Monthly Archives: October 2007

Buncha Stuff, Weary

I was offline all day yesterday at the Advisory Board meeting for Affirming Anglican Catholicism. We’ve had some setbacks recently, so the meeting was itself sobering and tiring; I got up early to get to Manhattan, and the meeting took place in the sausage factory (which I find a spiritually wearying place). I don’t have much to say about that, beyond my grateful astonishment at the sumptuous hospitality I was shown. Margaret picked me up in Princeton Junction at 11:30, and I still feel worn out.

Tom asks some apposite questions over at his place, but I don’t have the concentration to answer right now.

Bob pointed to Sarah Milstein’s “Make Life More Like Games” (and Mary interjected a very helpful note too), which mentions Serios, whose economic model for email struck a chord for me. If an organization’s internal communications — requests for action, fulfillments, and so on — were marked in a way that indicated how much was being asked, and how much was being offered, one might learn an awful lot about workflow. Who asks a disproportionate amount from coworkers? Who asks little but provides much? How does a worker’s input/output vary depending on the kind of task? All very provocative and interesting. Next time someone asks me to prepare a memo or an evaluation, I want them to say “Please devote fifteen minutes to. . . .”

Plainly Interpreting

There’s an argument over at Kendall’s place occasioned by an essay from Scott Carson concerning the [alleged] plain meaning of texts. I intervened once, but I think I’ll keep out hereafter; William Witt, who’s promoting the “plain meaning,” says that texts are inherently intelligible, that “inherent intelligibility is in the text” to be ignored or revealed. I’m on record as vociferously opposing the notion of subsistent meaning that he seems heavily invested in. If “intelligibility” is a property inherent in texts, I am curious to know (a) where it’s located, (b) who gets to determine which texts are intelligible and which aren’t, and (c) who determines which “revelations” of inherent intelligibility are sound and which are actually just “ignoring” the inherent meaning. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Lucky Day

My extremely capable daughter has been making a name for herself in a field that I didn’t even know was a field, namely, “poultry portraiture.” Her most recent foray into this enterprise came after we invited longtime friends John and Hilary over for dinner when we first got to Princeton, and they watched delightedly as we showed off some of Pippa’s work. When they saw her depictions of other chickens, they — recidivist poultry keepers — both realized instantly that Pippa had to come meet Lucky, their new rooster.


They commissioned Pippa to paint a portrait of Lucky (whose life story merits a whole separate post), and Pippa began a series of studies for the commission. First she got acquainted with the rooster, then took a series of photos of him. She looked over the alternative images, and chose several candidates. She printed them out, cropped, edited, and re-selected, finally arriving at one particular image. Then she cut out the “Lucky” part of the image with an Xacto knife and traced the image onto a legal pad. After that, she executed a freehand version of the image on plain paper and — having satisfied herself that she was ready — got out the canvas and paints, and set to work.

Margaret and I were instantly captivated; we spent the last week regretting that this was a commission and would have to leave us. Yesterday we brought the painting, veiled, to Hilary and John’s house to introduce them to it.

The Unveiling

They loved the painting as much as we did, and Hilary rushed to compare the painting to the subject. Lucky himself showed no interest whatever in the glorious representation of his handsome profile (he’s a very self-effacing rooster).

Lucky Is Unimpressed

It was a wonderful afternoon, a splendid luncheon with delicious dessert of apple crisp made of fresh apples from Terhune Orchards, all presided over by Hilary and John’s latest acquisition.


What He Said, Sorta

Bob Carlton names a serious problem — though I’d argue that the problem isn’t “postmodern preaching” so much as “mediocre preaching.” Modernity itself conceived and gave birth to the meaning-impaired mode of preaching that Bob has had enough of; if someone preaches in the unconvicted manner that Bob finds appalling, it’s not Derrida’s or Foucault’s or Lyotard’s fault.

People sometimes jeer at exemplary postmodern theorists, suggesting that since they cared about prison reform or the exploitation of labor or the persistent inequities associated with religious or racial or gender difference, then somehow their commitment falsifies an alleged postmodern tenet that “everything’s OK, nothing makes a difference.” (Not accusing Bob, here, by the way.) That sort of pseudo-refutation belies a tendentious reading of postmodernism that you can’t answer because it’s already decided that its postmodern object isn’t worth studying thoughtfully.) Most of the postmodern theorists I can think of adopt passionately hortatory rhetoric when you hew close to the topics about which they care most. Those simply aren’t the topics that other people have decided in advance that they should care about, or the ways that other people have decided they should care.

