Another Week Ends

 A quick update: we had some trouble with the Kindle version of The Mockingbird Devotional, but […]

Will McDavid / 3.28.14

 A quick update: we had some trouble with the Kindle version of The Mockingbird Devotional, but it’s now available here. It’s been tested with Kindle Fire and should work for older Kindles, too – Paperwhite compatibility is a little dubious (if there are problems, let us know so we can gripe to Amazon) – and it should work for iPad/iPhone and Android, too. 

n1167971677_301550_1731. The robots are coming: it’s a major upheaval we’ll see in the next few years, and one that’s flown relatively under the radar. So many avenues for exploring how we’ll relate to them, how they’ll change things – surrogate love (cue Joaquin Phoenix’s Her), but a love that’s only meaningful if it’s freely given, that is, if the possibility of rejection exists (Alvin Plantinga and Cylon 6). The Economist this week takes a break from geopolitics to focus on the rise of automatons, reporting, among other things, the advent of a surrogate mechanical seal, in Japan, which purrs or something when you pet it. But an interesting article here comes from Quartz, a long-form journalism outlet on the rise of drones as a primary military technology, ht JW:

[S]ometime in the near future, the autonomous, weaponized drone may replace the human infantryman as the dominant battlefield technology.And as always, that shift in military technology will cause huge social upheaval…The Age of the Gun is the age of People Power. The fact that guns don’t take that long to master means that most people can learn to be decent gunmen in their spare time…

The day that robot armies become more cost-effective than human infantry is the day when People Power becomes obsolete. With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many. And unlike the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, robot-enforced tyranny will be robust to shifts in popular opinion. The rabble may think whatever they please, but the Robot Lords will have the guns.


Okay, okay, so it’s getting a little sensational. And later the author borrows from Suzanne Collins a little too explicitly. But the shift he marks is a real one, and it’s worth thinking about. The early Renaissance writers in Northern Italy often blamed the use of mercenaries for the decline of civic spirit. People should be responsible for defending their cities, know the price of their liberties, etc. Now, professional armies of citizen-soldiers may well be slimmed down and gradually replaced with robots. What does any of this have to do with the Gospel? None has much to do with it, but it may anticipate changes in how we view ourselves and the world. In a “war of all [robots] against all [other robots]” (Hobbes), the main human inputs would be simply money and technology. In the military sphere – and in the economic, too – they could remove the spontaneity and unreliability of humans, render the world more predictable and, therefore, controllable. Moving into the social sphere, your child could have the perfect playmate – one around which s/he wouldn’t be awkward and by which s/he wouldn’t be judged. Anyway, if the thoughts sound scattered, it’s an early salvo on the issue and a good excuse to dip into a favorite disco DJ’s (copious) robot-themed image files.



2. On more familiar ground, The New Yorker posted a great Onion-esque Shouts & Murmurs article on a new parenting study, the findings of which indicate that “if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go [insane]”, ht DZ:

In the course of seven weeks, Waterson interviewed a hundred and twenty-seven families about their reaction to articles that begin with a wryly affectionate parenting anecdote, segue into a dry cataloguing of sociological research enlivened with alternately sarcastic and tender asides, and end with another wryly affectionate anecdote that aims to add a touch of irony or, failing at that, sentimentality…

Paul Nickman, forty-five, was taking a coffee break at his Visalia, California, law office when he began to leaf through an article about the importance of giving kids real challenges. “They mentioned this thing called grit, and I was like, ‘O.K, great. Grit.’ Then I started to think about how, last year, I’d read that parents were making kids do too much and strive too hard, and ever since then we’ve basically been letting our kids, who are ten and six, sit around and stare into space.” Nickman called his wife and started to shout, “Make the kids go outside and get them to build a giant wall out of dirt and lawn furniture and frozen peas!” He added, “Get them to scale it, and then make them go to the town zoning board to get it permitted, but don’t let them know it was your idea!”


