Monthly Archives: February 2009

Such A Fine Line

Yesterday, I received from my father-in-law (Hi, Pa Moose!) an annotated catalogue of religious goodies for children. Knowing of my fondness for holy cards and my pedagogical use of cards and games for teaching seminarians, he identified some commercially-produced alternatives to my home-brewed products — then went on to point out the many other, ummm, impressive wares available from Catholic Child.
For instance, Dick points out the collection of Saints Dolls: the puffy (and less expensive) assortment of saints (and the Sacred Heart of Jesus) at $17 each, and the more detailed dolls at $98 each. Sorry, Mary is sold out till March. If your saints dolls seem aimless and disoriented — like sheep without a shepherd — pick up a My Loving Jesus Doll, with a fleecy blue undergarment.
Perhaps Margaret’s students would understand the most recent papal encyclical better if they read it in tandem with Joseph and Chico: The Life of Pope Benedict XVI as Told By a Cat. Better yet, these merchants could contrive a follow-up volume, Spe Salvi as Told By a Cat.
Alas, the holy cards that they sell are the dreadfully cloying pastel-modern sort, but Catholic Child did pick up on my idea and tried to make sets of informative Saints Trading Cards. If I had their budget and marketing muscle, though, I could do much better for them on both counts.
“This catalog has something for everyone,” according to Dick. Truly, he is right — though I feel a little sad for the people who get the Guardian Angel pillowcase rather than one of the cooler presents (who’s asking for the Easter Scene Action Figures starter set? Plus, those of you untouched by the Postmodern Depression can order add-on sets of Marys, Thieves, and Soldiers. Woohoo! It’s an anti-Creche!).
Catholic theology has not, thankfully, succumbed to the iconoclastic tendencies of some streams of Protestantism; and it will always be easy to take cheap shots at other people’s piety. Catholic Child catalogue is absolutely on the side of the angels, and some of their merchandise might be both tasteful and edifying (they sell one of Tomie de Paola’s books, for instance — oops, perhaps they used to, I don’t see it in their online catalogue). And tastes differ, and children can benefit immensely from improbable sources. All true. Still, a church-related press could go a long, long way toward building up the faith by deliberately offering a repertoire that draws on deeper theological wisdom, finer liturgical art, and richer insight into child development and teaching. In the meantime, anyone up for a game of Divinity?

Spam Intelligence

Yesterday I received a notification that someone had left a comment on my “Talk Like A Pirate Day” post from last year, in which I discussed the University of Michigan’s purchase of a print-on-demand bookmaking machine. The title of the post was “Arrr, Another Brick” (sc., “another brick taken away from the wall that separates readers from access to books).
The comment in question, still awaiting approval in my comment queue, says,

Getting good construction bricks in Michigan might not be as easy as it would first seem. I was fairly new to the market, so I jumped in thinking that I could make a couple phone calls and line something up for my masonry project. I never realized the large number of choices that would be presented to me when trying to install a simple stone fireplace. After talking to Lincoln Brick and Supply (hyperlink deleted by blog owner), I realized that it takes some thought and energy when making decisions about this particular building supply. Needless to say, Lincoln Brick was able to take their time and help me make choices for my custom building project. They were a great help, and I look forward to working with them in the future.

I reproduce the comment here not because I endorse Lincoln Brick — that’s why I stripped the hyperlinks out — but because this exemplifies spam’s evolution toward something that begins to resemble intelligence. The progress from just blind-mailing sales pitches to the whole internet, to blind-spam-commenting blogs, to selectively adding spam comments to blogs that seem to pertain to the spammers’ commercial interests, suggests the frightening possibility that if someone ever devises machine intelligence that passes the Turing Test, it might just be a spammer.

Oh, and I also reproduced the ad-comment here so that potential customers who turn up this post in their search results will have the opportunity to know that Lincoln Bricks — whatever the virtues of their products — seems to have resorted to comment-spamming. Make your construction-materials decisions accordingly. Me — I just clicked the “Delete” button.

