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Posts Tagged 'Academia'

In which I talk about a departure and ponder what the heck to do with all the books

Wow. I haven’t posted since two days before Christmas. Yikes. Sorry about that; we spent Christmas in Alaska with my mother and stepfather, had a lovely time seeing them, spent a great Sunday afternoon with several of my relatives on my dad’s side (none of whom had yet met Theodore), attended Christmas services at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Anchorage, and then came back for New Year’s in Cleveland with our friends, the newly-engaged Benjamin and Emily, and Paul.

Since then, I’ve mostly been a stressed-out wreck, wondering just where in the heck we’re going to be after the summer.

See, it’s been the idea for some time that we would do our level best to make AY2013-2014 our last year in Bloomington. Both Doctors-to-be Barrett being at the dissertation stage, there’s no concrete reason to stay here; to the extent that there might be external opportunities that would be better-suited to the completion of our respective dissertations (dissertatia? dissertationes?) in terms of working environment and locale, then it would be well worthwhile to try to take advantage of said opportunities.

This meant a lot of fellowship applications in October and November. My sights were zeroed-in on Dumbarton Oaks, of course; I was there two summers ago, and I’d very much like to go back. Fellow housing is right there, a 2-3 minute walk from the compound, the Greek cathedral is a 15 minute walk away, and you’re right there in the middle of Georgetown. What would be not to like? That was just one of several applications, though; I applied for the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, too, and then I also applied for something called the Future Faculty Teaching Fellowship, which sets up advanced graduate students with yearlong Visiting Lecturer positions at Indiana University branch campuses. I thought perhaps I might be able to get a spot at IUPUI, and just relocate all the way to Indianapolis, since our lives have kind of re-centered around there lately anyway. Besides those, I applied for several non-residential fellowships; the Charlotte Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship, administered by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, was one, as well as several IU-internal awards — generic dissertation fellowships, and a couple of named awards that were significantly bigger, like the John Edwards Fellowship and the Herman B. Wells Fellowship. If nothing else, maybe we could take the money and go spend the year in Alaska.

The other thing that was happening was that two close friends of mine started as seminarians at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology this last fall. Holy Cross had piqued my curiosity back in 2010, when I found out that my chant teacher, Ioannis Arvanitis, was applying for the chant professor position there (and I was singularly annoyed with some friends of mine there when he was brought to campus as a finalist the following spring and nobody told me). He didn’t get it, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the possibility of spending a dissertation year there. I made some initial contact with the patristics professor there at the Byzantine Studies conference in Chicago in 2011, and visited the campus the following spring. Yes, people do come the way you’re talking about, I was told, but we’re not sure about the mechanics. Usually they come with their own funding. Hm. Well, that’s not altogether promising for a graduate student. Okay, well, maybe it’s not a realistic possibility. Still — well, who knows? When my friends got there last September, I told them, only half-joking, keep your ears to the ground. If you hear about a faculty member going on sabbatical, or a grant opportunity, or anything, let me know.

In December, one of my friends contacted me and said, hey, you realize that there’s a Fellow In Residence position outlined in the catalog? He sent me the reference in the catalog; I made some initial inquiries, and was put in touch with the Dean — who, now, is the very person I first had this conversation with in Chicago three years ago. We were going to make a visit to the campus over MLKJr weekend anyway, so we set up an in-person meeting during the trip. He was positive about the conversation, but he was nonetheless clear that it was a competitive process and subject to a faculty vote. He took my materials and said, we’ll get back to you by the end of February, I think — but if you get Dumbarton Oaks, go to Dumbarton Oaks for heavens’ sake.

Well, shortly thereafter, I started to get rejections back — the internal, generic dissertation fellowships were the first to get back to me, and those were “no”s. I got an interview for a Future Faculty Teaching Fellowship spot, but at Indiana University Columbus, which would be an hour’s commute without being worth a relocation. The interview went fine, but I think it was probably evident that I wasn’t excited about it, and ultimately that was a “no”.

Dumbarton Oaks had said that fellows would be notified in February; February came and went with no word from them or anybody else quite yet. I went back out to Holy Cross at the end of February for a conference, and the Dean made a point of telling me, hey, we hoped we’d have something to tell you by the time you got here, but we’re not going to be able to have a faculty meeting to decide until the second half of March. So, sit tight.

