Archives for category: Opinion

Bill PlacherToday I learned Bill Placher has died. Bill Placher was one of the most influential men in my life. I am overcome with grief. I met Bill my freshman year at Wabash College. I took courses with him in Ethics, ancient Greek philosophy, Dante‘s Divine Comedy, Enlightenment philosophy, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He became my college advisor. He guided me through my major. He encouraged me to study abroad and advocated the unconventional approach of my direct enrollment at Universität Tübingen in Germany.

My sophomore year Bill thrust the novel, Hyperion, into my hand and challenged me to interview his classmate, Dan Simmons.

Fall of my junior year, Placher taught a seminar on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The seminar met once a week, on Friday afternoon. There were 27 students in the class. This was twice the usual size of a Wabash seminar. The first week I remember Bill commenting on the class size, “Who could have anticipated there would be this many of you wanting to talk about Hell late on Friday afternoons.” It was a testament to Placher’s influence.

When I returned to Wabash after my year abroad I would often spend evenings with him at his home. We would talk about our respective experiences — he had studied abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland when he was a Wabash student. A byproduct of those evening meetings was my education into the wonders of scotch whisky. The distinct smoke-filled flavor of Islay’s Laphroiag was Placher’s favorite malt.

We reprised this tradition of evening conversation whenever I would return to Crawfordsville. I had the opportunity to return the favor when he took a sabbatical at the University of Chicago in 2000-2001.

I still organize my academic library by the principle Bill first showed me. I recall walking into his office one afternoon to discuss a paper I was writing and looking for some secondary literature to help me make my point. I had a couple of particular books in mind. Placher was on the phone when I entered but encouraged me to browse his bookshelves. I began looking and it occurred to me that these books were shelved in an entirely unfamiliar way. He had hundreds of books on his shelves. Philosophy, theology, religion, literature. At first impression the collection seemed entirely haphazard, random. And I was put off by that conclusion. It did not make sense given what I knew about him otherwise. Something structured his library — I just hadn’t struck upon the organizing principle. Eventually I arrived at what seemed a likely conclusion and set about finding the texts I had originally sought. When Bill finished his phone call I tested my hypothesis. “Are your books ordered historically?” I asked. He revealed his own quiet grin and admitted as much. We talked at length about how that came about and I still lean heavily on the lesson I learned from the experience: that history and knowledge is a conversation. To set these books in a historical order is a way to physically place these texts in conversation to one another.

In some cases, the interlocutors are close: Kant‘s awakening from his dogmatic slumbers in response to reading David Hume. In others the interval between episodes in the conversation take place across generations. Aquinas responding to the Church with references to his friend, Aristotle. This quirky principle struck me as clever, subtle and sound. We do not live or write or think in a vacuum. To organize the greatest symbols of that task in such a way that celebrates the continuous conversation of thought underlines Bill Placher’s sublime brilliance. — This was a recurring theme in his life and his teaching: to encourage conversation. I doubt there was something he loved more than intelligent conversation.

I am using these encouragements, challenges and academic anecdotes to illustrate how Bill Placher embodied the spirit of the liberal arts: to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely. These are not easy tasks, and often we hamper our own ability to accomplish them.

Bill wrote to this point in his 2007 text, A Triune God:

We human persons are always failing to be fully personal. As persons, we are shaped by our relations with other persons. Yet we always deliberately raise barriers or cannot figure out how to overcome the barriers we confront. When those we most love come to die, or in the dementia of old age are no longer able understand what we may most want to say to them, we realize how much there was in our hearts that we never shared with them. When we best articulate our ideas, we cannot escape the feeling that there was something there we never quite captured. When we most rejoice in sharing with someone different from ourselves, difference nevertheless scares us. The doctrine of the Trinity, however, proclaims that true personhood, however impossible its character may be for us to imagine, involves acknowledging real difference in a way that causes not fear but joy.

