Sunday, August 31, 2008

Revealing a Corporate Secret

Today, Sunday, August 31, 2008, marks three years - over 94 million seconds - since the old company dissolved and they threw out all the machinery and all the software and all the workers. I have heard rumors that the work is done manually now, since they do not understand anything about how it was done, why there was Latin or why there were those eyes that went back and forth... but such details are not relevant to anything in this world any more, unless you are reading my novel, where you will find explanations as well as an on-going delight.

However, in a future chapter of that novel, you will hear a visitor to the imaginary company called AC&TG, frustrated by the wasteful mess and internecine warfare of his own workplace, wonder how it all happened, what was the trick, the magic, the strange and incredible innovation, which made such amazing things happen. I mean only a distant echo of how the good things happened in our real world for 5.5 years: useful work at unheard-of rates of efficiency, and with authentic satisfaction of the employees - and, yes, of the customers too.

There was no secret - at least not in the way the term "secret" is ordinarily applied. In fact, people far and near who entered the mystic and high-tech halls of our company would hear us chattering about it... all our work is based on "thirteenth century metaphysics". That's it! Now you know.

And of course, it's an idea I got from Chesterton. Here's the quote:
I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.
[GKC, Heretics CW1:46]
Yes, the hope of getting something done.

GKC's Heretics came out in 1905, one hundred years before the company was shut down. But because this idea isn't from the then-current grad school textbooks on "industry" or "management" it is ignored.

That's too bad. But it's not a copyrighted or trademarked idea, nor some "intellectual property" of a now-deceased company, nor even the special dogmatic property of the Roman Catholic Church (who does know a lot about the theory, if not the practice!) It's not my idea either, and it isn't really Chesterton's - but he gave us a good starting point. So if you want to know more - no, not about cable TV or even about this powerful method of software development or of industrial and social life - you ought to get some Chesterton and start reading. You'll soon find out what else you'll have to read.

Just to explain a little more, I will give you the next bit of GKC's argument, the one that really begins the whole thought process of design and development, and the one that completes and closes it also:
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good - " At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
[Heretics CW1:46]
Alas. Interesting that he applied it to a utility company. A sad but accurate ending, unlike the typical novel - but then "Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves."[ibid, CW1:66]

You see, it all does depend on the value of Light.... and yes, we did get knocked down.

But I must not end the post on a sad note. No, for good has come forth from this experience in ways no cable TV person or company could have guessed! The seed sown in Harrisburg on March 2, 2000, has bloomed and fruited. And so I thank my good friends: my boss, the people in Traffic, the Tech Shop, the Field Techs, and the Operators who watched the WATCHERs round-the-clock... it was good. We worked hard, we learned a lot, we had some good laughs, and we made good things happen.

And we have seen how productive and important, how powerful, useful, and efficient, that thing called "subsidiarity" really is. It's not just for use in local ad insertion for cable TV! Stay tuned for more. The book is coming, one way or another.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

"The Call of WILD" is posted

Today, over on my story blogg, I posted The Call of WILD - yes, it sounds like a title by Jack London, and it does have dogs in it, but the resemblance ends there. It is a short story (yes it is illustrated) about Joe the Control Room Guy, the main character of my novel. It seemed crazy enough to post, so I did.

Unfortunately, the artist has not finished work on the illustrations for the next part of the novel, and so I am behind with the postings. Sorry. He has to draw the "Doc" and he finds that character particularly difficult to render. Hee hee.

Friday, August 29, 2008

trans - on the other side of what?

Well, as usually happens, I was reading something and found something else. And it was kind of interesting, so I thought I would post about it.

So you hear every so often about this prefix "trans" especially when it precedes "fat"... and you've heard it was "bad". And you may have wondered what "trans" means, and where it comes from, and what the "good" kind are called.

If you look up "trans-" you would find that it is an English prefix, coming from a Latin preposition trans, which means "on the other side of". It comes up in compounds like "transatlantic" but even in older words like transmit or transport or translate or transfer, with more Latin roots meaning "send" or "carry" or "bear" (the verb, not the animal... I will omit the traditional joke here). But what can it mean in connection with something like "fat"?

The answer is Bond. Double bond. (hee hee)

Double bonds between carbons, which occur in "unsaturated" fats - that is, those fats which don't have all the hydrogens they could have. (You used to hear the margarine commercials talk about "polyunsaturated fats"!) Those that have as many hydrogens as possible don't have any double bonds, and are called "saturated" - these are componds like lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids. All very weak acids, and found in things like lard or beef fat. They happen to make very good fuels, but we're not going into that matter today. Then there are unsaturated fats like palitoleic, oleic, and linoleic acids, which contain double bonds.

Now, the typical bonds in chemical compounds are single bonds, and the things that are on either side of that bond are free (more or less, depending on other things) - free to rotate around that single bond. But not in double bonds! They are rigid, and the things on either side of that double bond are fixed relative to each other.

So, when things are on the opposite sides of a double bond, they stay there, as they cannot swivel around to come to the same side... That means these "trans" fats have double bonds where the other connections fall on the opposite sides of the double bond.

For example, here is trans- chlorobromoethylene. (These words just roll of the tongue of organic chemists, it's an art. Hee hee)

Very nice. As you can see, the chlorine (Cl) and the bromine (Br) are on opposite sides of the double bond.

Now, chemists and Latinists will know that there is another word for the opposite idea to "trans". It is the word "cis" which is Latin for "on the same side of"; you may have encountered the word "cisalpine" in a book about history - that means the area on the southern side of the Alps (the side closer to Rome). These two Latin prepositions (which both take the accusative, I am told, for those of you who like to know these things!) have their importance in chemistry even to this day. No joke.

And just to show you what that looks like, here is cis- chlorobromoethylene.

Also very nice. Now you see the chloro and bromo are on the same side.

Werll, I am a Chestertonian, and try to be interested in everything, but I also try to find humour in everything as well. And, as you probably have expected, there are some cute chemical jokes arising from these terms. There are two famous chemical compounds, not to be found in laboratories:

which of course you can see is cis-Co-Kid.

And then there is also this:

which goes by the common name of trans-Parent.

While there isn't any element with "Kid" as its symbol (at least at present, who knows what they'll discover next week), Co is nothing other than cobalt, a wonderful metal in the "transition triple" with iron and nickel. Pa is the symbol for Protactinium, which is radioactive. Please do not attempt synthesizing this in your home lab! But "Ma"? Well, oddly enough, there used to be an element called Masurium which is now known as Technicium (number 43) which is man-made and also quite radioactive.

(No, transparent things aren't really radioactive. Please don't call the NRC about your windows. Problems with windows should be referred to Mr. Gates.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

More on Catholic Literature

In honour of the Great Doctor St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, the beloved son of St. Monica, his confident and persistently praying mother, I have decided to post an excerpt from our Uncle Gilbert about writing. Yes, it specifically mentions "Catholic" literature, but that's no reason to get all hot and bothered. No, it does not mention war or abortion or politics or the usual current matters of debate, but it's all the more relevant because of that.

Here you go. You may be surprised.

St. Monica and St. Augustine, pray for us!
--Dr. Thursday

I see that Mr. Patrick Braybrooke and others, writing to the Catholic Times, have raised the question of Catholic propaganda in novels written by Catholics. The very phrase, which we are all compelled to use, is awkward and even false. A Catholic putting Catholicism into a novel, or a song, or a sonnet, or anything else, is not being a propagandist; he is simply being a Catholic. Everybody understands this about every other enthusiasm in the world. When we say that a poet's landscape and atmosphere are full of the spirit of England, we do not mean that he is necessarily conducting an Anti-German propaganda during the Great War. We mean that if he is really an English poet, his poetry cannot be anything but English. When we say that songs are full of the spirit of the sea, we do not mean that the poet is recruiting for the Navy or even trying to collect men for the merchant service. We mean that he loves the sea; and for that reason would like other people to love it. Personally, I am all for propaganda; and a great deal of what I write is deliberately propagandist. But even when it is not in the least propagandist, it will probably be full of the implications of my own religion; because that is what is meant by having a religion. So the jokes of a Buddhist, if there were any, would be Buddhist jokes. So the love-songs of a Calvinistic Methodist, should they burst from him, would be Calvinistic Methodist love-songs. Catholics have produced more jokes and love-songs than Calvinists and Buddhists. That is because, saving their holy presence, Calvinists and Buddhists have not got so large or human a religion. But anything they did express would be steeped in any convictions that they do hold; and that is a piece of common sense which would seem to be quite self-evident; yet I foresee a vast amount of difficulty about it in the one isolated case of the Catholic Church.

To begin with, what I have said would be true of any other real religion; but so much of the modern world is full of a religiosity that is rather a sort of unconscious prejudice. Buddhism is a real religion, or at any rate, a very real philosophy. Calvinism was a real religion, with a real theology. But the mind of the modern man is a curious mixture of decayed Calvinism and diluted Buddhism; and he expresses his philosophy without knowing that he holds it. We say what it is natural to us to say; but we know what we are saying; therefore it is assumed that we are saying it for effect. He says what it is natural to him to say; but he does not know what he is saying, still less why he is saying it. So he is not accused of uttering his dogma with the purpose of revealing it to the world; for he has not really revealed it to himself. He is just as partisan; he is just as particularist; he is just as much depending on one doctrinal system as distinct from another. But he has taken it for granted so often that he has forgotten what it is. So his literature does not seem to him partisan, even when it is. But our literature does seem to him
propagandist, even when it isn't.

Suppose I write a story, let us hope a short story, say, about a wood that is haunted by evil spirits. Let us give ourselves the pleasure of supposing that at night all the branches have the appearance of being hung with hundreds of corpses, like the orchard of Louis the Eleventh, the spirits of travellers who have hanged themselves when they came to that spot; or anything bright and cheery like that. Suppose I make my hero, Gorlias Fitzgorgon (that noble character) make the sign of the cross as he passes this spot; or the friend who represents wisdom and experience advise him to consult a priest with a view to exorcism. Making the sign of the cross seems to me not only religiously right, but artistically appropriate and psychologically probable. It is what I should do; it is what I conceive that my friend Fitzgorgon would do; it is also aesthetically apt, or, as they say, "in the picture." I rather fancy it might be effective if the traveller saw with the mystical eye, as he saw the forest of dead men, a sort of shining pattern or silver tangle of crosses hovering in the dark, where so many human fingers had made that sign upon the empty air. But though I am writing what seems to me natural and appropriate and artistic, I know that the moment I have written it, a great roar and bellow will go up with the word "Propaganda" coming from a thousand throats; and that every other critic, even if he is kind enough to commend the story, will certainly add: "But why does Mr. Chesterton drag in his Roman Catholicism?"

Now let us suppose that Mr. Chesterton has not this disgusting habit. Let us suppose that I write the same story, or the same sort of story, informed with a philosophy which is familiar and therefore unobserved. Let us suppose that I accept the ready-made assumptions of the hour, without examining them any more than the others do. Suppose I get into the smooth rut of newspaper routine and political catchwords; and make the man in my story act exactly like the man in the average magazine story. I know exactly what the man in the average magazine story would do. I can almost give you his exact words. In that case Fitzgorgon, on first catching a glimpse of the crowds of swaying spectres in the moon, will almost inevitably say: "But this is the twentieth century!"

In itself, of course, the remark is simply meaningless. It is far more meaningless than making the sign of the cross could ever be; for to that even its enemies attach some sort of meaning. But to answer a ghost by saying, "This is the twentieth century," is in itself quite unmeaning; like seeing somebody commit a murder and then saying, "But this is the second Tuesday in August!" Nevertheless, the magazine writer who for the thousandth time puts these words into the magazine story, has an intention in this illogical phrase. He is really depending upon two dogmas; neither of which he dares to question and neither of which he is able to state. The dogmas are: first, that humanity is perpetually and permanently improving through the process of time; and, second, that improvement consists in a greater and greater indifference or incredulity about the miraculous. Neither of these two statements can be proved. And it goes without saying that the man who uses them cannot prove them, for he cannot even state them. In so far as they are at all in the order of things that can be proved, they are things that can be disproved. For certainly there have been historical periods of relapse and retrogression; and there certainly are highly organized and scientific civilizations very much excited about the supernatural; as people are about Spiritualism today. But anyhow, those two dogmas must be accepted on authority as absolutely true before there is any sense whatever in Gorlias Fitzgorgon saying, "But this is the twentieth century." The phrase depends on the philosophy; and the philosophy is put into the story.

Yet nobody says the magazine story is propagandist. Nobody says it is preaching that philosophy because it contains that phrase. We do not say that the writer has dragged in his progressive party politics. We do not say that he is going out of his way to turn the short story into a novel with a purpose. He does not feel as if he were going out of his way; his way lies straight through the haunted wood, as does the other; and he only makes Gorlias say what seems to him a sensible thing to say; as I make him do what seems to me a sensible thing to do. We are both artists in the same sense; we are both propagandists in the same sense and non-propagandists in the same sense. The only difference is that I can defend my dogma and he cannot even define his.

[GKC, The Thing CW3:225-8]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Mother's Tears

St. Monica was born about 332 A.D.; she died about 387.

She was the mother of St. Augustine, and while he lived his licentious and heretical Manichean life, she "stormed heaven by her prayers and her tears..."

According to Butler's Lives of the Saints, "She was God's principal instrument in bringing about his spiritual birth by grace."

Let us pray, then, that by her tears and her prayers, she may again be the "principal instrument" in restoring so many fallen Catholics to grace...

Does it surprise you to hear that a computer scientist talks about such things? Well, I fall too, which ought to come as no surprise.

But then, despite my doctorate, when I need help, I know where to go.

Do you?

The Irish Jig Chemical

We here at GKC's Favourite Blogg visit a few other bloggs, some of which are Chestertonian, and some of which can be found elsewhere on this web page. One of them is the poetic musings (!) of a young woman named Meredith, who writes For Keats' Sake!. She recently had an interesting discussion of how she was reading some elvish poetry (elvish meaning Quenya and/or Sindarin, languages invented by the great J. R. R. Tolkien) and noted some - uh - technical poetic and linguistic effects about polydactylic hexagon meters or some other measuring device. (Hmm.. how many fingers does a hexagon have? hee hee)

But yes, it was very interesting. I have a very difficult time with that whole "foot" thing in poetry, I can get numbers of syllables OK, but the long and short of it is I cannot seem to get the longs and shorts. Perhaps I ought to study Morse Code, but I recently learned that hams (those who practice amateur radio) are no longer required to know it. Too bad. Morse is very clever, and an interesting example of the Hamming code technique, which is... why are you laughing? Hamming? No, that's no pun! I'll explain that another time. (Excuse me. I meant Huffman. Hm. maybe I thought it was a pun.) But if you want to see Morse being used in fiction you might go to the ARRL and get their great "young people's" novels. There's a little Morse in my own novel, too, though very little radio, 'cause it's mostly about cable TV. (hee hee)


Anyhow, in keeping with our fundamental foundation, as specified by our dear Uncle Gilbert Keith Chesterton - that is, of trying to see everything for the first time, even if we've seen it nine hundred and ninety-nine times before - and to always recall that there is no such thing as a different subject, I was reflecting on the strange thing that Meredith had observed, cross-pollinating Greek verse to Elvish, and remembered one of the odd things I learned in organic chemistry. Another time I will tell you the Latin secrets of "trans" fats, and why they are trans, and what they are called if they are not "trans", and also the jokes that come from all this. Lots of fun, and instructive, too. But it's not that funny, at least not that part, and besides, it isn't what I was trying to talk about! Ahem! Let me try again.