Contrived spontaneity is well-worth lampooning, especially when we approach play as something we need to make our kids (our ourselves) do, which undermines what play actually is (“Play to Order“). Of course, like the giant wall of peas above, the play movement itself (while perhaps good advice) undermines the content (play) in the packaging (be more intentional about playing / making kids play). All of which to say, something genuine cannot be forced. And play is doubly undermined if we instrumentalize it – i.e., “My kid should do this to becomes X sort of human being later in life.” In fact, one easy definition of play would be activities which aren’t instrumental to something else. Aristotle and N.T. Wright have endorsed the idea that forced habits may (instrumentally) become genuine character. But forced habits can also become points of departure for massive rebellion – in other words, parenting backfires frequently. But coming back to the article above, regardless of what kind of kids hyper-intentional parenting may produce, all that parenting law is a major headache, and one which life might be pleasanter without.

3. The Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman throws us a slowpitch from  this week on busy-bragging, echoing Tim Kreider’s magisterial “Busy Trap.” The article says it all:

Hanna Rosin rightly notes that moaning about one’s schedule has become, for some, a mark of social status. We’re not speaking here about the kind of busyness associated with scraping by near the poverty line, of course, but rather the kind associated with lives of material privilege. Rosin quotes a former colleague’s reply to her request for assistance: “I would like to help but cannot. I am desperately trying to finish a screenplay and a talk I need to give in Milan.” Let’s call this phenomenon ‘busy-bragging’. Feel free to devise a better neologism; personally, I just don’t have the time…

He quotes a article by Hannah Rosin, who gives a humorous personal account of one of her busy days:

I had to record a podcast, hire an au pair because our nanny of 13 years is leaving, figure out what to do with a kid who had a half-day of school, let in the repairman coming to fix the washing machine, comfort a friend freaking out about her ailing mother, do pre-interviews for a TV appearance, fly to New York for the media interviews, see my parents, have drinks with a fellow editor [and] go to a hotel.

The fact that hiring a new au pair actually could be credibly stressful casts a disparaging light on, well, human nature. Much of this echoes Kreider, but The Guardian another insight that’s new to me:

The worst part is that becoming more efficient in your work can make busyness worse. The better you get at finding books and articles relevant to your interests, while filtering out the rest, the more you’ll end up with a relentless firehose of stuff you feel you really need to read. The more of a reputation you acquire for responding swiftly to emails, the more emails you’ll receive. The more roles you manage to fulfill well – useful employee, pillar of the community, organiser of activities for your children’s social circle – the more you’ll attract requests to take on more responsibilities.

It seems to hit dead-on, and it’s a real-life, everyday example of how the bar of the law just keeps receding, perennially a few inches out of reach. And we could flip the focus, too – we all are judged by that constantly-heightening bar of expectation, but we impose it on others, too. It’s the old story of receiving a gift, feeling a brief moment of gratitude as it exceeds our expectations, and then becoming entitled as we re-calibrate our expectations so anything less, next time, will feel like we’re being shortchanged. A bit dour, perhaps, but dourness serves to raise the question of who will deliver us. Of course, our shortcomings are more than mere incapability or messiness, but even a ‘secular’ judging/being judged is a good place to start, and busyness is a great theater for questions of judgment at the moment.

4. While we’re on the themes of identity/judgment/silly morality/self-image, The Washington Post put up an immensely helpful guide to those of us struggling with the age-old question, “Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s?” The identity bind is nicely reduced to a flowchart. Not quite as good as Lutheran Satire’s Which Denomination Are You?, but close, ht BC:


5. Also in the maybe-too-close-to-home humor department, The Onion knocks another one out of the park with the headline “87% of Man’s Memories Shame-Based”, ht DZ:

Stating that the man is rarely able to reflect on events from earlier in his life without visibly wincing, sources confirmed Monday that 87 percent of local medical claims processor Tyler Collins’ memories are rooted in the emotions of shame, humiliation, and guilt…

Sources added that the 87-percent figure applies to Collins’ entire store of memories, and that the number is actually above 90 percent for the subset of memories he developed between seventh and 11th grade, roughly 93 percent for those pertaining to job interviews, and nearly 100 percent in cases of his attempted social interactions with women he has found physically attractive. At press time, reports confirmed that Collins had paused what he was doing, closed his eyes, and began rubbing his left temple while berating himself softly under his breath.

