Archive for January, 2009

Religious Diversity

Posted: January 28, 2009 in Culture

I enjoy listening to NPR on my commutes and at times find it a true conversation partner as I find my self talking back to the disembodied voice coming out of my car speakers.

Tonight was one of those occasions as a young man on Worldview casually claimed that America was the most religiously diverse country in the world. Many people make this claim but is it really true? Aren’t there a lot of countries with far larger religious minority populations than the US? Think of India for example and the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian populations that have coexisted there for centuries (not to mention Sikhism, Buddhist and other groups). Are we more diverse then they are?

If the claim is even that we have at least one adherent of more religions than anywhere else – can that be substantiated? I haven’t looked up the actual numbers but I know the US is largely Christian and no other religion has more than 1 or 2%.

Anyone know an argument that would support the claim we are the most religiously diverse nation in the world?

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The Audacity of Reading Obama

Posted: January 26, 2009 in Uncategorized

As a prelude to discussing some of the content of Audacity of Hope, I want to discuss why I found it hard to read this book. On the one hand it has nothing to do with how it is written. (President) Obama writes with a smooth, personal style that I found quite compelling. This was especially true of the early chapters that discussed the history of American politics and what he has learned from being a politician. The final chapters on foreign policy and economics became more dense as he discussed and proposed actual policy.

But actually, my discomfort had a lot to do with the writing style. He writes with a great deal of apparent candor which includes an awareness of his own ambition. But knowing about that ambition made me feel unsettled as I found myself rooting for the thoughtful, hopeful, pragmatic, Christian, family man that is the Barack Obama of this book. There is this cynical voice that is hard to silence that warns he sounds like such a nice (and normal) guy b/c that is exactly what he wants you to think.

I’ve always been fascinated by propaganda as discussed in history classes. When students look at the WWI posters of the brutish Huns they almost always comment on how gullible people used to be. There is an assumption that we are no longer susceptible to propaganda … but of course that is exactly what the propagandist wants you to think.

So is the solution to be the hard, but wise cynic who trusts no one? Though tempting, I find such an option ultimately untenable. I can not live in the cynic’s lonely world. Thus, I found myself mostly ignoring the cautionary voice and taking the author of Audacity of Hope at his word. Perhaps in a politician less frank about his ambition I would (oddly?) be more guarded. Still I understand the act of reading any campaign memoir as a truly audacious act – requiring the reader to either constantly be questioning the hidden motives of the author or dangerously suspending disbelief.

Given that large caveat. I enjoyed the book and will share more of my thoughts in a subsequent post.

Quick Update

Posted: January 23, 2009 in Uncategorized

Dear faithful blog reader,

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been doing too well at resolution #8 (you remember – 2 blog posts a week). Um, sorry. So here is a quick update with the renewed resolve to resume regular writing.

My father-in-law was in town for a week long visit. We don’t see him often and I enjoyed the chance to hang out with him and hear his stories of growing up in NYC and serving in Viet Nam. Unity arranged for the three of us to volunteer with Chicago Cares for MLK day and it turned out to be the highlight of the week as we got to play with some really cute kids in Little Village.

Speaking of resolutions, I’ve been doing better with the reading resolution and finished Audacity of Hope before the inauguration. I hope to post a review soon but in brief I enjoyed the book. I especially liked the first part where (now President) Obama shared his take on politics and political differences in our country. I do feel like I have a better idea where he is coming from now that I’ve read that book.

Finally, speaking of future posts. My friend Mike (who is the co-founder of Grubhub.com) has been talking to me about their new mission to make food delivery better. So today I’ve been thinking about what is meant by “better” not just for food delivery but also other types of commercial interactions. My thinking inevitably goes back to ways to enrich those interactions with human to human connections or in other words community. I hope to flesh that out soon.

But for now it is off to bed. Hope you are well.

UP

Imagine that

Posted: January 14, 2009 in Uncategorized

Photo by StarrGazr

Photo by StarrGazr

Just recently I’ve watched the two Chronicle of Narnia movies that have been made. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was especially a favorite of mine growing up and I enjoyed watching both movies.

The one scene that I keep going back to is when Peter and Susan explain to the professor Lucy’s story of the world in the wardrobe. The professor chastises them for their unbelief and comments under his breath, “What do they teach you in schools these days?”

The professor is surprised by their lack of imagination. I think I suffer from the same fate. Probably a consequence of age, but I increasingly think that the world is the way it is and we have most of it figured out. I think this can be a dangerous and debilitating view – one that easily ends up in a form of cynicism or helplessness when things change. For example, although much about our current economy seems out of sorts, it is very hard to imagine different types of economic arrangements. It doesn’t help that our political system trains us to think that there are exactly two options, a liberal and conservative one, on almost every issue.

A lack of imagination can also be a spiritual problem. The God of the Bible is a strange God who does very unexpected things including sometimes hiding. I think following such a God requires a strong imagination – not in the sense of making up what isn’t there, but in the sense of being open to the unexpected and the counterintuitive.

