14 November 2009

Football Photos, Thomist Thoughts

You could probably do worse for an update on what I've been doing at seminary the last couple weeks than to check out two digital snapshots.

The first is actually a collection of snapshots. The VTS Fighting Friars went 1-2 at the Luther Bowl in Gettysburg a few weeks back, ending our season 2-2. But we went 2-0 "in conference," after adding a win against our fellow Anglicans at Trinity School for Ministry (aka the Pittsburg Kneelers), who were by far the best sporstmen (and sportswomen) and the cleanest team we played on a day of startlingly hard hits for a flag football tournament. Anyway, you can check out the pictures here, including this highly embarrassing one of me running with the ball after our goal-line zone won us an interception:

The other tidbit is a response to one of the several comments I got on my Twitter post about enjoying Thomas Aquinas. A friend wanted to know what I'd liked about him, and this is what I wrote:

I guess what I appreciated about the excerpt of Aquinas that we read was the motivation and methodology. I like this notion of saying, in effect:

"There's some unity to this huge mass of literature the Christian tradition has accumulated. Of course, there is some genuine disagreement, but more often than not the much of the conflict either evaporates completely or at least diminishes if you look at it closely. If we borrow a little Aristotle and go through the careful (if at times a bit tedious) exercise of very clearly defining and categorizing this vast repository of theology, we realize that the story is a lot more harmonious than we might have guessed."

I just really admire the care and precision that goes into the whole thing. Plus, the implicit and rather bold claim that logic and analysis can be deployed meaningfully to help us navigate among this collection of hundreds of isolated claims, plucked (almost at random, it sometimes seems) out of the Scriptures and patristic literature, is just endlessly fascinating when you watch it being deployed. The effort feels very rigorous and worthwhile even if the underlying epistemology seems a little naive by modern standards. [Response from my church history professor to my follow-up question about this final issue: "It's what scholastics do."]
Hope you're all having a lovely weekend and that the weather wherever you are is better than on this dreary day in Northern Virginia.

02 November 2009

Travel Day: Harlem to VTS, Via Media

Navigate past vesting choir members to leave apartment at St. Mary's, Harlem, (126th between Amsterdam and Broadway) at 10 a.m. Take southbound C train to 34th. Walk to Madison Square Garden to get in line for Megabus. [Romantic interlude.] Take Megabus to 30th Street Station, Philadelphia. Take R3 SEPTA train to Media, PA. Walk to Christ Church to attend installation of Adam Kradel as new rector. Change out of suit at Christ Church rectory and walk back to Media station. Take R3 back to 30th Street Station. Take Amtrack 165 Regional to Union Station, Washington, D.C. Trains are shutting down for the night, so take final Red Line train from Union Station to Metro Center, transfer to the Orange Line and ride to Roslyn, then transfer to Blue Line and ride to King Street. Take taxi from King Street Station to VTS and arrive at 12:45 a.m.

27 October 2009

Fall Break Update

Sorry for my month-long absence; it's been a wild month or so here at VTS. I hope to make up for it by putting off my final Hebrew studying to tell you a bit about first quarter and share a few photos. Enjoy!

The weather was a lot like it was at Crazylegs 2009 in Madison.

Lined up for a blitz, I think. See the rest of the really excellent pictures (by my friend Cayce Ramey) here.

Second-quarter books! (With Kermit, for scale. Special thanks to Trinity Church for helping me pay for them!)

There are some beautiful fall colors just out the back door of Price Hall (yes, this Price, who apparently wrote one of my favorite prayers in the '79 BCP).

Kristie and me by the WWII memorial on a beautiful afternoon over Columbus Day weekend.

29 September 2009

The Ongoing Pursuit of a Paperless Seminary Reading Workflow

In seminary, we read a lot. Like, probably more than we do anything else--including playing intramural sports (a surprising but deeply rewarding time sink), praying (though we've received tremendous support in this respect), sleeping (at least it feels that way), and complaining (a necessary thing sometimes, let me tell you).

