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Ideas. Tools. Art. Build --not buy. What works, what doesn't. Enjoy new media and software aesthetics at Tekka.
Theodore Gray (The Magic Black Box)
Faith, Life, Art, Academics. Sermons from my family away from home: Eden Chapel!
My other home: The Cambridge Union Society (in 2007, I designed our [Fresher's Guide])
The Economist daily news analysis
Global Higher Ed blog
Chapter I: Born. Lived. Died.
There is a Chapter II.
Locale: Lancaster County Pa, USA
Religion: My faith is the primary focus of my life, influencing each part of me. I have been forgiven, cleansed, and empowered by Jesus Christ. Without him, I am a very thoughtful, competent idiot. With him, I am all I need to be, all I could ever hope for. I oppose institutional religious stagnation, but getting together with others is a good idea. God is real. Jesus Christ is his Son, and the Bible is true. Faith is not human effort. It's human choice. I try to be the most listening, understanding, and generous person I can.
Interests: Anything I can learn. Training and experience in new media, computer science, anglophone literature, education, parliamentary debate, democratic procedure, sculpture, and trumpet performance. Next: applied & computational linguistics, probably.
Education: Private school K-3. Home educated 4-12. Graduated Summa Cum Laude from Elizabethtown College in Jan 2006. As the 2006 Davies-Jackson Scholar, I studied English at St. John's College, Cambridge University from 2006 - 2008.
Memberships: Eden Baptist, Cambridge Union Society, ACM, AIP, GPA.
Alum of the Elizabethtown College Honors Program, sponsored by the Hershey Company.
How shall I weep for you?
Friday, 27 Apr 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
In the Oresteia, the chorus exclaims to the body of Agamemnon, "O King, my king, how shall I weep for you?" Much later, Electra hesitates before his grave and asks, "What shall I say, as I pour out these outpourings of sorrow? How say the good word, how make my prayer to my father?" For she has truly been asked an unspeakable task-- to appease his spirit on behalf of the wife who murdered him -- "shall I say this sentence, regular in human use: 'Grant good return to those who send to you these flowers of honor: gifts to match the ... evil they have done.' "
In the 21st century, surrounded by invention, marketing, ritual, and cultural interpretation, we are unused to situations which have no response. We despise hesitancy because it reveals weakness and uncertainty. But Electra is uncertain about more than how to proceed; she sees little hope from under the harsh grief of living in a house of blood.
Unable to address her murdered father, Electra turns her voice to the gods. But if one struggles to speak about a death of a loved parent, how much more perplexing must be the details of a prayer to terrible powers which we cannot see, about which we only guess? With the guidance of the chorus, Electra finally speaks, calling to Hermes, the god of messages, the lord of the dead. When a response occurs, even the knowledgeable chorus becomes afraid.
In the South African novel Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda, a sect of Unbelievers visit a nearby village to borrow a ritual for the recall and purgation of sorrow. Although they are Unbelievers, they feel a deep need to connect with ritual, with a form of activity and its personal and communal effects. In this they differ from the characters of the Oresteia and very possibly from its original Greek audiences. For the ancient Greeks, invocations of the gods would have called forth genuine awe and fear.
Modern society analyzes and deploys the functions of ritual at the moments in life when the Greeks fumbled for appropriate responses to new and terrible situations. But their silences, as well as their placations and imprecations were in good faith. In the Oresteia, the ritual of killing is terrifying because it extends beyond the visible moment-- into generational time, beyond the visible world-- but in Bond's Lear or Kafka's In the Penal Colony, the terror in the ritual of torture is a finite moment of pain within an inevitable process of death, a process whose execution is clinical, whose form itself is worshipped. In one, tragedy is found in the value of life; in the others, terror comes from its devaluation.
"Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," said Clarke, and the devices in our pockets do seem like magic. The structures of society enchant us into compliance. But while we may appeal to society for justice, wisdom, food, or healing, while we carefully phrase the rituals of our requests, we hardly fear the mailman like the Greeks feared Hermes. We don't seek to satisfy the gods; we seek the outcomes of the process. We don't try to placate the lord of the dead. We just want our mail.
