Saturday, January 26, 2008

Happy Food

I bet your lunch doesn't look like a smiley face with a snorkel mask.

Mine does.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

E-mail to Bill Grassel, 1/1/2008


Subject: White Noise

Hey Bill,

I just finished White Noise. Great book! You can recommend reading or movies to me anytime.

As my latest attempt to integrate reading into life as a student, the book was somewhat of a failure. I got through most of the first part laboriously, a couple of chapters at a time, in the weeks after you gave it to me. I read "The Airborne Toxic Event" over Thanksgiving and "Dylarama" in the last two days, fitting with my previous pattern of binge reading over vacations.

Looking back, I'm not sure which part of the book I liked the most. It was more the consistent voice and themes across the three parts that I loved. I was somewhat detached from all of the discussion of death in the final part, since thanks to Jesus I need not fear death (though I think I fear's easier not to fear death when it does not appear to be imminent).

I read the final 100 pages today, so that's what's freshest on my mind, but there were a couple of things in it that really stuck out to me. The protagonist's long walk with Murray and their dialogue about death, and how it is wholly unnatural and wholly bad and not apparently necessary, was a blast to read. I also loved the faithless nuns, who just say "Do you think we are stupid?" to questions of belief, and the dialogue about how nonbelievers need believers. "They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely." It's so true.

Ah, the notion that postmodern life obliterates any question of God or the supernatural. Do you think it's a recent thing? I think on one hand there have always been atrocities and great suffering that challenge an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God. On the other hand, I think the current flavor of materialism or naturalism or whatever you want to call it is relatively new. The wholesale and universal acceptance of Darwinism as the explanation for our existence and the larger illusion (and illusion it is!) that science disproves anything that is unseen and not governed by the four fundamental forces of physics is prevalent and quite poisonous to belief.

But you know and I know that everyone knows God to some degree, and people reject Him fundamentally not because they have insufficient evidence but because they want to be their own bosses. However, I think the climate of the times gives people the excuse they are looking for not to pursue such questions seriously, as if they have been decided once and for all by great men of the twentieth century.

I went on a bike ride in the midst of my reading. I was struck as I noticed the way my mind would try to describe the things around me the way Don DeLillo would. Do you notice as you read for a long time that your thoughts afterwards are crafted to resemble the narrative style of the author?

What's really interesting about this pantomime to me is I noticed things that I would have never noticed otherwise, like the really faint flutter of a flock of birds overhead. Perception of everything is altered, as you interpret raw sensory data first through the lens of the author and second from your own in a reactionary way, weighing and testing what the author has to say about reality.

So when you read a book, the author is really handing you the set of goggles with which he or she views the world. If you're like me this effect wears off after a while, but like the stretching of dough it doesn't return to exactly the state in which it began. It's changed slightly but perceptibly, and over the course of many stretches the form is drastically changed.

So one ought to be careful about what one reads, because one's mind becomes like that of the authors whose works one beholds. This is how you become a Marxist, by holding up Marx's goggles to your eyes and saying, "This makes sense!"

Think then about reading the Bible. The authors in question are, on one level, great men who intimately knew God, and on another level, God Himself. By reading the Bible we put on the goggles of not just the author, but the Author, and our mind becomes like His as we learn to see His creation as He does. What a privilege, and what a desirable discipline!

I am a Christian, not principally because I seek to escape the terror of my death, but because I hold up Christ's goggles to my face, and everything makes sense. As C. S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

Happy New Year.


[Note: I've been thinking of making this e-mail into an essay for this page since writing it, but I found that it already articulated most of what I wanted to say. I have only barely edited the writing for this publication.]

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Macroevolution of Knits?

In my drawer, I have accumulated 11 distinct types of sock, including one dress and one women's. Seven have no mate, and I can account for at most four of the different types.

I only ever buy one kind of sock.

We all know that the amount of socks you put into the wash never equals the amount you get out, though it's usually an odd number. Now, apparently, left to their own devices, they evolve.