And--as any humanities major knows but us engineering students are always too busy with problem sets to notice--retaining even a small fraction of that reading is a matter of no small challenge or importance. The old middle school "reading notes" model is an almost laughable prospect due to the shear number of pages we're talking about here. The highlighter, I've been told, is my friend. I have come to agree whole-heartedly.

However, because this school thankfully realizes that part of being good stewards of God's creation is to learn to use less paper (and because--let's be honest--who reads paper copies of anything these days, except maybe for actual books?), I find myself with a quandry: how do you highlight PDFs?

You may know that this is a maddeningly difficult question to answer. Trying to do so may be the one thing I'm spending more time on than the actual reading. The problem, as I see it, is that it's impossible to justify spending the money on programs like Adobe Acrobat or Foxit Editor when all you want to do is highlight some text in any damn document you please. I'm not an expert in digital copyright or fair use, but I really don't think this is too much to ask.

In a move we're apparently supposed to interpret as magnanimous, Adobe now allows Reader users (people like me who aren't willing to pay for Acrobat) to do some basic markup on files with "document rights...enabled." The problem--and surely the people at Adobe know this--is that I have never, ever, been given a PDF course reading with document rights enabled. Again, some of this may be a matter of legitimate intellectual property concern. But if these files are being used for educational use (and clearly that's why my professors are allowed to distribute them as PDFs via course management software in the first place), it seems like merely applying a "highlight filter" to a local copy of the document ought to be fair game. Am I off base here?

Anyway, enough complaining...let me tell you what I've converged to and then put out a plea for anyone who finds this post and has a better solution to please help me out. After playing quite a bit with PDFedit and finding it summarily difficult to use (or maybe the Ubuntu distribution is just buggy?), I've settled on the more user friendly but still unsatistfactory flpsed. Basically, this program lets you do text annotation. As you can see in the screenshot below, the text manages to remain persistent even if you view the re-converted PDF in a program like Evince, which is handy. But this workflow still requires a lot of typing, when all I really want to be able to do is highlight. I'm encouraged by early experiments with Scribus, but I'm still fighting the learning curve.

Am I overlooking a simpler free (or cheap) solution? It wouldn't be the first time. If so, please enlighten me. Is anyone else as perplexed as I am about this stunning lack of obviously useful functionality?

03 September 2009

DC Must-Sees?

Hey everybody, this instalment of the video blog includes a request for tourist destinations for me to take the folks this weekend. Please chime in in the comments if you have favorite places. Thanks!

29 August 2009

Traveling, Traveling

Two interesting travel stories (of a sort) caught my eye in this morning's NYT. The first was one of those periodic road trip accounts that you see now and then and that tend to be pretty entertaining. I love the minivan angle--timely and practical, I thought. Made the notion of the cross-country road trip seem more manageable.

(Speaking of minivans, a brief moment of venting here: A month or so before I moved to Alexandria, I was in a car accident--my fault--and had to have the front passenger door replaced. They put in a refurbished door...and now it won't unlock! I have to climb in the through the back or passenger side doors. And I can't take it back to where I had the work done, because I had the work done 850 miles away. Grrr...)

The second was one I hadn't heard about here but apparently has gotten a lot of attention in Europe. A thirteen-year-old Dutch girl wants to sail around the world by herself. Her parents gave her permission, but the state has intervened to tell her she can't go--at least for now, while they evaluate her fitness for the trip. Fascinating stuff:

She said on a Dutch children’s show this month that she had been sailing solo since age 6 and planning her global voyage for three years.

“I asked my parents if I could — please — start now,” she said, The Associated Press reported.

“In the beginning, they asked if I was sure I really wanted to do it,” she said. “They have sailed around the world, so they know what could happen and that it’s not always fun, but I realize that, too. But I really wanted to do it, so my parents said, ‘Good, we’ll help you.’ ”

She has been practicing her solo skills. Earlier this year, she was picked up in Britain after she was discovered sailing alone to the port of Lowestoft, on the east coast of England. The British authorities ordered her father, Dick Dekker, to go get her. He went, but Laura ended up sailing home alone, according to news reports.

