Friday, July 27

Tour de Mess

Following sports these days is getting almost as depressing as following politics. It almost appears as if cycling is trying to keep up with the dog-fighting scandal of the NFL, the game-fixing scandal of the NBA, the roid-rage scandal of the WWE, and the juiced-ball scandal of MLB. Or is it the other way around? Is it that the NFL, NBA, WWE, and MLB are finally just catching up with cycling?

Consider the sordid evidence:

The certain winner of 2007 Tour de France, Michael Rasmussen, was thrown out of the race after the 16th stage in a doping-lying-testing scandal--joining pre-race favorite, Alexandre Vinokourov, and three other riders booted from this year’s Tour for cheating (each of them vehemently and litigiously deny the charges).

The winner of the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis, tested positive for performance enhancers and is awaiting an arbitration decision on his case (Landis vehemently and litigiously denies ever cheating).

The winner of the 1999-2005 Tours, Lance Armstrong, throughout his career never tested positive but persistent rumors claim he regularly took illegal performance enhancers (rumors Armstrong has always vehemently and litigiously denied).

The winner of the 1998 Tour de France, Marco Pantani, died of a cocaine overdose (alas, he is unable to sue anyone over the accusation that he was doping).

The winner of the 1997 Tour, Jan Ullrich, retired this year after being banned from last year's race in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal (yes, he too vehemently and litigiously denies any wrong-doing).

The winner of the 1996 Tour, Bjarne Riis, has broken this long line—not that he was clean mind you, it’s just that he has actually confessed to riding in the race while on EPO and other performance enhancers.

Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I think I’ll go watch some Little League—but, do you think even the kids are clean these days?

Wednesday, July 25

On Not Reading "Important" Books

In the current issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Adrian Tahourdin discusses Pierre Bayard’s elegant and witty essay, Comment Parler des Livres que l'on N'a Pas Lus, (translated as, How to Discuss Books that One Hasn’t Read). It is simultaneously hilarious and sobering--and a delightful poke in the eye of the elite cultural literati and gliterati.

Monday, July 23

Stairway to Heaven

When it is completed sometime next summer, the Burj Dubai Tower in the United Arab Emirates will stand just over half a mile high. Already, it is the tallest structure in the world (passing up Taipei's 101 Tower and Toronto's CN Tower this past week despite the fact that the steel has only reached just over three-fourths of the planned height). The engineering is stunning even if the design is more than a little dehumanizing--then again, I suppose that sort of Babylonian excess rather suits Dubai.

Just to try to put the monumental structure in context, note the comparison below: from left to right: the Burj Dubai Tower, the vast Royal York Hotel in Toronto, the CN Tower also in Toronto (often not figured into the world's tallest building tallies because it is essentially a broadcast antennae rather than an office building), the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, and finally, the Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan.

Saturday, July 21

Western Swing

Old Cowboy Music never dies. It just keeps on playing--in the strangest places. Bob Wills would sure be proud.

Friday, July 20

Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, preached his first sermon at Mark Lane in London on this day in 1698. He had been born in Southampton, England on July 17, 1674. He fell under conviction in 1688 and came to ardently and unreservedly profess Christ a year later.

His Puritan father was twice imprisoned for refusing to cease and desist sharing the Gospel message with his co-workers. Some of that pluck carried over to Isaac, who refused to take an all-expenses-paid education--which would have necessitated conforming himself to the anti-Puritan crown-mandated strictures of the Church of England. Nevertheless, he was able to work his way through the university and complete his education. Afterward, his gifts were so readily apparent that the little church at Mark Lane soon named him its assistant pastor.

Through the years of his fruitful ministry, he published a host of books, pamphlets, and sermons. But none were as influential as his collection of original congregational hymns, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, which included such classics as" Joy to the World" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." A few years later, he published a collection of versified psalms for congregational singing. These ultimately helped to transform hymnody and introduce an entirely new form of music for Biblical, Evangelical, and Confessional worship--a legacy that continues to enrich the modern church in our own day.

