Friday, April 30, 2010

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind; by Margalit Fox

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Behind the bleak, brown cover of Talking Hands is a book brimming with color and information. Similarly, a relatively new language -- a signed language that is unlike any other -- has been blossoming for the last seventy years amidst the sand in al-Sayyid, a Bedouin village in the Negev desert of southern Israel. In this village of approximately 3,500 a genetic form of deafness has been thriving as a result of frequent intermarriage. Today, about 150 villagers are deaf, but these people do not live isolated, marginalized lives, a common fate for deaf people throughout history. Rather they are fully-functioning members of their society and they owe much of this freedom to al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ASBL), a language that sprang up about seventy years ago when ten deaf villagers were brought together and consequently formed a simple contact pidgin.

This language was presumably very simple, virtually without grammar, an amalgam of gestures and signs, mostly nouns, thrown haphazardly together (though we will never be certain: all ten first-generation signers are dead). The second generation, however, were the real magic makers, morphing their parent's grammarless gestures, somehow, into a simple, yet fully-functioning language. Today, the members of this second generation are in their thirties and forties, raising the third generation of signers, who range from infancy to young adulthood. Not only the deaf children but also a large percentage of their hearing brothers and sisters, learn ABSL as a first language. So, unwittingly, these villagers have create a world that many deaf people have pined for, where deaf people are on the same level as hearing people and no one is singled out because of their deafness.

This village, as it turns out, offers a fascinating, even tantalizing opportunity for linguistics. At least as long ago as Noam Chomsky many linguists have been lusting after something, a thought experiment so taboo that it has come to be known as the Forbidden Experiment: essentially, put a bunch of kids together, with no linguistic input save for perhaps a few basic words and see what they make. This could help answer many important questions, chief among them, "How are languages formed?", "What are newborn languages alike?", and "Just how fundamentally similar are languages?" Al-Sayyid has offered a natural opportunity to answer those questions without the risk of forming a roving pack of feral children.

This book is the product of Margalit Fox, a New York Times reporter who, in 2004, decided to shadow a group of four linguists as they went on a research trip to al-Sayyid. The linguists' tools were basic -- just a laptop computer that showed a series of pictures and some video, designed to elicit basic vocabulary and syntax respectively -- but the data they collect will surely keep them busy for the rest of their careers. After the first chapter, "In the Village of the Deaf," Fox spends the next chapter discussing sign language in general. In the following chapters she follows the same pattern, alternating between discussing ASBL in particular and signed language in general.

ABSL is of great interest to many academic disciplines and Fox at least touches on all: anthropology, psychology, genetics, physiology, and of course the many aspects of linguistics. In her attempt at revealing ABSL Fox discusses the results of so many scientific studies, drops so many interesting tidbits she can't help but make her readers all a bit brighter. And I couldn't help but write a blog post about some of them. Already I see this review as rather wordy, more didactic than critical; it is all Mrs. Fox's doing.

Really, this is a great book for anyone -- you need not know anything about sign language or even language in general. It is a colorful, fact-filled book that never made me want to skim. With this in mind, and with the relative popularity of language books in the present day, I can only wonder why this book has not found more of an audience.

View all my reviews on Goodreads >>

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Trio of Graphic Novel Reviews

Dear Reader,

I am writing to let you know that I have recently written, count 'em, three reviews about, count 'em, three graphic novels. Enclosed are the three links, together with quotations of the first sentence of each of my reviews and maybe a few other juicy little morsels.

Give It Up! and Other Short Stories by Franz Kafka, illustrated by Peter Kuper.
"This was my introduction to Kafka... I, too, can't believe it." I really, really have been meaning to get to it -- to The Castle or The Trial or even something by Alan Bennett. I certainly don't want to waste my life (though I do read a little Joyce now and then) so I will jump to attention soon. But really, what drew me to this collection was the magnificent art. As for the stories...I don't want to be disrespectful towards a master writer so I will reserve primary judgment for now.

The TOON Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly
"As any jackass who's read a few graphic novels knows, comics have been through some rough times." A nice smartass, attention-grabbing opening sentence if you ask me, though perhaps I ranted on a bit too long about comics in general at the expense of the task at hand. I also included a poem, "Ode to the Disney Ducks" by Carl Barks.

