Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Do you see the dragons?

You may know there are real dragons in our world, such as those called "Komodo"... (see here for more!) but dragons are even more real if you don't look quite so hard for them.

Every Chestertonian knows that famous line, one of the most gorgeous of all GKC's "verbal fireworks":
The Dragon is the most cosmopolitan of impossibilities.
[GKC quoted in Ward Gilbert Keith Chesterton 40]
There are also other useful facts to be acquired, such as this:
If there was a dragon, he had a grandmother.
[GKC "The Dragon's Grandmother" in Tremendous Trifles]
And this, a succinct guide to Story, should you need one:
In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights.
[GKC Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens CW15:255]
Three more, just for the delight of the thing:
An allegory nowadays means taking something that does not exist as a symbol of something that does exist. We believe, at least most of us do, that sin does exist. We believe (on highly insufficient grounds) that a dragon does not exist. So we make the unreal dragon an allegory of the real sin.
[GKC William Blake]

St. George knew very well what all real soldiers know; that the only way to be even approximately likely to kill a dragon is to give the dragon a heavy chance of killing you. And this method, which is the only one, is much too unpleasant to be talked about.
[GKC ILN May 12 1906 CW27:187]

When we dip into an old book, say of what some call the Dark Ages, what strikes us most is that the mystical part is rational, while the scientific part is mad. From Dante to the most dingy page of secondary scholasticism, it is the faith that seems to be sane and the facts that seem to have gone all crazy. Some quaint old scribe will often write something like this: "We know by divine revelation that love causeth all mothers to care for their young; but this appears to be contradicted by experience, for experience tells us that the dragon bites off the tails of all infant dragons at the fourth full moon." Or we may read: "It is of the nature of the mercy of God to provide grass to be the food of horses; but some have denied this, urging that the Three-Legged Horse of Tartary, that standeth on one leg in the attempt to eat the birds as they fly, is an object apparent to our senses." Now it is a complete error to suppose that the mediaevals thought lightly of the authority of the senses - and still more of an error to suppose that they thought lightly of the authority of the reason. Every mediaeval writer repeated to the point of monotony that the rights of the reason must be respected, and that it was among the rights of the reason to deal with such things of the senses. The only explanation is that they had fallen into the habit of accepting some of their facts at second-hand, and still thinking of them as facts even when they were fables. In other words, it must be conceded that mediaeval philosophy allowed itself to drift into one of the commonest errors of modern popular science. They said lightly enough, "We see the dragon," without stopping to specify who saw the dragon. All our popular science is based on the same principle.
[GKC ILN Apr 7 1923 CW33:77]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


(a prose meditation in the style of St. Francis for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross)

"Behold the Iron of the nails on which hung the Savior of the World."
[paraphrased from the Good Friday liturgy]

...if we were even to print the words without a capital G, as if it were the cult of some new and nameless tribe, many would realize the idea for the first time. Many would feel the thrill of a new fear and sympathy if we simply wrote "the story of a god who died for men." People would sit up suddenly and say what a beautiful and touching pagan religion that must be.
[GKC The Thing CW3:237]

...a religion really has survived out of ancient Roman times. But nobody notices it, because it is not secret but public; because it is not cruel but humane; and because in that antique Italian idolatry, it is not the priest but the god that died.
[GKC The Resurrection of Rome CW21:455]

O Iron, thou gift of God... how splendid you are!

So stable, so strong, with thy 26 protons, 30 neutrons, brewed up in the plasmic stew of distant stellar furnaces, the deepest point in the "stability valley" of the isotopes of the chemical elements.

And so useful to the cosmos, to our planet, to life both biological and supernatural.

Thou art the core upon which our earth rotates, from whose motion spans forth a huge magnetic field warding off the dangerous charged particles which spew continually from our sun...

Thou art the central atom caged within a porphyrin ring, like a virtuoso dancer among a troupe of carbons and nitrogens, one electronic hand held aloft to gently tug along a molecule of oxygen, even from the lungs to the furthest toes of man or mole or giraffe or whale...

Thou for Romans form the clavus, the spike, which signifies firmness (for ferrum is related to firmus firm ) and an attribute of Necessity; the nail driven every Ides of September (that was yesterday) into the wall of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus at Roma, thus marking the passage of time...

And once, as a Roman nail, thou didst hold more... thou, O Iron, became the firm core of creation itself, the carrier of a new life-breath, and henceforth marked the pivot of all human time which not even the threat of Y2K could abolish...

