Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Flat Life Theory

One of the most positive and potentially stabilizing ideas ever revealed to humanity is that life on earth continues after death in another realm. When this view is firmly held, it enlarges the sphere in which decisions here are made.

That’s a very compressed way of putting the case, but its importance, as a spatial analogy, is illustrated by the saying that he who believes the earth is flat will not attempt to circumnavigate it. If all values arise in the material realm and also end in it, why bother with “illusions” and the “airy-fairy.”

The idea needs fleshing out. It must also hold that this is a fallen world and not humanity’s ultimate aim. And that how we think and act has consequences beyond the grave. That the world is fallen—meaning the human part of it—is but a matter of observation. “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

That this world is unlikely ever to be optimized is well illustrated by, perhaps surprisingly, the stupendous progress achieved since, roughly, the Renaissance. It has produced the means to provide for a vastly swollen population—yet has failed to institute the earthly paradise. We need but read the papers. So where is the problem? We’ve learned again from Copernicus et al (again—for Hellenism was well aware of this) that the earth’s a sphere. But we have simultaneously flattened life, by making it a purely material phenomenon, whereas once, back in the dark ages, it pierced the skies and reached all the way to heaven.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I Am Behind Because I Am Ahead

Occasionally we hear people say that an institution is behind or ahead of the times (see last two posts). The word “times” here signals either culture or a functional vector; when this concept (if not the phrase) is applied to children, they’re either retarded or precocious; when to a business it is “behind” when it stops growing or fails to go public and then, in turn, fails to engage in diversification or acquisitions.

This dynamic vector has no terminus. I’m evolving, I’m evolving—and forever more. Progress is always to the better, evolution to the higher. Regression and devolution therefore are negatively flavored words. And arrival’s always mythical: the classless society or the end of times rapture. The imagination just refuses the infinite progress as well. Time must have a stop.

Deep engagement with “the times” is listening to one hand clapping. Reality is better pictured as the cycle of the seasons. Autumn is summer’s devolution and the progress toward winter time. And someone behind the times in Winter, dreaming of warmth and colored flowers, may be ahead of time because Spring is just around the corner.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini

I mentioned a cardinal in the last post who said, in an interview published immediately after his death, that the Church is “200 years out of date” (link). He said further: “Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up. The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation.” This gentleman, a Jesuit, was Archbishop of Milan (1979-2002) before his appointment as a cardinal—and was viewed as a quite liberal spokesman within the Church. He was born in 1927 and died in 2012.

I came across this statement by looking back to see what happened Out There a year ago September—not then fully aware that today’s theme would be “the times.” I found it fascinating that the Cardinal’s view is, in a way, a match for his liberal tendencies, which are progressive. Not surprisingly, therefore, the headline in The Independent, which I reference above, speaks of a “damning critique” and how it has “rocked the Catholic Church.” Grist for the media mills. Martini contrasts two cultures, one within and one outside the Church. The transformation he advocated, to be sure, was already underway under Benedict XVI (in my opinion); Benedict strove to renew the inner spirit of Catholicism—which is not the sort of thing the media notice. Then came Francis who is much more ebulliently extroverted… In both approaches there is, curiously, an element that does not quite resonate with the secular notion of progress.

On that subject yet a third posting today, the one that follows this one.

The Flavor of the Times

I recall quite well how Autumn felt last year; the patterns are always the same: a little warmer, a little colder, more rain or less, that sort of thing. This morning, taking a survey of the news, I tried to recall what it was like, Out There, a year ago. I could remember nothing. Wikipedia, however, keeps track of such things, and the flavor or last September rapidly returns.

A year ago—and yes, I’d quite forgotten—a YouTube thing called Innocence of Muslims, interpreted as insulting to Mohammed—caused, or was thought to have caused, terrorist attacks against the Western Infidel. For a while, until the handy tag become hopelessly useless, the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, very big news, was explained by that YouTube. Rapidly the story was transformed into an attack on the Obama administration. Remember? And yes. There were two horrid fires at two garment factories in Karachi and Lahore. Tensions between China and Japan peaked over some obscure islands. One cardinal, in a posthumously published letter described the Catholic Church as 200 years behind the times. (How something can be ahead or behind the times is worth a posting on its own; make a note.)