Whiteout, written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Steve Lieber
is a fun, nothing-special thriller -- that just so happens to be set at the bottom of the motha-f****** Earth!
" Could I really add anything to that, even if I wanted to? Yes, obviously; read the goddamn review!

Though I called them so, really none of the three qualify as a graphic novel in the purest sense of the term. Give It Up! is a collection of adapted short stories, The TOON Treasury is a collection of tales taken from old children's comic books, and Whiteout is simply a reprint of the four issues of the original miniseries originally published in 1998. So "graphic novel" is a loose and sometimes silly term. Wikipedia, in its article on graphic novels, has a section, "Criticism of the term," that features quotes from a number of notable comics figure. My favorite comes from Alan Moore -- as outspoken as ever, yet right on the money:
It's a marketing term ... that I never had any sympathy with. The term 'comic' does just as well for me. ... The problem is that 'graphic novel' just came to mean 'expensive comic book' and so what you'd get is people like DC Comics or Marvel Comics — because 'graphic novels' were getting some attention, they'd stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it The She-Hulk Graphic Novel....

Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Lavinia is not a great book. In fact, I think the most it stirred inside me was an urge to reread the Aeneid. I was intrigued by the premise: to finally put a voice to the "Helen who never speaks", Aeneas' third and final wife, Lavinia. But the execution turned out to be rather wispy, ephemeral; I know this woman no better than I did. Her towns and forests, her land of Bronze Age Italy, have remained similarly obscure.

It is no surprise, really, that a time that was ancient and obscure to the Ancient Romans themselves should remain so to us. But this is fiction: Le Guin had total license to shape the world as she wished; however, that great work of epic poetry, hovering over her head and ours forevermore may have proved too much for the mature and talented fantasy writer. Lavinia -- that is, as she is portrayed in this book -- seems far too aware that she is just a character in a book, that she and her entire world may exist, first only in the imagination of Virgil, then only on the musty old pages of his book.

Le Guin wrote Virgil into her tale: at a sacred spot near Lavinia's village, that she visits regularly, Virgil appears to her in a shadowy form and talks to her, tells her of what is to come. Naturally, he laments not having written her story, favoring Camilla, the warrior princess and one of Turnus' allies, instead. He could rewrite his poem, but, *oh* he's dying. How sad. Though I liked the idea of the sacred spot -- every literary character needs a private little garden of her own -- I could have done without the shadowy portrayal of "the poet."

Why, I wonder, are the parents of these kinds of historical dramas either unbelievably liberal or else terribly cruel? Le Guin splits the pair: Lavinia's father, King Latinus, is as kind, wise and liberal as Marcus Aurelius could only dream about; her mother, Amata, however, is cruel and a little crazy, even going so far as to kidnap Lavinia, under the guise of a religious rite, to try to force her to marry Turnus. I rather liked the characterization of Amata: she has not been quite right in the head ever since her two sons died early, and her fixation on Turnus as the preferred husband for Lavinia is largely because they are kin, though the looks she send to him across the dinner table may lead some to wonder.

I could not ask more, either, from the characterizations of Turnus, the hot-head and gallant fighter who is more than a little timid underneath -- or that of Latinus, the dutiful and deeply religious father, who gives his daughter to a foreigner, as destiny decrees. Ascanius, too, Aeneas' son, came out well: the dutiful son who yet lacks most of the luster of his legendary father, who is overeager and makes mistakes.

I would have liked to see more from Achates, however, Aeneas' trusty second in command -- how could comparisons not be drawn to Agrippa? He could have played the cool-headed Voice of Reason, much in the manner of Enobarbus from Antony and Cleopatra. Aeneas himself, in this tale, is a statue, entirely unapproachable. He has dialogue, of course; he does speak, but his characterization is minimal. It is almost appropriate: no one ever will, or should, know exactly what ran through that statue's head. He is too noble, above-it-all, too important to the legendary roots of the Roma Empire, to have such petty things as emotions.

