December 31, 2008


1.  White farmers in Zimbabwe are looking to the tribunal of African judges set up by the SADC for legal help in ongoing conflicts over land redistribution.  I've wondered if this could be an opening for the southern African nations to demonstrate their displeasure with Mugabe, but given the volatility of the issue across much of southern Africa maybe not.  Land tenure is messy, messy stuff.

2.  Paste has a piece on the newest addition to Sufjan's Asthmatic Kitty label, The Welcome Wagon.  The group is a husband wife duo from Brooklyn, he's a presbyterian pastor (Aside: I like the simple clean look of their church website).  Sufjan, who produced, arranged and contributed, sums up their record, which I like, quite well:
It’s a Presbyterian ordained minister and his wife, playing religious songs. Take it or leave it.
3.  From Salon:  In defense of pie (a defense I am in whole hearted support of, though at my wedding we opted for cheese cake which is, I suppose, a sort of pie/cake hybrid compromise). 

4.  I'm still catching up so here is the Big Pictures year in photos part two and part three

5.  Amazon is selling their top 50 albums of the year in mp3 format for five dollars each.  My favorite album of 2008 is there if you don't have it yet as well as a few others that would be in my top 10ish:   Gnarls Barkley, Santogold, and Girl Talk.

6.  Happy New Year.

December 30, 2008

Real Life Superheroes

From Jesse Thorn over at the Maximum Fun Blog comes this great essay in Rolling Stone on Real Life Superheroes:
Like other real life super-heroes, Master Legend is not an orphan from a distant dying sun or the mutated product of a gamma-ray experiment gone awry. He is not an eccentric billionaire moonlighting as a crime fighter. He is, as he puts it, "just a man hellbent on battling evil." Although Master Legend was one of the first to call himself a Real Life Superhero, in recent years a growing network of similarly homespun caped crusaders has emerged across the country. Some were inspired by 9/11. If malevolent individuals can threaten the world, the argument goes, why can't other individuals step up to save it? "What is Osama bin Laden if not a supervillain, off in his cave, scheming to destroy us?" asks Green Scorpion, a masked avenger in Arizona.
The whole thing is well written and worth a read.  Also worth your time is a perusal of the World Superhero Registry, mentioned in the essay.  When you read this on the disclaimer page you know you have stumbled on to something special:
This website deals with the actual incorporation of the superhero archetype into daily life. As a consequence of the complex and ever-changing nature of the legal system and the diverse and unusual activities that may be involved in such alternative lifestyles, some of the activities described herein may be in conflict with local laws in some areas. None of the creators of this web page specifically condone any of the described activities or the possession of any of the equipment related to those activities. We are not legal experts and lack the expertise and resources to research the legality of any of the practices of our members, or visitors.
The entire site is wonderful, and I mean that, it is sincerely wonderful (if in need of an upgrade) but be sure and check out the registry page to see who might be patrolling in your area.

December 29, 2008

Conversion as a Bridge to Development?

Here's the title and byline from Matthew Parris's current piece in the Times Online:
As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God
Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset.
Aside: It's probably no fault of Parris, as titles and summaries are usually the provence of editors, but there is plenty to quibble with in those first thirty words or so before we even get to the article itself, something of an inauspicious beginning. Not the least of which is to bemoan yet another occurrence of run of the mill adult behavior somehow being deemed worthy of laudatory attention ("Cat says, 'Dogs not that bad, really!'"). The ability to see both sides of an issue and muster up the intellectual imagination necessary to conceive of how someone approaching said issue might arrive at a different conclusion, given their own unique starting point, was at some point in the past not a feat of staggering genius but a minor point of good manners. Alas, that and the hills requiring us to walk up them both ways in the snow appear to be no more and so matters of intellectual civility are reduced to little more than a writers conceit. Bah, bring me my lap blanket!

