Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Goodbye Song for 2009



Sing us out, Bob.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ommwriter


Ommwriter claims to recapture for you the ability to write without distractions. Yet it's not featureless: it has variable fonts, sizes, backgrounds, even different sound effects for your typing.

I think I know what Alan Jacobs would say: Those are the distractions. And Neal Stephenson would wonder, will your words still be there in five years?

Long quote from Stephenson's book, In the Beginning Was the Command Line, available for free here:

I began using Microsoft Word as soon as the first version was released around 1985. After some initial hassles I found it to be a better tool than MacWrite, which was its only competition at the time. I wrote a lot of stuff in early versions of Word, storing it all on floppies, and transferred the contents of all my floppies to my first hard drive, which I acquired around 1987. As new versions of Word came out I faithfully upgraded, reasoning that as a writer it made sense for me to spend a certain amount of money on tools.

Sometime in the mid-1980's I attempted to open one of my old, circa-1985 Word documents using the version of Word then current: 6.0 It didn't work. Word 6.0 did not recognize a document created by an earlier version of itself. By opening it as a text file, I was able to recover the sequences of letters that made up the text of the document. My words were still there. But the formatting had been run through a log chipper--the words I'd written were interrupted by spates of empty rectangular boxes and gibberish.

Now, in the context of a business (the chief market for Word) this sort of thing is only an annoyance--one of the routine hassles that go along with using computers. It's easy to buy little file converter programs that will take care of this problem. But if you are a writer whose career is words, whose professional identity is a corpus of written documents, this kind of thing is extremely disquieting. There are very few fixed assumptions in my line of work, but one of them is that once you have written a word, it is written, and cannot be unwritten. The ink stains the paper, the chisel cuts the stone, the stylus marks the clay, and something has irrevocably happened (my brother-in-law is a theologian who reads 3250-year-old cuneiform tablets--he can recognize the handwriting of particular scribes, and identify them by name). But word-processing software--particularly the sort that employs special, complex file formats--has the eldritch power to unwrite things. A small change in file formats, or a few twiddled bits, and months' or years' literary output can cease to exist.

Now this was technically a fault in the application (Word 6.0 for the Macintosh) not the operating system (MacOS 7 point something) and so the initial target of my annoyance was the people who were responsible for Word. But. On the other hand, I could have chosen the "save as text" option in Word and saved all of my documents as simple telegrams, and this problem would not have arisen. Instead I had allowed myself to be seduced by all of those flashy formatting options that hadn't even existed until GUIs had come along to make them practicable. I had gotten into the habit of using them to make my documents look pretty (perhaps prettier than they deserved to look; all of the old documents on those floppies turned out to be more or less crap). Now I was paying the price for that self-indulgence. Technology had moved on and found ways to make my documents look even prettier, and the consequence of it was that all old ugly documents had ceased to exist.

It was--if you'll pardon me for a moment's strange little fantasy--as if I'd gone to stay at some resort, some exquisitely designed and art-directed hotel, placing myself in the hands of past masters of the Sensorial Interface, and had sat down in my room and written a story in ballpoint pen on a yellow legal pad, and when I returned from dinner, discovered that the maid had taken my work away and left behind in its place a quill pen and a stack of fine parchment--explaining that the room looked ever so much finer this way, and it was all part of a routine upgrade. But written on these sheets of paper, in flawless penmanship, were long sequences of words chosen at random from the dictionary. Appalling, sure, but I couldn't really lodge a complaint with the management, because by staying at this resort I had given my consent to it. I had surrendered my Morlock credentials and become an Eloi.

The Peanut Butter Video from Sesame Street

Anytime I'm cooking, and the recipe calls for both salt and sugar, this song gets in my head. Every single time, people. This is what Sesame Street does to you.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Update on No Problem

I was talking to technical support the other day. After I explained the device's malfunction, the gracious and polite technician's first words were "No problem." And it grated. I had a flash of irritation. If it wasn't a problem, I wouldn't be talking to you. Then I realized that our conversation had simply skipped a groove.

We were following a script, the technician and I. My script didn't have the line, "Can you help me solve this malfunction?" but it might as well have. That is why people call technical support, after all--to request help. It's such an integral proposition of the call that it didn't occur to me to verbalize it.

Of course, if I had happened to verbalize the request, the exchange would have made perfect sense. In the technician's "[It is] No problem," the referent of the "it" was my (implied) request, not the malfunction. If the conversation did skip a groove, it was probably my fault for missing my line of the politeness script.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Die Prinzen!

I listened to two bands today that illustrate my utter lack of taste in music. I think you should go listen to both of these bands. I think that they will put a bounce in your step and a smile on your face.

But I know you'll probably hate them.

Die Prinzen (HT: Paige Skakal) and Brave Combo (HT: Carol Stream Public Library)

Just type them into Grooveshark (one at a time, for best results) and hit play all.

Feel free to tell me what you think.

Incidentally, Brave Combo came to mind today because I heard Bob Dylan's "Must Be Santa" and thought, That sounds like it could be a Brave Combo performance. Well, according to Brave Combo's website, it's a cover of their arrangement.

I found this article from MSNBC to be interesting.
Authors of a new online project that aims to create a Bible suitable for conservatives argue that contemporary scholars have inserted liberal views into the Bible.
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34270487/ns/us_news-faith//from/ET

Monday, November 23, 2009

I Had No Idea I Was So Annoying


Apparently the general public despises my default casual reply to "Thanks." I'm sure that I say "No problem" all the time. I never meant anything by it--it's just one of those pieces of the politeness script that one has to deploy in the conversation ritual.

But it turns out that what people hear when I say "No problem" is "a problem caused by you will be graciously ignored." That's according to the readers of Stanley Fish's blog at nytimes.com. Check it out for a list of niceties that they don't find so nice.

I can't agree with most of the list. I do find the corporation-speak offensive: "Your call is important to us"; "For your convenience"; "In order to serve you better." These are expressions that no normal human being would come up with--they spring from spin sessions. They are nakedly disingenuous, each one a malevolent "This is not a pipe."

But most of the things people complain about on Fish's blog aren't in this class. "Is everything all right?"; "Take care"; "Have a nice day." People seriously have a problem with these?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

John M. Ellis wants you to know that the Brothers Grimm are frauds


In One Fairy Story too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales, Ellis documents the evidence for Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm's deceptions and takes folklore scholars to task for stubbornly ignoring this evidence. The Grimms come off looking like a pair of undergraduates faking their research paper; Grimm scholars wind up looking like willfully blind burghers who can't bring themselves to admit that the emperor has no clothes.

Incidentally, "The Emperor's New Clothes" is not one of the stories collected in Grimms' Fairy Tales (auf Deutsch, Kinder- und Hausmarchen); that fairy tale was composed by Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen and the Grimms are traditionally juxtaposed: Andersen was an artist, writing his own fairy tales; the Grimms were scientists, merely collecting and reporting the indigenous tales of Germany. Ellis's book shows that

(1) The Grimms claimed to be just that, scientific collectors and preservers of indigenous German tales;

BUT

(2) Their sources were almost entirely drawn from their immediate social sphere: young, local, middle-class, educated, and in many cases, French-speaking;
(3) Far from preserving the wording and content of their sources, the Grimms constantly reworked the material;
(4) This reworking involved substantive changes, including taking out sexually suggestive elements, making the "good guys" better and the "bad guys" worse, and generally making the stories less wild and more rational.