Lavinia, however, is the main character of this book: far too important to leave her portrayal unfinished, skeletal, and wispy. She is deeply religious -- religion, naturally, plays an important part in all proceedings. She is, unsurprisingly, a sort of proto-feminist -- why else write a book like this, if not to divulge a woman's point of view? And she is dutiful, to her family, to her destiny, to the world and its perceived will. So she is everything that was expected of a Roman matron, with a few modern twists thrown in. But she is not a full character. Her world is not complete. This book is not complete.

View all my reviews Goodreads >>

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Five Tidbits on (Signed) Language

I am currently in the midst of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind, by Margalit Fox. The book is intended for the general audience so, though it is ostensibly about Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), "a sign language used by about 150 Deaf and many hearing members of the al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe in the Negev desert of southern Israel," about half of the book is devoted to the history and science of (signed) language in general. A full review will surely follow but first, here are a few fascinating tidbits I gathered from the book.

1. Some languages have only two color words: essentially, black and white. However, they are not black and white in the traditional, anglo-centric tradition: black represents all the dark and muted colors, like blues, greens and grays; white represents the bright yellows, oranges, reds, etc. If another color is needed during practical conversations, speakers have been known to point at an object of the appropriate color. It works well in Al Sayyid: though they live in a bleak desert most families have very colorful rugs and traditional clothing.

Generally, the more color words a language has the older it is: English has eleven *basic* color words (nevermind niceties like mauve and chartreuse), as do Japanese, Hebrew and Hungarian. Predictably, ABSL has only two -- it is only about seventy years old -- though some of the community's deaf children, who attend classes where the more standard Israeli Sign Language is used, have brought home a third word: purple.

2. The creation of American Sign Language (ASL) was a happy accident. In 1815, an American preacher by the name of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (yes, that Gallaudet), inspired by Alice Cogswell, his nine-year-old deaf neighbor, traveled to Europe to find an effective method of teaching the Deaf. What he discovered, a sign language today known as Manual French, was a cobbled-together mess of signs from Old French Sign, together with many of the creator's own invention. Essentially, it was French but on the hands, but what worked ex oris was very impractical and unwieldy ex manus. Sentences that took upwards of fifty signs to say in Manual French can be translated to ASL, for example, in as little as five.

Nevertheless, Gallaudet took the system home with him and, together with Laurent Clerc, one of the most prominent pupils of the language, founded the Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb on April 15, 1817. It was the first school for the deaf in North America and is now called the American School for the Deaf.

It is there that the magic occurred: drawn by the promise of full and proper communication, dozens of deaf pupils joined the school each year. Very shortly the school had a few hundred students. Yet the magic came, not in the classroom, but in the hallways and dormitories. For the first time dozens of deaf people were together on a daily basis, able to interact in some form. In short, they made a language, today called American Sign Language. It probably happened the same way all languages are created: the first generation, armed with perhaps a few hundred signs,* created a basic contact language with almost no grammar -- a pidgin. From there the second generation, lead particularly by young children, took that simple, grammarless gobbledygook and turned it into a language -- a creole. Which brings me to my next point:

3 The language instinct or language bioprogram. In the late 1950s, a man named Noam Chomsky, a man as important to Linguistics as Charles Darwin is to Biology, began what is today sometimes known as the Chomskyan Revolution. Chomsky's work was extensive and far reaching but the crux of the revolution was the idea of the language instinct -- a hypothetical, innate ability that all healthy humans possess which enables them to learn, speak, understand, and even create language.

The nature of this bioprogram is not entirely understood, but decades of research by a whole spectrum of linguists has proven that, yes, it does exist. Derek Bickerton, for example -- author of a book I read last year: Bastard Tongues: A Trail-Blazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages -- has spent his long career studying spoken creoles in the Caribbean and South Pacific, those relatively new "bastard tongues" that sprang up as a result of the unfriendly colonial clashes between native and European languages.

It is a concept that fascinated me then, when I read Bastard Tongues, and it still fascinates me now. Particularly, what are the commonalties of all languages? When stripped down to the essentials, as in the creole stage, languages have proven to be remarkably similar. Language geek that I am, I can't help but grab my pipe and dream about the "perfect" language -- some kind of creole-ish mess, with serial verbs galore, no doubt.

