22 May 2008

Arsenic and old lace

Already just a few minutes into the show, the signs were not promising. One of the characters was playing with teacups, which was correct, but he was clinking them so loudly that it was distracting from some of the dialogue. One of the first characters we met is (we later find) meant to be the father of a marriage-age daughter, but he carried himself like a college student. It was amateurish, with swallowed or fumbled lines, overenunciation in weird places, and that perennial problem of actors not knowing what to do with their hands and therefore gesturing weirdly. There were some great one-liners ("Oh, religion never gets as high as the choir loft"), but on the whole it was falling flat.

Then the dead body got discovered, and it was like someone flipped a switch and I was watching a different play. "Ok, folks, setup's done, we're going to start the actual show now." Everyone got better! Most of the litany of criticisms that I was amassing actually went away.

It still wasn't the Studio's best work. Russian accents are not German accents; I suppose this was mostly forgivable because it was at least a consistent Russian accent that Eli King ("Dr. Einstein"—"no, not Albert Einstein") put on, although they might have at least changed the line that identified it as German. There were some big prop problems, with matches blowing out, liquids spilt, and not one but two wineglasses breaking (they need to either glue down the ones they don't need to move, or be a lot more careful—there were also a few near-misses). Several of the guys need to learn how to tie ties so that they lay flat and right-side-up. There were a number of missed cues; at one point Eli had a glass of wine at his lips for close to a minute without drinking because the line that was supposed to interrupt him before he took a sip hadn't happened yet, and there were quite a few line stumbles, including one that had to be covered by someone else. (Though, to be fair, there also were a lot of cutoff cues and stage business, this being a farce, and they made most of them just fine.) Though Willi Goehring's makeup (as Jonathan, not Boris Karloff) was Spot On, the rest was sort of hit-or-miss, ranging dreadfully cakey to not enough, and bad grey-hair jobs all around.

But really, after the switch was flipped and we moved from exposition to development, the acting took off and made the show. The dotty old maiden aunts in particular (Liz Roemer and Kelsey Ingle, both freshmen I'd not seen before) pitched the perfect tut-tut no-nonsense attitude that made the other actors' double-takes really work and made the audience howl—and I never once saw them crack a smile over these contextually hilarious lines, a seemingly herculean task. Willi (with, again, a great makeup job) glides into the room and maintains an alarming unhingedness right through to the end of the show; it turns out he does scary sociopath really well, and you really get the impression that the other characters are pretty brave even to talk to him, much less stand up to him. And general props belong to the whole ensemble, because a lot of the laughs in a show like this really are in the back-and-forth delivery, and in giving the audience just a beat to see it coming: for most of the show, they kept us howling.

So it's a mixed bag, but worth the trip. Underattended tonight, but hopefully the three remaining shows will get a better turnout.

"Just insert one more comma, get an extra cup of coffee, and relax." --Eva Sweeney

Posted by blahedo at 11:47pm | Comments (0)

20 May 2008

More painting

Painting the various paintable bits of my house is one of those on-and-off projects that will probably continue for years, but right now I'm trying to figure out the long-term scheme for it: I've been mostly using plain white for trim, but I think the gables need something a little more. Here, for instance, is the front of my house as it is now (or rather, was as of last fall—some of the stuff on the ground has changed a bit):
My house (taken last year) That pebbled stuff just looks a dingy grey, and some of the rest should be something other than white.

I've settled on shutter green as the accent, and I think a brownish-beige to match the lighter tones of the roof would be good for the pebbling. Where exactly the green will go is still an open question. Two options: Front gable design #1 Front gable design #2 They're certainly not the only ones, either.

And then there are the two side gables, also all white right now (you can just make out one of them in the photo). I'm thinking this:
Side gable design The field area here is not pebbling, it's actually old shingle siding (hence the lines).

It'll be a while until I do anything with this, but I was playing with the graphics program so I figured I'd post. :)

"A mild-mannered neighbor most of the year, Snowblowerman---he wears many parkas---turns into a hero when the flakes fall. All he asks in return is a jaunty wave." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 1:08am | Comments (3)

8 May 2008


A lot of plays start slow, and Shakespeare in particular often takes at least a few scenes before I can really get into the flow of the show; this production was worse at that than most, in that I felt it didn't hit its stride until after the intermission. The second half was riveting, but in the first half there were just too many times when a line would go by and either a word or two got mumbled or the grammar just required too much processing and didn't have time to be understood before the next line came. It helped that I remembered the general plot (or I would have been really lost), of course. And different cast members overcame the language problems to different extents and in different ways: Meghan Reardon (as Ophelia), for instance, somehow managed to arrange the declamation of text itself in such a way that I understood it much more readily. Ariel Lauryn (as, primarily, Polonius) was great at conveying the general sense of the lines, through the prosody of the line and body language, and many if not most of the actors gave extra-textual cues to help punctuate the text (for which credit presumably also goes to Liz Carlin-Metz, the director). Still, though, the first half, particularly the exposition, is going to be hard for anyone who isn't already pretty familiar with the text.

