The Metamorphosis

Before I begin, I must take the time to mention that this is my first word post of 2010! Sure, I’ve been updating the webcomic all along, but this starts out in writing the new year, and with it, the new decade. I hope this decade will be a meaningful one, for both myself and everyone. But for now, I digress.

So, can you guess what I was doing on Christmas day, December 25th of 2009, from 10 pm to 11:40 pm? If you said, “Reading The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka,” you would be completely right! (How surprising?!)

It wasn’t even a Christmas present or anything—I simply stumbled upon the Wikipedia page for The Metamorphosis and found the premise interesting. So, I googled metamorphosis, kafka, text, and found Project Gutenberg‘s free, online eBook version of Franz Kafka’s work. This was at 10 pm. About 100 minutes later, with some distraction, I finished the book. (It’s actually not the only book I read in one sitting this winter break. It was, however, the first book I had ever read online from cover to cover.)

So, the question is, what was so intriguing about this novella? Well, I think the beginning sentence says enough: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin” [Project Gutenberg has the translation by David Wyllie]. This right away draws the reader in, provoking the question as to how this happened and what effects it is going to have.

I really liked this book. I’m not sure why yet. I guess I just love authors who have the main characters explain their thoughts very meditatively. It felt like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow, where a large portion of the book consists of Bean’s thoughts; The Metamorphosis gives this same deep, personal connection, as a large part of it consists of Gregor Samsa’s thoughts. Perhaps this is why I thought so highly of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—Vladimir and Estragon were pretty much thinking out loud for most of the play.

Compare the above books to say, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Not a lot of thinking there. Same with E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Needless to say, I did not enjoy these books as much.

Aside from the openness of Gregor Samsa, I was impressed by the natural flow of the story. Even if there is some magic at the beginning, everything after the first sentence is very, very realistic. The book did not seem as if it were written for the sake of being written (as many books indeed do), but rather, it was written to tell a story. And it does a superb job at that.

I will stop here for now, as I realize that some readers of this blog (ahem) may be reading the book in the next few days, and I do not wish to spoil anything of the work.

Reflections on 2009

My first semester as a senior in high school just finished. Today. Although 2009 is not yet over, I would like to take the time to reflect over all, or rather, some of the various events of this hectic year.

Overall, I can say that 2009 was most certainly the most influential on my life. That has to do with, of course, the fact that it was (and is) the most recent year, but regardless, there have been many changes in the ways I view and interact with the world.

Literature

Something early this year, around January or February, still in the midst of my junior year, totally changed my outlook on learning, or more specifically, my academic interests. Before this year, I would have considered myself to be a math/science person, and to some extent, I still am. But even so, my collection of academic interests has immensely broadened, to the point where I enjoy subjects such as literature and history, rather than be indifferent or hostile to them. I am still searching for answers. How did this shift happen, and why?

I think it started with a play we read in English class, even slightly earlier, in late 2008. It was Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett. Before reading this, I had more or less detested English classes in general. Whenever we were assigned a book to read, I would always wonder, What’s the point? Especially of a book such as Great Expectations (by Charles Dickens), in ninth grade. It was by far the most boring book I had (attempted to) read. It killed my interest in reading for a while. Before that, I used to be an somewhat avid reader, but after being assigned that work, whatever fascination for literature I had was obliterated. I still made A’s and A+’s in the class, but the real problem was, I no longer had any respect for it.

How did Waiting for Godot resurrect my literary interest? For one thing, it was vastly different in both content and style from anything we had previously seen in English. It was certainly witty, but even more, it made me think. Great Expectations seemed to be a long, drawn-out piece of writing with no point. On the other hand, Waiting for Godot was minimal in plot, but extraordinarily thought-provoking in content. It asked some fundamental philosophical questions. It was clear. It was intriguing.

Okay, I know I haven’t painted the clearest picture of this play’s influence on me, but somehow, my interest in English, both the subject and the class, became reignited by the kindles of this play. While I’m on this topic, I would have to acknowledge my teacher, Ms. Dowdle, for making that class interesting last year. I always felt that I learned something every class, something I cannot say for my ninth and tenth grade years.