4 Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language is not the first sign language to spring up in a remote village with a high percentage of deaf people. About a dozen have been documented that still exist, though most are not as thoroughly ingrained in the culture as ABSL. However, there was one: Martha's Vineyard Sign Language sprang up, not surprisingly, on the little island south of Cape Cod. MVSL began its life in the early 18th century, when a form of genetic deafness was passed down through the close-knit population, and lasted till 1952, when the last deaf signer died. Little linguistic evidence survives but there is much anthropological evidence and, ahem, anecdotal evidence. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard, by Nora Ellen Groce, relays many of these anecdotes as the author heard them from elderly, hearing residents in the 1980s. The book is at the top of my to-read pile.

5 Is it an Upper- or lowercase "D"? In the simplest terms the word "deaf" is just an adjective like any other, used to describe a human trait-- like "tall," "fat," and "pretty." However, for at least decades -- and probably much longer than that -- many deaf people have seen one another as closely bonded, as a kind of subculture. Thus the emergence of the term Deaf Culture
and even the "Deaf Power Movement," to defend and extend the rights and privileges shown to deaf people.

* The signs used by the original class of the school include homesigns (ie simple gestures the deaf people used to communicate with their families at home), signs from Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, and, of course, signs from Manual French. To this day French Sign Language and ASL are rather similar -- in fact ASL signers can generally understand French SL much better than British SL.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

OpenCourseWare: Academia opens its doors (just a crack)

OpenCourseWare, or OCW, is a term used to describe materials of college courses (ie courseware) that is shared freely via the Internet (hence OpenCourseWare). Undoubtedly, the idea of putting material from university classes onto the Internet is a very old one, perhaps as old as the Internet itself. And there were a few minor attempts at sharing college class materials with the average world, including that of the University of Tübingen in Germany as part of their timms program, but OCW really began with MIT. In 2000 the first spark of their ambitious plan -- to make the courseware of all of their classes freely available online -- came into being. In October 2002 the materials from twenty-something courses went online. As of 2002 material from every course they offer is available via their website.

Google "OpenCourseWare" and the MIT-OCW site is the first on the list, which is as much as to say that OCW is synonymous with MIT. The hallowed science and engineering university was the first out of the gate and remaina the horse to beat, even if other highly regarded universities like Yale and UC Berkley have made their bids. It is a very fitting situation: MIT have always been forerunners in Academia regarding open source software (OSS) and creative commons licensing. It seems only natural -- like OCW is just another step for them into the world of the free and reusable. They have a lot of company: today well over one hundred US universities have some form of OCW.

OCW course pages typically include a syllabus, any miscellaneous notes and materials, and -- most important to the average user -- podcasts or, more rarely, video recordings, of the courses' lectures, almost always recorded during a class, while the hundred hungry young minds in the classroom take their notes.

I recently finished listening to History 106B: The Roman Empire, a 2008 course from UC Berkley -- my formal introduction to the world of OCW. It covered the history of the Roman world, from the late Republic to the reign of Constantine. It was great: the professor, one Isabelle Pafford, has a lively lecturing style and carries an enthusiasm for her subject that is rather infectious. It worked out great: I downloaded all of the mp3 files onto my iPod and listened to the roughly 40 minute lectures when the mood struck.

Unfortunately, the majority of university courses require textbooks, books that are exorbitantly expensive and often difficult to find. And I encountered the additional difficulty of learning even the names of the texts since "History 106b" came with no syllabus that I could find. I had to piece together what texts the class used through the tidbits I gathered while listening. But that, too, worked out great: after borrowing one of the text books from the library and finding it just-a-little-dry, I turned to the books I really wanted to read -- especially primary sources like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch, all of which were entirely new to me (I have not yet read Cassius Dio *frowny face*).

Excerpts from the four great writers mentioned above, together with many others I have yet to touch, were assigned reading for the Berkley class. Exciting as those must have been, I had the pleasure instead of reading a handful of books that they missed. I just love the situation: the lectures provide much-needed structure to my learning and introduce me to a variety of new things in the mean. And I never have to worry about exams or dreaded "source assignments." I can take my time, read what I want, give it time to settle in the stomach and the brain.