Relationships built upon honest interaction, typified by sincere conversation, celebratory of differences, relishing the new, the other and confronting these truths of life without retreating into the dark caves of fear– these are lessons I hope never to forget. Ideals by which I strive to live my life. I draw these principles in part from my time with Bill Placher. And I am left with exactly that realization he wrote of: there is so much in my heart that I never shared with him.

I will leave it to others to catalog Bill Placher’s accomplishments. They are not insignificant, but his influence upon me was not defined by what he wrote or where he studied or what awards he won. His influence and inspiration are defined by who he was, how he lived– how he spoke. And so I redouble my efforts to live in a way guided by his quiet, clever teachings and wit.

News WarThis morning Whirl and I concluded watching the PBS public affairs program, Frontline, turn a critical eye on its own world: modern American journalism. “News War” is a four-part in-depth series about a myriad of issues facing journalism today. Employed as I am by a large media company saddled with debt and riding into an uncertain economic horizon, the topics of this series were near and dear to my heart.

In the first two hours of the series, “Secrets, Sources & Spin,” Frontline talked to the major players in the debates over the role of media in U.S. society. They examined the relationship between the Bush administration and the press, the use of anonymous sources. The centerpiece of this discussion was the use of anonymous sources and their consequences in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. In the second hour, the series followed this discussion into another area of journalism to highlight unnerving similarities and concerns: sports journalism. We saw interviews of the journalists facing jail for refusing to reveal their sources in relation to the BALCO investigation. San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. Their investigative reporting of BALCO made national headlines exposing steroid abuse in professional baseball.

President Bush praised their stories and commended the reporters for their public service. But in May 2006, his own Justice Department authorized the issuance of subpoenas that would compel the reporters to appear in court and to identify the source of the leak. The reporters fought the subpoenas. But this week, the leaker came forward and publicly identified himself, thus releasing the reporters from their promise of confidentiality.

Control of the message is a critical issue. And that issue can often be at odds with the public service mission of the free press. Frontline’s discussion of the development of the legal concept of privileged communication between reporter and source fascinated me. The erosion of that concept terrified me.

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Independence Day 4Last week I learned Craig had taken his own life. Craig was a good friend of mine all through childhood in Colorado. We climbed mountains together, descended the Arkansas River in canoes and it pains me to think that the last time I spoke with him was twenty years ago. When I moved away to college I lost touch with Craig. I lost touch with most of my friends. I can count the ones I still have addresses for on one hand– and that includes my younger sister. For the past twenty years I have kept up with Craig’s life mostly through periodic updates from my mother. I know Craig spent time in Seattle, lived on a houseboat in the bay, and most recently had a home in Montana. He never married.

The news of Craig’s suicide has prompted me to think more directly about my life. The decisions I have made. The consequences of those decisions. I avoid thinking about these ideas in terms of remorse or nostalgia or melancholy. I think doing so lays an easy emotional trap. When I do that what I end up creating is a lonely retrospective of failure. If only I had done that instead, everything would be so much better. I see no value in that sort of self-evaluation. I’m no longer interested in answering the question: What went wrong? I am interested in an honest, authentic appraisal of how I got here and what that says about me.

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I have begun a photography project: 100 Strangers. This is a first for me, to shoot pictures with a particular purpose in mind. The challenge is simple: take 100 portraits of 100 strangers. Candids are not allowed. The project’s creator, Teppo, asks:

Want to be a better street photographer? Want to develop as a photojournalist? In order to be one you often need to have the courage to go and talk with people you don’t know.

I think this is a noble goal. I also have to ask myself about the possible causes that would generate such a project in the first place and see so many people attracted to it. What sociological forces are at play that compel one to believe that talking to strangers is a dangerous thing? Is this another example of our growing culture of fear? Are cameras somehow tools of intimidation? Have I grown so used to the anonymizing powers of technology that real face-to-face communication with real people has become foreign? Or is this just group therapy for introverts?

