Sunday, February 26, 2006

Does anyone care about poetry?

Does anyone care about poetry?
This was written as an answer to another blogger. Perhaps one should try writing poems, not writing about poems:
"The word 'encourage' is used in such modern sentences in the merely automatic sense of promote; to encourage poetry means merely to advance or assist poetry. But to encourage poetry means properly to put courage into poetry - a fine idea."
[GKC, ILN Sept 26, 1906 CW27:292]
So instead of writing about poetry, I wrote a poem to write about writing about poetry.
(Thank God I am a Chestertonian computer scientist, and can deal with such practical metaphysics...)

A blogger asks, "Do any care for rhyme?"
So I, who deal with words at work and play -
Computing cannot be a "Catholic" crime:
"According to Thy word" did Mary say,1
"From 'yes' and 'no' your lips should never stray" 2
And Comp-sci Greeks now study liturgy3...
So armed with Word's own words I join the fray!
Does anyone care about poetry?

When "Phantom Tollbooth" Milo4 fought the grime
Of countless demons standing in his way
With Humbug and the Dog-Who-Watches-Time,
And so in darkness shone the Truthful ray:
He did not rescue "Prose and Feeling" - nay!
His diligence set Rhyme and Reason free...
Then Words and Numbers 5 ordered Wisdom's sway.6
Does anyone care about poetry?

Poems, just like numbers, might not be prime:
Words, declined to wed, will hide, fight, or slay;
But ah, what joy when perfect is the chime,
A fruitful tree 7 when words unite and stay...
As Dodgson watched the flight of his tea-tray8
A Real Romance 9 and not just Fantasy:
A song, a story, study, work and pray10...
Does anyone care about poetry?

Oh blogger, word-made-flesh11, and living clay:
Move not thy mouse, press not that "Any" key!
My verbal wine foretells that coming Day12...
Does anyone care about poetry?

Made February 26, 2006.

OK, I overdid it again with the footnotes.

[1] Lk 1:38
[2] Mt 5:37
[3] The computer science course called "operating systems" is called "leitourgika" in Greece.
[4] See The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
[5] Azaz and the Mathemagician
[6] see Ws 11:21; cf. Science and Creation by S. L. Jaki, chapter 10.
[7] Mt 7:16-20
[8] See Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "A Mad Tea-Party"
"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!" ...
"Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky."
[9] "if there be indeed a God, his creation could hardly have reached any other culmination than this granting of a real romance to the world." [GK. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man CW2:380]
[10] cf. the Benedictine ora et labora
[11] cf. Jn 1:14, but note the lower-case; we are indeed flesh formed from the 3 billion-base "word" of DNA.
[12] see Jn 2:10; also cf. Rv 22:5 "and night shall be no more"

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Two Poems


The language of knowledge is obscure and strange,
The words of each field span the lexicon's range.
But stranger by far are the words which we say,
They have different meanings at work or at play!

Chemists have nickel, but never a dime,
They have their solutions which each lack a crime,
Their compounds have rings though they've never been wed,
They speak much of Ethyl but never of Fred.

Musicians have keys which can open no locks,
Their organs have swell shoes, but never swell socks.
No edges they sharpen, their strings never knotted;
It's not I and J, but their notes which are dotted.

Mathematicians have focus (no lens),
Planes without pilots, points without pens,
Fields but no forest, no stars in their space,
And umpires won't deal with their kind of base.

The geologists all have their faults but no guilt,
Plates not for dinner, but for mountains once built;
Strikes without runs, their dips aren't wet,
And beds they don't sleep in - no, their thickness they get.

The physicists manage their work with no pay;
The philosophers ponder their act but no play;
The lawyers have scales that were never on fins;
Anthropology races, but nobody wins.

Beware, then, or you might just verbally fault
When you ask your neighbor to pass you the salt,
Your simplest comment could then be revealed
As a technical statement in some other field.

November 7&9, 1991
/*reprinted by permission of the author*/

Knock Knock
"...Christians should be awakened by hammers"
"The Point of a Pin" by G. K. Chesterton

"...Whoever knocks..." St. Luke 11:9

The knock of a hammer (so Chesterton said)
Is better than bells to wake Christians from bed.

A tool of ho tekton1: of Joseph the just,
The worker who with His own Son God did trust,
And He who "hacked" all (bara2 is the right word) -
Learned at Joseph's own bench, where two hammers were heard.

The thoughts of His mother awoke with the din
Recalling the knocking at Bethlehem's inn;
The knocks of the shepards came later that night
And scientist-kings who had followed starlight.

The Builder told stories He carefully planned
Of a house built on rock and another on sand...
Gifts given for asking, the searchers, the found,
The unguessed response to the hand-on-door sound.

Then were hammered the nails binding hands to the wood -
The death they arranged on the Friday called Good -
A sword through the heart of the one who stood near,
His will ratified by His mother so dear.

But knocks came unlooked-for, and broke Sunday gloom
As sunrise3 reporters brought news from the tomb.
The Builder at heart-doors is hammering still
With answers and gifts if to open you will.

So door-knocks and hammers say "Christians awake!
There's work to be done, and a world to remake."

June 10, 1994
/*reprinted by permission of the author*/

(Yes, everyone complains: "a poem with footnotes?" Hee hee.)

[1] This is Greek for "the builder" usually more specifically translated "the carpenter" (Mark 6:3).

[2] This is the Hebrew verb used for "create" in Genesis, which apparently has the meaning of "to hack or slash" according to Fr. Stanley L. Jaki (see his Genesis 1 Through the Ages). This indicates to me: (1) God did it easily (as an artist might say, "I just dashed this poem off" or a programmer, "Oh, I just hacked the code together in a few hours." (2) It means that He "cut" it off from Himself, that is, the creation is "contingent" and not at all part of the divine essence, it exists separate from Him though still dependent on Him. Remarkable how much one can get into such a simple word.

[3] Or you might wish to read this as "Son-rise"

Friday, February 24, 2006

From a 16th century metallurgy text

At some point in the past, I have mentioned the very famous book called The Pirotechnica by Vannoccio Biringuccio. (It is available from Dover Publications.) This book was published in 1540 and is the classic work of metallurgy - the engineering discipline of refining metals. Before his death, Biringuccio was appointed head of the papal foundry - a curious position, until one remembers that churches need bells! - and one which suggests the good relation of the Church to engineering.
I will quote an important excerpt from the preface concerning the location or ores. It is interesting because of the spiritual dimension - and because it suggests something very insightful about the use of "necromancy" (magic) which I have not heard anyone advance elsewhere... please read it and see what it suggests to you...

...I do not believe that one man, however strong and careful he may be, has enough strength to go about minutely examining a single mountain that might contain ore, much less all the mountains of one or more provinces. Some, because they know of this difficulty, say that they make use of necromancy. Since I consider this a fabulous thing and have no information of what it may be, I intend neither to praise nor to damn it, and yet if what they say they do were indeed true, it would be a very useful thing. However, I wish these necromancers would tell me why they do not use their art after they have found the ore and do also for the middle and the end what they do for the beginning; that is, use their art for excavating the ore and reducing it to smelted material and to the purity of its separation. Without doubt it can be believed that if they have the power to do one of the said things, they also have the power to do the others, but such operations are so fearful and horrible that they neither should nor could be practiced, nor would all men wish to do so. Such a thing is not well known, and I have never heard that it is practiced. The principal reason why it must be believed that such practices are abandoned in this part of the work is that whenever the excavation of a mine is begun, it is customary first to seek the grace of God, so that He may intervene to aid every doubtful and difficult effort; and in place of this one would be seeking the aid of the devils of hell. Whence, in order to discover ores, I think it better to abandon the way of bestial and fearless men and to choose the way of using the signs that are exhibited to us through the benignity of Nature, founded on truth and approved by all experts because of their experience, which, as is evident, does not consist of words or promises of incomprehensible and vain things.

[emphasis added]

Thursday, February 23, 2006

GKC: To A Modern Poet

I needed a laugh tonight, and perhaps you do also. Please finish drinking your wonderful drink (I do hope it is beer! or perhaps wine... ooh, he has a great poem about this too, for another day) and put down any food or vegetables before reading this very wonderful poem by our Uncle Gilbert. Also, I am sorry but the amazingly haphazard indentation has been lost somewhere. It's my fault, yes; I did NOT write the code, alas. Anyway, here you go....

To A Modern Poet
by G. K. Chesterton
(from his Collected Poems)

about it?

I am sorry
if you have
a green pain
gnawing your brain away.
I suppose
quite a lot of it is
gnawed away
by this time.

I did not give you
a green pain
or even
a grey powder.
It is rather you, so winged, so vortical,
Who give me a pain.

When I have a pain
I never notice
the colour.

But I am very unobservant.
I cannot say
I ever noticed that the pillar-box
was like a baby
skinned alive and screaming.
I have not
a Poet's
which can see Beauty

Now you mention it,
Of course, the sky
is like a large mouth
shown to a dentist,
and I never noticed
a little thing
like that.

But I can't help wishing
You got more fun out of it;
you seem to have taken
quite a dislike
to things
They seem to make you jump
And double up unexpectedly -

And when you write
like other poets,
on subjects
not entirely
such as, for instance,
the Sea,
it is mostly about
As you say -
It is the New Movement,
The Emetic Ecstasy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Gift of the Papacy

A note: the following concludes my excerpts from my letter of 2/22/2002 to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels responding to his request in Ut unum sint, 95.
-- Dr. Thursday
VII. The Papacy as a Gift

Heart of Jesus, of whose fullness we have all received...[43]

This part is more mystical than the others – a kind of meditation from me as a son of the Catholic Church, rather than as a scientist.
I believe that one of the most important facets of the Papacy is that of gift. The Papacy is a great and wonderful gift which the Lord has designed and presented to us. Even more importantly, it is intimately identified with the gift-giver.
Let us, then, consider the "Petrine Commission" in Mt. 16:18 as this imparting of a great gift from God: Our Lord asks the Apostles "Who do you say that I am?" Alone among the Apostles, Peter affirms the on-going theophany: "You are Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus then confirms that God has revealed this truth to Peter directly (just as He revealed Mary's divine maternity to Elizabeth).
Abruptly, in a direct act of creation, Jesus says, "Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build My Church."
Hence, Peter was to be a foundation, strong and stable, as well as a point of reference on which Jesus Himself would rely in building His Church. Jesus made God's own plan depend on Peter, as He Himself relied on, and continued to rely on, the Blessed Virgin Mary, His Mother.
Moreover, like an American TV slogan of a few years ago, the Papacy is "the gift that keeps on giving." The only comparable gift is the universe itself – which we can continue to unpack, and explore and find enjoyment in. This is the paradoxical character of every divine act, that it is exceedingly simple and yet possessing seemingly infinite detail and subtlety. We can keep on unpacking the Papacy just as we can keep on unpacking Christmas. What a great surprise!
There are, however, some very practical considerations to the gift, which are not simply a global function of naming or of unifying like the ISO or the conductor of a symphony, which I will proceed to consider.

