7 Quick Takes: Personal Edition

Regular readers know that I’m not really a confessional blogger. I don’t talk about my personal life or use this is space as a kind of public diary. So, in the interest of slightly correcting that, I’m using Jen’s 7 Quick Takes format to share 7 things about me, personally.


During the period when I was lapsed, I took part in a pagan naming ritual for a friend’s baby.

It was just like this.

It’s not something I’d do today (nor, I think, would the friend), but we entered into the spirit of the event and felt honored to be included. Well, honored and faintly embarrassed. I don’t know how pagans do even half of what they do without dissolving into giggles. Since I was functionally (though not actually) pagan myself at the point, it really wasn’t that much of a stretch.


I have had mystical experiences, and have spent much of my adult life trying to understand them. My time in the spiritual wilderness was an attempt to make sense of these experiences from outside the faith of my childhood. Only upon returning to the Church did I realize that the fullness of truth and the answers to my questions were here all along. I do not write about these experiences because they lay beyond words, and I feel they should stay there. They have, however, removed any doubt whatsoever about the existence of God and the invisible world of mystery and magnificence that surrounds us.


Yep, I wrote for this.

I do not regret my time in the wilderness immersed in (at various times) Neoplatonism, agnosticism, gnosticism, Jung, shamanism, and general New Agey foolishness. It broadened my perspective and gave me an infallible BS detector that serves me well in my role as a Catechist and Catholic writer.


My natural tendency is toward uncharity and nastiness. I made a career of it as a reviewer who was known for being cutting. (One author knocked me out of a chair at a convention of horror writers. Another sent me gay pornography in the mail. A company refused to pay one of my magazines $15,000 they owed for ads because of something I’d written. And so on.)

“Hated it.”

I know I hurt people under the cover of “Just being honest” or “Just doing my job.” Since I began blogging, I’ve made an effort not to do that, but it is a mighty struggle. I still read people and think, “What a frigging idiot.” That the person actually IS a frigging idiot isn’t the point. The point is: he’s also human, and thus deserving of at least a measure of charity. I’m not naturally inclined to dole out that kind of charity, so it’s a struggle to read certain people without drawing a bead on them and unleashing a stream of withering contempt. I’m still working on that one.


I consider myself a traditionalist and, indeed, a medievalist, but much of old-school Marian piety leaves me cold. I’ve made valiant attempts to fall in love with the Rosary, with middling results. My commitment to the 54-Day Rosary Novena seemed like a Herculean task at times. The first thing I had to do was strip away the cloying verbiage slathered all over the devotion like inch-thick icing on a cake made entirely of fondant:

Hail, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, my Mother Mary, hail! At thy feet I humbly kneel to offer thee a Crown of Roses, snow white buds to remind thee of thy joys!, each bud recalling to thee a holy mystery; each ten bound together with my petition for a particular grace. O Holy Queen, dispenser of God’s graces, and Mother of all who invoke thee! thou canst not look upon my gift and fail to see its binding. As thou receivest my gift, so wilt thou receive my petition; from thy bounty thou wilt give me the favor I so earnestly and trustingly seek. I despair of nothing that I ask of thee. Show thyself my Mother!

Who writes this stuff? Why does so much Marian art and devotion look and sound like it sprang from the mind of a fifteen-year-old 18th century French girl?

St Louis de Montfort makes my teeth hurt. I’ve never really cared about the dreaded secrets of Fatima, and I think Medjugorje was a hoax. My primary personal devotion is the Liturgy of the Hours and daily readings. This is not to downplay the role of the Blessed Mother in my prayer life (I pray the Angelus every day), but few of the devotions as they’ve developed really speak to me. I understand some of this is my own failing.


Those who have read me for some time know that I write about mental illness more than most Catholic bloggers. Yes, this is based on experience. No, I don’t intend to talk about it.


Call for the Priest, baby!

I still listen to 1970s/80s heavy metal music from time to time, and I’m not ashamed.

Judas Priest predicted the age of drones and NSA overreach back in 1982. (I saw this show live.)

Someone Finally Finds a Good Use for “The Message”

Stopping a bullet:

Rickey Wagoner told police in Dayton, Ohio, that he was repairing an electrical fault in his bus early yesterday morning when unknown attackers approached him and shot him three times.

One bullet struck the 49-year-old’s right leg and the other two hit him in chest, reports the Dayton Daily News.