I found Ellis convincing, and I'm surprised that I've never heard his polemic, even though the book was published in 1983. The most disappointing part for me is losing the image of the Grimms as ethnographers: tramping through the German countryside, listening to toothless old women and furiously scribbling down notes. They cultivated that image by, for example, listing the source of one story as "the River Main region" and another as "Cassel"--when in fact, both stories had come from members of the same family (the Hassenpflugs), who had lived in both places but were originally of French Hugenot extraction. This is what we call "fudging the data."

Sigh. I guess the movie got it half right--unfortunately, it was the con artist half, not the traveling-across-Germany half.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Stuff Christians Like: Samaritan's Purse

Mrs. Chaka and I just contributed to Samaritan's Purse at the urging of Stuff Christians Like. After raising $30,000 to build a kindergarten in Vietnam in one day, they're now raising funds for two more.

I'm not much for giving to a cause just because a celebrity says I should, but I figured it's the least we could do for a blog that has the funniest (and most edifying) comments on the entire internet.

Linus has probably blown his entire paycheck on this.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Learn to Stay Away from Those Who Carry 'Round a Fire Hose

You could call me a Bob Dylan fan; my music collection has more albums by him than by any other artist. I acknowledge that he's an acquired taste, though. The first time I heard him on the radio ("Like a Rolling Stone" on 98.7 FM KISD), I thought it was a joke. What was this doing on Oldies radio? Organ music and a guy who can't sing? When it went on and on for minute after minute, I thought it was a joke on an immense scale. Then the song ended, and the next song began, without a single word from the DJ to explain what had just happened. Apparently, everyone else was in on the joke.

I think I heard other Dylan songs eventually--"Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" at least--but it wasn't until I found out that he was a Minnesotan and had spent time around the University of Minnesota that I picked up one of his albums (Bob Dylan). I knew he was supposed to be cool, so I listened to it over and over again until I liked it. Honestly, that's pretty much what I did. When I found another album in the used bin at Cheapo, I'd buy it and repeat the process.

"Like a Rolling Stone" has grown on me somewhat, but it's still not my favorite. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" probably tops my list. I like the personal connection to "Positively Fourth Street" (I lived for three years in Dinkytown, on the titular Fourth Street). I drive Mrs. Chaka crazy by playing "You Ain't Going Nowhere" over and over again on our cheap acoustic guitar.

I say all that to say this: like Andrew Ferguson (HT: JT), I have no idea why people continue to revere Dylan and buy his albums, when he is in no way the artist he used to be. He never really sang the notes, but his inimitable style did have some charm and emotional resonance. Now his voice is shot so badly that he has only two notes, and only one emotional register: deep mortal anguish.

If Ferguson is right about what's going on inside Dylan's head, then maybe I wasn't so wrong when I heard his music for the first time. Maybe it is a joke on a massive scale.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

M. Levi-Strauss


I had no idea that Levi-Strauss was still alive. And now he's not.

Pretty shameful ignorance for someone who considers himself a casual Levi-Straussian.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Etymological Fables


Today I came across a word history of sincere that seems impossible. According to the story, Latin potters would sometimes use wax to conceal cracks in their products. Vendors in the marketplace, knowing that the buyers were wary of this ruse, would praise their wares as sin cera--without wax.

(Are there any valid etymologies that end with ". . . so people used to say ________"?)

The author of this word history intended to illustrate that sincerity requires allowing the cracks to show. A good point to make, especially in a church context, where there is great pressure to conceal our weaknesses. Somehow this etymological fable is less offensive to my sensibilities because the point isn't really the etymology. One can think of it as an elaborate pun, a just-so story, rather than a statement about the origin of sincere.

But what is the true etymon of sincere? Merriam-Webster's tentatively traces it to "sem- one + -cerus (akin to Latin crescere to grow)." The New Century Dictionary follows a similar line, associating the initial syllable with the sim- in Latin simplex. The OED concurs and explicitly puts down those Latin pottery merchants: "There is no probability in the old explanation from sine cera ‘without wax’."

It's disappointing that only Merriam-Webster's ventures a guess at the second half of the word. If the "without wax" story is well-known enough for the OED to knock it down, there must be some vigorous discussion somewhere of what that second element is. I submit the question to Professor Liberman and his legendary database.

And while he's pondering wax, perhaps he'd care to comment on the relationship between the English noun wax and the verb wax. According to the OED, "it seems not impossible" that the two share a common etymon (wax being "that which grows (in the honeycomb)"), but "the view now most in favour refers the word to the Indogermanic root *weg- to weave." Merriam-Webster's etymology of sincere seems to imply that the Latin words for wax (the noun) and grow share a common origin.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Books Half Read

I just re-read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Highly recommended. Don't let your eyes glaze over during the dialogs and arguments: them's the best parts. Now I want to read more about several important figures in the book: Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Aristotle, Dante. But first, I have to finish the following (half-read) books:

Lush Life by Richard Price
Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs
The Lighthouse by P. D. James
The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins

Then there are the two books Jon loaned to me:

And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer
Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI

That last one was lent well over a year ago, and I don't think I'm halfway through it yet. I'm such a loser. What would Teddy Roosevelt think?

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Sad State of Literary Affairs

A coworker recently spent a few days biking in Iowa and Minnesota. He passed through the town of Luverne, MN, where I was born. There's not much in Luverne to awe the world-weary traveler, so I didn't know if it would leave an impression on him.

Unfortunately, it did.

He had stopped in Luverne hoping to pick up a book. He told me that he always travels with a paperback, but had forgotten one on this trip. He claims to have gone to ten different places trying to buy a book, but couldn't get one anywhere. People reportedly returned his request with puzzled stares: "You mean, like a storybook?"

Now, some exaggeration is surely involved here: I doubt whether Luverne has ten businesses that would seem even remotely likely to carry novels. Nonetheless, I'm embarrassed that the town of my birth could not provide for my friend's literary needs. This has shamed not only Luverne, but all of southwest Minnesota--even the great state of Minnesota itself.

Loopy's, I'm ashamed of you. Pamida, I used to hold you in such esteem.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Our Ford

Elliot at All Is Grist (named after the first work by Chesterton that I read!) talks about defining evangelicalism, a topic touched upon in this blog. I would agree that evangelicalism is not quite the right word to describe Henry Ford's adventures in Brazil. In Chesterton's taxonomy, Ford might qualify as a Puritan because of his anti-alcohol stance, but an Episcopalian who believes in reincarnation (per Wikipedia) scarcely qualifies as an evangelical.

I know you're not supposed to cite Wikipedia, yeah yeah, blah blah blah, but some articles make for great reading. I had no idea that Europeans (particularly Germans) had such a fixation with him. It makes the premise of Brave New World more understandable.

Monday, October 05, 2009

What's the opposite of uber?

I'm wearing my mustaches long these days, but I am not a fan of Nietzsche. I am in his debt today, however, for a new line of self-interrogation. (That is what philosophers are good for, right?) I read this description of Nietzsche's critique of Christian morality (from Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth):

"Nietzsche sees the vision of the Sermon on the Mount as a religion of resentment, as the envy of the cowardly and incompetent, who are unequal to life's demands and try to avenge themselves by blessing their failure and cursing the strong, the successful, and the happy."