Blancmange and Onions

I’ve loved introducing my children to the quirky neighborhoods in the world of popular music that I admire; each of them has picked up much of what I endorse, and each has overlooked and added selections on her or his own, and that’s part of the delight. Pippa has always been particularly fond of classic soul music; Si is writing his senior project on performance poetry in conjunction with song lyrics and hip-hop; Nate is writing his dissertation on Radiohead. One song we all especially enjoy is the Beautiful South’s “Song For Whoever,” because over and above its stylish composition and parched wit, it name-checks both Pippa and Jennifer (two family members in one song!). That came to Pippa’s attention the other day as she asked me about the Housemartins (from which band Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway departed to form the Beautiful South); she, in turn, looked up the video for “Song For Whoever,” which piqued her interest because of the featured blancmange, and mine for the performing penguin. Sadly, the video concentrates solely on an extended version of the first half of the song, leaving out the second phase (“Late at night by the typewriter light….”).
We’ve also revisited those fab four Rrrrutland lads, the Rutles! Pip enjoyed the soundtrack album from the TV special; we’re waiting for the opportunity to view the special, but that’ll come. In the meantime, we took out The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch from the local library, and it motivated me to add a fierce and emphatic warning to all Rutles fans: this DVD merits less favorable attention than the insulting characterizations from Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch (“heap of parrot droppings”) or the concluding confrontation between Westley and Prince Humperdinck (“miserable vomitous mass”). Life is precious, and money is hard to come by; squander neither on this regurgitation of the luscious, savory feast that was the original documentary.
Meanwhile, The Kids Are Alright arrives from Netflix today, and Pippa wants to watch Tommy. And to think, some people believe that today’s youth have no taste…. (Well, we’ll see what she thinks of Ken Russell’s Tommy.)

Spors Unbound

After considerable strain (resulting in some damage to the section), I finally wrenched open my Spors glass-nibbed fountain pen a while back. Only Sunday, however, did I obtain an ink sac suitable (I used a 12mm sac) for the very narrow portion of the section to which the sac is glued. Since the thin-shelled barrel is a cavernous void, I would guess that Spors originally equipped this pen with a sac that was wider in the body, but with a narrow neck. It doesn’t make much difference to me, because I don’t anticipate ever needing more than a modest amount of ink in this pen.

Spors Glass Nib

The photo doesn’t adequately represent the intense pinkness of this pen. It’s hard for me to believe that Spors found buyers for so outrageous a shade in the 1920’s or 30’s; this pen would look much more at home in 1968 than 1930. I’ll be waiting for an opportunity to wear it in public.
Writing with a glass nib differs less dramatically from regular-nib writing than I expected. Pen users refer to nibs that bend noticeably as flexy (at the extreme, as a “wet noodle”); their rigid antithesis is called a nail. As the term suggests, firm nibs really do approach the rigidity of the glass point that the Spors offers. I wrote a sample page with the Spors, and it wasn’t at all uncomfortable (even if it’s hard to dispel the apprehension that at any moment one might break the point of one’s pen).

Writing With Spors

The point is fine, and the flow is not quite predictable (pause for a few seconds, and you get a heavier flow till the acculumated ink drains off), but it’s a very striking functional curiosity.
Now, yesterday the mail brought a tortoise-shell Sheaffer Balance with a smooth italic nib. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t a lever-filler (which I could refurb) but a vacuum-fill (which exceeds my competence). I’m very eager to get that one spruced up, though, for it’s exactly the feel of the sort of italic-nibbed pens I’m used to.

Unpleasant Anniversary

Right about this time last year, I heard the news that Seabury was closing down its Master of Divinity program and beginning the process of releasing its faculty. In Monday’s session, my Gospel of Luke class will discuss the parable of the Unrighteous Steward, who — faced with the prospect of unemployment — muses, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” That’s my motif of this spring, as we wait to learn what the future holds for us. I didn’t even get to be unrighteous!

Where Infallibility Has Fail’d

Edward Oakes, S.J., gave a talk on “biblical apologetics” yesterday at Duke. Apologetics is not usually a topic of great interest to me, but the modifier “biblical” caught my attention, so I made a point to catch his presentation. In the course of his talk, he pointed our attention to Newman’s Tract 85 and Dryden’s Religio Laici. (If, as I hope, I sometime teach a course on Anglican Hermeneutics, I’ll want to remember to enlist these sources for the reading list.) Oakes made a variety of points about Scripture and criticism, especially in the cultural climate that has brought forth a recent spate of ardent atheists; I appreciated his emphasis that theologians should acknowledge the full weight of a skeptic’s objections, and the patience with which he sketched the rationality of a respectful, believing response to those objections.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line somebody mis-heard both the title and the topic of the work on which he is presently engaged; posters announced him as the author of a forthcoming work on dogmatic theology entitled “Infinity Dwindled to Infinity,” whereas he’s working on a book about christology entitled “Infinity Dwindled to Infancy” (alluding to his fellow Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe.”