Caroline Vink, a social worker at the Netherlands Youth Institute in Utrecht, a research organization that advises the government on youth policy, said Laura’s case was not clear-cut because she was obviously a talented and passionate sailor capable of great things. But she stressed that, ultimately, “the state and society had a moral obligation to intervene when the safety of a child was at risk.”

The ruling came from a district court in Utrecht, which said she could continue living with her father during the assessment of the trip’s risk. Laura was not in the courtroom, The A.P. reported. She was out sailing.

27 August 2009

Critic Signing Off

Final columns by long-time writers are a fascinating genre all their own. I like the way NYT restaurant critic Frank Bruni handled it yesterday: by collecting a list of "questions that [he] was often asked or that [he] wished [he]’d been asked, along with responses." Here's my favorite:


Scratch off the appetizers and entrees that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent this one at its most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded. The chef’s heart isn’t in them.

Scratch off the dishes that look the most aggressively fanciful. The chef’s vanity — possibly too much of it — spawned these.

Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.

Choose among the remaining dishes.

23 August 2009


In this week's video post: brats and beer, baseball, and biblical languages. Two of the three required an umbrella.

Glad Someone Else Mentioned This

Earlier today, Anglican Centrist asked a question that I've been wondering about myself and will paraphrase here: where's the media tumult over the recent decision by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly "to open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional workers living in committed relationships"?

Don't get me wrong. I'm from the heart of Lutheran country and have a great love and respect for the ELCA; I'm happy that so far they at least seem to have been partly spared the kind of oversimplified, conflict-emphasizing mass media attention the Episcopal Church was subject to last month. Of course, that doesn't mean things are going to be any easier within their Church, so I hope you'll join me in keeping the ELCA (and the Episcopal Church) in your thoughts and/or prayers during what's sure to be a difficult time for both.

Getting back to the question, though, here's my thinking:

(1) I get the impression this decision has a smaller international impact than ours does. I'm not a demographer of religion, but I believe the Anglican Communion is larger and (perhaps more relevantly) more culturally heterogeneous than the Lutheran World Federation. There may be ecclesial reasons as well. Am I on the right track, anyone who actually knows something about this? I'm woefully ignorant of global Lutheranism.

(2) I wonder if perhaps since the Episcopal coverage hits so much closer to home for me, I'm only perceiving the Lutheran coverage to be more muted. Note that, like me, Anglican Centrist seems to have started out this general line of thinking when noticing the lack of coverage in the New York Times (I don't read the print version but do get a daily headlines email from which this story has been persistently absent). But The Times may not be a very good proxy given the Episcopal Church's ties to New York. Do any trained media-types have suggestions for a more systematic comparison? I'm guessing it would be necessary to give it some time; of course there's currently more coverage out there of something that happened in mid-July than of something that happened Friday.

What am I leaving out? This is obviously a complex and difficult question to answer well.

15 August 2009

(Video) Greetings from Alexandria

Well, I've emerged from the minor ordeal that was finishing up a master's thesis (an interesting process that probably deserves further reflection at another time), recovering from same, and moving across the country. So I wanted to start checking in (hopefully regularly) about my somewhat different new digs and educational context. Most of you know, I think, that I've started studies at Virginia Theological Seminary with the eventual hope of becoming an Episcopal priest. I've had a week or so to get settled here, and it's definitely starting to feel enough like home to overcome the effects of the waning post-move adrenaline.

I'm sure I'll have plenty of thoughts to share about this place, but for now let it suffice to say that a big part of why I was so excited about coming here is that the school seemed genuinely committed to the importance of formation in community and to fostering an atmosphere conducive to that work. I'm thankful that so far it has not disappointed.

Anyway, I was saying to a friend of mine before I left that I somehow felt like video blogging might be an especially good way to communicate some of my experience down here. I haven't totally figured out why I think that or whether I'm right, but see below for a minor dipping-in-of-toes to that ocean. Let me know if there's anything in particular you'd like to know about my life or studies down here. I'd love to try to stay connected in as authentic a way as possible--even if I do look and feel a little silly.

