back in the saddle

Hi. I’m back. Not sure how much I’ll be posting, but I have a great many ideas that I want to try out, so please join me in the comments. A few little notes about what I’ve been up to: 

More soon! 

redirecting to Pinboard

I had thought that I might be able to resume at least some blogging here, but it’s just not going to happen. Too much to do — and soon I will begin blogging in support of my forthcoming book How to Think. Please keep an eye on that site, if thinking is the kind of thing you’re into.

I am still of course fascinated by all the themes I have written about here, and am always reading about them. I keep track of much of my reading on my Pinboard page, and will try to remember to use the textpatterns tag to note things that might of of interest to my readers here.

Also, I have essays on Textpatterns-related topics coming out in the journal that hosts this blog, the good old New Atlantis, and also in The Hedgehog Review. I’ll point to those, when the time comes, on Twitter.

a great silence cometh

We’re going to have radio silence here at Text Patterns for a while — I’m coming to the end of a year of research leave and have a number of projects, small and large, that I need to wrap up before school resumes in August.

One of those projects is related to my previous post: Our social media put us in an odd situation in relation to words, our own and others’. People say things they don’t mean, or that they declare afterwards that they don’t mean; they retweet or report or link to statements that they later (when challenged) say they don’t endorse. Every day we see people positioning themselves in oblique relation to language. Mikhail Bakhtin — early in his career, which is to say, early in the history of the Soviet Union, when people’s words were already landing them in prison — wrote of the moral imperative of being answerable for one’s language; Wendell Berry, in one of his most important essays, wrote of the inestimable value of “standing by words,” standing by what we say. It’s hard to imagine concepts more foreign to the way language is used on social media today. So I’m writing an essay about the restoration of answerability.

I’m also in the early stages of writing about the changing fortunes of the concept of nature, something that I discussed briefly in a few recent posts.

As usual, I’ll be posting images, links, and very brief reflections (often on Christian matters) at my personal blog.

I’m continuing to think about Anthropocene theology, but that’s going to be a very long-term project.

The next book I write, by the way, will be called Auden and Science.

And then I have various responsibilities concerning the books I’ve already written. How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed — that’s the subtitle for the U.K. edition, which I like better than the one for the American edition — will be out this fall, and I’ll be involved in the publicity for that. Also, I’ll be blogging about some of the ideas of the book on that site.

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Intellectuals and Total War will be out next year from Oxford UP, and I have final revisions to do for that, plus all the questionnaire-answering and form-filling that accompany publication.

AND: I’ll need to start prepping for my fall classes! By the time I return I’ll have been fifteen months out of the classroom, and that’s a long time. I am itching to reconnect with students, believe it or not.

But the research leave was great. I got a lot of work done and have been refreshed by the opportunity to read and think and reflect. This past year also marked the end of a decade of illness in my family, which means that for the past few months I have had the strange and wonderful experience of not having to spend a lot of time caring for a sick loved one. (That’s taken me a while to get used to, oddly enough. I still wake up in the morning casting my mind around for the first thing I need to do for … oh wait, everyone’s fine!) So I’ll be headed back into teaching with a lot of energy. Lord, may it please you that the next few years are like this one — for me personally, I mean. I’d prefer not to have any more years like this one in American politics.

Ciao for now!

alert: latency in posting

Friends: My beloved and I are about to take a road trip to Southern California, where next week I’ll be leading a faculty seminar at Biola University. We’ll take our time driving out there and driving back, because I’ve never seen the desert Southwest and plan to enjoy taking some of it in. Blogging will resume soon after our return.

Anthropocene update

I promised a kind of summary or overview of my current project on Anthropocene theology, but that will need to wait a while. This post will explain why.

I understand the Anthropocene as an era in which some human beings are effectively the gods of this world but also are profoundly disoriented by their godlike status, while other human beings languish in the kinds of misery long familiar to residents of this vale of tears. That is, I think of the Anthropocene not only in terms of the power some humans have over the animate and inanimate worlds, but also in experiential and affective terms: what it feels like to be so empowered or, equally important, to be powerless in the face of other humans’ power.

The idea of articulating a theological anthropology adequate to the Anthropocene era occurred to me when I realized that my interest in writing a technological history of modernity and my interest in writing a book about the theological implications of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction were one and the same interest. And all of these topics are explored on this blog, but of course in no particular sequence. I therefore needed some way to find a thread through the labyrinth, to put these random explorations in some kind of order. So what tools did I need to make this happen? As long-time readers know, I am deeply committed to living in plain text: all of my instruments for writing and organizing are plain-text or enhanced-plain-text apps. So my first thought was: Emacs org-mode.

