Automated phone systems and surveys

Customer service units of large companies seem almost universally to operate on the assumption that they can handle a large number of customer inquiries (and pay fewer employees) through Automated Call Distribution and Interactive Voice Response systems.  While the dollars and cents may make sense, I’m not sure how much sense it makes to use the systems.  Customer frustrations can run high while on hold, and the options available rarely if ever include the one I, for one, am looking for.

In an earlier life, I was forced on a few occasions to sit in an “agent” seat using predictive dialing software for a bank, and I quickly came to view such software as a public nuisance.  (Civil penalties ought to be increased fourfold when it’s a telemarketing enterprise.)  This societal problem was eventually mitigated somewhat by regulations, but it’s still a problem—and especially for those who maintain landlines.  In the above case, I found that it was pretty silly to have just four or five people “dialing” at a time; when the numbers are low and/or the ratios are improper, there will be more calls dropped than connected.  Incoming call centers are not as bad as their outbound cousins, but those who perpetrate or operate any call systems ought at least to be aware of the numbers of agents needed to use the systems effectively.

Now matter how well thought out the call-routing decision tree is, on the customer side, almost invariably, an experience with an automated phone system goes something like this for me:

  • I listen to options, tune out because it sounds the same as every other phone menu, including the omnipresent “please listen carefully, because our menu options have recently changed.”
  • I choose the option to replay the whole thing.
  • At some point, realizing there is no option that relates to the reason for my call, I choose 0 (or 0-0, or ***, or some other punctuational gibberish that feels like cartoon cursing).
  • I am placed on hold because, of course, I have called during a time in which all available agents are busier than normal.  (Do they ever staff the phone lines according to need, or are they always intentionally understaffed to save on wages?)
  • The convenient on-hold message is played every 60 seconds, telling me I should go to the website.  I ignore that because I already tried it, and it didn’t provide the answer I needed.
  • Sometimes I have to start the call all over again first.  Finally I connect to a real voice, but the agent transfers me, and I must revert to the original recorded message and go through the above steps again.

If it is a non-native English speaker I eventually reach, my odds of getting the needed info are about 50-50, and if it’s an English speaker, about 90%.  And I wonder how much money was spent on the hardware and software to support the system whose sole purpose, in effect, has been to occupy me until one of the humans becomes available.  All these companies should quit viewing conversations with humans as “escalations” to be avoided.  I like quickly handling things with a few clicks and keystrokes on a web page as much as the next guy, and it’s a treat when you can get your business done on a website.  When I call on the phone, though, don’t give me canned responses.  Perhaps more companies who feel the need to outsource should use outfits like Hastings Humans, with a 70-year history and representatives all located in Austin, Texas.

I rarely take the time to complete digital surveys of any type, feeling that they are likely created mostly in order to allow customer service vice presidents to report to executive vice presidents and corporate boards that their departments are actually doing something to improve customer service.  (Maybe a secondary purpose is to give jobs to survey-creation people.)  The corporate resources  expended on automated phone systems would be better utilized actually doing customer service (and hiring native speakers who can speak intelligibly and understand what customers ask and say).

Here is a snippet from a texted customer survey I did complete recently:

Survey question:  How easy was it to get the help you wanted using our automated phone service on a scale of 0 (very difficult) to ’10 (very easy)?

Response:  1

Survey question:  Did you manage to achieve what you set out to using our automated phone service on a scale of 0 (not at all) to ’10 (completely)?

Response:  0

Survey question:  How satisfied are you with the way our automated phone service is organized on a scale of 0 (very dissatisfied) to 10 (very satisfied)?

Response: 2
Comment:  Never ever is an automated phone service sufficient for real people and real questions.  Your personnel are good, but automated service never will be.

Meet the mascot

Meet the Mascot at Walls of Books – Atchison . . .

Betty (Bibli)Ophilia¹ Walls

a/k/a Betty the Bookstore Bunny

Betty the Bookstore Bunny has become a store fixture at Walls of Books – Atchison, the store my wife manages, since the Great “Books with Bunnies” Adoption event.²  At night, Betty sleeps in her cage in the back, and she stays behind the counter most of the time the store is open.  She eats pellet food, hay, and the occasional celery top or strawberry leaf.  She is “trained” and has only had one minor accident-statement—as though to say “this area is now mine.”  She enjoys ripping newspaper shreds and nibbling on cardboard, an activity that’s good for her teeth.

Development and Training

Betty has grown comfortable in her area.  She lazes, she sits and munches, or she watches and checks things out.  She perks up when cars pass by and when customers come in the door but is not skittish.  She shows curiosity about Mama Manager’s activities and often approaches to sniff and to learn about the cash register.  Betty may turn out to be a natural retailer, but she is a hare short to be of much direct assistance.  BOSHA² has recommended the installation of an ergonomically sound rabbit pedestal.  Betty doesn’t appear to be the litigious type and is unlikely to sue, being rather content with standing on her hind legs, jumping a little in the morning, and flopping down at breaktime.

Product Knowledge and Local Sales Implications

Betty’s IQ has not been tested, but she manifests a love of learning.  She shows a particular taste for what is termed “inspectional reading” in Mortimer Adler’s classic guide (but has not actually tasted any books).