06 May 2009

More Funny Found Science

Man, colloquia abstracts are a seemingly endless source of buried jokes. Check out the grad student dig in the following summary of a talk on using machine learning to study human and animal learning:

Machine learning studies the principles governing all learning systems. Human beings and animals are learning systems too, and can be explored using the same mathematical tools. This approach has been fruitful in the last few decades with standard tools such as reinforcement learning, artificial neural networks, and non-parametric Bayesian statistics. We bring the approach one step further with some latest tools in machine learning, and uncover new quantitative findings. In this talk, I will present three examples: (1) Human semi-supervised learning. Consider a child learning animal names. Dad occasionally points to an animal and says "Dog!" (labeled data). But mostly the child observes the world by herself without explicit feedback (unlabeled data). We show that humans learn from both labeled and unlabeled data, and that a simple Gaussian Mixture Model trained using the EM algorithm provides a nice fit to human behaviors. (2) Human active learning. The child may ask "What's that?", i.e. actively selecting items to query the target labels. We show that humans are able to perform good active learning, achieving fast exponential error convergence as predicted by machine learning theory. In contrast, when passively given i.i.d. training data humans learn much slower (polynomial convergence), also predicted by learning theory. (3) Monkey online learning. Rhesus monkeys can learn a "target concept", in the form of a certain shape or color. What if the target concept keeps changing? Adversarial online learning model provides a polynomial mistake bound. Although monkeys perform worse than theory, anecdotal evidence suggests that they follow the concepts better than some graduate students. Finally, I will speculate on a few lessons learned in order to create better machine learning algorithms. (Source, but ultimately via Eric Howell on the Hacker Within mailing list.)

No exactly stand-up material, but I love that the guy was playful enough to put it in the abstract. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, though, given what I found on this project's spring 2009 schedule page. We actually had that same xkcd hanging in our office for a while.

05 May 2009

THW on the Radio

A couple weeks back, The Hacker Within's fearless leader Milad Fatenejad and I did an interview with Matthew McCormick of Hacker Public Radio. I got notification today that it recently went live. Aside from having to suppress the occasional wince at my usual longwindedness, I had fun re-listening and think it turned out pretty well. If you're interested in programming/computing or would just like to hear about what we're up to and why, you can check out the interview here (I had to download it). Thanks very much to Matt for his help as we continue to try to get the word out about the organization and its work.

30 April 2009

Some atoms? Some CHEMICALS?

I was looking up some citation information on a text I use a lot but don't have on me today when I stumbled across this wonderfully bizarre customer review on Amazon. Those of you familiar with Benedict and Pigford's Nuclear Chemical Engineering may find this especially funny, but I thought the prose was amusing enough that I had to share.

I'm always supportive of huzzah, but--as is so often the case--the bewilderment sets in when you try to parse the all-caps text. Also, I wonder if we might adopt prehaps as a new nuclear safety term for the means by which we prevent mishaps.


But seriously folks, this is the MOTHER of nuclear chemical engineering novelas! If you plan on reading this book be prepared to BUCKLE UP because you're going for a RIDE. A ride to Nuclear Chemical Engineering LAND! Huzzah! What have we here? Some atoms? Some CHEMICALS? Prehaps this CHEMICAL SOUP ISN'T SO BAD AFTER ALL! BOKKO!

Here's the link.

11 April 2009

Another Sweet Google Tool

Three events recently converged to respark my interest in a little mini-project I tried to do some time ago:

(1) At yesterday's Python subgroup meeting of The Hacker Within, our resident Pythonista got me all excited about developing easy web applications in that language. I write a lot of Python for pre- and post-processing of nuclear fuel cycle systems data, but I've never done any web-related Python work except for fixing a bug or two in some Trac instances. Nico got me pumped about the prospect.

(2) I started helping the Diocese of Milwaukee with their new Website, for which we're using Google Sites in an attempt to improve the ease of collaboration and maintenance. I think Google Sites is pretty terrific, but it does have some limitations, and I'm interested in identifying some Google-compatible solutions. The Python-based Google App Engine seems like a promising direction.

