Sunday, May 7, 2017

I Learn Realtime Captioning. Hilarity Ensues Stuffed Colon.

I quit delivering pizza on the Florida beaches six months ago and have since been trying my hand at the "gig economy." (For an honest, accurate explanation of the gig economy, read this and this.) From November through March, I mainly drove for Uber, but also had gigs photographing houses for real estate and insurance companies; completing secret shops in electronics, furniture, convenience, and department stores; delivering narcotics to nursing homes; taking inventory in grocery stores; and captioning prerecorded videos for a company called Rev. Most of these jobs weren't too terrible except for Rev, which is a total junk company that pays about what Amazon does its mechanical turks. Rev is a total waste of time and I don't recommend dealing with them in any capacity.

Last week I started a skills test for a similar captioning company (with apparently much higher pay) called 3Play Media. I was on my way to passing the tests, but in the middle of it, I saw they were pulling the same shit Rev does. Both companies have a style guide, which supposedly tells you how they want the captions to be formatted, and there is a team of graders, or QA people, who grade/check your videos for errors before they're sent to the client.

Sounds fine, but here's the main problem: Each individual grader has a totally different and contradictory interpretation of the style guide, and they excessively nitpick over things that have no effect on clarity or readability. Sometimes the graders blatantly contradict the style guide, and when you point that out to them, they just repeat themselves with a copy-and-paste response from some script their manager gave them, much like Uber does if you try to contact them with any problem.

Anyhow, for Rev I had captioned long, extremely difficult academic lectures overflowing with advanced anatomy, math, and computer science jargon where I had to look up almost every word the speaker was saying. I turned in transcripts that looked great, transcripts that converted garbled audio into clear and readable material, but I was still docked major points on every assignment NOT for my vocabulary and spelling, which were perfect, but for deciding against a hyphen somewhere, or spelling out the word "three" instead of using the numeral '3' when the style guide specifically said to spell out all numbers under 10, or for not punctuating a speaker's stream-of-consciousness diatribe the way some grader believed it should have been punctuated in their subjective opinion. So QA sent me various threatening emails saying my account was under probation for noncompliance.

Yeah, I don't fucking know what their problem is, either. A friend recently said, "I wonder if these places have done focus groups on deaf people to see what they're actually looking for in captions. 'Cause I know whenever I see captions on TV, they're totally off. Like, just awful and barely readable." 

Excellent question, and I'm willing to bet the answer is no, they don't care what deaf people actually want and probably haven't thought about that at all. What I do know is that captioning non-scripted speech is an art. People don't speak off the cuff in nice, neat, complete sentences. They stammer, abuse filler words, interrupt themselves, repeat themselves, correct themselves mid-word, change topics in the middle of a sentence, and use turn-finals. Converting that shit into something flowing and coherent takes a lot of skill, which places like Rev and 3Play Media refuse to appreciate. So they can curl up in a corner and fucking choke on their $6.26 paychecks. And if they think I'm the only one with that bone to pick, they should check out the other captioner/transcriber reviews at Glassdoor.

Typical exploitative corporate bullshit, is what that is. So I deleted my Rev account and withdrew my application for 3Play Media, and now consider my hands washed of the freelance captioning industry.

Well, almost. My current job, which I started two weeks ago and in which I am a regular employee and not an independent contractor, involves using speech recognition software to caption live telephone calls for the hearing impaired.

The pay still sucks, but not as bad.

Now, using speech recognition software is where things really get hairy and distractingly comical. This company uses fairly advanced software, where each employee takes several sessions to create a voice profile so the software calibrates to individual accents, tones, and vocal quirks for maximum accuracy. And 80% of the time it is fast and accurate. But the other 20%, it translates, for example, the word "thinking" to "kinky." Or "okay" to "cocaine," or "garage" to "crotch," or "callers" to "colons," or "stifling" to "stuffed colon," or "Frank" to "freak," or "these employees" to "beer employees," or "love in the past" to "love in the butt." 

I am not making that up. Those are actual mistakes that the software has made while I was speaking. We only have a few seconds to make a manual correction, otherwise the elderly or deaf person on the other end receives something like, "So what were you kinky? Friday? Cocaine sounds good. I'll be out back by the crotch trying to get that motor running. Alright Freak, it was good talking to you. See you then. Bye."

I never hear my coworkers laughing at the software, but I do hear them fighting with it sometimes. Like sitting there and yelling into their headset with their thick Wisconsin accents, "ALL RETTY! ALL RETTY! METTA KAYSHUN! ENNY BUTTY! BUTTY! BUTTY! ENNY BUTTY!"

Er, the word "medication" doesn't have a hard 't' in it. Neither does "already" or "anybody." Maybe that's the problem...? But like Rev and 3Play Media, the QA rules at this phone company can seem totally arbitrary. I was docked accuracy points on one of my training calls because there was a slight background noise that, to me, sounded like distant machinery. The grader told me that in my captions, I should have "labeled that noise as male or female and hit the 'speaker unclear'" button.

