Technology upgrades and how they snowball, home video edition

Last week we used some Amazon rewards points and a couple of gifts and upgraded our bedroom TV and bought a Roku. Our old solution, using a monitor and a Mac Mini, was OK,but was getting more and more inconvenient – Plex was great for watching recorded TV, but the Netflix plugin is broken and had to be watched through a browser, Amazon video was even harder to watch, etc, etc.

So now the Roku is awesome for streaming video, and the Plex app for Roku talks to our Plex Media Server (running on our HTPC) fine, but it chokes pretty hard when trying to playback the HD video files recorded off of OTA TV channels. (Basically, the HTPC doesn’t have a high-powered CPU, and when I try to stream 6-GB/hour MPEG-encoded files to the Roku, the HTPC has to transcode the video first, and it’s barely up to the task.

Next attempt: setup some transcoding software. Enter MCEBuddy. It’s convenient enough to use, and there’s a free version, but with a wimpy CPU transcoding from HD MPEG to H264 takes on the order of 2x realtime, meaning that it takes just over 2 hours to transcode a 1-hour show. that’s sort of manageable here in the summer when we don’t record too many shows, but once September hits the HTPC will be transcoding all the live-long day just to try to keep up. There’s a paid version of MCEBuddy that I dropped $15 on with the possibility that it’d speed things up, but my video card is old and slow enough that there’s no hardware acceleration to help out.

So now what? Upgrade the video card so I can do faster transcoding? Might be a possibility, but the better solution looks like to be updating from our current HDHomeRun tuner (a 5-year-old original model) to the HDHomeRun Plus, which has H264 encoding hardware built in. Now I just need to find a spare $100 somewhere. Anybody wanna buy an (aging) Mac Mini?

Krista Tippett on listening to those of other faiths

The guys over on Nomad Podcast recently interviewed Krista Tippett, a Christian who hosts a public radio interview program called On Being. I’ve never listened to her show before – though I may need to catch up with some episodes – but it would seem she makes a habit of interviewing people of all beliefs, of asking lots of good questions, and really actively listening to the answers.

So, the Nomad guys asked her, in listening to and conversing with all these other faith traditions, does she ever feel pressure to convert to one of the other faiths? I thought her answer about belief was helpful [at about 34:00]:

None of [these conversations] make me feel like I have to convert. But here’s what I would say: the cumulative effect of all of these conversations… has instilled in me this expansive and ever-expanding sense of mystery. So my sense of mystery is quite different from when I started. And [has increased] my comfort level with that, and just really being able to take a delight in that [the sense of mystery].

So no, I don’t feel like I have to convert, but I also think that I have less and less of a need to be able to tie everything up with a neat bow. If something doesn’t completely make sense, or it’s not logical, or I don’t see how these things fit together, it doesn’t threaten my faith, and I can leave it to the realm of mystery. And honestly, I find that I can to back into the tradition, into Christianity, that there’s a reverence for mystery there, for the things that we won’t be able to explain in this lifetime, that I actually think modernity kind of neglected.

It’s really very liberating to recover that, and to take delight in it. And I actually think that a reverence for mystery – there’s something that Einstein said, that a reverence for mystery is at the heart of the best of science and the arts and religion – I actually think that a reverence for mystery, which is an orthodox orientation, creates this beautiful space for deeply religious people to remain deeply grounded in their identities and inhabit this puzzling, amazing world full of religious others.

One down, 25 to go

I finished up NT Wright’s Surprised by Scripture the other night. A nice short form of several of his arguments, some will be very familiar to those who have read his other popular works. There were a couple chapters, though, on politics and on women leading in the church that were new to me and quite good.

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For review, here’s the list of books piled next to my bed that I’ve yet to read but want to before I buy any more. I think the next one I’ll be reading is From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt by Darren Dochuk.

The ones I’ve not read yet:

  • Surprised by Scripture, NT Wright
  • Merton: A Biography, Monica Furlong
  • Meditative Prayer, Thomas Merton
  • Resurrection and Moral Order, Oliver O’Donavan
  • Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright
  • A Severe Mercy, Shelden Vanauken
  • From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt, Darren Dochuk
  • Parables of Judgment, Robert Capon
  • Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris
  • Evangelical Theology, Karl Barth
  • Confessions of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton
  • The Wounded Healer, Henri J. M. Nouwen
  • The Monster in the Hollows, Andrew Peterson

Books I’ve started but not yet finished:

  • The Kingdom of Christ, Russell Moore
  • Jesus Manifesto, Frank Viola & Leonard Sweet
  • The Fiddler’s Green, A. S. Peterson

Books I wanna re-read:

  • The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, David Dark
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
  • Between Noon and Three, Robert Capon

Unread on my Kindle:

  • Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture, Brandon Hatmaker
  • Center Church, Tim Keller
  • The Pastor: A Memoir, Eugene Peterson
  • Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity, Frank Viola
  • Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis, Robert Edsel
  • Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, Richard Beck
  • Why Holiness Matters: We’ve Lost Our Way–But We Can Find it Again, Tyler Braun

Music to Work By: Rostropovich and Britten play Schubert

A good bit of my day-to-day work involves reading and reviewing large documents and sets of engineering data. To help that work along, I often listen to music, but really need it to be instrumental music, since music with words can be distracting from the words I’m reading.

