Watching Petworth Grow

January 14, 2009

My neighborhood is getting a big new development. It’s about two blocks from my place (directly over the Metro stop) and now sports bigger horns than Moses coming down off the mountain.

Bonus points to anyone who lives in Petworth and gets the reference…


Dream Job?

January 14, 2009

Sometimes I think I’m happy to have graduated because I spent ten semesters as an undergrad and it’s just nice to have a job and an income, that my college experience wasn’t that atypical. Then I read stuff like this that makes me remember how being there really sucked.


Christian Humanism?

January 9, 2009

David Manes–a peer from my college days–has written a fascinating piece on Christian humanism, exceeded only by the discussion it prompted.

Personally, I think the merger of Christianity and humanism dulls the meaning of one or the other, but would be a lot happier with Christian humanists running around than Christian fundamentalists, so I won’t complain too much. I think growing up a fundamentalist makes it hard to accept more liberal/ less strident expressions of faith as being legitimate forms of Christianity. For a while I went through what I call my “liberal Christian phase” (about 9 months maybe?) where I described myself as a Christian and said that I believed in God. Over time I realized that what I meant by “Christian,” what I thought of Christ, and what I meant by “God” (something akin to Einstein’s God/Universe equivalence) were drastically different from what the people I was conversing with meant.

At this point, I feel that God, as commonly defined by most of the people I know who claim belief in Him, is not a concept that I find very useful/helpful/logical. If everyone meant what Einstein said, then I might describe myself as a deist/theist/whateverist, but we don’t live in that world.


LDRS and BALLS

January 7, 2009

I’m hoping to get up to Potter, NY on the Fourth of July weekend to attend Large and Dangerous Rocket Ships (LDRS) 28, one of the biggest annual launches in the world.

I’ll probably fly one or two rockets of my own, but mostly go to see the big projects, such as a 3/4 scale Patriot Missile Dan Michael is flying.

But LDRS isn’t really dangerous, though the rockets are large. But the really crazy stuff is flown at BALLS in the Black Rock desert, a launch that I hope to one day attend. Here’s the press release, and two of my favorite excerpts:

As a demonstration launch of experimental motors and airframes designed using the top technologies in the field, this is a venue for projects that are not flown publicly because of safety and legal restrictions. Here you will find large rockets that utilize complex clustering or staging techniques, metal construction, and home-brewed propulsion systems.

Because of the nature of activities children are discouraged. It is nearly impossible to concentrate on a large potentially dangerous project and watch your child at the same time. No children will be allowed.

Not “bringing children is discouraged”–“children are discouraged.”


Two Approaches to Unity

January 6, 2009

The Christian Chronicle–long the flagship publication of Churches of Christ, the denomination of Christianity in which I grew up–has an interesting review up of a collection of essays on unity and the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Long story short, the Church of Christ grew out of the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement, a movement early 19th century American Christianity to “restore the first century church”. One hallmark of the Church of Christ (that in some places has faded as parts of the CoC veer closer to ‘mainstream evangelicals’) has been that believers see their body as the Church. They don’t think there should be division in the church, so calling them a “denomination” is considered an insult. And they often self-identify only as “Christians” and would never start off by saying they’re members of the Church of Christ. Likewise, a publication like the Christian Chronicle is called just that, and not the Church of Christ Chronicle.

This theological identification has frequently been accompanied by a condemnation to hell of anyone outside this fairly narrow (a few million people worldwide) Church of Christ. That (blessedly) is one common tenet of belief that has faded somewhat for many members of the CoC, at least in the US.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt of the Christian Chronicle review of One Church: A Bicentennial Celebration of Thomas Campbell’s ‘Declaration and Address’:

The variety of the essays and meditations in the collection will attract some readers and trouble others. The contributors write out of their separate Stone-Campbell contexts, with the authors from each stream speaking in a way that suggests the concerns of their particular tradition. Readers among Churches of Christ — and in a similar way, Christian Churches — may bristle at how widely Session throws open the door to the kingdom.

There are basically two ways to achieve “unity” in an organization where people of differing consciences disagree. The first is to exclude all those with even moderately different views, condemning them as hell-bound outsiders. We could call this the judgmental approach. The other, tolerant approach, is to accept that, faced with imperfect information, people will disagree.


