Monday, November 12, 2012

Getting Around

One of the most general critiques of technologies is that as we come to rely on them, we become more helpless when they fail or we find oursleves without them.

One of the easiest examples is the technology of GPS. With a GPS one is largely spared the burden of ever being lost. The tradeoff is that if one is not careful, one will also lose the joy of knowing one's way around.

I had a stark experience of this downside recently. I was at the doctor's office and I was going next to a third-party facility for routine bloodwork.

Not remembering exactly how far down the road the facility was, I asked the check-out woman for directions. This woman was probably in her sixties and so she has certainly had to get around for many years before GPS was widely available. Nevertheless, she first appeared flustered, then asked if I had a GPS I could enter an address into. I did, so she handed me a flyer with the address circled on it and sent me on my way.

The thing was as I discovered momentarily the place was on the same street a mere two traffic lights farther down. To have entered the address into my phone and waited for it to tell me to go a thousand feet before turning left would have been quite the opposite of thinking.

But that's just the point. With GPS we have essentially outsourced the problem of navigation from our brains to our computers. That has obvious benefits, but the cost of not being able to distinguish simple cases from complex ones or of not building a mental map of our surroundings at all are significant. It is also apparent from this example that just as muscles atrophy from idleness, we can lose faculties we once possessed. I guarantee that twenty years ago that woman could have told me to go down the street two lights and turn left.

The implication is not that GPS is a bad thing that shouldn't be used. Rather, we should be critical in our use of it. I prefer to use it more like a compass, giving me an idea of a route before I set out on a trip and then going back to it if I stray or become uncertain. In the meantime I do my best to follow along with the route, to know where I am and where I am going. Additionally, if I am giving directions, along with just giving an address to be plugged into a computer, to those that will hear it I give an overview of the way.

On a recent trip to San Francisco I was quite gratified to know enough of my way around to be guiding other visitors and driving them around town.  I felt like I had more ownership of the place I was visiting and that I understood more what makes it tick. And on a recent trip to Washington D.C. after giving an address to a friend I was glad I called him back and told him the simple directions. As a result I had a stake in his journey and our shared experience started as soon as he left. I felt like we had acheived something special in this day and age.

In both locations I used my phone as a GPS quite frequently. But I feel I was much more its master than it mine. Let us likewise wield all of our tools.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Snapshot of the Good Life

Part 1 of an n-part series, where n >= 1.

You go to the farmer's market in Clark Park for eggs, those Mennonite eggs that are better than the eggs that cost twice as much. You got a late start and so they don't have any, but they say if you come back at 1:30 there should be a few more cartons.

You can spare 45 minutes and so you wander up the block until you see the Yumtown USA food truck selling sandwiches called "The Joy" and "The Bat out of Hell." It looks good but you decide you'd better not. You sit on a park bench and get out a book.

Two sentences in, you decide you'd better have that sandwich after all. Minutes later you're sitting on the same bench balancing the sandwich's paper carton on your stomach just hoping to drip the sauce and slaw and grease into it and not onto Cliff Lee's shirt.

The sandwich hits the spot but now you've got a problem. Your hands are a mess, you didn't take a napkin, and this is a park. But no sooner have you considered your options than Kristen Hsu walks over with a red wagon in tow. You explain your predicament.

"This is your lucky day," she says. She reaches into her bag and produces the perfect purple damp washcloth. This day could not improve.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Local pig on a local spit. He wouldn't fit so I had to saw off his local head.

I find that even in circles where many so-called progressive ideas are embraced there is widespread skepticism for what is perceived as the local food movement.

The thrust of such opposition seems to be that if everyone tried to eat exclusively that way, we would all starve. Now, that may well be true. But it does not follow that no one should prefer certain kinds of local food ever. Maybe some people really are advocating the former idea, but I have not met them, and I certainly do not advocate it myself. Nevertheless I do think there are good reasons to prefer local food.

First, freshness. Fresher food tastes better and is better for you. It's easier for fresh food to travel 60 miles and stay fresh than if it travels 6,000 miles. It can be picked later and thus ripen on the vine rather than in a barge.

Second, roots. Eating local gives you some idea of the region you live in, its history and climate and fauna. I now know that great strawberries come from Pennsylvania, while great mangoes do not. That makes me want to eat our strawberries more; when I do so it makes me feel like a Pennsylvanian fed by tradition and my homeland rather than an abstract citizen of the world fed by reductionism and nowhere. Moreover by doing so I continue the collective memory that has existed for generations rather than losing it to a sea of utilitarian pragmatism.