A shop three doors down often has a black lab mix sitting near the door, but he seems to ward off undesirables and divert attention more than actually contributing to sales.  A couple of notable establishments in town have the requisite store cat, but no feline-revenue correlation has been published.  On the other hand, a couple of special customers have gotten to spend time with Betty the Bookstore Bunny, forming a bond.  It is thought that Betty will eventually be able to greet customers—and perhaps to help direct them to certain authors/items, e.g., the Beatrix Potter and Alice in Wonderland books, the pet section, and fidget toys (but not the hunting section).

~ ~ ~

Previous posts on books:

Books! (1 of 2)

Books! (2 of 2)

Store Link:

Walls of Books in Atchison, Kansas:

¹ “Bibliophilia,” from Gk. biblio and philos, means “love of books.”

² The adoption program on 4/15/17 was jointly sanctioned by Walls of Books franchise headquarters and BPS.  [BPS, of course, is Bunny Protective Services.  I assume readers can deduce what BOSHA in the Development and Training section is.]  No large snakes were benefited by the bunny placements.  

Comparing two Mozart chamber works in Bb

As I set out to make a surface-level comparison of two Mozart works, I will first make two background observations.  First, an 18th-century composer’s choice of key was often quite intentional.  Each key was considered unique and had its own connotations of mood/affect.¹  For instance, C and D, although only a step apart, would have suggested different moods: the first, perhaps pompous and regal; the second, more exuberant and joyous.  Therefore, my choice of two works in the key of Bb makes for a closer comparison than works conceived in different keys.

Second, it may be interesting to know that, in some of the chamber scorings of Mozart’s culture (e.g., string quartets, wind sextets, and later, wind octets), wind instruments were most often heard in pairs.  Moreover, this was not “classical” music in any stuffy, go-to-a-concert sense.  Chamber music was typically more casual evening entertainment for large, well-to-do homes.  Compositions for these ensembles bore a variety of names such as Serenade, Partita, Divertimento, Cassation, and Notturno (Nocturne).  The minuet (menuet, minuetto) frequently shows up in this kind of suite since folks apparently liked to dance it.

  1. Mozart’s Cassation in Bb, K. 99 was written in 1770.  The work, scored for string quartet plus pairs of oboes and horns, comprises seven movements, including an opening march and two minuets.  It lasts approximately twenty minutes.
  2. Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in Bb, K. 361 was written ten years later and is known as the “Gran Partita.”  This latter work, scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets, basset horns (something like an alto clarinet), bassoons, and contrabassoon or upright bass) is still frequently performed and is widely considered to be among Mozart’s two or three masterworks for the medium.  This work also includes seven movements, including two minuets and a theme/variations movement.  It lasts approximately fifty-five minutes.

Below is a listing of the movements titles in each work with rough tempo markings.  It should be noted that, in the 18th century (and beyond), movement title words such as “Moderato” and “Largo” were not taken as mere tempo markings, though.  These words originally designated a great deal more than tempo.  For instance, “Allegro” was not only moderately fast; it was lively and cheerful.  With that said, I present the tempo numbers below as reasonably indicative of common practice.  They are, within a beat or two per minute, those used by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, respectively.²  In the context of comparison, the numbers can reveal a kind of tempo “shape” of each work as a whole.

Cassation, K. 99 Tempo & Meter Serenade, K 381 Tempo & Meter
I.  Marche 124 duple-compound I.  Largo – Allegro Moderato 56 (8th note) duple 152 duple
II.  Allegro Molto 144 duple II.  Menuetto 108 triple
III.  Andante 60 duple III.  Adagio 72 duple
IV.  Menuet 148 triple IV.  Menuetto – Allegretto 144 triple
V.  Andante 50 duple V.  Romanze – Adagio 66 8th note – 92 duple
VI.   Menuet 152 triple VI.   Tema Con Variazione 72 duple
VII.  Allegro – Andante – Allegro – Andante – Marche 120 duple |    60 duple compound | 120 duple |  60 duple compound |  124 duple-compound VII.  Rondo 140 duple

I might observe a few things in analyzing the performance tempos and character of the movements of each work.  First, the strict numbers themselves are not always indicative of the tempo or the feel.  In some cases, as in the example shown here, there is a lot of “black” on the page of music—generally meaning there are many 8th and 16th notes in the parts, leaving little white space—yet the basic pulse unit may be quite slow.  Above, I also note the pulse groupings in twos or threes.  For example, a duple andante that gives way to a faster, triple minuet shows variety and contrast.

One may also observe balance and even symmetry.  In the Cassation, the work quite obviously comes full circle:  the “Marche” music heard at the beginning is quoted at the end of the 7th movement.  The even-numbered movements of this work are all relatively fast, while movements 3 and 5 are the slowest.  The minuet (menuet or menuetto) tempi are intriguing in their own right; these four minuets exhibit at least three different moods.  There is more to the technical makeup of minuets than this, but generally, a slower minuet may be considered more courtly and/or stately, whereas a faster one often connotes peasant or country dancing of the time.  The most subdued, elegant minuet of the four would be Movement III of the Serenade, being performed at roughly 72 pulses per minute.

In music of this period, tempo and key tend to be related.  For instance, rarely would one find an Allegro (generally “lively”) in C minor, because C minor carries a funereal association and wouldn’t be performed in a moderately fast, lively manner.  Keep in mind that most works of art music in this time modulate to different keys as a matter of course, but note below the primary key of each movement.

