December 12, 2011

Train up a child, #4: The Spaceship Builder

Train up a child, #4: The Spaceship Builder

This is what you wear when you’re building a spaceship. The goggles and hard hat are very important. Safety first, and all that.

The “perfect” child

When Amy Julia Becker’s newborn daughter was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, she struggled with feeling that she'd received a less-than-perfect child, only to realize that her notions of perfection were the result of socially and culturally influenced expectations.

Doctors consider Down syndrome a birth defect. Other words to describe it include abnormality and disability. According to the doctors, Penny would have trouble learning. She would probably need glasses and possibly hearing aids. She would never be even five feet tall. She would have trouble communicating. I quickly learned that many doctors and parents alike believe children like Penny should never be born. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that every pregnant woman receive prenatal screening for Down syndrome. Of the women who screen for Down syndrome and receive a prenatal diagnosis via chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis, 90 percent choose to terminate their pregnancies. From the moment she was conceived, our daughter fell short of our medical and cultural standards of worth.

After Penny was born, I thought I needed to abandon the hope of perfection altogether. Sin will always render me and my children imperfect. But I still wasn't sure how to think of her, how to have hopes and dreams for her once those initial expectations were stripped away.

When Penny was five months old, I was playing with her in our living room. By that point, I no longer saw her in terms of what she couldn't do. My heart skipped a beat when she turned her head at the sound of my voice. I had felt wonder as her eyelashes grew long and dark, when she smiled and cooed, when she nestled against my chest for comfort. That day, as I massaged her pudgy legs and wiped strands of dark hair from her eyes, I remembered a verse from Matthew 5: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

CAPC Update: “In Defense of the Humble Cassette”

My latest Christ and Pop Culture feature looks at the cult status that cassettes (remember those?) have begun to acquire, and the physicality and intentionality that they brought to music, particularly in the mixtape process.

I was recently cleaning out the basement when I came across a box of old cassettes, most of them mixtapes that I’d either made for playing in the car or received from various Internet acquaintances as part of the many mixtape swaps I once participated in. There were also several old Christian alternative titles in there — e.g., The Prayer Chain’s Whirlpool EP, Under Midnight’s self-titled debut, My Little Dog China’s The Velvis Carnival — that I listened to religiously (npi) in high school.

And finally, there was the battered old black cassette of Cure songs that my friend Leah gave me as a birthday gift, a formative event in my development as both a music fan and an angst-ridden teenager. Leah was one of the coolest kids I knew in high school — and in our senior year, she was in a car accident and died just a few weeks before her 18th birthday, an event that haunted me long after I graduated. I’d forgotten about that cassette, but upon seeing it again, I realized just how important it had been over the years as a reminder of a very good friend. I haven’t listened to it in almost two decades now, and it’s in such bad shape that I’ll probably never listen to it again for fear of ruining it, but I can never throw it away: too many memories are wrapped around its spools.

Discovering that cache of cassettes was an instant nostalgia rush, but it had nothing to do with their smell. Cassettes, like vinyl, do indeed have a sensorily affecting aspect to them. Like most folks these days, I don’t really miss cassettes themselves — CDs sound better and don’t wear out so easily, and digital formats like MP3s are much more convenient — but I do miss both the physicality and the intentionality that cassettes lent to music. And there was no better example of these aspects than the mixtape process.

It’s impossible for me to talk about cassettes, which were such a huge part of my development as a music fan, without waxing nostalgic.

December 11, 2011

Jesus, He knows (A Triptych)

Jesus, He knows (A Triptych)

I. The Missionary’s Daughter

I recently received an e-mail from a cousin who is serving as a missionary in Africa. His e-mails always include descriptions of his young daughter’s exploits and development alongside the normal reports you read in missionary updates. In this most recent e-mail, he mentioned that he and his wife are teaching her to say “Jesus” but she’s having some difficulty with the word. My cousin concluded (emphasis mine):

...she has given it several good shots, none of which sound right, but her Papa and Mama know what she is trying to say, and I believe our Lord Jesus does too.

That last bit jumped out at me, or perhaps more accurately, slapped me across the face. My tendency is to think of God in the abstract, to approach Him as this God of the philosophers for Whom only terms like “aseity” suffice when talking about Him. And yet here’s this beautiful and true picture of a little girl struggling to say “Jesus” and Jesus, “very God of very God” Himself, being perfectly satisfied with whatever sounds actually end up coming out of her mouth.

God meets us where we’re at and remembers our mortality and feebleness, whatever our stage in life may be.