1. A Gift of Humility (The Papacy as a defence against pride)

"But I have prayed for thee, Simon, that thy faith fail not, and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren" (Lk 22:32).

The Papacy carries with it a correlative gift of humility. Long before he was a Catholic, Chesterton wrote that the "best work" of the Catholic Church was her work against pride:
Now, one of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride. Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.[44]
I think Chesterton is right about this, not merely because pride is the deadliest of sins, which the Church in her holiness strives to protect her children against, but because there is an essential character of the Papacy which strengthens the Church against pride. It is parallel with all of Chesterton's paradoxes, and fully in keeping with the wonder of the Divine, that the safeguard of humility is in this granting of the divine authority to one human being.
It is a humbling thing to have to bend to that authority. And pride takes a lot of bending, which is why the Papacy is hard to accept. Bending to authority is common, and is taken without complaint in many other aspects of human life: the oboe players and the second violinists conform to the conductor's indications; the chemist relies on the IUPAC nomenclature; people all over the world conform to and rely on the authority and constraints imposed on them by committees, or even by individuals; yet few people realize that this authority is being exerted, and fewer would even attempt to challenge its ex cathedra statements.
But I am talking about the Papacy as a gift, and some gifts – usually the best gifts – often are not quite what we think when we unwrap them, or even after we've had them for some time. And thinking of humility with the idea of a human wielder of divine authority is about as paradoxical as the idea of the Baby of Bethlehem. It is humbling to be Pope, to have these divine tools to wield for the benefit of others, only to be rejected by a "stiff-necked people" (Catholics, agnostics, theists, atheists). Rejected because of the possession of those tools, not because of their use! It is humbling to have a Pope, to see the divine authority in a man who eats and sleeps, who struggled in his life with family and friends and neighbors, who has doubts and fears as we do. It is hard to see God speaking with a man's voice. And yet it was the weak, sinful, doubtful, and even blasphemous Simon who was declared "Peter." Are we to be like Job and fight with God Who did this? No, we need to dust off the gift of Caesarea Philippi and see how powerful it is against the danger of pride.

2. The Pope as Disinterested Party

"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Mt 5:9).

The idea of a "disinterested party" at first does not seem to be a gift – the kind of thing that one could be happy over. But it is necessary to remember two things: First, because of our fallen state and separatedness, people do not always agree, even about things right in front of them. Second, disinterested does not mean uninterested. The simple fact is that some things, especially those things which are controversial, need to be dealt with by someone who stands somewhat apart from the thing, or (as some might put it) by someone who has no "direct concern" with the thing. Of course, because of the divine paradox, only the person who has the intimate concern with the thing can deal with it fairly, because the controvertors are often concerned not with the thing, but only with their own stake or interest in it. Therefore, human controversy over something needs the disinterested party who is concerned with the thing in itself, and not with the expectations of the opposing parties.
It is important to note that the gift of the Papacy is the climax of the search for truth, for which Scholastic Philosophy is only the vehicle. For the Papacy contitutes the "truly interested party" – thus, the Pope can judge truthfully about complex and difficult issues, not because of a lack of partisanship, but because he is on the side of Truth. This is a great gift for humanity. It has happened in the past, and it will probably happen again in the future, that rival parties (be they individuals or nations) will lay down their arms and bring their case before the Pontiff, begging him to erect a bridge between them.
The modern media teaches that one must be "unbiased" as they profess to be, and every "unbiased" view is therefore truthful. The problem is there can be no such thing as an unbiased view. That is like saying there is no such thing as a distant view, or a close-up view, or a complete view, or a comprehensive view, or even a "full-color" view. In the present day, the idea of bias is completely misunderstood. Even a biased view can be completely true, and another view, just as honest but apparently contrary, may also be true. The contrary character arises from a failure in expression.
Throughout history mankind has struggled to find a means of expression which avoids this conflict. There have been a variety of attempts to reduce conflicts between opponents to a common language: either through military or legal power, or by the mathematical approach used in the sciences. These attempts could all be reduced to "might makes right" – to the great loss of happiness, liberty, and life.
The Papacy, however, has been given to us as a means to avoid such battles. The Pope is, as a rule, more interested in the issue of any given controversy than either of the opponents in the controversy. And, because he has direct access to the Ultimate Authority, he can draw attention to aspects of the matter which are of greater concern than any which the opponents could otherwise detect, being caught up in their own "biased" concerns which preclude the possibility of their unity. The Pope is available to humanity as a unifier: not simply someone who stops the fight, but one who brings the combatants onto the same side – a side which is typically neither of their own.
The Pope's role as unifier is a great gift. Unfortunately the one who is really on the side of so many people is opposed by many – for being a unifier. Yet only someone who has a benign disinterest in the fence between two neighbors' gardens can fairly describe how that fence must divide the gardens – because he can see the fence in itself, and therefore can see the vegetables on one side and the goats on the other – and can care equally about them.
When a multitude of people (especially those who are not Catholic) have no grasp of the office of the Papacy, it is to be understood that they cannot take advantage of such a great boon. But we know there are some who confuse the authority of truth held by the Pope with the power of command held by tyrants throughout history. This is partly a problem of lack of information, and partly a lack of proper rebuttal of the slanders of our enemies. There need to be good references like the Catechism, which have both authority as well as technical detail, and scholarly references. But there also need to be good popular books as well: books which reveal the variety and fruitfulness of the Church and explain confusing topics in popular but accurate language, or rebut the slanders and the historical inaccuracies which prevail today.

3. The Keeper of the Keys
This [ancient Roman] key was chained to a slave called the janitor, or doorkeeper, who in turn was chained to the door. His duty was to guard the door and the members of the household with his life.[45]
The quotation from a children's mystery story suggests that the keys which are the symbols of papal authority are also the emblem of warfare and of defence against our enemy.
The Pope is the sworn protector of the Church and the one who watches her gate with such vigilance. I mentioned earlier that Jesus said "I am the gate" – and it is the keys to Jesus Himself which the Pope holds! The many gates (or mouths) of hell spew out opposition to the One Gate. But Jesus, the paradoxical boundary to the infinite, Who is both the Gate by which we enter, and the One with Whom we enter, and the One into Whom we enter, made the gate, and planned the means of its opening and its closing. It seems that we are easily drawn to the idea that this gate will be open for us to pass through. But we do not as easily see that Jesus wants that gate to be closed and held inviolate against our enemy.
It is not only in the "open-gate" admittance of the faithful departed that we ought to find hope, but even more in this "closed-gate" defence of the Heavenly Home. And it is the Pope who is the gate-keeper.
It is an old axiom that rules-which-permit are to be interpreted broadly, while rules-which-forbid are to be interpreted strictly. Hence the key of "binding" (which closes) we ought to view as the blessed and just defence against the enemy, excluding the rebels from our Home, while the key of "loosing" (which opens) is the merciful admittance of weak and fallen humanity; we pray this key will be applied broadly and generously.
I am sure the historian or student of Roman culture could comment in greater detail about the janitor's duties: Father Stanley Jaki's book on the keys records that the "handing over of the household keys to the bride was part of the Roman marriage ritual."[46] This cannot but recall the mystic verse in Isaiah: "As a young man marries a virgin, so your Builder shall marry you...."[47]
What joy to know that there sits in Roma God's Key-Keeper who is ever watching and holding the gate; it is this gift of the Papacy by which the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the "household" of the Church. What other organization has such a guardian?

43 Cf. Jn 1:16. See also the Communion Antiphon for Saturday after Epiphany
44 Chesterton, G. K. Heretics. CW1:107.
45 Keene, Carolyn. The Clue of the Black Keys – A Nancy Drew Mystery. Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY (1951) 42.
46 Jaki, Stanley L. The Keys of the Kingdom. The Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, IL (1986) 19.
47 Canticle of Morning Prayer for Wednesday Week IV, quoting Isaiah 62:5.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Papacy and Science

A note: the following is another excerpt from my letter of 2/22/2002 to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels responding to his request in Ut unum sint, 95.
-- Dr. Thursday

II. The Science of the Papacy
Heart of Jesus, in whom are all the treasures
of wisdom and knowledge...

"That their hearts may be comforted, being instructed in charity and unto all riches of fulness of understanding, unto the knowledge of the mystery of God the Father and of Christ Jesus: in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:2-3).

Just as you, dear Holy Father, have found people who struggle with the nature of the Papacy, I know some who struggle with the nature of science – especially when it touches matters of faith or religion. I grew up with both Catholicism and science, and both have meant very much to me personally as well as intellectually.
Since you have studied St. Thomas Aquinas, you will appreciate Chesterton's explanation: "It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all."[7] In another place, he insists that "The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind."[8]
But at this time, I want to look at science as it now exists – not in the sloppy or greedy or even malevolent activities it undertakes far too often in these days, but in the thing itself: the discipline, the discovery, the slow and tedious progress to learn more about the world, and the continual weaving of new results together with those already known.
For science has found it necessary to erect, with great difficulty and against great opposition, organizations which act in certain ways very much like the Papacy. They serve the international community; they bind and loose; they specify rules of action and methods of communication, and, like the Papacy, they have paradoxically given rise to a greater freedom by a more rigid binding to a form of law. Chesterton observed this strange similarity:
There are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church.[9]

1. The ISO – the International Organization for Standardization

There are a number of international organizations which deal with scientific or technical standards in one sense or another. Although the ISO, founded in 1947, was not the first such organization, I mention it first since to me it appears to have the least restricted purpose:
The mission of the ISO is to promote the development of standardization and related activities in the world with a view to facilitating the international exchange of goods and services, and to developing cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity.
ISO's work results in international agreements which are published as International Standards.[10]
This organization, then, carries out the philosophical idea I quoted previously that "any work of art is more perfect as it is more perfectly one" – it assists in making the work of science more perfect by making it more perfectly one.
If someone measures a length, or an interval of time, or a weight, or a temperature, and then wants to do something with that measure – something simple, like merely telling someone about that fact – it is necessary for the two parties to have those dimensions in common. But getting this common truth about reality took a long time. The ancient pagans thought that no one could ever know very much about the natural world since it was "alive" or "divine," or it repeated in cycles. Science, therefore, was impossible until Christianity finally penetrated the European intellectual culture in the Middle Ages. Fr. Stanley Jaki, following Pierre Duhem, indicated that a decree dated March 7, 1277 from Étienne Tempier, the bishop of Paris, was "the starting point of a new era in scientific thinking,"[11] as it condemned the pagan world-view: "...the medieval faith in the scrutability of nature had its logical justification in the medieval theology about Creator and creation.... the faith in the possibility of science is a most conscious derivative from the tenets of medieval theology on the 'Maker of Heaven and Earth'."[12] Fr. Jaki noted that one biblical verse in particular "served as inspiration and assurance for those who in late antiquity assumed the role of champions of the rationality of the universe.... ...the expression was gladly seized upon by those who daringly started out on the road to unfold the marvels of God's handiwork along the lines of quantitative inquiry."[13] God, the creator of the universe, had "ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight" (Wis 11:21).
In a similar way, the ISO has ordered the expression of all things by their measure, number, weight and every other form of dimension. In doing so, this common language and discipline benefits researchers in all nations; it assists with trade and many other facets of human activity: "Without these standards, shopping and trade would be haphazard and technological development would be handicapped."[14]
The ISO builds upon the foundation of the seven "SI base units."[15] (The international abbreviation SI stands for International System of Units.) These seven units are:

Symbol Unit Dimension
m meter length
kg kilogram mass
s second time
A ampere electric current
K Kelvin thermodynamic temperature
mol mole amount of substance
cd candela luminous intensity
I resorted to my old (1981) CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics and read about the definitions of these seven terms and contemplated the various scientific possibilities they govern. The sevenfold nature of these physical dimensions is a profundity which suggests the various mystical Sevens in the Church, particularly the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
All these units are merely human expressions of natural things. But these units are not "natural" in themselves; indeed they are human inventions. They are stamped with the action of human selection, and enriched by human enumeration – for God has indeed ordered – or arranged – all things by their measure and number.
If I want to talk about some plant or star or rock to someone from a distant country, whether it be a matter of scientific interest, or a matter of trade, I need to have something more fundamental than translation: some kind of common reference. This common reference has been provided by the International Organization for Standardization.
The ISO does other things as well, and their web page provides an impressive introduction. I hope that the Vatican could take an active interest in it.

2. IUPAC – The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry
This important organization for the study of chemistry was founded in 1919, building upon work dating to as early as 1860.
The IUPAC serves to advance the worldwide aspects of the chemical sciences and to contribute to the application of chemistry in the service of Mankind. As a scientific, international, non-governmental and objective body, IUPAC can address many global issues involving the chemical sciences.
The standardization of weights, measures, names and symbols is essential to the well being and continued success of the scientific enterprise and to the smooth development and growth of international trade and commerce.[16]
The work of the IUPAC is organized into seven divisions:
Physical and Biophysical Chemistry
Inorganic Chemistry
Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry
Macromolecular Chemistry
Analytical Chemistry
Chemistry and the Environment
Chemistry and Human Health
Underlying all these departments again we find the philosophical foundation that chemistry "be made more perfect as it is made more perfectly one." Measures and various technical practices of chemistry are obviously important – and it is clear that the IUPAC must somehow rely upon the work of the ISO. But chemistry faces a very interesting challenge of its own. As there are over one hundred chemical elements, and thousands upon thousands of chemical compounds, the names which are assigned to these things are critical to the advance of the discipline.
Here as in other fields, we learn that there is an essential and often critical importance to every single letter and number: an amide is not an imide and pentane is not pentene. Chesterton puts it this way:
The old joke that the Greek sects only differed about a single letter is about the lamest and most illogical joke in the world. An atheist and a theist only differ by a single letter; yet theologians are so subtle as to distinguish definitely between the two.[17]
Even so, some provision has been made for variation. As I flipped through the pages of rules governing the nomenclature of inorganic compounds, I was struck by notes mentioning the permission to continue the use of certain "traditional" names, and other "usages" which are widespread in the industry of certain countries.

3. Biology
"For as the body is one and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body: So also is Christ"
(1 Cor 12:12).
The International Union for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has a charter similar to others I have already mentioned, and is designed and motivated by similar reasons. From this organization one may obtain a chart of the "metabolic processes." The diagram shows, in a complex but tidy form, many of the hundreds of chemical reactions which accomplish the work of the living cell, including both the production of energy and the main molecular building blocks of the cell. All the chemicals in this immense array are built out of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen (and sometimes a few other elements).
This chart represents a staggering amount of work accomplished by researchers all over the world. And perhaps the most amazing thing about the chart is that it shows only the major metabolic processes – just the steps which keep life (in itself) going. All the other aspects of living things: muscles or leaves, hair or flowers, branches and bones, nerves and vines and blood and roots – are not on the chart. Moreover, the means by which all the reactions are controlled – the rules for growth – are not even hinted at.
It may be merely a mystical point of departure for me to mention this here, but the science of biology is perhaps the science which comes closest to us as Catholics. The branch called histology, the study of the types of living cells,[18] has revealed – even more than anatomy – the truth of St. Paul's "Analogy of the Body" (See 1 Cor 12:12 et seq.). And this branch, together with anatomy and physiology, can offer a new richness and insight to our understanding of the Church.
For example: when human red blood cells are formed, they lose their DNA and thus do not reproduce. All their cellular energy is spent on delivering oxygen to the rest of the body. (How, then, could anyone regard celibacy as unnatural?)
Though I might offer other analogies from biology, one of them in particular speaks to me on the nature of the Papacy: the idea of growth, which is fundamental to all life. I wish to treat it in two ways.

Growth: the DNA message
The new branch of science called molecular biology provides the scientific counterpart to the lesson I mentioned under the topic of "The Publisher" – that is, the need to preserve in all fidelity the message as it was given. In the living cell, this message is stored as DNA. In the human being, there are around 3,000,000,000 DNA "bases" (which are written with four letters A, C, G, T). When the cell is to divide, this message must be copied, in order that after the new cells separate, each will have its own copy. The DNA message contains precise instructions on how to make all the various "machines" of the cell. (Note: among those machines are all those hundreds of steps I mentioned as appearing on the metabolic chart.) These instructions also include the controlling machinery which govern when division of the cell may occur – and cell division is the elementary process of growth of the organism. There are various schemes which the cell uses to protect the copying and keep it as accurate as possible. It is important to note that the chief threat to this copying is from interference by intrusion from outside into the machinery of the cell. Copying errors result in failure of correct growth, most notably categorized as cancer. Even so, the cell has machinery to attempt to protect against this as well. The complexity which has been revealed by molecular biology demonstrates a superlative design, which belongs, in a significant sense, to computer science even more than it belongs to biology.
In a similar fashion, the Papacy is given to us as a safeguard to preserve a certain message with fidelity. It is that fidelity-in-transmitting-the-message indicated by St. Paul's explanation of the Blessed Sacrament to the Corinthians: "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread..." (1 Cor 11:23).
And the message-which-is-handed-on is important because it is about life – and life is about growth – and growth is about order, and the proper ways and times of doing things. Again this is strictly in keeping with Aquinas who writes: "According to the Philosopher, it belongs to a wise man to set things in order; because the ordering of things cannot be done except by the knowledge of the things ordered as to both their relation and proportion both to one another and to something higher which is their end."[19]

Growth: the Heart
As I have indicated, St. Paul is stressing the precision of handing on the message he had received – that paramount message of Christianity which is the Eucharist. This leads directly to the second aspect of growth/biology/Papacy which derives from two other fascinating branches of biology: embryology and developmental anatomy.
I have indicated that DNA – and its faithful copying – is the fundamental rule of growth at the "small" level. At the "larger" level, there is another rule which governs. It might be called the rule of the heart. For the heart (and indeed the entire circulatory system) is required for any being to grow bigger than microscopic size:
As a mammalian embryo advances through the stages characterized by cleavage, morula, blastocyst and germ layers, it satisfies all its metabolic needs by simple, diffusive interchanges with the fluid medium in which it is immersed. But as the embryo continues to gain size and begins to take form, a functioning circulatory system becomes necessary in order to make use of the required food and oxygen obtainable from the mother's blood. Hence it is that the heart and blood vessels are the first organ system to reach a functional state.[20]
Somewhat more striking is this statement from another text: "The mammalian embryo, having practically no yolk available as food, is dependent for its survival and growth on the prompt establishment of relations with the circulation of its mother."[21]
Because food can be distributed by osmosis only for a relatively tiny region of space, the very first system of the growing human body which comes to a functional completeness is the circulatory system – the heart as the pump, the various delivery vessels, and the blood itself. Note the remarkable conjunction in St. Paul between the faithful message and the Eucharist! This system, centered on the heart, must continue to operate, thereby enabling the growth of the organism to its mature size, and maintaining its life.
It is interesting to note that the English word "courage" (which has its root in the Latin cor = heart) is sometimes used as a synonym for the gift of Fortitude – which is simply "strength." To have "heart" is to have "strength." Again there is a distinct papal indication, for as Jesus told Peter, "But I have prayed for thee [Simon], that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren" (Lk 22:32).
This direct prayer of our Lord has moved me to meditate upon these biological aspects of the office of the Papacy:
• Like DNA, the Pope preserves the faithful transmission of the message. (This point will also appear when I consider subsidiarity.)
• As the red blood cells, the Pope spends himself in delivery of the means of life to the body.
• As the heart, the Pope enables growth of the Mystical Body. He likewise strengthens his brothers and is the exemplar of Fortitude. Also, as the central "pump" of the "circulatory system," he imparts motion to the "red blood cells," which might mystically signify his celibate and sacrificing priestly sons.

[7] Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. CW1:236.
[8] Chesterton, G. K. The Defendant. J. M. Dent & Co., London. (1907) 75.
[9] Chesterton, G. K. The Ball and the Cross. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY (195) 64.
[10] From the ISO web page,
[11] Jaki, Stanley L. Science and Creation. Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh (1986) 230, referencing Pierre Duhem's Le système du monde, vol VI, 66.
[12] Jaki, Stanley L. Science and Creation. 231 (emphasis in original).
[13] Jaki, Stanley L. Science and Creation. 154.
[14] From the ISO web page,
[15] Weast, Robert C., ed. CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton, FL (1981) F-273.
[16] From the IUPAC web page,
[17] Chesterton, G. K. The New Jerusalem. CW20:276.
[18] See, for example, Di Fiore, Mariano S. H. Atlas of Human Histology. Lea & Febiger, Philadelpha, PA (1973).
[19] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles II:24 quoting 1 Metaphysics.
[20] Arey, Leslie Brainerd. Developmental Anatomy. W. B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, PA (1965) 375.
[21] Patten, Bradley M. Foundations of Embryology. McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, NY (1964) 289.

Saturday, February 18, 2006



More than beaches full of sand
Are the wonders of the hand.

Hands with fingers, first through fifth,
Bones and muscle, God's great gift.