My friend, Princess FixIT, makes some powerful observations on shifting cultural attitudes about strangers in the last two generations. She talks about her grandmother’s trait of striking up conversations with ease. At lunch the other day as we were discussing the project, Princess stated, “Are you kidding!? Grandma did ‘100 Strangers’ every day!” My own grandmother had a very similar approach to people she just met.

Like Princess, I do think that technology has the potential for doing a considerable disservice to the art of communication. Rather than bringing people closer together I find that many technology methods often achieve the opposite. Technology anonymizes conversations, emphasizes difference and distance between us, and inserts errors and confusion where a smile, a hug or a handshake would have soothed things over.

Do we compensate for this perceived– but unrealized– distance between ourselves with ever more obsessive, self-involved technologies? We stopped writing letters and invented email because email was faster. We stopped writing email and started blogging because then we did not have to personalize and repeat the message to everyone. Just post to the blog and the onus was on the audience to find out what we were doing or what we were thinking. Or we stopped writing email and started using instant messaging, because instant messaging was even faster. We have stopped writing multi-paragraph blog entries and are now adopting µblog services like Twitter and identi.ca because blogs just have too many words. Your life is now represented in 140 characters or less. Archived forever. And we install all of these technologies in our mobile phones so they are always available.

Does all of this technological development really improve one’s quality of life? I do not think so. I think it contributes to a culture of self-obsessed introverts with chronic attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Welcome to the anoniverse. Now if someone would just be so kind as to show me the way out, I’d like have a real conversation. With someone. Anyone.

I am motivated to participate in the 100 Strangers project by the prospect of taking better photographs. I am also using the project as a way of disrupting the culture of anonymity. That is to say, I believe technology has made you and me shier, less approachable, and more cowardly than would like. I am going to change. Myself.

War Protest 2An excited mob of bicyclists took over the intersection of East Monroe Drive and South Michigan Avenue while I was on my way home from work. At first I thought this stream of noisy cyclists was Critical Mass out for their last Friday of the month, traffic-stopping escapades. And it might have been part of that originally. But this much smaller group of cyclists, hundreds rather than thousands, let me know they were an impromptu moving protest against the War in Iraq and the Bush administration. I hastily yanked the camera out and took a couple of quick pictures. Shortly after I did that the heavens opened up and drowned the Loop in heavy rain.

I don’ t think the two events– the protest ride and the thunderstorm– were connected. I write this will full knowledge that my relationship with bicycles has undergone a radical change since the brain injury. I used to view the bicycle as an excellent means of transportation. Light, fast and flexible– bicycles are not nearly as clumsy or loud as automobiles. No pollution, good exercise. Bicycles have a lot going for them. It’s just that they’ve tried to kill me. Twice. I was glad to escape this encounter without ending up back in a coma.

Even with the downpour I made it home with a minimum of sogginess. Safely. On foot.

I am away from home on business this week. I’m in Arlington, Texas, living out of a hotel. One of the perks of living out of a hotel– besides not having to make the bed or wash the dishes– is that the newspaper arrives right at my room every day before I get up. Granted, the newspaper I am receiving here at this hotel happens to be that stalwart of journalistic integrity, USA Today. And it is the lead story on today’s paper that has me once again asking the question: Why is this news?

USA Today’s lead story on the front page, above the fold complete with art, is: “Social, work lives collide on networking websites”. The story described how a woman updated her Facebook and MySpace pages shortly after she got married. She included pictures of her new wife. She received congratulations and blessings from her friends and family. And then a work acquaintance sent her a simple two-word note: “Nice pictures.” Her work life and her social life had collided.

Let’s walk through the basics of the story. She’s gay. People at her work do not know she is gay. She posts pictures of herself and her wife on the Internet. Unintended people find these pictures, view them, and then comment about having done so.

Again, why is this news?