** * **
This functional approach infects Christianity. We can argue and debate about form and ceremony so much that when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations, we fail to worship. When we talk about music, we talk about the ways in which it works upon people, rather than the ways in which people can worship within its practice. We think of ritual as an external force of control upon a group, as a psychological trip rather than a way to acknowledge uncertainty, express the inexpressible, or reach toward the unimaginable. For even the things we know about God are mysteries and beyond our mastery.
The Christian who fails to feel worshipful and furthermore fails to worship in an Anglican Chapel may find more to condemn in himself than in the vaulted ceilings and fancy robes. Likewise, the person who is filled with awe within that chapel, or who is caught up in the thrill of a worship band must watch carefully, lest true worship be stifled by the overwhelming moment. Dabblers who enjoy the experience of forms of worship must be careful lest they find what they seek.
Doctrine and teaching can also douse worship. But not all dissection is murder. Feynman rightly points out that knowledge of a flower's function can increase one's awe and appreciation of its beauty, just as the functional enumeration of the mechanisms of torture heighten the dramatic apprehension of Lear's ordeal.
** * **
The spirit of Agamemnon never appears, never validates the ritual and resolve of Electra and her brother Orestes, but their grief, hatred, belief, and conviction-- which so recently struggled to find expression in ritual-- are expressed in an act of revenge. Even if the form of their ceremony was insufficient or ineffective, their true feelings and belief in the divine are very real. They don't need the ritual; they need their father, they need the gods. Their father never appears, but Orestes still acts on the word of the oracle, in the will of the gods.
For the Christian, revenge is hardly a virtue, but good faith is. My study of classical literature has given me new insight on the nature of faith and form. I have learned that when we ask "how shall I weep for you," the statement's heart is neither "how" nor "weep", but instead "for you". May I find a way to live this truth.
Dwelling in Possibility
Friday, 27 Apr 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
I dwell in possibility
a fairer house than prose
...for occupation, this
The spreading round my narrow hands
to gather paradise.
A colleague and I recently discussed international society and the commonalities shared by diplomats, scholars, researchers, and others who have reached a certain level of attainment and ease in the world. We wondered if they might relate to each other with more ease than they relate to people from their place of origin. We wondered if it might extend beyond the newspapers, novels and shared society, stretching to their sense of possibility.
It's a wonderful thing to dwell in possibility, to feel the clear blue expanse, to spread one's hands without fear. Such people are able to exercise agency within this wide-open world. Their reputation, knowledge, social skills, and tactical acuity complement an aura of confidence whose mere presence itself unlocks many doors.
Education, society, and the funds to maneuver bring a kind of pleasant comfort to one's days. One is able to read, discuss, and eat without worry, to breathe deeply and enjoy each moment of life's precious cordial. It's a wonderful thing to wake up in the morning, to exercise for health and recreation, to stop at Starbucks to redeem a gift card for a relaxing morning with a novel, to saunter over to a sociable afternoon meeting, and to know that this is my work. To call the Wordsworth society dinner one of Cambridge's rare consolations is to participate in a pleasant, knowing imprecision; if the satisfactions of my academic course are the low points of my current lifestyle, I can have no true dissatisfactions.
Such must have been the life for the retinue of the generous king Belshazzar. Having inherited a vast Middle-Eastern kingdom of great learning, administrative efficiency, and lavish provender, he decided to reward his nobles and celebrate his situation with a grand party. Special table service was used: rare and beautiful goblets and massive laveoirs overflowed with wine and other delicacies. The conversation must have been exquisite.
I can imagine the subdued enthusiasm as brilliant scholars, young suitors, and elegant ladies tossed and caught witty conversation, now circling, now sweeping through the gliding weaves of color and excitement. The older set probably sat and watched the youths' activity in satisfaction and fond memory.
But this evening would not be all blue skies and bon-bons.
Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king's color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way...Then all the king's wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation.
Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.
The story, found in the ancient book of Daniel and other sources, describes the effective collapse of one of the world's great empires -- in a single day. When Daniel is summoned to speak with Belshazzar near the very end, he tells of the king's father Nebuchadnezzar, and how this previous king had come to grips with the fragile reality of privilege and the need for wise use of power. The next king was no stranger to wisdom; his terms of conquest are considered the very first charter of human rights.