Hands which carry candle light,
Hands which move the pen to write,

Hands untiring knead the bread,
Hands which lay to rest the dead,

Teaching hands all white with chalk,
Hands which help the young to walk,

Hand that holds, the thief arresting,
Hand upraised, the truth attesting.

Hand with needle, fixing clothes,
Hands put seeds into straight rows.

Hands in gloves pour molten steel,
Driving hands turning the wheel.

Hands hold playing cards or bats,
Hands are patting dogs and cats.

Hands at work and hands at play,
Hands which move both night and day,

Happy hands clap in the air,
Quiet hands which fold in prayer.

Shaking hands, friends old and new;
Hands to serve, not me, but you.

Finished Aug 13 1992.
Posted in memory of my mother

The Papacy and Engineering: Metallurgy

A note: the following is another excerpt from my letter of 2/22/2002 to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels responding to his request in Ut unum sint, 95.
-- Dr. Thursday

III. The Pope as Engineer: A. The Metallurgist
Heart of Jesus, burning furnace of charity...
"Purifying your souls in the obedience of charity..." (1 Pt 1:22)
Engineer comes from a Greek root meaning to produce. As I think of it, Science is connected with the theoretical aspect of philosophy, while Engineering is connected with its practical aspect. While the scientist usually deals with learning or finding out (or more properly knowing), the engineer usually deals with doing, which is revealed in the virtue of charity.
In Psalm 12, there is a curious comment on the purity of our Lord's words : "The words of the Lord are words without alloy, silver from the furnace, seven times refined."[22] The ancient engineering discipline called metallurgy might then be a valuable thing to consider.
In 1540 a fascinating book called The Pirotechnia was written by an Italian metallurgist named Biringuccio – a book which has been called "history's first clear, comprehensive work on metallurgy."[23] Oddly enough, it ought to be a required text for both religious and laity, since it explains that verse from the Psalms, and sheds light on Malachi's messianic prophecies:
And who shall be able to think of the day of His coming? and who shall stand to see Him? for He is like a refining fire, and like the fuller's herb: And He shall sit refining and cleansing the silver, and He shall purify the sons of Levi, and shall refine them as gold, and as silver, and they shall offer sacrifices to the Lord in justice....
For behold the day shall come kindled as a furnace: and all the proud, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall set them on fire, saith the Lord of hosts, it shall not leave them root, nor branch. But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health in His wings: and you shall go forth, and shall leap like calves of the herd (Mal 3:2-3, 4:1-2).
One does not have to take a tour of a metal-working plant to have a sense of the danger and hard physical labor involved in the workings of furnaces. But Biringuccio's book reveals that this industry is nothing modern – it was, if anything, far harder and more dangerous in his day – with less mechanical assistance, and so comparatively little known about nature. And yet, this book also reveals a certain height of true progress, and one which we would do well to resume:
Whenever the excavation of a mine is begun, it is customary first to seek the grace of God, so that He may intervene to aid every doubtful and difficult effort; and in place of this one would be seeking the aid of the devils of hell. Whence I think it better to abandon the way of bestial and fearless men and to choose the way of using the signs that are exhibited to us through the benignity of Nature, founded on truth and approved by all experts because of their experience, which, as is evident, does not consist of words or promises of incomprehensible and vain things.[24]
Oh, what inspiring words! And to what advantage did Holy Mass begin with that powerful verse from Psalm 124:
Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini
Qui fecit caelum et terram.

Our help is in the name of the Lord
Who made heaven and earth.
But I have digressed from the point about metallurgy. To resume: Biringuccio describes a number of different metallurgical processes, and among these is a chapter titled "Concerning the Method of Refining Silver with the Cupel and of Making Exact Assays of the Silver and Gold Contained in Masses of Metals." Here is the portion which strikes me as relevant:
Cupeling is a very useful thing... Indeed it is necessary, because it not only throws light on the work that is to be done but it also shows the truth... It is a quicker and easier way of bringing the work to the desired perfection than is afforded by the method for large quantities. ... It is the measure by which you have the certainty and safety of knowing that you have not been deceived by art or by your workmen, who had no other interest than their simple wages....
Since silver is a valuable thing and every bit is worth much, a man should not enter into refining it with closed eyes. If for no other reason this procedure is useful, indeed most useful, since without its help one cannot rightly sell or buy, or receive from or give to another.[25]
What is this marvellous technique called cupeling? It is rather horrifying: whatever one intends to test for silver content, or to extract silver from, is dropped into a pool of molten lead and then the fire is built up until the lead begins to boil – once the lead is evaporated, only the pure silver is left. The task must be repeated until it is certain that the silver is pure – expressed in the Psalm as refined seven times.
Clearly Biringuccio's technique was a hazardous and a strenuous task, working with molten metal and gaseous, poisonous lead, but it indeed suggests an underpinning of the biblical references to the purification of silver, and provides a topic for meditation on the Pope who as chief metallurgist, does not "enter into refining with closed eyes."

[22] Psalmody, Office of Readings, Tuesday Week I, quoting Ps 12(11)
[23] Biringuccio, Vannoccio. The Pirotechnia. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY (1990) back cover.
[24] Biringuccio, Vannoccio. The Pirotechnia. 14-15.
[25] Biringuccio, Vannoccio. The Pirotechnia. 159.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Sugar, Chirality, and How to Read

This post was brought on by an interesting posting over in Studeo, about an addition error.

First let me assure my readers not to get excited about my use of the word "error" here. Sometimes remarkable things come out of "errors" (look up "vulcanization" sometime for an example!) Like, perhaps, this posting.

Actually, speaking as a computer scientist, who often deals with strange requests from non-technical people, this was hardly an error at all. It might even be called a mis-stated problem. I will show you what happened.

answer: 130

answer: 440

As you can see, it is just a matter of how you read the question - are those supposed to be three separate digits, or was the person reading a three-digit number slowly? Ah, you see!

How do we read, anyway?

Well, we all know reading is fun, or you would not be looking at this at all. We are so used to it, unless we are rather young, and still trying to learn to read, and also trying to learn the even more useful skill of enjoying the act of reading. But since we are reading English, we must abide by the rules of English - and we start at the left and move to the right. If we were reading Hebrew, we would start at the right and move to the left. If we were reading Chinese, we would (typically) start at the top and read down. And if we were reading ancient Egyptian, we would look to see which way the birds and animals and people were facing, and start from that side (if they face left, start from the left).

Just like the reading direction matters for words, it also matters for numbers: 23 is not the same as 32. And in Roman numerals, a smaller digit to the left of a bigger digit is "subtracted" from it - but added if it is to the right of a bigger digit! Example: I = 1 and V = 5, so IV = 4 but VI = 6.

And, just to make things even more exciting, if we were reading a certain really ancient kind of Greek, we would have to do something a bit more tricky. We would read one line from left to right, and then drop down a line and read that next line from right to left! This is so strange there is a special word for that kind of writing: boustrophedon which means "turning like oxen in plowing". Maybe it's not so old - if you ever saw a "dot matrix" printer, they print that way.

Ah, yes - many interesting things in human history. But most modern languages are read from left to right.

Whew. So - I think it's time for a Chesterton quote:
I remember a man of this sort who told me he was on a spiritual plane ("we are on different planes") on which yes and no, black and white, right and wrong, right and left, were all equal. I regarded him as I should any boastful aviator who told me that from the height to which he had risen all London looked like an exact chess-board, with all the squares and streets the same size. In short, I regarded him as a liar. London streets are not equally long, seen from a flying-ship or from anywhere else. And human sins or sorrows are not equally serious, seen in a vision or anywhere else.[GKC, ILN Aug 15, 1914 CW30:145]
Well, as I am sure you know, right and left are not equal. Just put your hands out in front of you and compare! Or better: try putting your right glove on your left hand... Oh - they are different!

Now why, you ask, do I mention sugar in the title of this posting? Did you ever read the list of ingredients and see the word "dextrose"? Do you know what it means? It means "the right-hand sugar". Yes, it does. I don't have time to tell you all the chemical and optical details - as interesting as they are - but it is true. Many of the important chemicals inside living things have a special, distinct shape if you could see how the atoms are arranged. Sugar is just one of many compounds containing carbon which are "handed" (it's either right or left) just like your gloves. The technical word the chemists use is "chiral" - which comes from the Greek word for hand.

Now if you remember a little while ago I wrote something about DNA (in my posting called "Words made flesh") and said that the instructions are stuck together with sugar. (Oh ho! you laugh! Can you see what that means?) Well, it's not the kind of sugar we use on cereal. It's called "ribose". That's the sugar part of DNA. Connected to the sugar is one of the four "bases" which are written with the four letters (A, C, G, T). But the sugars are stuck together with something called "phosphate" - it ties one sugar to another. You can think of a sugar as a kind of railroad flatcar, on top of which is one of the four bases... and the phosphates are the "couplers" which hook the cars together, one to the next.

Ah ha! but the sugar is "handed!" so that means it's LIKE A LETTER - it has a "left" side and a "right" side, so that means there is a way of reading the "train" of all the bases-strung-togther! Yes, indeed. And that's how the "reading" machinery can "read" the "word" of DNA which builds your muscles and skin and the rest.

Now, to conclude, a really bad tech joke, which is actually related. First I have to explain it. (I hear the "boo hiss"... Yes, yes, yes. Just pay attention, and be ready to laugh.)

When we add, we know we can add in either order. For example: 3+4 is the same as 4+3. This is called the "commutative" property. So when we go from 3+4 to 4+3, we say that "addition of integers commutes". (That does not mean the numbers drive to work, hee, hee. No, that's NOT the joke.)

Mathematicians say that things-which-commute are "Abelian". Now you will see right away that some things are NOT Abelian - they do NOT commute - like subtraction.

But even more importantly, the hidden thing which holds our words together does not commute either! Are "evil" and "live" the same? Of course not.
Oh, you didn't know there was such a thing, a hidden thing, holding our words together? Really you didn't know??? You know what it is for DNA - it's the sugar called ribose. I can't hardly believe it - you really didn't know there was something holding the letters of these very words together? Well, I'm almost out of paper so I'll tell you about that another day.
Ahem, ahem!
OK, anyway, here's the joke:

Q: What's purple and commutes?
A: An Abelian grape.

(laugh now...)

I knew it. No one is laughing. That's OK - I said it was bad. But I'll see you later anyway. (There's more to come!)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

bleap bloop blarp bloip

bleap bloop blarp bloip

Oh, hey - that's a cue-tone!

Which means: we interrupt our usual blogg-writing for


Hey bloggist! Has all your blogg-reading - and writing - left you feeling tired and irritable? Why not...

(Ahem! Wrong script. Let's try this again.)

