Monday, April 27, 2015

Viewing the Future

Television has always been a part of my life.  When I was young the TV was the focus of the living room.  We even ate in front of it.  And we watched whatever was on.  Seen this before?  That's too bad, there's nothing else on.  Now that I've grown, I don't watch a lot of TV.  I have other interests.  But when I do the world is my oyster.

For $8 a month I get more TV than I'll watch in my lifetime.  I'll never keep up with all the great stuff being added.  And to top it all off, Netfiix is making their own content.  The other day I find out that they are making a Darevil series.  Not only is it available now, but the whole the whole first season is available now.

Netflix knows that people want to watch a show in order.  They know that they usually want several at a time.  They know they don't want the experience to be broken up by commercials.  I feel like they've gone over the heads of established content companies, and decided to give people what they actually want.

And what about the numbers?  They're accurate.  No show is going to get canceled because it's viewers were not counted correctly.  They're not even giving out the numbers.  They own the shows, and the delivery mechanism.  They can afford to fail a bit, and want to take the pressure off of the creators.

I don't want to sound like a Netfiix cheerleader.  I'm not happy that they doubled their prices the same week their only competitor, Blockbuster, files for bankruptcy.  And Hulu and Amazon are doing some great stuff too.  Hulu even picked up The Booth at the End for a second season.

I know people still tethered to the old system.  Some of them are still paying a lot of money for cable.  Others are happy watching reruns of whatever happens to be on, and are still wondering where their flying cars are.  Ignore them.  This is the future, and it's great.

So is Daredevil, by the way.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Finding out About a Flexible Nib Fountain Pen

My post is late ( again ) and this time the only excuse I have is that I'm addicted to fountain pens, as you know if you're a regular reader of this post, and I've spent too much time with a new fountain pen experience.

Among the reasons for this passion for fountain pens is my interest in handwriting, lettering, the art of writing; in a word, "Calligraphy." My interest is such that I was a professional calligrapher, at one time receiving ( very ) small monetary compensation for wedding invitations, lettering names on certificates, and miscellaneous other commissions.

Years have passed. Still, I occasionally get out my felt tip calligraphy pen and play a bit.   I usually use this pen for the name of the recipient on the envelope of our Christmas cards. And I've continued to be curious about the flex nibs available for some fountain pens. These flex nibs change the line width of the pen  due to varying writing pressure on the pen.

Sometime in 2014 the Noodler's Ink Company added a flex-nib pen with a so-called "music nib" to its lineup of regular and flex nib pens. The music nib is a three-tined nib, designed to make sure the ink flow keeps up with the writing. Reviewers said it was a large pen, and warned that the price point would be significantly higher than that of the rest of the Noodler's lineup. They also raved about both the beauty of the pen and its writing characteristics. I was hooked; I wanted one; both its beauty and its size called to me; so did the flexible nib.

As the reviewers predicted, everybody wanted one of these. All the sites I checked were out of stock. I registered with several who said they'd notify me when they had stock again. Weeks passed; no notification.

Waiting for such a notice, I decided it might be prudent to try another of Noodler's flex nib pens ... get one at the lower price point to see if I even liked the reality of a flex nib pen. I knew I liked the idea; I truly wasn't sure how the reality would strike me.

I ordered a Noodler's Ahab flex nib pen; it came a day earlier than I was expecting it, and that is why this post is late. My free time since then has been pretty much devoted to playing and writing with it, checking out its writing characteristics. 

My Diddling
Clearly doing nothing Specific

Note to my Wife
Clearly worth Doing

It's been fun, maybe a bit too much so. And I've barely scratched the surface, I'm afraid.
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Monday, April 20, 2015

A Whole New Kind of Magic

I've always loved games.  One game that always particularly appealed to me is Magic, partially because I love the art.  The problem is that it's not the kind of game that is played among my friends, and the online version isn't simple or convenient.  But then came Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is my current obsession, so I've given it a lot of thought.  It's obviously "inspired by" Magic.  Originally I thought was that it looked like a ripoff.  It seems to have more in common that it does different.  The truth is, those subtle differences change more than you'd think, and it is definitely a worthy competitor.  I suppose we shouldn't expect any less from Blizzard at this point.

Magic is centered around the physical cards, and leads to personal contact.  Hearthstone is designed around online play which allows people to fit in into their lives anytime they have fifteen minutes, and a cell phone.  Both games are complicated, so I'll just hit the high points for me.

The biggest plus for me is that they fixed Mana.  In both games, the cards you play cost Mana, and in Magic you need to hope you draw exactly the right amount.  To much, and you don't have anything to spend the Mana on.  To little, and you have no Mana to spend on your spells and creatures.  In Hearthstone you start with one, and get one more each turn until you have ten.

The biggest negative is that they have complete control of the cards.  You can't buy and sell the cards you have.  You can't even trade them, and you can only get them directly from Blizzard.  The game only exists online, and they control everything.  Now to be fair, you might say it's free to play, so you can hardly blame them for controlling the free cards.  In reality, every few months they have a few great cards that are hard to get without paying for the single player games they release.