To say that I was tenterhooks waiting to hear where I would be in the coming year, be it Bloomington or elsewhere, was an understatement. I’ve also since realized that this is something that people tend to go through with college and grad school applications; they apply to several possibilities, wait to see what comes back, and then make the best decision they can based on the options. Well, I never did that; I only applied to one school for undergrad, and I only applied to one school for grad. This was my first time going through anything like this process.

Shortly after I got back from the conference, Dumbarton Oaks got back to me with their “no”, as did the Notre Dame folks. At the same time, the Newcombe people let me know I was a finalist, and they said I’d hear by the end of March.

The jawdropper was on Friday, 7 March, when I got the e-mail telling me I was the Wells recipient for AY2014/2015. Then, Monday, 31 March, I got a phone call from the Dean of Holy Cross, telling me that the faculty had voted to recommend me as the Fellow in Residence; the only thing left was to get the President’s office to okay it, and he didn’t anticipate that being a problem. Two days later, he called to confirm that the President had indeed approved my appointment — and that was that.

In August of 2003, I pulled into Bloomington, expecting I’d be here three years at the absolute most and then it would be back to Seattle. In August of this year, we will finally leave Bloomington, and we will do so for Boston. I am looking forward to this immensely; I’m looking forward to living in the Northeast corridor, I’m looking forward to good seafood, I’m looking forward to a 45 second walk to church — and, of course, I’m looking forward to structuring my time around writing my dissertation, something I just haven’t been able to do this year, at least not in the way that is maximally productive. I will have absolutely no excuse not to be done, that’s for sure. While I was most definitely disappointed about Dumbarton Oaks, this is probably as good of a deal as we could have possibly hoped for — and one thing that we’ll have at HCHC that we wouldn’t have had at DO is a group of people we know. That’s going to be important, particularly for Megan and Theodore.

Holy Cross was at once a somewhat after-the-fact Hail Mary pass, while also being something I had been making a nuisance of myself about for a couple of years. However it worked out, I’m not going to complain; glory to God.

I will say, though — I’m looking at our 10 large bookshelves thinking, um, yeah, so, storage. If anybody has done something like this before and has suggestions about what to do with too many damn books, I’m all ears. I’m also having to scan and return my accumulate and perpetually-renewed library books, piling up over the last 11 years. That’s going to be a project in and of itself.

I’ll also say that, while I don’t normally do this, now would be a welcome time for anybody who wants to click on the “Tip Jar” tab up above to do so, what with a move to Boston in our immediate future and all. If you’ve got any questions about any of that, drop me a line — richardbarrett (AT) johnofdamascus . org. Thanks in advance for your consideration.

Okay. I have books to scan. Back in a bit with a review of Cappella Romana’s Finnish CD.

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An itinerary and a couple of labors of love

I’ve got three things to pass along, and I suppose I should relate them in order of interest from least to greatest. Otherwise, you’ll just read the first item and skip the rest.

First — I’m going to be mildly peripatetic in the coming months. 9-12 February I will be in New Jersey to participate in the Georges Florovsky Patristic Symposium, and then 12-15 February I will be in Boston to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. 2-4 March I will be in Emmaus, PA to give a presentation on church music as part of a Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church. Then, looking ahead a bit farther, 24-26 May I will be participating in the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) annual meeting in Chicago. I realize that maybe I’m up to three regular readers (counting my parakeet), but if you happen to be anywhere near any of those places when I’m there, by all means let me know. I had the odd experience at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute last summer of meeting a couple of people who said upon meeting me, “Oh! I read your blog,” and then I also met this gentleman at the Byzantine Studies conference this last October (although neither of us realized whom the other was until after we were both back home). Anyway, I won’t look at you funny or hiss at you if you introduce yourself, promise.

Second — my first peer-reviewed article, “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”, has been accepted by The Journal of Early Christian Studies. It’s been an interesting road with this project; five years ago, during my initial year of being a non-matriculated continuing student, I took my first graduate seminar, a course on the Middle East in late antiquity, taught by the professor who would later become my advisor. It was my first exposure to scholars like Peter Brown and Susan Ashbrook Harvey and so on, and was a significant broadening of my horizons. The student makeup of the class was very telling; it was a History course that had no History students in it but rather three Religious Studies kids and me.