Attention, nephews and nieces of Aunt Frances and Uncle Gilbert! In case you think all that "Pope stuff" you've been reading here is all "nice and theoretical", and "good journal-article type stuff", here's something practical for you to join with your host, Dr. Thursday, in doing.

Starting today, until February 22, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter (a total of nine days!) say a rosary for the intentions of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.

That's it. No coupon to clip. No form to fill out. You don't even have to double-click. Today lots of people are giving (and receiving) roses - here's your chance to send 53 - nine times - all the way to Rome, without all those thorns, leaf-pruning, and water-spilling! And no credit card bill either! You can't beat that price anywhere else!
But now I gotta read the fine print: Please note - you need not post a comment in order to join. That's between you and God. I would have preferred not to have to post this at all - but even an occasional commercial break has its uses in the Divine Economy. (Oh, you don't think so? Just wait... you'll see.)
Don't forget - it's just nine days - synchronize your calendars... get practical...

We now return you to our regularly scheduled posting...

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Papacy and Engineering: Bridge Building

A note: the following is another excerpt from my letter of 2/22/2002 to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels responding to his request in Ut unum sint, 95.
-- Dr. Thursday

IV. The Pope as Engineer: B. The Bridge-Builder
Heart of Jesus, substantially united to the Word of God...
"Things in themselves diverse cannot unite unless something causes them to unite."[26]
There is something wonderful in considering the Pontiff as Bridge-Builder. In the entry for St. Bénezet (April 14) in Butler's Lives of the Saints, we read that
The construction and the repair of bridges was regarded in the middle ages as a work of mercy....[27]
And St. Thomas Aquinas links bridges with churches as things to be built which are "conducive to the common good:"
A man may be led to beg by a twofold motive. First, by the desire to have wealth or meat without working for it, and such like mendicancy is unlawful; secondly, by a motive of necessity or usefulness. The motive is one of necessity if a man has no other means of livelihood save begging; and it is a motive of usefulness if he wishes to accomplish something useful, and is unable to do so without the alms of the faithful. Thus alms are besought for the building of a bridge, or church, or for any other work whatever that is conducive to the common good....[28]
There are a number of important things to be learned from the building of bridges – things which I think also apply to the building of the Church (and I do not refer to any mathematical aspects!)
First and foremost one must be an authentic realist to build a bridge. It requires a remarkable foundation in the acknowledgement of reality as such. Solipsists do not build bridges – for one who believes that there is solo ipse, [Latin: "only himself"] there can be nothing else for him to be joined to. Chesterton points out that Thomism has "a constructive quality absent from almost all cosmic systems after him...." and explains that " is the only working philosophy. Of nearly all other philosophies it is strictly true that their followers work in spite of them, or do not work at all. No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind. No sceptic who believes that truth is subjective has any hesitation about treating it as objective."[29]
In order to even consider the building of a bridge, first one must be certain that there are indeed two things: two separate things, and not just one-and-the-same thing, and also that there is something which divides them – a river, or a chasm, or something like that.
Then there must be something which provides a way of linking them together. There must be some way of making them one, even if they are only made one to a very small extent. When the Roeblings considered the planning of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, they did not consider that Brooklyn and Manhattan could be made one by mere legal fiat. It was not even sufficient that there was a ferry service between the two cities. No, they wanted to have a way by which a man could, all by himself, "go in and out" – just as our Lord promised when He offered Himself to us as the Way. (See John 10:9 and 14:5-6)
In order to build something like that, there needs to be some kind of initial crossing over of the division. This crossover does not have to be a large one – but it has to be large enough to begin the work. It might be as insignificant as a kite string! One of the most amazing beginnings of a bridge ever recorded, a bridge to span the St. Lawrence River between the United States and Canada, was begun in that very manner:
One of the first problems to be faced at Niagara was how to get a wire over the gorge and its violent river. Ellet solved that nicely by offering five dollars to the first American boy to fly a kite over to the Canadian side. The prize was won by young Homer Walsh, who would tell the story for the rest of his days. Once the kite string was across, a succession of heavier cords and ropes was pulled over, and in a short time the first length of wire went on its way....[30]
What poetry! Indeed, in Mary's fiat, in the manger of Bethlehem, in the little white host, the thin kite strings are laid which will begin a mighty bridge leading from earth to heaven itself. But such a great bridge needs a builder.
David McCullough's The Great Bridge explains a little of the effect of John Roebling's bridge at Niagara (the one begun by a kite string, and finished in 1855). After it was completed Roebling wrote his family: "The passage of trains [over his bridge] is a great sight, worth seeing it." For those officials and engineers who stood with Roebling in 1869 looking at that bridge,
...the sight must have been no less stirring even for the engineers – perhaps especially for the engineers. There was, after all, something quite special about a bridge, almost any bridge. Very few were ever outright ugly, and when built right, with everything in harmony, with everything superfluous done away with, with all elements doing exactly what they were supposed to, then a bridge was a thrilling thing to see, with its own kind of graceful majesty, something quite apart from the practicalities of engineering.
Of course for a nation so recently torn apart by civil war [1861-65], a bridge was a particularly appealing symbol. But beyond that a bridge seemed such a magnificent example of man's capacity to master the forces of nature, and that, according to the preponderant wisdom of the day, was what the whole age was about. Building a bridge seemed such a clean, heroic thing for a man to do.[31]
These are powerful words, and most suggestive: "All elements doing exactly what they were supposed to.... A clean, heroic thing for a man to do." Very much like what Chesterton saw in the work of Aquinas:
St. Thomas' work has a constructive quality absent from almost all cosmic systems after him. For he is already building a house... He has thrown out a bridge across the abyss of the first doubt, and found reality beyond and begun to build upon it.[32]
There are a number of other parallels, both philosophical and poetic, which might be mentioned here – just for example:
• The building of a bridge almost always means the coordination and the labor of many men, but also almost always the plan of just one man.
• In a suspension bridge, the individual strands within the cables both support and are supported by the others in the cable; all together they hold up the entire weight of the roadway, which is thence transferred to the great pillars and the anchorages on either side.
• The bigger the bridge, the more important and the more complex will be the plan, the more danger is dared in its construction, and the more useful will it be when finished.
• The two great pillars of the very famous Brooklyn Bridge are founded upon two piles of wood. This bridge was designed by John Roebling, and after his death constructed by his son Washington. While working in the compressed air required to erect those pillars, Washington contracted the bends and became bedridden; his wife Emily assisted him daily in his work, and the bridge was completed in 1883.
Coupled with, and perhaps the foundation of, the poetic and mystical aspects of a bridge, there is also the idea of the master builder: the authority, the Chief Engineer, who plans and calculates and consults, then gives his orders. It is not merely a question of vast expense, or complexity of detail, or special knowledge in a unique field, but far more the sense of responsibility in the face of truly awesome natural challenges. It requires a profound sense of commitment by the man in charge:
Before entering upon any important work, Roebling always demonstrated to the most minute detail its practicability ... and when his own judgement was assured, no opposition, sarcasm, or pretended experience could divert him from consummating his designs, and in his own way.[33]
And the work of the Chief Engineer is not limited to the large questions and the initial planning. He must be ready to respond from day to day, and from moment to moment, for only he has the entire grasp of the picture, and in summary, only he can be responsible:
Washington Roebling had known times like this during the war, when nothing much appeared to be happening, but every day counted, when a dozen plans had to be gotten up and decided on without delay, contingencies considered, countless little details seen to and orders given, any one of which might determine the whole course of events to follow. "There must be someone at hand to say 'yes' or 'no'," he liked to comment, "and it often makes a great difference which word they use."[34]
Here we see the connection with Thomism: technical details are necessary in every kind of engineering, but far more important is the foundation of engineering upon common sense. For Roebling, and for every engineer, there must be a difference between yes and no! And the Pope, being a bridge builder too, maintains the distinction. G. K. Chesterton echoes Roebling in his eulogy for Pope Pius X:
The great and good priest now dead had all the prejudices of a peasant. He had a prejudice to the effect that the mystical word "Yes" should be distinguished from the equally unfathomable expression "No."[35]
This mystical and practical division of yes and no leads directly to my next topic – computer science – which, like bridge-building, partakes of both science and engineering.

[26] Kreyche, Robert J. First Philosophy. 177, quoting Summa Theologica I Q3A7.
[27] Butler's Lives of the Saints. 2:93.
[28] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica II-II Q187 A5.
[29] Chesterton, G. K. Saint Thomas Aquinas. CW2:542-543, emphasis added. For me, this suggests how powerfully engineering is linked with Catholicism.
[30] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY (1972) 76.
[31] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. 82-83.
[32] Chesterton, G. K. Saint Thomas Aquinas. CW2:543.
[33] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. 78.
[34] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. 144.
[35] Chesterton, G. K. Illustrated London News. August 29, 1914. CW30:153.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Answering questions

Despite some long postings, I am way behind this week, and owe some answers to my loyal commentors... But I have to digress yet again.

A couple of postings ago I quoted this:
"No one, therefore, does any good to our age merely by asking questions - unless he can answer the questions."
[GKC, George Bernard Shaw CW11:483]
If you are a Catholic - or a Believer - and want to know more about Science:
If you are a Scientist - or an Engineer - and want to know more about Faith:

I heartily direct you to the work of S. L. Jaki, which you can get through Real View Books.

There you will find answers to many of your questions.

No, this is NOT a paid advertisement, but the happy testimony of a question-asking guy. (A good one to start with is Chesterton a Seer of Science.)

There really is a bridge... here it is... it's up to you...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Computing and the Papacy

A note: this post is an excerpt from my letter to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels which I wrote in answer to his request in Ut unum sint, 95; I sent it to him on Feb. 22, 2002. This particular selection will serve as a partial response to the Curt Jester's posting; it appears we both perceive some common points here. Hopefully, I will publish other selections as meditations for the coming feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

-- Dr. Thursday

V. Computing and the Papacy
Heart of Jesus, house of God and gate of heaven...
"I am the gate" (Jn 10:9 Jerusalem Bible).

Dear Holy Father, I am a computer scientist, and in nearly 25 years of employment and study in that discipline, I have noted many aspects which touch on philosophy and liturgy and theology and the Papacy. It is always exciting for me to write about computer science – the subject which, next to Catholicism, has been such an important part of my life – but it is even more awesome to present you with a few of my thoughts on this new but very large branch of science.

