Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Pontius Robert

I've always had something of a soft spot for Pontius Pilate. He didn't seem to want to execute Jesus Christ, yet finally succumbed to the pressure around him to do so. I've heard varying accounts of his rule, describing him as anything from a provocative despot to good man who collapsed at the wrong moment, but he always struck me as being human. I'm not sure of the exact terminology, but my understanding was that he wasn't an aristocrat but at best a member of the minor genry: a career military officer occupying a post typically held by a statesman in one of Rome's most rebellious provinces. He only had a minor force in Jerusalem; the nearest legion was in Syria and wasn't readily available. As such, Pilate had to balance the demands of administering a province while also staving off full-scale revolution without the resources one would need for such a daunting task.

He tried every way he could think of to avoid having to make the decision that lay before him. Starting by arguing that it wasn't his jurisdiction, he tried to foist Jesus off on Herod. When Herod balked and it fell back to him, Pilate then tried to offer the people the choice of either a menace to society in Barabbas or the man who said He was a king: Jesus Christ. Finally, faced with the choice of doing the right thing or of sacrificing the peace, his position, and possibly his life and those of his family, Pilate gave in and ordered Jesus to be crucified.

I think the reason I'm sympathetic is because I see myself in Pilate. One current idea is to compare us to Judas or Peter when he denied Christ at the Temple, and that certainly has its truth, but in the West many of us have privilege and even power. Certainly, nearly anyone who ever lived at any point in history would consider just about any American as being rich. If I were in a position where I had to choose between doing the right thing and losing everything, which would I choose? Sad to say, I can't say for sure that I'd chose to do the right thing. I've sinned in smaller things, and so it would be easy to come up with some kind of justification for ducking this issue as well.

All of us in America, especially if we wield real power, need to be on guard as to what we say and do. As with athletics, doing the right thing doesn't just come from nowhere but requires training and discipline. I pray that should the time come, I can do the right thing.

A New Conundrum

This is something I'd like to flesh out a lot more at some point in the future, but it's getting pretty close to my bedtime and I wanted to at least jot the basic idea down.

One consequence of the rise of the Internet, and especially of blogs, is that our access to information is vastly, vastly increased. I'm not talking about being doubled or even tripled, but orders of magnitude. In the 1970s, when my parents went to college and grad school, they had to go to the library and use a card catalog to find books they wanted and perhaps a microfiche reader if they were looking for magazine and journal articles. To gain an understanding of philosophy, geometry, chemistry, or pretty much anything academic, you had to either slog through volumes upon volumes of essays, treatises, and compendiums or go through an abridgement by someone who had, as in a class or a digest. Once you'd spent hours and days at the library, your next step would be to type up your paper on a typewriter, using correction fluid as necessary. If you lost the physical product you then found yourself in a very, very deep hole. Even this was a huge improvement over the prior past, when you might well have to travel great distances to use someone else's library and then write your thoughts out by hand. By way of comparison, think about the Bible: first oral, then written by hand once personal contact with someone who had memorized the Scriptures wasn't always feasible, followed a dozen centuries later by the printing press and now culminating with searchable Bibles with multiples commentaries, glossaries, and concordances available to our laptops, PDAs, and perhaps soon our cell phones.

By contrast, the computer allows me to do nearly all of my searching from home, or even on the go. Just about anything that can be read today can be found online and usually searched for key words and ideas. If I don't know something then, between Google, Wikipedia, and online dictionaries, I can find the answer about 99% of the time. When I go to write a paper my word processing software allows for easy corrections (and even sometimes does so for me on the fly). Instead of carefully typing each word so that a slipped finger doesn't ruin my whole paper I can type at speeds up to 70 words per minute, knowing that my time is better spent finishing the writing of the paper and then giving it a proofreading afterwards. It helps that I'm very good at spelling and typing, but even those with more average skills greatly benefit.

My readings also aren't merely confined to reading a digital copy of Plato's writings or reading a law journal published last week in Seattle. "Ordinary" people such as Mark Byron and TS O'Rama (yes, I know that's not his real name and may not even strictly be his nom de cyber) allow me to glimpse the everyday lives and thoughts of, respectively, a faithful Protestant and a faithful Roman Catholic and let me see how they live the Christian life. Virtually every type of person, including homeless people and soldiers serving in Iraq, can be found writing about their daily lives on the World Wide Web.