Anyway, among other things, we read Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s translation of the section of the Second Letter of Simeon of Beth-Arsham that deals with the martyrdoms of the women during the Himyarites’ sack of Najran, and the in-class discussion sparked something for me. Other students were focused on the gory nature of the martyrdom details for their own sake — I specifically remember one person commenting, “I never understood the connection people draw between martyrdom and sadomasochism before now” — but it was clear to me that there was something else governing how those details were conveyed, namely shared liturgical experience. I raised this point, and I still remember the look that I got as clear as day. Needless to say, it didn’t get a lot of traction in class, but when paper topics had to be proposed, I mentioned it to the professor as a possibility. “I can almost guarantee you I won’t buy your argument,” he said. “You’ll have to go a long way for me to see it as at all legitimate.” Well, that’s a challenge, now isn’t it? I wrote the paper, making what I saw as explicit as I could and relating it to known liturgical practices as clearly as I was able. I presented an overview in class, and the professor was quiet for a moment. “You know,” he said, “not only am I convinced, but now I can’t see it any other way. Good for you.”

Later, as I was applying for IU’s Religious Studies graduate program, the paper was used as my writing sample. At the same time, I was alerted to one of the big religious studies journals doing a themed issue on religious violence; I figured, hey, what the heck, if it gets in it can only help the application, and I sent them the paper. I also submitted it to Dorushe, a graduate conference on Syriac studies that was being held at Notre Dame. Well, the outcome of the Religious Studies application was detailed, if somewhat obscurely, here; as far as the paper went, it got into Dorushe, but the response from the journal was a little more ambivalent. The answer was ultimately no, but they included the reviewers’ comments, and said that if I were to revise it they would be willing to look at it again (while making it clear that this was not a “revise and resubmit”). Since at that point I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to go to grad school, publication didn’t really matter anymore, and I shoved the paper and the comments sheet in a drawer. The Dorushe experience was a little weird in some ways (maybe due more to some heightened self-consciousness on my part than anything), but I met some interesting people, and Sidney Griffith, at least, liked the paper, saying, “The way you lay it out, it’s obvious.”

After actually getting in to grad school, I thought to myself a number of times, I should go back and look at those reviewers’ comments, and finally last June I spent a few days thoroughly reworking the paper. I transferred it from Word to Scrivener, I restructured it following the reviewers’ suggestions, and did what was nearly a page one-rewrite so that it reflected better what my scholarly voice (to the extent that I might pretentiously assert the existence of such a thing) actually sounds like these days. Part of this involved reducing block quotes of secondary literature (a bad habit of which I was cured by the wonderful Prof. Sarah Bassett over in Art History, who in the three years that she’s been here has really proven herself to be one of the great, if somewhat unsung, reasons to study Late Antiquity at Indiana University) down to footnotes and paraphrases, and it also involved an overall refinement of the writing style. Don’t worry, I’m still wordy as hell, but I’ve tried to make the wordiness a little more elegant. Also, there’s some additional literature on the Najran incident that’s come out in the intervening five years, and I had to make sure that all got referenced properly. Anyway, once it was done, I opted to not go back to the original publication, instead sending it off to The Journal of Early Christian Studies. In September, I got a note back from the editor telling me that the reviewers’ recommendation was “revise and resubmit”, saying that this was good news and if I took the feedback seriously, there was no reason I couldn’t have a publishable article. By November the revision was re-submitted, and I got word back this last Tuesday that it was in. Now, I have some style adjustments to make before it’s totally done, but at this stage of the game it looks like it will be appearing in the Spring 2013 issue.

So, that first seminar five years ago got me my advisor, my overall area of interest (the interaction of liturgy and history), and my first published article. (Although, while the Najran paper is related conceptually and methodologically to where I think my dissertation is going, it looks like a paper I wrote for a class I took the previous semester, fall of 2006, served as a first stab at the actual dissertation topic. I’ll have more to say after NAPS, I think.) It’s been the gift that’s kept on giving, to say the least.

Okay, on to the final, and most interesting, bit of news.

Third — on or around 26 June 2012, assuming all goes well and without incident, there will be another Barrett on the earth. Yes, be afraid, my genes are propagating, insanity, puns, tendencies towards a prolix approach of oversharing, and all. Thankfully, this child will also be carrying the genes of Flesh of My Flesh, and those characteristics involve practicality, common sense, order, and normality. (To say nothing of great beauty and brilliance.)

