Monthly Archives: January 2008

* Tap, Tap * — Is This Thing On?

I’ve been observing radio silence for the past few days, mostly just from distraction and preoccupation. It felt nice; I concentrate hard on what I write in public, and telling myself to just let it rest for a while came as a pleasant break. We drove down to Baltimore in our rented car (Margaret keeps marveling that when she steps on the accelerator, the car moves forward; when did they invent that?) to support our Godson Liam as he began the process toward Confirmation. That gave us a chance to visit with Steve and Melinda and Brendan, too, and that trip was great. Pippa stayed with friends, and Sunday evening sang with the Trinity choir at St Mary the Virgin in NYC (she was impressed that her dad isn’t the only one with all that bowing and incense stuff).
Then back in Princeton, I extracted the rest of my lectionary essays from the stygian recesses of my homiletical imagination. That’s a paltry advance toward my goals for International Biblical Studies Writing Month, but it’s something. Now I move on ahead toward my book project, composing a summary of my hermeneutical outlook as a first chapter that will serve also as the basis of a readable article for the Yale Div alumni/ae magazine. I still have two days to pump out more word count.
Speaking of my hermeneutics, while I was away Frank cited an interview with Dr. Helena Cronin of the London School of Economics, in which she speaks of “Post-modernism and its stable-mates — they’re obviously all complete balderdash, not to be taken seriously intellectually.” Frank wanted my input on this, since I’m a poster middle-aged professor for postmodern thought. My first response is that anyone who refers to somebody else’s scholarship as “complete balderdash, not to be taken seriously” isn’t interested in grown-up intellectual conversation, although perhaps Dr. Cronin’s remarks reflect a more subtle sort of critical open-mindedness than I’m accustomed to dealing with.
Frank has commenters who responded with more celerity than I, who do a good job of showing some problems in Dr. Cronin’s position. Let’s just touch on a few pertinent weak spots in the (admittedly casual) position she sketches. First, postmodernism and relativism are not the same thing. Some postmodern thinkers do tend in that direction, but not all, and I doubt she advances the cause of intellectual clarity by conflating the positions. (By the way, I don’t recall ever meeting or reading the works of a true relativist except, perhaps, among some undergraduates.) Second, however ardently Dr. Cronin wants to believe that “science” is immune to the sorts of interrogation that postmodern theorists bring to bear, she omits mention of the political inflection of scientific discourse — arguments over teaching “intelligent design” in public schools are, like it or not, political arguments, and when people enter the public sphere to claim that “my kind of scholarship should be represented as true, and theirs as false,” they’re making a political case. When postmodern theorists point out that the discourses of science entangle inescapably with rhetoric and all its attendant ambiguities, they don’t mean “nothing is true, everything is permitted” (or they shouldn’t); they mean “no one enters the domain of persuasive discourse impervious to the complexities and ambiguities of rhetoric, and if somebody claims to stand above the fray on the high ground of impartial truth, they’re exercising a particularly dangerous kind of (deceptive) rhetoric.” The hysterical anxiety with which people want to cling to unquestionable factuality has more to do with their own uncertyainties than with the status of facts or reality.
I was hoping to come to a smooth segue to the topics of music and digital media, but that didn’t come round, so I’ll exert brute force to turn to another topic that came up while my blog was lying fallow. First, yesterday Margaret pointed out to me a Fresh Air interview with Mick Jones and Tony James, in which they suggested that sharing files was a quite sensible way of distributing music — it builds listenership and increases the pool of fans who might go further to buy an album, a ticket, a t-shirt, or some other artist-support merchandise. “[T]he group’s approach to the internet has gained them widespread popularity. James and Jones began making their songs available on their web site as free downloads in the summer of 2004, and encouraged their fans to record them when they played live and pass those around as well.” That’s terrific, three cheers to them and a poke in the eye to Paul McGuinness for loutish greed. Then John emailed me to point out that one of them also said that “ Getting only a few tracks of an album from iTunes and then playing them in the wrong order is like buying the Mona Lisa but only getting the eyeball, because that’s the most famous part” (that’s quoting my email from John; I don’t know if it’s exactly what the speaker said). Now, this figure gets a couple of things wrong. First, it works only if every album constitutes a Mona Lisa (or “only for albums that attain the status of masterworks”). If Carbon/Silicon (James and Jones’ new group) releases a load of steaming offal as an album, with but one track of scintillating brilliance, then no ethic of wholeness will oblige me to listen to the drivel in order to enjoy the one good cut. Moreover, as I’ve said before, it has always been thus: orchestras perform portions drawn from larger works, singers perform arias without enacting the whole opera, and (paradigmatically for this case) radio publicized rock performances on a single-cut basis, without playing the whole shebang every time. Let the one who has not released a single or a greatest-hits compilation cast the first stone. So the Mona Lisa comparison just doesn’t fly; sorry.
Besides, just last week I acknowledged the whole-album merits of a several records. I’m not opposed to people assembling coherent album-length works. I just don’t agree that if a musician or a record company decides that X performances belong together in an arbitrary-length whole, I as a listener stand under an obligation to listen to that set of performances all together, in the order they decreed.
Finally, Steve Martin rocks. He pulls back the curtain on some of the intense ratiocination that can inform composition (of any sort, though specifically here in comedy), illustrating and demonstrating that there can be a lot more at work in self-expression than “being funny” (or “sounding good” or “looking nice”). I just wish he would make another good movie, or perform another brilliant stand-up routine, or whatever, again.