Cassation, K. 99 Key Serenade, K 381 Key
I.  Marche Bb I.  Largo – Allegro Molto Bb
II.  Allegro Molto Bb II.  Menuetto (courtly) Bb-Eb-Bb
III.  Andante Eb III.  Adagio Eb
IV.  Menuet Bb-F-Bb IV.  Menuetto – Allegretto Bb-F-Bb
V.  Andante Bb V.  Romanze – Adagio Eb
VI.   Menuet Bb-Eb-Bb VI.   Tema Con Variazione Bb (includes minor)
VII.  Allegro – Andante – Allegro – Andante – Marche Bb VII.  Rondo Bb

Both works come full circle in terms of key, and that is no surprise.  Each creation is successful and worthwhile.  (That may go without saying for Mozart, but it is not always the case with even the best composers.)  The Cassation was the product of a 14-year-old prodigy, and the Serenade was written when the composer was 24; the latter work does seem to manifest more maturity, more depth.  Its tempi and character show a greater range of emotion:  the opening Largo is deeper, and the presence of an adagio, in comparison to the andantes of the Cassation, seems to reveal a progression in Mozart’s explorations.  Moreover, the Theme and Variations, sometimes an exercise through which a composer challenges himself to be creative, was (wisely? ³) not included in Mozart’s teen work.  The Serenade’s Rondo is a rollicking finale that might not have been as effective if written ten years before.

Both these Mozart chamber works could have provided good “dinner music” for a wealthy family (and guests) in the Austrian countryside, and I’m glad I get to experience them still today—sometimes, during my own dinner.  I listen to these and other Mozart chamber works multiple times every year, and that is saying a lot for a guy who’s not really a Mozart aficionado and who has as many listening options as I have on hand!  Within the next two or three years following the “Gran Partita,” Mozart would go on to write a Serenade in Eb and the Serenade in C Minor.  The Serenade in Eb contains some truly sublime chamber music, and I consider it a chamber-music must-listen for the true music lover with any breadth of taste.

¹ Arguably, this sensibility stemmed from the non-equal-tempered tuning of the time.

² In actual performances not governed by electronics, there will naturally be some variation in tempo.  Also, it bears mention that there were no metronomes of any kind in the time of Mozart, so there was no absolute standard, although historical research has shown generally acceptable windows for most such markings.

³ I myself wrote an elementary Theme and Variations for Horn Quartet as a college student, and it’s not very good.

A birthday of sorts

I’m not much on birthdays (or any holidays, for that matter).  I do remember the birthdays of all those in my family of origin, of three of my grandparents, and of my own, little nuclear family.  That’s about where it ends.  I only know birthdays for one niece, one nephew, one aunt, so I probably ought to be embarrassed that I do remember the birthday of my childhood baseball hero every year.  That guy is a year younger than my father, but let’s just say Dad’s character and life patterns are infinitely more admirable than the former Major Leaguer’s.  I have once again not mentioned the baseball player’s name on his birthday, because I don’t want to call any more attention to him.

April 30, though, is a birthday anniversary of something I will call attention to:  the initial invitation for Eugene Peterson to write The Message. 

Portions of The Message were published serially for a period of about ten years, starting in 1993, and I intentionally purchased each new volume until the whole was at last published in 2002.  It was difficult for me to divest myself of the separate volumes such as The Pentateuch and The Prophets, but it didn’t make sense to keep them all.  I now have only a complete hardback edition, a separate hardback copy of The Wisdom Books, a paperback Psalms, and a full electronic, versified edition.

Speaking of “versification,” one helpful-yet-annoying feature of the original work is that it does not contain traditional “verses.”  I say “helpful” because not having those little numbers can guard against the breaking up of thoughts as one reads longer passages.  I say “annoying” because the lack of verse numbers makes it difficult to find a particular spot and to compare with other versions.  There is a place for both, so I’m glad to have non-versified editions in print but also glad that my Logos software contains a versified version for easier pinpoint access.

I could not presume to add what so many others have said in praise of the translation, and I don’t care to expend effort refuting or responding to its judgmental detractors.  (No translation is above criticism, and I’d rather be more granular in my approach to this one and all others.)  Rather, I just want to recognize this milestone.  Here, I’ll allow Peterson’s own introductory words to speak for themselves.  He tells of the time in which the seed of The Message took root:

     I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible in the world of Today.  I had always assumed they were the same world.  But these people didn’t see it that way.  So out of necessity I became a “translator,” . . . daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sings songs and talk to our children.
     And all the time those old Biblical languages, those powerful and vivid Hebrew and Greek originals, kept working their way underground in my speech, giving energy and sharpness to words and phrases, expanding the imagination of the people with whom I was working to hear the language of the Bible in the language of Today and the language of Today in the language of the Bible. . . .
     The Message is a reading Bible.  It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available.  My intent here . . . is simply to get people reading who don’t know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. . .  So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study.  Meanwhile, read in order to live, praying as you read, “God, let it be with me just as you say.”