We had intended for the last couple of years that we would start trying once Megan got back from Germany, and we were told to prepare for it taking awhile. Well, apparently not. By the beginning of November we at least knew informally, and then our first OB appointment was Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, which confirmed matters and indicated we were nine weeks along. We spent most of the drive to our Thanksgiving destination on the phone with my mother and then Megan’s mother and stepmother; my mom got the first call, since she’s the one parent who doesn’t have any grandchildren already, and she burst into tears immediately.

We’ve been telling friends and family ever since, but a couple of things made it desirable that we wait a bit before making it “Facebook public”, as it were. Anyway, here we are, and I suppose it will be a source of reflection in the coming months/years/etc. If you’re on Facebook and want to be kept more or less up-to-date, you can join the group “Fans of Baby Barrett“; there’s not a lot to tell at this point except that we’re choosing to not find out whether it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve got some name ideas, yes, but it’s hardly practical to openly discuss those when you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so I’m not going to go there except to say that there are some “legacy names”, as it were, that might make sense, and you know that we’re going to be getting one of these. We’ll see.

By the way, if you happen to be having a baby in or around Bloomington, Indiana, I really can’t recommend Bloomington Area Birth Services (AKA “BABS”) enough. We’re doing their eight-week birthing class (cue Bill Cosby: “Natural childbirth… intellectuals go to class to study how to do this”), and while, I must admit, it’s a little more of the NPR-listening “educated class” culture than I really expected, it’s a lot of excellent information that’s provided very sensitively and accessibly. I kind of surprise myself with my own reactions to some things; it should really be no surprise that “birth culture” a) exists b) is hyper-feminized, but I find a certain kind of stereotypical “maleness” emerging in how I’m processing some of the information, and it is very much out of character for me. It’s probably mostly a reflexive reaction to the explicit hyper-feminization of what’s being presented, which probably has everything to do with me and nothing to do with them, because they really are terrific at what they do. I’m just really not used to what they do. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, I think.

So, there’s the news. Two different kinds of babies, I guess. There’s a third kind of baby on the way that I hope to be able to talk about more in depth soon, but it’s an outgrowth of some of the musical efforts I’ve had going here the last couple of years. For now, follow this, and I’ll be able to tell all in the next month or so, I think.

Prayers for all of these babies, please, and prayers most of all for Flesh of My Flesh. She’s got to carry our child in her womb and write a dissertation.

A second hurdle cleared…

As chronicled somewhat after-the-fact, in November of 2010 I cleared the first of a handful of hurdles towards finishing graduate school — I passed my third semester review, which meant that I had finished my Masters degree.

For a number of reasons, I took an incomplete in a seminar that same semester. I’d planned on a paper for that seminar that had the severe discourtesy to show up in a major journal written by somebody else that same fall, which really threw me for a loop, and for a number of reasons the prof was largely unavailable (for good reasons, I should stress) for consultation on other possibilities. I sort of cobbled together some thoughts from the rubble, and showed them to the prof in March of this year as something of an abstract/outline/stream-of-consciousness, and he found them largely incomprehensible. When I tried to re-explain what I was shooting for, he had some more or less decent suggestions, but he didn’t exactly seem thrilled, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled either. By May I had completed all coursework requirements except for this seminar.

When I feel like I’m on shaky ground with my subject, my instinct is to show my work. So, taking some of the professor’s suggestions and trying to turn them into a paper, but not feeling totally confident it by any means, I showed my work. A lot. I turned in a rather long paper in June, and I still think it’s work that had a good point to make, but I got an e-mail from him a week later asking if it was a draft to be discussed or a final paper that needed a grade. The vibe I got from the question indicated to me that it would be in my best interest to say, Oh, it’s a draft, of course it’s a draft, yes, since is the last seminar paper I get to write I’d love to have feedback.

Thus it was in July that my instincts proved correct; he gave it back to me and said, in essence, I don’t know what the hell you thought you were writing, but try again, and good luck, because I don’t really know how you’re going to fix what you have.

I still think, as I said, that what I wrote was more reasonable than what he thought. However, I also have to acknowledge that I wrote a patristics paper for a political historian, and therefore it should be no real surprise that the political historian took one look at it and said, “Huh?” I’m absolutely certain it wasn’t a perfect patristics paper, but I’m positive it wasn’t the awful one he said it was — it just wasn’t a good enough one to really be able to transcend methodological boundaries.

