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Archive for January, 2011

Audio from Orthodox Music Symposium now on Ancient Faith Radio

The talks from “We Knew Not If We Were In Heaven Or On Earth: Music, Liturgy, and Beauty in Orthodox Christianity” are now posted on Ancient Faith Radio’s website. Many thanks to John Maddex for making them available through this medium! Also, photos from the event can be viewed here — thanks to Anna Pougas for being the day’s official (more or less) photographer!

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Sam Zuckerflynn

My blog has been a touch more unloved in the past few months than I’ve really intended it to be. It’s like a paper diary; you get into a rhythm, then something disrupts that rhythm, and you know it’s going to take longer than usual to say what you want to say about it, so you put it off. Then more things happen while you’re putting it off, which means it’s going to take even longer, so you really have to put it off for a bit longer. Then, eventually, a new rhythm emerges as you fill the time you once spent journaling with other things, and next thing you know you look up and it’s been three months since last you wrote any thing and even longer than that since you did any more than write “Wow, what a day yesterday was, but I don’t have time to write about it right now.”

And, let’s be honest, on a normal day my blog posts are long to begin with. Catching up on several months’ worth of long blog posts is, shall we say, daunting.

In a nutshell, the Orthodox Music Symposium started taking up a lot of my free time about the time I actually realized I could write grants for the thing. By the end of August, school had started up again, and this year I’m a course assistant, so that was also taking up my time. By the middle of September, Megan had left for Germany, which meant that schoolwork, grading, the Symposium, church, trying to keep to a workout schedule and taking care of the house was taking up every waking moment I had.

The Symposium was a blast. The morning before, I got an e-mail from the Order of St. Ignatius saying, sorry this is so late, but a check is in the mail, which meant that we were fully funded before the event happened (if only by a matter of hours) — something I couldn’t say for John Boyer’s first visit a year ago. Anyway, people came, we had fun, everybody gave interesting talks, and I’m starting to take concrete steps towards the next one. The audio will eventually be available on Ancient Faith Radio, and I’ll provide a link here, of course.

In November the History department decided that I had completed a Master’s degree, which was great for all kinds of reasons, not the least being that I’m getting the ratio down — 11 years for a four year degree, and now four years for a two year degree. I may have my Ph. D. (to say nothing of a job) by the time I’m 40.

In December, I spent a week in Alaska with my mother and stepfather after Finals, and then spent 1 day in Indianapolis (thank you, East Coast weather disaster) and 10 days in Germany with Die Frau. I got back on 6 January, and then it was off to the races again. This semester, I’m sitting in on first year Syriac again to try to reclaim as much of it as I can (while also working through Thackston’s Introduction to Koranic and Classical Arabic so that I can have another Semitic language with which to coordinate Syriac, as well as potentially another liturgical language I can fake), taking a seminar on early Christian mysticism, another seminar on Herodotus and Thucydides, and grading for the Greek history course that covers the Persian War up to Alexander the Great. Plus there are these things called “Lent,” “Holy Week,” and “Easter.” In addition to all of that, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Urbana-Champaign is having me come out this weekend to do a daylong workshop, next weekend I’m meeting my father and stepmother in Memphis, and then the first weekend in February St. Raphael Orthodox Church in Iowa City is having me sing with them in a fundraiser concert. The choir director there, Lori Branch, is my predecessor’s predecessor here at All Saints, and is also godmother to Matthew Arndt of the music theory faculty at University of Iowa and somebody who’s been my friend since the seventh grade, so I could hardly say no.

Okay, we’ll consider that “caught up.”

Yesterday, I was in a Best Buy (now, why I would use the indefinite article when there’s only one Best Buy in Bloomington is inexplicable to me, but “the Best Buy” seems not quite right, and “Best Buy” by itself appears too abstract, like I was in the Platonic ideal of Best Buys) and I played with an iPad for a few minutes. I have to say, I felt a bit like Ed Dillinger in Tron. I even typed “Request: Access to Master Control Program. User Code: 00-Dillinger. Password: Master.” Alas, it didn’t reply, “Hello, Mr. Dillinger. Thanks for coming back early.”