Third, variety. Food produced for global consumption must prioritize hardiness and usually cosmetic factors like color and volume. But smaller-scale production allows for finer-grained choices with different constraints. Tasty heirloom varieties that would never succeed on that stage can be delightfully embraced on the local scale.

Fourth, resilience. The extreme of comparative advantage may be the route to the highest theoretical yield, but there is a tradeoff between optimization and brittleness. A region that produces some of its own food is less subject to the vagaries of the global market. A drought in central Asia or an inexplicable decision by another country to turn its food calories into fuel calories does not change the local tomato yield.

Fifth, accountability. The feedback loop between me and a farmer I buy from, or even that farmer's middleman, is a lot tighter than with the global system. In the latter case I have no chance of affecting any change; in the former I actually have a decent shot.

What makes me sad about knee-jerk anti-local arguments is the grim resignation toward a life of bland drudgery at the dinner table they imply. Whatever the downsides of the global system, it is said, it is the only chance we have of feeding everybody. A world with seven billion and counting people does not have the luxury of participating in the pleasures of traditional food production and consumption. We have already exceeded the global carrying capacity by so much that we must optimize the system as much as possible, or everyone. will. starve.

If that were the case it would be tragic, as tragic as never hearing birdsong again because we took all of their habitats or needing to wear heavy clothes in the summer because we destroyed the ozone layer. It is positively dystopian, and such eventualities should not be blithely accepted. At the least, those who can afford to choose otherwise should be free to.

All of that said, I have yet to participate in the most-local, least-efficient method of food production of all: gardening. Boy would I like to.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Parable of the Mice in the Piano

Or, "The Fallacy of Nothing-Buttery." 

As related by Mark Potter:
There was once a family of mice. They lived in this grand piano. And they had lived there for many generations of mice. Nobody knew that they lived inside the grand piano, but these mice, this family of mice, for many generations had loved living on the inside of the grand piano.
The reason why they loved this so much was because they thrilled to the music of the Grand Musician. They never knew quite when he was going to play but when he would play the mice loved it.

And then one day this intrepid mouse climbed up into a part of the piano where no other mouse had ever dared to go before, and he came back with a report. And he said, "Oh, dear family of mice! My brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, mother and father. There is no Grand Musician!
"There are only hammers."

Monday, July 23, 2012

Means of Grace

At church I serve on the communion team. Communion, also known as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist, is a ritual instituted by Jesus during the Passover meal with his disciples on the night he was arrested. He broke bread for them and told them it was his body given for them. Then he took a cup of wine and told them it was the new covenant in his blood, concluding, "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:25).

So that's what we do, every Sunday. Every third week or so I serve. That means arriving early and tearing loaves of bread into bitesized portions and pouring wine and grape juice into lots of tiny little plastic cups set in trays. After the sermon we bring the trays up to the front and set them on the table. The pastor institutes the sacrament and then we stand at the front with the food as the church files past, telling each man, woman and child that this is "the body of Christ, broken for you," and "the blood of Christ, shed for you."

The small portions may be a little silly, but they mean that everyone can partake in the meal at the same time (followed immediately by the clink of a hundred plastic cups being set down). Then the pastor prays, we sing a song, we're blessed, and that's it. We on the team clean up the supplies and put them away for the next week.

Sometimes we do special things for the bread. Lately the first Sunday of every month we pray for another country specifically, and to go along with that we eat the bread of that nation. Sometimes too people in the congregation bake the bread, as I like to do being a hobbyist baker myself.

The precise nature of what happens at Communion can be hard to pin down, and different Christian groups hold different ideas. Roman Catholics and similar groups hold that the elements of bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. On the other side, some groups of more recent vintage hold the elements are merely symbols intended to call Jesus to remembrance. The Reformed tradition in which my church stands holds a yet different idea. We believe the bread and wine are really just bread and wine, and yet that in their giving we truly and literally receive Christ and his grace for forgiveness of sins. God communicates his riches, riches greater than all the world's reserves, to us via these humble items. They are a means of grace.

Our position may seem like a fine distinction to draw but it makes a big difference. That we should receive the King of Glory through such ordinary means highlights that God is not limited; he can convey himself by whatever way he pleases. It also highlights that the initiative is all his and not ours. It is not through riches or feats of strength or moral piety that we reach God, though such a transaction would come naturally to us. Rather it is through the utterly common things around us that he has chosen.