Well, anyway, I kind of flailed about with what I wanted to do for a couple of months. Then I had a conversation with a different faculty member who revealed that she had been one of the reviewers for the article that had knocked the wind out my sails on my original topic, she said her feedback had been rather clumsily incorporated, and that there was lots wrong with the finished product. Suddenly I felt quite emboldened to return to the project the way I had originally conceived it, and once I got going on it, it went pretty quickly. The result was much leaner and tighter, and after a round of feedback on it with this second professor, I turned it in three weeks ago yesterday (Thursday).

Yesterday I got the paper back, and it was a much happier conversation than the one we’d had in July. My incomplete was changed to a grade by yesterday afternoon, and so now I’m officially done with PhD coursework. Next up, exams… which will be their own party to be sure, but the hurdles are getting cleared.

Reviewing some of my thoughts during this blog’s first year of existence (like the examples below) — well, I’ve come a long way, thank God.  I just turned 35 a couple of weeks ago, and It’s still even possible I might have a real job before I’m 40. (Assuming that higher education doesn’t completely collapse, but never mind that now.)

https://leitourgeia.com/2007/12/10/getting-a-late-start/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/03/a-high-number-of-strong-applicants/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/09/on-forgiveness-sunday-the-alleged-plurality-of-methods-by-which-one-may-relieve-a-feline-of-its-flesh-and-other-musings/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/18/dr-liccione-my-prayeris-to-be-shown-a-way-out-of-the-box-im-in/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/20/more-on-the-alleged-plurality-of-means-by-which-one-may-remove-flesh-from-a-feline/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/04/25/a-parable/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/07/28/that-unwelcome-guest-known-as-reality/

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.

Counting hatched chickens, nos. 1-3

In which I explain three of the four of my heretofore uncounted hatched allegorical poultry…

As both of my longtime readers might recall, I was in a very real state of professional despair at the beginning of the 2008-2009 academic year. Much had gone wrong; I had been working my tail off only to be told, “You can’t get there from here,” it appeared that nobody had any idea what to do with me, and it seemed like I was totally out of options.

Wanting to still take advantage of my IU employee fee courtesy but feeling overwhelmed at the thought of taking more Syriac and starting Coptic with no clear road to having anything I might be able to do with them, I did a two-for-one swap for Modern Greek, figuring that I would be able to leverage the work I’ve done with ancient Greek and have a reasonable semester or two.

Long story short, the Modern Greek professor and I uncovered the idea that me doing a Masters in West European Studies would be beneficial for both of us. It would help me convert a good chunk of my unmatriculated credits into a degree within a semester and a half or so, and having an additional graduate student who specialized in Modern Greek issues whom he could add to his roster would help him in his efforts to raise the visibility of the Modern Greek program here. He gave me some very useful counsel on my personal statement, wrote a letter of recommendation, and in general went to bat for me every step of the way.

This brings me to hatched chicken #1, previously announced here, that I was admitted to the Masters program in West European Studies back in December.

While I was gathering my letters of recommendation for West European Studies, a member of the History faculty whom I had approached to write for me said, “Yes, I’m happy to write, but have you thought about applying to History again?” No, I replied, I hadn’t; it had rather seemed to me that the door had been closed on that possibility when I was turned down three years ago. This person disagreed, and very much encouraged me to apply. “You’re a much different candidate than you were then,” I was told, “and I’m not concerned about you having a B.Mus. rather than a B.A. in light of the other things you’ve accomplished in that time. I think it would be worth the fifty bucks for you to apply.” I was told, very frankly, that funding could well be an issue for a number of reasons, and it would take some talking to get me admitted as an unfunded student if it came down to that, but I was also told that as much advocacy for my case as this person could legitimately offer throughout the process would be employed. I was dubbed a “professional applicant” by another member of the History faculty when I discussed this matter with them. This is somebody who has been there since the first time I applied to History, and with whom I’ve had a near-annual conversation about what I’m applying to next. I alluded to this in an intentionally vague manner here.