Org-mode is an exceptionally complex and powerful organizational system, one that I have fooled around with a good bit over the years — but I have never managed to commit fully to it, and it’s the kind of thing that really does require full commitment: you just can’t make it work to its fullest extent without embedding those keystroke sequences in your muscle memory. And further, it requires me to commit to the Mac (or Linux) as opposed to iOS, and I have been wondering whether for the long haul iOS will be the more stable and usable platform.

Enter OmniOutliner. Yesterday I went through all my posts tagged antheo, THM, and Thomas Pynchon and copied them into one large OmniOutliner document. This was a very slow and painstaking task, since I needed to turn every paragraph of every post into a discrete row, and along the way I needed to think about what order made the most sense.

Those decisions about order were rough-and-ready, not definitive, because the whole point of the exercise was to get my ideas into a format that would allow me easily to alter sequences and hierarchies — something that OmniOutliner makes very easy, especially since the keyboard shortcuts for moving a given row up or down, in or out, are the same on both MacOS and iOS. Once I had everything in the document, and had decided on a provisional structure, I went through and color-coded the different levels so that that structure would be immediately visible to me.

So now I have an outline of about 70,000 words — goodness, I’ve blogged a lot — and will need to take some time to figure out what its ideal organization will be, where the holes in the argument are, and so on. But even with just the one day’s work, I am pleased at how the thing seems to be coming together. I think this really could be a book, and perhaps even a useful one. There will be a lot more reading and thinking to do, but as I do that reading and thinking, I have a strong outline into which I can place new ideas.

So I’m not ready, right now, to give an overview of the project. I need to meditate longer on the structure that I have and on what its deficiencies are. But I’m going to keep on exploring these issues, and some of that exploration will happen right here on this blog.

back in action (sort of)

Greetings, readers. I’m back from a visit to my old friends in Wheaton, and aside from seeing those old friends, possibly the best aspect of the trip — which I took by automobile, covering around 2500 miles all told — was the escape it offered from the relentless stimulus/response operant conditioning of social media, so much of which these days is Trumpcentric. I joked with some friends that I’m thinking of just driving around the country until we have a new President.

A few notes:

1) I spent some of the driving time mulling over this idea of Anthropocene theology, and in the next few days I’ll try to write up a kind of summary of where the project has come so far, as much for my benefit as yours. Then I may fall rather quiet about these matters for a while, as I have much reading to do. Also, at the beginning of next month I’ll be leading a faculty seminar at Biola University on technology and theology, so I am sure the people there will give me some responses and challenges. (Prep for and participation in that seminar will slow down my blogging, however.)

2) As part of my reading, I’m revisiting Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood, by my friend and former colleague Christina Bieber Lake. It’s a really superb book, and re-reading it in light of this new project makes me realize how much of the necessary work Christina has already done. So thanks to her!

3) It’s really great to see my friend Alexis Madrigal back writing on technology (and other things) for The Atlantic, starting with this post on how the internet has changed since he started writing about it a decade ago:

“Products don’t really get that interesting to turn into businesses until they have about 1 billion people using them,” Mark Zuckerberg said of WhatsApp in 2014. Ten years ago, there were hardly any companies that could count a billion customers. Coke? Pepsi? The entire internet had 1.2 billion users. The biggest tech platform in 2007 was Microsoft Windows and it had not crossed a billion users.

Now, there are a baker’s dozen individuals products with a billion users. Microsoft has Windows and Office. Google has Search, Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Android, Chrome, and Play. Facebook has the core product, Groups, Messenger, and WhatsApp.

All this to say: These companies are now dominant. And they are dominant in a way that almost no other company has been in another industry. They are the mutant giant creatures created by software eating the world.

And it is this unprecedentedly massive — and unprecedentedly concentrated — collecting, analyzing, and selling of our personal data that has created the baseline “digital insecurity” that Steven Weber and Betsy Cooper write about:

The surprise is not that the frequency of such attacks is accelerating; it’s that it took so long. There are at least three reasons for this acceleration. First, the internet has a fundamentally insecure infrastructure that was initially made for interoperability among a small number of trusted parties, but is now being used by billions who do not know and should not trust one another.

The second reason is that increasingly inventive criminals have become today’s most ambitious internet entrepreneurs. Their work has been made easier by the theft of powerful hacking tools created by and for state security agencies but now available for sale.

Third is the commercial innovation imperative. Consumer demand for digital devices and services keeps pushing companies to the limits of what is technically possible, and then pressing them to go even a little bit further, where security often becomes nice to have but not a necessity.