I suddenly asked myself, "Am I a Christian because I'm weak?"

The argument could be made. I'm certainly much better off in a Christian-influenced environment than in a world of supermen. As a short, nearsighted man with rather slow reflexes and not much skill at making money, I wouldn't fare so well among the strong and successful, especially if they were cut loose from law and conscience.

I remember a moment in elementary school when I informed a persecutor that, in the way he was treating me, he "wasn't being very Christian." But he was a superman--the tallest kid in fifth grade--and he responded simply, "I'm not a Christian." Didn't know what to say to that.

So I am capable of using Christian morality in the service of power, attempting to control others who are stronger than me. Even if it doesn't work very often (I actually can only think of times when it failed), I should pay attention to this capability. When are my appeals to God's favor for the weak mere power plays for my own advantage? Thank you, Nietzsche, for this.

At the same time, I wholeheartedly embrace Christian morality and God's favor for the weak. What's right is right, even if my motives for supporting it will never be purely right.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

My current leather possessions are limited to a wallet and some belts

"Logos Bible Software is celebrating the launch of their new online Bible by giving away 72 ultra-premium print Bibles at a rate of 12 per month for six months. The Bible giveaway is being held at Bible.Logos.com and you can get up to five different entries each month! After you enter, be sure to check out Logos and see how it can revolutionize your Bible study."

Well, it's a new month, and that means it's time to enter again in Logos Bible Software's luxury Bible giveaway. I've entered every month so far, but I haven't wanted to enter by writing a blog post; I figured I would look pretty shallow writing about a contest just to be entered into the contest. Thankfully, because of Lingamish's recent rant about the giveaway, I have a pretext to write a post.

Lingamish hasn't shamed me into not trying to win a luxury Bible, but he has reminded me anew that English-language Bible resources are wasted on speakers of the English language. There is a great hunger abroad for good tools for interpreting the Bible, but many obstacles stand in the way. A lack of workers, copyright issues, poverty, lack of technology. Meanwhile, Bible publishers, one of which is my esteemed employer (I speak entirely in earnest), continue to crank out new repackages of the English Bible. People keep buying them, even though (according to this website, which was the first hit on Google), 92% of American homes have a Bible--and among those 92%, the average number of Bibles is three.*

By contrast, 200 million people don't have the Bible in their own language.

Lingamish has 6 things you can do about this. I'm not saying you shouldn't try to win one of Logos's Bibles, but maybe you can do one of these, too. I'll add a seventh option:

7. Give to one of Wycliffe Bible Translators' current projects.

*I have over twenty Bibles on my shelves (not counting electronic versions), but what can I say? I would really enjoy getting one of the leather-bound copies Logos is giving away. I'm hoping for the TNIV (currently a lacuna in my library).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Speech Is Magic

Some favorite topics of mine:

Cuss words
Back to the Future
Tintin
The Bible

All linked together by Lingamish. Read his post, then read the article Eddie links to: Toward an Evangelical Theology of Cussing.

One could add another section to Svigel's excellent paper covering the relevance of speech-act theory to cussing. More noticeably than most other words, curse or swear words do things. Taken at face value, they invoke a curse or register an oath. Of course, many people no longer believe that God, or the spirits, or the universe itself responds to their oaths and curses. But even when used by someone who believes that speech is potent only in the human realm, the words still act. They intimidate, shock, or impress. They grab the hearer by the collar and demand attention. That's why it's called strong language.

To forestall an inevitable response: the words do this to the extent that they remain strong language. If, in a given social context, the words become so common that they become accepted, inoffensive, even expected, then their status as "cuss words" is thereby diminished. Doing things with words is essentially magic, and you can't deploy the most powerful magic indefinitely without diminishing returns.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Conversing with Chesterton's Portrait

An interview with Chesterton about Dan Brown (HT: American Chesterton Society). The editor who pieced that together did an excellent job. More than anything, though, the piece reminds me of how great Chesterton himself was. How many authors have a body of work that is unified, vibrant, and vast enough to make this kind of reconstruction plausible?

As the title of the post indicates, the article makes me think of conversing with Chesterton in a portrait from the Potterverse. You're talking with an echo of the person; nothing truly new can emerge from the conversation. At least, nothing new from your interlocutor--you are free to experience new thoughts and insights.

I've imagined doing a sort of stitched-together exchange like this in which Chesterton and Oscar Wilde volley wit and witticisms at each other. Of course, Wilde joined Chesterton's church before the end, so it's not inconceivable that they've had a raucous ongoing conversation in the afterlife.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sterile Irony

Lileks, writing about MadMen's depiction of the 60s, drop kicks the greatest metaphor ever:

"It may seem impossible to some, but people played the accordion without making sure everyone knew it was being done ironically, or was intended to be understood with a certain amount of irony. God knows I love irony, but it’s the condom the culture puts on when it doesn’t want to enjoy something completely for reasons it will regret in the morning."

Monday, September 14, 2009

I want to bank here


You know that scene at the end of The Shawshank Redemption when Andy hands a bank teller some envelopes and says, "Could you put this in your outgoing mail?" I have always wanted to do that: hand off my mail at the bank with an air of confident sophistication. It's like dropping off your laundry at the gas station. Banking + Mail = Awesome. Seriously, I think about that scene every time I slide a letter into a mailbox or drop it into the bin in the mailroom at work. I would so much rather hand this to a gracious, smiling teller, knowing she would dispatch the task with efficiency and discretion.

But I bank at the grocery store. Banking + Food = Not so cool. Can you imagine handing a letter to a twenty-something, stubbled, mumbly teller in an ill-fitting suit from Target, a half-inch gap between the top of his tie-knot and the top of his collar? Inconceivable. It's off the script. He couldn't ask me if I want my balance with that, or if I want to open a savings account. The steely glares of the five people queued up behind me (heretofore directed at the two tellers busily doing something other than assisting customers) would cut through me like samurai blades.

Yes, I'm waxing wistful and snarky about a two-second scene from a movie. But you got to admit, it is a good movie.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Evasion


Last night I saw part of a game show while visiting a friend's apartment. The show ("Lingo") was clearly a word game, but I couldn't follow how it worked. The TV was muted and I was making some effort at conversation.

In the wee hours of the night, I dreamed I was on the show. There was a lot of set-up in the dream: people arriving, explaining who they were, finding their seats. When the time came to actually play the game, various delays popped up--more spectators arrived, the host left the stage, contestants disappeared and we couldn't proceed till they returned.

I got impatient and tried to gather the wayward characters. I started grilling my competitors on the rules of the game, since I hadn't played before. They became evasive, started talking nonsense. I got angry, thinking they were trying to make sure I lost.

Suddenly I realized this fact: The characters in your dreams, being contained entirely within your head, have no knowledge that you do not already have. They couldn't give me a straight answer because I didn't know the rules. I awoke laughing.

My question for you is, have you ever heard this point made before? I feel like I've read it somewhere or seen it in a TV show (sounds like something that would show up in a Star Trek episode). Any ideas?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Fancying Footnotes

I love footnotes. I know they drive some people crazy; some people want them banished to the end of the book, or at least to the end of the chapter. Some people even want to scrub them out of books all together.