To make a really long and drawn-out story a little less long and drawn out, I am thrilled to say that hatched chicken #2 is that I have been admitted to graduate program in the Ancient Studies field of the Department of History, and I’ve been awarded a five-year funding package. Exactly where I’m focusing my interests is still coalescing, but it will be the Late Antique Byzantine Empire someplace, probably with a particular interest in Syria and the Middle East.

We’re not quite done yet. West European Studies encouraged me to apply for a kind of a fellowship called a FLAS — Foreign Language and Area Studies. Essentially, it’s federal money which supports graduate study of modern languages, and there are two components, an academic year component and a summer component. The academic year component is full support for two semesters; the summer component supports summer study of at least a certain number of contact hours, including travel if necessary. I applied for both components with Modern Greek as my language; once again, my Greek professor had some very useful advice on my personal statement, and was happy to write a letter of recommendation.

And thus and so it came to pass that I found myself with hatched chicken #3, the academic year FLAS. History has been obliging enough to allow it to displace, rather than replace, a year of my funding package with them, meaning I have six years of full support with a good chunk of coursework already completed.I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but I should have a reasonable amount of space in which to get it done.

Then there is that fourth κοτοπουλάκι running around here someplace. He’s hatched, but I need to make sure he calms down and won’t try to fly away (thus falling to the ground like a stone) before I show him to my friends. That shouldn’t be long.

In terms of why I’ve had to be circumspect about some of this, well, word on blogs and Facebook accounts tends to travel fast, and I have both an employer to consider as well as various other people whom I could put in an awkward position if I said anything prematurely. Until egg #4 hatched (or broke apart revealing a runny yolk), I couldn’t tell those good people anything for certain (and it will be clear why once I can tell you about it), and I couldn’t really announce it publicly until I told them what was happening. In general, I try to not post anything that might come back to bite me later on.

One way or the other, this has all been a rather stunning turn of events for me. Although my path has remained less-than-linear, to say the least, it’s been a real game-changer of a year, let me tell you. Δόξα τῷ θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκεν!

Τι κάνω;

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand the end of week 3 of a new semester has been reached.

I’m having fun with Modern Greek thus far; given that much of what has been covered is stuff that hasn’t changed much from Attic usage (with the exception of pronunciation), I’m having, shall we say, a relaxed time of it. The prof says that he will start getting together with me and the other grad student to pick up the pace a bit, so that we can jump to the fourth semester next term, skipping the 150 and 200 level classes altogether. This doesn’t altogether depress me; the class so far certainly has been hardly anything about which I would lose sleep, but it would also be nice to untether myself enough from the pace needed by a freshman who after three weeks is still struggling to read the alphabet so that I feel like my own time is being spent wisely.

Modern Greek has also opened up a new possibility for me; in my ongoing quest to not have 30+ graduate credits just sitting as an unusable blob on my transcript that won’t transfer anywhere, I’ve brought up the possibility with my Greek teacher of doing a Masters in West European Studies, looking at the Greek diaspora in places like Germany and examining issues of religious identity and so on. He was supportive of the notion, and is reviewing my personal statement. I have to say, I’m not totally in love with the idea, but I’ve got half of the coursework done, I’d be able to finish in about a year, and it is something in which I’m legitimately interested. If I leave IU with a Masters in a field that isn’t directly related to where I go from here, I’ll at least leave here with a Masters (and keep up the pattern started with my undergrad), as opposed to a boatload of credits that nobody will care I have and won’t transfer anywhere.

The demographic makeup of the class is interesting; I’d say it’s about 3/4 Greek-American kids. I can’t tell if they’re trying to (re?)connect with their heritage, shooting for an easy A after years of Greek school growing up, or just want to be able to talk to Yia-Yia.

We use “Greek names” in class. The professor originally suggested Ριχαρδός, which is just “Richard” with a Greek masculine ending added, but thinking about it, I decided to go with a name that had the same meaning rather than the same sound. “Richard Barrett” roughly translates to “King Troublemaker” (I’m not kidding, although it depends on which part of Europe your particular Barretts are from — it can also mean “hatmaker” or “fortress”); in Greek, according to my friend Anna, that can be rendered more-or-less as ο Βασίλης Ταραχοποιός, and thus I am now called in class.

(By the way, Anna has some interesting observations which are perhaps not entirely unrelated to some I have made before. I have a hard time relating fully to either person she describes for various reasons, but have certainly encountered similar people myself. The convert friend sounds like he’s exactly the kind of guy who needs to hear The Divine Liturgy in English. Anyway, her post is, as is typically the case with Anna’s blog, worth reading.)