Alexis is right, I think, to point out that this transformation of the internet from a largely non-commercial place of safety to the most powerful engine of commerce, and engine of insecurity for its users, ever made dates from the debut of the iPhone ten years ago. Ten years! Ten years that have turned a few billion humans’ worlds upside-down. The fastest economic transformation in history, and we haven’t seriously begun to come to terms with it.

4) Finally: In London a couple of months ago Adam Roberts moderated a conversation between Kim Stanley Robinson and Francis Spufford about their recent novels, both set in New York City, but separated in time by several hundred years. I was there, and wrote about the conversation, and the books, for Education and Culture.

Text Patterns is back from the dead!

I’m back and probably not any better than ever!

This post is a bit of a catch-all catch-up before I write a longer one explaining what I’ve been thinking about these past few weeks.

One. My next book, How to Think, will be appearing in October from Convergent Books here in the U.S. and Profile Books in the U.K. I’m very happy with both publishers, who seem genuinely to get what I’m trying to do — and to see the value of it.

Two. I have also effectively completed The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Intellectuals and Total War, but in order to avoid competition with How to Think, it’ll come out in 2018. The book had been contracted with Harvard University Press, but over the past few months it has gradually become clear to me that that wasn’t an editorial fit, so I have moved to Oxford University Press, where I will get the chance to work again with the excellent Cynthia Read, who edited my Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Three. I’ve got an essay in the new issue of National Affairs, “When Character No Longer Counts,” on Christians and the 2016 election.

Four. My friend Adam Roberts will be writing a biography of H. G. Wells — something I am very much looking forward to — and in preparation for that he is undertaking the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of reading all of Wells’s published work and blogging about it. That blog is here, and so far it’s been really fascinating.

Five. Another dear friend, John Wilson, has a new endeavor in the works that will go public in the next couple of weeks. When it does, I’ll announce it here and on Twitter. One of the early posts will be my review of Jessica Riskin’s remarkable book The Restless Clock.

Six. Now, putting those previous two items together: I’ll also be writing for John about a wonderful little event I got to experience in London two weeks ago, featuring that Adam Roberts guy again moderating a conversation between Francis Spufford — who has a new novel about 18th-century New York — and Kim Stanley Robinson — who has a new novel about 22nd-century New York. Caroline Edwards of the University of London’s Birkbeck College wrote a nice report on the convo, if you’d like an overview. Adam began the conversation by asking a very provocative question about the relationship between the historical novel and science fiction — an appropriate inquiry indeed from someone whose most recent novel has scenes set in both the past and the future — and roughly the same periods covered by Spufford and Robinson. Much more about this anon.

Seven. In preparation for that event, and for writing about it, I not only re-read Golden Hill — which is simply marvelous — and read New York 2140 for the first time, I also went back and re-read Robinson’s novel Aurora, which I wasn’t crazy about when I first read it but was encouraged by Adam to re-think. My second reading has led me to wonder what in the world I was thinking the first time around. The book is superb, one of KSR’s very best, and I am very sorry that I didn’t see that before.

Eight. I haven’t yet been able to escape the clutches of Apple — something I’ve been contemplating and even working at for some time — because I have massive investments of money and time in both its hardware and software, but if I stay with it I may have to end up a full-time iOS user: the last three releases of MacOS have been a mess, though in varying ways, and now that I’m on Sierra my Mac freezes solid at least once a day. That hasn’t happened to me in years and years. I am convinced that the Mac is a dying platform. It’s dying very slowly, but it’s dying. Which is sad.

my year in technology

Last year I wrote a “my year in tech” post, so why not this year also?

It’s been a one-step-forward one-step-back kind of year. Some of the changes I implemented last year have stuck this year, but not all of them.

1) The big difficulty of this past year was Twitter, thanks almost wholly to the Presidential election. As I explained in last year’s post, I had mostly escaped public Twitter, venturing there only on rare occasions — and regretting every such venture: I still sometimes forget just how many responses from strangers are uninformed or belligerent or both. (However, my moments of forgetfulness have become rarer, and maybe at last I have learned my lesson for good.) So I had confined myself to the much calmer sanctuary of a private account — but during and immediately following the election private Twitter was no refuge. Even given the small population of that world (fewer than a hundred people) the anger just pulsed and radiated — 24 hours a day, it seemed. So for a while I escaped altogether, deactivating my private account and thinking I might never return. But soon enough I found myself really missing my friends there, so I re-activated it, though making sure to disable retweets for almost everyone, hoping in that way to minimize the amplifications of wrath. We’ll see how it goes. In March I will have been on Twitter for ten years. Maybe ten years is enough.