– Eugene Peterson, Preface to The Message, 2002, © Eugene Peterson, published by NavPress

Now, especially if you have never read from The Message, you might try it once in a while.  Try it for a change.  Try it for a perk.  Try it for a comparison.  Try reading long passages.  You might be surprised at how quickly one of Paul’s letters goes, or how marvelously new one of the gospels or the books of Hebrew history sounds.  Whether or not you get into The Message, read, consider, and study the message by any helpful means.

Happy creative birthday to Eugene Peterson for his distinctive accomplishment in The Message, with thanks to the editor who wrote the invitation letter received more than a quarter-century ago on April 30, 1990.  No translation is perfect, but this one went a long way in making scripture come alive for readers.

For more Bible Anniversary reading . . . another translation of note, now more than four hundred years old, celebrated a birthday in 2011.  The KJV was a massive achievement in its time and was deserving of celebration and praise for 200-300 hundred years, I figure.  Read my anniversary farewell wishes to the Authorized Version (KJV) here.

Conductors from whom I’ve learned

This post is a tribute to influential conductors.  I’ve learned things from all of these; in some cases, the impact has been broad and deep.

I’ll start with men I never had the opportunity to learn from in person but whose conducting has, in one way or another, had strong impact on me.  Of the conductors I have only seen on video, three deceased men rise to the top as those I would like to have learned from, had I the opportunity:

Image result for carlos kleiber

Carlos Kleiber

Image result for leonard bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

Image result for Frederick Fennell

Frederick Fennell

Kleiber is perhaps most admirable for his depth of score knowledge (albeit, reputedly, with a limited repertoire) and ability to show the music’s character; Bernstein and Fennell, perhaps for their unbridled passion and command.  If I knew his work better, one living composer might fall into a similar category for me:

Gustavo Dudamel

I played or sang under these next two only once or twice, back in the 1990s.  Those occasions are now in my distant memory, so I am not altogether sure how I would assess them as conductor-musicians at this point:

Mary Woodmansee Green
Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Green and Harth-Bedoya have the distinction of being conductors who had multiple, standing appointments (as opposed to being a principal guest or regular guest conductor) in different cities.  That always struck me as a goal to which to aspire, but I’m not so sure anymore.  A life of perpetual flux and travel is not very desirable.

Of all those conductors under whom I have performed on a regular basis for some period of time, the next two seem the most exemplary to me at this juncture.  One is deceased, another in his seventies.  Their personalities were markedly different, and I learned very different things from them in vastly different scenarios and phases of life.  In their respective idioms and milieux, they were strong leaders and rehearsers, and they both had impact on me:

Image result for "kenneth davis, jr"
Kenneth Davis, Jr. (Harding University)
Robert Streckfuss (University of Delaware)

There have been many conductors that I do not feel I have learned much from.  Some of these seem to be viewed by others as iconic, and at times, I have been unable to discern why.  Other times, I happen to have had similar skill sets and values, so I didn’t particularly take anything from them.  I suspect the strengths of some lie not in conducting per se, but more in their musicianship or program leadership effectiveness or administration than in their conducting and artistry on the podium.  I will not list names in this category, because it is not my desire here to be critical of any individuals in the slightest.  There are actually two or three from whom I learned negative lessons, i.e., “Brian, do not do as s/he did!”  Like many others, I witness unhelpful and/or stylistically inappropriate division of beat, spasmodic gesture, and other nonverbals that should be checked in a mirror or on a video recording.

Other lessons have been interpersonal in nature:  one has consistently modeled, as a gentleman musician, how to treat people with dignity; another once displayed in the starkest terms what a travesty can be made of the communal music-making experience when a conductor shows no human concern or care for what an individual musician is going through in life.

Leaving generalities and negatives behind . . . the next group is short list of conductors whose work has impacted me in unique ways.  They have affected me for good and have been particularly exemplary in one or more respects:

Richard Mayne
Kenneth Singleton
H. Robert “Bob” Reynolds

I never had the opportunity to play under Reynolds, a true prince of conducting pedagogues, but I did spend a little time with him, both personally and in a group.  At summer symposia, he shared a lesson or two I won’t forget.  Here, I honor Reynolds (who taught some who taught me) along with two graduate professors who were and are examples of generosity, teaching, and devotion to music-making and students.

The next list includes a few more I’ve learned from at symposia, plus others I have observed on only one or two occasions.  These conductors strike me as highly artistic, but they have not been specifically formative in my development.

Patrick Casey (no relative)
Steve Davis
Craig Kirchhoff
Cynthia Johnston-Turner
Jerry Junkin
Sarah McKoin

In a couple of the above instances, chronologically distant memories are still strong of impressive, beautiful, controlled gesture, perfectly connected with sound (McKoin and Casey).  For the others, the traits I admire include the humble handling of personal charisma and visible passion.

These last two conductors exhibit different yet overlapping sets of strengths.  Among all those I have played under or observed on multiple occasions, I have learned most from these two, who rise above all the rest, in my estimation.  One knows me, and the other doesn’t.  These are the two most formative, most deeply admired conductors in my experience.  Image result for allan mcmurray

Allan McMurray

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Mallory Thompson

Above, I have opted to show McMurray and Thompson doing one thing they both do very well:  teach younger, aspiring conductors.  In the next post on this topic, I will offer some more detailed praise of these two, as well as the concert offered at the CBDNA conference by Thompson’s ensemble, the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

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Blocked content

A Netflix history series caught our eye, and we watched nearly an entire episode, but I decided to quit because of issues related to narration style.