It is also crucial that he is really there for us week after week, caring for us until such time as he shall actually return to claim us. We say during the ritual not only that "Christ has died," but also that "Christ is risen" and "Christ will come again." A mere memorial of his death will not suffice.

For today's bread I followed Jeffrey Hamelman's instructions for pain rustique, a French name for a simple bread. Indeed it requires no ingredients other than flour, water, salt, and a little bit of yeast. As is unfortunately my wont I arrived late to set up, and I was greeted by a small tide of nervous energy due to the delay I caused. In response I opened up the plastic bag and released a different kind of wave, the creamy aroma of the still-cooling loaves. As we tore them into pieces others came by the table to take in the smell, and one of us joked that we didn't need to tear everything up, that we could eat some of it now. We did, prompting others to come over and share.

As we cleaned up after the service we munched on extra bread in the back room. An older gentleman on the tear-down team named Bob asked if he could have some, and we gave him half of the small loaf that the pastor breaks in front of the congregation. He sat and ate it, and he marveled, saying "This bread is just so good. Does anyone know where it came from?"

"Well, yes," I said. "I made it."

"Get out of here."

"Really, I did. There's nothing special in it."

Bob had the rest of his bread in silence, and then even some more of the remaining fragments. On his way out he thanked me as the rest of us continued eating while washing, drying, and sipping wine from the little cups.

My takeaway from the experience was not that I must be a great baker. As the baker, I know that is not true. There is nothing special in the bread, and nothing special in preparing it. The ingenuity belongs to Hamelman and to centuries of European bakers. It is freely available. What amazed me was that despite the common nature of the ingredients and the practices, that the flour and the books are just sitting on shelves waiting to be made much of, my bread was received as something wondrously new or rare, as an awakening to taste buds that did not know they had missed it.

Even in a land of abundance such as our own there is a famine for true bread, though it is for anyone, anytime, for the asking and for the taking. It is truly common. Nothing need prevent all from having it.

Such is the bread of heaven.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

We make our own sky.

All photos courtesy skabat169. Check out his photostream!

Ben was talking about the sky, so I thought I would talk about a sunrise I saw this week. But first, some cultural context.

When I was in high school I attended a camp called Night Camp for one week every summer. The premise of Night Camp is simple: you stay up all night and sleep during the day while camping out in the woods. The consequences of that premise are many and profound, but those are for another post. Suffice it to say that Night Camp was the defining experience of my high school years, and I worked at Camp Innabah where the camp is held for three of my college summers and volunteered there again last year. This week however I merely went to visit, on bonfire night.

It's not just bonfire night. This night also involved looking at Saturn through a telescope and 2 a.m. Ultimate Frisbee with glow necklaces. But after all that and a Bible study, we had a bonfire.

By now it was after 4 a.m. and getting on toward sunrise. I had already succumbed to a nap on a picnic table bench (I worked a full day; what do you want from me?) and I saw the first lightening of the horizon, though others denied it. We began with a prelude of bamboo, large masses of tender green-leaved shoots dropped unceremoniously on the fire ring and ceremoniously ringing out with pops resembling fireworks and high flames that threatened the tree branches fifteen feet above. Then a pallet was dropped on, not quite so spectacular but with more staying power.


Then, worship. A few Bible verses, a few songs, and a few words generally constitute worship at Night Camp, but the glow of the burning pallet mandated more mirth. We sang what was planned, then we sang what could be called the classics of the camp canon. Another pallet on the fire. Now singing and dancing, now the Funky Chicken, now dosey does for the refrain of "Lord of the Dance," now swaying shoulder-to-shoulder for "Pass It On."

Then the picnic table, the old and wobbly picnic table donated by Steve's church for just this purpose. On top of the fire and burning with surprising speed,  the first little licks of flame in a circle near the center, then the entire length of the boards leaping into the chorus. But we were not singing now; this must be watched.

picnic table graciously donated by Epworth UMC, Cockeysville, MD
Overhead there was no longer any denying that the night was ending, and it is to this moment that Ben's reflection returned me. The waning crescent hung 75 degrees in the sky against a color somewhere on this guy's face:
photo credit: Kevin Bolton
David claimed to awaken the dawn with the harp and the lyre; surely we had kindled the horizon with our fire and roused the sun with our voices. It was not only our moods that were lightened by the blaze, our inhibitions that gave up the ghost; the whole theater around us was literally shifted along the visible spectrum.