I was born in 1982 and those born in my age group are at the very turning point of this recent information revolution. Computers were still a novelty when I was in elementary school and it wasn't until I took a "Tools for Learning" class as an elective in 7th grade that I learned to touchtype (on an Apple IIe, no less). My family was considered to have a computer with 20MB of hard disk space when I was in third grade and even we didn't have internet access until my sophomore year of high school. Beepers were a novelty in high school, and it was only in my Junior year of college that I finally got a cell phone. I learned how to use a physical card catalog and microfiche but had to figure out a rotary telephone myself. I don't know how to drive a manual transmission but I can create a ten-page paper comparing Marxism, Utilitarianism, and Christianity from scratch in as many hours, including research (I can send it to your cell phone in Ulan Bator, too).

There's a trade-off here, and it's one that has been present for centuries: discipline vs. power. Someone like Glenn Reynolds, who would otherwise be an obscure law professor at a state university receives millions of visitors each day to his website InstaPundit, and those who receive links from his site in turn receive thousands of visitors (it happened to me twice at my old blog. The increased power and speed of modern communication has been credited with the recent downfall of the Liberal Party government in Canada and the failure of the very recent immigration and amnesty bill to pass in Congress. That's a lot of power for a bunch of ordinary people to have in a representative democracy. We're at the point where it's extremely reasonable to think that you can carry around a handheld device that will allow you to call any place in the world while also accessing the internet and pretty much a library of the completeness of human thought in recorded history (written, visual, and aural). At the same time, I don't have nearly the same conception of time as those a generation older than me do. I get impatient if I have to wait in a line more than two deep at a store and the idea of going to the library to get a book is almost like me being told that I'll have to take my Toyota Tacoma to Japan if it needs to be serviced.

So what does this all mean? I guess it means we've got three main options. The first is to go the Amish route and forswear technology. We may find ourselves more relaxed and at peace, but with much higher mortality (especially among infants and the elderly) and vulnerability to enemies unless we have a strong group of friendly people surrounding us. We may ultimately end up like the American Indians, with 99% of our population succumbing to diseases which gradually worked their way through Europe over several centuries. The second route is to embrace everything which comes our way and try to stay a step ahead. This causes the opposite situation: we'll be more nervous and less-rested, but perhaps better able to act as "sheepdogs" against the wolves for our neighbors. Lastly, there's the judicious and prayerful selective use of technology. This may mean rejecting the use of embryonic stem cells and gene therapy, thus consigning ourselves to an average lifespan of 75 years and having to deal with a variety of health problems which afflict us. It may mean rejecting certain forms of warfare as inhumane while utilizing others which seem distasteful but may be more merciful in the long run (as I believe the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grant's use of "total war" against the Confederacy, and the use of Predator drones against unsuspecting terrorists were).

This balance is hard to find, and we need to not only realize that we may mess up and need to seek forgiveness, but also that absent a total reliance on God there's no way that we can do the right thing (although if we get the oscillations between extremes small enough it can look to the untrained eye that it's possible).

Monday, June 18, 2007

Like Fire and Water

You know, now that Dean Esmay has become Roman Catholic and discovered Mark Shea's website, I'm actually looking forward to the confrontation when Dean finally stumbles across one of Mark's "Bush is the worst President EVER" posts or when he pretends that he knew Iraq was a bad, sinful, doomed idea from the beginning and that we were lied into going to war.

Has Bush seriously fumbled on the immigration issue? Si, si.

Here's the thing, though: Bush has invaded fewer countries than Bill Clinton and has actually had the wherewithal not to simply cut and run when we get a bloody nose. Do you want to know what Iraq and Afghanistan will look like if we leave? They'll look like Somalia: "peaceful" due to Islamists having killed or driven out everyone else. We've also had fewer bombings against American targets while Bush was in office than during Clinton's terms. Apparently the world liked us more in the 1990's...for all the good that's done us. If the Axis of Weasels liked us better under Clinton then I'd have to say that anything done to tick them off pretty much elevates that President in my book.