Pin, Bubble, Pop

I am the case study of why people don’t expect shabbily-dressed professors to make important financial decisions. Same with abstracted, spiritual clergy — so I have a double case of financial naïveté. But I could have told you, and in fact I did tell some unfortunate bystanders, that subprime loans and a housing bubble were creating a dangerously volatile economic situation.
So why is it that the naïve theology professor putters around skint, while $-eyed financial operators continue to hold jobs and rake in salaries incommensurate with their actual clearsightedness about the condition of the market? (I except the now-legendary two guys at Goldman Sachs who shorted the subprime market.) People give theologians a hard time about our unverifiable truth-claims, but at least when we argue about the Chalcedonian definition, we don’t get multimillion-dollar salaries for being wrong.

[Their] Head, Board, Whack

This morning, NPR is featuring a story about states where repeated failures and justifiable suspicions have provoked election officials to abandon electronic voting machines in favor of good ol’ fashioned paper ballots. I’m glad that they’re covering the story about the risks attendant upon black-box voting systems, but there’d have been no need to waste the tax dollars spent on these machines if someone had listened to people like Bruce Schneier, Doc Searls (sorry Doc, can’t find an exemplary link), David Weinberger, and (I’m sure there are plenty of others whose names didn’t make as big an impression on me) plenty of other tech observers. Electronic voting, sure — but with an open architecture and a paper verification trail.
Instead, legislators paid attention to movie-scenario fears about hackers (which having proprietary black boxes would presumably fend off — yeah, sure) and interested hucksters. And as a result, millions of dollars that could have been spent wisely on verifiable voting machines, or on medical research, or on education and training, or on affordable housing, or on care for wounded veterans, will be wasted (except to the extent that they made black-box voting-machine manufacturers rich).