To the fore in my mind this September is the replay of End of the World, read Fiscal Cliff, the bombing (not) of Syria, and the Pope suggesting that the Catholic Church is welcoming and its leaders should stop obsessing about little things. Aljazeera America began its broadcasts; its coverage pleases us. Yesterday we learned, for instance, that China is the only country where more women than men commit suicide—and at least one possible explanation is China’s long-maintained one-child policy (which is now rapidly eroding). Angela Merkel triumphs in Germany, and hand-wringing here because she means “austerity.” We like Angela. A kind of mild thaw—of which the Syrian initiative, read Putin’s, is one element, Iran’s changed foreign policy being another—ought to be marked here because, a year from now, it may well be forgotten again. What would we do without a Global Symbolic Enemy, shades of 1984. In politics the new mantra (may it be completely forgotten in September 2014) is that We must all bear our own Cruz.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Marking Fall Again

It has become a wholesome habit to post this time of year a picture that reflects the still-bright colors of the Fall. For a while we had some pumpkins growing from our compost heap (link). Three years ago today we featured our barrel overflowing with Coleus (link); in year 11 we celebrated two vast tomato plants (link), last year the brightness came from a sweet potato vine (link). Well, the Coleus Barrel is full once again, but not quite so dramatically. And our tomato plants—we have twice as many as ever before—have concentrated on productivity rather than dramatic growth. Hence we return, for color, to the Geraniums that front the entrance to our back yard. These geraniums are many years old. Late each autumn Brigitte cuts them back, leaving stalks about four- to five-inches in place, and each season they return with vigor.

Yes, some Coleus is present here as well; if we had planted those in the barrel—behind me as I took this picture—that barrel would be more full. And this year our tomatoes have been moved to a sunnier spot, in the back and the right.

In a way, judging by the glorious weather we have today, with the skies a cerulean blue, this is one of the finest times of the year. Indian summer, as officially defined, anyway, is still ahead. That requires a significant heat wave preceded by a killing frost. Cerulean, incidentally, is Brigitte’s current word of the season. Wikipedia denies that it is sky blue but opines that the word derives from the Latin caelulum, a diminutive of caelum which is Latin for sky or heaven. A heavenly season, anyway.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Was He an Only Foal?

“What’s the name of the sister of Pegasus?”
“Why, that’s a no-brainer. Pegasis, of course.”

The Dark, the Light

Some dreary element in modern life,
Its endless noise and ever-pointless strife,
Inclines me every autumn to observe
With something not unlike pious reserve
The movement of the sun, that best of clocks,
Its needle now on the Fall Equinox.

Harsens Island

An excursion took us out to Harsens Island yesterday, a place of ample space and splendid isolation at the north-eastern tip of Lake Saint Clair. We go there now and then at intervals of a year or two or three, sometimes when visitors from Europe stay with us. It has a sort of muted magic. Beneath its vast sky, at its southernmost tip, its Finisterre, vast Lake Saint Clair stretches endlessly on and very faintly, in the very far distance, rise the rusting towers of once great Detroit.

Harsens, together with Dickinson island to its immediate west and Walpole Island, in Canada, to its immediate east form the delta of the St. Clair River as it enters the lake, passes through it marking the border between the United States and Canada, and eventually enters Lake Erie. (Another post on Lake Saint Clair is here.) One of the activities Harsens island offers is freighter-watching at close range. The St. Clair river, believe it or not, carries more traffic, I am told, than the Suez and Panama canals combined! True. Almost anywhere from the shore of Lake Saint Clair, one can see that traffic flowing, this way, that way. At Harsens island one feels as if an out-stretched hand can touch those slowly moving vessels. But somehow, what with wars fought to keep them open, Suez and Panama seem a lot busier. Well, they are not.

This time we went to Harsens for what seems a trivial formal purpose: to buy a coffee mug. A close friend of ours, Bruno Crabbe, a musician from Belgium, bought me such a mug there. Ever since I’ve drunk my coffee from it. It’s right here next my keyboard as I type. They’d had a quite large collection of these mugs there some years ago, and we thought that we would add one or two to our collection. Alas. The store, Country Scene, had only three mugs left, each one the same. The store looked thinned out, sparsely stocked. The economy’s slump has damaged Harsens like every other place else. We found thin pickings but, by contrast, a very friendly spirit everywhere.