Me, I like footnotes in my fiction. Eaters of the Dead was good for that, though not as good as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I never finished Infinite Jest, but if I remember correctly, it had endnotes. An unfortunate decision, I fear. It's hard enough to read a thousand-page novel without having to flip back and forth between parts of the book. Actually, with that many pages, you're not flipping back and forth. I think flipping has a three-hundred-page maximum. At a thousand pages, you're flopping. Or maybe floupping.

Another of my favorite footnoted figures of fiction is The Annotated Alice. I was rereading it today, enjoying the lengthy notes on "Jabberwocky," when I stumbled on this tidbit:

"A magnificent German translation [of "Jabberwocky"] was made by Robert Scott, an eminent Greek scholar who had collaborated with Dean Liddell (Alice's father) on a Greek lexicon."

Both the book and my jaw dropped into my lap. Alice Liddell's father was that Liddell? Liddell & Scott Liddell?* I guess I should have expected the Dean of an Oxford college to have accomplished something other than making friends with fairytale writers, but I didn't expect Alice's dad to have edited one of the Greek lexica. Talk about being overshadowed.

*Incidently, I don't know why the Wikipedia page about Liddell & Scott claims that Liddell accented the second syllable of his name. Carroll repeatedly puns on Liddell as "little." Gardiner claims the name "rhymes with fiddle" (p. xviii in my edition) and argues, "We know how "Liddell" was pronounced because in Carroll's day the students at Oxford composed the following couplet: I am the Dean and this is Mrs. Liddell. / She plays the first, and I the second fiddle" (p. 75).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Delhi 2 Dublin


Heard about these guys on NPR's The World last night. Good stuff. Some people might think that Celtic fiddle and Indian music are a strange combination, but linguists know that it's just a reunion of distant cousins: the westernmost and the easternmost branches of those prolific proto-Indo-Europeans (see chart). I wonder if they could record a song that consisted of a call and response of Sanskrit and Gaelic cognates (I stole the following from Metro Gael; more of the same to be found in published books as well):

Raja - Ri
Arya - Aire
Badhira - Bodar
Pibati - Ibid
Minda - Mend

You could do a song about a deaf king who gets drunk with a freeman and ends up disabled or stammering.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Smells Like Money


I first ran across the proverb Pecunia non olet (Money doesn't stink) in a book about Aldi.
What I didn't realize until today was that the proverb is also a pun. Pecunia means both "money" and "cattle," and of course, cattle do in fact stink (HT: Liberman).

If you've ever been on a farm with livestock, you may have seen this scene played out:

City Slicker: This farm smells.
Farmer: {Inhale}: Smells like money.

It's nice to know that my Uncle Mike has the same sense of humor as the ancient Romans.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"While shooting yourself in the leg is by no means the most glamorous thing a man can do . . ."

". . . if you must do it, it seems best to do it while shark hunting."

From AoM's recap of Hemingway's life. I've always assumed that Dos Equis's "Most Interesting Man in the World" is a rip-off of Ernest.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Up My Alley

Read this news with interest: Lewis on Language (Unpublished).

I'm about a quarter of the way through Planet Narnia, incidentally. (I decided that having accepted its thesis on the basis of an article each in Touchstone and Books & Culture, and having enthusiastically passed it on to others, I ought to read the bookitself.) It's living up to my expectations.

It's also reminding me of works that I need to read (or read again): The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare's works, Canterbury Tales . . .

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's Twitter good for?


Like many innovations, Twitter is a good angle to use to talk about something that's been talked about a thousand times before. To keep you updated on the "they"-as-a-gender-neutral-pronoun debate, I give you this article from the New York Times Magazine. (HT: Adam from ElShaddai Edwards from Mike Aubrey)

It makes all the claims that have driven the good Professor Liberman to distraction: "Writers as far back as Chaucer used ['they'] for singular and plural, masculine and feminine." "Many great writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars." Merriam-Webster accepts it. No examples are cited, though, disappointing my hopes of seeing a true clash of the titans as the Times rose to accept Liberman's challenge.

The article's authors (Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman) make an argument I've not heard before, which is that the idea that "he" can refer to both genders stems from "Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book." They cite the delightfully named Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade for this fact (I assume to chase it down and find examples, one would have to read her book. Ooo, it's only $137 at Amazon!)

It seems that it ought to be incredibly easy to decide between O'Conner/Kellerman and Liberman on this point: one side claims that "he" was never used as a gender-neutral pronoun before Anne Fisher; the other claims that "they" was never so used before the mid-20th century. This calls for some collating. This calls for a dissertation.

On second thought, before I send in my application for Ph.D. programs, I can think of one data point off the top of my head that seems to blow O'Conner/Kellerman out of the water: the earliest English Bible translators used "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun. Now, maybe one could argue that that usage was a carry-over from Greek and Hebrew, and that the English Bibles reshaped the language and paved the way for Fisher's declaration . . .

I've been compulsively listening to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me for the last few months (funniest show on radio), and I notice that Peter Sagal always says to the Not My Job guest, "Answer two of the questions correctly and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners: Carl Kassel's voice on their home answering machine." That sheds no light on the subject, I guess, since I think Liberman would accept using "their" with "one."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Husserl and the Hyrax: Part I


First, let me pay my debts. Adam directed me to the Economist article, and my descriptions of Husserl's categories come from James K. A. Smith, "Tongues as 'Resistance Discourse,'" in Speaking in Tongues: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, edited by Mark J. Cartledge.

So what are hyraxes singing about? According to the article, they sing about their vital stats: weight, size, hormones, and status. Not as interesting a topic as the pangs of unrequited love, but musical tastes do differ.

Of course, the article tries to draw inferences about human singing from animal mating calls, eventually suggesting that when you sing about unrequited love, what you're really singing about is yourself--your size, anatomy, and hormones.

Let's consider this understanding of meaning or "aboutness." You see a teenage boy playing guitar and singing "Hey There Delilah" in front of a teenage girl. You could say that his song means "I am a suitable mate," that the song is about his sexual maturity and dexterity. There seems to be something to that understanding, but by itself, it's a very narrow and monochromatic definition of meaning. A richer understanding of meaning would be able to say (at least) that the song is about a woman named Delilah, beloved by the narrator, who is in school in New York City, far from her lover. One should also be able to say that the song means, "Isn't love a beautiful anguish?" or "Remain faithful to me as I remain faithful to you," or any number of other statements.

The first level of meaning, in which the song is about the singer's vital stats, seems much farther removed from the second and third levels (in which the song is about the people named in the song and about other people by extension, respectively).

In future posts we'll explore these different levels of meaning, bringing in some vocabulary drawn from Husserl in particular.

In the meantime, ponder the following ways of referring to meaning or "aboutness," all taken from the article (my italics throughout). Do they all mean the same thing? Do some correspond better to the first level? Others to the second and third?

"Zoologists have worked out the meaning of some [animal] calls . . . the rattle made by a male barn swallow indicates his testosterone levels."

"what hyraxes were singing about."

"correlations between the pattern of a hyrax's song and other details of its anatomy and behaviour."

"Wailing . . . indicates weight."