A long time ago, when I taught a senior honors seminar that involved postmodern theory, one of my students interrupted me toward the end of the semester and asked, “So are you telling us that postmodernism means that you’re accountable for everything you say and do, all the time?” That seemed pretty apposite for the course, for the time — and it seems apposite for Bob’s homiletical desiderata, especially when you consider that the preacher dares to stand up in the assembly of God and angels, saints triumphant and saints militant, to speak a Word of the gospel.

Morning After

Oooh, and my ears are still ringing. . . .”

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a concert where the crowd was so loud. I’ve never been to so smoke-free a concert. I hadn’t been to Madison Square Garden before — I imagined it to be much bigger, much more spacious. I think my ears may have turned a corner somewhere; the fine high-frequency sounds (violin, piano) lacked definition in a way that I doubt the sound people would have tolerated. A crowd full of people cheering “Bru-u-u-uce” sounds more like a herd of lowing cattle than like an exhilarated throng of fans. Has anyone else noticed that Bruce Springsteen doesn’t cuss?

OK, I got all that out of the way. The Springsteen set was spectacular. From the moment the band hit the stage, they rocked harder than anything I’ve seen before (except maybe the previous Springsteen concert, but we were all twenty-five years younger then). I was astounded at the job Springsteen did; his performance catalyzed a constellation of ideas I’ve had about “performing” for a while, ideas I’ll allow to gestate a few days longer, but as Margaret appositely observed on the way home, the set was unrelenting. The E Street Band plays compelling ensemble rock’n’roll, without sacrificing intensity to the expansivenes of the band (which was a big band, a big sound, when we saw them back in ’81; now they’ve added Nils Lofgren and Patti Sciafa on guitar and Soozie Tyrell on violin, and sometimes Tyrell picks up a guitar herself, making a total of five guitars plus Garry Tallent on bass). Multiple guitars sometimes makes for a ponderous sound kludge, but the band’s experience with one another and the sound team’s production work channeled the aural density into oceanic force.

I love the E STreet Band, but I especially appreciate the background players. I keep an eye on Danny Federici and Garry Tallent while the projection screens emphasize Bruce (of course), the guitarists, Clarence, Max and Prof. Roy Bittan. They display a professionalism that belies the sterility the term is frequently deployed to convey; contrariwise, they give everything, just right, and support the ensemble sound with grace and reticence.

Springsteen was in terrific form. I had only two cavils: One, very short, involved a verse (perhaps from “Reason to Believe”?) when he sang into an overdriven microphone, giving the impression that he was using a dispatcher’s mike — it sounded incongruous for the song, though it might have been effective in a different setting. Two, I thought he rushed the delivery of some key lines (in “Candy’s Room,” “Jungleland,” “Born to Run”). I wonder whether he’s not trying to wrest control of the lines away from a crowd that wants to shout them along with him — but whatever the reason, I’d argue that Springsteen’s artistry relies heavily on timing, such that letting the lyric run ahead of the beat undercuts the whole. I felt the hurried delivery attenuated the conviction that carries so much of his compositions. (Margaret didn’t notice that, so take my criticism with a grain of salt.)

He took on a very tough job, trying to keep a wildly enthusiastic crowd on board for the somber political message of the songs from Magic. How do you cheer wildly at the end of “Devil’s Arcade,” even if Springsteen delivered it with heart-wrenching intensity? And some in the crowd had no patience for Springsteen’s explicit politicking, shouting, “Just sing the songs.” Though I’m on Bruce’s side here, I wonder whether he might not do better taking the heckler’s advice — “Magic” and “Last to Die” sound more convincing to me than most of Bruce’s (heartfelt) excoriations of the last six years. But Bruce just wins; the songs from Magic work better, Margaret and I agreed, on stage than on the record (and I notice that the AMG review tends to concur (“[the] careful construction. . . tends to keep the music from reaching full flight”).

Highlights? Goodness! Well, hearing “Night” right after “Radio Nowhere” caught up whatever hadn’t already been captivated. “Reason to Believe” worked admirably as a with the blues-rock setting the band gave it — the lead-in sounded uncannily like “Spirit In The Sky,” a song I’d love to hear Springsteen and the band cover). Asking “Are there any lovers out there tongiht?” (he obviously knew Maragret and I had come to the show), he sang “Tougher Than the Rest” with Patti. He dedicated his performance of “Meeting Across the River” to Peter Boyle, whose birthday it would have been, noting that Boyle always loved the tension of hope and failure in the song. Springsteen sang it accompanied only by Tallent on upright bass and Bittan on piano, and it soared, and (in accordance with cosmic laws of necessity) segued into a tremendous performance of “Jungleland.” The band had buckets of fun with “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” including winning byplay among Bruce and Steve and Clarence.