The MIT-OCW website states that each course on their site "requires an investment of $10,000 to $15,000 to compile course materials from faculty, ensure proper licensing for open sharing, and format materials for global distribution. Courses with video content cost about twice as much..." Setting aside the "how?" -- as in, how the hell can it be that expensive to publish a few measly lecture notes, etc.? -- I wonder about the "why?" Call me Mr. Cynic but I have never seen our American institutes of higher learning as the temples of generosity and altruism they should be.

But I will not dwell on that subject. Instead, I can only say how grateful I am that these materials exist, to kindle the flame that, I have determined, will never go out till the inevitable snuffer known as Death. I am not the only grateful, hungry soul: naturally, blogs and websites have sprung up, written by autodidacts with a particular interest in OCW. My personal favorite, The DIY Scholar, does a fantastic job of keeping its readers current on the latest OCW -- it also features an immensely useful "Best free courses and lectures," featuring the author's personal favorites, updated regularly and split into helpful categories.

I recently discovered, as a result of that second link, a course from UC San Diego on the history of the Byzantine Empire. I have also been enticed by two Open Yale courses, which all features video -- thus offering a wonderful opportunity to see flesh and bone and blackboard. The first, simply titled Death, is a philosophy class on the subject of being no more -- directed by the bearded, plaid-wearing, over-articulating, cross-legged-on-the-desk sitting Shelly Kagan who prefers his students to call him "Shelly" and who strikes me as just a little arrogant. The other is The American Novel Sine 1945, performed by Amy Hungerford -- who looks a lot less dykey moving around than her preview photo would lead you to believe. The idea is to push (or drag) my reading tastes into the modern era, to uncover some substance behind the great names.

Just us next week (or tomorrow) for a collection of photos of "typical college classes" -- or something along those lines.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cirque du Soleil

Did you know, friends, that this past Sunday we, us four, went to see Cirque du Soleil downtown at the Wolstein Center? The group currently has seven or eight troupes touring the continent, plus one stationary troupe -- perhaps in Quebec, the progenitor? Or maybe in New York, the Big Apple?

This particular show was called Alegría. Wikipedia says it has a darker story and feel to it compared to their dozen or so other shows. *shrugs* It met my expectations: essentially, it's an on-stage circus with each act occupying the stage for some minutes before morphing into the next act, all tied together by a very loose story.

There were acrobats of all sorts: synchronized trampolinists, a trapezist, a similar act but with a pair of stretchy ropes instead of the trapeze, a "giant ring" performance, and -- my favorite -- the balance beam act, though these "balance beams" were really long beams of flexible material, each held on the shoulders by two supporting characters.

These acrobats were all lithe, androgynous, potentially erotic -- though this is a family friendly show -- leaping about the stage in skin-tight white jumpsuits, with equally white skullcaps and make up. The balance beams and the trampolines made quite a spectacle: dozens of these same-looking, remarkably flexible creatures, twirling in the air from one slim white beam to the other, or else bouncing in perfect synchronization on the trampolines, often barely missing one another.

There were other acts, including the requisite dancing (mainly between acts), and (god-awful) singing. There was a juggler, a pair of fire dancers (hoo boy, watch them twirl), as well as a pair of contortionists (hoo boy, watch them twist and bend about one another, while miraculously forming no position that is undeniably sexual).

But now we come to the crowning jewel, or, as Mom put it, "I liked the clowns." They were just two, dressed in typical clowning clothes whose act(s) consisted only of pantomime -- physical comedy and prop comedy, of course -- with much fast-spoken gibberish and the occasional phrase ("I still love you," I think I heard after a particular paper airplane was crushed under heel). In turn their crowning jewel came just after the aforementioned balance beam act: the two fools ran out on stage with their own white beam and proceeded to parody the previous act. After hurling a few invisible, imaginary acrobats to their deaths the fools went into the crowd, coming back with a man to whom they planned the same fate. It all worked out -- hilariously. This man was remarkably good natured, even graciously accepting some cream in the face after his proverbial fifteen minutes.[n1] I wonder if he was a plant -- or does Cirque du Soleil so trust their audience and sneer at litigation?