This difference in perception was not just a sentimental imposition of the imagination. The colors really did look different to our eyes. When the time came to extinguish the fire (there was still a boat picnic and a polar bear swim to be had, after all) and the buckets of water became sizzling clouds and the orb we had created yielded to another which had not yet shown its face, the spell broke. The sky no longer looked mysteriously indigo, but kinda paleish. With the adjustment of our eyes illumination did not seem to emanate from within our circle, but was shed equally from all directions. Though no one else was around, I suddenly felt observed.

Later on my stepbrother jokingly harassed my mother for allowing me to go to such a place as a kid, insinuating pagan dances around the fire. I don't think he knew how close his description was to reality. There was no influence of substance stronger than s'more, no shameful act committed by firelight, no rash oath sworn, and no stupid tempting of the flame. The God who was blessed and who blessed it was none but the Lord of heaven and earth.

But that was revelry.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Grand Randomness

First cousins, all 25% Puerto Rican in theory.
Given that this vacation in the North Carolina Outer Banks may be the biggest confluence of my family ever, I have been thinking a lot about family and how it forms us individually. It's amazing to see all of the parts of the great machine in motion together over an extended period of time.

One thought I had concerns genetic inheritance from grandparents. We know that half of our DNA comes from each of our parents, and their DNA comes equally from their parents. It might seem reasonable to assume that we therefore get exactly a quarter of our makeup from each of our four grandparents, but I realized that assumption is not quite accurate.

The reason is that our DNA is grouped into chromosomes, 23 each from our mother and our father. This quantization prevents uniform inheritance. Right off the bat since we receive an odd number of chromosomes from each parent, we cannot receive an even number from each of our parents' parents. If I have 12 chromosomes from my mother's father, I have 11 from my mother's mother, and the split cannot be made even.

Moreover, there is nothing guaranteeing an even split. Whether or not each chromosome from our mother comes from her mother or her father is essentially a coin flip, and like coin flips the selection for each chromosome is independent. So, the fact that the chromosome 8 my mom passes on to me might come from her mother has no bearing on whether or not chromosome 9 does. That means it is theoretically possible for her to pass on only her mother's chromosomes or only her father's, though that is only as likely as flipping 23 heads or 23 tails in a row (about one in four million). Such children are genetically equivalent to children of one grandparent, and genetically unrelated to the other!

Therefore consider first cousins. There is good reason to expect they could take after their shared grandparents to differing degrees because they will inherit different proportions of their grandparents' DNA (to say nothing of the fact that they are inheriting from different subsets of that code due to having different parents).

How significant is this variation? Well, if my calculations are correct a full 32% of people inherit the most equitable 11/12 split from a given pair of grandparents, and 91% are no worse than an 8/15 split. So most people are relatively even combinations of their grandparents. But the flip side of that conclusion is that about one in eleven inheritances gets twice as much of one grandparent as the other. Since we inherit from two sets of grandparents, it is almost double that probability that we have at least one lopsided inheritance.

If these assumptions hold (and I don't expect they are changed by higher order effects), 18% of people, almost one in five, has received a lopsided amount of DNA from one grandparent.The effects of that randomness only multiply through subsequent generations, meaning it's even more likely inheritance from great grandparents isn't equitable. After all, we all have 64 great great great great grandparents, but only 46 chromosomes total. Someone (or 18 people) is going to be squeezed out, save for other effects like crossing over.

For me there are two takeaways of this reasoning. The first is that it is indeed possible to take after a particular grandparent more than the others, as far as genetics go anyway. The second is that it would be really fun to get everyone in my family's genomes sequenced so that all of this movement could be charted through the family tree rather than merely speculated on.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Stop worrying and love the road.

My stepsister Louise and I drove from Philadelphia to the North Carolina Outer Banks today. Despite typically being ambivalent or downright opposed to hallmarks of American culture like cars and fast food, for me this road trip was unambiguously delightful.

It helped that we took a scenic route, driving through Delaware and the Delmarva Peninsula across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (it's both!) through Virginia Beach. It was beautiful countryside on a textbook June day. It helped too that the best of those things were on display. The Wawa folks knocked it out of the park with the breakfast burrito; it was all of the sensual gratification and visceral satisfaction that fast food aspires to be. And the road trip is the automobile at its best. I felt real camaraderie with the stranger in the BMW who for thirty miles wove with me past and around traffic that seemed to know nothing of the "drive right, pass left" principle.

Something else was at play though. A big reason the road trip was so enjoyable was the peace that came from living for one day as an American and not as an individual. I did what I was supposed to do, and what I was supposed to do was drive. For a century this ritual pilgrimage to wherever has been more American than apple pie, unless that apple pie was served at a McDonald's drive through. Taking part in it made me feel like a properly turning gear in a precisely tuned clock.