I found myself focussing on voices quite a bit. When Joey Firman, who also played Claudius, first spoke as the Ghost, in an attention-grabbing sotto voce about five steps lower and considerably richer than the regular speaking voice he used for Claudius, I thought, that can't possibly be him. It was, though, and it really worked. A bit later, listening to Devan Cameron (Gertrude), I was struck by the silky, rich alto and how iconically this lent maturity to the role (important, since she had decided to play Gertrude as naïvely unaware of Claudius's crime, and naïveté plus her age could easily have misfired and turned the role into some sort of ingenue). Way at the other end of the play, after Ophelia has gone crazy, I was forced to wonder what other productions could possibly do when they don't have Meghan Reardon's lovely singing voice disarming you with surreal pleasantness as you watch her going quite mad.

For a while it looked like Matt Allis was aiming for a depiction of Hamlet as a mopey, vaguely goth character, though that may have just been the all-black outfit and the general poutiness of the first few scenes. I quite liked the reading of Hamlet as, essentially, a college kid, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his college buddies. (Passing the joint around was brilliant.) As the play wore on, though, he developed the character into a much stronger take-charge sort of fellow; and though I seem to recall Hamlet's character as moving from feigned madness to real madness, I didn't so much get that here. He's pissed and occasionally loses control of the anger, but right up to the lamentable, tragic end, he seems to know exactly what he's doing. What really stood out were the monologues—and perhaps I should say The Monologues—which on some level constitute a risk. The meditations on death ("To be or not to be..." and "Alas, poor Yorick....") are by this point so frequently done outside Hamlet that their place in pop culture is as the schlockiest, most clichéed examples of monologue, parodied six ways from Sunday, and so even a decent performance could easily come across as terribly banal. Matt's reading of these was a lot better than decent, and reminds us why these lines (and others) became so famous in the first place.

This show had a lot of little things to love. Polonius's reading of Hamlet's letter, buzzing through the irrelevant parts and then slowing down to carefully read the lines he wanted to highlight. As mentioned above, the brilliant interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as pot smokers. The first player (Keegan Siebken) totally ignoring Hamlet's stage direction monologue, to the point of nonchalantly climbing a twenty-foot pole to fiddle with one of the can lights. The wonderful presence of Ophelia's mute spirit at her own burial. Ariel's run as the clown gravedigger, just the tiniest bit reminiscent of her Edward from Cloud Nine back in the fall.

The show was staged mostly in Studio Theatre, a decidedly unusual choice for the "mainstage" show. I loved the intimate feel it gave to the piece. The rampart scenes, lit only by the flashlights held by the actors, would have played very differently in Harbach. (And I did like the flashlight-lighting, but I wish there had been a bit less of blinding the audience with careless gestures; maybe there could be some effort to point them over our heads for the most part?) There were some minor technical issues, like actors walking in and out of their light, and poles that sometimes creaked as if the whole thing were coming down. There was also the larger issue of lack of ventilation; by the end of the show, the oxygen ratio in the room seemed decidedly lower than at the start, a problem that will only get worse with the larger crowds that the weekend will bring. And three hours is a long time to sit in a metal folding chair. :P

But I say "mostly" in Studio, because for the last scene the whole audience was moved, via the backstage area, into Harbach, where both the stage lights and the house lights were up. Almost paradoxically, the huge increase in space made it feel even more intimate, as it highlighted the small size of the audience, and as we were ranged about the fencing floor, we got to feel even more like we're in Claudius's court and participants in the spectacle. Which made it unbelievably intense when Claudius screamed in my ear as Hamlet stabbed him, not three feet away from me. I could have reached out and touched them. It pretty much blew my mind; it was a helluva climax to a good show.