Sgt. Michael Pauley said the two bullets fired into Wagoner’s chest were “stopped” by a modern translation of the Bible called The Message carried in his front pocket.

“There was obviously some kind of intervention involved in this incident, because he probably should not be here,” Sgt. Pauley said.

“God’s on Rick’s side,” added Lillie Brown, a long-time friend of Wagoner’s.

The Message is a colloquial translation of the Bible created by Eugene H. Peterson because reading is hard.

Here’s the way it translates the beginning of John:

1 The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.

3–5  Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.

And Matthew 6:7-13:

“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—
as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Why yes, it is both brain-scramblingly bad and fitfully heretical, but at least it saved Rickey Wagoner’s life, and for that we should give thanks.


Medieval Book Shrines

Medieval Fragments has a terrific, well-illustrated post on book shrines: shrines designed to look like books.

Called a cumdach, the book shrine was a kind of reliquary contains pages from books associated with saints, and occasionally first class relics:

Usually quite small, they served as a portable vessel meant for the preservation of a sacred text that represented a direct connection or association to a saint. They were often decorated in metalwork or ivory carvings, with precious stones to symbolize the valuable nature of the object inside, imitating a treasure binding. These ornamented boxes would be used for the swearing of oaths, protection or even healing purposes.

They’re beautiful and fascinating. Check them out.

The Rising (and Fall) of Flappy Bird

One strange new spectacle of the information age is the accelerating lifespan of fads. Things flash across the web, are seen by millions, and then vanish.

The social media drawing game Draw Something was, for a brief time, the biggest game in the world. It was so huge that social gaming powerhouse Zynga paid $200 million for its creator, OMGPOP. While the ink was still wet on the contract, Draw Something crashed and burned, shedding its 10 million daily users and doing serious damage to Zynga.

The latest pet rock was a mini-game called Flappy Bird, but it came from the exact opposition end of the creation spectrum as the mega-million-dollar behemoth Zynga. Flappy Bird was created by one young Vietnamese man named Dong Nguyen. The game is perfectly simple and strikingly artless, but its combination of easy to understand and difficult to master hit a sweet spot for many gamers.

Flappy Bird has one input: tap. The game field is a side-scrolling series of tubes lifted straight from Mario games. (Nintendo has said they don’t intend to sue and did not demand that the game be taken down.) Tubes extend from the top and bottom of the screen to different lengths, creating a gap between them. The goal is to steer a bird (which really looks more like a fish with wings) through as many gaps as possible. This is done with one tap, which makes the bird rise. After each tap, the bird falls. Thus, he’s only kept in the air by a series of perfectly timed taps that will enable him to pass through the gap between the tubes. If it so much as brushes one of the tubes, the game stops and you go back to the beginning.

And that’s it. That’s all it does. The first try for every gamer will be a failure. Psychologically, this means the gamer will have to try again, at least to clear the first tube.

But that counter is there mocking you: can’t you get more than a score of “1”? So people try to get a sense of Flappy’s broad movement arcs in order to earn a slightly higher score. This takes many, many more tries, and in the course of trying, the high score gradually goes up a little. It only takes about 5 minutes to get to 4 or 5, but as the string of actions rises, so do the stakes and thus the tension. Once the player has a sense of the controls, the score challenges them to go for higher numbers, since they’ve already invested this much in learning the ropes.

Thus the game enters a compulsion loop that addicted players found hard to break. This simple, nothing game causes the person playing it to pass through several psychological states–curiosity, engagement, attempted mastery, self-criticism, personal challenge, despair, and, most of all, suspense—with the most rudimentary elements. It appeals not because it’s some grand statement, but because it generates a very definite and raw emotional response–tension created by suspense–that some people find appealing. They’re willing to put up with the frustration for that sense of suspense. It’s not complicated or mysterious: it just seems so to people who don’t search out that particular psychological state.

But why did it catch on? It had no marketing, and was largely ignored upon release in May. By summer it had started to find an audience in Russia and Australia. By December there was a huge spike in US downloads, and by January it was number 1 in 107 countries.

At the point, it was fully viral, and ultimately logged 50 million downloads. The game was free, supported by a single banner that its creator claimed was earning $50,000 a day. Once it became viral, the game itself ceased to matter as a game: it became a new media phenomena that had its own cultural life.

And then, on February 9th, it was gone. The creator had a meltdown, and posted to Twitter: “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.”

