Monday, 22 August 2011

Praise, patriotism, partisanship, and pop

The NYT this weekend includes a glowing memoir on the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, on the occasion of Sister Mary Jean Ryan's retirement as chief executive of one of of one of America’s largest networks of Catholic hospitals. The discussion includes their clear-eyed planning for the day (soon to arrive) when the order no longer exists. A friend and I were discussing this sort of thing recently: the difference in organisation and sensibility that allows Catholic groups to be distinctively themselves, while allowing for other ways of being faithfully Christian — something that contemporary Evangelical groups struggle with. There is still a lively tradition of openness in the pews, even in these identity-mongering times, but within the leadership?

A fan of the US military writes in criticism of “support our troops” pieties:
The irony is that our soldiers are the last people who are likely to call themselves heroes and are apparently very uncomfortable with this kind of talk. The military understands itself as a group endeavor. As the West Point professor Elizabeth D. Samet recently noted, service members feel uneasy when strangers approach them to — as the well-meaning but oddly impersonal ritual goes — thank them for their service, thereby turning them into paradoxically anonymous celebrities. It was wrong to demonize our service members in Vietnam; to canonize them now is wrong as well. Both distortions make us forget that what they are are human beings...
The change of tone in the coverage and discussion of Anzac Day, noticeable to anyone over a certain age, springs to mind as an Australian analogue, although the causes may be somewhat different.

An American radio host and author compares contemporary political debate to an auto-immune disease.

And my current nostalgia trip: Glycerine, the greatest hit of the band Bush. I have recently returned to an apartment complex where I was staying in late 1995, through 1996, and this song has been on my mind. Like many pop songs, it would not withstand too close an enquiry into the literal meaning of its lyrics, but as the distillation of a particular mood — masculine yearning, chastened by regret — it is superb. And in contrast to the posturing, braggarty tone of the songs in a male voice that followed it, it is unashamedly pretty. A female cover brings that out, although I do miss the surface roughness of the original:
I could have been easier on you,
I couldn't change though I wanted to.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Getting past the giggle factor

$500,000 as seed-funding for interstellar travel — not for a starship, but for a long-term programme “to begin studying what it would take — organizationally, technically, sociologically and ethically”. DARPA and NASA are behind this, but the work itself, and the carriage of the issue (and the financing) is meant to be done by others for the time being, which is to say, for a very long time.

I'm quite impressed by this:

(1) This is the sort of long-distance thinking and investment that public institutions should sponsor, but the sponsorship that's foreseen here is modest and one-off: this money, together with some meetings to organise and incubate discussion among those interested, and amongst contenders for the funds. It seems as though they have got the level of public involvement right.

(2) They understand that one of the issues is to get past `“the giggle factor” associated with the subject'.

(3) The organisation, sociology, and ethics of the task is explicitly part of the agenda of study.

(4) They understand that we do not yet understand what the question is:
Then again, nobody is smart enough now to know what could come of the starship effort, Mr. Neyland pointed out. It would be naïve to think we even know the right questions to ask.

“If you had asked Einstein and Marconi in 1910 to define a worldwide communication system for the common man,” Mr. Neyland asked, “would he have come up with the iPhone?”