A Dutchman, Jacob Harsen bought the island from an Indian tribe in 1779. The tribe’s identity is shrouded in mist. The community formed there early was known as Sans Souci—but while that name survives to mark various stores, schools, a museum, and other  facilities, the settlement itself is part of the township of Clay, centered on the mainland. When police must urgently visit Harsens Island, they too must wait for the ferry to take them across the channel—like all visitors. The island is ringed discontinuously with homes at its shores. The central portions are wetlands. The chief activity of the island has always been tourism, mostly. Back in the days of steam a destination spot for sightseers from Detroit. Fishing. Birding. Nature watching—and of late, kite surfing. As we reached Land’s End late in the afternoon, three young men were valiantly trying to kite-surf in the shallow waters to the immediate west and south of where we’d parked to mark the last day of summer. The wind, alas, would not cooperate. Good-bye Harsens—until the next time.

Friday, September 20, 2013

So-So Stats on Tea Party

Back before the Chicago Mercantile Exchange discontinued futures trading in pork bellies in 2011, one could get reliable statistics on the number of such cuts of pork likely to be consumed in the United States. The GDP still counts. And data on total employment are still collected. Stats on politics, however, are difficult to get. Neither the Bureau of the Census nor the Bureau of Labor Statics collects them. An ordinary member of the public can’t get such data—unless he forks over some serious dollars. So how big, exactly, is the minority that supports the Tea Party?

I bring up this subject because it’s—re-run time. End of the World is being rerun by our infotainment media in two episodes. The first is called “Government Shutdown,” the second  “Fiscal Cliff.” Pretty much the same characters are playing the same parts as last time.

Let’s see if we can dress the Tea Party in some so-so numbers. EofW comes to us sponsored by the House of Representatives. That body had some 433 voting members as of August 2, 2013. Two seats were vacant then. Of those seats the GOP held 233, Democrats 200. The GOP count included 48 representatives who were also members of the Tea Party Caucus. In effect it is Tea Party members who really give the GOP its House Majority—and then some. Let’s now extend these facts to the electorate as a whole.

In the 2012 elections, 118 million people cast votes. Let’s assume that each voter voted for
every federal office—thus that 118 people all voted for congressional representatives. The 48 Tea Party representatives are 11 percent of the seats in the House now. This means that 13 million votes are bringing us the current entertainment. A lot of spoil-sports are trying to tell us the end of each episode before it actually arrives—but CNN, Fox, and MSNBC are doing their best to keep the suspense going right up to the edge of that cliff.

A happy end, indeed, may be in the offing. But Brigitte and I, experts at watching splendid series that are much, much better written than End of the World (e.g. The X-Files), know how the producers ensure a continuation of the series. Each season must end with things a little bit resolved but still up in the air. Therefore the Fiscal Cliff, if avoided, will only be avoided for about a year. Meanwhile preparations for the 2014 season will have begun as we start thinking about Christmas.

Wikipedia provides a handy map showing the congressional districts held by Tea Party members in the 113th Congress (link). Interesting picture. It reminds me of an apple we recently cut open.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Materialization of Thought

The stray thought struck me the other day that language may be a kind of materialization of thought—a happy circumstance allowing us to communicate in this world of boxes. Words are sounds or their symbolic representations. Depending on the language in question, the words lo, Pferd, equus, and cheval all mean the same thing in English, horse. The entity so designated is the same no matter where observed; we may quarrel over what we’re seeing, a phenomenon or noumenon (the kind of questions, evidently, Russians can get into fights about (link)), but what is certain is that what we call it is quite arbitrary—if many people all agree. At the same time, quite obviously, when we finally call it by some name, it seems to take on a special quality missing, somehow, until that name’s affixed—hence, presumably, Helen Keller’s earth-shaking discovery that a particular hand-gesture and the experience of water were one and the same thing. With a little help from the Creator, who presented the world’s animals to Adam, this process of naming began, “and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19).