1. The First Principle: True and False, Yes and No, One and Zero
"A thing cannot both be and not be at one and the same time, and from the same point of view."[36]

When speaking about the mystery of male and female, Chesterton made one of his characteristic paradoxical statements: "Those whom God has sundered, shall no man join."[37] In this statement, I sense the foundation of both marriage and philosophy, and the foundation of philosophy is also the foundation of computing: each of these requires two things to be. And, as I mentioned in the last section, a bridge can be built only when there are two separate things. It is part of the paradoxical nature of the Supreme Pontiff that there are also times when he must preserve the divinely ordered separateness.
The ultimate separateness known in philosophy is the separation between being and non-being – thus between true and false – and on this fundamental duality, expressed in analogy as an electric current being on or off, is built all of the present-day technology of computers. As Chesterton has somewhere said that we should speak of the Catholic science of electricity, I suggest that we also should speak of the Thomistic science of computing. In a very early book, Chesterton said that he would "revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done."[38] And so, computer science is founded, as all good science and all good engineering, in scholastic philosophy. In one view, it is a way of taking practical advantage of the Principle of Contradiction: "Being is not nonbeing." As Chesterton puts it, "I know that 'yes' is not the same as 'no' anywhere."[39] Or, as First Philosophy states it: "A thing cannot be and not be at the same time from one and the same point of view."[40]
Computer science uses the term Boolean for this two-fold character of yes and no after George Boole, a nineteenth century mathematician and logician who devised a way of doing logic by algebra. Computer science, following Mr. Boole, has greatly elaborated the theory of yes and no. However, computer science is not merely theoretical: it is also an engineering discipline, and it proceeds to convert that theory into practice by assigning two distinct voltage levels (or magnetic markings) to the two terms.
This duality enables us to make a machine which will "store" information. The unit of information is called a "bit." It can have only the value ONE or the value ZERO, depending on whether there is or is not an electric current at that position.
Eight of these "bits" are grouped into a unit called the "byte" which can store any of the 256 patterns of zeros and ones from 00000000 to 11111111. These patterns can be used in any way that suits the purposes of the programmer, though often they simply stand for the numbers from 0 to 255. Another use of these patterns is to deal with text, and so certain of them are assigned to particular symbols or characters. (This assignment is called ASCII: the American Standard Code for Information Interchange.) For example:
Character Pattern
0 00110000
A 01000001
a 01100001

You will note that the change in the third position from a zero to a one changes the capital "A" to a small "a." Perhaps I might give a more dramatic example:
Character Pattern
C 01000011
S 01010011

The bit, for computer people, is the "smallest part of a letter." The Pope, in preserving the truth even in the abstractions of metaphysics, preserves it not only for the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Church, but also for computers.
The "memory" of a computer is merely a collection of many bytes, each of which is known by its position, or "address." The "disk drives" and other forms of memory (as well as communication equipment such as networks) also rely on this technique.
The value of a byte can also serve as an instruction. This important concept is usually credited to John Von Neumann, a 20th century mathematician, and has become a part of the language. We speak of a computer "processing" information for us, because we instruct it – we write a program – to perform certain simple operations on the various patterns of zeros and ones in memory. You see, the computer contains both a "memory" and also a "processor" (called the "CPU" for "Central Processing Unit"). The instructions it can perform are very simple:
a) mathematical (such as ADD or SUBTRACT)
b) logical (determine the AND or the OR of the bits treated as true and false)
c) decision-making (for example, SKIP the next instruction if a particular value is zero)
d) other special actions (like STOP processing, or PRINT a particular value).
These instructions are performed by special pieces of electronics called "gates" which perform the elementary functions of pure logic (AND, OR, NOT) or provide the building blocks of "memory." (That is why I mentioned our Lord's words from St. John: "I am the gate.")
The instructions for a given computer are called its "instruction set." The various makes and models of computers have different instruction sets which are represented by different codes, and these machines also have differing speeds and efficiencies and uses. But there is one very interesting way in which they do not differ, and that is the next point I wish to take up.

2. The parable of obedience
"For I also am a man subject to authority..." (Mt 8:9).

As I have just mentioned, each computer has a variety of "instructions" which it is capable of performing. A computer programmer can use these instructions directly, or he can use any of a wide variety of programming languages when he writes a program which specifies in precise detail the particular sequence of operations to be done.
This development and implementation of programs is the major task I perform as a computer scientist. I plan out and write instructions, I put them into a computer, and the machine carries them out, thousands or millions of times faster than I can possibly perform them.
I have been struck by the relation of my work to other forms of engineering: my discipline, like all the others, depends on the strict obedience of things to physical laws. But for me there is almost a poetic sense of actually giving instructions to the inanimate objects.
Perhaps I might give an analogy from the bridge-builder. It is as if by Roebling's design, and through his directives to his assistants, he gave direct orders to the great pillars of stone and the wire cables – to things which were thousands or millions of times stronger than he was. One might imagine him commanding them: "Do not move. Hold this up. Do not bend, do not twist. Be stable. Hold and endure." In a certain sense his orders were "obeyed" because of the essential obedience of those pillars and cables to the laws of physics, and because his good design adhered to those laws. In a similar sense, then, I can "command" electronics to carry out my instructions.
And the wonder of this is the absolute obedience due to those natural laws. The machinery can in no way alter or choose to "disobey" my instructions – and computer programming (or, in a larger sense, "computer software engineering") is difficult because of that literal obedience. When the program is large and complex, it is very easy to overlook special cases or unusual instances, and there are always the more familiar dangers of what one might call a "typographical error" – which for a programmer can have disastrous results, because the program is "obeyed" (we say "performed" or "executed") by a machine, and not read by a human.
Computer programming, then, offers a kind of parable on obedience. It is something that even our Lord found marvellous, approving as He did of what we might call the "Parable of the Centurion":
For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this, Go, and he goeth, and to another Come, and he cometh, and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it (Mt 8:9).
And this idea of obedience in nature is found elsewhere:
Who made these stars if not He who drills them like an army, calling each one by name? So mighty is His power, so great His strength, that not one fails to answer (Is 40:26 Jerusalem Bible translation).
To bring this mighty power of absolute "obedience" into some kind of useful order, programming has been separated into two sections. One part is called "applications programming." An "application" is software – a computer program – which solves a particular problem or serves some specialized purpose or use. Any given computer may possibly have any number of these programs at any given time. The other part is called the "operating system" which has the unique purpose of supporting any and every application. It has a universal purpose. Unlike applications, however, on any given computer, at any given time, there can be only one operating system.

3. The Operating System
"The thing was 'going on all the time'; that it was not an occasion, but a perpetual process...."[41]

Chesterton wrote that about his visit to a cathedral in France while a service was going on. I found it a striking view because in modern Greek universities, the course for Operating Systems is called Leitourgika – and the operating system of a computer is indeed a "perpetual" process. It is almost a metaphysical pun to say that the end of an operating system is to never end, for it is the program which both controls and serves all the other programs which may be used on a given computer. The typical application comes to an end because it completes its work, and can now be dismissed, as Simeon prayed (See Lk 2:29). However, the operating system has its end in continuing to perform its work – or at least in being available to perform its work. Unlike an application, it does not come to a conclusion for, paradoxically, its completion is in never concluding.
An operating system provides the framework for other programs to exist in the computer. It allows the computer to be "shared." The power of the computer can thus be used in multiple ways at the same time. It also handles some of the difficult chores which are commonly used in programming: organizing memory, managing files of information, keeping time, printing, and other special needs. (I will examine one of these – the "mutex" – shortly.)

In order to perform these various tasks, and to be as nearly "perpetual" as possible, the operating system must have a particular integrity which transcends that of any other program. In fact, on many computers there are special instructions which are used only by the operating system: to protect itself as well as the applications it serves. For example, each application may use its own memory area in any way it likes, but it is prevented from using the memory belonging to the operating system, or to any other application.
These "privileged" instructions permit the organization of the work of the computer into parts which are performed by the system, and parts which are performed by the application. But it should be noted that the actions "reserved" to the system are that way only for the benefit and the use of the applications. (This parallels the division in the liturgy between the parts performed by the priest and the parts performed by the laity.) This division of labor guarantees that no application can violate the integrity of the operating system – which is therefore free to carry out the requests of the applications; likewise, it can always be relied upon to do so.

4. The "mutex" – a practical application of oneness

There are many interesting topics which I might mention in operating systems, but there is one which might demonstrate a little of the relevance of computing to the office of the Papacy.
Certain operating systems provide a mechanism which we call a mutex, from the words MUTual EXclusion. It is a device which prevents two things from happening at once. Now in physical reality, it seems obvious that if you are sitting in a chair, I cannot sit in it at the same time. Likewise, if the computer is performing an ADD instruction, it clearly cannot perform a SUBTRACT instruction at the same time. However, the operating system provides a way of having two (or more) separate uses of the computer at once – even though in reality, and by the arrangement of the operating system, the machine is doing only one thing at any given moment. But the operating system must also provide a way to make sure a programmer does not attempt to violate this rule of reality.
A mutex relies on part of the privileged character of the operating system: in particular, it requires that there be a third "entity" or state – a mediator which is neither one user nor another.
Here is the arrangement: whenever there is a particular task which can be done by only one user at a time, the task is "protected" by a mutex. First, one user must "lock" the mutex, then the task may be performed. Once the task is finished, the mutex is "unlocked." The mutex, however, is made in such a way that only one user may lock it at a time – any other user who attempts to lock it will be made to wait until it is unlocked. And how is this done? The operating system is "trusted" to perform this operation in a fair and just manner, so that anyone requesting this task by means of the mutex will eventually get an opportunity to do it.
When two users want to do a particular task which can be done by only one at a time, the operating system selects the first requestor and permits him to proceed by locking the mutex, while holding the other in a special "mutex wait" state. Once the first user finishes the task, he "returns" the mutex to the operating system to be unlocked. Then the operating system locks the mutex again and gives it to the next user who is waiting. That user may now proceed with the task.
The mutex, then, is a very small but very useful item of operating systems; yet it exemplifies the whole idea of having one single "trusted" authority to preserve order and maintain usefulness.

[36] Kreyche, Robert J. First Philosophy. 180.
[37] Chesterton, G. K. The Common Man 143; cf. Mt 19:6.
[38] Chesterton, G. K. Heretics. CW1:46.
[39] Chesterton, G. K. Illustrated London News. March 21, 1914. CW30:62.
[40] Kreyche, Robert J. First Philosophy. 178.
[41] Chesterton, G. K. A Miscelleny of Men. 158.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Chesterton Snacks

Warning: this posting contains VERY FUNNY things. Please do not eat or drink while reading it!

As a quick break from my usual long postings, I will just give you a few short, and rather funny Chesterton snacks.