Well, that was interesting. The good folks at Unnamed Research Institution (URI), where I'm working, sent me to a conference in Unnamed City this weekend hosted by an Unnamed Political Action Group (UPAG) so I could learn more about the work we're doing and "put faces to names" of a lot of the researchers whose work I've been reading and groups who we at URI are studying.

It probably wouldn't be the most difficult thing in the world to figure out the actual names of the place and organizations I've just listed but it seems wiser to me to prevent a simple Google search from finding this.

The weird thing is that, living in Virginia, the topic the researcher for whom I'm working has essentially no impact on my life. It's weird: I'm developing opinions on the topic (and am happy with how Virginia has handled it), but I really don't have a dog in this hunt. People in most other states, however, deal with this issue. At least half of the attendees at the conference were activists, with a smaller number of researchers (who may also be activists) and minor elected officials (who also may have been activists). Mid-way through the second panel I realized "Wait a second...the this is a fairly partisan affair, and I don't subscribe at all!" Between panels there were brief times when an activist or researcher would provide an update of the events of the past year for his/her area of interest. During one such update the woman, clearly zealous of her cause, took a tone and pitch that made me feel as though I was being yelled at. I took the opportunity to busy myself reading the material for the next panel discussion and I think she sort-of called me out, saying that it was clear that some of us didn't take the issue seriously enough and that we should be paying attention. In all honesty, you could be reading the Bible and if I feel as though I'm being lectured or yelled at then I'm going to stop paying attention to you.

At one point there was an update from activists in Unnamed State. The odd thing was that I found myself agreeing with their position. Baffled by this, I reflected how odd it was that a group representing Planned Parenthood, the Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and a whole host of other liberal and leftist causes would find me as someone who agreed with them. Then it hit me: the reason it seemed we were in agreement was because we're from different states. What they were advocating is in effect in Virginia, but the difference is that the Commonwealth of Virginia is usually pretty responsible. Unnamed State is notoriously biased towards the political left and this measure would root out the last vestiges of moderate and conservative viewpoints. If enacted in Mississippi it would do the same thing, but for the opposite views.

At one point I even realized that I disagreed with just about everything that was advocated at this conference. There was a panel on diversity which I thought had some good points, along with a cranky professor whom I found myself liking (he tended to denounce most of the conference's proposals, although because he thought them misguided or simply unworkable was a mystery to me). However, at URI we're basically just researching what's going on, rather than trying to sway viewpoints. It's still weird, but the work I do myself is pretty innocuous and so I'm okay with it.

Let me also say two things, lest it seem as though I didn't enjoy the time. Firstly, everyone there was extremely nice. The moderator, a UVA alum, went out of his way upon meeting me to praise Virginia Tech, while some of the people there, important in their positions and some even holding elective office, never shut me out for being a mere intern (although one lady thought I was someone else, as the chief counsel for the Democratic Party, or someone of a similar position, is named Bob Bauer). Secondly, the dinner they provided after the first day was absolutely magnificent. It featured some of the local cuisine, to which I am especially partial, and was flat-out amazing.

One last note: despite my best efforts to answer opinion questions carefully, I think one of the people at dinner started to catch on that I was out of step with everyone else politically. He would slyly ask questions to tease out a more conservative viewpoint, which I tried to answer as vaguely as possible. He said he wasn't trying to make me uncomfortable, and I replied that as long as people don't start screaming at each other it can be very interesting to have a political discussion. He seemed surprised by this, and handed me his card.

Let the networking begin.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Poor Use of Simile

From an academic paper I was reading for work today:
"...[it is] a sprawling patchwork, as thin as it is wide."

Sounds more like a thread than a quilt to me...

Call Me Insensitive, But...

After reading this, my first thought after "I hope he's okay" was "Don't sit him next to the delegate from Japan."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The TribalPundit Guide to Wine, Women, and Song: Classical Music: Palestrina & Allegri

Even I didn't think I was serious about this idea but this is the second post in what may become an ongoing series on wine, women, and song. Intelligent reader that you are, you probably figured that I'll be writing on alcohol, chicks, and music. Correctamundo, Raymond. In an earlier post I babbled on about Chateau Morrisette wines. In this post I'll be talking about the pre-Baroque composers Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Gregorio Allegri. Keep in mind that I'm just a layman and that my music background in music is French horn, so I may not notice little details or be aware of certain recordings, plus I'll likely be biased in favor of brass instruments.