I am convinced that socks obey different laws of physics than the rest of the universe. There is weird, weird stuff going on here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Response: Corporate Cosmopolitans and the End of Place

Matthew has a well-developed sense of place.

My good friend Matthew recently wrote an excellent essay in response to Manuel Castells's "The Social Theory of Space and the Theory of the Space of Flows," which I have not read.

A major point that Matthew highlighted was the creation by elite corporate society of a globally homogenous living space. Meaning, people with elite (consulting, managerial, etc.) jobs which jet them across the country and the world can find the same living arrangements and lifestyle wherever they go: the same diet, the same hotel furnishings, and the same separation from any locals who aren't serving them.

In this way, these people are freed from the demands that crossing between places of different cultures and histories would place on them, since everywhere that they go is part of what Matthew calls "one global, virtual city of the elite, with outposts all over the physical world" and what Castells calls the "space of flows."

This transcendence of culture and place is precisely what makes such people elite. Instead of traveling to different "places," each with its own unique nature, corporate elites merely inhabit extensions of the same "space." In this view, the value of different locations rests only in the sum of their consumable attributes; New York and Los Angeles become the only cities of worth in the United States. "Whatever they got here they got there, right?" Matthew says of anywhere else.

I notice such an outlook as a student here at Penn.

I was annoyed last semester when the Undergraduate Assembly announced that they would be bringing The New York Times to campus for free this semester. Why not The Philadelphia Inquirer? I realize the Times is larger and regarded as the nation's paper of record, but inescapable is a sense of widespread indifference about the city we live in.

It makes sense in light of the space of flows. Students at the visible top of the ladder at Penn are corporate elites in training, and New York is the nearest gateway into the space of flows. Penn's location in Philadelphia is irrelevant, since the University is just a clearinghouse for the big firms. So students spend four years without leaving the campus and don't look back after graduation.

Penn gives plenty of lip service to being part of the surrounding West Philadelphia community, but its claims are ridiculous in light of the indifference its primary constituency holds toward its surroundings. The University is in the business of attracting the most gifted graduate and undergraduate students, and it doesn't do that by caring about West Philly. The students that come are in turn just passing through, on their way to jobs that also couldn't care less about the city. So they don't care either.

It bothers me for several reasons. For one, as a native to the Philadelphia area, I know that there is a ton that people are missing by ignoring it. There's much of value to learn and experience here, and to see students close their eyes to it is frustrating.

For two, whether or not individual students and the University at large put anything into the city, they are certainly reaping its benefits. Instead of being part of the community, they are - you guessed it, Jon - merely consumers.

This outlook is reinforced by the same philosophy governing the space of flows: West Philly is the space that students inhabit during their time here, not a place. Its own narrative is something separate, parallel to their own lives, not something of which to collaborate in writing the newest chapters.

And the upshot is not that the West Philly community loses and the University community wins; rather, everyone loses, for to be divorced from place is a great cost to the student. Likewise, were the student body to view itself truly as a part whose welfare is bound to its whole, even if temporarily, everyone would benefit.

Penn's community indifference is a popular topic to complain about, but I thought interpreting it in the framework presented by Castells was insightful in understanding it and in linking it to the greater values that drive people through Penn.

Understanding is well and good, but what can be done about the problem aside from complaining? Well, let's think about it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sunsets, not Sushi

View from a farmer's field along my route.

My mom and I were joking the other day about how I'm deadline motivated. She remarked that it's not just that deadlines motivate me to accomplish things; it's that deadlines are the only things which motivate me.

I couldn't really argue with her.

Over the break I've been riding my bike, to fight atrophy and because it's fun. It may not help that I haven't been rising much before noon, but it always seems to be 4:30 before I realize that I would like to go on a bike ride today and I don't have much time before the sun sets. Deadline motivation at its most pervasive.

The upside of such a temperament is, I realized today, I get to see the sunset every time I ride.