Back to Blogging

January 5, 2009

Throughout my last few years of college, blogging provided an invaluable outlet as I struggled to develop a personal philosophy/worldview in a relatively isolated and non-progressive corner of these United States. Becoming a secular humanist in a small Arkansas town while attending a private, extremely conservative Christian university wasn’t exactly the easiest transition possible. But, the Interwebs were a great blessing, and gave me the chance to engage with a broad range of people both near and far.

Then all of a sudden I graduated (relief!) and moved to Washington, DC (more relief!) where I soon realized that, to most people, religion just isn’t that big of a deal. I think that most secular people are not raised with the intensity of belief and/or clarity of philosophy that comes from being raised in and around a Christian university/community. Really, this applies to most religious people as well. So, since writing about theology, philosophy, and politics and dialoguing with people outside of Arkansas were large reasons for my blogging habit, life in the District alleviated some of those needs. The other factor that led to my blog silence from July to December ’08 was that a good chunk of my work time involved blogging. Since I’ll be starting a new job in a week, and I’ve gotten a little more settled into life in DC, I think it’s time to get back to blogging.

This Spring should be an interesting time. I’m living in a group house with great housemates, enjoying the biweekly meetings for a fellowship program I’m in, training for a the National Half-Marathon, possibly taking evening Chinese classes and working toward a medium-term goal of teaching English and studying Chinese in China, working a new job, and, of course, going to Barack Obama’s Inauguration and following the fascinating political developments ahead! Should be busy, eh?

So, in my spare time, I think my blogging will focus a little on each of the following:

Book Reviews–that is, if I have time to read.
Politics–I’m a blogger in DC. This is obligatory.
Religion–It’s fascinating, no matter where you stand on the details.
Rocketry–I’ll be getting the small mid- and high-power rocketry fleet I brought with me to DC ready for some flights this spring and summer, and watching how the Obama administration shapes its space policy.
Photography–Some from my cross-country road trip in August, some from around DC…
Science–Trying to keep my interest in molecular biology and other fields up to speed (I love ScienceBlogs).
China–Big and getting bigger.

It’s good to be back!


Witnessing History

June 8, 2008

I left my dorm here in Washington, DC at 6:00 am Saturday morning to go with a group of about ten friends to see Hillary Clinton’s “concession speech.” We had one ardent Hillary fan with us (Jon Cardinal) and one to-remain-unnamed McCain supporter, and the rest of us were Obama fans. We were the first ones in line so a number of media outlets interviewed our group.

Jon in particular got interviewed a lot, and he’s good at making sound bites. Here’s video of him being interviewed by Julie Pace of the Associated Press:

That interview paid off–Jon was quoted in the AP piece about the Clinton speech that got picked up by newspapers around the world:

Clinton backers described themselves as sad and resigned. “This is a somber day,” said Jon Cardinal, one of the first in line. Cardinal said he planned, reluctantly, to support Obama in the general election. “It’s going to be tough after being against Obama for so long,” he said.

I had never been to a political rally before, so what the newspapers described as a relatively calm crowd leading up to the event sure seemed exciting to me. Because we were the first ones in we were positioned excellently to shake hands with Hillary, Bill and Chelsea. My friend Andy Cunningham had a nice chat with O’Malley, the Governor of Maryland as well. One of our friends called the group to tell us she had seen us shaking hands with the politicelebrities on CNN as well.


I thought the speech itself was excellent, if a little late in coming. Hillary really does come across so much better in person than she does on TV. I watched the same speech on YouTube afterward and it didn’t seem as authentic as it had in person, so I have to remember to give Hillary a little more thought when watching future speeches. As an Obama supporter, it was also wonderful that this was the one speech I got to go to. Hillary was also able to speak more candidly on several issues that were normally left out of her stump speech: the role that sexism played in the race for one, and gay rights as well.

We waited in line from 6:30 to 10:00, stood pressed against a barrier by die-hard Hillary fans (most of whom were great, some of whom were not-so-great) from 10:00 to 12:45, and finally got out around 2ish. But the experience was well worth it!


Stanley Fish, Wrong Again

May 26, 2008

I generally don’t agree with Mr. Fish much.

Today is no exception.

Fish writes about the University of Colorado at Boulder, which is proposing to create a “Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.” Fish then quotes a local newspaper which says the University is going to bring in high-profile conservatives. While these are similarly worded, it should be noted that a program to teach conservative thought and another to hire conservatives could be very different things.