History

Admittedly, I was also not enthused by history. That is, until I had an epiphany about January of this year, in the middle of AP/IB European History.

For this subject, I think I know the epiphany’s cause. It was the understanding of how different eras blend into each other, each providing the context for the next era. Paradigm shifts, if you will. Our teacher, Ms. Saenz, showed us how the events we learned in the previous semester, namely the Renaissance, the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation), the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment tied into one another by drawing large, abstract, intersecting arcs spanning across the board. These arcs clearly showed how the eras led to what we were presently studying, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. History suddenly made sense.

It wasn’t so much the content, i.e. the personalities, the dates, the numbers, that caused me to suddenly see history for what it is, but the method of analysis, i.e. the way of looking at the big picture. I had previously thought of history as a vast, disjointed collection of facts to memorize. But the big-picture method of looking at the situation changed my views on it entirely.

Writing

I used to be indifferent about writing. This had to do with my writing style. It used to be very formulaic, and every sentence had to follow the laws of English grammar. For example, I never started sentences with conjunctions.

But, in the middle of May, ironically just after a sea of AP exams, I suddenly found myself writing. A lot. If you want proof, take a look at the “Essays” section of this website, a tab on the top. You’ll find among the collection three essays, all in the range of approximately 2000 words, all freelance (not for any class), all dated May 2009. Heck, even the existence of this website/blog is evidence. For me, a more law-breaking, or rather, “creative” writing style makes writing significantly more fun, therefore causing me to write a lot more.

I ran, however, into the natural follow-up question: What caused this change in style? This question was very tough. I could not think of anything writing-wise in May that would cause me to take up writing as a hobby. If anything, the AP exams should have caused me to detest writing. Then it hit me. It had nothing to do with the AP exams. It was actually, in fact, something not related to writing at all, or at least not directly.

Waking Life. A movie directed by Richard Linklater. We watched it in IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK), an intriguing class taught by Dr. Schaack. So, how did this movie change my writing style? Indirectly. I think what happened was that TOK changed my thinking style. I became more open minded. And creative. Yes, I just implied that creativity can, to some degree, be taught. What Waking Life did for me was to literally wake my mind (though this sense of “waking” is not the one used in the movie). Just as Waiting for Godot was a creative play, Waking Life was an extraordinarily creative movie. It exuded creativity.

With this newfound creativity, I perhaps found the mechanistic writing style to be too inadequate to express my thoughts. I’m looking back right now at various saved writing assignments over the years. In ninth and tenth grades, my writing was appallingly lacking. Sentences were always medium in length, rhetorical questions were never asked, and the word “you” never appeared, just a few examples among other things. Which is yet another example, as I used to avoid the word “thing” at all costs, just because English teachers told us not to use it. The list goes on and on.

Humor

Of course, I always have enjoyed humor, but only this year did I realize that it can sometimes mean serious business.

College

Luckily, my new style of writing came in time to help with college application essays! Plus, from the other two subjects listed, I think I became a more well-rounded student. Of course, my main points on the applications were mostly math and science-related, but in several essays, I did not hesitate to mention academic interest in the humanities. My academic broadening also helped put some schools such as the University of Chicago on my list. For my status so far, see this post.

Website

This website was made in November, just last month. Technically, there are two items under the October category, but those were imported from my other blog, now replaced by this one. Of course, my recent interest in writing is related to the creation of this site.

Perhaps, as the end of the year draws closer, I will post an addendum to this, as a final goodbye to 2009.

The Scarlet Letter Mock Trial

Judge in a courtroom
This man is in a courtroom!

We have recently read for English class The Scarlet Letter (1850), a famous novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The work covers a great deal of morality, and one such related theme in the book is the weight of sin, and closely related to it, the value of repentance. It was fitting, then, as a further study of the work, to act out a mock trial to determine the guiltiest of the three main characters, Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and Arthur Dimmesdale.

The trial in my class has so far operated for two class days. Today we just finished the final closing statement, and we will hear the judges’ deliberations next block. So, on to the trial itself.