No, I didn’t buy it. Yet.

Two movies came out between 1982-3 that captivated me: Tron and WarGames. The immediate result of the captivation was an Atari 800XL as a Christmas present in 1983, a fascination with computer graphics, and an appreciation of Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Peter Jurasik, and John Wood that continues to this day.

In 1998, having dropped out of school and searching for a job that would allow me to move back to the Seattle area, thanks to some coaching from an old friend to say nothing of sufficient desperation to say “Yes, of course I can do that” to everything they asked me in the interview, I was fortunate enough to get a contract position as a tester for a major software company. For a number of reasons, I won’t name the company, even though it’s reasonably obvious and it’s not exactly a closely-guarded secret. Suffice it to say that, particularly once the job became full-time a year later, what I had would have been somebody else’s dream job. As a 22 year old kid with no college degree and certainly no higher math or computer science courses, even given the state of the tech industry in 1998, I shouldn’t have been able to get that job, but I did, and I was there until July of 2003, when I quit to go back to school. The company isn’t really “computer guy’s dream job” material anymore, as I understand it; it’s a good upper-middle-class place to work, much as Boeing was for years, but the fabulous cash and prizes that made people equate working there with winning the lottery during much of the ’80s and ’90s were basically gone by the time I showed up — at the very least, guys like me were the first generation who wouldn’t see any of that kind of benefit. In a way, that was lucky — the generation of employees immediately preceding mine were those who had to deal with loans taken out against options that, despite assurances that “the stock always goes up, way up!”, were underwater by 2000.

Part of why I don’t want to name the company is because, I guarantee you, they wouldn’t take me back in a million years, but I also wouldn’t want to go back in a million years. For me, that job was a means to an end, a way to support myself while I prepared for my next step as a singer without waiting tables. The work was okay, and it was cool being able to say that I did what I did, but I wasn’t very good at it, a lot of the internal processes weren’t intuitive to me even if I generally understood the basic logic of testing, and I wasn’t motivated to be constantly doing better at it the way everybody else around me was. I was an outsider in a lot of ways; I wanted a day job that allowed me to pursue a dream, not a lifestyle, and particularly at the time, you were expected to make it your lifestyle. Even if I wasn’t singing, though, I wouldn’t have had the motivation to do that, because the writing was on the wall with respect to the tech bubble and what that meant for the company’s stock within a year of being given the new hire stock option grant. Why kill yourself for alleged millions you know you’ll never see? Well, by the time I left, in the unit I was working in, the motivation was just to keep your job — they knew they had hired people in a tight tech labor market whom they wouldn’t have hired otherwise, and they could afford to be more selective of new employees, as well as threatening to existing employees, in 2003. Part of the motivation to go back to school in the fall of 2003 was because I’d strongly suspected since summer of 2002 that I would need to find a way to quit before I got fired. The young artist programs I auditioned for in fall of 2002 didn’t pan out, and the clock was ticking; finishing my degree as far away from the Pacific Northwest tech industry as I could manage was a really attractive option.

(By the way, to this day, when I get the question “What did you test?” and I tell the person what “my” feature of the Major Product Line I worked on was, I’m immediately asked, “Oh, then maybe you can tell me how to turn it off? I hate that silly thing.” All I can say is, don’t blame me. I tried to tell The Powers That Be that users would hate it back in 1999.)

Anyway, I’ve been out of the software world for longer than I was in it, which is strange to me in a lot of ways. In the intervening seven and a half years, Apple overtook Microsoft in market capitalization. Google became the hot, millionaire-making company. Chrome became the browser to watch. iPhones and iPads came out. Facebook happened. Microsoft still puts out the dominant operating system and productivity suite, but that’s kind of along the same lines as Ford making the cars that cops and old people drive — it’s not really what shapes how people on the street think about cars. I remember somewhere around 2000 a friend of mine who was a Microsoft employee telling me, “In ten years, Microsoft is going to be thought of as more of a communications company than a software company.” Yeah, um, no, not so much. That’s what’s happened for Apple, but Microsoft has had to expend too much energy supporting its own weight to be able to innovate in the ways that my friend was anticipating — at the very least, to be able to translate those innovations into products that are compelling in the marketplace. In many ways, if the Justice Department had actually succeeded in breaking up Microsoft, it might truly have been the best thing for them, because they wouldn’t be weighed down as much as they have been for the last decade. They wouldn’t have become IBM, in other words.