So who were these Italian-sounding guys Palestrina and Allegri? Living in the sixteenth century, Palestrina was a choirmaster in Rome and was one of the earliest Italian composers of liturgical music. He is the composer whose works you'd most likely point to if you were asked to give a representative of the Roman School of Renaissance music. Allegri was of the next generation, although also a choirmaster in Rome. While most of his other works are not as famous, his setting for Psalm 51, called Miserere, is probably the most famous work of the style.

I first became aware of these composers through the album Sacred Brass by The Canadian Brass. This ensemble is the premier brass quintet in the world and modern brass quintets pretty much owe their popularity to these guys, active since 1970 (still with the original tuba and trombone players). The music in the album is by Palestrina, Allegri, and another composer of the era named Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo had a very interesting life story, but his music doesn't do it for me the same way as that of the other two. Included by Palestrina are his Missa Ascendo ad Patrem (a Mass, "I Join the Father") and Exultate Deo ("Exalt the Lord"). Ascendo ad Patrem is one of Palestrina's many settings for Mass, including the famous (for Renaissance music...) Missa Papae Marcelli, named for a Pope who reigned for three weeks in 1555. According to legend, it was this work (Missa Papae Marcelli) which convinced the Council of Trent to allow polyphony in church music, as there had been concerns over both unintelligible lyrics and profane use of the polyphonic Mass framework for "lascivious or impure" subjects. As for the Missa Ascendo ad Patrem, meant for Ascensiontide (the time before Pentecost), it was a "parody" derived from an earlier motet Palestrina had written thirty years earlier. Parody, in this case, is not a bad thing but is kind of like saying "variations and themes" in later musical eras. Thoughtful yet not dreary, it is very good for getting into a reverent mood (which, just maybe, was its purpose...). Exultate Deo is much shorter and is a joyful air. It's probably too distracting to hear while reading but would be an excellent background for watching a processional.

Miserere is the first word of Psalm 51 in Latin, meaning "have mercy [on me]." Palestrina, Gesualdo, and others composed settings for this Psalm, played on the Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week, but it was Allegri's version which became the most popular. In fact, it became so popular that it was only to be played at the Sistine Chapel and never transcribed for outside use, upon penalty of excommunication. That's right, excommunication. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, however, went and transcribed it anyway at the age of sixteen. According to the story, he went Wednesday and copied it from memory, then returned on Friday to fix a few spots he'd had trouble with. He was summoned to Rome for this, but instead of being excommunicated he was congratulated. The piece is meant for two choirs which answer each other, varying between Gregorian-style chanting and brilliant polyphony. The end of one such answer, culminating in a high sustained C followed by slow resolution is, well, soul-grabbing. The music is slower and other often subtle, but the aforementioned phrase is amazing.

To me, this is what contemplative religious music sounds like. It allows you to be at peace without emptiness, yet also takes the lead to draw your thoughts to the things on high. If you imagine the musical equivalent to a Gothic cathedral, this would be it. Until recently I wasn't aware that music this beautiful existed, although some of JS Bach comes close. It is for works such as this that elite musicians, such as The Canadian Brass and The Sixteen (a choir) were made, and we are very blessed to be able to hear recordings of them, although hearing them live in a church setting must be absolutely breathtaking.

How can you get ahold of this music? Well, you could easily go to Amazon or your local music store, but there are cheaper ways as well. As I typically rip my music from CDs onto my computer and play it from there, the Amazon Marketplace has some good deals, typically allowing you to get a used album for perhaps half the cost of a new one. Want cheaper? Services such as Napster and iTunes are only 99 cents per track, and Allegri's Miserere is almost always arranged that way, although most other Classical works tend to be by movement (some of which are less than a minute in length). Want free? If you go to eMusic and get a trial subscription you get 25 tracks free. They don't have the Canadian Brass version but they do have the one by The Sixteen, considered one of the very best out there.