These were the comedy relief, the giant paper airplane between the oh-so-serious leotards. But they were more: they were accessible, familiar and consequently the most important part of the show. Those young, fit acrobats, [n2] performing before a crowd of the simply average, can come to be seen with milky, glassy, even lusty jealous eyes. If we are not repelled from them we are drawn to them, to the idea of flying and doing the unimaginable at least twice each day. But such is the stuff of unfulfilled dreams. Comedy, as always, is there, immediate and open to all. You must be stupid or drunk with pain to never laugh at anything.

The show featured other characters, in the same vein: a group of parading musicians, lead by a hunchback with a cane and a red coat[n3]; a small miscellany of females with pointy noses, bulbous middles, large curly wigs, and a unique fashion sense; and a queen of sorts, a woman in a white dress and hat -- did she have a wand? -- whose singing may haunt my dreams for weeks. The only memorable, worthwhile song was the theme (of sorts), performed by the wandering band and consisting primarily of a few catchy bars, repeated again and again.

It was not "the greatest show on Earth" -- but we all enjoyed ourselves. Particularly pleasing was the price: $0.00, courtesy of Dad's "work connections" (see Note 1). They were good seats, too: the center of Row K, first level. Our usual loge accommodations were unavailable -- the boxes for some reason were closed for that performance. O Fie! Let them eat cake and all that... Still, the prices were astounding: 58 bucks each for our seats, reaching to the mid-70s for some of the floor seats. We all agreed: it was fun but not $232-fun. We are glad for Dad's connections.

We have managed to see, on the cheap, American Idol[n4], Manheim Steamroller, the Rockettes, Twelfth Night, and now Cirque Du Soleil. We are establishing quite the Yuppie credentials. Oh, what's next -- Lawrence Welk?

Note 1: I gave it some thought: is there any nonsexual way to describe getting cream in the face? And a side note: did Andy Warhol really spawn a proverb? Really?
Note 2: at the end of the show, during the applause, many performers removed their caps, revealing a shocking variety of shape, color, creed, and --yes-- gender. In my defense, illusions, if they are believed, can be as real and dangerous as reality.
Note 3: the hunchback was the favorite character of Hannah and Dad. I was a bit cool -- as usual.
Note 4: I skipped all American Idol performances, thank you very much.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Review: The Living and the Dead, by Jason

The Living and the Dead My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As Tim, a fellow reviewer on Goodreads, put it: "This is just one of those stories where a dish boy falls in love with a prostitute and they try to survive the zombie revolution." For once, those lying anon. thugs from the Intertubes are right: the aforementioned dish boy --dog-man, really-- is busy collecting the necessary hundred bucks for that one unforgettable night when a meteor (much like the one on the cover) strikes, leading to an apocalyp...ZomBies!!*Braaaains%$*!!! His plans of love and sex seem shattered, but perhaps even Love can find a place in Zombieland?

The Living and the Dead is probably the first book I have read cover-to-cover in a public library since the hallowed days of Frog and Toad. It is without words, excepting the occasional onomatopoeia and a mere seven lines of dialogue, presented in their own panels, silent movie style. It can be "read" in under ten minutes by all but the extremely vegetative. (I did not time myself.)

The author, a so-called Jason, from so-called Norway, is now on my list -- my good list, not my shit list. His is an art style that is simple and clean, heavily influenced by the so-called ligne claire style invented by Hergé, famed creator of The Adventures of Tintin. (He probably got the idea for his single-name pen name from Hergé, too -- I kinda like it, it's got a Greek/Roman feel to it: Diogenes of Sinope, Jason of Norway.)

The anthropomorphic animal motif seems to permeate just about all of his works. The comedy, too, seems to make a regular appearance. No, there are no pianos falling from the sky (at least in this work), but the humor is there: as the back cover says, "It puts the 'dead' [back] in deadpan." (*nyuk*nyuk*nyuk*) I managed to track down another, wordier Jasonian work -- The Left Bank Gang: Hem, Ezra, and Scott as the dog-(men) we always knew they were -- before toddling out of the library in earnest search for father.

View all my reviews on Goodreads >>

Monday, April 5, 2010

Martial on Cato

If, unlike Cato, you stay pure,
Forgoing suicide's allure,
I find you better for denying
Cheap praise solicited by dying.

