Monthly Archives: August 2007


Margaret has compelled me to catch up on The Office and LOST this summer (thanks to DVDs and iTunes), both of which I’ve enjoyed a great deal — but (semi-spoiler alert) I’m struck, and disappointed, by the mortality/disappearance rate of black characters in LOST. (We’re part-way into Season Three, so readers who know the series can judge to what we’re referring.) The first season gave writers a lot to work with, and a richly integrated cast; at this point, the color spectrum has shifted vigorously away from the darkest skin tones.

Which reminds me that someone suggested that my owning a television is like Les Carpenter owning a biretta — a waste of a glorious resource upon someone who doesn’t adequately appreciate it. And to make it worse, the Center’s townhouses come equipped with cable subscriptions. After the novelty of flicking through a hundred or so channels (it looked as though there were five or six “Christian” channels, to my surprise), we haven’t turned it back on.

AKMA in a biretta

Back to LOST for a second — I was intrigued to read Edward Cook’s entry about watching LOST with Hebrew subtitles; evidently the subtitling industry regards Hurley’s “Dude!” as equivalent to Hebrew ben-adam (literally “son of humanity,” “son of a human,” or traditionally “Son of Man”). The soteriological implications of a “Dude” theology, especially when we make the connection to The Dude of The Big Lebowsky (finally making sense of that bowling-with-angels sequence, and enhancing the Old-and-New Judaeo-Christian partnership of Walt and the Dude), set the imagination reeling.

The Dude abides.

Hobbyhorses Sighted In Public

Two prominent publications have just examined pet topics of mine in long, interesting articles. The New York Times Magazine actually covers a pair of my interests, typography and sign design. And the New Yorker offers a critical appreciation of Philip K. Dick. I was an admirer — with reservations — of PKD from the seventies, and at one point had collected most of his published books (something of an accomplishment in the pre-Amazon, pre-proliferation of PKD reprints era), but sold off the collection to Books Do Furnish A Room when we moved away from Durham.

CoverFlow Re-Envisioned

The Unoffical Apple Weblog proposes that Apple apply the CoverFlow approach to file organization from iTunes to iPhoto. Is’pose, maybe — but what about representing pools of data in ways even more intuitively familiar?

For instance, back when I looked among my record albums, they never danced and slid the way album covers do in CoverFlow; but I’d be excited to flip through an album selection the way I used to flip through the boxes of albums that lined my walls in college. The Leopard Desktop will feature “stacks,” which pretty accurately replicate the way I organize my desktop. But what about assigning files “spines,” which could be either auto-generated or user-edited, so that we could have bookshelf-like arrangement? A combination of visual (color) and verbal cues, together with persistent location, could make a very space-efficient file storage mechanism, with a model that anyone who’s ever used a bookshelf would recognize.

Let’s have a cup of coffee, Steve.

Mmmmmmm, Tasty

I’ve already procrastinated too much this week (I have lots of self-indulgence points stored up for when I wrap up this $%#$%$ lectionary series), but I hadn’t known about sIFR. You can imagine that a typography nut such as I will want to incorporate this development when he finally gets around to upgrading his Moveable Type installation and redesigning his blog.

Ever since David pointed to Cat and Girl, I’ve added that webcomic to my daily reading material (Doonesbury, Calvin reruns, PvP, and Dilbert — no more Boondocks, sadly). Today’s strip shows one good reason.

I’m with Krista.

According to Geoff Pullum,
Producing language that other people will be able to understand involves not just having a picture in your mind of the scenario and designing a nice-looking (and policy-compliant) dialog box that you feel represents your view of it. You have to deploy a shared linguistic system, according to established rules, using lexemes of known meaning, to present that picture to others in a way that will work for them. You have to consider whether there are other ways of viewing the situation at hand. You have to examine the wording you have chosen to see if it has ambiguities or unclarities.


Except that instead of calling it “the dance of the elephants,” Mark Liberman should have called this explanation of the on-the-ground reasoning in favor of Open Access publishing “the dance of the dodos.” The present model for academic publishing will be extinct in a relatively short while; the relevant question is not whether this will be so, but how closely the next generation resembles the present model. If publishers were to act rapidly, with foresight, they might be able to spin developments toward a simple evolutionary change; but if they insist that publishing dodos have an intrinsic right to their ecological niche regardless of the introduction of technological pigs and macaques to their ecosystem, then the pigs and macaques will prevail.

Facebook and Twitter

Isn’t there a way that the “updates” for Facebook and Twitter — which are usually essentially interchangeable — can read one another, so that you don’t have to edit each one if all you want to write is, “having granola for breakfast”?