But why do I call this the “materialization of thought”? I do so because we can’t communicate without a material medium—sound, gesture, or writing. The inner perception, say of a horse, is present in the mind—say in a dream. But we cannot convey that image, as we perceive it, to anybody else without the use of language. As children we are taught each name—and acquiring each word is an act of socialization. Since words merely represent, as a sound, something they are not, we manage to compress one kind of reality, however complex, into another, which is a realm of sounds. To speak of abstraction here is actually false—since abstraction comes from the Latin for “drawn away.” Rather the opposite happens: words are “stamped upon” something real out there. We engage in an abbreviating substitution of sounds for often massively complicated relationships. Thus five words will do it if I want to ask for “equal justice under the law,” but unpacking those sounds into a living reality might be almost impossible without days of demonstrations on the scale of the Passion Play at Oberammergau.

The great convenience of words—for creatures who, in another and more perfect realm, may well communicate just thought-to-thought but here are boxed into bodies—also has its problems—for the very reason that words are arbitrary and the meanings we attach to them always vary and change over time. Therefore misunderstandings are inevitable—and people talk right past each other all the time. The material nature of meaning-sounds, however, also gives us the delights of poetry—where we can play with sounds in efforts to produce exalted or funny meanings just by the art rubbing of this word against that one.

A last note. I refer, earlier to the “world of boxes.” The phrase comes from Carl G. Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. There Jung recalls a near-death experience of his; it came in the aftermath of a heart attack. After some quite stupendously elevated experiences, he found himself back again. “Now I must return to ‘the box system’ again,” he thought. “For it seemed to me as if, behind the horizon of the cosmos, a three-dimensional world had been artificially built up, in which each person sat by himself in a little box.” Thank the Lord we’ve found a way to penetrate that cardboard and thus can talk to one another.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Battling Rhizomes and Stolons

Our backyard lawn is very modern, meaning that it’s multicultural—so that grass is present in it but if it is in the majority, it’s definitely a silent majority. Much more prominent, especially this time of the year, is wild ginger, also known as Canadian Wild Ginger. Its learned name is Asarum canadense. It features large, kidney-shaped leaves arising from rhizomes, of which more as I meander on. Present also in abundance is white clover. Clover leaves are uniformly green, of course, although different species have red, purple, and yellow flowers as well. Ours is Trifolium repens. It features stems that function as branches (stolons in technical language). They move in horizontal directions about 7 inches out a year, so that a single plant will, in a while, make a veritable matting with multiple communities all spread out.

The upshot here is that if you, the gardener, wish to give the silent majority a much louder voice, you must do battle with rhizomes and stolons, which action becomes quite impossible unless you embrace chemical warfare—which is forbidden when applied to people but de rigeur when it is called for to ethnically cleanse a lawn.

Now a rhizome is not, strictly speaking, a root—although its name, modified from the Greek rhizoma, does mean “mass of roots.” The rhizome is a buried stem, quite massive in extent (see photo). The picture also shows that the roots of wild ginger grow from the rhizome itself. Plucking off the ginger leaves does very little good—and going after each rhizome, which is laborious, does not necessarily work. Chances are you’ll break it off and leave a node or two still in the ground—with the consequence that the leaves will be back in about two weeks or so, faster if rain falls.

Now much the same may be said of clover, which will come up quite easily, roots and all—but by no means all the roots. Tendrils extend and tear off, and what’s left over will grow more clover.

Tell you the truth, I rather like them both, these illegal immigrants. They keep the lawn green—especially if you sort of screw up your eyes a little as you survey the surface and ignore the presence of somewhat clashing colors of green. And hereabouts we eschew the chemicals. Nice word that, eschew. I must, soon, descry its origins.

Lating September

The day is still; the sun will shine
Full glorious after its rise.
Where sun-rays reach I see the sky
Blue enough but slightly hesitant.
“Should I gray over gradually
By making common cause with that
Thin mist? Or should I wash my face
And comb my hair and reach for the
Deep blue?”
                   That season is but days
Away when squirrels, who ignore
The calendar, at this still early
Hour are avidly collecting
Nest-making debris and nuts,
And below tight-clustered tomato
Plants, seek spots easy to dig
In pots to store their treasuries.

But where I wonder are the birds?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Just last Sunday a picture in the New York Times caught my eye. It showed a group of middle-aged folk standing out of doors. In the forefront was a large placard saying GUNS SAVE LIVES. What struck me was the piety of the people, their hands over the hearts. No doubt they were listening to the National Anthem—and the fact that they looked very much like the American citizenry might, on average. The picture is accessible here.

The picture came back powerfully when the Washington Navy Yard shooting spree began to dominate the news yesterday morning. It reminded me to what an extent the concept of an informed citizenry is something of a chimera. Information is simply not enough. The receiving mind must transform it into rational thought, comprehensive understanding.

We’re sure, eventually, to hear the argument that the dead in Washington could have been saved if only an alert civil servant working there had been carrying a gun and, observing the maddened killer, would have dispatched him before he had managed to get off his first shot. What erodes democracy, ultimately, is that public opinion—rather than responsible thought—influences people. They have a menu of opinion served up by the media. They can choose their flavor without thought based merely on feelings.

Only in Russia

I simply must note here an event reported in the New York Times this morning. Two men stood in line somewhere in southern Russia waiting to buy a beer at an outdoor festival. They were discussing the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. (Of course, one might add.) The argument grew heated. One man pulled a gun loaded with rubber bullets and shot the other in the head. The man attacked survived—fortunately. The very brief NYT story ends with this deadpan sentence: “Among educated Russians, classical literature and philosophy are sometimes debated in casual social settings, the way sports often are in Western countries.” Based on my own experiences, Russians need not be all that “educated” to fall into such discussions. Mother’s milk and so on.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Canada, Show Us the Way

Two news accounts in recent days—on the surface entirely unrelated—have given me an insight into things. The first of these concerns changes in the definition of drunkenness in British Columbia; the other is continuing public resistance to Obama Care in the United States.

The new British Columbia law, passed in 2010, redefined the definition of driving under the influence of alcohol. To be in that state meant having a blood-alcohol level is .05 rather than .08 percent, the definition of drunken driving. Police testing people may impound the car of the person who fails the new, lower test limit for a three-day period; and the license is revoked. In my opinion, it is this last provision of the new law—not the percentage change—that has had a dramatic consequence: a 55 percent reduction in alcohol-related fatalities in two years.

This result also reminded us of our visit to East Germany—back when it was separate communist country. The law there promised draconian punishment for driving under the influence—and so wide-spread was this knowledge that the “driver,” on any one occasion, never even dreamt of touching even a glass of wine.

Simple laws with direct, immediate, and entirely predictable consequences still work just fine. And that explains to me why Obama Care is problematical—at least in the eyes of many, many people who answer polling questions. On the new Aljazeera’s news program the Business section is presented by one Ali Velshi. In one of his promotionals he shows us the 800 pages of the Affordable Care Act, promising to make sense of it for us. Thus far the segments doing that explanation have left us as confused as ever.

Alas. An existing health law is better than none, I suppose. But good law it is not. If Obama Care simply expanded Medicare to the entire population—so that people could ask their elders what they thought about it—Obama Care would be a very simple shoo-in. Not so 800 pages and a jungle-like complexity in which too many cooks are needed who merely spoil the broth.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Music in the Spheres

Let me mark here, even if a few days late, the official recognition that NASA’s Voyager 1, launched September 5, 1977, has finally passed through the walls of the solar bubble. This bubble, also known as the heliosphere, is the solar wind moving from the sun and filling space with charged particles. It weakens or falls off in what is called the Stagnation Region beginning at around 113 astronomical units out from the sun; each AU is about 150 billion miles. Well, Voyager had reached well beyond that point, touching actual interstellar space, 122 AU out, on August 25, 2012 already—but what with uncertainties still to be resolved, it took NASA another year to be sure of this—hence its firm announcement on September 12 of this year that we’ve finally reached interstellar space with out little machine. Herewith a brief NASA film summarizing the essentials:

The program, consisting of Voyager 1 and 2, cost $865 million. That sum represents less than four days of expenditures on the Afghanistani conflict; therefore you might call it a pittance. The mission, however, has lasted for 36 years. It illustrates, in a way, the theme of the poem I put up today. Voyager’s design, launch, and operation—and the analysis of the great emptiness, throbbing although it is with ionized vibrations—involves people whose minds are filled with matter very far removed from those engaged in our global conflicts.

Noted, here and there, is the fact that Voyager 1 carries to the empty outer reaches the recorded music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Stravinsky. We can relax a little considering that, if there is intelligent life out there, and it chances upon Voyager 1—and it has invented the appropriate instrument—it will finally be able to learn how to play the well-tempered clavier.