However, even though I appear to be on the other side of the spectrum when it comes to the matter of religious faith, I'm not sure that we are interpreting the cause and effect of religious involvement, in this case a decidedly Christian faith, in a similar fashion. Since I'm just re-entering the digital world after a bit of a holiday fast here are a couple of random, disjointed, very inside-baseball thoughts drawn from my own time working with faith based groups on the African continent:

1. Africa has "had God" for quite a while now. Depending on your reading of history the African church has been around since the first century, Mark the evangelist is traditionally thought to have founded the Coptic Church in Alexandria between 40-50 AD. So, either God's not doing that great a job or there is more going on across Africa than a dearth of missionaries (a point I'm sure Parris wouldn't argue). I'm actually a fan of the reading of history which gives the Christian faith a place of importance in the cultivation, development and spread of the best of our modern society (and admittedly a not infrequent tool used to decimate some of the worst) but it did so amidst the seedbed of more than a few other important factors, many of which Africa lacks. Faith, Africa has in spades.

Aside: If you're curious about the historical importance of Christian thought that has taken place on the African continent, Thomas Oden released a good book at the beginning of this year entitled How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.

2. I can't help but hear my neo-colonialism bells ringing when I read Parris's article - no accusation there, just my own reading. Admittedly, they are occasionally tuned a little too finely but when Parris recounts returning to his boyhood home after being away for 45 years and comes away impressed by the Africans who have thrown off the bondages of traditionalism, be they religious or communal, and embraced the well spoken niceties of western European conventions it is hard for me to hear him saying anything other than, "I like the Africans who are more like me and less like their uncles."

3. Parris attributes this escape from the "crushing passivity" of the African mindset to Christian conversion. Undoubtedly, there's some merit to that claim as exposure to the Christian faith has traditionally meant exposure to Europeans and Americans (Aside: this is increasingly not the case however, as the majority of Christian "evangelism" taking place on the African continent is now African to African.) and this exposure has brought along with it not only a new found faith but a variety of invaluable social capital that might push them ahead of their more traditional neighbors. The same thing happens to individuals in developing countries who find work with NGO's. Their English gets better, even if passively so they are more aware of both the hurdles and opportunities for bettering themselves and again, by association if nothing else, they are better equipped to avoid the former and embrace the latter. In a developing context where a weeks delay in the rainfall can be the difference between famine and plenty, how much more meaningful could a relationship with a wealthy, accommodating Westerner be in terms of incremental change?

4. Missionaries frequent the lobbies of expensive hotels quite a bit. Which is not to say that they do not live lives of spartan sacrifice in relation to what they may have left behind in their native lands and in service to their calling; but it is simply to acknowledge that they too attend conferences and discuss strategy, take the occasional vacation, entertain a donor here and there, and are no more ignorant of the exchange rate than their NGO counterparts.

5. I don't think "tribal value systems" should be beyond critique either but neither do I think that the Christian gospel is inherently destructive to traditional cultures. There is no denying that in the hands of the over zealous it has often been so, as they introduced not only the gospel message but their own culturally conditioned interpretation of the gospel as being both singular and normative, but at its heart the gospel is a message of redemption and reconciliation for both individuals and cultures.

Aside: One valid critique of Christianity in Africa by Christian African academics is that its failure to move beyond superficial transformation in many African cultures is a result of its failure to adapt itself to what Parris bemoans as the "rural-traditional mindset" (or rather re-adapt, since it is hard to read the biblical narrative as anything other than speaking to and out of a "rural-traditional mindset"). They claim that an individualistic, community eschewing faith (which it pains me to say has been the most prevalently espoused Western interpretation) is not what Africa needs, but a faith that redeems the strength of community and enables the community to move beyond the corrupt, monopolies of individuals who have learned to manipulate the strengths of community against itself.

6. A final quibble:
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
Since Parris is a self-professed atheist he can be excused for the over simplification, but that isn't Christianity, it's not the gospel, or at least it's not all of it. As I mentioned above, the heart of the gospel is redemption and reconciliation but it's not simply a restoration of the link between God and humanity - it is certainly that, but it is also the reconciliation of humanity to others, to creation and to itself. Christianity does not call us out of the tribe, out of community, but it calls us into "true" community. The faith described by Parris above will certainly position Africa to be a continent of independent, self-interested, potential consumer-capitalists but I don't think it will make them overly Christian or developed.