A Social Justice Week lecture by a nationally recognized speaker had much to offer, but I left in the middle—with acute ear pain.  Again, I had to quit because of peripheral issues.

For me, the sound of things can get in the way.  A lot.  Another way to say this is that the content of things can be blocked by side factors.

It can be difficult for me to concentrate on important material when there is a lot of hubbub.

The hum of a machine can drive me up a wall.

I have a tough time listening to voices that speak in grating tones (e.g., overly nasal, very scratchy-sounding, a lot of high overtones) or with monotone pitch, uninteresting declamation, halting/agitated bursts, or unvaried tempo.

At most contemporary-style churches, sound gets in the way for me, too:  maybe it’s bad sound, poorly mixed sound, or just way-too-loud sound (or all three).

When I play an instrument in a group, I sometimes choose to stop playing because of intonation issues.  When I’m distracted and it seems impossible to tune well with the sounds around me, it is better to stop than to add to the problem, I figure.

Various sound factors are distracting, and I can become almost claustrophobic (soniphobic?).  Above, I referred to the history series titled Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.  I didn’t really even know who Oliver Stone was (still don’t know much), but he has a national reputation, which makes his terrible narration habits all the more surprising.  Someone should have taught him how to read aloud!  The narration is so sonically distracting to me that I have trouble concentrating on the information he’s relaying.  He routinely pauses between word-pairs  that are inherently connected:

  • a preposition and its object
  • a verb and its complement
  • an article and the word it attempts to specify
  • the “to” and the other component of an infinitive

90% of the time, he mispronounces “a” as “aye” (never correct) and “the” as “thee” (only correct when the next word begins with a vowel sound).  Arrgghh.  Here are sample extracts with intentional misspellings, forced punctuation, and line-ends that I hope will somehow visually demonstrate the sonic effect:

This went on in . . .

far greater proportion than has ever ||

been officially admitted.


Such was their pride:  many refused to || 

evacuate thee ||

city when given thee | 



Stalin now began thee | greatest forced evacuation in …

human history, evacuating some 10 million people to the | east of the || Ural Mountains in Central Asia and | 

Siberia and to thee | South and to |


… to rebuild thee | U.S.S.R in a second Industrial Revolution that matched that of thee |

1920s and 30s 

The transfer of thee || greatest part of thee |

Soviet economy was accomplished in two incredible years and by ||

1943, thee |

USSR was the equal of |

any industrial power in Europe.

If the problem wasn’t clear, it could be because you’re used to seeing PowerPoint slides poorly laid out, so try reading a few of the above lines aloud, observing the indicated breaks.  Oliver Stone’s hiccup-infused style blocked a lot of the content for me, raising my blood pressure a couple of points, because I was actually trying to learn something and couldn’t.

John Leonard Harris

Content can become obscured by other sound factors involved in transmission.  Just this afternoon, I intentionally cleared some time so I could go hear a speaker during the local college’s observance of Social Justice Week.  I figured I could use more education and personal connection around civil rights and just treatment of people of color in this country.  The lecture was free and student-organized, and those factors were plusses for me, too.  The speaker’s content turned out to be strong, and he certainly knew how to present, both dramatically and persuasively . . . but whoever was running (or not running) the sound mixer was asleep, deaf, or missing.  My eardrums were bursting, and I simply had to leave.  I could speculate that the rest of the (mostly younger) crowd was more polite or tolerant than I, and that may be true, but it’s equally likely that their ears are simply more damaged than mine since they’ve been using .mp3 players and earbuds since they were this high.  In this case, the sound didn’t entirely obscure the content, but it surely made it difficult to listen to.

Some of my problem with sound (and other peripherals) getting in my way, I’ve come to know, is that my ears are extra sensitive—because of (1) anatomy and (2) musical training.  I’m actually kind of tired of having non-central things get in the way of my experiences, but I can’t change the ear pain, and I wouldn’t trade being a musician for anything . . . so I think I’ll carry earplugs with me more often.  I wish the content weren’t blocked so often, but I can probably also work to become even more adept and comfortable with leaving sonic crime scenes when I need to.

B. Casey, Friday, 2/17/17

Philosophizing with Matthew Crawford

Matthew B. Crawford has a distinctively interesting curriculum vitae that includes, but is not limited to, work as an electrician, a bachelor’s degree in physics, apprentice work with a VW mechanic, academic abstract-writing in a sweatshop environment, a PhD in something like political science, and an 11-month position as the executive director of a “think tank.”  He quit to open his own motorcycle repair shop.  (I know.  Whew! )  The interests I share with him include lean, strong academic writing and motorcycles, but I’m no repairman.

The draw to Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft:  An Inquiry into the Value of Work runs deeper than mere affinity.  I find his writing uniquely on point as self-help, as a challenge to vocational/economic presumptions, and as social commentary.  Filled with well-crashop-classfted pages and chapters, the book is not light reading by any stretch, yet the author has a way of breaking up the intense and perfectly worded analytical verbiage with down-to-earth phrases like “bending metal conduit” and “master of your own stuff.”  I first came in contact with Crawford at the all-faculty meeting of Sheridan College/Gillette College in the fall of 2014.  Crawford was the guest speaker, and I actually took some notes.  (I mention this to suggest a consistently high assessment of his content.)  Fast forward two years, when I read this book review, about the same time as I came upon a copy of the book at Walls of Books in Atchison, Kansas.