1983 in Popular Culture

Thinking about retrospective judgment the other day piqued me to follow up my post on 1980 in music with another 25-year retrospective, this year focusing on 1983. Rather than running through all the categories and subcategories from Grammys and Oscars, I’ll exercise my authorial prerogative to award retrospective honors on an as-merited basis. That being said, Thriller (for which Pippa has recently shown some enthusiasm) represents a noteworthy accomplishment for the scope and staying power of its cultural impact. When Pippa borrowed the CD from the library, it was weeks before I could get “Billie Jean” out of my head (and now it’s back, of course). Overall, though, “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” stand out from the rest of the disk in critical retrospect; I’ll award it a “Landmark Achievement of 1983” ribbon, but not Best Album or Best Single.
’83 was a slack year for some of my favorites. Springsteen didn’t release any new material; he was between Nebraska and Born In the U.S.A. Bob Dylan’s Infidels album has “Jokerman,” but it’s not a knock-out. I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan, and I delight in Punch the Clock, but I wouldn’t lobby for it to win any notable honors (not even in the extended version that includes “Heathen Town”). High marks for New Order’s Power, Corruption, and Lies and XTC’s Mummer, but of all the albums I can think of for 1983, the standout rock album, top to bottom, has to be Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues. “Burning Down the House,” “Girlfriend Is Better,” “Pull Up the Roots” — terrific work from a band that was peaking.
The vast impact of Thriller obscures what I’d think a more important soul/rock crossover, that being Prince’s 1999. The title cut, “Little Red Corvette,” and “Delirious” make a tremendous opening sequence for a very strong album.
A few of my favorite singles came out this year, too. Big Country’s “In a Big Country” makes me turn up the stereo every time, and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” likewise.
As far as movies are concerned, I’ve never seen all of Terms of Endearment (just portions in passing), but the bits I’ve seen didn’t win me over. In fact, I haven’t seen very many of the 1983 releases at all: Return of the Jedi (of course), Silkwood, WarGames, The Return of Martin Guerre (the French one). My favorite movie of the year would have to be Zelig, one of the last old/transitional Woody Allen movies.
In all fairness, though, I’d bet Margaret (and many others) would cast their votes for The Big Chill, which I like all right, but am not as intensely fond of as others are. It’s too easy to write off Chill as self-congratulatory yuppie Boomer narcissism — Kasdan and the actors put a great deal more into the film than the nostalgia, and the strong ensemble acting still catches some of the actors’ best work.
There’s some ambiguity about the release date (Amazon says 1980, IMDB says 1982/83), but before I close, I have to put in a plug for one of my favorite documentaries ever, Say Amen, Somebody. Yes, I’m especially susceptible as a raw-gospel music advocate, but the music and the historical narrative and the participants all lend their extraordinary contributions to a memorable, joyous, proud movie from outside the well-worn paths of the mainstream media.
What have I forgotten?

Stromateis du Jour

  • Sarah Vowell contributed a glorious column on Martin Luther King to the Monday New York Times
  • The world’s flags graded for their vexillological aesthetics. As a student of heraldry and vexillology, I appreciated the author’s critical approach, though I’m less troubled than said author by some design decisions. I don’t disapprove of including “things” on flags, so long as they’re not overly detailed or fussy. Yes, points off for using letters on a flag (though the design of the Saudi flag may appeal to me as a non-Arabic reader, I’m quite ignorant of what it says and I’d never be able to produce a Saudi flag if the occasion required one).
  • PDF Hammer looks useful. Not sure how I’d use it, but I want to remember it’s there.
  • Likewise the online teleprompter app.
  • Ha! Wrangled a single-page book layout from Pages (version 1, which I hope may be even better if we upgrade to a more recent version).
  • My processor is very happy now that I’ve exorcised the cycle-hungry JunkMatcher script from its subconscious. I hardly ever push the processor load over 60%, where the script was hogging more than 50% just by itself.
  • Wrangled single-page book layout from Mellel, too. Unfortunately, both Mellel and Pages reproduce the weird Apple margin+margin problem when I export them to PDF; looks like NeoOffice wins this round (though I wish it offered stronger typographical controls).

Omnipresent Yet Elusive

Someone in our household — I will not name names — has fallen under the spell of the theme music They Might Be Giants recorded for Dunkin Donuts ads, “Things I Like to Do” (this year’s 30-second version, not the 2006 60-second version). I offered to track it down online, but have been able to come up only with the Flash animation on the commercial site I linked to above.
I discovered that many other people appreciate the jingle too (and many detest it), but I found no one, legitimate or il-, who makes the jingle available for download.
I’m sure there’s a sophistication at work that I fail to grasp, but if I were advertising a donut chain and our jingle had a fan base of even meager scope, I’d be thrilled to give (or, if I could get away with it, “sell”) them mp3s of our advertising theme.