And one last thing that's really a matter of opinion.  Magic takes itself serious, and Hearthstone does not.  Hearthstone has some silly cards, with silly art, and silly voice acting.  Magic has only the art, and it's beautiful.  Someone made a Magic that's accessible to me, and it just doesn't have the card art that drew me in.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Break in the Retreat's Routine

“If you need anything, just let me know.”

I began integrating Jesuit spirituality with my Benedictine spirituality by making a three-plus day silent men’s retreat at the Jesuit Retreat Center last year. It was marvelous. I decided to repeat the following year, with, essentially, the same group of men.

The methodology consists of listening to the director speak for a conference ( twenty-to-thirty minutes ) and then reflecting on what he said; and to do this, as he always closed the conferences by saying, “... quietly, prayerfully, and, most importantly, in the presence of God.”

Though the Director and I had clear theological differences of opinion, my prayerful reflections were producing insights, wisdom, understanding, and, perhaps most importantly, things to work on at home.

Saturday, just before dessert, Fr Pat came into the dining hall from the kitchen, holding a small piece of paper in his hand. There was a broad vista of bare floor between him and our table. I knew the message he was carrying and the paper he was holding were for me.Loretta has died,” was my internal dialogue. He stopped next to Greg; I exhaled. Greg directed him to me. My heart nearly stopped.

He handed me the paper. It contained a phone number I did not recognize. “Let’s go to the office,” he suggested. I struggled to stand.

“Your wife is in the hospital,” Fr Pat said.

“My wife?” I stammered.

“I believe that’s what the cook said.”

Ellie had been experiencing significant arthritis pain the last few weeks; “They don’t put you in the hospital for arthritis pain, do they?” I thought.”Whatever else … maybe it wasn’t arthritis pain; maybe it was … what!?” My mind flirted with dark and scary thoughts. We found the office.

“No need to punch any special numbers to get out,” he said.

“You’ve reached the voice-mail of Travis Salisbury, Basilica liturgical coordinator … is what I heard. A friend, with an unfamiliar cell number. “What? You just called me at the retreat house, in the middle of a silent retreat, and you’re not answering the number you left for me to call?!?”  But I left a polite message, “Travis, this is Walter answering your call, please give me a call back.” Breaking the ban on cell phone use, I added, “Call my cell.”

My cell needed charging; I’d have to go to my room. Composing a text as I walked, I was accosted by the four men I had been sitting with … friends all. I began telling them I knew nothing yet; Travis called. My friends backed away.

Ellie and Loretta had attended Mass. Ellie had fallen on the steps when leaving. Hit her head; blood everywhere. “But the medics assured me she is fine, in good spirits, and had not lost consciousness at any point.” Travis concluded, “They’re taking her to Hennepin County Medical Center, just to be certain.”

I exhaled; I gave my friends a quick rundown. The friend who drove me to the retreat offered his car if I needed to leave. Another said he’d take the ones who’d then be stranded back home. I gave them heartfelt thanks. It was too early to tell what I’d need.

“No, that’s not necessary; you stay there and finish,” Ellie said. “If it were up to me, nobody would’ve called you. I’m good.”

The friend offering his car called, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I’ll take you to the hospital, if you want.”

Fr Pat found me in my room; “If you need anything, just let me know.”

Travis texted me, “I’m returning to the Basilica to get Ellie’s car, and I’ll make sure both of them get home just fine.”

“We’re home, just got here; all’s well.” said Ellie’s final text of the evening.

Relieved, grateful, and feeling that I had gotten a little closer to Fr Pat as well as to the four friends on the retreat with me, I was finally able to hit the hay.
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Monday, April 13, 2015

In a Handbasket

The world's going to hell in a handbasket.  Doesn't everyone know that?

The other day another coworker made an off hand comment about how society is crumbling.  'Everyone' knows the world is becoming a more violent place everyday, and 'everyone' is just wrong.  I've known this for many years.  It seems obvious to me.  I've recently been reading Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which has really been driving the point home.

Well, the book is really about trying to explain the decline of violence over the course of human history, but the author knows that explaining that violence has in fact declined is an important first step.  To touch on some brief points:

Almost all ancient human remains we find show signs of violence, if not outright murder.
Torture was not only common thousands of years ago, it was a source of entertainment.
Just a hundred years ago executions were a source of entertainment in this country.

People like to idealize the simple peaceful lives of our hunter gather ancestors.  The truth is, the hunter gather societies that exist today are far more violent than the most dangerous cities in america.

People like to idealize other times in history, like America in the 1950's.  The truth is, they may have been about as peaceful as now for some people.  Other people were getting lynched, or repressed in some other way.  You might, and I say "might", want to have been a white man in 1950's america, but that's where it ends.

And this is to say nothing about the increase in literacy, or the advancements in medical science, and agriculture.  And how about entertainment?  A lot of people did a lot of staring off into space in the past.

Why is it so hard to accept we're living in a golden age of prosperity?  I think people are just never happy with what they have, and think, "There has to be more than this."  I think this life is amazing, and people should live it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Try Writing a Note

“There is someone I want you to meet.”