Martial 1.8, as interpreted (very, very) loosely by Gary Wills in his Martial's Epigrams: A Selection. Henry George Bohn puts forth a much more sober prose translation in his book (pages 27 and 28) and also includes three verse translations from rather anonymous sources. Behold, the prose translation:
In that you so far only follow the opinions of the great Thrasea and Cato of consummate virtue, that you still wish to preserve your life, and do not with bared breast rush upon drawn swords, you do, Decianus, what I should wish you to do. I do not approve of a man who purchases fame with life-blood, easy to be shed: I like him who can be praised without dying to obtain it.
I will not judge any reader who feels the sudden urge to get up and grab a glass of water. Yes, it's dry -- forgivable in this instance because it is a prose translation, designed strictly to bring across content, not feeling. However, the verse translations are not much better, so I have not included them here. The stuffed-shirt club, it seems, had a good ol' time expurgating and expunging all foul words, gaiety, and fun from Martial's Latin originals.

One Elphinstone’s translations of Martial’s epigrams were so horrible, they prompted Robert Burns to write the little ditty seen below.

O THOU whom Poetry abhors,
Whom Prose has turnèd out of doors,
Heard’st thou yon groan?—proceed no further,
’Twas laurel’d Martial calling murther.

Clearly, nobody better create a crap translation of Martial without first looking over his shoulder for a certain Mr. Burns. But alas, even the possibility of a beat down from the Bard of Ayrshire himself did not impede such stuffy progress; nor does it prevent certain non-poets, like the Gary Wills we met at the very beginning of this post, from giving the dusty epigrams the one-two-three.

I met this Gary Wills just yesterday, when I picked up his aforementioned at a rarely-visited library branch. I have not read it much -- clearly he severely favored function over fidelity, a great quality in my mind. But, there may just be a bit too much of the "scholar playing the poet" in all this: some reviewers have claimed the total annihilation of Mr. "laurel'd Martial," though these days he cries murder.

Martial is also very new to me and I already like what I see. I'll be sure to keep this blog up to date regarding my activities on the front line of Martialis.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

What's going on here? (Part 2)

Just two days after the ridiculous events, and my appropriately ridiculous blog post, of April Fool's Day 2010, I bring you a post with the same title but with much different content and soul. On April 1, 2010 I had a(nother) goofy idea: what would it be like to communicate using only questions? Could I do it, or would my brain turn to mush after a mere five minutes of straining? And, if my brain didn't turn to mush of its own accord, would my ticked off conversation partners do it for me? All very interesting questions, but what makes you think I have the answers? And do you think that stopped me from trying?

So...what, exactly, did I do?
As I said, I had the idea on April 1, but it was late in the evening so I only got a few hours of questions-only speaking in there. The next day, though I admittedly forgot about my plans for some ten minutes after waking, was the real beginning of the challenge: one day of communicating (mostly) through questions.

That "mostly," timidly squeezed in there between those parentheses, is a sign of either weakness or good sense. From the start I knew this little experiment could tick other people off, so I made a few provisos:
  • I could use single-word responses, especially "yes" and "no" -- though I tended towards "mm-hm" and "mm-mm."
  • If a fight seemed likely to erupt I could switch to normal, unrestricted speech. I had to use this rule only once and I was just the mediator.
  • I could use any kind of sentence, as long as it ends in a question mark when written down. Nevertheless I tried not to be formulaic and brought forth a solid mixture of the fives Ws, as well as the "yes-no"s. I also tried to avoid long statement clauses with question clauses tacked on at the end.
Someone more disciplined and serious about this whole matter would have little technical difficulty in trimming the three provisos above, but the social consequences could be dire. Just remember: talking with other people is always better than sitting alone, asking questions of yourself.

What was it like?
Not as difficult as I first imagined. Different, too; a kind of experience I had never quite encountered before. I have a tendency to be verbose, to labor a point of Roman History or the book I happen to be reading, which ultimately leads to only stifled yawns. This experiment, far from leading to rows as I had anticipated, was an awakening or at least a reprieve. In retrospect, I suppose it is not at all surprising: people like to be listened to, to have their stories heard.

