A Man and a Hymnal

Some of the folks on the CREC music email list are discussing the pros and cons of physical psalters and hymnbooks. I decided to weigh in…

Growing up in Moscow, I got used to singing out of the Cantus Christi. My copy (of the venerable blue variety) got so worn over the years that its spine is currently being held together by duct tape. I understand the practical advantages of singing from a bulletin or even a projector screen during worship, but my experience demonstrates some of the advantages of using a hymnal over time, both in worship and in casual settings.

For one thing, there’s the fact that over time the physical hymnal became a familiar object. Even when I didn’t remember page numbers, I remembered generally where in the book a particular hymn or psalm was because I knew what the two halves of the book felt like in my hands when I was singing that one. (Now that I think of it, hymns near the middle of the book may have been more popular simply because the book was easier to hold when it was open to that position.) I even remember the location of certain hymns because of the communion wine stains on the edge of the page.

Another benefit of having a common physical hymnal was that any gathering of church members could grab a few copies and have an impromptu psalm/hymn sing. Having sung all the same stuff for years, we knew what we knew and what we liked. It was a treat when we had a group skilled enough to sing one of the fugue tunes (e.g., ‘Tis By Thy Strength), and when we didn’t, we knew that there were simpler crowd-pleasers available. Whether hanging out in the park or in a friend’s living room, we always had the option of singing together. One hymn would remind someone of another favorite and we could all flip to that page and give it the old college try. It was even better if half the group knew the hymn and the other half didn’t, since that gave you the chance to learn a new tune. I always hoped that eventually I’d know every song in the Cantus. The physical book gave me something to shoot for.

Lastly (for now), a physical book gives you the magical ability to browse. Digital editions are great for finding something when you know what you’re looking for, but if you’re hanging out at the piano on a Sunday afternoon, plinking away, you definitely want a physical hymnal to flip through.

A Man Smudges Productively

Austin Kleon writes about chalkboards, quoting this NYT article:

In many fields of science and investigation, blackboards have been replaced with whiteboards or slide show presentations. But chalk is cheaper and biodegradable. It smells better than whiteboard markers and is easier to clean up, mathematicians say. It is also more fun to write with.

One of the chalkophiles he cites says that “the value [of chalk] is in using it up.” This is one reason I love using wooden pencils. Yes, you have to sharpen them, but you get to measure your work against the diminishing length. Empty pens, too, give me the same satisfaction.

Austin’s post reminded me of this NHPR story (that’s New Hampshire Public Radio) about why mathematicians love using chalkboards. Here are a few of the juicier quotes.

On the sound chalk makes on the chalkboard:

It’s much louder than any other writing implement would be. And as a result it’s much harder to interrupt somebody who’s writing on a blackboard. So if you’re up there, it’s like there’s this noise that keeps you from saying “Wait a minute! What about this?” whereas if you’re writing with a marker on a whiteboard, it’s easier to interrupt. This actually leads to longer flow of thoughts, which is important in mathematics; you’re not breaking it up as much. So that’s one possibility.

On the size of the writing:

You have to write big. Easier to see. But also it means you can fit fewer character on, you have to be more concise. And frankly, conciseness is what mathematics is. Mathematics is distilling information down to the minimum amount of characters. That’s really the essence of it. So that contributes to it.

On “productive smudging”:

Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely. You can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.

A Man Likes to Repeat Himself

W. H Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson, wrote,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

According to Mendelson, we moderns are hopeless romantics, allergic to repetition. How would marketing departments across the country feel to learn that their promises to constantly innovate are nothing more than romantic puffs?

Combined with this overweening optimism is the worship of the new. Our culture is addicted to novelty. In the days of Shakespeare, “innovation” meant the same thing as “confusion.” Those who constantly upended the past were dangerous, out of their minds. Now, of course, we are so hyper-aware that others may have something or know something that we don’t, we race to adopt new fashions, electronics, attitudes. We have convinced ourselves that keeping up with the New is our civic duty. And if we meet someone who doesn’t read the newspaper, doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, and doesn’t have an iPhone, we treat them as some kind of fanatic. They must be tripping on something to want to avoid the New.

A Man is Amazed by an Old Thing

Click here and listen to a recording of Ernest Shackleton telling a story from one of his expeditions to the South Pole. The audio was recorded in 1910 on a wax cylinder. Now, you can listen to it in all its digital glory.


Besides amazing the dungarees off me, this recording reminds me of the relative costs and benefits of different media. A wax cylinder can exist in more or less the same condition for 109 years. But it’s confined to one place. A digital recording can travel the world, but will probably be lost, corrupted, or obsolete a decade from now.

A Man is Playing a Role

Ian Marcus Corbin writes in the Weekly Standard about the bizarre disjunction between how courteously his colleagues interact with those with different political or cultural views in real life and how nastily they attack them on social media. Some people are born with certain advantages, Corbin admits, and some people are unfairly treated based on how they look, dress or act. And yet…

It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.

Last semester, I taught a class on television and culture (and again this upcoming semester). The sentence I bolded at the end of that quote strikes me as particularly relevant to that topic. One consequence of living so much of your life in front of a TV screen is that you start to believe that TV is reality and that your life is a shoddy illusion. Its in TV’s best interests to keep you watching, and the way to do that is to beat into your skull the fact that television is where life’s meaning truly lies. In his essay on TV, “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace describes it like this:

The modes of presentation that work best for TV—stuff like “action,” with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the “hysteria” of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter—are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more… well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it. This might seem benign until we consider that what average Joe Briefcase does more than almost anything else in contemporary life is watch television, an activity which anyone with an average brain can see does not make for a very dense and lively life. Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).

If anything has changed since Wallace wrote that essay, we’ve become more involved in these “modes of presentation.” Now, we don’t join in only in our minds, but in our actual lives. We are all living “presented” lives. We’re all playing roles.

More Data is Bad for a Man

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on data:

In business and economic decision making, reliance on data causes severe side effects—data is now plentiful thanks to connectivity, and the proportion of spuriousness in the data increases as one gets more immersed in it. A very rarely discussed property of data: it is toxic in large quantities—even in moderate quantities. (Antifragile, p. 126)

Taleb defends this in terms of signal versus noise. Signal is information that makes sense. It is useful. You can use it to act. Noise is everything else. The more data you collect, the more chance you have of capturing some sort of signal, right? Actually, the opposite is true, thanks to the limits of man.

It all has to do with time. If you check data rarely, you see a larger slice of time, which lets you filter out anything redundant or irrelevant. You only see value over time. The more frequently you look at data, Taleb says, the more likely it is that most of what you see is noise. Take the example of the newspaper: if you glance at the news once a year, you have a much easier time drawing out the important stories than if you glance once a day. And if you glance multiple times in an hour, as so many with “smart” phones do, you’re filling your mind with noise without a chance for a signal to break through. (Part of the responsibility rests with newspapers, surely. “Newspapers,” says Taleb, “should be of two-line length on some days, two hundred pages on others—in proportion with the intensity of the signal. But of course they want to make money…”)

In other words, the deluge of information robs you of your ability to see things in their proper context. It is not ambivalent, it is actively harmful. A word of wisdom for those who make decisions, such as, say, voting someone into office: the less information you ingest, the clearer your thoughts will be.