And yes, he brought out “Thundercrack” in the encores. Bruce explained, “This was our show-stopper, back when. . . there was no one at the show. We used to play this at Max’s Kansas City. We played there with Bob Marley and the Wailers — it seated 150, and there were some empty seats!” The song gave Federici a chance to step out at the beginning, gave everyone a chance to rock out in one of Springsteen’s classic episodic compositions, and thrilled me from toes to scalp. The band segued into the inevitable “Born to Run,” then, and “Dancing In the Dark” (on cue, Steve did The Monkey with the audience seated behind the stage). Then Bruce brought the Sessions Band out to play “American Land,” with supertitled sing-along lyrics on the projection screens.

What a night! Thanks so much, Jennifer, for the tickets. And thanks, Bruce, for the hard work and brilliance that you put into everything.

Print, News, and Net

John sent me a message asking what I thought about Hal Crowther’s elegy to print journalism, presumably in light of my advocacy of digital media. Without taking the full time that Crowther’s bittersweet column deserves, I’d make a couple of points in response. First, Crowther correctly identifies the problem as to a great extent a financial problem; under cultural conditions when newspapers were expected to serve the public interest mare than to serve as profit centers, they produced more excellent work. When bloodless speculators see a newspaper as capital waiting to be disagglomerated for profit over the cost of the whole enterprise, you’re going to depress the quality of the news that the papers produce. That’s not the Web’s fault; if the citizenry demanded high-quality news reporting, they could demand legislation that protected newspapers.

Crowther shows some attentiveness to media transitions as an ordinary aspect of culture, but still falls back on “internet as cesspools of [bad] amateurs” rhetoric of, for instance, Andrew Keen. If we grant that things are as bad as he says — and that’s not at all clear; print media are not as uniformly excellent as his nostalgia makes them, nor are online media as uniformly unreliable — but even if things are bad, may we allow that digital media have only had a few years to coalesce the business models that will support excellence in news reporting. And established media haven’t exactly been helping shape the financial future of news reporting by their resolute resistance to inhabiting online communication on the terms of the medium. Combine their square-peg-round-hole approach to digital media with the vultures’ chainsaw profiteering, and Crowther has ample reason to regret times past.

All of that, however, doesn’t mean that online media somehow prevent good news reporting. If no one model has come to the fore as a basis for a future reliable, unbiased [!], disinterested venue for online reporting, it’s not because no one is trying, or the medium makes good reporting impossible.

Stepping Back

I think I’m going to step out and change from Moveable Type to Blogger. If I had the time and energy, I’d rather use WordPress and host the engine as well as the pages — but the lesson of my last few years running MT has been that if I don’t feel determined enough to maintain it, I shouldn’t install it. I’ve been sticking with MT through the comment-spam phase and the subsequent no-commentts phase, but I’d like to get back to welcoming comments. I ran Blogger for the Beautiful Theology blog, and am comfortable with it; I am not wild about captchas, but the corporate heft of Blogger/Google provides the capacity for disability-aware alternatives to the visual captchas. I wanted to investigate making a simple question-and-answer challenge for my MT comments page — my page is low-profile enough that there’s no percentage in devoting brainpower or computer cycles to defeating something as simple as “What is AKMA’s last name?” or “What kind of thoughts is this blog named after?” But I never got around to it, and the prospect of upgrading MT has been daunting me for months now.

Using Blogger will solve about twelve problems at once. I think that’s enough to overcome my residual personal loyalty to Ben and Mena. I’m still very fond of them, but I’m no longer in MT’s core constituency.

Whoa! You might think I had said I was about to buy a PC!

Am entertaining second thoughts, impelled by urgent feedback from trusted friends.

Tell It, Zack

Zack Exley, on religious women in rural Missouri:

Just imagine if you heard one day about an international community of women that’s been operating continuously and supporting itself for more than 170 years. Imagine that you heard that these women vow to serve others as their primary vocation for the rest of their lives, and that they choose to live together in spiritual as well as practical community for the whole span of their lives. Wouldn’t that be an amazing thing to hear about? Well, that’s what this community is.

. . . As I was going to sleep, thinking about that, I felt terrified of a world without these beautiful and powerful international communities.

Next Generation

From Bob Carlton, this follow-up video by Michael (“The Machine Is Us/ing Us”) Wesch; and from Stephen Downes, a slide presentation of “Web 2.0” using Web 2.0 tools. Change is happening, and it will overtake our institutions willy-nilly. I’m inclined to argue that by paying attention and getting involved, they’re more likely to experience that change as productive and invigorating, whereas by ignoring and resisting change , they’ll experience it as threatening and destructive.