I’ve been hearing rumors on one movie site or another since probably 1996 about a sequel to Tron. In 2002, there was a rumor that seemed substantial enough to prompt me to write a letter to Steven Lisberger, the director of the original, trying to pitch myself as a consultant on how to capture the look and feel of of the offices of a modern software company. I got a polite letter back from Disney Studios a couple of months later just saying that no work was at present proceeding on a Tron sequel. In retrospect, I really should have kept on top of that.

I saw Tron: Legacy in IMAX and in 3-D on opening day (the first movie I’ve bothered with IMAX for since Watchmen, and the first of the new batch of 3-D movies I’ve seen), and I’ve seen it once more since. If nothing else, it’s a jaw-dropping visual accomplishment — it is easily one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ll also add my voice to the thousands out there that have praised the Daft Punk score (that clearly had a lot of help from Hans Zimmer, but never mind that now). I have to give Disney credit for the guts they’ve shown making an expensive sequel to a cult property 28 years later. I truly hope that they do the work of building the franchise. I think it’s an idea whose time has finally come, and I loved Tron: Legacy. I get the impression it’s become fashionable among my compatriot geeks to hate the movie, but it seems to me they’ve missed what the movie was doing. The original Tron was really based around a very simple idea, captured in the great Barnard Hughes’ line: “You can remove men… from the system, but we helped create it. And our spirit remains in every program we designed for this computer.” What an interesting idea — that a computer program, even something as simple as a compound interest calculator, retains the impression of its programmer. The religious nature of the idea is obvious — that of creating in one’s own image — and is underscored by Flynn taking on the form of a program, coming down from the user’s world to the computer world, saving the system by “dying,” coming back to life, and ascending back to his own realm.

Still, the understanding of the general public of computers in 1982 was pretty simplistic, and the special effects required to sell the idea left insufficient room, let alone vocabulary, to really mine the depths of the philosophical question. The most glaring question was — were these things alive? Well, maybe.

Tron: Legacy has been criticized for not reflecting the more sophisticated integration of computers into our daily lives into its storyline. Instead, it seems to go out of its way to avoid doing so — the computer world is on a private server that’s separate from the Internet and that hasn’t been touched since 1989. Wouldn’t it be more interesting, some reviewers have suggested, to see the battle between Clu and Flynn played out against the backdrop of the tech boom of the late ’80s and ’90s?

That would be an interesting movie, yes. However, it seems to me that what Tron: Legacy is going for is an exploration of the very question that the original sidesteps — are the programs in the computer world alive? If so, to what extent is that life similar to, and/or different from, human life? By presenting the computer world in Tron: Legacy as something separate from the technological advances in “the real world,” it can be explored more freely — what would happen if the world we saw in the original was just left to develop on its own for two and a half decades? That chip around Sam’s neck at the end will presumably suggest a way that the Grid can be integrated into the worldwide computer network of 2011, and if Kevin Flynn’s consciousness is still in there somewhere, then perhaps we might see him appearing to people on the Web — something like Count Zero. The religious ideas here are also very plain — Clu, like Lucifer (same first three letters!), cannot create new programs, he can only repurpose (“rectify”) or destroy existing ones. He intends to lead an army of repurposed programs into the “real world” — to wage war on heaven, in other words.

The main problem that Tron: Legacy has, as I see it, is that the iconic performance of Jeff Bridges since the original isn’t Preston Tucker (a criminally underrated performance in a criminally underrated movie) but rather The Dude, and The Dude already is not unlike an older Kevin Flynn. So, now that you’ve got Jeff Bridges playing an older Kevin Flynn, parts of it will inevitably come across as Dude-like. Oh well; it’s not Jeff Bridges’ fault that they didn’t make a Tron sequel earlier.

