Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Solving Life's Mysteries

So, I've come to the realization that if everyone wrote everything in minimalist syntactic trees, there would be no more structural ambiguity, and English teachers would never again have to take off points for "misplaced modifiers."

Here's an example of a confusing sentence:

"The agitated cow killed the farmer with the axe."

As it stands, it's ambiguous. Did the cow use an axe to kill a farmer, or did the cow kill a farmer who happened to have an axe? Well, if it had just been written in a syntactic tree, there'd be no ambiguity. Ex:

Here, the farmer with the axe met his end by means of a cow. You can tell because "with the axe" is clearly an adjunct of "farmer." The other meaning, where a cow hacked the poor farmer to pieces, would be illustrated with the prepositional adjunct belonging to the verb phrase, "killed." Here you go:

For some reason, I put "enraged" instead of "agitated, but the point is the same.

So yeah, I think any important text (newspapers, novels, etc.) should now be published in syntax-tree-format to eliminate future confusion.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Report to the Academy Concerning the Trainer of Kafka’s Ape

I wrote this as an assignment for my German 340 class. We were supposed to do a creative assignment based on Franz Kafka's short story "A Report to an Academy." I fleshed out an anonymous character from the story and filled in the missing details.

Here you go:

My esteemed colleagues, it is with the greatest of honor that I accept both your grant and your challenge to observe, study and research the final, and perhaps, most fascinating trainer in a long line of men who successfully attempted to humanize the specimen in question. To be invited not only to stand in your august company, but also to present my findings is most humbling indeed. Truly I feel that I am among giants.

It is with deepest regrets, then, that I must inform you that a full analysis of my data is not yet complete. Therefore, I have prepared a transcript of the interview which I hope will be of interest to this body of scholars. I have by no means abandoned the project, but I must remove myself from it temporarily so as to gain a better perspective. I have found, as I am sure we all have, that on occasion when one spends too much energy and time observing a problem too closely, one loses focus entirely.

I will now proceed to play the interview I conducted with Dr. Hartmut Barras. I remind you that he was the last to recover from the effects of the training, and although it has been decades since the occurrence, he is perhaps, regrettably, too fragile to be of any empirical use. Please feel free to follow along with the transcript:

I: Herr Dr. Prof. Barras,—
HB: You call me Hartmut.
I: Pardon. Hartmut—
HB: Yes?
I: What was your profession before you worked with the specimen?
HB: I taught literature.
I: You were a professor, correct?
HB: I taught literature at a University.
I: And how long did you fill that position?
HB: I taught for 12 years before I was asked to assist in…the specimen’s training.
I: Were you surprised at the offer.
HB: Naturally.
I: And what, exactly, did they ask you to train the specimen to do?
HB: I was to teach him how to read and write.
I: How long were you his trainer?
HB: I can’t recall clearly. A lot happened very fast.
I: Other sources say it was approximately fifteen minutes.
HB: No. Much longer.
I: Hm, well. How long has it been since you resigned?
HB: Can you really call that resigning?
I: Well, how long has it been?
HB: Years. I try not to think about it often.
I: So can you still remember your first impressions of the specimen.
HB: Oh, clearly.
I: Would you share them?
HB: Must I?
I: Well, none of this is obligatory, but it would certainly be of great help to us.
I: I suppose we can move on—
HB: No. Just…. I tell you this because someone must know—but please—for the love of God, man—don’t tell more people than you must. It is something I’m not proud of. [pause] When I first met…him. I thought him an ape.
I: Yes?
HB: What do you mean ‘yes?’
I: You thought him an ape, and…?
HB : Don’t you understand? There was no and! I thought him an ape. A banana-loving, tree-swinging ape. Nothing more.
I: I see.
HB: Do you?
I: What did you observe about the specimen’s behavior?
HB: Ha! His behavior. You talk about him like he’s a plant or a storm cloud or an amoeba. What did I observe about the specimen’s behavior? I’ll tell you. He is definitively not an ape—if there is such a thing.
I: Would you care to elaborate? Or perhaps you could just explain the training process.
HB: There was no process—sorry, what’s your name?
I: Dr. Schneider.
HB: No, you fool. What’s your name?
I: My first name?
HB: Yes, of course.
I: Adam.
HB: There was no process, Adam. I saw the papers he had written under the previous trainers and was horrified. That was the process.
I: I have actually read those training papers. Forgive me if I sound insensitive in my query, but what in them did you find frightening?
HB: Perhaps, perhaps by only reading them you cannot grasp the magnitude of that individual. But to be there! To see the desperation in his eyes as he tried to assimilate me—and do not mistake it for a bestial desperation. It was a caged struggle to be sure, but one not of simply trying to escape into the abyss. It was the desperation you hear in Michael’s voice as Goethe has him try to clothe God’s gentle movement of the day in words. Angelic, yes, that’s what it was. And so far beyond what I am! How it seared my soul to be consumed by a greater being—to see him look into my spirit and find it not worthy of assimilating.
I: He attacked you?
HB: Idiot! Do you listen? He pierced me only with those great black eyes. He absorbed who I was and found me wanting. I became so adrift in his…his horrible being that I lost myself entirely. Until at last I found myself in the abyss, and found myself shouting from the depths of eternity, ‘I am!’ I was the beast in the center of nothingness.
I: Yes. Thank you. How would you say he responded to traditional pedagogy?
HB: Get out.
I: Pardon?
HB: Get. Out.
I: Have I offended you sir? Or if you feel uncomfortable describing the encounter we can pause for a while.
HB: Adam. You have offended everything that I am. Leave.
I: Thank you for your time, Doctor.
HB: Hartmut.

