Sunday, May 23, 2010

John Adams Visits a Catholic Church

I'm still reading John Adams by David McCullough on my Kindle. I was very impressed by his description of his first visit to a Catholic Church while in Philadelphia.

One Sunday, “led by curiosity and good company,” which included George Washington, Adams crossed a “Romish” threshold, to attend afternoon mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Fifth Street, an experience so singular that he reflected on it at length both in his journal and in a letter to Abigail. Everything about the service was the antithesis of a lifetime of Sabbaths at Braintree’s plain First Church, where unfettered daylight through clear window glass allowed for no dark or shadowed corners, or suggestion of mystery. For the first time, Adams was confronted with so much that generations of his people had abhorred and rebelled against, and he found himself both distressed and strangely moved. The music, bells, candles, gold, and silver were “so calculated to take in mankind,” that he wondered the Reformation had ever succeeded. He felt pity for “the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood,” he told Abigail. The dress of the priest was rich with lace—his pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich—little images and crucifixes about—wax candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the picture of our Savior in a frame of marble over the altar at full length upon the Cross, in the agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds? Yet Adams stayed through all of the long service. The music and chanting of the assembly continued through the afternoon, “most sweetly and exquisitely,” and he quite approved of the priest’s “good, short, moral essay” on the duty of parents to see to their children’s temporal and spiritual interests. The whole experience, Adams concluded, was “awful and affecting”—the word “awful” then meaning full of awe, or “that which strikes with awe, or fills with reverence.”

I was amazed that despite his tradition, he was open enough to express positive things about the experience. I will comment on his pity for "the poor wretches." I can't speak for the Catholics of 1770s Philadelphia, but I will say that there is evidence of vibrant knowledgeable faith among Catholic laity in many times and places before the liturgy was in the vernacular. Yes, there are also cases of ignorance of the faith, but that's also true in the Protestant world. In general, I think it is good that the Catholic liturgy is now usually done in the vernacular, although I'm glad that the Latin tradition is being preserved.

I can speculate on two related reasons why Adams may have been so affected. The first is the sacramental presence of Christ in the Catholic Mass. Although I believe from what I've read that Adams had a relationship with Christ, Jesus is present in the Eucharist in a way that Adams would not have experienced before. I have heard many testimonies of people walking into a Catholic Church and feeling a divine presence there, and that has been my experience too. The second reason is that there was worship appropriate to the bodily presence of Christ there at the Mass. It would have been more like the heavenly worship described in Revelation 4-6 than the sermon-focused services to which Adams would have been accustomed.

There is no evidence that Adams ever considered conversion. It would have been practically unthinkable in his world. Still, I'm glad to see that he took the time to describe this experience.

Monday, May 17, 2010

After Trying an iPad I Bought a Kindle

An alumnus of the school I work at donated an iPad to be given to a teacher to use in the classroom. The iPad was given to me first so that I could figure out how it might be useful in the classroom, and then pass it on to a teacher. I had it for about two weeks trying out its various capabilities. It's a nice device, but I decided since I already had a MacBook and an iPhone, getting an iPad of my own wouldn't be that useful to me. That's not to say I wouldn't make use of one if I had one, but not enough to justify the cost.

One evening that I was playing with the iPad, I turned my attention to eBooks. I installed both the Amazon Kindle Reader and the iBook applications to see what they could do. I had used the Kindle Reader on the iPhone to read one short novel (Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson) and had started reading another book on it (John Adams by David McCullough). I enjoyed always having the availability of a book in my pocket, but the iPhone was not good for extended periods of reading. The Kindle app on the iPad was the same thing, but with a bigger screen. You didn't have to turn the pages as often, but it was still a computer screen that caused eye-strain. Apple's iBook application had some nice features, but it was still the same screen. It was getting late in the evening, and after having used a computer all day, I was in no mood to stare at another computer screen to read a book, even if was the latest touch-screen tablet.

I did some research on eBooks, including the two major eBook formats: Mobi which is used on the Kindle, and ePub, which is used by everyone else (Sony, Nook, iBook, and others). I found out that for books that did not use DRM (Digital Rights Management), it was easy to convert between the formats using a program called Calibre. I also found out that it was easy to take any text and convert it to one of these eBook formats. I realized that if I got a Kindle, I could do the following cool things:

  • Read new books at a reduced price, since Kindle prices were usually lower than printed book prices.
  • Read older books for free, or a very low price ($1-$3).
  • Have the same book on my Kindle device and my iPhone. The iPhone allowed me to always have something to read in my pocket, but the Kindle was much better for long reading. Amazon's Whispersync feature would keep my reading position synchronized across both devices.
  • I could put study materials for grad school on the Kindle rather than printing them out, especially when it came time for comprehensive exams. I've seen some of my friends who were further ahead in the program carrying huge ring binders full of stuff they were reading for their comps.
So, I ordered a Kindle, and it arrived on Saturday. I'm really happy with it so far. After I've used it a little longer, I will write more of a review.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Intrinsic Motivation

I just finished watching "Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation" who claims that for higher order cognitive tasks, intrinsic motivation such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose are more effective than extrinsic rewards such as money or threat of job loss (carrot and stick). He claims that extrinsic rewards work well for mechanical tasks because they provide focus, but creative work suffers from that kind of focus.

Although I think there is some value to his idea, I find it ironic that he is trying to apply intrinsic motivation for employees of companies which exist on the basis of extrinsic motivation. Most companies in the U.S. are created for the purpose of making money, which is an extrinsic motivation. I think that ultimately, intrinsic motivation for employees is only going to work when it is consistent with the thrust of the organization. Anything else will eventually be seen as manipulation. If an organization's primary purpose is to do something good in the world, then I can see how members of that organization might be motivated to do great work towards that goal.