I will set aside writing about the strong interdependencies between media and marketing for a moment: companies using the media to gain awareness with the public; media creating copy about otherwise flaccid goods and services in order to sell advertisements. I won’t go into that than to observe that social networking sites do not strike me as anything fundamentally different than the earliest college home pages I saw in the early ’90s other than to have a bit more automation and ease of use. Not that writing enough of the basic HTML to post “I ♥ Huckabees” is particularly difficult, but social networking sites have designed ways to make it even easier. That is MySpace’s contribution to the Internet, simple tools to make ugly web pages.

So we’re back to the fundamental issue of posting on the Internet. I liken Internet posts– of most any flavor– to walking into a very crowded room and broadcasting to anyone who will listen the intimate and mundane details of your life. Combine that with various methods of archiving data on the Internet, and those posts never completely die. They are always available in some form or another. Those stories were news maybe ten years ago. And for people who had been using the Internet since the 60s, I suspect they probably thought something similar in the 90s: this is old news. As a broader culture I think we started to realize sometime in the mid- to late-90s just how long a shelf-life data on the Internet actually has. Today, this is old news by any calculation. It is not relevant.

People are curious– some might say downright nosy. We want to know what is going on with people around us. From our innocent fascination with Boo Radley to the odious habits of Mrs. Grundy we all have a touch of voyeurism in us. The Internet expands our reach: we are no longer constrained to peeping in on our neighbors, but now can look at what is going on in most any neck of the woods. But the Internet does not fundamentally change the type of behavior, just the ease of access to it.

So the human behavior is certainly not new. Is it newsworthy for other reasons?

I am struggling to find a justification for the newsworthiness of this piece. I am failing. Yes, I understand that the boundaries between working life and personal life are blurring through technology. More people are working from home, or working on flexible schedules. More women are in the workplace than ever before. Mobile technologies like email, cellular phones, and laptop computers ease the ability to bring work with us wherever we go. This might be another example of that, I suppose. But it seems a pretty far reach to put a new spin on a story that has been developing for decades.

To paraphrase the voice in Field of Dreams, “If you post it, they will come.”

I’ve been following Barack Obama since his his 2004 Senate bid to replace the seat vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald. A number of people claim that his presidential campaign began with his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The 2004 Illinois senate run was filled with scandal and controversy on the Republican side of the ballot. In the general election, Obama received 70% of the vote to Alan Keyes‘ 27%. It was one of the largest margins of victory in Illinois history. When he officially announced his candidacy for US President in February, I was thrilled. The turnout in Iowa has further bolstered support in Illinois, and the midwest in general.

All of this may be interesting, and may say something about how Obama came to the national political stage, but it explains very little about the man himself. To address that shortcoming, I have picked up his latest novel, The Audacity of Hope. The Audacity of Hope is Obama’s second book. It expands on a number of themes he introduced in his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address. His positions on corporate governance, energy policy, network neutrality, taxation, the budget deficit, immigration and the environment resonate strongly with my own. I hope reading this book will give me further insight into this fascinating public figure in the midst of an exciting political run

In response to the Megan Meier story that broke this past week I wanted to write something about what I think being online means. I also want to confess to more than a little curiosity about the process of how a given story becomes newsworthy. I want to know why various media outlets do or do not cover a given story, and in what manner. The coverage of this story from the St. Charles Journal and the Chicago Tribune are quite disparate.

I don’t think being on the Internet is an all-or-nothing sort of thing. Maybe that’s a perspective I’ve come to from working and playing on the Internet in various ways for the last few years. Like many of my friends, I am rather leery of the proliferation of social networking sites. The first one I joined was Six Degrees in the late 90s. I did not enjoy it, and cannot say that I have taken advantage of any more since then. I have had invitations for MySpace, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, Facebook, Classmates.com, Flickr, 43things, Last.fm and Twitter. I have declined all of these save Flickr. Maybe it is more a reflection of an introverted side of my personality, but I guess I see the Internet primarily as academic, a communication medium to exchange ideas, rather than primarily social, a communication medium to exchange phone numbers.