And he did just that. Flappy Bird was gone from the store, which had the opposite effect from the one Nguyen desired: now people wanted to talk to him more than ever. (As of this writing, he has never talked to anyone in the media or done any promotion beyond his Twitter feed.) What was a viral game suddenly became a news story covered by everyone from USA Today to Time Magazine. Phones with the game still on it were getting bids up to $5000 on eBay.

The sudden fame and massive media attention was part of what caused Nguyen to pull the game. The viral nature and the angry comments of thousands who were addicted and frustrated by its difficulty troubled Nguyen greatly. He felt that people were misusing the game and it was causing too much disruption in their lives and his own. Demands for a sequel and new content made him realize that nothing more could be done with the original game: any changes would wreck it. The fad was on the verge of being played out, and if Nguyen was more a canny marketing master rather than a fame-rocked indie programmer, the time of its removal couldn’t have been chosen any better. He is now world famous.

Flappy Bird is, technically, a terrible game. But it’s also one which snags certain people and snares them in a feedback loop that taps into our desire for distraction and tendencies toward compulsive behavior. There is nothing more meaningless than nudging up the score of a badly designed mobile app, yet we do it anyway for the emotional charge.

Perhaps its very purity is what made Flappy Bird a hit. It boils down the essence of a certain kind of game: purposeless, simple, and difficult to get right. It’s like a paddle with a ball on an elastic. Nothing is to be gained by mastery, and mastery is difficult, but we try nonetheless, just to prove we can.

In an article of almost sublime wrongness, a professor named Ian Bogost waxes PhDish about Flappy Bird and games in general. That he fails to understand the entire continuum of games from Aksumites scratching mancala-style boards in the dirt to the latest app is made clear by his repeated assertions that games, including things like Go and Chess (!), are mere vectors for human frustration devoid of any higher purpose or social function beyond staving off existential dread:

Flappy Bird is a condition of the universe, even if it is one that didn’t exist until it was hand-crafted by a Vietnamese man who doesn’t want to talk about it. A condition in the sense of a circumstance, but also in the sense of a blight, a sickness, a stain we cannot scrub out but may in time be willing to accept. A stain like our own miserable, tiny existences as players, which we nevertheless believe are more fundamental than the existence of bird flapping games or machine screws or the cold fog rising against the melting snow in the morning. Because the game cares so little for your experience of it, you find yourself ever more devoted to it.

Good Lord, what a load of crap. I know it’s almost impossible for modernists to see beyond their own pinched understanding of the universe, but to make such patently absurd claims and apply them not just to a game with 50 million players (most of whom do not share this view of the universe), but to the entire history of a rich and diverse aspect of human culture, is unalloyed nonsense. There’s more:

To understand Flappy Bird, we must accept the premise that games are squalid, rusty machinery we operate in spite of themselves. What we appreciate about Flappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

Given the vast scope the subject (one for which the writer lays claims to expertise, although I’d never heard of him before) this is as wrong as wrong can be. Games exist on a spectrum, from the raw and primal to the elegant and elevated, tapping into deep human needs for problem solving, emotional engagement, psychological stimulation, socialization, and cultural expression. Games–even contemporary electronic games–are primarily a social phenomena in which participants agree to a set of rules in order to engage the imagination and intellect.

Flappy Bird is on the “raw and primal” end of the spectrum. It’s telos is to offer a stark challenge that leads to initial engagement and emotional stimulation (or manipulation, if you want), crude as that stimulation may be. It’s not a symbol of our existential dread.


Anybody can make a Flappy Bird game using the Flappy Bird generator. Here’s my version: Flappy Alexander VI, in which the worst pope in history has to fly between Lucrezia Borgias.

Advocacy Group Claims the Vatican is Full of Winos

And I sure hope they’re right.

The Wine Institute, a group that promotes the California wine industry, has released the results of a study* saying the Vatican consumes more wine per-capita than any other country in the world.

The average Vaticanian sucks down 74 liters of wine per person: double that of Italy and France.

Most of this, obviously, is due to sacramental use, but the overall individual wine consumption is believed to be higher because the population is older, male, and eats in community: three factors that increase wine use.

Also, Catholics like our wine, and we’re damn proud of the fact. None of that “Jesus really used grape juice at the last supper” nonsense for us.

I mean really: grape juice?


*Yeah, yeah, I know: Studies Show Most Studies Are BS, especially when they’re from an “advocacy” group looking to grab some ink. Wine consumption, however, is pretty easy to quantify, and we do use the stuff by the barrel.