Three spikes of iron, upon which was suspended the price of the cosmos...

Crux fidelis, inter omnes
Arbor una nobilis,
Silva talem nulla profert
Fronde, flore, germine:
Dulce ferrum, dulce lignumm,
dulce pondus sustinent.

Faithful Cross! above all other,
One and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peers may be;
Sweetest Wood and sweetest Iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee.

[Venantius Fortunatus, Pange lingua gloriosi; tr. J. M. Neale; from The Hymns of he Breviary and Missal, by Matthew Britt, OSB]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Famous Date

"...a date that ought to be among the most famous in history - September 11, 1683..."
-- H. Belloc, The Great Heresies

"...part of what historians call 'the specious present' for Muslims."
-- in an essay by W. Cinfici in The Annotated Lepanto
It was a Tuesday in the fall of 2001, 08:01 by the big red master clock in the corner of the Control Room of Astron Cable and Technology Group, a small cable television company located in the city of North Belloc, Pennsylvania, about an hour west of Philadelphia. Joe Outis checked over the four big display screens which showed the status of the hundreds of computers in the Field - computers which played the commercials on some 40-odd cable TV networks. Normally scheduled for nights, Joe had the day shift today, having swapped with Al, who was home with his wife and new daughter. All the displays showed normal status - all the telltales were green, so things were running fine. The ever shifting eyes of CUSTOS the system guardian were placid. In a long row of equipment racks below the four big screens, 48 black-and-white monitors showed the various cable networks, a random flashing collage of entertainment and information. Nothing abnormal there. Joe nodded to Jeff, his supervisor, who was talking on the phone, then he went out to the lunchroom to get some coffee.

Joe nodded to co-workers he passed - some in the halls discussing current projects, some sitting in their cubicles talking to customers.
"Ain't seen you for a while, Joe - on days now?" someone asked.
"Just while Al's out this week," he explained. He got some donuts from the vending machine, helped himself to the coffee, and headed back to the Control Room.

Joe was looking over the displays again when Bill from Traffic came in pushing a cart loaded with dozens of video tapes. "Whole lot of spots today, Joe," he said.
"A little early in the week, aren't they?" Joe asked. Bill only shrugged and left the room without a word. Joe shrugged too, then pushed the cart over to an encoder, and began the boring task of converting the tapes into the electronic form for satellite distribution to all the remote locations where they were needed.
He had just put in the first tape when Jeff came over. "Hey, Joe - I have a meeting with my boss, so it'll just be you in here for a while. Everything looks fine right now, but 'Doc' said to let him know if PUMP goes down - he's back in the lab if you need him."
Joe nodded and Jeff left for his meeting. It sure was great to have someone around who took care of the machinery. Joe had talked to "Doc" several times, day or night - he was the developer of the company software, and PUMP was the main satellite transport program, so named because it was the "heart" of their system. Joe didn't even have to watch anything; the CUSTOS monitor had a special audio alert to warn him if something failed. He sat back and began the encoding.

Tape followed tape as Joe worked. Then a woman's voice stated: "Attention: Pump is not running." Joe got up and looked at the big screens - sure enough, the CUSTOS eyes were red, as was the little telltale for PUMP. He took a quick scan over the rest of the displays - everything else looked as it should - then grabbed the cell phone and headed back to the lab.

* * *

Joe went into the lab - it was kept colder than the Control Room because of all the racks of test equipment. The Doctor, in a white lab coat, stood by one of the racks, talking with Ian his boss - they were looking at a new piece of equipment, connected to a row of 16 tiny tv monitors.
"Hey, Joe," Ian said. "What's up?"
"Pump just went down, and Jeff said to let Doc know."
The Doctor nodded. "Thanks Joe - yeah, I had to fix something, and I expected this. Just hold on while I..." He turned to a keyboard and typed furiously.

"Hey, what's that?" Ian asked. "Looks like a plane just hit one of the world Trade Towers."
Joe peered intently at the little screen.
"Some kind of disaster flick? the Doctor commented, busy with the machinery.
"Nah - it's one of the news networks," Ian said, switching the machinery to bring that network to the lab monitor. He turned up the volume and an announcer was talking about the strange event which had just occurred.
"This is strange," Ian said. "How's that PUMP situation?"
"Just ready now," the Doctor said. "It's already corrected and running fine."
"C'mon Joe, Doc; let's get over to the Control Room," Ian said. "Something's going on.