"A mid-song sound . . . communicates size."

"snorts . . . are connected to . . . hormones."

"peaks in snort-frequency provided information on . . . dominance."

"these are all honest signals."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Husserl and the Hyrax: Introduction


The title of this post alludes to a book by Umberto Eco: Kant and the Platypus, which I picked up one day in the King's Cross bookstore. I knew Eco only from The Name of the Rose (loved it) and Foucault's Pendulum (also great; should be regulated as a mind-altering substance). Oh, and I knew that in his professional life, Eco had something remotely to do with linguistics.

I have no idea what Kant would have to say about the platypus, since I couldn't make it past the introduction of Eco's book. Nor do I understand what it is, exactly, that Eco does and how it relates to linguistics. But I'm a sucker for a catchy title.

The Husserl I refer to is Edmund Husserl, a German philospher. The hyrax (or coney, or rock badger) is, as we all know, this.

In my posts on this topic, I'll try to be easier to read than Eco. Since this is the first post in the series, it's sort of like the first day of a class. You know, the day where the teacher blathers on a bit, asks a provocative question, and hands out the reading. Hence:

Blather #2: A friend of mine used to say that one of the most important questions in a debate was "What's the meaning of meaning?" Ironically, I had no idea what he meant by the question.

Question: "What's the meaning of "meaning"?

Reading: "The song of songs," The Economist, January 15, 2009.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Is this an orthodox restatement of the Golden Rule?

"Before it's all over, everything you've done to other people gets done to you."

Please respond in comments.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What's the Deal with the Apocrypha?

My dad asked me to explain the Apocrypha the other day, and I couldn't do it. I remembered some details: the Jews rejecting the books in the first century; Jerome putting them aside in the fifth century; the King James translators including them in the seventeenth century. But I had to do some reading to remember the whole story. Here's my spiel:

What's the deal with the Apocrypha?

The Apocrypha is a collection of books written by Jews in the time between the testaments, that is, between Malachi (around 400 B.C.) and Christ (first century A.D.). The Jews at the time of Christ read these books in private, but they were not read aloud in the synagogues like the Old Testament was. Early Christians, like the Jews around them, read these books as well. Like the Jews, they also seem to have read them in private rather than in the church service.

It's important to know that Christians mostly used the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) rather than the original Hebrew. The Apocryphal books and the New Testament were also written in Greek. So the Jews in the first century, who were arguing with Christians over religious doctrines, probably became very suspicious of any scriptures that weren't written in Hebrew. They stopped using the Apocryphal books not long after Christianity emerged.

Christians continued to read the Apocryphal books, however, and when they starting putting all the scriptures together in bound books (instead of collecting them on scrolls), they included the Apocryphal writings mixed in with the Old Testament. When the Bible was translated from Greek to Latin, the Apocryphal books were translated too. But when Jerome (an Italian monk who lived in Bethlehem and learned Hebrew) was asked to revise the Latin translation (in the 400s), he made a distinction between the Old Testament books and the Apocryphal books, which were "not in the canon." The Protestant Reformers felt the same way, but none of them seem to have felt it was appropriate to remove the books from printed Bibles. Luther did pull them out of their places interspersed throughout the Old Testament and set them between the Old and New Testaments. This was what the King James translators did as well. The stance of the reformers could be summarized with these words (from the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican church):

"And the other Books (as Hierome [Jerome] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:" . . . and it goes on to list the Apocryphal books.

Catholics responded to this by rising up to defend the Apocryphal books, declaring at the Council of Trent that they were canonical, with the same authority as the Old Testament.

So when did the books drop out of Protestant Bibles? Well, the short answer is that it was easier and cheaper to print Bibles without the Apocrypha. The major driving force in putting Bibles in the hands of people from the 1800s on were the Bible societies. These organizations (think of them as the Gideons of that time) were made up of people from different denominations (Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, even Unitarians in the early days) who all wanted to make the Bible available. They all contributed money to the cause, but to keep everyone happy, they agreed that the money would only go to printing and distributing the straight Bible text—no notes or commentary. The Apocryphal books weren't considered part of the straight Bible text—they might be helpful reading, but they weren't important enough to print in these low-cost evangelistic Bibles.

Eventually, most Protestants lost familiarity with the books. They came to think of them as a Catholic thing, something to be resisted and argued against. But I don't think that's the right attitude to have. These books were, after all, written by Jewish believers, not by heretics or anything. It's probable that Jesus and the apostles had read them; the early church certainly read them; the Reformers read them. I'd argue that it won't damage a Christian's faith to read them. On the contrary, they can help us understand the world in which Jesus and the early church lived. They can probably teach us something about God and his dealings with his people, even if they aren't inspired and authoritative like the Old and New Testaments. There are a lot of books out there written by faithful believers, and we can benefit from them even if they aren't inspired. That's where I'd place the Apocrypha.

Works consulted:

The NIV Study Bible, "The Time between the Testaments" (Zondervan, 1985)
The Book of Common Prayer
Introduction to the History of Christianity (ed. Timothy Dowley, Fortress Press, 2002)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Film Called Awful

Yesterday we bought A Fish Called Wanda on VHS for a quarter. We watched it today and promptly threw the cassette into the garbage so that no one ever has to watch it again. At no point was the film even mildly funny. After the first third of the movie, we wondered if we'd stumbled on another Brassed Off. Not even a brief cameo by Stephen Fry could save it. I can only assume that the entire Motion Picture Academy was high on cocaine while watching the movie and deciding to give Kevin Kline an Oscar.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Father Brown in the Excluded Middle


Happy belated birthday to Gilbert Keith. In his honor, I'll finally write this post I've been meaning to get to for months. It's inspired by an odd coincidence.

My biweekly reading group assignment was "The Blue Cross," the first Father Brown mystery. (Reading that is probably a better use of your time than reading the rest of this post, so if you leave now, I'll understand. Unless you're Anatoly Liberman, in which case, read on.) I had just read the assignment when Anatoly Liberman's Monthly Gleanings popped into my RSS reader. At the bottom of his post, Liberman returned to a well-worn topic, the use of they as a gender-neutral substitute for he.

A little background for those who don't read Monthly Gleanings: Liberman has made what I would call an aesthetic objection to they as a singular pronoun. The particularly ugly sentence he highlighted (from the Minnesota Daily, I assume) was "If a tenant has an eviction on their record, it does not mean they were a bad tenant."

Liberman regards such grammar as "a horror." He also objects that it is inaccurate to defend it as a longstanding feature of good English. In the last two decades, some respected dictionaries (Random House, Heritage, American Oxford) introduced notes that claim a long and respectable pedigree (e.g., Austen, Thackery, Shaw) for singular they. Liberman might accept the example sentences ("To do a person in means to kill them") as good English, but makes a distinction between they with antecedents like person, someone, and anyone and its standing in for tenant, borrower, and fisherman. He challenged his readers to find examples of the "bad tenant" variety that predate the 1960s and 70s.

Still with me? Okay, here's the passage from "The Blue Cross" (1910) that a reader submitted in response to the challenge:

"There was one thing which Flambeau, with all his dexterity of disguise, could not cover, and that was his singular height. If Valentin's quick eye had caught a tall apple-woman, a tall grenadier, or even a tolerably tall duchess, he might have arrested them on the spot."