A Taxonomy of Mind

The difference between the horse and oak
Between an evergreen, bacterium, or bird,
Between an ape and the tomato plant
Or spiders and the nesting cardinals
May be discovered to be as great as
That we find between whole groups of human
Individuals if we engage in
A taxonomy of minds, observing now
This person’s vast web of thoughts, and then
Another’s mind unfold, each a primordial
Jungle of symbolic references—
Some clusters thickly habitual others
Marginally thin but still linked in—and
We can then classify these webs and clouds
Into domains and kingdoms, phyla, class,
Orders, family, genus, species and the like
Until we have at least as vast a realm
As nature holds of living things that cannot talk.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Resonance of Rocinante

A discussion now going back a week or so—about stunning musical experiences—brought back several memories. Of these one had been listening, for the first time, to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem. At first Brigitte could not produce the piece or its composer, but she managed to sing, without words, what later turned out to be “Pie Jesu.” I recalled the occasion but nothing more, not a clue; but when I heard the melody that she was humming, I joined right in. Brigitte then said: “It has to do with the end, with death, something in the church.” She made agitated motions common when her memory is working hard but simply not fast enough. It worked a little faster in me. “Requiem,” I said—and Brigitte lit up.

In any case, we got to talking, afterwards, about the magic of music, of resonance, and how it worked and why—and what it might signify. As usually happens, Brigitte assigned me the task of researching resonance, and I agreed.

Well, it turns out to be rather a formidable subject—having everything to do with the wave-forms of which, seemingly, everything is ultimately made. We do not ever see it although, in the form of sound-vibrations, we actually hear it. When it is rendered visible it is just curves on paper, waves upon waves, oddly deforming others while not touching those out of synchrony. An impossible subject—for a brief blog entry anyway. I gave up the effort yesterday.

This morning, oddly, I woke up with the word Rocinante on my mind. Sounded oddly reminiscent of resonance, but I knew nothing else until I looked. Ahh! Insight at last. Rocinante was Don Quixote’s old nag of a horse. Wikipedia explained to me that the name itself is a pun. Ante means before and roci means a nag. Rocinante, therefore, was “just a nag before”—but now, alas, having undergone the heroic adventures as Don Quixote’s companion and mount, it had achieved the status of a Noble Steed.

Now in some ways this has a meaningful resonance for me, old hack that I’ve become—unsteady enough to avoid a massive subject like resonance. But though my feet sometimes stumble and my head sinks as I amble unsteadily on, I know that my adventures in these realms below vaguely promise greater glories up above. Yes. Resonance extends from physics on up to symphonies and the resonance of literature—but yet also higher still to the invisible reaches of the cosmos. Now where did I put my tuning fork?

Infra-Data on our Climate

Our furnace came on overnight what with the temperature having declined to 40° F. Last year we reached this marker a little later, September 19; the temperature then had been 45.9. Last year with here-a-day, there-a-day of silent furnace, the 19th signaled the beginning of the heating season. And we keep our house quite cool.

As I’ve already noted, thus far the summer has been unusually cool—much as our previous winter had been unusually mild. Here is hope that the same compensations will operate in the future as well.

The meta-data are one thing, what happens locally is what we live. In the big picture vast floods, fires—and who knows where the locust is. Here, by some magic of the Jet Stream, which makes two odd wiggles northward as it describes a very shallow trough over the northern U.S.A., thus frequently passing north of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, therefore having made our summers there hellishly humid, and then also at Detroit, with the same result, has been shielding us, this year and last, from the worst extremes of what seems to be the return of the Dust Bowl again—and corresponding excess of water elsewhere.