Let me tell you, sunsets are not the kind of thing that gets old. In fact, I've found there's an extra layer of wonder to be had in going out and seeing it every day. To see the sun set is one thing. But to see it go down day after day, blazing glory after blazing glory, over any length of time is quite another.

It's astounding that it's always there. It's been rising and setting every day, reaching incomprehensibly long before I was born, and it will keep rising and setting, Lord tarrying, long after I die. And tomorrow evening, whether I'm looking or not, it will be there.

Yeah, yeah, it's cloudy sometimes. Whatever.

I consider it an immense gift that I live only a short bike ride away from a clear view of the horizon. It is one of the great tragedies of living in the city that the views of the heavens are obscured beyond daily remembrance, one reason I think it would be very hard for me to settle there permanently. Sunset in the city? The best that you can usually do is perceive that it's happening out there, somewhere.

It is the same with God. He has been his glorious self since before the foundation of the world, and he'll keep being his glorious self long after these heavens and this earth have passed away. And he's there every day, free for us to behold, whether we're looking or not. And usually, we retreat into enclaves of our own making, content to allow our own structures and our own lights to block him out of our view, freeing us from the need to acknowledge his majesty.

I could go on, but I think it sufficient to say that
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.

Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
In them He has set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
And rejoices like a strong man to run its race.

Its rising is from one end of the heaven,
And its circuit to the other end;
And there is nothing hidden from its heat.
Psalm 19:1-2,4b-6

Priestly Wit

Anecdote related by my mom, after mass tonight:
My new stepdad, Mark: Do you know of such-and-such priest? He was...(launches into description of who the man is and what he stands for).

Priest: Are you asking me a question or lecturing me? (to my mom) Boy, I see what you must have to deal with at home.

-laughs all the way around-

Priest: Say, have you heard of Bob Adams?

Mark: Oh, he was the priest over at such-and-such place. He died a few years ago, and...

Priest: Are you kidding? I'm going to see him tomorrow! I'll tell him you said he was dead!

Allow for both my mom's dramatic license in telling this to me and mine in retelling it.

Poor Mark.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Personal Media Player Purchase - Philosophical Analysis

A couple of other concerns nagged at me about whether or not to buy an mp3 player.

It’s the earbuds.

iPod is actually a great name, because the device enables each person to disconnect him or herself from the rest of the world. Because of the portability and the sheer amount of songs you can fit on one of those things, it’s common for people to listen at any time in which conversation is not required.

Instead of listening to the sounds offered by his or her environment, an mp3 player gives its owner the option of piping in more agreeable or more stimulating or less confrontational media. Surroundings become muted. Anything that wants to get attention must fight through the chosen tunes.

So mp3 players encourage the impulse, part of human nature, to withdraw from the rest of the world into a universe in which we are the center. I’ve been part of at least one conversation in which I was competing with an iPod for attention, and it isn’t a good feeling.

To summarize, iPod --> solipsism --> uncomfortable Nick.

I went on a bike ride today, from my house out to a nearby track for a one mile run,* and I took my Sansa View. I was delighted to be accompanied by enjoyable music – it really is magical to have clear and beautiful music delivered by tiny buds which you hardly feel.

By my third lap around the track, the novelty had worn off. Rides are when the silence and the slowly changing landscape help me listen to God, away from the warring stimuli that usually block him out. I realized the last thing I wanted to do was take the stimuli with me during one of the few times I’m actively seeking to hear his voice.

All of that said, weighing all of these concerns I still decided to buy the View, and I really do like the nifty little thing. The experience of brushing my teeth was much improved by listening to The Grateful Dead, and earbuds beat laptop speakers by leaps and bounds.

In general, it’s great to be able to fill boring or half-occupied times with good listening. I just think there’s plenty about these innocuous seeming things to be cautious about.

*Run. Lumbering, panting jog. Same thing.