So how do you cultivate a healthy imagination? Perhaps going back and re-reading Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia would be start.

Quote Unquote

Posted: January 13, 2009 in Uncategorized

One last quote from Chesterton this time on humility:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place.
Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled
upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.
A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about
the truth; this has been exactly reversed. … The old humility was
a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot
that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man
doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether. Orthodoxy p. 16

Reading Borgmann in the library

Posted: January 9, 2009 in Uncategorized

[Over Christmas break the tech. services library staff at work read different books on information and wrote 600 word reviews. I read the Borgmann book that has been mentioned a few times on this blog. Here is my review. I hope to submit an article for publication that expands on some of the ideas here.]

As librarians we work with information. We collect it, we create it, we provide access to it, and we preserve it. What we don’t often do is think philosophically about the information that fills our days. This is where Albert Borgmann can assist us. His book, Holding on to Reality: the Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium is a philosophical treatise on the definition, history, and purpose of information. It is also provides a framework to think critically about the digital revolution that us ushered us into the information age.

A central premise of this book is that we inhabit a world of things. Information connects us to these things either by reporting about them or telling us how to create them. Historically the efficacy of this transaction was dependent on the intelligence of the person being informed and the context of the information. Over time this has become less true as the medium of information has changed from stone monuments, to writing, and finally to the binary bit. This evolution of technology has lowered the prerequisite intelligence/memory needed to become informed and has made information less dependent on its surrounding context. The danger, in Borgmann’s view, is that information divorced from human skill and context no longer acts as a referent to some other thing but becomes its own end. The CD is no longer thought to be about the symphony or enabling the performance of the symphony – it is the symphony. Borgmann argues at length that when information becomes an end in itself we are left with an impoverished, trivial existence.

Borgmann’s insight that information should be for something coincides with the demands of accreditation that education be for something. That students leave our schools changed. Hopefully this change can be characterized as increased knowledge, wisdom and more marketable skills. The challenge for academic librarians is to promote these aims. Here are three suggestions inspired by Borgmann’s writing.

First, we need a deep understanding what we do and why we do it. Beyond drafting a good vision statement, a deep understanding means articulating the moral weight of good and bad information practices. It follows from Borgmann’s analysis that the way we use information can connect us with what is real and meaningful, or obscure the real and leave us spending our lives on trivial pursuits. Librarians generally sense that our work is significant but seldom is that articulated strongly or emphasized to students. Our professional training to respect a variety of opinions may inhibit us from making this case but an argument for taking information seriously and our shared stake in reality need not significantly compromise our affirmation of free intellectual exchange.

Second, we need to reflect critically on how to appropriate technology to promote knowledge and wisdom. The ancients warned that literacy may do more to promote the appearance of wisdom rather the actual virtue. So to we need to reflect with students on how their use of technology enables intellectual growth and is not simply an expedient short cut or worse simply a distraction.

This leads to the third proposal, that as librarians we again champion the practice of reading. Not the pragmatic skimming of words looking for useful information but the slower, deliberate reading that is akin to respectful listening. The penultimate chapter ends with a call to rediscover an information literacy that calls forth concentration and imagination and asks the reader to restore the library. At a time when many such calls may be dismissed as a mix of fear and nostalgia, I think Borgmann offers an argument we can hold on to.

Photo by T.SC

Photo by T.SC

Resolved

Posted: January 4, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

So it is the time of year for resolutions. Here are the ones I’m making.

1. I want to be a more consistent reader – I tend to read in spurts with long intervals of not reading so my plan is to read 50 pages a week from now until I go to England in March (basically 10 pages a day/5 days a week).

2. We have a lot of great audio books in the library and I have a long commute so I want to listen to one audio book a month this year starting with Orthodoxy. Besides, I could use a break from all the depressing news.

3. Speaking of the news, I’ve adjusted my budget to make saving money much more of a priority this year. I want to really track how I spend money and build up a fund for the inevitable but unpredictable expenses of life.

4. I want to eat something that I grow this year, preferably from a seed.

5. I want to continue to work on cooking by making at least one new think each month. Recently I baked my first loaf of bread and it turned out pretty good. Speaking of food, I would also like to work on stocking a pantry with basic non-perishable food.

6. I would like to publish an article this year (I recently had the text of a presentation I gave in Ottawa last year published in the conference proceedings – hey it is a start).

7. I would also like to do something new with a computer this year – hopefully building off the skills I learned in my web design class.

8. I would like to post two blog posts a week for 10 straight weeks during this year and hopefully some of them will return to the theme of local community.

9. (Since I feel like it is good to have 9 resolutions for this year…) I want to have more consistent date nights with Unity. Not sure how to quantify that given the variance of our schedules so I’ll leave this one open ended.

Hope you had a Happy New Years and have a rewarding 2009!