One record I keep coming back to and so will highly recommend today is Schubert: Sonata for Arpeggione (bowed guitar) & Piano, d.821 / Schumann: 5 Pieces in the Popular Style (Volkston), Op. 102 / Debussy: Cello Sonata performed by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Benjamin Britten.

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The highlight of this record is the Schubert sonata. In three movements comprising almost 28 minutes of music, Rostropovich explores the full range of the cello, and his interplay with pianist Britten is nothing short of magical. I wasn’t aware before listening to this recording that Britten was an accomplished pianist, but his technique and style here are exquisite, with nuances in dynamics and tempo that perfectly complement the cello.

Recorded in 1968 and remastered and re-released in 1999, the audio quality here is fantastic; you could quite imagine that you were sitting in the room listening to them perform. The occasional bow sound, creak of the cello, and finger sounds on the neck and while playing pizzicato are all there in the ambiance. The piano and cello are never muddy, but always sweet and distinct.

Highly recommended stuff.

Ragamuffin: Music inspired by the Movie

I haven’t watched the Ragamuffin movie yet. Having known and loved Rich Mullins for the last 20+ years exclusively based on his music, I’m not sure I’m ready to have a moviemaker tell me what I should think about him as a person. But along with the movie today came out an album of music “inspired by” the movie – basically an album of Rich Mullins covers, with a couple old Rich demo tracks to round out the record. The artist list (including Andrew Peterson, Andy Gullahorn, and Jill Phillips, among others) pretty much guaranteed that I’d buy it. And I did.

The track listing includes:

  • “Creed” – Derek Webb
  • “If I Stand” – Sidewalk Prophets
  • “Calling Out Your Name” – Andrew Peterson
  • “I See You” – Audrey Assad
  • “Land of My Sojourn” – Jars of Clay
  • “Ready For the Storm” – Leigh Nash
  • “Wounds of Love” – Mitch McVicker
  • “Cry the Name” – Jill Phillips
  • “Peace” – Andy Gullahorn
  • “The Love of God” – Matt Liechty

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Some preliminary thoughts on the songs:

If I Stand – I’m not familiar with Sidewalk Prophets, but their take here is a solid remake of Rich’s original. Not much variance from the old track here; even the piano riffs remain by the book. Good vocals, though. Nothing to complain about.

Calling Out Your Name – If you’d told me that Andrew Peterson would be the guy on the record bringing in electronic elements, I’d not have believed it, but here it is. He sets up a gentle electronic loop that serves as a solid base for a really nice remake of this song. Peterson’s creativity never seems to wane.

I See You – I wasn’t familiar with Audrey Assad before today, but I’m gonna have to fix that. She took a rather repetitive song here and made a beautiful track out of it.

Land of my Sojourn – This one was a real disappointment. This is one of my favorite Rich songs, but all Jars of Clay did with it was thump a single bass note, put the guitar in an open tuning and slide around the neck from there while Dan Haseltine did a real low-key vocal. I know the JoC guys know more chords than that – wish they would’ve used them here.

Ready For the Storm – Rich didn’t write this one, but Leigh Nash does a really nice job of covering the tune. Not much new here, but a solid remake. (She also skips the Picardy third in the final chord, so that wins her bonus points with me.)

Wounds of Love – Mitch McVicker is an obvious choice to cover songs on this record, having been a good friend and collaborator of Rich’s. This one, though, feels like he’s trying to hard. There’s a little bit of everything on this track – a hammered dulcimer here, a string section there, and he turns what was a low-key, heartfelt song into a more intense rock track that drags on far too long before an awkward ending. I wasn’t sold on it.

Cry the Name – Jill Phillips. What else can I say? This is the one track on this record where the artist took the song and really made it their own. Jill takes Rich’s rather upbeat, 9/8 rhythm song and dials it back to a 4/4 ballad with her husband Andy Gullahorn playing guitars and singing backups. Of all the songs on the record, this is the one that sounds a lot less like Rich and a lot more like the recording artist, and that’s a good thing.

Peace – I can’t imagine anybody I’d rather hear do a cover of this song than Andy Gullahorn, and he doesn’t disappoint. He manages to replicate a lot of Rich’s piano riffs with layered acoustic guitars, then blesses us with his calm, sure vocals on top. Pretty much exactly what you’d expect to hear from Gullahorn, so if you’re a fan of him, you’ll be a fan here.