The Jewish book of Amos also contains a warning for those who enjoy great privilege:
Woe to those who lie in beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph [an ethnic group who were oppressed and poor at the time].
As a Christian, I see all life as an expression of the power and blessing of God: sunrise, breath, conversation, an embrace, a smile, a brisk challenge, a sorrow, a warm tea, and an evening's rest. Life in a supernatural world elicits wonder, awe, and fear. Neither confidence nor possibility are based merely on individuals in society, their environments, and their histories, but on an unseen power. In many Greek tragedies, people are consistent and the gods capricious [or at least inaccessible, which amounts to similar confusion]. Awareness of vast power without a knowledge of its aims would indeed be terrifying. And yet the element of fear is not absent from an understanding of the Christian God of love and constancy. Even the great are loved for their rarity, for the fragility of their passing light. A name which endures is precious because its owner cannot.
I have been trying to learn what it means to be humble, to be aware of my limitations and to show my constant need for Christ while still carrying out the excellence and faithfulness which His grace enables and demands, while still living a disciplined, professional life which achieves success, on which others can rely, which fails neither my associates nor my Divine Lord. Especially at Cambridge, my fellow students need to see the value of brokenness, for that is our natural state. And yet the power of Christ is his ability to mend, his ability to uncover and heal wounds which we might never notice, to grant us an integrity which we never thought possible, to lead us to satisfactions which we cannot fully imagine.
I could desire this for marketing purposes, but that would be hypocrisy. I desire it for myself, lest I like Belshazzar drink the wine of false celebrations on a day of downfall, lest the coffers of my life are opened to find me wanting.
So I pray for wisdom, but even more, for action, for a vision of the celestial, for discipline and for love.
** * **
I sit exams in less than a month. My current task is clear: to prepare so well that I am able to keep one eye on the needs of others and put a hand to their growth and good success.
CICCU Rep to St. John's College
Thursday, 26 Apr 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
I have accepted, along with Tina Faranda-Bellofigli, the position of Christian Union Rep to St. John's College. We will be organising and coordinating Christian events within St. Johns. But our work is service; the reality of our efforts and desire is not that of leadership but enablement.
When John Stott was at Cambridge, the Christian Union chose not to ask him to be involved in the formal organisation. As his biographer Timothy Dudley-Smith notes, "Oliver Barclay, President at the time, had the wisdom to see that while John Stott could always be available for consultation over matters of policy, choice of speakers and so on, his time was better spent out of committee rather than in it..."
the real work of the CICCU was often not carried out by officials or committees. The whole effectiveness of the CICCU depended on the fact that a high proportion of ordinary members, both then and in almost all periods of its history, were active in personal evangelism and in helping one another in every way. The committee were very much looked up to and their example was influential; but they were not the CICCU.
Although I often enjoy administrative efforts, I have always been very uneasy and even skeptical about the such things in relation to assumptions of power, personal virtue, and the community of faith. But if Tina and I can provide a framework and a social network for the incubation of truth, personal spiritual growth, mutual support, and outward love of Christ's people, then I am happy to book rooms and write emails.
Emphasis and Metre
Thursday, 5 Apr 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
Patterns in poetry are often established in order to break them-- in the same poem. For example, in Richard, Duke of York, Shakespeare uses this to good effect:
So many hours must I tend my flock,
So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself,
So many days my ewes have been with young,
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean,
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece.
So minutes, hours days, weeks, months, and years,
Passed over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave
Here, Shakespeare does more than just set up a pattern with "so many", but also with a progression of time, from minutes to hour to hours to days, etc... When it returns to minutes, this is unexpected, and the line is highlighted.
This can also be done in metre. A poem with iambic metre might go like this:
my sweet Britannia
is my dear sweet homeland.
Here, the first two lines establish a pattern of iambic rhythm. In the third line, this serves to highlight the word "my" over the word "dear", when the stresses were the other way around in the first line.
But sometimes, a poet does something unusual, in which our tendency to read the line might actually go against the tendencies both of the metre and the natural rhythm of the phrase. Consider, for example, this excerpt from "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," by Yeats...