I don’t claim to grasp fully the philosophical, educational, and economic angles that Crawford handles adeptly as he probes white-collar and blue-collar work.  Despite the bias inherent in the book’s title, Crawford’s emphasis is not to denigrate the work of thinkers and “knowledge workers”; I’d say he rather handles both sides fairly, but he does engage in a bit of “affirmative action,” seeking to right some wrongs that have led to societal devaluing of manual labor.  Crawford challenges assumptions, as well—for instance, the assumption that every smart young person ought to go to college:

So what advice should one give to a young person?  . . . Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers.  You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or a low-level “creative.”  To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.  (p. 53)

Crawford also seeks to connect the world of the intellect with the world of manual labor:

If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.  (p. 164)

I imagine Crawford, now that he works in motorcycle repair, would say he still thinks vibrantly, but differently so than when he was in academia or employed in “knowledge work.”  There might seem to be a built-in conflict (risking loss of credibility?) when one thinks deeply, writes eloquently, and produces a highly significant book:  such enterprises as philosophizing, writing, and reading do not represent what he has set out to advocate.  Again, though, he does not aim to oppose philosophy or graduate school or books (or even think tanks); he aims to highlight aspects of manual labor that have for decades or even centuries been downplayed or ignored.  Below are some more excerpts from Crawford’s book.  Maybe your appetite will be whetted for more from the book.  (And now I get to combine a little manual labor with thought as I trade in this book to the bookstore, helping my wife, the manager, by considering its best possible exposure . . . and then engaging in my periodic activity of alphabetizing and shelving books.  It can be satisfying.)

The popularity of Dilbert, the office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attests to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work. Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life.  It usually indicates that somewhere beneath the threshold of official notice fester contradictions that, if commonly admitted, would bring on some kind of crisis…. (p. 126)

A carpenter faces the accusation of his level, an electrician must answer the question of whether the lights are in fact on, a speed shop engine builder sees his results in a quarter mile time slip.  Such standards have a universal validity that is apparent to all, yet the discrimination made by practitioners of an art respond also to aesthetic subtleties that may not be visible to the bystander.  (p. 207)

How far we have come from the hand oiling of early motorcycles is indicated by the fact that some of the current Mercedes models do not even have a dipstick.  This serves nicely as an index of the shift in our relationship to machines.  If the oil level should get low, there is a very general excitation that appears on the screen:  service required. Lubrication has been recast, for the user, in the frictionless terms of the electronic device.  In those terms, lubrication has no rationale, and ceases to be an object of active concern for anyone but the service technician.  In a sense, this increases the freedom of the Mercedes user. He has gained a kind of independence by not having to futz around with dipsticks and dirty rags.

But in another sense, it makes him more dependent.  The burden of paying attention to his oil level he has outsourced to another, and the price he pays for this disburdenment is that he is entangled in a more minute, all-embracing, one might also say maternal relationship with… what?  Not with the service technician at the dealership, at least not directly, as there are layers of bureaucracy that intervene.  Between driver and service tech lie corporate entities to which we attribute personhood only in the legal sense, as an abstraction; the dealership that employs the technician; Daimler AG, Stuttgart, Germany, who hold the service plan and warranty on their balance sheets; and finally Mercedes shareholders, unknown to one another, who collectively dissipate the financial risk of your engine running low on oil.  There are layers of collectivized, absentee interest in your motor’s oil level, and no single person is responsible for it…. It used to be that, in addition to a dipstick, you also had a very crude interface, simpler but no different conceptually from the sophisticated interface of the new Mercedes.  It was called an “idiot light.”  One can be sure that the current system is not referred to in the Mercedes owners manual as the “idiot system,” as the harsh judgment carried by that term no longer makes any sense to us.  By some inscrutable cultural logic, idiocy gets recast as something desirable. (pp. 61-62)


Uh, no

Ah, the unbridled passion of Roman Catholic youth.  Passion was surely involved in the conception¹ and production of this poster spotted nearby.

img_20161201_190345_370.jpgThe Legion of Mary.  Hmm.  Never knew such a thing existed.  I suppose I can deal with someone paying more attention to Mary than I’ve given her.  Perhaps I should pay a little more attention.  I might even go as far as to acknowledge a kernel of truth in the hyperbolic verbal formula “mother of God.”  It’s impossible, however, for me to conceive of the obtuseness that puts such an overtly off-base idea as devotion to Mary on a poster.  Really?  Devotion?  To Mary?

Nothing in Hebrew prophecy suggests the human mother of Jesus was to be iconized or viewed as a fountain of blessing.

No one prays to Mary in scripture, and no one ever should have afterward.

Luke does present the so-called “Magnificat,” a humbly devoted prayer of Mary prior to the birth of Jesus, but no writer of Christian scripture manifests any interest in devotion to Mary.