(I’m now worrying I’m sounding overly arrogant or bombastic, so I apologize if that’s the case. I don’t mean to.) Are some people predisposed to finding the predominant definition of themselves in the opinions of others? Is that the essential allure to social networking? Is it a predisposition to voyeurism? Is it a reaction to isolationism? As my friend, John, said the Internet provides for a much wider audience. Is the appeal there that with a broader audience I’m able to find more people like me than I normally would at my school, or in my hometown?

I’m not saying the Megan Meier story is not a sad one. It is. It is a sad story. I think what I’m saying is that this is not a necessarily new sad story. People can and will be cruel to other people. I think that the Internet gives people a longer reach to do just that. I guess I’m just struggling with answering the question: Why is this news? The cynic in me keeps crying that this is news because it is sexy. The Internet is shiny and mysterious, ambiguous and (seemingly) essential, pervasive and adaptable. — Sounds like the perfect monster to me. That condition has me thinking that the Megan Meier story is the new boogeyman horror story. (Parallel thought, it does not surprise me that one of the more recent Stephen King novels, Cell, is a zombie story about cellphones.)

I’d like to hope that this is news for some other reason. I’m just having trouble seeing what that might be.

I want to write about scale, to write about the scale of things– or rather to write down my thoughts after reading Tom Robbins’ cautionary consideration when confronting the ideology of realism:

Most of the activity in the universe is occurring at speeds too fast or too slow for normal human senses to register it, and most of the matter in the universe exists in amounts too vast or too tiny to be accurately observed by us. With that in mind, isn’t it a bit unrealistic to talk about “realism”?

Robbins struck out for the far end of the spectrum by invoking the universe in his observation. But if you will pardon the pun, let us scale it back a bit to see where the sentiment no longer rings true. What if we substitute the word universe with the word world? Does that still seem a reasonable or insightful observation? How about nation or state? City? — What about neighborhood, office, church, temple, school or even home? I could go smaller: body, organs, blood, brain, cells, atoms, quarks. Just when do things happen on a human scale?

What is the human scale?

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La Galerie des Glaces 1I am a time traveler. No, I am not talking about literally going back in time as numerous authors have speculated. Unfortunately— or fortunately, depending on which author you read— literal time travel is still unavailable. Rather, I am talking about the powers of sentiment and memory, coupled with conversation and photographs and more permanent artifacts of times gone past, to transport me to a time and place I have been before.

On Sunday, Whirl had to go into the Museum to work. She had told me about an extensive photograph scanning system in the biology research wing. She and I had been recently experimenting with ways to quickly and easily convert some of our print photographs into digital photographs. Our first attempts consisted of simply taking pictures of the prints with our camera mounted on a tripod. That was not ideal, but it worked well enough to get some satisfaction out of the process. The biology photo scanning system is much better suited. Of particular interest to me, the system is able to scan black-and-white negatives.

HölderlinturmIn 1991 I lived in Germany. I spent the entire year there, landing in Berlin on January 1st. New Year’s Eve came to me that year on a Boeing 747 somewhere over the North Atlantic. I returned to the United States a day before Christmas Eve. I brought my camera with me: a 1965 Nikon Nikkormat FT Dad had given me. This was not the first camera I had ever used, but it was certainly the camera I learned the most about photography using.

In the mid-80s, Dad converted the smallest bathroom in our house into an amateur darkroom. He built a table over the bathtub out of an old closet door. He obtained second-hand enlargers, first black-and-white and eventually color, wherever he could find them inexpensively. He taught me how to shoot, develop film, and enlarge pictures. I went on to use what I had learned to shoot photographs and develop pictures for my High School newspaper and yearbook. And in college, I took the camera along with dozens of rolls of bulk-loaded black-and-white film with me to Europe.

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