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
The first two lines begin with stressed syllables, which creates a tension in those lines, since the poem begins somewhat with a solid iambic tetrameter. But what about the second two lines of this excerpt? Should the emphasis be placed on "my" our on "country" ? If you follow the pattern which Yeats established in the first two lines, the emphasis should fall on "my". But if you follow the tendencies of the [English] Language, the emphasis should be on Country. This is precisely the dilemma which Yeats is highlighting in the poem; to the discerning reader, the same dilemma is present in the language, in the metre itself as in the plain statements of the poem.
The Long Life of "Of English Verse"
Tuesday, 3 Apr 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
In Waller's poem, "Of English Verse", the final stanza reads:
Verse, thus designed, has no ill fate,
If it arrive but at the date
Of fading beauty; if it prove
But as long-lived as present love.
The precision in the articulations of "d" and "t" in "the date" contrast with the smooth continuity between "of" and "fading" (which are pushed together by the shared f, not separated), which word group is softened by the leading vowel, taking the edge off the repetition of trochees, thus making "beauty" a pulse rather than a drumbeat, one whose dipthong attempts to stretch it out, but whose final vowel itself, like beauty or poetry, must fade.
The semicolon is our space to mourn. But Waller's metre is more sophisticated than that. Though he depicts it with feeling, Waller does not wish to dwell on the time of beauty or on its fading, but rather on the quality of present love. The movement of the final line-- the tension between the tendencies of the iambic pattern and the habits of normal pronunciation-- reverses the normal relative emphasis of "long-lived" from "long" to "lived", depicting in the metre the argument of the poem: that to write in and for a "lived" present is the best which English poets can do, and that this best is not a gruding limitation, but is in fact rather lovely.
Resampling my Experience
Monday, 2 Apr 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
I have probably been writing more over the last few months than ever. But most of my work has been in emails to select groups of people. I'm finding that writing to individual audiences allows me to be more lazy with my thoughts, but to also rely on the assumptions and knowledge of others and the context of our previous conversations.
But I think it's only fair to start sharing some of this with you, especially because I need to start remembering things in preparation for upcoming examinations. From an email last week....
I have recently been watching Man with a Movie Camera and realising the complex relationship footage has with truth in light of the kinds of lives led by its subjects and audiences. In an industrial or agrarian society, where material conditions and activity are not only the prominent elements of life, but could be perceived visually, it's somewhat possible to use footage as Vertov suggests. His international language is not, as he presumes, film, but rather the international language of technology and labor, based on experience and inference. Without a way to recognize the signs, his film would merely be visual art. Certain formal themes would remain: those related to motion, form, perception, juxtaposition, and time.
But much would be lost, has been lost. But how would we depict life in white collar, developed societies? The visual no longer can address this, not just because our technology has become a series of general-purpose black boxes (signs are more powerful, less specific. What can a computer stand for?), but also because our work is very linguistic, and because we clothe ourselves in aesthetics. If Vertov were trying to depict London today, he would have to include diagrams, hypertexts, all kinds of models and representations, based on the international languages of science, statistics, and visual marketing, on landscape, on forms of experience (the play, the swim, the business report, the murder). We are people of signs
I think it's time I revisit Tufte, but think more broadly, in relation to form, art, and nonfiction.
Monday, 26 Feb 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
I invited friends to visit me one evening this week. I am going to play them a movie. We are going to eat dinner. We are going to talk. I know the ideological underpinnings of the movie; I know the conversation we are going to talk. I want their opinion, want to add their talk to my own. I want them to create an opinion and expect that in doing so, they will shift their patterns of thought toward mine.
They are interested in each other. I am interested in their interest in each other. This will bring them together, create a memory, perhaps an ideology, which brings them together, to some degree, in mind and purpose.
** * **
Notice how spare descriptions of ordinary events make them seem insidious. In Woolf, they often seem to suggest an unbalanced nature.
Tinderbox Web Viewer
Wednesday, 3 Jan 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
I have just finished the first beta of a Tinderbox web viewer. It's a series of PHP scripts (thanks, Clare and Bill, for inspiring this!) which will load a Tinderbox file and recreate the Map View online. (Click here to load the Tinderbox Map Viewer)
I am going to try to package it soon, but I'm buried with work. I basically just need to make a configuration file and then just zip everything into a package file. Setting the system up for your Tinderbox files will be ridiculously-simple.