P.S. Another minor concern was the continuing trend toward more convenient but lower quality music. i.e. live performance --> vinyl --> compact disc --> mp3. But it's hard to argue with a format which allows such a variety of music with such portability. And you have to really listen for the difference at a reasonable bitrate.

Personal Media Player Purchase - Brand Analysis

My market analysis ignores the factor that brand has on the decision, which is actually quite significant. Given Apple’s domination of the market and the iPod’s status as a major cultural icon of this decade, the choice to buy an iPod or another brand makes a statement about who you are.

When I’m not compromising my principles, I strongly resist joining the crowd. Exceptions to this rule have not fared well for me, as the parachute pants I purchased in 9th grade powerfully attest. Something about the iPod’s universal popularity and sleekness and pervasiveness has always made me a little uncomfortable, which is why I came into this investigation predisposed against the iPod.

That said, it is hard to deny the allure of the mainstream. There’s something about choosing things like the iPod or the New York Yankees or Satan that is very reassuring. It’s declaring citizenship with the majority. You’re given a bond with everyone who has made the same choice, which is at least a plurality, even if the bond is a bit superficial. Throwing your lot with the majority means the voices of those who approve of you are bound to be more numerous than the voices of those who disapprove.

And those dancing silhouette rock stars with the white earbuds look really cool in the commercials.

That allure tempted me early in my search to spring for the $250 shiny 80 GB iPod or Zune. It was more than I wanted to spend and probably more than I needed, but that was kind of the point. This once I could comfortably give into my materialistic, image-centered instincts and indulge.

There’s part of me that cares about what others think of me much more than it ought to, and there’s another part of me that looks at the act of considering a price tag as low and a slight against who I am.

You can see the small can of worms that the simple process of shopping for a small electronic gadget opened up for me. In general I think I do better staying out of these things...

By the way, I didn’t (quite) intend to equate buying an iPod with following Satan. I’m sure many make the decision to purchase one without the debate that I went through, and as I mentioned in one class of products the iPod may actually be objectively the best choice. The juxtaposition was (mostly) made in jest.

Personal Media Player Purchase - Market Analysis

I got my new personal media player today – the 8 GB Sansa View.

This was the result of much deliberation and consternation. I spent many hours shopping online, comparing different mp3 players.

I began with the assumption that there were cheaper and better players than the iPod readily available. It turned out the story was not quite that simple. If you’re looking for a player with a hard drive with capacity on the order of 30 or 80 GB, options are somewhat limited. Aside from the iPod and the Zune (Microsoft’s version), there aren’t a whole lot of players out there. The alternatives that do exist cost about the same.

With flash memory-based players, with hard drives on the order of 4 or 8 GB, options are a little wider. Making a splash is the SanDisk Sansa brand. These are pretty straightforward players that boast a few extra features over the iPod, like FM radio and the ability to record.

The second biggest advantage the player I bought is that it operates on an open system. That means that the manufacturer doesn’t attempt to shackle you to its own media player and music store, like Apple and Microsoft do. You’re free to dump whatever music you want onto the player, provided it doesn’t have digital rights management. You don’t have to use iTunes (side rant: the Apple iEverything product names strike me as pretentious and annoying, if highly successful) or Windows Media Player or anything else.

The biggest advantage to the View I bought is its price. The MSRP for this player is a good $50 less than the equivalent iPod nano, and its features are equivalent or better in nearly every category.

So in the realm of flash players, there are undoubtedly cheaper and better alternatives to the iPod.

However, as I mentioned that is not necessarily the case when it comes to hard drive players. The iPod may very well be the best choice in this arena, and if it’s not the Zune probably is. If you’re okay with the closed system these giants provide, here mainstream looks to be the way to go.

The Name

Obadiah was taken. I thought adding an "h" made it look like a term of endearment.

As for why Obadiah to begin with, you kind of had to be there. I introduced myself to a roomfull of people as "Obadiah" because I thought it would be funny. These people have since become many of my closest friends.