(3) My friend Ryan re-activated pangramaday, which I've mentioned here before and is now available via Twitter (@pangramaday).

As it did during my short-lived interest in learning to develop Java Applets, the pangramist's quandary motivated a little mini-project a few steps more complex than Hello, World! and perfect for learning a new set of interfaces. And this time I can actually publish the result (such as it is), because the Google App Engine framework is just so frickin' easy to use.

So if for pangram-, crossword- or Wheel-of-Fortune-related purposes you ever need a list of words that all contain some given collection of letters, look no further than pangramhelper. It's currently both ugly and slow, but if my interest in learning these APIs doesn't wane too much, that may change.

It's actually kind of fun to enter random (or not so random--can you tell I'm getting ready for the Easter Vigil?) letters and see what you get:

You wrote:

Christos anesti

We found:


It only took a few hours and about a hundred lines of Python (and most of those are just longhand HTML inside of function calls). Seriously, check out the App Engine.

16 March 2009

Cross-posting: St. Francis Forum

I put an item up at St. Francis Forum that I figured I should post here as well:

I had the opportunity (at Bishop Miller's suggestion) to preach at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in addition to St. Francis House a couple Sundays back. I wanted to post the sermon because I know that some folks who wanted to come couldn't make it and because I was getting lots of questions about the Harvey Cox book I mentioned (it's called Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year).

Anyway, if you're interested, you can find the sermon here.

27 February 2009

Doctorow Did It!

As I was catching up on my usual Web comics this morning (which were really on fire this week--see links in sidebar at right), I was especially amused by a thought that occurred to me when reading Wednesday's xkcd. If you've seen Cory Doctorow's excellent essay "Wikipedia: A Genuine H2G2—Minus the Editors" in the mostly disappointing The Anthology at the End of the Universe, you realize this comic's basically already been written. Have you seen that "Simpsons did it" episode of South Park? I couldn't help wondering if Randall Monroe has similar visions of Doctorow always one step ahead of him. Then again, in the case of those two, the idea-borrowing goes both ways.

Anyway, great comic anyway, as usual. Image courtesy xkcd.com and used by permission:

P.S.: I hate to badmouth anything DNA-related, but, seriously, The Anthology at the End of the Universe pretty much sucks. The notable exceptions are the Doctorow piece and the brilliant and hilarious "The Secret Symbiosis: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Its Impact on Real Computer Science" by Bruce Bethke. I work with these people--it's all true.

P.P.S.: I'm sure other people have pointed this out on the xkcd forums, but in my opinion the scraped away Kindle logo should have yielded "Don't Panic." It's an inside joke anyway--why not get it right?

23 February 2009

Rave Within A Rave

My colleague David Meerman Scott just posted one of the coolest projects I think he's done: a video in which he hopes to demonstrate the power of and principles for creating what he calls a World Wide Rave by starting one around his new book of same name. I do editorial work for David and was involved in both the book (available from Wiley on March 3) and the new e-book (in which he explains how he put the video together), and I highly recommend that anyone interested in raising the online profile of his or her organization have a look at what he's put together. Watch carefully during the first few seconds!

18 February 2009

Another Bootcamp

For those interested in computing, The Hacker Within will be doing our second bootcamp of the semester in a few weeks. See below for details (flyer by Katy Huff, our talented Director of Creative Affairs):

14 February 2009

New Insights Posted

I mentioned in the last post that I'm taking over as the editor of the Engineering Learning Center's Teaching and Learning Insights newsletter for the semester. Just thought I'd mention that the February issue (which I did the markup and some light editing for) is posted at insights.engr.wisc.edu. I wrote an article for TLI last year and am looking forward to getting started on some articles for the March issue soon.

09 February 2009

The Difference Is Maintainability

So I write a lot of Python, and one of the claims promoters of the language usually make is that it helps you write more maintainable code. I think they're right in that claim, and I think they're right to stress the centrality of the issue.

We've discovered over the years at St. Francis House (and in my research group, for that matter, and at Wisconsin Engineer, if I remember correctly) that maintainability is also essential--and difficult--on the Web (of course, this is really just another kind of source-code-maintenance problem). In a high turnover organization, it's especially hard to cultivate a continuous Web presence.