But even if I shut down the private account I have to admit that I’m not likely to shut down the public one. In a better world, the great majority of people would learn about interesting posts and articles and sites through RSS readers; but in this world the great majority of people learn about those things on Twitter. If a post falls in the forest of the internet and there’s no one there to tweet it, does it really exist?

2) I took a further step towards owning my turf by (a) downloading the posts from my various Tumblrs, (b) copying the more relevant and significant posts to my personal site, and (c) deleting my Tumblr account. Tumblr had become an increasingly annoying platform to be on, thanks to ads and the various hokey ways they were constantly trying to get me to use more of their “features,” so escaping that crap has been a big plus. Also, as long as I had access to the site I found myself thinking about whether I wanted to use it: deleting my account altogether solves that problem. I had created a tumblr for my forthcoming book How to Think but then bought a proper domain name and now own my thoughts about the book and its themes.

By the way, I did this through Reclaim Hosting, which is an amazing company focusing on people in academe. If you are part of the academic world and are not using Reclaim, you’re really missing out. Their customer service is state-of-the-art, and through the various apps and services they offer you can expand to your heart’s content the elements of your online presence you want to control: from static sites to blogs to galleries of images to email to … well, you name it. Reclaim is the best.

And in case you’re wondering how to download an entire website: If you’re comfortable using the command line, wget is the way to go (just make sure you set the parameters correctly or you could end up trying to download an entire domain, like But if you have a Mac then you could try the accurate and easy-to-use SiteSucker.

Next step: deleting my Google account. — But I can’t! This site runs on Blogger!

3) This year I have written more and more often by hand — that’s one change I don’t think I’ll ever go back on. When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that’s all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand. My preferred notebook: the Leuchtturm 1917, which works wonderfully with the Bullet Journal method of organizing tasks and ideas. My preferred pen: the Pilot Metropolitan. I have a dream, a dream that I could write a book in that notebook with that pen and have some publisher turn it into editable copy…. I mean, come on, it worked for Dickens and Tolstoy.

4) I’m still listening to CDs a good bit, but the flexibility of digital music is hard to resist — right now I’m writing this post on an iPad and listening to music through the truly remarkable Deepblue 2 from Peachtree Audio — I didn’t know a Bluetooth speaker could be this good. Irresistible (for me) convenience.

5) I’m still using a dumbphone — but not as much as I had hoped I would. I go back to an iPhone when I’m traveling, in part because I’m a light-packing fanatic and when I bring that phone I don’t need a camera or maps, or for that matter a computer. But then when I come back home and ought to switch out the SIM card to the dumbphone, somehow I manage to forget. Oh well. Here again my problem is having choices: if I just sold one of the phones, my life would be simplified. But that I struggle to do.

6) If the biggest difficulty of the past year was Twitter, the second-biggest was what seems to me the decline of both software and hardware quality on the Macintosh. And I think the Mac problems are just going to beg bigger, as more and more of Apple’s energies go into the growth and development of iOS.

When I upgraded to Yosemite, I discovered that Bluetooth had ceased to work, so I couldn’t send audio from my Mac to external speakers. (I think that’s when my return to CD listening began.) When I upgraded to El Capitan, Bluetooth worked but wifi was totally borked — and since wifi is more necessary than Bluetooth, I reverted to Yosemite. When Sierra came out, earlier this year, I upgraded with fingers crossed, and discovered that Bluetooth works as well as Bluetooth ever works (which is: inconsistently), and wifi works pretty well, though not as reliably as it did in pre-Yosemite versions — but now switching between apps is chaotic. I can use the Dock or my preferred command-Tab method of changing from one app to another and I have no idea what will happen. Sometimes it switches to the app I want, sometimes it continues to show me the app I was in when I switched, sometimes it goes to a third app I didn’t ask for. No way to know in advance. Similar problems arise with the use of apps in fullscreen mode, so clearly the code that generates windowing behavior has gone awry in Sierra. My chief point: Every new release of MacOS introduces major new bugs.

Apple’s official response to problems of this kind is simply to deny that MacOS has any serious problems, which makes me wonder whether I need to find ways to switch to iOS. After all, that’s clearly where the company’s focus is. So I’ve been writing lately on an iPad using Editorial, a very good app, but one that hasn’t been updated in so long that I’m assuming it’s abandonware — one more iOS update and it could well become unusable, though for now it’s fine. (I’m using it to write this post.)

(And by the way, I am also one of those people who thinks that the MacBook keyboard is really terrible — I can type much faster and more comfortably on my Logitech iPad keyboard, which has enough key-travel to give me significant haptic feedback. It also has backlit keys. It’s the best iPad keyboard I’ve used, by a mile.)