The bulk of Parris's article is interesting if problematic in places - though if taken to its logical conclusion I fear it would be bad for both religion and development on the African continent. I tend to agree with the overall gist of his premise - that there is something both good and necessary, both affecting and effective, inherent in the faith based work that takes place across the developing world, and the African continent in particular. As I've said before, (here, here and here for starters) I think that religion can (and must) be one of the key bridges to continued development success when operating in cultures as intrinsically religious as those found throughout much of Africa. To ignore religion is to do more than fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room it is to fail to arrive at the house all together. More could be said but this has gone on far too long already, apologies.

December 23, 2008

Best of 2008: Blog Post Titles

A late entry, but a clear winner:

Honey Bees On Cocaine Dance More, Changing Ideas About The Insect Brain.

Even better, the whole thing is interesting, not just the title.

December 17, 2008

Best of 2008: Seasons


Inaugural Roster

Looks like Rick Warren will be delivering the invocation at Obama's inauguration.  Interesting choice.  Despite accusations otherwise from both ends of the spectrum Warren occupies a center right position in the American religious landscape, or at least the closest thing there is to a center right position, which means he's not "all that" far from the center left position at which Obama seems to be positioning most of his administration.  I'd be curious as to who else made the short list for the invocation and benediction spots.  

Of equal (greater?) interest is this bit as well:
John Williams, the composer whose music was heard at Mr. Obama’s victory party on election night in Grant Park, will compose a new piece to be played for the incoming president.

His new piece will be played by Mr. Perlman on violin, Mr. Ma on cello, Gabriela Montero on piano and Anthony McGill on clarinet. (Usually at this juncture in previous inaugurations an operatic soloist performs.)
Not too shabby.

PS - A previous bit on Warren.

Year In Photos

Good stuff as always from The Big Picture: the year in photographs, part 1 of 3.

Hallelujah Redux

PRI's The World covered the story of the dueling Hallelujah's today.  The jist: "Music fans are using the internet as a battleground to campaign for their favorite cover version of Leonard Cohen's 1984 love song 'Hallelujah'" - this particular battle pits the winner of Britain's X-Factor (a UK American Idol I am told) against hardcore Jeff Buckley fans who despair of the sacrilege of a version other than Buckley's topping the charts, all of this is made more "exciting" as the coveted Christmas #1 spot is at stake here .  (Cohen fans are apparently content knowing that Leonard is cashing fat royalty checks.)

Those playing along at home will remember that a similar phenomenon occurred during this years American Idol here in the states, which I (among others) noticed and mentioned previously here.

Here's Burke's live version from X-Factor ("official" studio version is here with embed disabled):

Here's Buckley's live version (the "official" studio version is here with embed disabled):

The money is on Burke at the moment but Buckley isn't far behind and I like the look of this dark horse who has quite a following.

December 16, 2008

Best of 2008: Music

There weren't that many albums that bowled me over this year, but here are two worth a look.

I've mentioned Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago before and I'm still listening to it.  A lot.  Here's the band on Letterman a few days ago:

The other album worth mentioning is Human Highway's Moody Motorcycle.  

Honorable mention:  Mike Relm's Spectacle. and Jayber Crow's Two Short Stories.

PS - Two to look for in early January:  Andrew Bird's Noble Beast and Bon Iver's EP Blood Bank.

December 14, 2008

Links Addendum


Update: Video. Good reflexes and a great line from the Pres.

8. More on the global auto industry and the southern U.S., or why you've heard so many southern law makers speaking out against the Detroit bailout.  (Previously)


1.  Stories to watch:  Faith based charities, funding and Obama.  I'd be a bit surprised if anything changes here and even more so if anything changed any time soon, given the current plight of the economy.  Anecdotal:  almost 70% of the organizations in our metro area providing short and long term hunger relief are faith-based.

2.  Waxy points to this flaying of Swoopo by Jeff Atwood. (and from what I can remember after looking around the site several weeks back it's pretty accurate).

