Monday, April 23, 2012

I don't mean to be critical. Well, yes I do!

Regular readers know that I am a strong advocate for forgiving mistakes, especially in clinical settings where systemic problems are often at play, causing errors to occur.  Notwithstanding that, in art, literature, and science, there is a place for unvarnished criticism.  After all, when we put ourselves out there with with a piece of work, it is ours alone, and it is free game for anyone who wishes to comment on it.

My daughter, the choreographer, likes to remind me that "you are neither as good or as bad as they say in the reviews."  That is something worth remembering.  But I want to present you with two negative reviews that are so artfully done that the authors should be immediately offered jobs as surgeons, so deftly do they wield the scalpel!

The first is a theater review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times. You should really read the whole thing, but here are excerpts:

Time crawls to a dead stop as you watch “Ninth and Joanie,” a stupefyingly dull drama by Brett C. Leonard presented by the increasingly rudderless Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theater. The actual presence of a kitchen sink might enliven Mr. Leonard’s kitchen-sink drama about an Italian-American father and son immured in grief in South Philadelphia. Watching the slow drip of a leaky faucet for two hours would be more entertaining than this misguided production, directed with ponderous indulgence by Mark Wing-Davey. 

After a bitter confrontation between the truculent Michael and his contemptuous father, an act of sudden violence — somehow both predictable and perfunctory — brings the first half to a bloody close. The second act picks up on the day of another funeral, but nothing much takes place, other than more sullen cigar smoking from Charlie, and another anomalous chunk of monologue from Michael’s wife, Isabella (Rosal Col√≥n), who has brought Michael’s son, Carlito (the very good Samuel Mercedes), with her. 

Mr. Leonard  may be accurate in his observation of these stubbornly inarticulate characters, but their aversion to talking is a serious drag on a work of theater. It’s hard to grope for meaningful subtext when such minimal text lacks point. Rocco’s noodling with his Ouija board and the repeated playing of Vic Damone’s recording of “An Affair to Remember” constitute the play’s primary actions. 

Like too many Labyrinth productions, the play mostly seems to be a vehicle for actorly calisthenics. But Mr. Leonard’s flaccid writing doesn’t give them much of a workout.

The play’s slow fizzle of an ending is the final affront. The lights come up on the audience, suggesting liberty at last, but Mr. Glaudini remains rooted to his chair. Eventually he rises to stomp upstairs again, but Mr. Corrigan remains stubbornly hunched over that Ouija board. It’s a wonder the audience’s collective consciousness couldn’t prod that plastic doodad to spell out the words: “Enough already. Exit stage left!” 

The second is a book review of The Origins of Grammar Language in the Light of Evolution by James R. Hurford by Robert Berwick in Science. You have to subscribe to get the full text. Here are excerpts:

Wide-ranging and often entertaining, Hurford’s three-part account is nonetheless just a story. Crucially, despite his unflagging commitment to Darwinism, he has missed even Darwin’s own solution to the problem of novelty, one readily applicable to language. For Hurford, gradualism and continuity entail changes of both form and function. But Darwin appreciated that there had to be discontinuities of function maintaining continuity of form.

Indeed, a relatively rapid emergence of language seems to square much better with the paleoarchaeological record. Whereas Hurford’s account demands a long, slow trek from symbolic activity and single words to language, unequivocal evidence of symbolic activity first appears associated with Homo sapiens (e.g., the engraved shells in Blombos cave, 77,000 years ago). Going back that far takes only 2600 generations, too little time for a slow trek.

In addition, Hurford repeatedly presents interpretations without providing data to support them.

Biologists expecting a worked-out evolutionary model will walk away disappointed. Despite its subtitle, the book lacks explicit fitness calculations, survival and reproduction schedules, generation times, and, indeed, anything resembling the basics of population or behavioral genetics.

Tellingly for such an inherently historical science as evolution, the book contains very little about established hominin prehistory. There isn’t even an illustration of perhaps the single most striking fact about hominin evolution: whereas this clade once formed a bushy tree with many coexisting species, now there is only one lineage left, us. To be sure, Hurford does not seek to provide a historical explanation—he identifies his concern as “the ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’” of the origins of syntax. But history does matter.... We can shed all of Hurford’s speculative baggage.... All these empirical problems fade away, leaving us with a story altogether different from the one told in The Origins of Grammar.

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