But I am neither Studs Terkel nor a Hallmark channel original movie. Luckily, you can be much more than just naively altruistic or annoyingly philosophical when using only questions. You can be inquisitive, of course -- but also funny, angry, mean, embarrassing. At least I managed all those, and much more, in well under 24 hours. The only thing truly difficult to express, not surprisingly, is direct statements, especially regarding yourself, your feelings. "What do you think?" she says. "Well, what do you think?" is all I can say -- usually a better choice than, "I like the blue dress best."

I did not tell my dad about my little experiment and the whole day passed without him noticing. Everyone else with whom I had primary contact knew -- I'd blabbed my mouth the night before -- but none seemed deeply outraged by it. Only my friend George said she was annoyed -- but only once and I bet that was more a matter of the content rather than the method (perhaps I should add "annoying" to that above list of emotions). And the woman at Family Dollar, I swear, saw me as a typically terse and sullen teenager. Everyone else seemed utterly oblivious. I suppose that's typical: they are accustomed to oddball words and phrases issuing from my mouth; Hannah says I usually ask a lot of questions, anyway.

What would a questions-only world be like?
I am convinced, at least with the way things stand now, that a world with just questions would be a very dull world, indeed. (A questions-only novel would be equally boring -- just a note to all those potential Georges Perecs in the audience.) Questions -- most questions -- are meant to be answered. They are not terribly interesting in themselves and are a direct cry for this additional information. This experiment was so successful because of their answers, not my questions.

However, things change, people can adapt. Linguists and psychologists have uncovered an enormously wide array of circumstance in which people have lived, to which they have adapted -- with varying levels of success. Of course, there is no telling what a world of only questions would be like, but of course I feel the urge to speculate.

I see it as a world of enormous circumlocution: the detective says, "Did you murder those five people?" and the suspect says, "How should I know? Did I?" Even if this supposed suspect wanted to confess he would certainly have to jump over more hoops than in the current situation.

If you want to get philosophical about it, we already live in a "world of enormous circumlocution." We have never been able to say what we mean, mean what we say -- not really. Yes, there have been attempts at creating a new, clearer, more logical, even philosophical language. John Wilkins and his contemporaries gave it the old college you-know-what in the 17th century, but the endeavor has lapsed into the realm of folly ever since. As for more recent endeavors, like Lojban, see XKCD. In short, if we can live with the current state of inaccuracy and circumlocution, why couldn't we adapt to another layer, or two?

If you want to get really philosophical about it, I don't know. Do I really have to answer this question? There was no grand scheme and there still isn't. It is not terribly useful, like curing Cancer, nor is it particularly breathtaking, like rock climbing or sky diving. But, but, but -- why does my life suddenly feel more complete?

Thursday, April 1, 2010


So there I was, topeka-ing random shit as usual, when I ran across the good old fashion '80s music parody you see above, courtesy of Zlad -- who is also the Anti-Pope. Everything was going fine until I noticed a little option that wasn't there before: TEXTp -- return to the '80s (even more) while saving Youtube some money. (Yay!) Now, I could launch into the long and (not really) complicated history of ASCII art but I'll just get to what everybody is waiting for: Elektronik Supersonik... in TESTp. And certainly, you can't forget Tunak Tunak Tun... in TEXTp. Though the Youtube gods, it seems, truly hate us, for "Benny Lava" is not available for viewing in TEXTp...

Wikipedia has an article about wife selling on the front page(which is completely legitimate), Topeka, Kansas, has changed its name to "Google," and reddit has gone coo coo for cocoa puffs, and, uh, I guess Starbucks is now offering really big, as well as really little, cups of coffee...

The world has come to an end. IT is AN AP0CAllYPsEeee! Or so I thought, but Huffington Post had the right answer, they made it all clear (they always do: they're liberals. HaHa, I'm nearly as witty as Ann Coulter):* today is April Fuels!...

So enjoy a day of lame office pranks and enormous corporations showing their humorous side. And don't forget to read The Guardian's article on The Amazonian tribe that can only count up to five --proving once and for all that the British have a really sick form of humor-- and don't forget to eat your Raisin Brahms. I will return, I promise, to something a little more becoming and usual tomorrow or at least as soon as I can get Paul Erdős to sign my paper.

* notice the clandestine frowny face, accentuated further by the asterisk -- so it's frowning even though it has a flower in its hair. ha (!)