Oops, I see that this is essentially what Dave is getting at, too. I didn’t look at his paper, honest; he’s on a whole different coast from me.

The Skeptical Chiast

The lectionary essays I’m working on involve texts that some scholars identify as chiasmic, composed in an “A – B – B – A” (those are letters, not “Abba”) pattern of inverted parallelism. I’m intrigued by these claims, some of which come from scholars I know well and greatly respect (“know well and greatly respect” forming a cheap illustration of the phenomenon: verb – adverb -adverb -verb) — but I’m very reluctant to accept the claims they make about chiasm in the New Testament.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I accept the premise that ancient rhetorical culture was more accustomed to recognizing such structural devices than are contemporary readers. We can assert with certainty that the ancients knew of chiasm, because they wrote about it in the rhetorical handbooks. We can find examples of chiasm in non-biblical ancient literature. To all of this, a firm “yes.”

On the other hand, the claims that contemporary scholars make about chiasm often conflict with one another, and despite widespread interest in the phenomenon, no interpretive proposal seems to have convinced a broad constituency of scholarly readers (even within the pool of chiasm-alert scholars). When you combine the uncertainty of the interpretive conclusions with the astonishing claims made on behalf of this device (it sometimes seems like the Philosophers’ Stone of biblical rhetoric, resolving all interpretive conundrums, clarifying textual enimas, whitening teeth and freshening breath), I respond with resolute caution.

So, first, let me suggest that the smaller the scale of the chiastic structure one proposes, the greater the likelihood that one has correctly identified deliberate chiasm. I’’m not suggesting that someone can’t, or oughtn’t, or wouldn’t, compose a large-scale chiasm (say, the Lukan travel narrative, perhaps) — just that the longer the composition, the more difficult it would be for ancients or moderns to sustain chiastic structure, and the less obvious such a structure would be to general audiences. Ancient readers would be better attuned, yes; but they would still be quicker to pick up a short chiasm — look at Isaiah 55:8-9 for an example, where the prophet contrasts human thoughts and ways with God’s ways and thoughts — than a very long chiasm. The probability of recognizing chiasm declines as the chiasm becomes more subtle. If an author smacks you over the head with inverted parallelism by shouting repeated keywords and by making a very pronounced contrast between the elements, we have a very clear example; but the more that the author relies on inference and allusion, the less reason we have to assert with certainty that we’re encountering deliberate authorial chiasm.

Second, I suspect that there was more of what we might infelicitously call “informal chiasm” than biblical scholarship can comfortably deal with. In a rhetorically-sophisticated culture, one wouldn’t need to set up flashing neon keywords to tip off careful readers, nor would one expect that absolutely everyone would recognize absolutely every chiasm. And an ancient storyteller might have in mind a very rough chiastic structure — “I’ll begin in Galilee, muck around a while in various intervening territories, have a central section in Jerusalem, then conclude the narrative in Galilee again” — of the sort that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of minute analytical overkill that funds arguments in biblical interpretation. Many proposed chiasms parse the text at such a level of detail that the nuances actually undermine the force of the argument by revealing just how the critic must strain to account for every conjunction, verb tense, and definite pronoun. That’s a besetting problem of the biblical guild, not an argument against the existence of examples of biblical chiasm; but when an interpreter complies with disciplinary expectations of comprehensive rigor (disproportionate with the likely rigor of the author’s compositional coompulsiveness), the whole endeavor goes off the rails.

So chalk me up as skeptical about proposed examples of large-scale biblical chiasm, until someone shows me an example for which there’s general approbation among critical readers, ideally including some of the ancients, and which displays its evidence with an appropriate tone of indeterminacy and humility. I’m sympathetic to the premise, and confident that there’s probably something there, just cautious about accepting grandiose claims on tenuous grounds.

On a peripheral point, does anyone know where to obtain reasonably-priced beer in Princeton? I made only one stop becase I was in a hurry, but it seemed the sort of place I’d ordinarily expect to find sensible prices. The six-packs I saw, however, were consistently priced a dollar or two more than comparable beers in Evanston. What am I missing?

Continue reading The Skeptical Chiast


It’s long, sometimes repetitive, and utterly fascinating to someone (like me) who spent hours and hours playing ADVENTURE on campus terminals in the seventies. Dennis G. Jerz analyzes the legends, the effects, the actual physical location, and the source code of Willie Crowder’s and Don Woods’s invention of the genre of interactive fiction. I couldn’t stop reading it.

My favorite moment in the article comes on p. 172, when Jerz reveals that Don Woods contacted Willie Crowther “by sending an e-mail to ‘crowther’ at every domain name in existence at the time.” Yes, “at every domain name in existence.” Those were the days.