I have finally started the notes for Hansen and Quinn Unit III; I hope to have them in done in a week or so (once I’ve got a particular writing assignment done this weekend). If you’re waiting for them and have that particular unit staring you in the face in class — well, I’ll do my best.

(And perhaps next week I’ll finish translating the Meyendorff article, too.)

If you recall a rather cryptic post from a couple of weeks ago, I’ll add only that another very interesting (and positive) dimension has emerged from this set of circumstances. More to come once it happens.

A couple of completely random bits —

I bought a treadmill about a month and a half ago, and except for days I’ve been out of town and two somewhat exceptional evenings, I’ve been good and have used it for a half hour every day since it was delivered. I watch episodes from the various series making up the DC Animated Universe; including stretching, I usually manage to watch two episodes in one shot. I started with the second season of Justice League (when it became Justice League Unlimited); since that season ends with what is, effectively, the chronological end of that universe, it seemed only fitting that I move on from there to the show that started it all, the very first season of Batman: The Animated Season. All I can say is, it never ceases to amaze me how good these shows are on an extremely consistent basis — and as much as I think Christian Bale has become the definitive live-action Batman, there is no question in my mind that Kevin Conroy is the definitive Batman of any medium. (You know what I’d love? Bruce Timm and Paul Dini to write the script for the next Christopher Nolan Batman. It’ll never ever happen, but just imagine…)

Anyway, it keeps me excited about exercising. It begs the question what I might do when I’ve burned through them all — but hey, I’ve still got the season box sets for Babylon 5. That’ll keep me busy for a few months once the Timmverse goodness runs out.

After an interesting reference to their singer on a particular celebrity blog I read, out of morbid curiosity I bought the eponymous first studio album by the so-called “Brechtian punk cabaret” act the Dresden Dolls. I’m an Oingo Boingo fan from way back, and this is certainly within that tradition; the artists involved are definitely talented and creative; nonetheless, I can’t quite figure out if it’s my cuppa or not. I may give Amanda Palmer’s solo album a shot and see if that convinces me; at the very least, the companion book sounds intriguing.

OK — have a good weekend. I’m needing to get some sleeping done, some writing done, and some birthday parties done by Monday; let’s hope.

Price comparison shopping for Greek textbooks

So, as it works out, I’m taking Modern Greek this fall, and that’s it. I’ve canned further Syriac for the time being — frankly, it’s just tough to justify the time commitment at this point, since I was doing it to prepare for the path of further graduate study, and now that hardly seems likely to come to fruition. I’ve got enough Syriac at this point to be able to bash through texts I’m likely to run into with a dictionary and a grammar; for what I’m likely to need it for going forward — which is what, exactly? — that ought to be fine.

Modern Greek is a little easier to justify. There are people I know now with whom I could speak it. I still very much want to travel in that region, even if it probably isn’t going to be for the purpose of grant-funded research, and there are other reasons it could be useful — such as finding myself someplace where the only church is a Greek-language parish, maybe. (Using that as justification, I acknowledge that Russian, Arabic, and Romanian would also be a good plan from here.)

It also might make asking questions of His All-Holiness about his book a bit easier. (I still have never talked much about that, have I? I’ll have to get around to that someday.)

Anyway — today I ordered my Greek textbooks. The course is using Communicate in Greek by Kleanthis Arvanitakis and Froso Arvanitaki. Rather than just snatch them on a whim from the campus bookstore, I decided to do a little poking around online to see if that was actually going to be the best way to go. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Campus bookstore — $103.75 for the first year textbook, workbooks, and CD
  • Amazon.com — unavailable, for some unknown reason
  • Greece In Print — with shipping, $105.21 for the set
  • Direct from the Communicate in Greek website — $99.08 (approximately, since it’s actually priced in euros)

All more or less comparable. At this point it seemed like going direct from the website would be the best way to go — hey, four bucks is four bucks — but the tradeoff was going to be that they were shipping from Greece, and it would be difficult to know for sure that they’d arrive before 2 September.

Then I checked one more place — and as it worked out, Orthodox Marketplace had the whole set, with shipping, for $72.63.

That’s probably the one time it will ever cost less to order from there, but I’ll take it.


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