3.   My food sensibilities run moderately counter-cultural so for reasons that are becoming more relevant by the day I appreciated this account of what to do when your child wants to try Dunkin' Donuts. 

4.  Who gets U.S. foreign aid, in Parade of all places.

5.  Kanye on SNL last night (worth clicking the link for full screen).  I've heard most of the new album now and I like it a lot more than I thought I would.  No vocal (or mixing) awards are going to be handed out for this performance but the whole package is pretty mesmerizing.  No one, in any field, is taking advantage of the multiplicity of ways in which technology and popular culture are intersecting like Kanye and you get the sense that his self-perception is that of an artist who creates (thus the vanities?), not simply a performer.  (via)

6.  Iraqi journalist throws shoes at Bush during press conference.  I'm not a Bush apologist but I can't help feeling sorry for the guy occasionally and thinking that on some level (like Palin) he is a victim of circumstance.  

Hair and fingernails do not continue to grow after a person dies. Rather, the skin dries and shrinks away from the bases of hairs and nails, giving the appearance of growth.

December 11, 2008

McSweeney's: Bon Jovi's Preconcert Prayer Circle

I find almost everything Dan Kennedy writes hilarious and this piece for McSweeney's is no exception (your tendency to laugh will greatly increase if you have a rudimentary knowledge of Bon Jovi as a result of coming of age in their heyday and an intimate knowledge of prayer circles as a result of much of the aforementioned coming of age taking place in the milieu of church youth groups):
Dear God, thank you for this opportunity to be together tonight and to bring people together with our music. Thank you for surrounding us with each other. You really gave us an awesome guitarist, God. We appreciate you taking the time to do that back in 1983, when you had so much stuff on your desk. I remember that the musical Annie was closing on Broadway that year; it was in basically every single newspaper in the city every day, it seemed like. And I remember thinking that maybe the only prayers about arts and entertainment that you would be listening to would be that cast's prayer circles before they went on each night, but you tuned them out and instead focused on steering this man named Richie Sambora toward me here on Earth because you knew it was more important that I get a rippin' guitar player early on so I could form this band and we could start making our way to the top. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed that year, too, so I know you had tons of stuff going on and were really busy, so I'm just sayin' I appreciate your making kick-ass lead guitar a priority in '83. You didn't have to do that, but you did. 
. . . . .

Give us the strength to deliver to the fans out there in the seats tonight. I know there's a lot of stuff going wrong in the world again. Guess what, though: there's always going to be stuff going wrong in the world. I need you focused on the Bon Jovi show at the Wachovia Center in Philadephia, Pennsylvania, USA, Earth. I need you focused on our set list, and I need you focused on making sure the couple of hiccups we had in sound check today don't become issues onstage tonight. Again, I know the stuff's really hitting the fan down here and you're probably getting slammed with more prayers than ever, but for the next 75 nights we've got shows and I'm asking you to put tuning in to our preshow prayer circle at the top of your list. That's why we're doubling up our power and signal by being in a circle like this and by holding hands to basically make one giant person beaming one huge consolidated prayer up to you—we'll do what we have to do to get heard and to cut through the clutter of individual prayers.

December 7, 2008

Links Addendum

8.  Forgot this one, of interest to my father if no one else:  G.M.’s Pension Fund Stays Afloat, Against the Odds (registration required at the moment, username: skcusger, password: regsucks, if you need it).


1.  Ebert's top films of 2008.  Two thoughts while looking over the list:  the symbiosis of life/art seems to have held true this year as there's not a lot of cheer or humor in the mix (WALL-E may be as close as it gets and if you've seen it you know that while the ending is optimistic it's a backhanded optimism at best); you're going to have to search hard for a lot of these if you're outside a decent sized metropolitan area - a fact Ebert acknowledges with this bit at the end: 
Looking back over the list, I think most moviegoers will have heard of only about 11, because distribution has reached such a dismal state. I wrote to a reader about "Shotgun Stories," "I don't know if it will play in your town." She wrote back, "How about my state?" This is a time when home video, Netflix and the good movie channels come to the rescue. My theory that you should see a movie on a big screen is sound, but utopian.
2.  America's other auto industry here in the deep south - we'll be driving home for the holiday's in a few weeks and pass by three of these plants.