Structure of the Trial

After reading the novel and taking a multiple-choice test on it, we then proceeded with trial setup. The class was divided into four groups, three comprising teams for each of the three defendants, and one for the magistrate team. It was very much not like a normal mock trial, in that in this one, we had a three-team brawl instead of a two-team duel, i.e. instead of two teams, there were three. This was a somewhat complicating issue for many reasons, e.g. each defendant was cross-examined by not one but two different teams.

That the trial was held in an academic setting is also a factor that must be taken into account. Since some grade must be assigned for each participating person, everyone was guaranteed a block of time to speak, even though in a real courtroom setting, some people may not be allowed to speak. Also, since one focus of our English course is rhetoric, or argumentation, and that a certain number of rhetorical arguments were required in the witness testimony, some such testimonies deviated quite largely from what may be admissible in real court, as they leaped into analysis and conclusions rather than stating concrete, objective details.

Time was an unavoidable but nonetheless significant constraint. First, we have three client teams. Each included an opening statement, the client’s testimony, three witness testimonies, two cross-examinations by the other teams, and a closing statement. Each mentioned speech was to last three minutes, so eight speeches times three minutes gives 24 minutes per team. That, however, turned out to be too restrictive a timeframe. Sections were on average lasting over five minutes, and if breaks and transition time be included, we have about 45 minutes per team, or 135 minutes total. Our class blocks last 90 minutes, so we split it up evenly between the two days so far. The next day will feature the fourth team, the magistrates, whose speeches should not last over 20 minutes total.

The trial could have lasted much longer, for some sections were actually cut. In a real court, opposing teams would be able to cross-examine witnesses, but in our trial, only the main client for each team was cross-examined, and not the three witnesses on each team. These nine witnesses times two cross-examinations times five minutes per cross-examination give another 90 minutes, which would have been totally unreasonable. Therefore, what the witnesses stated could not be directly refuted, except for in very special circumstances; such a case is later examined.

Also, each team was given two recesses, or 45-second timeouts, and three objections. The three objection rule actually made a noticeable impact, for, as an attorney, I felt I had to tightly conserve objections. Of course, the trial was in English class, not Debate, but even so, three seemed too restrictive.

What about the objective? The objective of the trial is to find the guiltiest sinner. Since there is a triangle relationship, the ways of attack are not so trivial. For example, Hester’s team could condemn Chillingworth, whose team would condemn Dimmesdale, and then form a triangle of attacks. Another possibility is that two groups could team up on the other. In this case, one client would be attacked twice, another one once, and the final one not at all. Something like this happened in our case, but to a more extreme scenario, in that two teams condemned each other, and the remaining team—Hester’s team, the team I was on—equally condemned the first two.

Because of this relationship, there were different ways to focus our speeches. A group could focus its time on defending its own client, and not worry as much about attacking the clients of the other groups. Or, a group could focus on a particular client to target. We asked our teacher (Ms. Gaetjens) which path to take, and it turns out the decision was up to us. In our case, we focused on defense, while the other two groups attacked each other.

My role in the trial was that of the direct examiner and cross-examiner for Hester’s team. Of course, as one might expect from someone who put “repartee” in his list of interests, cross-examination was the most fun part for me. In the trial I was able to cross examine both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, the clients of the other two teams.

The Scarlet Letter cover

The Trial

Before I describe what happened in our trial, I would like to add that I did take one year of Debate, back in freshman year. Even though it was three years ago, I still remembered some of the guidelines for cross examination in mock trials. The experience too was quite useful. Perhaps the most important thing was to ask leading questions. Our trial started with Hester’s group, then Chillingworth’s, then Dimmesdale’s. When Hester (Doris) was cross-examined, the attorneys did not particularly ask any leading questions, and Hester could pretty much say whatever she wanted. However, in my first cross examination (perhaps it was a bit too harsh), I asked only yes/no questions until the very end, when I asked Chillingworth (Dong-Bin) to read a quote from the deposition, or The Scarlet Letter.