This is not precisely parallel to the "bad tenant" sentence. Chesterton did not write "If Valentin's quick eye had caught a tall pedestrian, he might have arrested them on the spot." But it doesn't fall into Liberman's other category. Chesterton did not write "If Valentin's quick eye had caught anyone particularly tall, he might have arrested them on the spot." What we have here is a tertium quid, an unjustly excluded middle: them stands in for regular old nouns like apple-woman, grenadier, and (or?) duchess, though not as blatantly as it did for the bad tenant.

Inexplicably, Liberman demonstrated no interest in this fascinating specimen. He dismissed it with a single sentence: "Surely, them does not refer to the apple woman, duchess, or grenadier separately." I was shocked. "On the contrary," I thought, "surely them must refer to these three separately! It cannot refer to them collectively, can it? It is precisely the indeterminacy of the gender (whether because of the mixed group or the possibility of masquerade) that prompted Chesterton to use them in place of him."

A few hours later, as I joined my colleagues—all of them veteran copy editors—to discuss "The Blue Cross," I pointed out the sentence and asked them about it.

"If the nouns were changed, would the sentence still make sense?" I asked. "Let's say it read:

'If Valentin's quick eye had caught a tall apple seller, a tall grenadier, or even a tolerably tall duke, he might have arrested them on the spot.'"

The copy editors wrinkled their noses and shook their heads. "It would have to be 'arrested him,'" one responded. The others agreed.

Notice that this verdict both confirms Liberman's initial disdain for the "bad tenant" sentence (if the copy editors had liked "bad tenant" sentences, they would have accepted my emended "Blue Cross" sentence) and challenges his dismissal of the original "Blue Cross" sentence. There is room for the case against the frivolous extension of singular they, especially when the referent's gender is known. But I believe the "Blue Cross" sentence shows that when gender indeterminacy is forefronted in the speaker's mind, using they is a handy and longstanding tactic, even for ordinary nouns. As Chesterton shows, it can even lend itself to rather elegant writing.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Best. Magazine. Ever.


Books & Culture is the best magazine I have ever read. It's published by Christianity Today International, which is headquartered a couple blocks away from my apartment. CTI (as everyone around here calls it) has had to trim some of their publications recently. Thankfully, Books & Culture was spared. But I decided that, cheap as I am, it's time I actually subscribed. You should too. Go here to get your trial issue.

Special K, I specially direct this recommendation to you. A good chunk of the books reviewed are non-fiction, which I know you are partial to. I think you would really enjoy this magazine.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I love a good sonnet


In high school, I heard a translation of a sonnet attributed to Michelangelo. It was in a video about the Renaissance artists. I went up to the teacher after class and asked if I could play it back. I rewound and played the laserdisc over and over till I had the whole thing written down.

Ten years later, I think that piece of paper is in my apartment somewhere. But I can't find it, so here's what I remember:

In a frail boat through stormy seas, my life
In its course has now reached the harbor
The bar of which all men must cross
To render an account of good and evil done.

I now know how laden with error
Was that fantasy which made Art for me
An idol and a king, and how mistaken
Is that earthly love which all men seek.

What of those thoughts of love, once light and gay,
As now I approach a twofold death?
One is certain; the other menaces.
No brush, no chisel quiets the soul
Once turned to the divine love of him
Who stretches out his arms on the cross.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New Context, New Meaning

Lileks once wrote of attending a performance of the musical Annie: "That 'Hard-Knock Life' tune is very odd. (Wonder how many people in the audience wondered why they were playing a Jay-Z song.)"

Indeed. I remember the first time hearing a recording of Sinatra singing "Love and Marriage." It didn't compute. Why would Sinatra sing the theme song from "Married With Children"? There's no way he was a fan of that show . . .

Of course, I eventually realized that the Sinatra performance came first, but I still can't stand to hear him sing the song. Everything Sinatra touched he infused with class, but Al Bundy and Fox managed to wring all the class out of that one.

So our topic is clearly songs which once had an independent existence, but have been completely absorbed into and associated with some new context. Could be a movie that used the song ("Time Is on My Side" in Fallen?), a certain artist's signature performance (Whitney Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You"), a parody ("Just Eat It"?).

What comes to your mind?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Guitar picking

I've been whiling away many a free hour playing around with the guitar. I come home from work, do a few household chores, and play for a bit before the boss comes home and I have to get back to business. That time has traditionally been blogging time, so things have been sparse around here of late.

Here are some of the songs I've enjoyed playing. Understand that I play all of them badly.

#1: You Ain't Going Nowhere by Bob Dylan. Super super easy to play, and it sounds really cool. There are multiple sets of lyrics out there. I prefer the ones with "Gonna see a movie called Gunga Din." It's also not clear to me what the lyric after Oooweee is. I've been singing "You ride me high," but it could be something "behind"? Who knows?

#2: I Am an Orphan Girl by Gillian Welch. Chaka is sentimental. Not Thomas Kinkade sentimental, but singing this song subjects me to excessive lacrimosity.

#3: The Story by Brandi Carlile. I like the instructions that go along with the tab on this one. "Begin strumming softly . . . Start rocking out like your hair is on fire . . . Back to fingerpicking . . . Hair is on fire again." Cough loudly when I get to the F# minor, you really don't want to hear that.

#4: Don't Let Your Deal Go Down by Charlie Poole. Because there are things I need to know, like who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet?

#5: The Scarlet Tide by Allison Kraus. This one is actually a cheater transposition, and I still can't play it well. Cool song, though.

#6: Clavelitos. (Traditional Tuna song. That's right, Tuna. Nothing to do with fish.) You know this song, you just don't know that you know it. Picture an Andalucian scene, a Spanish lad with a guitar serenading a young lady on the balcony above. Okay, got that pictured? That song he's playing? That's the one.

My favorite part is the "No! te! creas que ya no quiero--es que no te los pude traer." So many preposed pronouns! It sounds so dramatic, but it's actually a pretty lame line (see the translation here; the whole song actually loses some power in translation. I'll give you a bell! Woohoo!).

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sci-fi Implausibilities


I thought the list below was about Star Trek when I first heard it. It comes from a recent episode of The Dollhouse. The scene begins with a character rattling off the list, but you don't hear the category until the list is complete. I believe the way they phrased it in the episode was "common sci-fi errors."

Of course, if they wanted to pick on Star Trek specifically, they could have added

time travel whenever the plot requires it
transferring matter to energy and back in defiance of Heisenberg

American English as a permanent lingua franca


But you protest "What about the Universal Translator? They aren't all speaking English, the translator just makes it seem that way." In which case, we can add to the list:

instantaneous, flawless machine translation

And for that matter

conducting any meaningful communication with aliens.

Understand, I'm not hating on Star Trek. I've been delightedly rewatching TNG episodes. I will be seeing the movie. But I think I would most enjoy seeing it with two of the great nitpicking fans, Phil Farrand and Joss Whedon.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Timor mortis conturbat me

It was time to renew my driver's license. Luckily, I didn't have to retake the written test; just had to look into the black box and read line 5. So with a faded portrait of Jesse White looking on (there's something extra-imperial about the fact that it was faded), the woman behind the counter rattled through her questions, checking off my answers with looping flicks of her pen.