In hopes of finding tips for shifting to iOS, I read this post by Federico Viticci on using the iPad Pro as (more or less) his only computer. Viticci’s claim is that the iPad Pro fits his needs: he loves working with it, and never wants to go back to the Mac. But as I read his post I almost laughed aloud at the endless hoops he has to leap through to make it all work. I mean, to cite just one example among many possible ones, the guy uses at least six different text editors to make his “workflow” work — it seems to me that that’s anything but flow. On the Mac, I almost never have to leave BBEdit, thanks to the ability of pandoc to convert text files into whatever format I need. And given that pandoc is based on underlying UNIX features that deeply embedded in MacOS, and BBEdit has been around for more than twenty years and is still updated regularly, I don’t feel nearly as vulnerable as I do when using Editorial on the iPad.

Riccardo Mori, who uses both iOS and MacOS, has written about the logistical complications of using iOS:

The flip side of iOS’s modularity, of iOS’s model of accomplishing a complex task through a series of simple apps, is… well, it’s that often you have to go through unnecessarily long-winded routes and seek the assistance of multiple apps to get stuff done. It’s that in order to find the ‘perfect’ app to handle a task or a series of tasks, you end up installing a lot of similar apps with overlapping features. A personal example: I’ve been toying with the idea of just using my iPad to work when I’m not at home. I’m a writer and a translator, so I shouldn’t need very complex tools or intricate workflows. And yet my experience with iOS has been surprisingly frustrating due to the unexpected fragmentation of what, on the Mac, is a trivial thing to achieve.

Moreover, some of the most basic elements of computer user interaction are still rough and inconsistent on iOS: for instance, selecting text, which in my experience works about 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time I put my finger on one chunk of text and a different chunk gets selected, or I try but fail to find the right pixel to activate the little handle that, were I to find it, would allow me to extend the selection to the length I desire. And I am by no means the only person to have this complaint.

Yet I feel that the far more mature and efficient Mac platform is vulnerable indeed — vulnerable to further degradation and its own inconsistencies of behavior, especially involving any form of wireless connectivity. Old bugs are not being fixed, and new ones keep cropping up, and Apple as a company shows no signs of giving a rat’s ass about any of it. Mori has written about this too: the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that “Mac OS is demoted to ‘hobby status’ inside Apple, and that iOS receives all the attention from now on.” For Mori this will likely mean that iOS will need to develop more “desktop” skills:

When I walk down this hypothetical path, what I see in iOS’s trajectory, more than sheer innovation, is a reinvention of the wheel. iOS was born as a simpler, streamlined version of Mac OS X; its multi-touch interface was ingenious and groundbreaking when applied to a smartphone and (similarly, but less strikingly) to a tablet; to then evolve — through a series of iterations and feature creep — into… Mac OS X?

Sounds like a freakin’ disaster to me.

So here’s what I think is coming for me in 2017: a concerted effort to move towards Linux, where I can readily replicate much of what I do on the Mac. I’ve been spending more time lately in emacs, and especially in org-mode, and I just received a nice Christmas present — this could finally be the year I make the Big Switch.

Mind you, I’m not promising anything. It wouldn’t be easy for me to abandon a platform that I’ve been relying on since the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s second Presidential term. And I’ve had enough experience editing configuration files in Linux that I am filled with dread at the prospect, and praying with some desperation that Ubuntu has addressed many of those old bugs. But that after all these years I’m even considering dropping MacOS … well, that should tell you just how big a mess Apple has created for me.

what I’m doing here

Just a quick post here to note that this ongoing orgy of Pynchoniana will be neither systematic nor scholarly, but rather impulsive and haphazard. I am reading Pynchon with a particular set of concerns in mind, and don’t feel obliged to be either fair or balanced, though I do hope to be unafraid.

A few weeks ago I confessed to my friend Edward Mendelson — who remains, for my money, the best critic of Pynchon, even though other interests and obligations have kept him from writing about Pynchon for many years — that I treasure in my secret heart the desire to write a book-length theological meditation on Pynchon. Edward agreed, first, that Pynchon is one of the most theologically literate of novelists (though this is rarely recognized), and second, that I really ought to write that book. These posts are a kind of trial run for that potential project, as well as for the bigger project linked above. As I’ve explained before, is what I think blogging is for: trying out ideas. What I like about blogging is that you have a responsibility to write clearly and accessibly but you’re not required to manifest the scholarly completeness and logical rigor that would be expected in published work. That, for me, when I’m trying to develop and try out ideas, is a nice place to be.

So we’ll see how this works out.