"you do begin to wonder who is truly the realist in this debate, and who the romantic. We live, as [Wendell] Berry has written (in an essay called 'The Total Economy'), in an era of 'sentimental economics,' since the promise of global capitalism, much like the promise of communism before it, ultimately demands an act of faith: that if we permit the destruction of certain things we value here and now we will achieve a greater happiness and prosperity at some unspecified future time." --Michael Pollan

Posted by blahedo at 2:40am | Comments (0)

2 May 2008

What I've been up to, Part 1/N: NLP

For the last few weeks I've been on what Knox calls "junior leave", a sort of mini-sabbatical where I don't have to teach and I'm supposed to get stuff done in preparation for submitting a tenure application next year. I've been doing verious things; I'll try to write about some of them, but the series is openended so I don't know how many parts it'll have. ;)

In terms of NLP research, I'm not much less stuck than I've been. Having come off teaching NLP just last term, I did have a couple ideas of things I'd like to play with, one involving multi-lingual Wikipedia as a highly-linked aid to various tasks, and another involving transliteration that sounded neat. I worked on the Wikipedia one a very little bit before deciding it wouldn't give me quite the connections I wanted, not least because the dumps of WP content are not synched across languages. I may come back to that at some point. The transliteration I spent a bunch more time on.

But in the end, didn't come up with much. I could basically replicate the results in another paper, but as I started poking around with improving it, I found that the only things that worked were a little too specific to the exact task at hand, and therefore not very interesting (or, probably, publishable). The really clever parts of it. involving time series analysis of news corpora in different languages, were in the other guy's paper. In the end I found I didn't have a whole lot to add; a deadline passed, and I've basically dropped that, too.

My problem is, ultimately, that I'm not nearly as creative as a lot of people seem to think I am. The kind of creativity I'm good at tends to be more in small-scale cleverness, making highly derivative stuff that is tweaked and better in various small ways, or distilling a complex thing into its simpler core. That's great for teaching, but not so much for research. It's both funny and frustrating: when I read about experimental results (not just in CS), I almost always will come up with a list of additional things I'd like to know about the data, slightly different experiments that would flesh out the finding. But they're always so small that it might be worth the original authors doing them and folding them into their next publication, but not worth me trying to pick it up and do them myself.

I think, actually, that I'd be a pretty good research lab assistant, for roughly those reasons. What I want to do, though, is teach CS to smart college students, and that, paradoxically, means I need to be a good researcher. So there I sit, trying to come up with ideas.

There's a regional conference in the field being held at MSU next weekend, and I'd been planning to go to that, to chat with other NLP folks and to bounce ideas off people. I'm not even at the level of having ideas to bounce, and it seems like every time I take a couple days to go do something, I lose a whole precious week due to all the other stuff and the distraction. So I'd just about come to the conclusion that I'd be better off skipping it.

And as I looked over the site one last time and was preparing an email to send my regrets to its organiser (who I'd previously told I'd probably go), I discovered I didn't really want to send it, I really did want to go. I'm starting to get a little embarrassed to go to NLP conferences, not having any of my own work to show, now, for several years; and yet not going feels like I'm abandoning the field, which I also really don't want to do. I still find it all very interesting and understandable, and I've been mostly keeping up with my reading—which should make it easy enough to jump back in if only I can find the right topic.

Part of the topic problem, too, is that the main topic of my thesis is pretty dead-end-y. Looking back, that was already becoming true while I was still in grad school, and even if I had condensed it into a journal article right away I'm not sure it could've gotten published. There was a certain forest-for-the-trees aspect to it, since the sort of analysis my programs were doing (function tagging) was fairly surface level and required a lot of hand-tagged data (making it hard to apply outside English) and the hand-tagged data I was using was being superseded by a different set of data (making even the English applications a little iffy). The other corpora were using a much more detailed analytical form, which I still think might be overkill for a lot of applications (it certainly is harder to get good results on), but has now become quite standard. The reviewers of anything I write to extend my thesis work (if I were even interested in doing so) would be primarily chosen from among those people who had worked with the other corpus, who with some justification look at the linguistic model I was working under as too primitive and ad hoc, making it ever harder for this sort of thing to get accepted.

Which brings me back to finding a new topic. It needs to be something interesting, and it needs (for practical reasons) to be something I can do with the corpora I already have, because new corpora typically cost a $2K membership in the Linguistic Data Consortium, plus individual corpus costs, and I can't really justify that until I get something done with what I've already got. The topic needs (for other practical reasons) to be something I can make publishable inroads in by July, the deadline for an October conference, and the last conference deadline until next January or so (which is a little late for the tenure review).

So that's one of the things I've been up to for the last month and a half. I guess I'll go ahead and go to the conference next weekend and see if it triggers any ideas. And hope it doesn't stall me too much on getting any other work done.

"A wise and benevolent dictator in particular can still fall at the opposite far end of that spectrum. Because in general we're not able to find such leaders amongst humanity, I favor democracy and consensus building in politics. But because we're so easily able to IMAGINE a leader who outshines the self-centered compromises afforded by democracy, I favor deference to that ideal God as a framework for religion." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 1:46pm | Comments (0)