"Has your license been suspended or canceled in this state or any other state."

"No."

"Do you have a condition that could cause you to lose consciousness."

"No."

"Do you want to be an organ donor."

I felt a rush of fear. This question.

* * * * *

I remember the first time it caught me off guard. I was getting my license for the first time; since these things are scheduled by your birthday, it would have been almost exactly twelve years ago. I didn't know that this person, this interchangeable processor in the basement of the county courthouse, would want to know what should be done with my body after I died. "Do you want to be an organ donor." My dad was with me, and I looked over at him. He shook his head and quietly said "No." I was relieved and unsettled. But the interchangeable processor didn't judge; she had moved on to the next question. It was over except for the lingering sense that I had somehow been weak; somehow faithless.

The question has been asked at least twice since then, and I've always been caught off guard. I've always said no and felt like a jerk. A cowardly, relieved jerk.

* * * * *

"Yes."

I felt like an idiot. A thoughtless, careless idiot.

The woman behind the counter looked me in the eye for the first time. "By saying yes, you acknowledge your agreement to donate your organs. Your next of kin has no authority to alter this decision. Do you agree?"

"Yes." I wanted to turn around, but I was too ashamed to make the train stop. My wife isn't comfortable with me changing our phone service to a different provider. And I just gave her rights regarding the disposition of my body over to the state of Illinois.

Idiot.

* * * * *

I don't like my new picture as well as I liked the old one. I wasn't ready when they snapped the photo. My mouth is smiling, but my eyes haven't caught on yet. (Those weak, misshapen eyes. Who's gonna want 'em?) I guess I was ready enough. I'm just going to have to go with it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

What is this a list of?

Earth-identical gravity and atmosphere on other planets
one ecosystem for a whole planet
human-alien cross-breeding without scientific intervention
flaming explosions and sound in a vacuum
light-speed travel
space storms
sexy sexy aliens

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In this Moment, I’m the Anti-Jacobs

When you want to open a new document in Word 2007, you have to tell it whether you want a new document or a new blog post. I wanted to find out how to circumvent that time-wasting step (I never want to create a new blog post in Word). Googling did not give me a solution. The only posts I found were about how cool it is that you can post to your blog from Word. Er . . . okay. I guess you can use an iron to make grilled cheese, too, but isn't it kind of messy? I couldn't resist trying it out, so this is my first post published

<Word crash>

<Error reporting/>

<Document recovery/>

</Word crash>

from Word. Funny, Firefox tends not to crash in the middle of posts like that.

Alan Jacobs would ask why you want to use a program with all the overhead and complications of MS Word to write a blog post, which is essentially pure text. I mean, you can throw in some italics or bold, but it's just as easy to do that in Blogger if you really need to. Word can do things like small caps, but do those make it through all right to the web? I guess we'll see. Update: Nope.

By the way, Ctrl+N takes you directly to a new document, without asking if you want to blog. Save those precious seconds. Spend them blogging on trivialities.

Why O Why Did I Ever Leave My Home?

I spent a good chunk of my free time over the last couple weeks re-re-re-learning some basic chords on the guitar so that I could perform at my church's variety show night. Mrs. Chaka and I sang Green Pastures. I did a solo performance of One (inspired by the Johnny Cash version, but my octave of choice was more like Bono's).

Since I was getting my callouses back, I played around with a song that regularly gets stuck in my head: I Sang Dixie, by Dwight Yoakam. It belongs to a subgenre of country songs that I like to call "Why O Why Did I Ever Leave the South?" See also, Detroit City, Smoky Mountain Memories, perhaps even I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow belongs in this category ("I left my home . . . I'm bound to ride that northern railroad").

Laments about having left the North are, on the other hand, conspicuously nonexistent. Is no one sad to have left the North? Can Northerners not sing? Did they just not leave the North? Do they thing about things like Purple Rain instead?

Well, when I sing Man of Constant Sorrow, I sub in "Minnesota" as "the place where I was borned and raised." (It bugs me that Dylan didn't. Colorado? What does that have to do with anything?)

You could say that the real source of the Southerner-in-exile laments is the economically driven migration of workers from the rural South to industrial Northern cities (that theme is pretty blatant in Detroit City). But if that's the case, we should find similar genres of music for other migrations: Are there African American blues songs about longing for the South? Mexican songs about the harsh life in los EE. UU.? Traditional Native American chants about the joys of homey Siberia?

Well, are there? You tell me.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Four Spiritual Laws in the Ancient Church


HT: Kouya Chronicle. I do not demean the first law. It is true. God does love you and has a wonderful plan for your life. His definition of wonderful may differ from yours.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Me and Hats

An accurate description of my predicament, from a Lileks screed:

"I love the era of fine hats, but I know I would have looked like someone in a Munchkin production of The Maltese Falcon.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

AT&T Technical Support: We Support You, Technically

Call center guidelines:

Assume the caller is an idiot
Assume that the caller's problem isn't AT&T's problem
Look for the quickest way to tell the caller that it isn't AT&T's problem
Empathy implies liability--try to get the caller to empathize with you
The magic words "I do apologize for the inconvenience" make everything okay

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Taking a Guess at Nyungwe

David Ker posted the first five verses of John in Nyungwe and asked if his readers could figure out any of the words. Here are the verses and my notes:

1 Pakutoma akhali fala ndipo falalo likhali pabodzi na Mulungu. Ndipo iye akhali Mulungu. 2 Iye pakutoma akhali na Mulungu. 3 Bzinthu bzentse bzidalengedwa na iye, tsono palibe ciri-centse cidalengedwa mwakusaya iye. 4 Mwa iye mukhana moyo. Ndipo moyoyo ukhali ceza ca wanthu. 5 Ceza cikhabvunika mumdima. Mdima ulibe kucikunda.

Some nouns are easy: Mulungu is “God,” ndipo translates logos (whether it specifically means word, message, reality, etc., I don’t know for certain). Mdima seems to be “darkness,” ceza is “light,” wanthu would be “people,” and moyo “life.” None of these appear to have case endings. I guess the reduplication of –yo in verse 4 is something other than case.

I would guess that pa- is a prefix/preposition corresponding to “in.” Kutoma would then equal “the beginning.” I guess that bodzi is also a morpheme (“in bodzi with God”). The prefix/preposition mu- also overlaps with English “in.” Na seems to correspond to “with.” Ca also looks like a preposition, relating “light” to “people.” Perhaps “for”?

I don’t see an article.

Iye and –khali are doing a good bit of work, which suggests that they mainly convey grammar rather than semantics. I’m going to guess that iye is a pronoun (“he”) and the –khali words are forms of “to be.” Akhali goes with words of the class containing ndipo (masculine?) and ukhali with words of the class containing ceza and mdima (feminine?).

I notice possible morphemes bzi-nthu, bz(i)-entse, c(i)-entse, and wa-nthu. Could –nthu (or a chunk of it) mark the plural?

Bzi- appears with both nouns and verbs. Bzinthu bzentse should correspond to “all things” and bzidalengedwa to “were created/came to be.” Bzi- alternates with ci- on the verb for coming to be (dalengedwa). Do bzi- and ci- mark semantic classes?