Anyway, I remembered that there was a chemical called "the Irish jig chemical" which all good organic chemists are able to synthesize (to say nothing of being able to spell) long before they can tie their shoes. It's a fairly long name, not quite so long as some, but, as you will see, quite easy to pronounce. (Note: some authorities believe that organic chemicals do not qualify for the on-going "long word" contests, but that's not for us to deal with here.) OK! The Irish Jig chemical:

also known as
4-dimethylamino benzaldehyde.
That is,

Let's sing it together, shall we? (Sorry, I do NOT dance.)

para - di - methyl - amino benz-al-de-hyde...
para - di - methyl - amino benz-al-de-hyde...
para - di - methyl - amino benz-al-de-hyde...

(Repeat until tired, or until your lab assistant begs you to stop, and threatens to squirt you with an unidentified reagent...)

When you become an organic chemist, you learn about the positions on the benzene ring, and how things attached at opposite ends are in the para- position, and that the group CH3- is called "methyl", so two of them is "dimethyl" and so on. Lots of fun.

Yes, it is a real chemical. Here it is, on page C-124 of the wonderful CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, number 1730. Some interesting facts about it:

Molecular weight: 149.19
Boiling point: 176-7 °C
Melting point: 74 °C
Solubility: alcohol, ether, acetone, benzene

So now you know. Print this out, doodle some shamrocks on it, and file it for next March 17.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

35 years ago

35 years ago today I set out on a strange journey, to a city with a name great among the cities of history. It I had not gone there, it is quite unlikely I would be here today, doing what I do. It was there that I learned about computers - from a computer great among the computers of history.

While I was there, I got to play with a two-million dollar spirograph. It was a lot of fun. (Yes, I wrote the code to do that... and they say trig isn't important? Ha!)

"Down in Packard 118
Sits that evil bit machine,
Guarded by its faithful servants night and day..."
Posted in memory (60 bits!) of the CDC 6400, and also in fond recollection of many good friends and difficult foes... some who are now departed from the earth:

Requiem aeternum dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Requiescant in pace. Amen.

Some day - maybe April 5 - I will tell you about the other city (which also has a name great among the cities of history!) where I got my third degree, and so became the one you now know as Doctor Thursday.

P.S. I forgot to put this in. I was thinking about the complexities of going back to college... Ahem. There is a great movie called "The Brave Little Toaster" which is based on a great book by the same name. There's a hilarious scene where "The Master" that owns the Toaster ("The Master"'s real name is Robbie) is getting ready to go to college, and his mom asks "Do you have enough socks?" The scene shows rows and rows of folded socks stacked on his bed, and Robbie says "I got enough to stock the dorm! I'm not going to Jupiter, Mom! It's only college."

Sigh! Sometimes I wish I had gone to Jupiter - there's lots less gravity there. but that's why I'm in business... We need more laughter - we need (as Chesterton says) to learn to take ourselves lightly! That's why I took that class in Advanced Spirograph. I got an "A" but it's not on the transcript. Hee hee.

For your homework, write a composition on what you did 35 years ago today, and then derive the equations for the sine and cosine of the sum and difference of angles:

Given two angles a, b, their sines and cosines, find:


Show all work. No cheating.

(I can still do this. That's why I got the "A".)

More on "It's a Dog's Life"

A reader has pointed out that I have misled you somewhat. There is a song called "It's a Dog's Life"... possibly the best known hit yet recorded by the Armed Canines. And yes, A Dog's Life is the title of the rock autobiography of lead guitarist Randy Tullman. But of course, as I am sure you know, that song was on their second album, "Battle Bark", not on "Beached Beagles", the cover of which I showed you in a previous post.

I was asked if I would post the lyrics. Now, the problem is that this means revealing something that I wanted to keep secret. So come real close to the CRT and I will whisper it.

Yes... I am (have been?) the ghost lyricist for the Armed Canines. (They do write a lot of their own stuff, you know. But yes, I did this one for them.)

So I called Mr. Tullman and asked if he would mind... He said it's my call. So here you go. They are on the CD liner, and I think they added another verse, but this is what I have in my files.

"It's a Dog's Life"

Gettin' fed, gettin' kicked...
My master's hand I got it licked...
Seekin', huntin'
My master's side I am wantin'
All over the house, all over the town
A heartbreaking whine, a sad doggie frown...

It's a dog's life... yeah, it's a dog's life...
but it's seven times better,
yeah, it's seven times better,
yeah, it's seven times better...
since you're livin' it with me too.


I'm runnin' - you're runnin' with me
I'm pantin' - water's pourin' for me
I'm whinin' - you're fillin' my dish
I'm beggin' - you're grantin' my wish...

It's a dog's life... yeah, it's a dog's life...
but it's seven times better,
yeah, it's seven times better,
yeah, it's seven times better...
since you're livin' it with me too.

"It's a Dog's Life" is on the album Battle Bark
Performed by Armed Canines
Recorded at Desert Sunsets
Engineered by E. de las Lagos
Music copyright © 2001 by Armed Canines, Inc.
Lyrics copyright © 2008 by Dr. Thursday.

But please don't go asking me to post their other lyrics now. I have a lot to do. Thursday comes early this week.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Armed Canines: CD cover for "Beached Beagles"

If you have been reading my novel you know that Ann Appleton, a young genius audio engineer, is out in California, on loan from Kallisto Recording in Kettlestown PA, to the very famous studios of Desert Sunsets, to record the new album for the rock superband known as the Armed Canines. You no doubt have their number one CD, "Beached Beagles", which has the hilarious album cover that looks something like this:(You can double-click on the picture for a bigger version.)

Unfortunately, where the album title ought to be, our artist has put in Randy Tullman's rock autobiography, A Dog's Life. We are assured that this will be corrected before the hard-cover edition is released. We spoke with Randy Tullman, the amazing lead guitarist of Armed Canines, in his California home, but he declined an interview about their forthcoming album. Apparently he feels the novel will provide sufficient detail.

Please note: no real dogs are used in any of the art, music or text. They were all stuffed, just like the humans are.

(Oh, no thanks, I can't eat any more. Really. But it sure was delicious!)

Update: On Aug 31 2008 I have finally revised, er, I mean the artist has revised the picture:
(Remember you can double-click to get a larger image.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Call (a re-posting)

"Ask the Lord of the Harvest to send laborers to his harvest."
Matthew 9:38

When Jesus came upon the earth to teach
By telling stories all could comprehend,
He sent the Twelve into the world to preach;
His narrow way was not to be a trend,
But something bold to use and to defend.
And so that darkness old to Light would yield,
He called for men who truth from lies would rend:
O Master, send more workmen to the field!

The human illness, far beyond our reach,
The Doctor on the Cross the cure did blend;
The Word, by touch or words of human speech
The sick in body also sought to mend -
A Roman soldier trusted, was His friend,
And so his servant far away was healed;
A cure long-distance, Lord, to us extend:
O Master, send more workmen to the field!

At Caesarea's rock, Rock spoke for each,
The Son of Man as Son of God was kenned;
And He for them cooked fishes on the beach
Who from the throne the Spirit soon would send.
So "Father, Son and Spirit" God was penned,
No longer was Almighty God concealed;
We turn to Him for help, the knee we bend:
O Master, send more workmen to the field!

O Harvester whose vineyard has no end -
O Hidden God whose face the Christ revealed -
Call workmen brave, for You their lives to spend -
O Master, send more workmen to the field!

[Made March 17, 1995]

Yes, I posted this back in June of 2005, but I feel it was worth a re-posting.
Please remember to pray for vocations to the ordained priesthood!

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Now the ruler of the day
Sets upon his throne
Who, throughout the daylight hours,
Ruled the sky alone.

All the chorus of the clouds,
Orange, gold, and red,
Come to chant their evening hymn
To their glowing head.

As the fearsome furnace fades,
Its brilliant solo theme
In the clear cloud counterpoint
Continues to gleam.

In the west spills molten gold
From Sol's crucible,
While blue deepens by degrees

Now the golden disk erodes,
Sixty seconds run;
Through growing gloom then flashes
One last beam of sun.