Choire Sicha posted a guest column on Jason Kottke’s blog concerning his shifting evaluation of PJ Harvey’s most recent recording, White Chalk; “Back in September, Pitchfork gave White Chalk a 6.8, and I would have given it a worse score even as recently as December,” but now he regards it as her best.
If one needed empirical data to enrich this exercise, looking back at the yearly awards should provide more than enough. The short timeline for these awards, and the manipulative tactics that media corporations deploy to attract profit-making recognition becloud the deliberative judgment that ought to inform critical judgment. I wrote a burdensome-lyu-long essay on the year 1980 in music, comparing what was good with what got Grammys; I have another semi-post in a draft somewhere, looking at 1979, but it’s a lot of effort, and I’m not sure what it clarifies.
[What might be fun would be to open the comments (thank you, WordPress, for providing robust comment spam filtering!) for discussion of a particular year’s cultural production. I’d be inclined to highlight 1983 at first, since that was 25 years ago. We could give retrospective Grammys, Oscars, and other prizes with the benefit of having twenty-five years of criticism separating us from the hype.]
But to get back to at least one of the subjects at hand, I recently cued up my copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and marvelled at it just as much as I used to back in olden times. That’s one extremely strong album. Wow, was that a great album! Much as I’ve dismissed the “record album” as an artificial construct for which contemporary artistic nostalgia is misplaced, Ziggy just plain works — even if “It Ain’t Easy” was a late addition, and “Suffragette City” belongs before (rather than after) “Ziggy Stardust.” If we get to a retrospective awards ceremony for 1972, it’ll take some strong lobbying to displace Ziggy from my ballot.

Original Beethoven

Michael White’s column in yesterday’s New York Times touches on a heap of issues about which I care a lot. What counts as the true version of a Beethoven sonata? On what basis do we form such judgments? What do we make of divergent rival accounts of “the real Beethoven”? When Barry Cooper suggests that “[w]hen a text is corrupted, it places a barrier between the composer and listener that shouldn’t be there. You’re not hearing a Beethoven sonata but a Beethoven sonata adapted by someone else,” he piques my “What Is An Author?” interest.
“[T]he difference between an error and a correction or improvement is not always clear, so you can end up with five or more variants of the same text with no conclusive proof of which one represents finality.” Exactly — maybe the question of which is final or original frames the problem poorly.
My favorite part of the article comes on the second (digital) page: “ ‘Everyone,’ [Cooper] said, ‘knows what a double bar is’ — the two perpendicular lines that conclude a section of the score — ‘but there’s no literature on double bars, nothing to tell you what they signify to the player.’ ” First of all, I don’t know what a double bar is (at least not in the way Cooper does). Second, I cherish the juxtaposition of Cooper’s asseveration that everybody knows with the Times’s explanation of the sign, which implies that they think some of their readers would not know.

Laying Out

Permit me to begin with an ex cathedra pronouncement: Word processing applications tend to be abominable tools for designing pages. They demonstrate a strong commitment to certain generic assumptions about text manipulation that derive from typewriting constraints. As a result, casual users (even expert users, most of the time) prepare documents whose line length extends beyond what readers ordinarily find comfortable, with more lines per page than is ideal, and so on. Word-processor pages shout that they were indeed produced with a word processor, whereas readers cope better with ordinary book-sized pages and type.
I’ve been trying for years to wrestle my word processing applications and page-layout apps into a functional relationship with the pages I want to produce. In each case there’s some residual glitch, a feature of a book page that the word application won’t produce (multiple independent headers, for instance, such that one can deploy page numbers and running heads on the same page), or a feature of text that the page app resists (I have InDesign 2.0, which refuses footnotes). Apple’s print engine does something wonky with PDFs that doubles the margin size, so that you can’t mount an end run around the word processor’s shortcomings by print-command trickery. And the whole process is fraught with complexity; I can readily sympathize with everyone who doesn’t bother trying to out-manipulate the constraints of the medium.
Of course, that won’t stop me. Of me it is written in the Book of Life, “He devoted hours and hours of his life to making better-designed pages for his students (and other readers).” I’ve wangled a prototype out of NeoOffice (the current version of which is so much better than its earlier iterations that I’m amazed); I’ll keep trying to make it work in Pages and Mellel. There’s not much point in pounding away at InDesign since I only have version 2.0, which doesn’t support footnotes (and I can’t afford the more up-to-date versions). If anyone’s interested, I can post the NeoOffice sample — and I’ll keep working on the others.