My parish, The Basilica of St Mary, has an extensive program for bringing people into the Church; the Ritual Christian Initiation for Adults ( RCIA ) program. It starts at the beginning of the school year, culminates at the Easter Vigil Mass, and meets weekly or so during the time in between.

We get the entire community involved during Lent. Baskets of cards are placed at each entrance/exit of the Church; each card contains a picture of one of the RCIA candidates and a very brief profile. Directions on the back of the card urge prayer for the candidate and state that notes to the candidate can be sent by placing the note in an envelope, noting “RCIA” and the Candidate’s name on the envelope, and putting the envelope in any Mass’s collection basket.

I have taken one of these cards each of the three years I’ve been a member of the parish. A year ago, my candidate did not show up at the Easter Vigil Mass. This disappointed me. Undaunted, I took a card this year. I prayed for Pat and sent three notes to her over Lent’s six weeks. ( Pat is a fictional name, to protect privacy. )

Ellie and Loretta, my wife and a dear friend, spoke about taking a note to give to their candidates in the Easter Vigil Mass’s collection; they also spoke about trying to meet their candidates after the Mass. Thus inspired, I wrote yet another card to Pat and took it to the Vigil; I also decided to try to find her after Mass.

Signs with candidate’s names were posted on the pews identifying reserved rows for candidates and their families. Ellie, Loretta and I chose a pew only four rows behind the then-empty row reserved for Pat’s family. I knew I had a reasonable shot at identifying Pat prior to the end of Mass and finding and meeting her afterward.

As it happens, I also know Pat’s sponsor, Jane ( another fictional name ). I do not know her well, but well enough to engage in small talk. I didn’t know until seeing her in the pew that she had anything to do with Pat. “Imagine that,” I thought, “it’s certainly a small world.” Little did I know how interesting it would get soon enough.

After Mass, as people were milling in the aisles, I’m trying to get up four rows to speak to Pat. Jane approaches from the front and asks my last name. I tell her, “Jost.”

"Ah,” she says, “I thought maybe … I have someone I want you to meet.”

Of course. I know immediately she’s referring to Pat. “I want to meet her, too,” I say.

Pat notices me and Jane in the aisle, pulls herself away from the small group she is with, and turns to me, putting out her hand.

“Hi, Pat, I’m Walter,” shaking her hand.

“Pat, this is Walter Jost,” Jane says, indicating me.

“Hi. Nice to meet you. I want to thank you for your notes. I really appreciated getting them.”

“You did? That’s wonderful; thank you. I enjoyed writing them. I put another one in the collection tonight you should be sure to get.”

Pat nods, continues, “Your notes were inspirational, humorous, warm. Getting them was the best part of the program.” ( This validates the words I had heard the director of the program put in candidates’ mouths much earlier. ) “I’ve vowed to write notes to a candidate every Lent, starting next year.”

“A wonderful idea,” I stammered. Regaining some composure, I added, “I’m sure you’ll have the opportunity. Thanks very much, Pat. Happy Easter.” And I left.

Seemingly little things often make another’s day.
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Monday, April 6, 2015

Does Phil Robertson Speak for You?

A lot of people are still talking about the disturbing stuff Phil Robertson said in a speech a while back.  He described awful stuff happening to an atheist, and the people an atheist cares about.  It's a disgusting and unnecessary child rape fantasy.  The punch line is that he's betting the atheist will describe this as "wrong".

This first thing worth noting, is that he's right.  A human can determine right from wrong all on his own.  I don't think he was trying to argue that you don't need a god in order to understand right from wrong, but that's what his words mean.  Maybe he could have found a nicer way of saying them though.

I think he's trying to draw some other conclusions, but we'll have guess what they are.  I'm thinking something along the lines of:
Morality comes from God.
Atheists are not completely immoral.
Conclusion - Atheists are not really atheists.

Of course he can't win that argument unless he makes it.  However; the very notion that morality comes from a creator god is interesting to think about.  A very long time ago Plato came up with what's now called Euthyphro Dilemma.  It's usually restated as this:
"Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?"

So, what connection can a god have to morality?

Lets say he came up with it.  Then morality is subjective.  It's subjective to god's opinions.  If he himself is moral, it's just because he is defining moral as 'the stuff he does'.  I personally think that morality can only be calculated by the intended results of an intelligent agent.  Since these results can be quantified, I reject the idea that morality is subjective.

The only alternative is that morality is objective, and god is just the messenger.  In that case, we need to ask ourselves how competent of a messenger he is.  Personally, I've had to figure morality out on my own.  In fact, I'd say the biggest obstacle to people's understanding of ethics, is that many of them are trying to get their understanding from outdated materials specifically because they believe these materials to come from a god.

As always, I expect a 2,000 year old book on ethics to be as relevant as a 2,000 year old book on physics.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Happy Easter

He is Risen
Image from

To any of you who might have been looking for a post from me this week, I apologize. The week in question is Holy Week, the Triduum, and my time has been involved in reflection and prayer, both public and private. While I may have prepared a post ahead of time and only posted late in the week, I failed to do that.

I will return next week.
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