As the last cloud stops its song,
Stars come out to play,
Since to them the dark of night
Is unending day.

Dark blue stillness settles down,
With its lunar guest,
Time of quiet, peace, and calm,
Time of grateful rest.

Through dark of night envelops
Half of planet earth,
Hopeful choirs of clouds await
Morning sun's rebirth.

[Made July 3, 1988]

In a comment below Sheila mentions poems about the sun, and I found that I had not yet posted this one - hard to believe I wrote it 20 years ago. I guess it's time to do another on this topic.

Friday, August 22, 2008

When is an Amino Acid not an Amino Acid?

*** caution caution caution caution caution ***
This posting contains dangerous humor.

*** caution caution caution caution caution ***

You may already know this, but one of the most Chestertonian comics I know is the episodes of "Calvin and Hobbes" playing "Calvinball"... I wonder if it is a child's version of "Gype"? You do know what Gype is, don't you? It's the chief sport of Chesterton University (they were undefeated every year since the founding). Calvinball, in which the score might be "Q to 12" and in which "the only rule is there are no rules" (though the rules they do have must be declared, and agreed on) clearly suggests the marvellous game that Chesterton and H.G. Wells invented (see Autobiography CW16:211-2 and Ward's Gilbert Keith Chesterton 376). One of many delightful scenes of the C&H game, and the one I wish to recall today, is the one with the famous (and very dangerous) "Opposite Pole", which reverses all other rules, and which Hobbes touched, declaring it "oppositely, by not declaring it". You'll see why.

Today, August 22, is the octave day of the Assumption, and the feast of the Queenship of Mary. You may not know this, but the Vatican Navy has a queen ship. (When they get their interstellar fleet they will most likely have a mother ship as well...) Hee hee. You've never heard of the Vatican Navy? They're another one of the small-country-military which goes in for pocket knives; I had a picture somewhere I will try to find for next time. Ahem.

Anyway, you are no doubt wondering what I mean about the title of today's posting. Well, I was thinking about this, because last week I wrote a whole lot about Mary being queen and getting crowned - and you might think I was a week off.

But you see, there is a problem - in fact, a very serious problem - with this whole mystery called "the Coronation of Mary". I am no Church Father, and certainly no theologian. But there seems to be something a bit unfair with the Trinity holding the coronation back then, just after she was taken up into Heaven. I mean no disrespect! I just think They would like, if for no other reason than the sheer fun of the party, to have such a big bash when every one of Mary's subjects would be able to be there to - uh - throw rice, or flowers, or ticker-tape, or whatever the celestial protocol requires. (stardust, maybe?) And, in another sense, it seems fitting, when the word is "crowning" - the precise grammatical term evades me, but that word has a sense of something on-going... she is in-the-process-of-being-crowned, as each of her subjects comes forward and contributes his own bit to the crown.

Here's another hint of what I mean. Last week I quoted the chorus of a song we used at the May crowning when I was in grade school. Here is the complete song:

1. We gather round your shrine today, Salve regina!
To crown you as our queen of May, Salve regina!

2. This diadem of flowers fair, Salve regina!
Is intertwined with love and care, Salve regina!

Chorus: Every voice in your domain
Sings with joy this glad refrain:
Be our queen for ever reign!
Salve, salve, salve regina!

I mean that (1) the crown is twined of separate flowers - which indicates a composite structure, being made of individual components and (2) it is done in time - which also means there is something composite - she is not so much crowned multiple times, but rather the crowning has an on-going character.

Now, all this might be considered sheer silliness. And that is good. You see, last week I mentioned how Mary is queen of halogens and rare earths and chemistry... but she's also queen of all good things, including some rather curious items one would not usually associate with her.

Queen of riddles, pray for us.
Queen of jokes, pray for us.
Queen of word games, pray for us.
Queen of paradoxes and puns, pray for us.

Queen of grammar and idiom, pray for us.
Queen of all language, pray for us.

How can our voices praise - or even pray - if we do not have language? But - and this is the tricky question - isn't the whole point of all this a big joke on the devil anyway? Was not the point about God "lifting up the humble" - a REVERSAL if there ever was one, as if God touched the "Opposite Pole" - the ultimate punch line to Satan's slapstick comedy in the Garden? Why of course it is!

It's all in that great line from Chesterton, in his epic chapter about Christmas:

That is the paradox of the whole position; that henceforth the highest thing can only work from below.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:313]

And that brings us back to my original topic, which (alas) has the form of a riddle.

Q. When is an amino acid not an amino acid?
A. When it is proline.

(See here for more details.)

(Hmm.. You aren't laughing. You probably don't laugh about "getting down off a duck" either, but then I always wondered how they got up on a duck in the first place.)

No it's not a joke about a trucking company, either. Proline, for those in the audience who are not laughing, is one of the twenty amino acids for which there are three-base codes in messenger RNA. But even though we call it an "amino" acid, it isn't. It's an imino acid.

You may think this is all a big joke - and it is. But there was something that struck me some years ago, as I began to think about the twenty mysteries and wonder why this last, the "Coronation" was a mystery that somehow didn't seem to have happened yet... and then I realized, as an inattentive man might slowly catch on to a joke - yes... yes... YES! it is funny! Sure. Mary is queen of all good, and she must be queen of all humour also. She was the first one to laugh at the divine joke - the REVERSAL - after all. Gabriel left too quick, and did not hear her chuckle. But that's when Mary caught on. She saw God's joke. And what a good one it was!

Mary Queen of the Universe, pray for us!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Dog Day of Summer

We recall a very dear saint today, known to many as the great big rescue dog who frequents ski resorts and carries a little keg of something good to drink fastened around his neck. Of course this is Saint Bernard (no, not St. Dominic... there's that Latin pun again!)

St. Bernard is important to some of us because of the curious ancient book of his letters, printed in 1494, that Weaver's books was selling for 10 grand or so. (Oops, sorry, I meant Loome Books.) It will appear again in a story you may wish to read. Stay tuned.

St. Bernard (ca. 1090-1153) is called the "Mellifluous Doctor" (the teacher flowing with honey) and "Thaumaturgus of the West" (a miracle-worker) and also "the last of the Fathers".... Catholics recall him as the author of the tender "Memorare":
Remember, o most compassionate Virgin Mary,
that never was it known
that anyone who fled to thy protection,
implored thy assistance,
or sought thy intercession
was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, we fly unto thee,
O virgin of virgins, our mother!
To thee to we cry, before thee we kneel, sinful and sorrowful.
O mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not our petitions,
but in thy clemency, hear and answer them. Amen.
A rich and complex prayer, a powerful source of inspiring ideas - and yet simple and childlike! After all, ever since that wedding at Cana, she's been busy assisting and interceding...

I was going to see whether GKC talked about him, and ran into the famous problem... remember that GKC usually called his friend GBS "Bernard Shaw" - so I hit a terrible number of Shaw references. (I imagine GBS laughing wholeheartedly at this confusion of him with Dr. B.) But with a bit of automata theory to help me, I found that GKC did mention Dr. B. - for example:
Early mediaeval history, and even early English history, offers us
more than one man of the militant type of the Conqueror. There were Henry of Anjou and the Plantagenets, for instance, who came out of the very heart of France and displayed a good deal of energy. Indeed, they displayed so much energy that St. Bernard (I regret to say) addressed to them the gratuitous information: "From the Devil you came and to the Devil you will go." But even when St. Bernard said they came from the Devil, he never went so far as to say they came from the Nordic Race.
[GKC ILN July 16 1927 CW34:344-5]
Or this curious insightful aside:
Dante, for instance, most certainly had a profound sense of a
human character, in the deeper sense of a human soul. I think it probable that it was this sense of individuality in Dante that so profoundly attracted Chaucer; and made Chaucer, with an insight remarkable at the time, prefer the bitter exile of Ravenna to the resplendent Loureate of Rome. But even the case of Dante does not meet the particular point I mean. The reason is not merely that Dante could not, by the very nature of his work and plan, develop the delicate and light comedy in consideration here. Nobody would expect to find the joke about the Franklin and the Squire cheerfully introduced into the Circle of Ice or mentioned in passing by St. Bernard when discoursing on the Beatific Vision.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:283]
There is another curious excerpt, but I think I shall save that for tomorrow's ACS article.

This mention of Mary, and assistance, and dogs, reminds me that I have just posted the next chapter of my story, in which Joe gets to meet dear little Jody Reamur, five-year-old daughter of Roberson Reamur, owner of Reamur Automotive:

(I am sorry to say that I am not very happy with this illustration. The artist was told she's supposed to look like Shirley Temple, but with darker hair - he's been very difficult to work with. Ahem.)

No, Jody does not sell Joe that car. (If you want to know what's going on, you will have to read the chapter!) For such a young child, she's been in the hospital almost as much time as she's been out - a very sad and difficult case. We shall see her again...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wow... a Latin tongue twister

The great poet Meredith at For Keats' Sake has posted a Latin tongue twister - with translation.

Wow, talk about rara avis = a rare bird!

Thanks, Meredith!

Beer on a Hot Summer's Day

I was looking for water, and found beer.

(No, I am not paraphrasing the Poet in GKC's "The Surprise" - he expected water and found... well, you will have to see CW11 for the script to that wonderful play, or get the video version from the ACS.)

But! I mean I was looking for information about the chemical H2O which is commonly known as water. There are five or six books piled up on my desk, nearly a foot (30 cm) of paper, containing details about its tetrahedral structure, its partial dipole, its great stability, its abnormally high "latent heat of vaporization", its power to dissolve, its peak in density at 4°C which causes ice to float, its importance in food and cooking, and so much more...

But then I wondered what our Doctor Chesterton might have said about it. We all know the exceedingly famous verses from his The Flying Inn:

Feast on wine or fast on water,
And your honour shall stand sure;
God Almighty's son and daughter,
He the valiant, she the pure.
If an angel out of heaven
Brings you other things to drink,
Thank him for his kind intentions,
Go and pour them down the sink.
GKC wrote an editorial about the horrifying report during World War I when "the Allied armies, passing over the reconquered ground, certainly found poison in the wells":
Some of the chemical experiments in which the enemy was so proud of having taken the initiative were no more military than the chemical experiments in which Palmer or Pritchard [famous poisoners] took the initiative. Still, it was an initiative; and in the weak-minded welter of modern thought it may be considered proper to initiate a new notion of right and wrong whenever you initiate a new chemical combination. But nobody will call water a new chemical combination. Even the German professors will not profess that their own initiative has initiated water. Water at least is a primal thing, and the story of it flows down to us through the most primitive literatures, as the stream of it flows up to us through the most uncultivated soils. To make water a weapon, and an envenomed weapon, is to pollute something the purity or impurity of which could have been understood in every age and country. In the purest of historic pages a cup of water is recorded as the symbol of all that is merciful; and a cup of poisoned water has in it a profanation beyond all the Borgias, with their cups of poisoned wine.
[GKC ILN March 31, 1917 CW:67-68]
As I said, horrifying.

So, let us see something a bit more human - like this, which is good advice for children and for journalists who have inked themselves up with toner (hee hee):
I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean.
[GKC ILN March 10 1906 CW27:142]
We also know how deep his philosophy was in his clear and powerful grasp of Reality, as he wrote to his fiancee (having had a minor accident when he was switching the toner cartridge in his laser printer, or something similar):
I am black but comely at this moment: because the cyclostyle has blacked me. Fear not. I shall wash myself. ... I like the Cyclostyle ink; it is so inky. I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me...
[letter to Frances Blogg July 8 1899 quoted in Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 108]
Which is perhaps a very odd-sounding phrase... intoxicated by water? Except that I understand. At this moment, I am quite intoxicated by water! But I continued to hunt, and found a remarkable paragraph which deserves some study, not only by hydrologists or biochemists:
It is quite a mistake to suppose that, when a man desires an alcoholic drink, he necessarily desires alcohol. Let a man walk ten miles steadily on a hot summer's day along a dusty English road, and he will soon discover why beer was invented. The fact that beer has a very slight stimulating quality will be quite among the smallest reasons that induce him to ask for it. In short, he will not be in the least desiring alcohol; he will be desiring beer. But, of course, the question cannot be settled in such a simple way. The real difficulty which confronts everybody, and which especially confronts doctors, is that the extraordinary position of man in the physical universe makes it practically impossible to treat him in either one direction or the other in a purely physical way. Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head. In neither case can we really argue very much from the body of man simply considered as the body of an innocent and healthy animal. His body has got too much mixed up with his soul, as we see in the supreme instance of sex. It may be worth while uttering the warning to wealthy philanthropists and idealists that this argument from the animal should not be thoughtlessly used, even against the atrocious evils of excess; it is an argument that proves too little or too much. Doubtless, it is unnatural to be drunk. But then in a real sense it is unnatural to be human. Doubtless, the intemperate workman wastes his tissues in drinking; but no one knows how much the sober workman wastes his tissues by working. No one knows how much the wealthy philanthropist wastes his tissues by talking; or, in much rarer conditions, by thinking. All the human things are more dangerous than anything that affects the beasts - sex, poetry, property, religion. The real case against drunkenness is not that it calls up the beast, but that it calls up the Devil. It does not call up the beast, and if it did it would not matter much as a rule; the beast is a harmless and rather amiable creature, as anybody can see by watching cattle. There is nothing bestial about intoxication; and certainly there is nothing intoxicating or even particularly lively about beasts. We hear of mad bulls, but they are not mad through delirium tremens; nor does their dislike of scarlet originate in a resolution not to look upon the wine or upon anything else when it is red. We hear of mad dogs, and we even hear that they dislike water; but this dislike is not due to the same cause which creates a similar prejudice in so many human beings. Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal ever invented anything so bad as drunkenness - or so good as drink.
[GKC ILN Apr 20 1907 CW27:444-5]

Alas. I don't have a dusty English road nearby, but yes, I do find myself a bit thirsty on this hot summer day. Good thing there are some cold lagers waiting in the refrigerator. Hee hee. But later. For now, back to the books...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Progress Report on Joe

I just posted the 19th chapter of my novel, Joe the Control Room Guy, which as you may have heard is a kind of high-tech fairy tale about "an ordinary guy in an extraordinary place" - as GKC puts it.

Just in case you are scared of the technology, or perhaps the Catholicism (nah, it couldn't be the length that's frightening you!) I have convinced the author to give you a taste here...

[Where we are: Joe is the new guy; he's been there two weeks now. Andy, a good worker but perennial trickster, is training him today. Both of them got in to work before Jeff, their supervisor, who loves practical jokes...]

“Hey Andy – look, here comes Jeff.”
“Oh, yeah? Let’s see... what can we do? How about I hide in the storage closet?”
“That won’t work, Andy – he’s sure to spot your cycle. And my car – so I can’t hide either. Besides we don’t want him to panic...”
“Yeah.... I know!” He ran into the storage closet and came out with a videotape. “Production left this one here a long time ago – we found it was bad, and they just ran off another for us.” He teased the tape out of the cartridge, and began pulling it out. “Now, come over here, to the encoder...”
In just a few seconds, Joe, the encoder, and the chair was thoroughly entwined in the tape.
“Awesome...” Andy said, stepping back. “I wish I had a camera. Now you just whimper – tell him Traffic dropped off an emergency re-encode – I’ll be in the computer room with the clipboard...”
“Got it,” Joe mumbled from within the web of tape.

“... and I told Al I’d cover. I didn’t expect to find Joe in already, doing the chores,” Joe heard Andy say as the Computer Room door opened. “So I thought I’d just check over his work.”
“That’s fine, Andy,” Jeff said, following behind him. “But why isn’t he with you?” Then he saw Joe. “Oh my God, Joe! What on earth?”
“Uh... I think I did something wrong.”

Andy, holding the clipboard,is at the far left next to Jeff, their supervisor. Joe is - uh - tied up at the moment, in front of one of the encoders.

For any doctrinal problems, please call the Vatican ASAP. But for more, tune in to Joe the Control Room Guy and find out who dies, who falls in love, who does magic and why(!), where the secret passage leads to, why there are eyes that go back and forth, and why there are Latin quotes up on the big monitoring screens that report the status of hundreds of machines within the cable TV ad insertion system of AC&TG... and - uh - oh yeah! And what the Pope has to do with any of this.

Please Note: No humans were harmed during the writing of this story, or during the drawing of the pictures. We use only stuffed humans. And your lunatic author was that way long before he started work at... uh... but it wasn't called AC&TG. Hee hee!

One more thing: if you are wondering about the availability of the hard cover edition, I will be signing copies as soon as they are ready. If you hear a rumor about who will be publishing them, do let me know. Hee hee. I'm working on the sequel, but can't decide if I should call it "Joe: the Encoder Strikes Back" or "Joe and the Control Room of Secrets" Hee hee. What fun it is.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Found in the "Blessing of the Railroad"

Happy Feast of the Assumption! Time to sing something really LOUD. Hmmm.

Many years ago, when I was in grade school and we had the May crowning, we used another set of words to the very popular "Salve Regina" hymn. Here is the chorus:
Every voice in your domain
Sings with joy this glad refrain:
Be our queen, forever reign!
Salve, salve, salve regina!
I cannot say how exciting these words are. Now that I have grown up - or at least older and bigger - and I am a computer scientist, I have dealt with things like internet domains (these are the "last names" of computers) as well as formal mathematics (a function is a relation which maps one set - the domain - into another - the range)... but I also have references which indicate that a domain comes from the Latin dominus = Lord, which itself comes from the word domus for house or home. And then there is the great mystery of the pipe organ, in which each of the various kinds of pipes are called voices, and the even more mysterious link to be found in the Introit for Pentecost, coming from Wisdom 1:7 "For the Spirit of the Lord hath filled the whole world: and that which containeth all things, hath knowledge of the voice." There is so much of a mystery to speech... all the amazing complications of the muscles and timing and how to set the tongue and the teeth and breathing... so easy to do, but so easy to get wrong when you try to learn another language as an adult! We have forgotten the years our parents took to get us to catch on to the various sounds of our language, and to make them... The voice, what a gift. No wonder we ought to use our voice to praise God and His greatest work, Mary...

Wow. Then there's that sailor's hymn to Mary - but I cannot talk about that until I have gone further with my work on Subsidiarity. Soon, soon; it's just as dramatic, and quite emotional as well as high-tech. Meanwhile you can read the next chapter of Joe the Control Room Guy which I just posted.

Now what does this have to do with the blessing for railroads?

I am still "in the hunt" for data on my food work, and happened to pull out the "Roman Ritual" from 1895 for suggestions. Yes, there's a time when the tech texts and the Lexicons don't help... So I get out a different book to see where it will lead me. (Thank you God for books and the ability to read!)

And in that book I find the "Benedictio viae ferreae et curruum" - "A blessing of a railroad (way of iron) and of [its] cars". And right there was another important link in my puzzle!
Omnipotens semiterne Deus, qui omnia elementa ad tuam gloriam, utilitatemque hominum condidisti: dignare, quaesumus, hanc viam ferream, ejusque instrumenta bene+dicere, et benigna semper tua providentia tueri; ut dum famuli tui velociter properant in via, in lege tua ambulantes, et viam mandatorum tuorum currentes, ad coelestem patriam feliciter pervenire valeant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.
I am no Latinist, so I will gladly accept corrections to my attempt at a translation:
Almighty and everlasting God, Who formed all elements to Your glory and to the utility of Man: deign, we ask, to + bless this railroad and its instruments, and always guard it by your benign providence; that while your servants hasten with speed on the way, walking in your law, and running in the way of your commands, they may be strong to come happily to the heavenly homeland. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Ah! You can see, from my last post about elements, why I liked this: "You formed all elements to Your glory and to the utility of Man". Indeed. Globber would be after me for using up their disk space if I began to make a list of the amazing splendour of the elements and how they are useful to us... it reminds me of that grand and great key from Chesterton: "The greatest of poems is an inventory." (Orthodoxy CW1:267) It was Tom Lehrer who set the periodic table to music; but it has fallen to a lesser artist to extend the Litany of Loreto:

Queen of Fluorine, pray for us.
Queen of Chlorine, pray for us.
Queen of Bromine, pray for us.
Queen of the halogens, pray for us.

Queen of Iron, pray for us.
Queen of Cobalt, pray for us.
Queen of Nickel, pray for us.
Queen of of the transition metals, pray for us.

Queen of Cerium, pray for us.
Queen of Praeseodymium and Neodymium, pray for us.
Queen of Yttrium, Ytterbium, Terbium and Erbium, pray for us.
Queen of the rare earths, pray for us.

Queen of Neon, pray for us.
Queen of Argon, pray for us.
Queen of the inert gases, pray for us.

Queen of Sodium, pray for us.
Queen of Potassium, pray for us.
Queen of Rubidium, pray for us.
Queen of the alkali metals, pray for us.


Queen of all elements, pray for us.

Queen of the cosmos, pray for us, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

"Every voice in your domain, sings with joy this glad refrain:
Be our queen, forever reign!"

Thursday, August 14, 2008

God's Breweries: the One Who kindles the sunrise

I am struggling over the beginnings of a new project about food - no I don't mean a meal, I mean a writing! - and even though I am part chemist, I had to go hunting into the other disciplines for what they might tell me about ... the ELEMENTS! And I found some interesting things.

One might guess that the ancient Greeks knew about the Periodic Table since their word for "element" stoiceion (stoicheion) comes from the word for "row, rank, series"... But they didn't. They only had four "elements" which we might now term the "states" of matter:
earth - which we now call "solid",
water - which we now call "liquid",
air - which we now call "gas",
fire - which we now call "plasma".
The fifth element - whatever it might be (no, not boron, hee hee) - gives us (through Latin) the curious word "quintessence" - which literally means "fifth (form of) being".

Now, after lots of work (imagine the Curies boiling down ten tons of mine waste to get a tiny tube of radium!) we know about some 100 elements - properly, the chemical elements - which we distinguish by a variety of physical or chemical properties. Amazing, totally fascinating things.

And it may be as aggravating to begin a discussion of the formation of elements as it would be to begin a discussion of the formation of species - though we actually know a little more about the formation of elements as the process is still occuring before our eyes. Yes, that great light we see during the day - the sun - is a nuclear furnace, which gives us light and heat - but has as its "ashes" a variety of elements. In general the main fuel of a star is hydrogen, and the main result of its "burning" by nuclear fusion is helium. But there are other reactions which occur, in which there is what we might call "cooking" - or, more poetically, "brewing". The term "brewing" is perhaps a bit more apt, because even though we all know it takes preparation to cook something, and usually some period of time for the thing to be cooked. But when something is brewed there seems to be a real significant wait involved. We have fast food, and even the disciples could chow down as they went through a field of grain (see Mt 12:1)... but it's kind of hard to have "fast" beer. Some one has to start the brewing well in advance of your drinking.

There's a delightful and mystical line in GKC about this grand preparation. It hints at one of those nasty argumentative things called "intelligent design" - which I am not going to go into now, as much as it would be fun to talk about the details of the brewing of the elements:
There was someone else, some strange and unseen being, who had designed these things, if indeed they were designed. There was a stranger who was also a friend; a mysterious benefactor who had been before them and built up the woods and hills for their coming, and had kindled the sunrise against their rising, as a servant kindles a fire. Now this idea of a mind that gives a meaning to the universe has received more and more confirmation within the minds of men, by meditations and experiences much more subtle and searching than any
such argument about the external plan of the world.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:396]
But, as I said, I am not going into that depth today. I just like to think about that image of God setting the suns a-burning and a-brewing, long before ever we woke up, and I wish I had the time to write a poem about it.

But I don't, and I have not been able to do much more than make some notes on my food topic. And then there's water, and that has to get in there somehow! Oy. Obviously I need to pray some more about it. And since I have not been able to go very far with my writing today (I was rather busy with my usual Thursday writing, which you can see here, I decided to post something else which I wrote a little while ago. It's rather suited for Easter than for Assumption, but as usual Mary plays a role in it, and you might like it: go here to read it.

Now, back to whatever it was I was doing. Food... and that story about the wreck. yeah. I've got to get busy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How Teaching is Tied to Subsidiarity

Over on Nancy Brown's blogg there was a mention of a new magazine called Mater et Magistra, which is about home-schooling, but is named for Pope John XXIII's 1961 encyclical. It was the first of the modern papal writings of "Catholic Social Teaching" (CST) to use the term "subsidiary" - which adjective was promoted to the noun "subsidiarity" in his 1963 Pacem in Terris.

Now one might say very much about this connection from teaching in general to the grand concept of subsidiarity... you want to know what subsidiarity is? Here are the two standard definitions:
Negative Form: It is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies.
[Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno 5]
Positive Form: A community of a higher order ... should support a community of a lower order in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
[John Paul II, Centesimus Annus 48]
If you know even the tiniest bit of Latin, you may wonder what these were 40 years and 100 years after... you can get the answer 1891 but what happened then?

The answer is the great Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum, which contains subsidiarity in a prototype form. One of the many startling dicta he wrote there was this: "To desire, therefore, that the civil power should enter arbitrarily into the privacy of homes is a great and pernicious error." (section 21)

As you can see, this quickly leads into some very important ideas on the right order of society and related matters: the family, the government, social justice - but also unrelated things like software development, technology, industry, athletic teams, clubs and organizations, and even the sacrament of Holy Orders! It would need a whole blogg just to begin the discussion...

But what does subsidiarity have to do with teaching?

To give you the best possible start, I shall simply quote a very powerful excerpt from an interesting book I was reading:
I can get at facts in more than one way. If I want to know the volume of a cylinder I can, if I know how, work the problem out either by mathematics or by experiment; or I can ask a competent person to tell me what is volume is. In the last case I proceed on the lines of authority, and, in doing so, I convince myself first of all by an act of reason that [the authority I consult] is a reliable one. This is only doing what every man of business does time and again in the conduct of his affairs.
[Bertram C. A. Windle, The Catholic Church and Its Reactions With Science, 52]
Indeed, not only does Windle bring in teaching (that is the acquisition of knowledge) but he ties it to good business sense too - a very important thing to remember in considering subsidiarity, as we shall see another time.

Now here is a child. He most likely does not know how to test, to prove, to "work out volumes" or anything else - he may not yet know how to read! But he has had several years of experience in establishing that his parents (always his first teachers) and his other teachers outside the home (whether in formal school or elsewhere) are reliable authorities. And so he knows where he can go when he needs help, even if he would not put it that way. He has questions and wants answers.

But how is that subsidiarity?

Very simple. He - yes even a very young child - can tell when he cannot do something for himself - and he therefore immediately appeals to his superior (most often, his parents!) for assistance: to learn, to know, to understand...

Yes: anyone who teaches takes up a certain mantle of authority (if in only a very narrow field of specialization) but the teacher is thereby obliged to render assistance, as our Lord told us: "the Son of Man is not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a redemption for many." [Mt 20:28]

Stay tuned... there's more - MUCH more - to come.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Do you Clare?

I sure hope you do. Hee hee! Happy feast of St. Clare, a great Franciscan... I wonder - if she had a blogg would she be an e-Clare? (Sure she was a real sweetie. Hee hee.) GKC had a young friend - we might call her a "distant niece", as we all are distant nephews and nieces of our dear Uncle Gilbert!) and he once wrote a nice little poem for her, to apologise for having lost some poetry she had sent him:
"St. Francis intercedes with St. Clare"
but called "To Clare Nicholl" in CW10:321-2

Clare was the friend of Francis
Who was kind to everything
(He liked the cats to howl at night
He asked the wasps to sting)
To vulture, viper, slug and sloth,
To skunks with smelly hair,
And even to the wretch who lost
The manuscripts of Clare.
[GKC, in Ward's Return to Chesterton, 222-224]
Poor Clare! (no pun!) But you want to know about Saint Clare? Here's what GKC had to say:
A girl of seventeen, named Clare and belonging to one of the noble families of Assisi, was filled with an enthusiasm for the conventual life; and Francis helped her to escape from her home and to take up the conventual life. If we like to put it so, he helped her to elope into the cloister, defying her parents as he had defied his father. ... Now about that incident I will here only say this. If it had really been a romantic elopement and the girl had become a bride instead of a nun, practically the whole modern world would have made her a heroine. if the action of the Friar towards Clare had been the action of the Friar towards Juliet, everybody would be sympathising with her exactly as they sympathise with Juliet. It is not conclusive to say that Clare was only seventeen. Juliet was only fourteen. Girls married and boys fought in battles at such early ages in mediaeval times; and a girl of seventeen in the thirteenth century was certainly old enough to know her own mind. There cannot be the shadow of a doubt, for any sane person considering subsequent events, that St. Clare did know her own mind. But the point for the moment is that modern romanticism entirely encourages such defiance of parents when it is done in the name of romantic love. For it knows that romantic love is a reality, but it does not know that divine love is a reality. There may have been something to be said for the parents of Clare; there may have been something to be said for Peter Bernardone. So there may have been a great deal to be said for the Montagues or the Capulets; but the modern world does not want it said; and does not say it. The fact is that as soon as we assume for a moment as a hypothesis, what St. Francis and St. Clare assumed all the time as an absolute, that there is a direct divine relation more glorious than any romance, the story of St. Clare's elopement is simply a romance with a happy ending; and St. Francis is the St. George or knight-errant who gave it a happy ending. And seeing that some millions of men and women have lived and died treating this relation as a reality, a man is not much of a philosopher if he cannot even treat it as a hypothesis.
For the rest, we may at least assume that no friend of what is called the emancipation of women will regret the revolt of St. Clare. She did most truly, in the modern jargon, live her own life, the life that she herself wanted to lead, as distinct from the life into which parental commands and conventional arrangements would have forced her. She became the foundress of a great feminine movement which still profoundly affects the world; and her place is with the powerful women of history.
[GKC, St. Francis of Assisi CW2:99-100]
And you might wish to read that book to learn a little more.

Speaking of knights-errant.... (ahem!)

I have just posted chapters 15 and 16 of Joe the Control Room Guy. I find that it's almost as much energy to convert the subcreation into art as it was to convert it into text - but still lots of fun. Here's the picture for chapter 16:

Here we see our knights-errant, Andy (on the left) and Joe, two of the Control Room operators at a small high-tech firm, playing in the mud. Andy is searching for a clue to a terrible tragedy; Joe spots (no pun intended) the gleam of something... it is a medal (though not reported in the text, it is a Miraculous Medal) with its chain wrapped around a pencil... but as Andy examines it closely, he finds that something seems to be scratched on the pencil! If you want to know what was scratched, you'll have to read that chapter - but if you want to know what it means, you'll have to wait for a future installment.

Speaking of installments, I am trying to finish off a short story which we shall see Joe getting reminded of (to his dismay) - a story which links to another series of episodes in the curious little seaside town of Quayment, which you may get to read eventually, either here or in print. There's always something waiting in the queue...

Finally, a parting glimpse of today's saint from a historian of science:
Had Francis been a mere esthete, however extraordinary, he could not have inspired followers such as Clare, who said as she died: "Blessed be Thou, Lord, who has created me." Of course, both Francis and Claire took their inspiration from a cult of which the daily recitation of the Psalms was an integral part. They both, along with countless others, repeated at least once a week the Psalmist’s words: "I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation." [Ps138:16]
[S. L. Jaki, God and the Cosmologists 229]
Jaki notes that the quote from St. Clare is from The Life of Saint Clare ascribed to Fr. Thomas of Celano, translated and edited from the earliest mss. by Fr. Paschal Robinson (Philadelphia: Dolphin Press, 1910), p. 70.