This is one of the funniest sentences in all of GKC's writing:
"Why aren't I a chair?"
But I think you need to see the context, which amplifies the idea:
The modern mind is no a donkey which wants kicking to make it go on. The modern mind is more like a motor-car on a lonely road which two amateur motorists have been just clever enough to take to pieces, but are not quite clever enough to put together again. Under these circumstances kicking the car has never been found by the best experts to be effective. No one, therefore, does any good to our age merely by asking questions - unless he can answer the questions. Asking questions is already the fashionable and aristocratic sport which has brought most of us into the bankruptcy court. The note of our age is a note of interrogation. And the final point is so plain; no sceptical philosopher can ask any questions that may not equally be asked by a tired child on a hot afternoon. "Am I a boy? - Why am I a boy? - Why aren't I a chair? - What is a chair?" A child will sometimes ask these sort of questions for two hours. And the philosophers of Protestant Europe have asked them for two hundred years.
[GKC George Bernard Shaw CW11:483-484]
And since I have mentioned this very funny word, I will have to quote the other fuinny line which uses it, which is where GKC is rebutting his other friend and worthy oppponent, H. G. Wells:
Then there is the opposite attack on thought: that urged by
Mr. H. G. Wells when he insists that every separate thing is "unique," and there are no categories at all. This also is merely destructive. Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected. It need hardly be said that this scepticism forbidding thought necessarily forbids speech; a man cannot open his mouth without contradicting it. Thus when Mr. Wells says (as he did somewhere), "All chairs are quite different," he utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them "all chairs."
[GKC, Orthodoxy CW1:238]
Which of course leads to this, perhaps even funnier:
If the two moralities are entirely different, why do you
call them both moralities? It is as if a man said, "Camels in various places are totally diverse; some have six legs, some have none, some have scales, some have
feathers, some have horns, some have wings, some are green, some are triangular. There is no point which they have in common." The ordinary man of sense would reply, "Then what makes you call them all camels? What do you mean by a camel? How do you know a camel when you see one?"
[GKC, Heretics CW1:234]
I have posted these because they are very funny, but also because they support my friend the Curt Jester in his use of humor to remind his readers of absolute truths.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Words made flesh

We have been talking about words - and stories - a lot recently. I thought it might be fun to look at a different story, written in a different alphabet, by a different Author.

You may have already read some stories by this Author, or heard them read to you. They are good, as one comes to expect from this particular Author.

I am not going to tell you these new stories. They are too long, and they are not that kind of story. But I will tell you about them. You see, the stories I am going to tell you about are just as good as the ones you have heard - but they are not the kind of stories one will usually read. They are, uh, different. The stories are kind of like cooking recipes, which can nevertheless be fun to read. They are also sort of like computer programs, which can be interesting, even if they are not fun. But in order to talk at all about these stories, I have to tell you about the language they are written in. And before I talk about the language, I have to tell you about the alphabet.

Now somewhere I was telling you about George Boole, and his famous equation
which has the two roots of computing: zero and one. And you will recall that Chesterton pointed out that Pope Pius X had what he called a "peasant prejudice":
He had a prejudice to the effect that the mystical word "Yes" should be distinguished from the equally unfathomable expression "No."
[GKC, ILN Aug 29, 1914 CW30:153]
And as you may already know, all of everything which happens on a computer is made up of nothing more than yes and no, or zero and one - and yet look at all the amazing things we can do with a computer!

Now, the alphabet I am going to tell you about is nearly that small - actually, it has four letters. But just like the zero and one on computers, the Author Who writes with that alphabet can make all kinds of wonderful things from just those four!

Do you know what alphabet I mean? Those of us who work with it usually write them as A, C, G, and T.

These are the codes for the four "nucleotides" which are the building blocks of DNA - and as you know, DNA is the "memory" for the "blueprints" which direct the formation of all living things on earth!

Just like in the computer, where the zero and one actually stand for two different voltages in certain circuits, these four DNA letters, which we also call bases, actually stand for one of four different chemical compounds. Here are their real names:

A means Adenine
C means Cytosine
G means Guanine
T means Thymine

Your own DNA, for example, is a gigantic string made out of these four letters - about three billion of them! That is 3,000,000,000. To use the correct metric name, we would say three giga-bases - just like your disk drive with such-and-such gigabytes, which is just the metric code for "billion characters".

Just in case you are wondering, the famous bacterium called E. coli has about 3 million, or one thousandth as much as we do. But then it doesn't have a heart or stomach, nor bones, muscles, hair, hands, etc. Strange to tell, there are some plants which have thirty times as much as we do. Why? At present, only the Author knows; we haven't read that far yet.

Another day I will tell you about how the four letters are "stuck together" to make "words" and some other things, like how to read them. After all, remember: I have only told you the alphabet. Next time I will tell you about the language. Also, I told you that these stories are instructions - the DNA tells how to build hearts and skin and all the other things that happen in life. For now, you can laugh about this little joke: they are stuck together with sugar...

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Green, Green, and Green

[A note from Dr. Thursday: This story appears by special permission from the Editor-in-Chief of Something Good To Read. I wanted to post this as an example of one form of "framed" story. Some readers will, unfortunately, recognize Astenios as the horrible Man with the Green Cane. I may be risking a lot to post this story, as he is indeed "an implacable foe". More on that another time - if there is one.]

Green, Green, and Green
by Nero "Sherlock" P. D. B. Brown
[Reprinted by permission. In memory of my mother.]

In a cluttered office somewhere in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, Timothy R. Leighton carefully set his coffee cup down on the only nine square inches of empty space on his desk. He looked at the telephone in amazement.
"You saw Astenios? In this country? Where?"
There was a long pause while the voice on the telephone poured a lengthy description in civic legalese with heavy accents of security. There was a moment of silence, then a question. The voice on the other end of the line was clearly a novice.
"No. Do not contact the locals. You don't know what he's after, and how dangerous a man he is. Yes, dangerous. Don't let his blindness fool you - he is far more deadly than any three people with normal vision. Stay there, and I will be out soon."
He hung up the phone, and took a sip of his coffee. "Kathy, I've got to go after him. It must be the Quetzal Jade. Our Mexican contacts reported it missing last week."
"Dear, what about our anniversary tomorrow?"
"I know; but the agents today aren't up to Astenios and his tricks. I can't believe he's come back to America... If things go well, I'll see you tomorrow night. Perhaps we'll still have time for a late dinner - Antonio's is open late on Wednesdays."
"Dear, I would feast on crackers and water, as long as we are together."
The man looked at his secretary, who was also his wife, his chief agent, his Watson, his long-time partner and his adversary in dozens of board games. He sipped coffee and smiled at her.
Kathy's eyes were slits. "What's this Quetzal Jade?"
"It's a large jade stone, in a silver setting - it's an egg-shape about an inch across and maybe an inch and a quarter long. It's not just intrinsically valuable. The setting is finely carved with Aztec glyphs - one of the very rare examples of their picture-writing. And here's the catch: it was only found recently, and for some reason, they had not photographed it, or even made a sketch of the writing, so the Museo is frantic to recover it for the writing alone. It was stolen just after the Museo acquired it."
"Hmm. And it's Astenios again - and that horrid little mutt of his."
"Yes, and he's sure to have one of his big bodyguards from Rovani."
"You mean those brutes - those assassins?"
"Yes. Of course he needs a chauffer - and a pilot - as well. But, as you will recall, the two we've dealt with seemed better at shooting than at steering."
She frowned. "It doesn't seem like him."
"He goes after bigger things usually." She looked out the window at the cars driving past. Everyone in that Maryland town thought it was a medical research company - and part of it was. Kathy and Tim were in the part that wasn't.
She looked back at her husband. "Maybe he's getting it to trade for something else."
"Hmm." His eyebrows lifted. "That might explain a lot - since it isn't the kind of thing Astenios usually goes after. His interests are, er, Mediterranean, rather than Caribbean."
The room was silent. The cars going past were completely inaudible. The stacks of papers rested while the two looked at each other.
"Well, I'm going to have to go and see. Kathy, take a memo." He carefully set the cup down again, and picked up a document from the top of one of the stacks. "To the Department of State: it has come to our attention that Horates Astenios, the infamous blind thief of antiquities is once again in America. You may recall he is a native of Rovani, and our previous encounters with him and the government of Rovani. On information received, we believe he is after the Quetzal Jade, a Mexican antiquity of incalculable value, stolen last week from the Museo Nacional de Mexico, but smuggled into this country in an as yet undetermined manner. As of this date, our agent reported sighting Astenios in..."
* * *
Ana Smith walked into the supermarket. It was a Wednesday, like any other Wednesday in some ways - but it was not the supermarket she usually used. Her husband Edmund had an appointment at the doctor's. As usual, her son Albert drove them: first they dropped Edmund off, then they went just a little further down the road, to yet another strip mall, where Albert parked. He would wait in the car while his mother did the grocery shopping, since he intensely disliked what he called the "piped-in noise" - by which he meant any music composed in the last century or so.
Ana looked around, trying to get her bearings in a strange store. Fortunately, she did not have a very long list, but that did not mean it would be a quick trip. She knew from experience that each store had its own view of the correct category or class for certain food items. Did the peanut butter appear with the jelly? Did the pudding mixes appear with the cake mixes? Was the sour cream with the milk or the butter? Was the cream cheese with those items or with the other cheeses? She had seen many other examples of the unclassifiable, and there were other odd things which she needed from time to time which required her to ask for help, even in the store she knew best: capers, for example, or yeast, or chocolate syrup. Those last two would actually migrate during the year, and could appear at different places at different times. But this week she needed nothing exotic. Moreover, she felt the fun of doing something a little unusual for a change.
* * *
Ana was looking over the baked goods, of which there was a far greater variety than in her usual store. Meanwhile, in the stockroom at the back of the store, the produce manager put down his telephone and frowned at a stockboy. "Did you just put out a case of avocados?"
"Those that just came in? Andy was doing them while I did the bananas."
"There's a mistake. No; it's not our fault. Our supplier just told me that was a special order. Just go out and pack them up and bring them here."
"Right away."
* * *
Ana shrugged and looked around as she went up and down the aisles. Even the cart felt different. It seemed odd not to see all the vegetables first... but then she came to the produce section. She thought she would try a new main-course salad for tomorrow's dinner, and she needed an avocado for the dressing. She looked over the exotic vegetables and fruits - a somewhat different selection from those in her usual store. She chuckled at the strange shapes and wondered what they tasted like, and what kind of courage someone must have had to ever try a prickly pear.
There was a fresh display of avocados, the rows nice and even. Strangely, there was one avocado sitting all by itself in a tray just beside the main display. The tray was marked "star fruit" - but Ana knew what star fruit looked like. Probably it had rolled off - or maybe it was just the odd one out. She picked it up; it seemed ok to her, and she put it in her cart. She thought the display looked neater, though she hoped they would get more star fruit in again. She might want to try one someday.
* * *
Outside it was cold; the sky was cloudy, but snow was not expected until the weekend. Albert sat in his car, a smile on his face. His CD player blasted Bach's Brandenburg Concerto for recorders and...
"Wow!" he said suddenly. He paused the CD and rolled down the window. A big white limousine stopped right in front of the main entrance of the supermarket. A very large man with a waxed moustache got out. He had a scar across his forehead. He looked around, slowly. Then he went to the back door, opened it, and assisted another man out. This man was not much over five feet tall. He was very neatly dressed in a light brown tailored suit, and had a small red skull-cap centered on a bald head edged with fine gray hair. But there were two things that Albert noticed which stood out in his memory: the dark glasses and the green cane. He heard a sharp bark, and a chihuahua jumped out and nosed around the short man, then around the large one. The bald man motioned and the dog jumped back into the car. The large man shut the car doors, and helped the bald man into the supermarket.
Albert sat there and stared. The limo just sat there. But he was worried, because when the big man had gotten out of the car, his coat had hung open for a moment, and Albert had seen a gun in a holster under his arm. Albert rolled up the window, got out, and went to the trunk. He didn't like the music they played in most stores, but he really didn't like people with guns in the same place as his mom. He looked over his toolbox, took out a couple of things, shut the trunk, and went into the store.
* * *
Albert went inside the store. The two men from the limo were nowhere to be seen. Quickly he walked along, looking up each aisle for his mother. He found her in on of her favorite areas of any food store - the spice section.
"Mom! There's a couple of strange-looking men in here, and one has a gun."
"Really? At least you picked the right place to tell me about it."
Albert stared as his mother grabbed two or three jars off the shelves. To herself she murmured "Now, where do they hide the vinegar here?" Then, glancing at Albert, she asked, "What do these guys look like?"
"The one is very tall, bulky. A waxed moustache and a scar on his forehead. He had a white overcoat. The other was short, bald, with a green cane. I think he's blind. He's really creepy-looking."
"A blind man with a gun?"
"No, the big guy has the gun. The little one seemed to be his boss - and I think I'd rather face the gun than the little guy."
"Did you see them in the store?"
"Not yet. I don't know where they went after they went inside."
"Probably in the back stockroom. But I need some vinegar, just in case, and maybe one or two other things. Oh, but I think I'll have to use the ladies' room first... Just wait here."
* * *
In an office by the storeroom, the stock manager was sitting at his desk. A stockboy stood next to him. Astenios' bodyguard had his gun drawn.
Astenios stood motionless near the desk. "You put those avocados out."
The manager stared at him, his voice shaking. "No; one of the night staff did. He's off now. But Roger brought them back. They're in the stockroom."
"Orni, take Roger to the stockroom, and bring the case."
As the two walked towards the door, Astenios lifted his cane, took a step or two forward, and poked it against the manager's chest. "This cane contains a spring and a very sharp blade. Do not move, or I will discharge it into your heart. My hearing is very good."