The official LoM website features this prayerful address:  “O Mary, conceived without sin.”  In reading that expression, one might logically infer that other conceptions are thought to have involved sin.  That implication is offensive.  No one prays to any other child who was also conceived without sin.  But the adverbial phrase “without sin” is at issue, and it invites confusion:  it’s not really intended to modify the verb (according to official R.C. doctrine), but rather, the product of the verb, i.e., Mary herself.  In other words, the assertion is not that Mary’s parents didn’t have intercourse; it’s that the embryonic Mary was qualitatively different from any other human embryo to that point.

The “immaculate conception”—a doctrine fabricated without relation to any biblical text—is one that some non-Catholics will be surprised to discover relates not to Mary’s parents per se, but to the pre-born Mary in utero and her supposed freedom from “original sin” in the womb.  (Some Catholics have been confused on this doctrine, and a papal clarification was issued at some point.  Neither does the “immaculate conception” pertain to Mary’s own virgin state prior to the birth of Jesus.  That assumption a common mistake made by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.)

At the end of the day, the idea that Mary was without original sin while the rest of us are born with it is (a) loading the conversation theologically and (b) making Mary out to be special in a way the scriptures do not claim she was.

The silliness of human religion baffles me.  Joining the Legion of Mary might make some passionate college student feel s/he is perpetuating and building on centuries of something.  The Legion might offer a sense of camaraderie with other, equally off-track souls.  Whatever its draw, the Legion of Mary has nothing to do with authentic Christianity.

B. Casey, 12/2/16

¹ Originally I had “immaculate conception” above, but I was fearful of needless offense at the outset.  Then I realized this whole diatribe will be inherently offensive to a few, and I wasn’t willing to forgo the piece, so I put “immaculate” in this footnote!

Books! (2 of 2)

Thanks to the new bookstore in our lives, I “deal” in books even more than before.  As much as I appreciate and use electronic technologies, I want paper or a physical book in my hand when I read anything longer than a couple paragraphs.  Audio books on a portable device?  Absolutely.  But I can’t imagine ever gravitating to an e-reader if I can choose a paperback or hardbound volume instead.  (If your hands get tired holding open a book, try this cool gadget.)

A couple days ago, the first post in this short series appeared.  At some point, I may share a few book covers I will never spend my time with, for various reasons.  That should be fun.  For now, though, here are a few more of the new books that have drawn my interest.

 img_20161215_073853_334.jpg I judged this book by its cover.  Positively, that is.  I liked the look of it—a spare design, a nice font.  I like thinking about maps, national borders, and music.  Basically, everything about this cover drew me in.

I don’t know the author, but I’ve seen the movie made from his earlier title.  This one is a nice, moderate-length hardback; based on the flap and back cover info, it has much promise for relaxed storytelling.  Probably a book to be borrowed, not kept.  (Can’t imagine reading a novel a 2nd time.  Corollary:  I can count on the fingers of two hands [with a couple fingers cut off] the movies I’ve intentionally watched a 2nd or 3rd time.)

Best-selling physician-author M. Scott Peck was first famous for The Road Less Traveled.  He is known for some philosophy and some theology in a deeper-than-the-norm self-help vein.  We’ll see if this novel lives up to his name.  I found one pretty negative review, but I suspect I’ll appreciate some things about it anyway.
img_20161215_163058_061.jpg I’ve only vaguely noticed this and other similar titles before.  I probably should have picked it up years ago.  (I have at times exercised little judgment in “choosing my battles.”)  The message here is likely good for me right about now:  when I’m inwardly pouting about relatively little things, or in the annoying lulls between computer screen-refreshes because one software program our company uses behaves badly, or when decisions inhibit my efficiency and effectiveness, I should probably take this book out and read a few pages.
Because everyone needs a rule book for the greatest, most interesting game the world has ever known.  (Just ignore today’s obscene player salaries and team owners’ greed. Those things spoil the game. Oh, for the days of Lou Gehrig and Dizzy Dean and Lou Boudreau and Pee Wee Reese and Carl Erskine and Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams and Stan Musial and even Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan and George Brett. . . .)  The intricacies of baseball can lead to interesting questions that I’ll now be able to investigate more easily. 20161208_210553.jpg
20161208_210559.jpg New Testament Words is a treasured find, and right up my alley.  Some of my study partners will caution me not to place this work too close to my BDAG lexicon or my Greek grammars, but the linguistic insights of the renowned Scottish scholar William Barclay will certainly illuminate some things. In terms of importance in my studies, I imagine these elaborations will exceed those of A.T. Robertson in his six-volume set Word Pictures in the New Testament, at whose right this Barclay book now stands.  (It was interesting to find that this used book belonged to a friend of a friend.  I’ve no idea why anyone would get rid of this one!)
This book certainly caught my eye and was a gift from someone who knew it would. The Kingdom of God is arguably the most comprehensive, utterly significant, even cataclysmic topic of all time. I have already read some of this, and I’ve bookmarked it for a time that my attentions can be more focused. 20161208_210607.jpg

Speaking of God’s Kingdom . . . prior to examining the holdings of “our” new bookstore, I had begun to build a mini-collection of books about Christians, culture, society, government, and (what I take as) the over-arching Kingdom of God.  I’ve spoken and written extensively about this Kingdom myself, and it’s a good time to share again some details, along with the means of acquiring a copy of my book Subjects of the Kingdom.