Indeed! Why should we bother exploring anything - stars or rocks or atoms or the human organism - if we neglect the praise of their Author - and forget to put our hard-won knowledge to work for our neighbors? Let us ask St. Clare to intercede for clarity in our research, our studies, and our work.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Eight Eight Eight

Today, the feast of St. Dominic, the founder of the great order of the Dominicans, we might think about how he fought the heretics of his age, and how he inspired so many others to do great things for God - men of almost unimaginable brilliance and power - like St. Albert the Great or St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Pius V (the Pope of Lepanto!) or St. Catherine of Siena who humbly ordered another Pope to get back to Roma where he belonged...

And today on such a mystic anniversary I think of these, and others, not only Dominicans, some not yet even saints, but all who followed the great light toward the One Light...

One phrase I shall now quote, and let it stand for all the summary that I might quarry from the rich vast lodes of these great Hounds of the Lord.... and no, it is not from a Dominican. We call that a paradox. (Not, it is not even from Chesterton!) But it is something mystical, and a great principle in itself, and urges us on towards a most Dominican goal:
Liberal education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.
John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University.
And please OH PLEASE remember - for Newman, the liberal education included the sciences and what we would now call engineering. He, after all, knew enough Greek to grasp how a catholic university must encompass ALL subjects. (The word "catholic" is Greek, as the word "universal" is Latin, for "all-encompassing".)

Recall, too, that four of the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are said to pertain to the intellect as such: wisdom, understanding counsel, knowledge. We need to know, not simply for its own sake (though that is good), but for the sake of being thus enabled to do good.

Therefore, let us follow on, each in his own way, according to his state in life, and as the gifts God has bestowed on him may enable...

St. Dominic and all ye holy Dominicans, pray for us!

--Dr. Thursday

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

On absurdity

For some quaint reason, there has been some debate going on about philosophy versus science. This is the kind of silly un-reason which occurs when (1) people don't read Newman's The Idea of a University (2) the liberal arts people resist doing math, physics, engineering (3) the tech people resist doing poetry, history, philosophy or (4) people don't read enough Chesterton. This is not a brag on my part, I am certainly willing to admit I am a Juvenal delinquent - that is, one who has not read enough of the classics. As part of my efforts to remedy this, I have put Juvenal quotes into my software (yes, in the original Latin!) See here for all the details.

However, this nonsense about "intelligent design" and "evolution" and "science" and "philosophy" has gotten tiresome, because people have missed a very important parallel.

It is just as absurd to say "I am doing physics now and therefore I cannot do philosophy at the same time" as it is to say "I am doing physics now and therefore I cannot do mathematics". Simply absurd. Even funnier: you have to do "English" (either written or spoken) if you hope to do science at all! Or you can't do very much. History, tradition, philosophy, natural language, mathematics, science - this is why it takes a Catholic (like Newman) to see these things. Or, as Chesterton said, "I never can really feel that there is such a thing as a different subject." [ILN Feb 17 1906 CW27:126]

The fields are quite a bit more intimately related than they were in the past. That is not to say that we can mix the uses of the various tools: a voltmeter is not a dictionary. But we need to begin working in a cooperative way. This is not a new idea - Newman was talking about this in the 1850s.

So why haven't we gotten serious about it?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Satisfying your MDAFRR

From certain very faint and technical signals sent to us when you clicked your way onto this blogg, GLOBBER has informed me that you are ... oh, my. This is serious.

Are you feeling unreal? Do you need to awaken the wonder of reality, and the delight of living in this real world? I thought so. (See, the mouse knows from your weak and hesitant clicking.)

Are you meeting your Minimum Daily Adult Fictional Reading Requirement?

Aha! I didn't think so. Well, you don't have to go very far to get help.

Just visit and you'll feel better soon.

The FDA does not know or understand about this requirement, so don't bother looking it up on their web site. But the ACS does:
Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.
[G. K. Chesterton, Heretics CW1:66]
And be sure to eat well and get some good sleep, but even more importantly, be grateful. This is the way to supernatural health.

And don't forget to have a more substantial meal once in a while: check out my novel, Joe the Control Room Guy - it's illustrated, and it's good for you!

Paradoxically yours,
--Dr. Thursday

PS: Unlike other medical fiction services, our authors will take requests, so please let us know what you'd like more of. We are not associated with any HMO or insurance company, so you're sure to be covered.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

More on the Poetry of Limits

Over on the ACS blogg I posted something about Chesterton and "the poetry of limits", and I thought I would try to add just a little more.

But, since it was posted on the feast of St. Ignatius, I thought it would be worth saying a little more about the larger matters at hand, than giving the usual explanations one can find in any calculus test. Because I remembered someone had already written something quite important about the matter, so I shall quote it for you:

Engels' knowledge of physics, especially of nineteenth-century physics, was very inexact indeed. Of its many gaps two illustrations should suffice. Engels did not mention Cauchy, who in 1821 succeeded in giving an exact formulation of the theory of the limit, the cornerstone of calculus and the very basis of exact, mathematical physics. Prior to 1821 great physicists, Lagrange for example, kept
telling their students that they must take calculus on faith and wait until the rigorous proof of the limit would come. It is not likely that Engels would have found Cauchy too much to his liking had he known of Cauchy's epoch-making book containing the rigorous proof of the theory of limit. In its Preface Cauchy took pains to emphasize that calculus was not everything and that it would be a grave error to think that all valid proofs should be based on integral and differential equations. Such was a daring statement especially in the France of those times where graduates of the École Polytechnique occupied in large numbers high civil service posts and were busy in introducing the spirit of infinitesimals into politics. But as Cauchy wrote: "Nobody has up to now tried to prove by calculus the existence of Louis XIV; yet all in their right mind agree that his existence is as certain as Pythagoras' theorem.... What I have said of a historical event, can be applied equally well to a great number of questions, in religion, in ethics, in politics. Therefore, let us remain convinced that there are truths other than those of geometry, and realities other than those of sensible objects." His concluding advice was: "Let us therefore cultivate with fervor the mathematical sciences, without wishing to extend them beyond their range; and let us not imagine that one could attack the problems of history with mathematical formulas, or that one could sanction the principles of morality by theorems of algebra and calculus."
[Jaki, "Knowledge in an Age of Science" in Chance or Reality and Other Essays; the Cauchy quote is from his Cours d'analyse de l'Ecole Royale Polytechnique, Ire Partie, Analyse algébrique (Paris: de l'Imprimerie Royale, 1821), pp. vi-vii.]
Engels is the one who collaborated with Marx to bring such evils into the world.

Augustin Louis Cauchy (1789-1857) is the great mathematician who gave us the true theory of "limit" which brought the calculus - the great work of Laplace and Newton - to its stable foundation. He was a Catholic, and had a role in the return of Hermite (another mathematician) to the faith. About Hermite Fr. Jaki recalled a hilarious episode from his own student days: "I still remember the embarrassment of an excellent teacher of quantum mechanics, whom I asked in class as to why certain very useful polynomials are called Hermite polynomials. He answered that probably because of their mysterious character they were found to resemble those elusive figures, called hermits." [Jaki, A Mind's Matter 25]

Joseph-Louis Lagrange ((1736-1813) was another great mathematician who did work in celestial mechanics (that means the motion of planets, not what God has under the hood!)

It may be good to here recall Chesterton's famous line when asked "Well, can you tell me any man of intellect, great in science or philosophy, who accepted the miraculous?" he replied "With pleasure. Descartes, Dr. Johnson, Newton, Faraday, Newman, Gladstone, Pasteur, Browning, Brunetière - as many more as you please." [GKC, ILN May 4, 1907 CW27:456]