While I’m on verbs, cikhabvunika must be “shines/has shined” and kucikunda “overcomes/has overcome.” Both have the ci-. If the translation preserves the distinction in tense between these two words, the reduplicated ku- in kucikunda looks like a tense marker. But there ought to be a pronoun in that clause with the antecedent ceza, so maybe ku- is a pronominal prefix.

Ulibe ought to be the negation in the last clause. There’s a palibe in verse 3 that could negate things coming to be apart from him.

That’s probably as close as I can get. I’m particularly intrigued by the bzi-/ci- alternation. And the fala words stumped me. Here’s my gloss:

In-beginning was fala word falalo was in-bodzi with God. Word he was God. 2 He in-beginning was with God. 3 Bzi-things bzi-all bzi-came-to-be with him, but not ciri-ci-all ci-came-to-be apart-from him. 4 Mwa him in-himself life. Word life was light for people. 5 Light ci-shines in-darkness. Darkness does-not it-overcome.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hanging in the Hallway


A post over at the Evangelical Outpost has as good an explanation as I've seen of what I think evangelicalism ought to be. Lewis' hallway metaphor, though not designed with evangelicalism in mind, captures the situation well.

It seems, though, that there are a lot of people living in the hallway nowadays. Living in the hallway has its downsides, of course, but the hallway has its own unique culture. It seems to me that it's often full of exciting people, people who are perhaps oddballs in their own rooms.

I met my wife in the hallway, in one of those mainstays of evangelicalism known as parachurch ministry. Once you fall in love with someone from another room, it complicates things. Heck, once you come to respect someone from another room (which hopefully happens antecedent to falling in love with said someone), it complicates things.

The hallway is laid back. People who would *freak* *out* if a woman started talking in one of the rooms are cool with her talking in the hallway. It's the hallway, man, it's no big deal. There are some women who talk in the rooms, but people tend to avoid them when they come into the hall.

As you can see, I've run out of things to say on the topic. We can be done now.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Neo, I Renounce Thee!


I want to apologize to Stanley Fish for the post that referred to him as a Crypto-Neo-Calvinist. I was being arch/ironic/trivial/unearnest, but I felt chastened when I read his series of articles about being tagged with the term neoliberal. One of his points in the articles is that neoliberal is a term without a clear definition; it's a term whose main purpose is to deride the opponent ("Take that, you accursed neoliberal"). It's a term maliciously assigned and never gladly received.

I realized after reading his article that by using the term Neo-Calvinist, I had endorsed a similar rhetorical ploy (albeit ironically). I could hide behind that ironic distance, but I want to come clean. I'd like to renounce the word, and while I'm at it, I'm considering renouncing any ideological term beginning with "neo."

You may be wondering, Where the heck is this coming from, Chaka? Let me explain. Neo-Calvinist was floating around in my head because I had recently read Scot McKnight's post on the Neo-Reformed (HT:Between Two Worlds). I have to say, McKnight's description of this ideological group resonated with me. After spending my college years in Minneapolis (where John Piper has a distinct presence on the evangelical scene) and subsequent years in one of the centers of evangelicalism (the Trinity-Wheaton nexus), I think there is validity in McKnight's picture of reformed complementarians trying to squeeze out "the rest of us."

I say that without malice. I say it as someone who has been blessed and nurtured by a very reformed, very complementarian church (one of the founding elders was Wayne Grudem, who could be McKnight's posterchild for the Neo-Reformed). As much as I have benefited from people and churches associated with these positions, I have also felt from them a pressure to set these positions at the center of Christianity and push other positions to the margins (or off the page entirely).

I'm trying to say here that I have sympathy for McKnight's portrait without positioning myself as an opponent of reformed complementarians. However, I feel convicted that I have at one level already positioned myself their opponent by using the term Neo-Calvinist. Like neoliberal, neoconservative, and perhaps all neo- prefixed ideological categories (perhaps originally including neo-orthodox?), to use the term is to judge those so termed.

The recursiveness is satisfying for insiders and frustrating for outsiders. I instinctively knew what McKnight meant when he wrote, "Those who were all riled up about the blurb are the NeoReformed -- ironically, they were wondering who I had in mind when I used "NeoReformed" in the blurb." From the inside, it is obvious who the opponents are; they make themselves known by their opposition. Yet from the outside, this seems like a massive strawman argument.

By the way, the term fundamentalist, in my opinion, falls into this category as well. That's why I prefer to use it only of those who would use it of themselves.

Friday, March 20, 2009

In Which Our Narrator Chickens Out at the Seafood Counter


I like to pride myself on my provisioning abilities. I.e., I know how to plan, shop for, and cook quality meals at low cost. One of my primary techniques is to let the sale items in produce, the meat counter, and the deli direct my planning.

Another technique is to do some of the processing myself. I already have a great set of knives (thank you to my colleagues in the Special Order department at Marshall Field's for your generous wedding present!), so my policy on chicken is: buy them whole for $1.00/lb, cut them up myself, and find a way to cook every piece. (Though I haven't made schmaltz yet.)

These principles at times require fortitude. This week, Valli (the Platonic ideal of a grocery storeTM) had whole trout on sale. And asparagus. I quickly found a recipe that used these foundational ingredients and put them on the shopping list.

There I stood at the seafood counter, staring into the aghast expressions of the trout. $2.99/lb for the whole thing. But just a few feet over, at $5.99/lb, were the trout fillets. Hmm . . . fillets don't look back at you while you cut them up. And I've never really attempted to fillet a fish . . .

It was then I discovered that the price of my self-processing principle was about $2.00.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Overstepping My Bounds

I can't resist linking to this. As a Protestant, I suppose I have no right to judge whether or not someone is Catholic enough to be Catholic, but let's think this through:

You don't think the pope is God's spokesman.

You characterize the Catholic hierarchy as "the hierarchical institution set up, not by Jesus, but by men who hijacked his name and in many cases perverted his teachings."

You see the hijacking starting with Paul's first letter to the Corinthians [!].

Hmm . . . you may actually be too Protestant to be Protestant.

I like to think of most categories in terms of prototypes and marginal members (x is prototypically Catholic, y is more marginally Catholic) rather than in Platonic terms (x is a member of category Catholic if and only if x has quality y). But still, I wonder what possible qualities McElvaine could have that make him even marginally Catholic.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Stanley Fish, Crypto-Neo-Calvinist?

Stanley Fish continues to defy my perception of him. I would expect to read something like this on Justin Taylor's blog, or John Piper's: an explanation (even a winning explanation) of God's grace and forgiveness as wiping out the debt of bankrupt human beings. Fish is a Milton scholar, of course, so it's not shocking that he knows Reformed theology in depth. There is a little bit of scholarly distance in his tone, but I'd say he presents the point of view appreciatively, if not in outright earnest.

I'm only sad that the radio spot and Christian financial planning books mentioned aren't the ones published by my company. :)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bye, Punk

If you're ever in Wicker Park, I recommend the Alliance Bakery on Division Street, near Paulina. I believe I prefer the coffee there over anywhere else.

It's always busy, but always quiet. A great place to be creative, perhaps jotting notes in your Moleskine or on your MacBook. God help you if your cell phone rings in that place. You'd go all wrinkly from the withering stares.

Plus, they have a sense of humor I appreciate: