Out of office

Not sure if I really like those “out of office” automatic replies on email. Just get back to me when you can. I’ll appreciate that a lot more than a bunch of nonsense emails in my inbox.

But I suppose this is an ‘out of office’ blog which is assuredly much less offensive.

I’m out of the office right now because I just spent my 3rd wedding anniversary with my wife, and I am expecting to go to her brother’s wedding in a couple of days, so I’m preoccupied.

On a related side note, we ate dinner at a place called ‘Louis Vins’–it’s one of those very clever plays on word because “vingt” and “vins” are indistinguishable phonetically in French, so it sounds like “Louis the 20th” which of course never was–the restaraunt, however, is in the Latin Quarter in Paris, France where we’ve been living for the past year. It also happened to be the night of the “fete de la musique” which takes place every 21st of June.

At any rate, the restaurant is located on a side street between rue des Ecoles and St. Germain de Pres right next to the Maubert Mutualite metro stop. The cuisine is traditional French that is at the same time lively and colorful. It is located just across from a parking lot, which is handy because you can easily see it.

Their wine cellar is “entree libre” so you can look and choose your own wine, from a very respectable collection. Wine prices are reasonable and the “prix fixe” menu is 26 euro for entree, plat and dessert.

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, despite a bit of rain, and felt really lucky to be able to spend our wedding anniversary in Paris on the night of the summer solstice.

Wiki on the NY Times

Wikipedia discussion has made it to the NY Times in an article in today's paper. The article is actually less well balanced on the central issues that what one finds in the recent online discussions. But what I find most vexing is that the way NYT presents it, wikipedia is now being criticized for not living up to its billing of a web page "anyone can edit."

This is such a knee-jerck political reaction: someone takes a principled stand or advances a new idea, that principle is then taken to the extreme (e.g., if anyone can edit, than no edit should ever be censured), and then the company is criticized for not upholding this apsurd standard. Wiki is a continual process, and certain measures of protection (of which wikipedia's are minor) should be considered necessary maintenance. And this should not undermine the basic idea that a collective of amateurs with easy access to a network of information can provide better encyclopedia services than traditional editing practices.

It seems that there might be ways of employing restricitions to wiki editing, ones for instance that were small technical hurdles and in no way impinged a priori on anyone's participating, such that these rules could retain the democratic principles of the wiki.

What to do with wiki

Another shameless referal to previous post, High-tech cheaters. Scott McLemee's recent article in Inside Higher Ed makes points to a related issue: wikipedia. I think Mclemee is all to deferential in his article. Of course we should contribute to wikipedia. Wiki's capture something essential about the internet. And all caveats apply. Wikipedia is only exactly as quick and easy to use as it is potentially misleading: as it is with most things.

Also, check out McLemee's blog. I love the bit on referrals:

My favorite search leading anyone here (at least in recent memory) was one someone did for "hot girls reading heidegger."

Lord knows I searched for them myself, once upon a time, but that was in the dark ages, long before the Internet. Good luck, whoever you are.

But avoid "hot girls reading kristeva." More trouble than it's worth. Trust me on this.

Another interesting link emerging from the McLemee article is to Jaron Lanier's article "Digital Maoism". Lanier's argument is detailed and interesting. He attempts to take on the question of whether or not the "collective" cognitive capacity that is represented by wiki's is really destined toward some improvement.

A couple of things: Lanier is wrong that

"Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure." 

The Bible is what it is because these various writers and editors spanned a long period of time when it was very hard to record anything. So what was saved was certainly not the work of one person, was sometimes contradictory, but certainly withstood the test of time. Wikipedia is the opposite.

Second, I'm not sure by what standard Lanier is measuring wiki. He uses such concepts as "voice" and "personality" to criticize wiki entries. I don't think anyone is looking for the hundred monkeys in a room with typewriters who produced Shakespeare. We're looking for something much more dry: some decent facts, good links, a beginning to a research project.

Finally, I don't see a necessary connection between buying into the wiki and buying into the "race to the most meta." For one, there is no necessary gradation in wiki entries, we do not accend a hierarchy of being, or gain logical generality through the internet. Instead we gain, mainly random, horizontal webs of interconnection, links. It's not the Tower of Babel, its more like algea on the surface of a pond. Which reminds me, even if "collective" thinking is roughly random, given enough time and adequate energy sources, randomness has proven itself in the past.

St. Benoît-sur-Loire

Recently, my wife and I took a retreat to the Loire valley in France. We have been living in Paris for the past year and attending the American Church in Paris. So when they announced that their summer adult retreat would be in a monastery in the French countryside, we were on board.

The Loire river runs from the French Alps, crossing the entire width of France until it finally dumps into the Atlantic Ocean. The well-known region of the "Loire valley" sits just south of Paris and is known as the dscf2217.jpg"corbeille à pain" of France, because its rich soil and flat landscape makes it ideal farm land. The river was once wide, deep and majestic, servicing trade. It was also large enough to carry Viking vessels up river, which in turn carried Vikings, who then raped and pillaged the struggling Gauls during the decline of Rome's imperial power and control of the region in the 5th century AD. As you can see, the rich soil around the Loire river eventually gave way, and the river has since filled with silt, making it currently unnavigable by large boats.

Around the time of the raping and pillaging, a young man of royal blood was born in the North of Italy and named Benedictus. At a very young age he had a conversion experience that lead him to turn to a life of solitude. As he became well known for his miracles and his piety, several monks encouraged him to join them. Although Benedict himself tried unsuccessfully to live in the monastic communities, he is known as the patriarch of western monastacism thanks to his only surviving writing, the Rule of St. Benedict, which encapsulates the values of monastic life and strictly regiments behavoir in the monasteries. Though Benedictines are not affiliated by any central bureaucratic organization, they all are linked by their devotion to at least the spirit of these rules.

The Abbot of Fleury, from Orléans, actually saw to the construction of the church and some of the buildings that currently stand at St. Benoît-sur-Loire, which is why it is also called Abbée de Fleurie. In any case, the massive romanesque church that rises out of the Loire valley in this tiny town of about 2,000 dscf2212.jpg people, is impressive in its own right. But the church is also notable for housing the relics of St. Benedict in a beautiful reliquary beneath the choir (these were obtained through some questionable means in the 13th century). Moreover, the monastic life itself, which continues to be practiced by a small community of about 40 monks cloistered there at the church is a whole other impressive religious symbol, an icon of faith.

The monks attend and administer 7 offices, or services, each day. These services consist of chanting prayers in Latin, singing around 4 or 5 hymns, and a reading from the New and Old Testaments, these latter two in French. They claim to run through the psalms once every week and a half. Though when they enter the monastery, the monks agree to remain there for their lives, they do not spend a great deal of time doing the kinds of activities we would consider to be "community building." The monks eat their meals in silence. And every evening after Vigiles, at around 9:00 until after Laudes and then breakfast at around 8:00, they observe what is called the Great Silence, which is just what it sounds like. In fact, one of the central ideas of the Rule of St. Benedict is that the tongue leads to sin, so most speech, and certainly any jocular, rude or hurtful speech is prohibited.

The word monk, or "moine" in French, comes from the Latin "mono," suggesting that what it means to be a monk is to be alone in front of God, "seul devant Dieu." In a sense, speech, even in a cloistered community detracts from that focused mission. While there for the weekend, our group observed the Great Silence, though we were allowed to speak at lunch and dinner. For the purposes of a short retreat, I found the silence liberating. Even as my wife and I shared the same room and spent the evenings together, we freed ourselves from the need to communicate, the need to reassure each other, the need to fill space with words.

sunset-weathervaneBoth nights there, we walked down to the river at sunset and just enjoyed the atmosphere, the surroundings and the silence. Each morning, I ate my breakfast slowly and thoughtfully, being freed from the obligation to chat with my neighbor. Before I paint too rosey a picture of this habit, however, I must say that we had the opportunity to meet one of the monks there at the monastery. He was young and had only been at the St. Benoît for five years, yet he was preparing to take his final examination and looking forward to taking his oath to join the community for life.

His name was Tanguy, and he was bright, quick-witted and honest. Even though he spoke to us in English, which was certainly a bit uncomfortable for him, I think he affected everyone in the group. In fact, our discussions after the fact testified that we were most startled byTanguy's admission to seeing a psychotherapist in Orléans once a week. I'm not sure if it was the honesty and openness, or the idea that a monk–of all people–would need help with his mental health, but what I found most amazing was what Tanguy said about the reasons why. He said that living in a community is difficult (which is no secret). But especially since his community had all voluntarily chosen to submit themselves to such a high standard of excellence–refraining from speaking rather than saying a hurtful word–he said there were none of the usual outlets or ways of "getting things off your chest." He joked that if they were not given mental health benefits, the monastery might be little different than an asylum.