II. Remember

Both of my sons were born under less-than-desirable circumstances, and both had to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) because they were too small and underdeveloped to come home right away. This was especially true of my firstborn, who was delivered six weeks early via Caesarean section. The NICU was in a Catholic hospital, so there were crucifixes hanging everywhere, even the NICU’s baby rooms. And as I leaned over my sons, trying to wrap my head around the enormity of just how tiny and frail they were, I prayed one particular prayer over and over again: “Please Jesus, don’t forget what it was like to be a little boy.”

Christianity teaches that Jesus was born a human being, with all of the weaknesses and frailties that implies. In the liner notes for Songs For Christmas, Sufjan Stevens writes about this messy side of humanity that Jesus embraced when He came as a helpless baby, that He did plenty of “trembling and suckling and cooing and burping and crying and laughing and giggling and spitting up breast milk all over the place.” As such, Jesus — though He is “very God of very God” — knows very well the whole range of the human experience, including its various struggles and sufferings.

That was the thought behind my prayer, an earnest plea that Jesus would remember His time on earth, especially His childhood, and therefore look upon my own children with favor and compassion.

III. The Second Stone

I was a faithful attendee of my college group, but I must confess that I only remember a handful of moments from its loud, raucous Sunday morning worship services. The one that stands out most in my mind was when Pastor Dan was reading through Psalm 103. He came to verse 14, which states “For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” and he stopped. He then said, as an aside to what he was really preaching about (which I, of course, don’t remember), that those are some of the most encouraging words in the Bible. I believe he was right.

As someone who is prone to brooding self-doubt and self-criticism, these are words that I need to continually internalize and make my own. The Lord knows my weaknesses and frailties. He is well aware of my passing, ephemeral nature — indeed, He even shared it via Jesus’ incarnation. And even so, He still shows compassion, and ultimately, regards me as something much more than just mere dust. The Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim once said:

A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, “I am but dust and ashes.” On the other, “For my sake was the world created.” And he should use each stone as he needs it.

I am very good at looking at the first stone, which is a very great truth. I need to become better at reaching for the second stone, which is an equally great truth.

How Facebook could make sharing meaningless

How Facebook could make sharing meaningless

If you’ve visited Facebook lately, then you’ve probably seen status updates that say one of your friends just read an article on Yahoo!, that they’ve just listened to a particular song on Spotify, or some other similarly canned message. Statuses like these are the result of Facebook’s new “frictionless sharing”, in which Facebook automatically posts updates of what users are reading, listening to, and doing without those users having to take any direct action (such as clicking a “Like” button).

Not surprisingly, there was some backlash (e.g., “Facebook's terrible plan to get us to share everything we do on the Web” by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo). People didn’t want their Facebook friends to know that they, for example, had read an article about the latest Kardashian drama or some other celebrity gossip, or that they occasionally rocked out to Nickleback or Limp Bizkit. Now, I certainly understand why Facebook is taking this approach: it’s good for business. The more they can get people to share, frictionlessly or otherwise, the more consumer data they amass, which they can then turn into big marketing and advertising bucks.

It strikes me, though, that the fundamental flaw in “frictionless sharing” is not the privacy concerns that raises (which are certainly worth considering), but that it will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns.

For starters, it runs the risk of simply overwhelming people. It’s already difficult enough to separate the wheat from the chaff online. There’s so much information on the web and it’s becoming increasingly important to learn how to filter to find that which is truly important and relevant for your purposes. By making sharing that much more frequent by making it automatic, there's so much more stuff to sift through. And just as users no longer pay attention to web advertising because there's so much of it, so too will people eventually come to treat things that should be important and relevant, e.g., your friends’ status updates.

However, I think it goes deeper than that. When sharing becomes automatic, our trust in sharing is eroded. In an article titled “In Defense of Friction”, Andrés Monroy-Hernández writes:

We found that automatic attribution given by a computer system, does not replace the manual credit given by another human being. Attribution, turns out, is a useful piece of information given by a system, while credit given by a person, is a signal of appreciation, one that is expected and that cannot be automated.

[...]

In many scenarios, automation is quite useful, but with social interactions, removing friction can have a harmful effect on the social bonds established through friction itself. 

In other words, friction is good because friction equates to time and effort taken by a real human being, which gives that which is shared more weight — i.e., more trustworthiness — than something an application spit out because some parameters were matched or some triggers were set off. Or, as Mike Loukides writes in “The end of social”:

If we rely on computational systems for a trust framework, we actually lose our instincts and capacity for personal trust; even more, we cease to care about it. And there’s a big difference between trusting someone and relying on a system that says they’re trustworthy.

[...]

There’s something about the friction, the need to work, the one-on-one contact, that makes the sharing real, not just some cyber phenomenon. If you want to tell me what you listen to, I care. But if it’s just a feed in some social application that’s constantly updated without your volition, why do I care? It’s just another form of spam, particularly if I’m also receiving thousands of updates every day from hundreds of other friends.