Of course, it has to do with the person representing the client as well. If the client only responds yes/no, then the questions will easily lead the client into a trap, as in my cross-examination against Chillingworth, for the novel sets him up as an evil man in many places. However, in my cross-examination of Dimmesdale (Andrew Q.), the client came up with many witty responses, and I was saved only by a magistrate’s (Gabe’s) insistence that the client not add additional information unrelated to my questions.

Another factor, and a very important one, is the plot of the novel itself. The novel (perhaps in combination with another Book) is the main source of evidence, and it contains great quotes to pull out in cross examinations that can lead Chillingworth or Dimmesdale into deep traps. However, there do not seem to be as many good quotes to use against Hester.

For an example of what I mean, consider the following attack on Chillingworth; I used these questions as the finisher of my cross-examination of Chillingworth in the actual trial:

When Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are all together on the scaffold in front of the community (the third scaffold scene), and Dimmesdale collapses, you knelt down next to him, correct?

Chillingworth is obliged to answer yes, for this action is directly in the text in chapter 23. If he answers no, then bring out the book and quote the passage that states this.

At that time, did you feel any remorse or forgiveness for him?

This one is virtually a death trap, taking into account the next question. If Chillingworth answers “No,” that would destroy his case immediately. You can follow up with something like: “So you knelt down next to him, and being a physician, you knew he was about to die—and you still did not feel any remorse or forgiveness for him?!” In the more probable case of “Yes,” which the client answered:

Now, could you read the highlighted portion of the deposition, of what you said at this point? (Hands book open to the page in chapter 23 with the highlighted quote: “Though hast escaped me!… Though hast escaped me!”)

The client has to say “Thou hast escaped me!”

So, you earlier said that you felt remorse or forgiveness for Dimmesdale, but even when you knelt down next to him and he was about to die, all you could say was, “Thou hast escaped me!”?

This defeats a large part of Chillingworth’s case. It was actually my very last question, but Chillingworth’s team called a recess at this point, to prepare a response. When the recess ended, and before Chillingworth had a chance to speak, I said, “Thank you, we have no further questions for the client,” but the person wanted to answer the question, so we allowed the question to be answered. The response was something cheesy, along the lines of “What I meant by ‘Thou hast escaped me’ was that ‘Thou hast escaped my medical care.’ ” I merely smiled for about five seconds for the judges to absorb the folly of that statement, and said:

Really?

He said “Yes.” I smiled for a bit more, said we had no further questions, and then walked to my seat and sat down.

So, regarding evidence, the text seems to be biased towards Hester and against Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Of course, I can give an example for the attack on Dimmesdale, but I might post that later, when the judges decide upon the guiltiest sinner.

Speaking of the text, the second most popular piece of evidence was the Bible. Some witnesses, including one that I direct examined (Ben), used multiple quotes from the Bible. Even some objections cited verses from scripture. Even I, as an atheist, cited the Bible. This case was actually somewhat comical.

You see, Dimmesdale’s group brought up God (Ellen) as a witness. The cross-examiner from Chillingworth’s group (Aaron) and I both objected to the person being God citing the Bible as evidence, but she was allowed to continue her testimony. In her speech, she used three graphs as evidence. The graphs showed sin on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. Chillingworth’s graph showed the highest sin overall, and increased over time, Hester’s came next, going up and down, while Dimmesdale’s graph was very low, and decreased over time. Therefore, Chillingworth is the greatest sinner.

However, in my cross-examination of Dimmesdale, I caused Dimmesdale to say that he hated Chillingworth at the second scaffold scene, and then I combined this with God’s earlier testimony that hate without repentance was the greatest sin. Dimmesdale obviously did not repent at that moment in time. Therefore, if Dimmesdale executed the greatest sin, but the sin versus time graphs showed Dimmesdale’s sin as being consistently lower than those of the other two, then the graphs must be inaccurate. I made this objection during the cross-examination, and asked the judges that the sin versus time graphs be stricken from the record. After some debate and deliberation, my objection was sustained, so the evidence became invalid. I raised an objection that caused God’s evidence to be stricken from the record. For me, that was the highlight of today.

I will fill you in on the results of the trial when it is finished.

Update: 11/13/09

Chillingworth was deemed the guiltiest sinner.