The Love of God – I’ve got no idea who Matt Liechty is – a quick Google search doesn’t even turn up a proper artist homepage – but he seems far out of his depth being included with the other artists on this record. He pushes this piano ballad too hard, and his vocal chops aren’t up to the standards otherwise present here. I love this song, but not this version of it.

If you’ve read this far you may have noted that I haven’t said anything about Derek Webb’s cover of Creed. Honestly, I haven’t been much inclined to listen to anything by Derek after his recent shenanigans, so this track will probably sit unplayed for a while until I’m ready.

In conclusion

Unless you’re a die-hard completionist, I’d say this is a record where you could save a few bucks by just buying some selected tracks instead of the whole thing. I’d recommend “Calling Out Your Name”, “I See You”, “Ready for the Storm”, “Cry the Name”, and “Peace”. Skip the others, or go back and listen to Rich’s versions instead. Sometimes the original is best left alone. You can find it on iTunes today.

No More Buying Until I Do Some Reading

…that’s the promise I’m making myself. The book pile next to my bed is just too high, and I keep accumulating without making much progress. So, it’s time to whittle down the pile.

In no particular order, here’s what I’ve got piled up.

First, the ones I’ve not read yet:

  • Surprised by Scripture, NT Wright
  • Merton: A Biography, Monica Furlong
  • Meditative Prayer, Thomas Merton
  • Resurrection and Moral Order, Oliver O’Donavan
  • Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright
  • A Severe Mercy, Shelden Vanauken
  • From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt, Darren Dochuk
  • Parables of Judgment, Robert Capon
  • Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris
  • Evangelical Theology, Karl Barth
  • Confessions of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton
  • The Wounded Healer, Henri J. M. Nouwen
  • The Monster in the Hollows, Andrew Peterson

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Books I’ve started but not yet finished:

  • The Kingdom of Christ, Russell Moore
  • Jesus Manifesto, Frank Viola & Leonard Sweet
  • The Fiddler’s Green, A. S. Peterson

Books I wanna re-read:

  • The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, David Dark
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
  • Between Noon and Three, Robert Capon

Unread on my Kindle:

  • Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture, Brandon Hatmaker
  • Center Church, Tim Keller
  • The Pastor: A Memoir, Eugene Peterson
  • Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity, Frank Viola
  • Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis, Robert Edsel
  • Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, Richard Beck
  • Why Holiness Matters: We’ve Lost Our Way–But We Can Find it Again, Tyler Braun

By my count, that’s 26 books. At my current rate, I might finish them by the end of the year.

Unless I hit the Half Price Books or the library again and find another pile of reading material. But I’m gonna try not to.

Random thoughts while watching The West Wing tonight

Tonight we watched “Dead Irish Writers”, from the middle of season three. A couple of thoughts:

  • I finally realized that the actor playing Lord John Marbury is the same guy (Roger Rees) who plays Robin Colcord on Cheers. That’s hilarious.
  • The long scene where Abbey, CJ, Donna, and guest star Mary-Louise Parker’s Amy sit on the couch and drink wine and talk is simply brilliant – a stand out scene in a series of fantastic scenes.

Such a great show.

Lewis, Tolkien, and True Myth

There’s a good piece today from Fr. Stephen Freeman revisiting C. S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien’s exploration of myth – not myth in the popular sense of “a story that isn’t true”, but in the sense of a “primal, shaping story” that is “profoundly and deeply true”.

Tolkien, reflecting on [fellow Inkling Owen] Barfields’s work, said, “If God is mythopoetic, then we must become mythopathic.” This is to say that if God’s primary mode of revelation is through the instrument of mythic stories and events, then we ourselves must be open to understanding such mythic expressions of realities. Strangely, myth (in their use of the term) is far better suited to expressing Realism than any possible materialist account.

And this brings us to my original point: Why do the imaginative works of Lewis and Tolkien speak to the modern heart as much as they do?

They do so because they are true! But the truth that they relate is a truth known primarily by the heart and it is this dynamic that gives myth both its nature and its effectiveness.

Fr. Stephen goes on to say that the Christian liturgy (Fr. Stephen is Orthodox, for whom the liturgy is significant and ornate) is a way of including that deep, primal, indescribable truth into our worship of God. And while I’m not really tempted to move to Eastern Orthodoxy, I do think it’s something that us cerebral evangelicals would do good to consider from time to time.

We’ve been shaped by the Enlightenment to systematize and study and intellectualize our faith, which is all well and good. But we should also not be afraid of the primal truths of the universe that God created, even if we can’t always find words to express it. Lewis described in Narnia a “deep magic from before the dawn of time”. Let’s revel in the God who created it, both with our intellects and with our primal souls.