I stared at her for a second. "I didn't recognize that noise as human," I said.

Too bad, she basically replied. I am required to label all noises as male or female.

Okay, if y'all wanna play that game, what if the speaker was transgendered, hm?

Whatever. Since then, I've gotten stellar scores on labeling car noises, washing machines, and rustling papers as unintelligible male and female speakers.

We newbies have also been chided for stretching our necks ("Keep your eyes on the screen at all times"), crossing our legs ("Keep your feet on the floor at all times unless you have a doctor's note to use an approved foot stool"), taking our headphones off when a sudden headset noise is splitting our eardrums ("Your headphones must remain on at all times while you are logged into the software"), exploring how the software functions ("Only touch buttons you are specifically trained to touch. If you discover a cool trick, forget it immediately and don't ever do it again"), and talking with fellow trainees about fake training calls ("Only managers are authorized to discuss that content").

They do allow all employees to wear hats of any kind, so hair wrapping is allowed. But according to the employee manual, we are supposedly not allowed to hold any other job along with this one. We can only use company-approved water bottles too (no screw-on caps of any kind) to protect the "equipment," which consists of a standard monitor, keyboard, computer tower, and headset. We can bring a book to read between calls but must use a company-approved sheet to cover it up as soon as a call comes in "so that management can tell at a glance that our attention is not drifting away from the captioning."

Having previously worked in three call centers configured just like this one, with all the same equipment as this one but none of the goofy rules, I find this all pretty childish and oppressive. But then again, that's what low-wage jobs are like. Low wages attract low-functioning people, who are easily stressed and often can't work without intense supervision and monitoring, and management reacts to that instead of trying to improve or reset the culture in the first place. I originally thought I would start in this entry-level position and work my way up to admin, but have since decided to stay only for the summer until I meet a very specific financial goal.

Or until they fire me for writing not-so-flattering stuff about them on my blog. Womp womp...

Fortunately for my co-trainees, they don't appear to be bothered at all by the low wage or how little the company trusts us to act like adults. They seem happy with the compensation, training, position, and culture. One guy told me he's "excited to make more money" here than at his current job, and that he really likes our trainer's "upbeat personality" (read: cutesy sing-song voice and constant giggling about nothing, which are like nails on a chalkboard to me).

Hey, if they're grateful to be exploited by an entire economic system that benefits the few while chewing up the rest for profit, who am I to rain on their parade? I mostly keep to myself and stay out of the break room where everyone gathers and chats. I hold my tongue pretty much all day.

I wonder about people like that coworker, though. Is it better to go through life, pleased with anything and everything? To walk into, for example, a sweatshop and say, "What a blessing to be employed!" Or be in a relationship with, say, a sociopath who beats your kids and sigh, "I'm so thankful to not be alone!" Is that what "happy slave syndrome" is?

Okay, that's another topic for another day.

In other news, in art news, I recently started using a bullet journal. That link shows the bare-bones original version, while there are really creative and pretty variations on YouTube here, here, and here. I'm happy to report that the past two weeks with my bullet journal have been ultra productive. I feel like I finally have full control of my time and a handle on my long-standing procrastination habit and my 10-minutes-late-for-everything habit. My May cover page isn't much to look at, but I'm pleased with how my freehand doodle for June's cover page turned out. If this works well for me all summer, I might upgrade to a fancy dot matrix journal with no lines.

I've been learning more about how to organize a photo shoot and recently signed up for National Geographic's Your Shot community for lay people, and was thinking of submitting a handful of my best travel photos there. Or maybe I'll set up a Twitter account for my pics. I thought it would be a great excuse to follow author Sherman Alexie, but it turns out he left Twitter around New Year's. Somehow I always seem to join things just as they start to decline...

Anyway, I'm also reading more about how to write faster (I think this is one of the fastest long-posts I've written) and how to write pitches, which, mysteriously, my teachers in school never once discussed in my decade of creative writing classes. I've made a list of small startup sites to submit pitch ideas to, and next weekend I'll be volunteering at a small local writer's conference.

In my very girly stack of reading materials right now is the highly enjoyable The Glitter Plan. I've never liked the Juicy Couture aesthetic (velour track suits with "Juicy" scrawled across the butt in glitter), HOWEVER, this excellent book details the nitty-gritty technical side of fashion. It clearly explains terms like rag house, greige goods, headers, crocking, torqueing, soutaching, rattailing, line sheet, sourcing, costing, fixturing, etc. If you've ever wondered how exactly clothes are made and distributed, how designers get started with samples, grids, reps, showrooms, buyers, merchandisers, product launches, and so on, this is a fantastic resource. In fact, it's the only book I've ever seen that gives all that detail in a way that beginners can (and even want) to understand. It makes me want to visit an actual garment district somewhere and it also makes me think there's a lot of room to figure out some ways to lessen the burden of textile waste.

So that's my little world, currently. And renovations continue with this site, of course. I can't believe the Idiotisms and Proverbs domain wasn't taken yet! I guess I do get lucky sometimes.