Thursday, July 19

Harry and Aliteracy

The bookstores are sure to be crowded tomorrow night. The latest (and last) installment of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling will finally fall into the hands of millions of Muggles around the globe. This event has been highly anticipated and wildly celebrated by some. Surely this kind of enthusiasm bodes well for the book industry. Surely the fact that adult editions of the book are being printed right alongside the versions intended for kids is a good sign that Hogwarts has cast a spell on heretofore TV, MySpace, and Wii-entranced souls--and that can only be a good thing for civilization, life, the universe, and everything. Right?

Well, not so fast, says Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles. His Post Editorial this past weekend--part rant, part lament, part personal testimony--tries to make the connection between Rowling's $4 Billion publishing cottage industry and all things literarily perverse: illiteracy, aliteracy, and what for him may be worst of all, infantilism (he makes no mention of any taint of occultism though, quite interestingly).

Charles pretty clearly has his cause-and-effect line of reasoning a bit out of whack. And his swipes at the quality Rowling's work are probably unwarranted. But, don't chalk up his entire argument as one more evidence of intellectual snobbery at the big-city, dinosaur-dailies. He has a point--it just may be that he could have chosen a better way to make it.

As Charles points out, federal statistics do indeed show that the percentage of youngsters who read for pleasure continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly same rate as before arrival of Harry Potter book series. That's a given. My question is: should we blame Harry and Hogwarts for this dismal turn of events or should we point the finger at our multi-gajillion dollar public education designer disaster?


The publishing world is in a bit of an uproar just hours before the latest Harry Potter novel is at last made available to millions of fans around the world. It seems that the venerable New York Times and the Baltimore Sun have already published reviews of the book. Horror of horrors!

Author J.K. Rowling said she was "staggered" that papers including The New York Times had printed reviews ahead of the novel's publication on 21 July. The author said the information was in "complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers".

So, how did the strictly guarded story leak out? Well, as it turns out, the book's American publisher, Scholastic, has now sued online retailer for breaking the strict embargo by dispatching a number of copies. The novel has also appeared on auction site eBay, while pictures of what appeared to be pages from the new book have appeared on the internet.

Isn't it amazing? Who'd have ever that that leaks of a children's book would make international news?

Saturday, July 14

Shadow of the Silk Road

Colin Thubron is one of the most remarkable, insightful, and poetic writers working today. Over the years I have tried my best to tack down and read every one of his books--from his historical and contemporary fiction to his accounts of exotic travel throughout the Middle East, Russia, China, and Central Asia. His latest volume chronicles his 7,000-mile, revelatory journey along Asia's famous Silk Road. The Sunday New York Times has a fascinating review by Lorraine Adams of this even more fascinating book, Shadow of the Silk Road. Thankfully, the book is now available in the U.S.--so you won't have to do what I did, paying a premium to have it shipped in from England where it was published several months ago.

Burma's Church

America's first foreign missionaries, Adoniram and Anne Judson, laid eyes on the teeming city of Rangoon for the very first time on this day in 1813. It would be five years before the Judsons baptized their first convert. But before the two of them died more than 7,000 more of their Burmese friends would come to Christ. Today, despite decades of fierce persecution by the repressive and autocratic military junta, the Burmese church has grown to over two million Christians.

What I'm Reading

Friday, July 13

The Bible's Historical Accuracy

A stunning find at the British Museum last week reconfirms what has become almost commonplace over the past century or so: Archeology invariably upholds the historical veracity of the Old Testament.

iPhone Hesitation

In his provocative essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Wendell Berry established nine good rules for why and when the latest and greatest technological innovations, gadgets, and gizmos can in good conscience be adopted:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

Even if I do not entirely agree with each and every one of these rules, taken together, they should give adequate pause to all our high tech impulse buying.