Say what you will about the low-powered solution offered by Google Sites, I think they're on to something, and I'm super-excited that we've ported the St. Francis House website over to this system. Sure, I wish it were a little more flexible and powerful. But I think you'll agree that it lets you construct reasonably attractive and well organized sites (nearby St. Andrew's uses the system as well), and I can attest to the relative ease of use over other options (and I like screwing around with webpages and have learned a lot about XHTML/CSS in preparation for taking over for the semester as editor of this site about engineering education). Most importantly, no FTP or SCP is required (we computer geeks take these tools for granted, but I think they can be just as much a barrier as HTML).

I think Google's got another winner here, at least for a presumably significant market niche (groups who want a good site but can't afford to pay professionals, especially for maintenance and updating). I'll keep you posted as to whether the feature-set improves in the coming months.

02 February 2009

Holmes Slice

Just had to pass along a quick Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. snippet that was the "Thought for Today" in Wordsmith.org's A.Word.A.Day email:

Laughter and tears are meant to turn the wheels of the same machinery of sensibility; one is wind-power, and the other water-power.

This is the same Holmes (father of the Supreme Court Justice) who brought us the wonderful "Wonderful One-Hoss-Shay" which Henry Petroski writes so thoughtfully about in To Engineer Is Human. Sounds like an interesting fellow.

03 January 2009

TV Plea

These days I watch virtually no television other than sports. There's nothing virtuous about this; I live three flights of stairs away from the set at our house, I'm busy most evenings and don't honestly have much chance, and--most importantly--I'm seldom able to find shows that I actually like.

Especially not on broadcast television, which is a shame. There's a great scene in Studio 60 where the eponymous show-within-a-show's network president is trying to woo a young writer who's created a drama about the United Nations and wants to take it to HBO. Knowing he once wrote an off-broadway play about Pericles, she appeals to Pericles's quote that "All things good should flow into the boulevard," the point being that she thought the show was too good to be tucked away on cable. I've always found that scene, and Sorkin's "glass tubes" ode to Filo Farnsworth in Sports Night, to be surprisingly moving. I can't remember what TV was like before cable, but I imagine it must have felt much more like a common experience than it does now.

Anyway, over the past two days I finally caught up with discerning TV watchers everywhere and caught Freaks and Geeks on DVD. It was, as a friend of mine once said of his not having read Infinite Jest, a point of growing professional embarassment. In my case, the profession isn't English literature--it's bitching about good TV shows always getting canceled. I have no legitimate claim to this profession (again, I am at best a failure and at worst a poser as a TV snob), but when your favorite TV shows are Sports Night, Studio 60, Arrested Development, Firefly, etc., it's hard not to take some kind of vocational interest in this high calling.

Aside from Studio 60, I didn't watch any of those shows while they were still on the air. And it seems to me that part of the fun of watching TV is blocking off a chunk of your week to get a little excited and to watch the new episode with friends. That's how I felt about Studio 60. It's how my dormmates and I felt as we treked to our buddy's house to watch Smallville each week during my freshman year. I can even remember my parents and I feeling that way about Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was a little kid in Florida. I think it's part of what's worthwhile about watching TV in the first place, and it prevents falling into the profoundly 2000s-era mailaise you get from falling in love with and then immediately having to say goodbye to a great cancelled-early show as you watch its entirety on DVD in grotesque marathon style (my eyes still hurt from last night's final Freaks and Geeks binge).

Here's my plea to the genuine TV snobs (or merely the very fortunate) among you on this Saturday morning: can someone please tell me which shows are that good right now? I don't have "Rock & Roll Lifestyle"-type aspirations of hearing of them first or anything. I just want to get to experience them the way TV was meant to be watched rather than in gloomy DVD postmortem. I don't read the Onion AV Club much much anymore (out of desperation to get some work done); please help me compensate and to have a genuinely positive TV watching experience, before it's too late. In the meantime, I guess I'll be tracking down the Undeclared DVDs.