I felt this peace most acutely at a rest stop in Delaware. After getting out of the car I paused to take in the well-groomed lawn and the 1950's classic cars that were trundling into the parking lot at that moment. I continued in past a procession of vending machines each tempting me with a different variety of saccharine, preserved, and caffeinated satisfaction. The bathroom experience with its automatic flushes and antibacterial hand foam could not have been more tranquil if I had been brought through on a conveyor belt. On the way out I paused again to smell the tiger lilies ringing a spurting fountain.

At no point was there any doubt what I was supposed to be doing. I with all others present fulfilled my calling. We sustained America and thus were Americans together. That felt good.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Muse Sick

For Jonathan.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we can record music? Meaning, on balance, are we better or worse off because we have this capability?

It is hard for me to answer that question because I do not know much about what it was like before recording, and it is impossible to picture a world in which all else is the same but for the absence of this one technology. Nevertheless, I think the question is worth asking.

My life has been changed in the last year by my purchase of a high quality set of headphones. I have always spent much of the time at my work computer listening to music, but since getting these headphones the music has started affecting me more. I find the music more moving. It stays in my head longer. I think about it more when I am not listening to it. And for the first time in my life I have actively sought out new music myself rather than just picking up what friends and family pass along. Finally, I have felt that I cannot only listen to music, but that I ought to make some myself. This summer I intend to take up the mandolin.

While those effects are dramatic, the explanation is simple. Recordings have not changed, but the way I listen to them has. I am hearing the music now and I was not hearing it well before. The music is at its core beautiful and wonderful, even divine. It is right that it should awaken latent passions and imaginations within me. But it could not do so beforehand because its nature was lost in transmission through inferior sound equipment.

It goes without saying then that I am very glad for the recordings that I have. Through them I have a richer understanding of what music can be. If there is a downside to our ability to make recordings, it is not that it is impossible to richly appreciate music through them. The problem is that it is far easier to brutalize and cheapen music through recording technology.

Most people do not listen to music on good headphones or speakers. In fact, with the proliferation of portable electronic devices in the last ten years, there are more and more speakers, the large majority of which are low quality. That is because the push has been for these devices to be more portable with a minimalist aesthetic. It is a matter of physics that good speakers cannot be made at the dimensions and power requirements of laptop speakers. Inexpensive earbuds and headphones are likewise of poor quality despite increasing ubiquity.

People listen to music more now than ever before, but it is uniformly crappy, even controlling for tastes. I have been shocked to see kids on buses listening to music as blared from their phones' speakers. It is not primarily that I would not listen to the songs they are playing (though I would not), but that I could not believe listening to music on those speakers was better than silence.

Are we better off with a little of something great, or a lot of a cheapened version of that thing? America has consistently chosen the latter. Are we better off with a lot of something great, or a lot of a cheapened version of that thing? Even when this is the choice we face, too often the default, cheap version is uncritically accepted.

There are other consequences of the widespread use and availability of recording technology. Doubtless our very idea of what music is has changed. Most commercially successful music could never be performed. Recordings are built from fundamental parts and then mixed and processed into a polished whole. It is the same difference as that between a stage play and a film. Human imagination is cut loose from physical constraints. A wholly unremarkable performer can be transformed into a top-20 hit by this artifice, and to ears accustomed to such music, that which can actually be performed sounds unremarkable.

As a result of this inversion, music is elite. People have as much chance of producing successful music as they have of making it in Major League Baseball or in Hollywood, and the ability to succeed in that sphere only marginally follows from talent.

Thankfully, music which is less "popular" is more accessible. Moreover the Internet has disrupted the hegemony of recording monoliths, and for those interested in something different there are abundant alternatives. But such choices remain off the beaten path.

In sum, recordings make excellent music widely available and producible on demand, but for most people music is ever-present and low-quality, and music itself exists only in "recordings" of impossible performances.

As a result are we better or worse off? For me the glory of music is inextricable from performance. It is a mystery that the very possibility of music is hidden and encoded within the laws of physics and of human biology, and it only comes to being through the interplay of human creativity with physical instruments. To me the decoupling of these two represents not the triumph of creativity over physics but the loss of what makes music music. Moreover there is further joy to be had in the production of music and in the shared experience of performer and audience. That this kind of experience has been rendered rare and perceived as elite is likewise to be lamented.

While it need not be this way, I think on balance we are worse off.