* * *

The three went back into the Control Room. As he glanced at the 48 little monitors, Joe knew something was going on. The same strange shot - a glimpse of a plane, then smoke billowing - was appearing on several different networks.
"Put it up on the big screen," Ian ordered. Joe sat down at the main console and pressed buttons, then adjusted the volume. On the big screen the horrible view was even more intense and nearby - it was strange to think that they were only a couple of hours drive away from it.

Then the view changed - another plane had hit the other tower. The reporter said something about a third plane hitting the Pentagon, and there was some report of yet another plane crashing somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Joe shivered slightly, not just from the cold of the Control Room. He looked up at the Doctor, who had made the sign of the cross. He's Catholic, Joe thought to himself. He heard the main door click open, and Jeff came in, followed by several members of higher management. No one said anything - all eyes were intent on the strange view being shown on the big screen.

But duty calls, Joe thought to himself. On one of the desk computers, he flipped through the various monitoring displays. Everything seemed to be running normally, except that there hadn't been any cues for some time. Joe understood - when the networks go to live coverage, they do not send the "cue" signals to indicate a time when a commercial could be played - and the machinery was dutifully reporting this unusual state. There was nothing to be done - something historic was occurring, and lesser matters were of no importance. Looking over the 48 monitors, Joe was surprised to see even the music-video networks were showing live coverage from New York - he had never seen so many networks all showing the same thing.

From among the higher management came a whiney pompous voice - "What a terrible thing. I am surprised that such things occur."

The room was silent for a moment, then Joe heard the Doctor's voice. "As Chesterton once said, 'I am never surprised at any work of hell." [GKC, "The God of the Gongs" in The Wisdom of Father Brown]

But he did not stop there. "Ian, I'm going home. I'll be at church - if you need me, I have my cell. God bless us all, and protect us."

"Amen," Joe murmured.


The next day, Joe was in the Control Room when the Doctor wandered in and sat down at a computer. He seemed to be mumbling to himself, though Joe knew that was normal behavior. He started some program running and began typing.
"Let's see... barry of 13 gules and argent..."
"How's everything, Doc?"
"Fine, fine. Everything OK here?"
"Good," the doctor replied. "A canton azure..."
Joe shrugged. "Real strange not seeing any planes flying..."
"Sure is. Yesterday coming home from church I heard some Air Force jets scream over our city. OK, now, I need a mullet - ah, that's just a pentagon..." Joe shivered at the word, "... but visiting alternating vertices..."

Joe asked "What's going on, Doc?"
"Oh, nothing... just a little addition I thought of last night... You have a piece of scrap paper around?"
"Sure." Joe handed him a piece of paper and a pencil.
"Six by five, five by four..." the Doctor chanted. "How nice. That's why God made DO-loops... er, I mean FOR loops," he corrected himself, somewhat embarrassed. "I guess my age is showing," he chuckled.

Joe sat back, watching the code that seemed to pour out of the fat man's fingers. "How the heck do you know what you're typing? I can't even see the cursor."
"Oh, you get used to it. And anyway, this sort of thing practically writes itself..." he murmured. "They assign this in first-semester ... oh, I guess not. People don't have enough geometry any more. Or trig," he shrugged. "There. All done. Now let's try it."
He pressed a key, and the usual WATCHER screen appeared, which Joe knew was the main monitoring program which "watched" all the hundreds of field machines.

But the screen was different. Instead of a quippy Latin quote appearing in the upper right hand corner (Joe had the translations somewhere, he was always losing it) there was an American flag!

"Hey - the Latin isn't there!"

"Just for the next 10 seconds or so; the flag alternates with the Latin. I thought it was a good idea to have an American flag in here somewhere." The Doctor looked over at Joe with a certain meditative look in his eye.

Joe nodded. "Yeah. That's a really good idea. I'll put that one up on the big screen." He pressed buttons. In moments, the doctor had installed the revised program on all the other monitoring computers.

"It's not just flags, of course," the Doctor said, getting up. "There's work to be done."

Joe nodded. "Oh, yeah."

Yes, that's really how the flag got into WATCHER, which you can see in the above screen-shot.

Author's note: I posted this some years back on the old ACS site. It is no more than a fictionalized recounting of my own experience ten years ago. (Who did you think that Doctor who quotes Chesterton could be? Oh yes.

Copyright © 2007-2010 by Dr. Thursday.