At least parts of this book would be good reading for any thoughtful person who observes and cares about how pure Christianity relates to American society.  I am interested in avoiding various traps of the Christian Right, and the notion that American patriotism and Christianity should go hand in hand is one of those traps.  The book somewhat extensively deals with some important-but-often-overlooked ideals of original Christianity—namely, nonviolence and non-participation in human government in favor of an “apocalyptic” view of the Kingdom of God.

The term “pacifism” could perhaps be said to be a book theme, but I am reluctant to use the term for fear that it is associated with less thoughtful, or differently thoughtful, philosophies and theologies.  What I advocate does not necessarily correlate to so-called “pacifism” in terms of beliefs about what a government should or should not do.  (On the contrary, I seek to emphasize what those in the Christian nation should or should not do.)  On the other hand, when one digs, he can find quite a number of (pacifistic) “peace churches,” historically speaking, and this fact alone may be surprising to groups other than my own, such as contemporary fundamentalists and Roman Catholics.

Here is a link to cover blurbs from Subjects of the Kingdom: Christians, Conscience, Government, and the Reign of the King.

And here are two ways to get the book:

  1.  CreateSpace Direct

Password:  allegiance

Add the book (1 or more copies) to your “cart,” and then on the next page, paste in the BL8DQZ4H discount code for $1.50 off.

2. Amazon  (may be cheaper, especially if you get a used copy or get free shipping)

All my books may be viewed and purchased here.

Books! (1 of 2)

When the crew came from Gottwals Books headquarters to help set up the new Walls of Books store, one of the t-shirts they wore queried, “Why buy other stuff when you can buy books“?  Yeah!  I might appreciate the acquisition of some good fruits or a new vacuum cleaner, too, but new books are of more value, I figure.

For as long as I can remember, books have been important to me, although I have not been an avid reader, really.  I generally read to have read, or to learn, if you know what I mean.  But I do value books, and I love neat categories on my book shelves.

Recently, thanks to this new store opportunity, I think about books more often and more expansively.  I have traded in quite a few old ones that I don’t think I’ll need again, and I’ve selected a few new ones, too.  Fiction is not generally my thing, but I had previously acquired a copy of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress.  I took nearly a year to read it, but I finally finished it a month ago.  Although I now have ready access to all the top-selling novel authors, e.g., James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Andrew Greeley, Gillian Flynn, Nicholas Sparks, and (gasp) Debbie Macomber, my next fiction read will probably be another one I’ve had on the shelf for a while:  The Chamber by John Grisham, who is still the best novelist/storyteller I know.

For what it’s worth, here are several of the new ones I’ve taken home—some with my store credit, some on loan (it’s nice knowing the manager and the owner!), and a couple were gifts.

20161208_210610.jpg Through Painted Deserts is not exactly a “coming of age” story, but it has a youth-growing-up layer.  Reading this is as relaxing as it is constructional and inspirational.  Having read Blue Like Jazz a dozen years ago at the recommendation of a younger friend, I knew Donald Miller to be a good writer with something to say about life and God.  His style of relating the two is not exactly my own, but there’s something about him and his ways and his descriptions that makes me wish I were a little more free.
And what about a little light reading?  On a simple topic?  That no one has ever stumbled over or philosophized about?  Mark Vernon’s All That Matters:  God is sort of a brief, fair-minded history of various strands of theological philosophy, not really a theological investigation, and certainly not confined to Judeo-Christian ideas.  Still, this book now sits, having had a fairly thorough scan, among my more traditional books about God by J.I. Packer, A.W. Tozer, and others.
20161208_210556.jpg I always wanted my own Dead Sea Scrolls.  Not really.  But I figured it was a steal at $2.97 to have this early edition of a colossally important find of the middle 20th century.

I doubt I’ll ever read through it all; it’s a reference book more than anything else, and it’ll be better to look at a page in this book than to find some unreliable, hard-to-navigate web page.  Eventually I’ll have to do some spelunking of my own to find out whether this edition has an academic axe to grind, and how it was published so early, and so cheaply, to begin with.

I’m a sucker for a story about people who righteously rebel against the corrupt and/or stupid status quo.  This promises to be just that.  Never had heard of the Cathars.  Their label would appear to be related to “catharsis,” which has taken on a new meaning in current use but which derives from the ancient Greek root καθαρ- | kathar- which signified (roughly) cleaning/cleansing.

This ties in with my interest in biblical words, etymology, and linguistics in general.  And doesn’t it whet your appetite to know more about the Cathars?  I only hope their take on cleansing was more inward rather than finding its voice in such violent atrocities as the Inquisition or the Crusades.

img_20161211_205700_450.jpg This one was a gift . . . because everyone needs a Chilton’s manual for his old truck . . . if not for himself, perhaps the backyard mechanic he will someday hire will find it useful.

On a side note, I wish my little Chevy S10 were red—or, better yet, blue or green—but the white one was a good buy at $1500, and I’ve only put $300 into it.

I’ve also written some books.  You can find them here.  There are two on musical topics; one on the Christian assembly and one on Christian Worship, and I’ve made contributions to other books that also show up on the same page.  In planning stages are books on conducting and Matthew’s gospel, but those are many months or even years off.

In the next post on books, I’ll give some detail on my own magnum opus as well as sharing some more blurbs on books from the bookstore.