This is coming from someone who had chosen to give his life to worship and to live as a symbol of religious faith in the most austere of environments. I wonder where the rest of us stand on that scale: probably either in the loony bin or at war.

Teaching a Fish to Swim

In a recent post on High-Tech "Cheaters", I argued that the essential problem with cheating, high-tech or otherwise, is a problem that faces all educators, namely, how to reach students' needs effectively and then evaluate their response to our efforts. In the May 2006 issue of the Proceedings and Addresses of the APA, I ran accross John M. Dolan's "Statement for the Academy of Distinguished Teachers" appended to his obituary. John Dolan was a Professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, and passed away on 15 September 2005. He says:

"My philosophy of education can be expressed in a single sentence: 'You are teaching a fish how to swim.' I am suspicious of instructors who, thinking they understand what is going on when real intellectual growth takes place, wax eloquent about their pedagogical 'methodologies.' Examined closely, episodes described as 'inspired teaching' are occasions in which abilities and powers already present in the 'student' are somehow stimulated and stirred into more vivid realization and growth. Neither the 'teacher' nor the 'student' is wholly in charge of the direction or character of that new life and growth."

He goes on to compare a student to a plant, which develops out of its own inner force, and he warns teachers to take heed of the old doctor's credo: "Primum non nocere" (first of all, do no harm). How much does a teacher's effort to control the dynamic of the classroom, to resist the intrusion of new technologies, to submit students to artificial and narrow methods of evaluation constrict the growth of students?

In a real sense, what we do as teachers is not much: we simply try to let our students be what they already are. Yet there is also no doubt that letting things be what they are requires a determined will and a sharp mind.

Marie Antoinette

Sophia Coppola's new movie is worth seeing. I was impressed by how many historical moments she weaved into her 80's teen-angst stylized rendition of the Hapsburg princess-cum queen of France. The movie was shot on location in France with a good helping of Versaille, and the small chateau "Petit Trianon" which was renovated and given her. This definitely lent a historical sensibility despite the obvious modern style. But what is perhaps most provocative about this film is the way that Coppola reinterprets the life of Marie Antoinette, the classic scapegoat of the collapse of the French monarchy. In Coppola's eyes, Antoinette is a well-meaning, if childish, idyllic princess played by Kirsten Dunst whose practically impotent husband Louis-Auguste, played by Jason Schwartzman, is the real folly of the French monarchy.

The images of decadence in the French royal household, from the wonderfully malevolent mistress of Louis XV, to the gambling, champagne, clothes, shoes and more pastries than you could feed an army, are all rendered in this temptingly sumptuous "Pretty in Pink" meets "Clueless" montage, complete with a fantastic soundtrack. One has to wonder what Coppola is suggesting with this obvious parallelism. I am reminded most of Modonna's self-portrait as Marie Antoinette in her performance of "Vogue" for the MTV music awards.

One thing that must be said for Coppola's portrayal is that, true to the tastes of her subject in the film, she rigorously ignores any broader view of the historical situation in France, or the horrific downfall of the French royal families in the terror that followed the revolution. Instead, this depiction is entirely confined to Versaille, where only a couple of (very moving) scenes depict any interaction between the nobles and the commoners. It has become clear, at the movie's end, that the kingdom is lost, but there is no real sense of what this means. Instead, we find ourselves isolated, in a bubble of teenage giddiness–and maybe even teenage existential angst.

This is only Coppola's third film, and I would say that she has clearly demonstrated her capabilities in the craft of film-making. Her movies are heavily symbolic, moving and beautiful. But in this one, like the others, there is a sense that so much more lies below the surface, so much that the director is simply not willing to dive into. Perhaps it has something to do with Coppola's fascination for actresses, like Dunst, who themselves do not carry a real depth of character. This is painfully obvious in one scene where Dunst is supposed to have collapsed in agony under the pressure of not being able to bear a child. The camera artfully follows Dunst into her room with a close shot. But there is nothing there. No feeling.

I will say this, there is a wonderful irony in the fact that the greater part of the movie is spent in suspense and tension over the incapacities of the royal couple to produce an heir to the throne. When these minor difficulties are finally overcome, Antoinette does produce a "son of France"–who will never be its king. Indeed, what preoccupied all of the nobles, and the pamphleteers at the time, was minor in comparison to the real impotence of the king of France to curb the hunger and poverty of his own people. Which is to say, that clearly the fall of the French monarchy was a symptom of a much larger problem then a couple of young, naive, rulers. And perhaps Coppola has captured this truth for us.