Monday, July 9

iPhone: The Music Video

Sinners in the Hands

On this day in 1741, Jonathan Edwards traveled a few miles from his home into western Connecticut and read to a small congregation assembled there the most famous sermon ever delivered in the history of America. Entitled Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, its subject was the immanence of judgment and the horrors of perdition. It was about what we today derisively call hell-fire and damnation.

Later described by literary and historical critics as a rhetorical masterpiece, the sermon was astonishingly gripping and terrifyingly vivid, it caused an immediate sensation in the town of Enfield where it was preached. Even before the sermon was finished, people were moaning, groaning and crying out such things as "What shall I do to be saved?" In fact, there was such an clamor of distress and weeping that Edwards had to quiet and calm the people several times so he could conclude. The fervor of the Great Awakening that had thus far by-passed Enfield, now swept through the little town with a white-hot intensity.

In short order, the sermon was printed and widely distributed throughout the Americas. It not only won for Edwards great renown, but it provoked a further awakening among its distant readers. Since then it has been reprinted hundreds of times--perhaps thousands. To this day it is not only a standard text for the study of great preaching, it has passed into the realm of classic literature--and thus is the most anthologized sermon in the English language.

Saturday, July 7

The Fall of Rome--Or Not

On this day in the year 476, the fierce barbarian military commander of the Germanic Heruli tribe, Odoacer, marched the Roman legions under his command into the city of Rome. There was little resistance in the city and those few troops which remained loyal to the emperor, Romulus Augustulus, fled at the sight of the Heruli. The emperor himself, had already sought exile in Ravenna. Odoacer, simply marched to the imperial palace and claimed it as his own.

The presumed fall of the Roman Empire was thus hardly a fall at all. Indeed, though historians make much of this date--supposing it to mark the ignominious end of the Roman imperial era--in reality, no one then supposed that the empire ceased to exist.

For centuries before, even though it was governed by two competing emperors--one in the East at Constantinople and one in the West at Rome or Ravenna--the empire continued to be regarded as a single whole. So, when Romulus Augustulus was forced into exile, Odoacer and the other barbarian leaders did not hesitate to recognize the formal and universal overlordship of the Eastern emperor in the great Byzantine city of Constantinople, Zeno.

Though the Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks, Visigoths, Lombards, and Burgundians all set up new kingdoms in the Western provinces, they never questioned the abiding significance of the confederated empire. Kingship merely denoted leadership of a clan or a community: such leaders continued to look to the emperor to grant them titles to both land and authority. They used the emperor's image on their coins. They adopted Roman law throughout the provinces. And they paid fealty to their acknowledged lord in goods, services, and arms.

Thus the empire never really ended in an actual fall--it slowly and naturally faded away. Though its actual influence waxed and waned from time to time, deep respect remained for the unity it officially enshrined well into the Medieval era. In fact, some traditionalists--particularly in such places as the Central European domains of Austria and Hungary--maintained some kind of continuity with the old Roman imperium up until the dissolution of the venerable Hapsburg Empire at the conclusion of the First World War.

As a result of all this, when Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in the church of Saint Peter's at Rome on Christmas Day in the year 800--restoring at long last the Western imperial throne--there was less a sense of resurrecting a long lost legacy than of revitalizing a long cherished ideal.

Thursday, July 5

What I'm Reading

A Vast Right Wing Conspiracy

Leave it to the French to crack the code of the vast right wing conspiracy. It seems that the new French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has fallen afoul of the press for--OK, get this--keeping in shape. Yep, that's right. He has had the audacity to continue to go for a run every morning even though he is now the official occupant of the Elysée Palace. Gasp! And, as we all should know, the French Press informs us, running is "un-French, right-wing and even a ploy to brainwash his citizens."

No really. I am not making this up. Le running du Président, especially when clad in his favourite NYPD T-shirt, has become "a national affront." That's what all the Left Bank intellectuals are tsk, tsk, tsking about these days. British commentator Boris Johnson finds the whole affair a good reason to actually like what's happening in France for the first time in a very long time.