This last week I also occasioned to finally watch The Social Network. Whatever its historical merits may or may not be, it’s a fantastic movie. David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, and the entire cast (including Justin Timberlake! Who knew?) knock it solidly out of the park, and in a lot of ways it’s a very perceptive generational portrait, not entirely dissimilar to David Fincher’s earlier perceptive generational portrait, Fight Club. In fact, one of the things that’s interesting about The Social Network is how it’s a period piece about a generation that would have been very recently influenced by Fight Club. Certainly one can see the Mark Zuckerberg-Eduardo Saverin-Sean Parker triangle as sharing outlines with Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden-Narrator-Marla Singer relationship, although it’s not possible to see a 1:1 relationship. Both Eduardo and Mark have qualities that the other desperately wants, and while Sean Parker certainly functions as a seducer in a lot of ways, the film suggests that he’s the real wannabe of the threesome.

The Social Network is interesting on a personal level for me for two reasons — first, it picks up in fall 2003, almost exactly where I left off in the technology industry. Second, it’s a timeframe and a narrative into which I can easily place myself (I first heard of Facebook probably around fall of 2004). That’s at once interesting and unsettling — interesting because I know where I was at virtually every moment of the film, unsettling because that makes it very easy to compare trajectories and accomplishments.

In a lot of ways, I’d argue that The Social Network and Tron: Legacy are curiously appropriate companion pieces. “Now we’re gonna live online,” Aaron Sorkin has Sean Parker saying in The Social Network, and that’s the very dilemma Kevin Flynn is dealing with by the time his son finds him in Tron: Legacy. Both films are about a software creation that ultimately gets beyond the creator’s control; both depict said software creation effectively freezing the creator at a certain age (the express goal of Facebook, according to the film, is to put the social experience of college, that is to say the social experience of a certain period of youth, online); both offer interesting commentary on the current state of software as a business and the people who run that business. Tron: Legacy gets this part just about exactly right; the ENCOM board meeting is pretty accurate with respect to my experience of those kinds of conversations. Alan Bradley asks what makes the new version of the ENCOM OS 12 different; he is told, “We put a ’12’ on the box,” only to then have Ed Dillinger, Jr. (it’s a very interesting thought to me that Cillian Murphy might be this generation’s David Warner) quickly assert that it is “the most secure operating system” in existence, as though fixing what should have been in place to begin with is actually the same thing as having a feature set that’s compelling for a new release. And, of course, the snafu with the release of OS 12 is intended to evoke Windows 98 bluescreening on Bill Gates at COMDEX.

However, from the point of view of The Social Network, the kind of company that occupies skyscrapers and has “big doors” and even has a “golden master” onsite somewhere is a dinosaur. It’s a business model that has nothing to do with how Zuckerberg has become the youngest billionaire in the world. In fact, the more anybody tries to pin a particular business model to Facebook, the more Zuckerberg claims they don’t get it. The film has him attending a talk on Harvard’s campus by Bill Gates, but he doesn’t come across as exactly inspired by Gates’ reminiscences about what computers were like when he wrote BASIC. He seems to be there more out of disinterested politeness than anything — Bill Gates is yesterday’s news to him. He could have sold an earlier invention to Microsoft and he didn’t — the film explicitly has Zuckerberg awkwardly shrug rather than explain this, but we’re left with the impression that he just didn’t want the old folks in charge of his ideas. Sean Parker is his idol, the guy who lost billions of dollars but still brought down the recording industry as we know it. Maybe Gates can be seen as Flynn in Tron: Legacy — an aging creator who cannot leave his own creation. Flynn’s discovery of the isomorphs may well have had the potential to change the world, but as Zuckerberg might see it, no one would care without somebody like him to make them “cool”.

Barnard Hughes has another great line in the original Tron: “The computers and the programs will start thinking, and the people will stop.” The Social Network seems to argue that as long as a sense of connection with other people is sufficiently simulated, then we users won’t necessarily see this as a bad thing, and it’ll be fun. Tron: Legacy suggests that this idea is actually what will ultimately isolate us as individuals from everybody else, rather than connect us. We’ll be very comfortable prisoners, as Flynn is, but we’ll be prisoners nonetheless.


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