6. The BBC reported on an interesting social experiment, a Canadian radio station offered up $5,000 cash to listeners; individuals could vote #BANK for a chance to win the money or #BURN to see it go up in flames. The money was burnt, at 54% voting burn, and outrage ensued, ht DH:

Another argues: “Good marketing tactics, but ethically it’s a real shame.” When one listener said she “hated” the station, AMP Radio responded: “Well… buh bye then I guess?” It is now holding another contest, which invites listeners to choose whether a further 10,000 Canadian dollars should be banked or burnt.

On the one hand, yes, $5,000 could have done lots of good – plenty of worthy causes out there. From our perspective, however, it’s interesting that there are, as far as I know, no charitable organizations with the mission of promoting low anthropology. The radio station invested $5,000 in the mission, and it’s putting another $10,000 in. It’s absurd that people are so angry at the radio station. The station did nothing but let the will of the people decide – if there is a target for anger, it’s human nature and, just maybe, oneself. And to be clear, we don’t support burning money to make a statement. Not because the radio station was immoral, but because leaving things up for fallen humans to anonymously vote on is rarely a good idea. As the voting illustrates, the problem goes beyond Canadian Radio. How many outraged commenters could have feasibly foregone one nice dinner or piece of clothing or furniture piece or six-pack to give instead to sufferers? Which isn’t to say we should be harder on ourselves about philanthropy, only to point out the totality of the Law’s demand (Mt 19:21) and our often speck-focused (7:5) response to it.

7. Speaking of specks and logs, some church leaders have been a little, um, blind when it comes to Christianity and media. People are boycotting the Noah movie for historical inaccuracy. Refreshingly, Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service weighs in, ht JAZ:

One person on social media told me they wouldn’t see “Noah” because, you know, “God will not be mocked.” I asked what this critic thought about “The Bible” series and the person replied, “I thought the script was accurate.”

I guess this person is right if replacing King Cyrus with King Darius is accurate. Or if accuracy includes giving the angels who rescued Lot’s family from Sodom ninja-style martial art skills. Or if deleting Herod from the decision to execute Jesus is accurate. I could go on.

Why the double standard?

The difference is that some of the other biblical productions were made for Christian audiences by Christian filmmakers as evangelistic tools. In some cases, the forces behind these movies kissed the rings of evangelical gatekeepers, convincing them to use church budgets to buy entire theaters on opening weekend and generate ticket sales with film-inspired Sunday School curriculum and sermon series.

Unlike these other films, “Noah” was never intended to be a heavy-handed evangelistic tool, but rather good art. And I’m sorry to say that few evangelicals today have an eye, ear, or stomach for such things. Not much has changed since the late Francis Schaeffer wrote in Art and the Bible, “I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.”


8. On the heart-warming front, there’s a a father’s letter to a son, ht CW, about how the only good reason to get married is “to practice the daily sacrifice of their egos”. It talks about selfhood, sacrifice, and marriage, and the father’s thoughts on the problems of the human ego are the best I’ve read since poet Ted Hughes tackled the subject in a letter to his son. And Sploid posts about a 39-year-old woman hearing for the first time. If it weren’t for the Cracker Barrel ad preceding the video, it would’ve been hard holding back tears, ht TB:

9. And on a lighter note, a time machine based on The Office is up on, well, Enter the year, get treated to a montage of Dwight et al referencing things that happened in that year or time period, ht BJ:

10. And finally, in our viral video pick for the week, an eight-year old shreds guitar:

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One response to “Another Week Ends: Robots, Children, Busybodies, Grocery Store Flowcharts, Self-Hating Memories, Money-Burning Radio, Noah Dissent and Eight-Year-Old Guitar”

  1. Robert Arneson says:

    Fyi- the devotional works on every device except the paperwhite. The dates for the daily devotional appear in the table of contents, but direct to a blank page.

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