But how left-leaning is the University and its environment?

How then does it lean left? The answer appears a little further down in the story when it is reported that emeritus professor Ed Rozek surveyed the Boulder faculty and found that out of 825, only 23 were registered Republicans.

Stanley Fish then goes on to basically say that good professors don’t let their politics into the classroom, so it doesn’t matter whether the instructors are liberal or not. Bullshit.

I just spent five years in an institution where almost all of the professors are conservatives–politically, socially, and theologically. On all three of those points the personal views of my professors inevitably affected what was taught and how it was taught. This has not always been a negative–I think there is great educational benefit to being educated in an environment where you are profoundly uncomfortable, though the social benefit is less stellar.

I imagine that my experience somewhat resembles that of a conservative student at a left-leaning institution of higher education. One interesting difference is that at Christian U, where I went to school, many of the professors and students vociferously decry the left-leaning nature of state schools and the lack of freedom of thought. This is of course ironic because they have chosen to teach at an institution that redresses that balance by creating an educational environment that is even less balanced.

Of course, there were instructors at my school who didn’t fit the mold politically (some), socially (a few more possibly?) and maybe theologically. Of course, those who were out-of-the-box theologically were only so in narrow terms, as my school required a specific Church membership for all its faculty, so anyone holding too diverse of views would have to be lying to themselves or to Christian U to teach there. To be fair, the professors and administrators with the largest number of differences with the institutional status quo tended to be the best teachers inside and outside the classroom. I think that’s in part because the type of person who chooses to teach at an institution where their view is in the minority likely has a lot of moral and intellectual integrity.

I think it is as important for a university dominated by liberal faculty to encourage the hiring of conservatives and the teaching of conservative thought as it is for places like where I went to school to diversify their points of view. Stanley Fish is dead wrong in thinking that one can keep one’s biases from showing through in your teaching.

For a more intelligent perspective on the issue, check out some writings by Dr. Burke at Swarthmore:

They’re motivated to groupthink by the institutional organization of academic life. The same forces that help academics to produce knowledge and scholarship are the forces which produce unwholesome close-mindedness and inbred self-satisfied attitudes. These forces would act on conservatives as well were we to magically remove the current professoriate and replace them with registered Republicans. They do act already on academics who operate in disciplines where certain kinds of political conservatism are more orthodox, or in institutional contexts, like religious universities, where conservative values are expressly connected to institutional missions.

And another:

I was and remain surprised at how reluctant many people participating in this discussion are to just say, “Yes, in some disciplines, an identifiable conservative may be treated very poorly”. Most importantly, in most of the humanities there’s a default assumption that everyone around the table more or less broadly can be classed as a liberal, and a certain stunned incredulity when someone departs from that assumption.

I think this is a perfectly good explanation for why institutions like Christian U need to exist in the first place:

Why do conservatives care about the humanities at all? The answer might be that for both the cultural right and left, the humanities or more broadly, mass culture, are an important alibi for explaining their failure to outright win the culture wars of the past twenty years. Rather than asking, “What about our views is just not appealing and may never be appealing to the majority of Americans”, they would prefer to assume that those views would be appealing if not for some partisan interference in the natural course of events. For the cultural right, higher education in general and the academic humanities in particular are the boogeyman of choice, to which I can only suggest that they’re vastly, gigantically overstating the possible influence of those institutions. I think the same thing is thought about mass culture in the other direction. In both cases, there’s a systematic effort here to avoid thinking the unthinkable thought, that maybe, just maybe, the majority of people have thought about your view of things and they just don’t like it, for good and considered reasons.

Of course, there are reasons why one could never admit this to oneself.


The Varsity Sport of the Mind

April 11, 2008

I’m in St. Louis right now, where me and the other members of CU’s “College Bowl” team just checked into our hotel. Next we’ll be heading out to register for the NAQT quiz bowl national tournament. The questions are brutally hard, and the competition is brutally nerdy, so wish us luck.

Reading note: Today I had the pleasure of finishing Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, which I’d been meaning to read to learn more about Nixon’s lovely Watergate antics (such a sweet, cuddly man) and now I’m starting in on Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I like having travel time, as its about the only time I’ve been getting to read lately.