The manager was on the verge of fainting when the two came back into the office.
"Set the case here on the desk," ordered Astenios.
Roger did as ordered. Astenios reached into the box and puled out an avocado. He squeezed it with his hand; the fruit dropping onto the desk. It was an ordinary fruit. He dropped the seed into the box. He did the same with the rest of the fruits, while the pile of green ooze grew.
"There are only twenty-four."
The manager struggled to find his voice. "That's the usual number of fruits in these cases."
"Correct. But this was not a usual case. There was to be twenty-five." Astenios took out a handkerchief and wiped his hands. "Check whether any avocadoes were sold since this box was placed on display. Orni, watch him."
The manager shifted nervously to the computer terminal. The huge bodyguard came over behind him.
"Don't try it," ordered the blind man, as the stockboy took a step backwards.
"No; the last avocado sold was yesterday - and this box did not get here until this morning at 4:35."
"That means it's still in this store," Orni remarked. "Perhaps someone is going to buy it."
"Perhaps," Astenios said. "Unless this stockboy made a mistake."
"No, sir! There were twenty-four. Let me count the pits, maybe you made a mistake."
The green cane flashed out, striking the young man on the side of the head. "The only mistake was your own," Astenios stated. He made a signal, and Orni struck the manager on the head with the butt of his gun.
Astenios moved around the desk, feeling for the telephone. "Finish them off and get them in the stockroom. Then you will watch the computer for the sale of an avocado. I will call the limo and tell Ernax."

Ana came out of the ladies room, just off the hallway to the stock manager's office. She had heard enough.
* * *
The cellular system was overloaded, and Astenios was not able to complete his call. Orni returned and sat in front of the computer. Astenios sat silently in the manager's chair, every so often trying to call his limo. Suddenly Orni said, "Someone has bought an avocado - and I think their program has a mistake. It says their stock is 'negative one'..."
"That is not the only mistake. After we get it, we will take care of the wholesalers." A strange smirk came over the bald man's face. "Fix their system, Orni."
The silencer worked well. Computers tolerate bullets about as well as humans. Then the two left the manager's office, and made their way to the front of the store.
* * *
There was only one checkout lane open, and only one person in that lane. Two carts stood there, already full of checked-out groceries, and a third was being filled. Many more items were stacked on the conveyor belt. There were bags, sacks, and baskets bulging with every green fruit or vegetable in the store. Lettuce, peppers, grapes, apples, bananas, and a host of exotics. There even was a bag of green donuts! Ana was there, emptying the last cart, valiantly struggling to keep up with the conveyor. The checkout lady did her work nonchalantly; it had been a slow morning and she liked big orders. A stockboy, assigned to the front, kept up with bagging, gentlying packing the produce into the carts.
As they walked towards the checkout, Orni glared at the carts full of green. "We have a problem. I don't see the avocado."
Astenios shrugged. "Just take the cart and go."
"But there are three carts. And they are all full of green vegetables."
"What!" For the first time in many years, Astenios lost his composure. "Shoot them and we'll take everything. We have no time to waste."
But even Orni had a soft spot. He looked at Ana. She was nervous and out of breath from her efforts, and looked far older than she was. But Orni saw his own mother in her face.
"Ma'am, you see this," and he gestured with his gun. The checkout lady glanced his way, but the gun was out of her view.
Ana nodded.
"Just give me the avocado, and you can go."
"Avocado? I'm not sure whether I got any. I may have missed the avocados. You're a nice young man, maybe you could help me look."
"Go ahead," grunted Astenios. He and Orni came into the checkout lane. Ana moved into the vacant space of the adjacent checkout, and put her hands into her pockets. She took a deep breath, and then threw her hands up towards their faces.
Handfuls of dry mustard, black pepper, cayenne pepper, onion powder went up their noses, and into their eyes - irritating even the eyes of a blind man - but the sneezing and coughing quickly rendered them helpless. As soon as Ana had thrown the mixture, she knocked over the open bottle of oil she had left sitting on the floor, and swung herself over the next checkout lane. Astenios went down first, as he choked, then the gun dropped from Orni's hand and he slipped to the floor coughing and gagging.

The checkout lady continued scanning the items, almost oblivious to the struggle. Albert came out from behind another checkout lane with some kind of electronic device in his hand.
"You know, Mom, I think I'll bring this with me whenever I go shopping."
Then she noticed that the usual dull shopping rock had been replaced by a quiet hiss of static. "I guess my boss will be glad to learn that it works in the field."
"But you did call the police, didn't you?"
"Yes; there was a coin phone by the entrance. But Dad will be wondering where we are."
The checkout lady pressed the totalling key. "That will be 278.76, please."
"That nice young man on the floor will be paying for it," Ana told her. "He's big, but he needs to eat more vegetables, even if they aren't exactly what he wanted."
* * *
Ana and Albert walked out to his car, where he had already put the two bags of the groceries he had checked out just before helping his mother maneuver her vegetable carts to the checkout. They had left the parking lot as the police cars started to arrive. As they got out of their cars and entered the store, a rental car pulled up behind them, and a man in a business suit got out. He had a curious look on his face. Usually he was the one who called the cops. But as long as they got Astenios and the Quetzal Jade...
* * *
At a red light, Albert looked over at his mother. "Well, are you going to look at the avocado or aren't you?"
"I'm a little worried. What if it's drugs?"
"Mom, it's too small. They wouldn't be shipping drugs inside avocados... But maybe we ought to let Dad look."
"No. I'm going to look. If it's drugs, we'll drop it in the river."
She took out a box of plastic sandwich bags, and some tissues. She put the fruit inside the bag, and twisted it. Instead of the usual brown nut there was something else. "Wow, this is amazing." It was a green stone of some kind in a dull gray frame.
"What is it?"
"I don't know. But your father will know."
"I guess that means we're not having avocado dressing tomorrow night."
"No. I think I've seen enough green things today. We'll have spaghetti and meatballs. No salad."
* * *
Timothy R. Leighton walked into his office. His wife Kathy jumped to her feet. "You're back early!"
"Yes. Here's the Quetzal Jade." He put a small green and silver object into her outstretched hand.
She looked at it in wonder, then set it down on a pile of papers on the desk. "Did you get Astenios too?" she asked as she walked over to a cabinet in the corner of the room .
She took out a camera. "Then how did you get this?"
"From the locals. They had taken Astenios and his goon into custody for the murder of a stockboy and manager at a supermarket... But they got away. He poured himself a cup of coffee.
"How?" She screwed a lens into the camera.
"I don't know. They certainly were in no state to escape, but somehow, somewhere between the supermarket and the police station they escaped."
"Then how did you get this?" The camera flashed.
"It was delivered to the station in a plastic sandwich bag, partially coated in avocado pulp. Apparently it had been smuggled into the States inside a case of avocados." He sipped his coffee, and the camera flashed.
"Avocados? Euuch."
"You love guacamole, Kathy. You're thinking of artichokes."
She adjusted the stone and flashed another picture. "Oh, that's right."
"There was a whole case of them, crushed all over the manager's desk. It was strange to see." He sipped his coffee, and watched her change lenses. "But there was something even stranger. There were three whole shopping carts full of vegetables and fruits - all green - as if Astenios had bought everything but avocados. The locals told us he and the goon kept mentioning this woman - but I didn't see any woman there, nor did the locals."
"You think he meant the clerk?"
"No. She seemed oblivious, and kept demanding to be paid, even though all the produce was returned to the store."
"Hmm." Kathy put the camera down. "We'll get these developed now. And I need to get more film." She poured herself some coffee. "Did the locals check for prints?"
"They only found smears."
"Well whoever found it did us and Mexico a great favor."
"Yes, and she deserves a reward. But there is something more she deserves."
"What is that?"
"A warning. Astenios is an implacable foe."
Kathy nodded. "I'm glad you're back. Happy Anniversary, darling."
"Happy Anniversary." They kissed.
"Do you think Antonio's makes something with avocado in it?"
"If not, we'll bring our own. Preferably without artifacts."