Child’s Heart Surgery Aided By 3D-Printed Model

Michael Clevenger/The Courier-Journal

Kentucky heart surgeon Erle Austin knew that fixing 14-month-old Roland Lian Cung Bawi’s heart would be a delicate process, and he wanted as much information as possible before going in. He went to the engineering school at University of Louisville help with a computer model of the boy’s heart, and they were able to use a 3D printer to make a larger version of the heart to help the team better understand the challenge:

“Once I had a model, I knew exactly what I needed to do and how I could do it,” said Austin, who was able to reduce exploratory incisions, cut operating time and ensure that Roland wouldn’t need follow-up operations. “It was a tremendous benefit.”

The successful Feb. 10 surgery at Kosair marked what hospital officials say was the first use of 3-D printing for a pediatric heart patient in Kentucky.

“We’re still learning about this technology, but it has exciting applications,” said Philip Dydynski, chief of radiology at Kosair, who was part of the medical team.


7 Book Takes

I’ve never done one of Jen Fulwiler’s 7 Quick Takes before, but I see that Leah Libresco has turned Darwin Catholic’s Immediate Book Meme (and BTW, Darwins, your pizza recipe CHANGED OUR ENTIRE LIVES!) into a quick take thingie, and I know an idea worth stealing when I read one, so…

— 1 — 

What book are you reading now?

As always, I’m reading a few at a time:

The History of the Catholic Church (James Hitchcock) as a quick review for upcoming comps for my masters. A good one volume overview.

Doctor Thorne (Anthony Trollope): Third of his Barsetshire novels.

Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds (Darren Oldridge) is a fascinating attempt to understand the medieval mind as it encountered the world, without condescending or assuming people were ignorant because they hold views many no longer accept. Beware of the Kindle version, which is missing text.

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (by various hands) is a suppliment to the landmark collections by James Charlesworth, and includes more Jewish and Christian texts.

 — 2 —

What book did you finish last?

Pickwick Papers (Dickens) was a treat to myself after finishing all my classes in December.

Eifelheim (Mike Flynn). I took a break from Pickwick after Sean Dailey and Mark Shea badgered me to read Mike Flynn. An absolutely wonderful novel about aliens encountering a medieval village during the plague years. The way he completely understands the working of the medieval mind is astonishing.

— 3 — 

What do you plan to read next?

Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Everett Furgeson ) is more comp review.

Dombey & Sons (Dickens). Because Dickens

— 4 —

What book do you keep meaning to finish?

The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way are wonderful works of Eastern Christian spituality, but I stopped midway and haven’t gotten back to them yet. Try the sample and you’ll be impressed. 

— 5 —

What book do you keep meaning to start?

Don Quixote (Cervantes). I’ve never read it, and consider it a gap in my education. I picked up a new translation on Kindle, but I keep putting it off. 

— 6 —

What is your current reading trend?

Theology, history, 19th century literature. 

— 7 —

Bonus question to bring it up to 7: What is the most important book you’ve ever read?



More quick takes at Conversion Diary.
More book lists at Darwin Catholic.

Idea stolen from Unequally Yoked.

The Craic [App o the Mornin’]

I took this week off from the App o’ so I could focus on putting the June issue of my magazine to bed. When the App returns next week, it’s going to be on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. There just doesn’t seem to be the interest in it to maintain a daily feature covering any old thing, so I’ll make it more focused and spread them out a bit.

Will Duquette has your back, however, with The Craic:

The folks playing music in the corner might conceivably be using an app called “The Craic” on their iPhones or iPads. The Craic is similar to ForScore in that it displays sheet music, but it’s a very different app.

Toddle over there to learn what a “craic” is, and what the app does.


So This Exists…

Because screw it we’re putting the Everclear straight in the whipped cream!

I love the future.

Update: I see some were already leaning on the PANIC!!!!1! button with this one, just as they did with Four Loko, which us old folks just call Irish Coffee.

OH EM GEE college students is getting drunk on it because it’s sweet and they don’t feel the buzz! Because sweetness and alcohol have never been combined before!

Hey, I can relate. Here’s a Short Story With An Edifying Lesson for you:

In high school I had a mess of sloe gin fizzes one night out with friends, ’cause they go down easy and fast.

I got sick.

I didn’t drink sloe gin fizzes again.

Teh End.