3.  Oven stoves and heat walls: long, interesting article with wonderful pictures. 

4.  SitOrSquat - use your phone's GPS to find the nearest public bathroom (also coming soon to a comedy plot line near you.) (via)

6.  I didn't know that Graham Linehan has a blog.  Poking around, this entry from the archives is a good discussion of the difficulty of putting together a comedy sitcom on either side of the pond and why I so vastly prefer those in the British tradition - I like my comedy with a healthy dose of the absurd.  If you haven't seen Linehan's IT Crowd do yourself a favor and hunt around for it.  Oh, and I also found this:

7.  When Pomeroy and I were kids one of our favorite pranks was to use the phone at his parent's office to dial two random numbers and conference them as they both picked up the phone.  You'd be surprised at how amusing an argument between two strangers over who had called whom could be to twelve year old boys.  However, we certainly never imagined that our calls might precipitate a nuclear war.  Suddenly this seems much more plausible.  My favorite line from the article:
"It was a little alarming, to say the least."

December 5, 2008

Note to Self

. . . and to those who have ears to hear.  

When setting up your utilities make sure to have both you and your significant other authorized to manage the account.  Otherwise, on some cold rainy day in early December you too may find yourself snarling over the phone at some poor innocent woman, "How long has your company blatantly refused to recognize the institution of marriage?!"  And you know what you'll feel after you hang up?  Shame.  Shame, my friends.  

Knowledge for life.

December 4, 2008


1.  "A British doctor volunteering in DR Congo used text message instructions from a colleague to perform a life-saving amputation on a boy." Yeah, that's right, Médecins SMS Frontières my friends (too punny?).

2.  America's 200 largest charities.  The top ten:
1. United Way
2. Salvation Army
3. American Cancer Society
4. Food for the Poor
5. YMCA of the USA
6. Feed the Children
7. AmeriCares Foundation
8. Catholic Charities USA
9. Gifts in Kind International
10. World Vision
3.  Tis the season so we've been eating a lot of apples and have made two trips up the road to "apple country," so poking around for some apple info I found this interesting piece from October on the University of Minnesota's breeding of the infamous Honeycrisp and their search for the next big thing in apples now that the patent is about to expire. 

4.  My reasons are anecdotal but I hope he gets the nod.

5.  Interesting new study on how bacterial speck disease disables the tomato plant's intruder alert systems.

December 1, 2008

Straight Outa' Batesville

How can you not like Soulja Boy?  Example one, social networking genius: 
How does one go from being a 16-year-old making videos and songs in your bedroom to being a Grammy-nominated cultural phenomenon in one year?
I found out about the Website SoundClick. You’d post MP3s and people would rate on your music and you’d get put on charts. I had this song called “Doo Doo Head.” It was this stupid comedic song — and after a few weeks, it went No. 1 on the charts and everyone started coming to my page looking for new music. Then I found MySpace, made my first page, and linked the MySpace page from SoundClick. Really all my MySpace views came from SoundClick and my YouTube clicks came from MySpace; they fed off each other.
Example two, insightful market analyst: 
You have another new video out called “Turn My Swag On.” What is swag, and how can it be turned on?
I think swag is very important to rappers. It’s the overall appearance and style of an artist — these blue shorts and this blue hat and this $80,000 chain, this jewelry and all these tattoos, that’s swag. Swag defines an artist, period. Lil Wayne has his super-tattooed pierces and dreads swag. Jay-Z has his New York, grown man, Beyoncé and 40/40 Club swag. Soulja Boy is on his dance, down south, young, 18-year-old, comedic swag. It’s really just each person’s personality; if every rapper had the same swag, it would be kind of boring.
If Gladwell doesn't have a chapter on this guy then he's crazy.

Guess the State

I currently have "messages" from the following four people on my answering machine (listed in order of phone voice, best to worst):

Michelle Obama
Mitt Romney
Barack Obama
Sarah Palin