I will now devote the rest of my presentation to questions from the body of scholars. Yes, Dr. Roberts.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The University of Utah's Production of "The Bakkhai"

I like plays. I enjoy the theatre. I even enjoy "progressive" or "experimental" theatre. Two of the plays I've sincerely enjoyed were progressive adaptations of Nathan der Weise and The Magic Flute. The Egyptian temple in the latter was constructed out of giant light sabers and supported by ninja jackals. I loved it.

I hated this production. I hated almost everything about it. Almost. I thought the banners hanging all over with 酒神 were pretty cool. When I first saw them, I thought, "Okay, Bacchus is supposed to have an Asian mother, but not that kind of an Asian mother, but whatever. I'll roll with it. It's a nice touch.

That's what I liked.

I hated the costumes. The Chorus was dressed in dominatrix-goth-stripper attire and spent most of their time pole dancing. No one enjoyed the pole dancing as much as they did, that I can promise you. I can also promise you that you will not enjoy it.

I hated the music. They tried to turn it into a rock opera/classical drama, but they failed. The music in no way complemented or even matched the text. You see kids, in opera or musical theatre, the composer, who typically knows what he's doing, composes a score that brings out the essence of the text. Despite what you may think, it's not just about being loud. Ugh. The music was just lame. It was so forgettable.

I understand the attempt to be original. People have been performing this play for what, like 2,500 years? But here's a secret of the art: a good production is still better than a bad one, even if the bad one is "different" and the good one is not.

Now let's talk about the acting itself. It was exceptionally poor. None of the actors seemed to know if they were in a farce or tragedy. It was bad. It made the attempts at humor tedious and the climax of the play inconsequential. So much of the motivation behind the characters, the irony of Pentheus' destruction and simply the tragedy of the play were lost to stupid insertions of cell phones and jokes about texting. We got it. Dionysus was like a young rock star. Wow. And most of the players, especially Agaue, had the same intensity and volume in their voice for every single line. Agaue screamed everything. That's not acting. It's screaming. Her lines about killing the lion and killing her son sounded identical. And no one's lines sounded their own. It all sounded forced and unnatural. I think the accents played a critical role in that problem. The Jersey accents attempted by the Servant and First Messenger failed epically, as did the pseudo British/American accents most of the actors attempted.

And what was up with Dionysus thrusting his tongue into everyone's mouth? Larry West, the director, lacks that filter which tells its owner whether an idea is good or bad. He just does any old thing that pops in his head.

And then aside from all the interpretation and artistic direction, it was just a shoddy, sloppy performance. The mics kept going out, players couldn't remember their lines, no one stayed on pitch, etc. It was a catastrophically, cosmically and consummately poor performance.

But you know what? The performers seemed like they had a good time. Going back to how the pole dancer enjoyed the pole dance more than anyone in the audience, I'd like to apply that to the play as a whole. It kind of felt like I was intruding on their really good time with themselves all dressed up in studded black leather. But the audience should never feel guilty of voyeurism.