Season of Shadow, Shining A Light

Last week, our friend from St Luke’s Church, Abby Imberman, died. He never passed me at the end of a service without asking “How’s your oldest boy doing?” I’d tell him about Nate’s progress through Eastman and Michigan, then sometimes he’d ask, “And the other one?” I’d tell him how Si was doing at Marlboro. He never asked about Pippa; I’m not sure whether he just didn’t notice her, or that he observed for himself that she was evidently fine.
Yesterday, Emmy McMann died. She was the cook for the fraternity to which Margaret and I belonged in college. Emmy had cooked for ARU for years before we got there, and she continued to cook for years after. She was a lovely grandma for generations of college kids; I used to read fairy tales aloud to Emmy’s kitchen full of students between lunch and dinner, back in the days I was working as cook’s helper and dishwasher. No matter what terrible things I said about Emmy’s cooking — and I said some awfully harsh things about her repertoire — she loved me and heard in my words only the affection I felt for her.
With sad news on top of sad news, I’m all the more thankful for Josiah’s birthday. Si is 29 22 today, finishing up his senior year, preparing for his wedding with Laura. As Abby and Emmy lead a way toward greater grace, and as Si follows along with strength and joy, I give thanks on this Shrove Tuesday for all the messengers of the dignity and integrity that ennoble human striving; and as tomorrow we receive a sign of our mortality, I pray for Si and Emmy and Abby and all the saints, that we never be separated from one another in the hopeful joy of undying love.

Thank You Intertubes

In this semester’s Gospel of Luke class, I assign students to bring interpretations of our weekly passages drawn from the history of art and music. This has worked very well, with students bringing thought-provoking images from distant times and lands, along with some contemporary art. I project the chosen image on the screen from my laptop, and we talk through the elements of the reading that the artist has carried over, the elements that the artist has added or altered, and how we would assess the success of the interpretation.
For part of today’s passage (Luke 13 and 14), one of these students brought a hymn by Charles Wesley, “Come Sinners To The Gospel Feast,” as an interpretation of the Great Banquet parable in Luke 14:16-24. This made for an intriguing, welcome change of pace (I used “Prodigal Son” by the
Rev. Robert Wilkins as the epigraph for the syllabus), and we listened and talked about the relation of the parable to the hymn text. As the conversation was winding down, the student who chose the hymn noted that it was the only musical adaptation of the parable she could find.
Some of you know what’s coming. Over the course of many years, I have listened to our family’s cassette tape of the Medical Mission Sisters often enough that I knew there was at least one other musical adaptation of the Great Banquet, the MMS’s “I Cannot Come” (from their record Joy Is Like The Rain). I launched hesitantly into the refrain, and one student joined me, but it was clear that most were not acquainted with this classic. Another student urged me, “Search YouTube.”
Sure enough:

Thank you, Intertubes!


Yesterday, Scott Kurtz of PvP comics linked to Yves Bigerel’s “about DIGITAL COMICS,” which picks up a number of Scott McCloud’s ideas and takes them in directions Scott didn’t (well, I’d argue that The Right Number goes there, but the point is that this use of Flash animation isn’t the same as Scott’s “infinite canvas”). If you’re willing to risk recursivity, you can follow this pointer to “About ‘about DIGITAL COMICS,’ ” but I wouldn’t go any further than that. Storing the links at Beautiful Theology, too.
Speaking of beautiful things, PIppa has posted her latest art project, the first instance I’ve encountered of wire-hanger art. When she’s the toast of the art world, you can say you knew her way back when….

Redefining Privacy

I have a difficult time imagining who would want to use Bedpost, but I suppose I don’t move in those circles. If even a small number of people post semi-true information there, though, the texture of deliberation about online privacy changes drastically. It’s one thing to know my Social Security number; it’s quite another to know with whom I did what, how often, how well, in what distinctive ways. This sounds like a monumentally epic FAIL in the making, and I already feel sorry for the people who get burned by playing with this fire.