If I know that you have taken the time to cull and edit your status updates, be they personal updates or links to articles or videos, I’m apt to pay more attention to what you’ve shared and give it more weight because of the time you spent — you obviously cared enough to share it, so I’m more likely to take care to read it. However, if all I see are a stream of canned updates that were obviously spit out by some Facebook-enhanced app or service, then it’s just more spam, albeit spam with your name stamped on it... and there’s nothing less trustworthy than spam.

December 9, 2011

Notorious Siri

Robert Böhnke’s hilarious hack for Music Hack Day 2011.

SiriProxy is used to intercept the communication with Apple's servers. Based on your song request, Notorious Siri then sends your choice of Notorious B.I.G.'s Hypnotize and an a-cappella rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody to the device (the latter requiring 4 iPhones 4S).

Siri's speech synthesis is synced to the beat using the timestamps obtained from the Echonest API which were then manually tweaked, to smooth out delays in the text-to-speech engine.

I’d like to see Android step to this.

Spirit of Talk Talk

Spirit of Talk Talk

Talk Talk broke up nearly twenty years ago, and when they were together, they released some of the most understated and unassuming music of the last three decades. Nevertheless, the music of Mark Hollis and Co. has developed a huge following over the years, and has influenced numerous artists including Radiohead, Portishead, Elbow, Bon Iver, Hood, Shearwater, and Bark Psychosis.

Now, several of these artists, as well as various label owners, DJs, and others are contributing to Spirit of Talk Talk, a book chronicling the career of the influential band.

Celebrated illustrator, and Talk Talk cover artist, James Marsh has remastered and chronicled all of the iconic artwork that he produced for the band throughout their 10 year reign in the 80’s. The book will feature James’ original cover concept sketches, hand written lyrics from Mark Hollis, as well as various ephemera, posters, and related items of interest to fans. There will also be lovely unseen photos of the band from 3 sessions with photographer Richard Haughton.

Renowned rock music writer and enormous Talk Talk fan Chris Roberts is writing the main essay and there are also 80 written contributions from bands, label owners, DJs and creatives, all of whom have been inspired or influenced by the music and art of Talk Talk.

The aforelinked website is currently gauging interest in the book, which has is expected to be published in Spring 2012 by Essential Works. If you’re interested in the book, you can register your interest here. You can also preview some of the artwork and photography that will be included in the final product.

In the meantime, if you're not familiar with Talk Talk’s music, then I suggest picking up a copy of Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock at your earliest convenience.

December 8, 2011

50 Rules for Dads of Daughters

I’ve mentioned this in passing before, but we’re about to have our third child in a few weeks, and it’s going to be a girl. I’ll confess that the usual clichéd “father of a girl” thoughts — e.g., “She will never date until she’s married”, “I will approve every outfit she wears until she’s 25” — have run through my head multiple times. I think need to counterbalance those thoughts with the items on this list.

The Vatican vs. ugly church architecture

Vatican Insider:

The reality is staring everyone in the eyes: in recent decades, churches have been substituted by buildings that resemble multi purpose halls. Too often, architects, even the more famous ones, do not use the Catholic liturgy as a starting point and thus end up producing avant-garde constructions that look like anything but a church. These buildings composed of cement cubes, glass boxes, crazy shapes and confused spaces, remind people of anything but the mystery and sacredness of a church.

There’s some merit to this. As I’ve written before, a church is more than just a mere building. Even so, the building does matter because it can, in a very real and tangible way, give shape to our worship and liturgy. Obviously, there are times when building a gorgeous cathedral is out of the question, and meeting in a strip mall — as my wife’s old church used to do — doesn’t mean that the Lord won’t present. That being said, our worship spaces should be distinctive, consecrated, and set aside in a way that helps spur us on to worship.

Braden Kowitz makes a case for design perfectionism

In this brilliant article, Design Staff’s Braden Kowitz makes the case for design perfectionism (i.e., obsessing over seemingly trivial details such as the number of pixels between elements on the screen). It’s more than just making sure that things look pretty, though. There can be real usability benefits to such perfectionism:

The MailChimp logo makes me smile every time! The lack of clutter on the Google homepage is so peaceful. The glossy pixel-perfection of Apple interfaces is delightful. They got the design details right, and it’s creating a positive emotional state, but why does that matter?

There’s a curious brain hack at work here. Our minds are deeply tied to emotional states. Being frustrated or happy changes the way we approach problems. I have certainly been in a bad mood, gotten confused by a product, and found myself repeatedly smashing a button to no effect. In my frustration, I try the same thing, just harder. But it doesn’t help me accomplish my goal.

When we’re happy, using an interface feels like play... Getting design details right can create positive emotional states that actually make products easier to use.

Via Khoi Vinh