the picture above/right may indicate. If you watch the film, you will never hear the words: “sure belt and his family’s about that publishes wife i think he should know missus buddhism.” And, while there is some drinking, pot-smoking is never an issue.

Luckily, my hearing problem is clearing up — and there were some amusing ironies in the transcription that I can share here, just for fun.

The scene: Big city reporter Kirk Douglas encounters a small-town editor-in-chief. No buddhism, but still quite a culture-clash. Their job-interview conversation is one my “Portrayal of the Journalist in Film, Fiction & Popular Culture” students should enjoy discussing.

Our Radford University library has the excellent Criterion DVD of Ace in the Hole, but  someone has uploaded the movie’s first six minutes to YouTube, which is convenient — and makes my caption experiment possible. You can find the scene under the heading “Meet Chuck Tatum.” It opens as out-of-work reporter Tatum arrives in Albuquerque unannounced.

Proper names are an easy-to-forgive problem for any speech-recognition program, but given the aggressive personality of Douglas’s character, I like the ironies of “Chuck Tatum” being translated as “thrust at him,” a fair description of how the editor may feel. Tatum’s list of past jobs gets a post-modern touch: “New York, Chicago, Detroit” becoming “new york chicago defrauded,” which anticipates a theme of the movie as much as the “Tell the Truth” embroidery on the editor’s wall.

Tatum’s best self-promoting lines are in the left column below. The Google CC version on the right is less memorable.

“I know newspapers backward, forward and sideways. I can write ’em, edit ’em, print ’em, wrap ’em and sell ’em… …sideways agony right american freedom wrapping himself…
“I can handle big news and little news, and if there’s no news I can go out and bite a dog.” “the environmental can help big news in a little bit and there’s no notice outlined by dole

While the reporter isn’t asking for the dole, pay rates do get the voice-to-text robot treatment.  Self-described $250-a-week newspaperman Tatum asks for $50, then compromises, “make it $45.” The captioning however, seems more threatening, with an advanced Soviet-bloc weapon: “an a_k_-forty fast.”

Another typo: "in this shop" turns into "and michelle"

Editor and publisher Jacob Q. Boot doesn’t need threats to be more generous than $45, although not as generous as the transcription implies. It turns his “I pay 60 a week in this shop” into “and uh… I’d pay sixty a week and michelle.” Dark though the film is, there is no hint of a “Michelle.”

The women who do feature in the conversation include a previous employer’s wife, with whom Tatum admits to having an affair — one of the reasons he is back on the job market, and the grandmotherly “Mrs. Boot,” source of that Google captioning  garble ending with “missus buddhism.” (Google also turns the careful editor’s symbolic “belt and suspenders” into “belt and his family’s.”)

Earlier, before he gets to see the editor, Tatum does some verbal sparring with Herbie Cook, cub reporter, who eventually becomes his protege. The conversation begins…

Chuck: “I’d like to see the boss. What did you say his name is?”
Herbie: “I didn’t say...”
Chuck: “Cagey, huh?

Douglas's "cagey" becomes "KGB," the Soviet secret police

Then, a moment later…

Herbie: “What did you say you were selling? Insurance?

Chuck: “I didn’t say.

Herbie: Cagey, huh?

The lad’s “I didn’t say,” gets a touch of yoga-class greeting, if slightly garbled, emerging as “but uses namaste.” As you can see in the captured frame, the computer’s translation of “cagey” is more sinister, especially in a McCarthy-era film: “k_g_b.”

For the record, “Ace in the Hole” is a fascinating film with plenty of film noir elements and moral lessons about excessive ambition, media exploitation, audience vulgarity, bad marriages, and government corruption. Back in 1951, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “A sordid and cynical drama of a corrupt newspaper man, set against a grisly panorama of mob morbidity… delivered with all the stinging impact of an angry slap in the face.”

But buddhism and the Soviet secret police are twists that, as far as I know, no one but Google’s text robot has considered adding.

Utterly whimsical coincidence

There are, of course, other text-captioning technologies out there, which can be accomplished with human intervention and video-editing software. I stumbled across a coincidental Kirk Douglas clip where he is cast in the quasi-journalistic role of “troubadour.”

The captions are clearly by Disney, and the “whale of a tale” takes a somewhat more light-hearted (and moist) approach than Chuck Tatum’s desert-cave reporting. If you watch “Ace in the Hole” and come away feeling like Bosley Crowther did, you may want to come back to this bit of silliness.

(Another coincidence:Crowther reviewed 20,000 Leagues,too.)

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in Journalism, movies, popular culture, Video

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