I try to keep good infra-data; I mark the furnace leaving hibernation and our plants coming indoors in the fall (Mid-October, recently) and going out in Spring (Mid-May). The furnace has come on, the plants have come in earlier each year. But so far I only have two years of data. With such rich information, and $3.75 in cash, I can buy myself a Starbucks Frappucino Grande Mocha/Mocha Light.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Strength of Spider Silk

Four domesticated silk moths.
The weekend when we saw the last episode of Silk air on Public TV coincided with a riot of cobwebs in our back yard. The silk of the show refers to the fabric worn by Queen’s Counsels (barristers) in Britain; it comes from silk-moth larvae. The moths are quite lovely—and butterflies are another of our perennial outdoor topics. The same silk is also made by our spiders. These coincidences reminded Brigitte of an attempt, announced some years ago already, of inserting silk-producing genes into…let’s see…was it sheep? was it goats?—the harvesting of which, somehow, would give us access to this magic fiber in a form more easily processed? That opened the topic on the supposedly astounding the strength of spider silk—and produced a note to look it up.

We remembered correctly. Spider silk, the strands of which are exceedingly thin, around one to four one-thousandth of a millimeter, approach the tensile strength of steel, measured in Giga-Pascals; silk is 1.3 and steel is 1.65 GPa. Silk, however, is less dense; it is more ductile, meaning stretchable. It is also, and for this reason, much tougher—so that a strand of silk is three times stronger than a strand of steel of the same thickness. Two engineers, in fact (Ed Nieuwenhuys, Leo de Cooman), have even calcuculated, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, how thick the strands of a cobweb would have to be to capture of Boeing-747 in full flight (link): the thickness of a pencil.

Tensile strength is resistance to pulling; ultimate tensile strength is pulling to a break—the measurement used in the paragraph above. A Pascal is a measure of force on a defined area, thus a square meter. It is the same measure as pounds per square inch. 1000 Pa equal 0.145037738 psi.

Wikipedia’s article on Spider Silk ends with a listing of projects, some quite successful but none as yet commercialized, that produce spider silk by genetic engineering. The project we were vaguely remembering is the work of Nexia, a Canadian company, which put spider genes in goats. The silk appears in the goats’ milk.

What must surely be the latest news on this subject—dated Septerber 11, 2013—is shown here. It tells of work at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Tallahassee, Florida, where a team headed by Eden Steven coated spider silk with nanotubes of carbon; they are superstrong and also conduct electricity.

Where will it all end?
My images are from Wikipedia here and here. An earlier post on silk production appears here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


As an add-on to or completion of the last post on phrases used to say goodbye, I might as well note here initial greetings when people meet again. If a farewell hold within itself a kind of pain, caused by the demands of time—and therefore time is emphasized in the words themselves—such is not the case when rividerci becomes vederci.

Now it turns out that time tends to play as much of a role in greetings as in goodbyes, but in a different way. The most common form of that is to note the time of day when the greeting takes place—and then to preface that time with the word “good.” Good morning, Good day, Good evening. When we say Good night, however, we’re actually saying goodbye. The good is added because it is pleasing to meet, painful to part. But in many parts of the world an old tradition still rules, based on status.

When I was growing up in Hungary, thus the late 1930s and early 1940s—and later, in Bavaria, as I continued gaining height, the most common form of our Hello was Servus. It amused me, therefore, the other day, when I was doing my due diligence in preparing these blog entries, that the Italian Ciao derives from the same root. The root is Servus in all cases, but in Italy it comes from an Old Venetian form of the Mediaeval Latin sclavus, rendered as s-ciavón, later s-ciavo or s-ciao, and last with the S completely abraded, ciao. Even in greetings, time plays the role as the Relentless Eroder.

Hello itself rather baffles etymologists. It is dated back to at least the 1400s; attempts to trace it suggest that, as Holla!, it meant to stop, to cease. Another attempt is to assign it to halo or holo, the imperative of the Old German verb halon or holon, to fetch, thus calling the ferryman. It does not surprise me, therefore, that its latest eroded form is Hey! Hello, after all, requires two syllables—which is one too many for people on the go.

I am, dear reader, your faithful servant—another, more formal way of saying Servus—which, like Ciao, serves equally well as a greeting or as a goodbye.

So Long

There is something basic in human beings that is at war with time. I got my introduction to this concept ages ago now reading a novel by Aldous Huxley, Time Must Have a Stop (1944). That title comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 4:

Hotspur (Henry Percy).
O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than sword my flesh:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for—

Henry V.
For worm, dear Percy…

A year after writing his novel, Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy. In that book he treats of this subject at much greater length in Chapter XII, Time and Eternity. Here he quotes a panoply of spiritual writers, among the Rumi, St. John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart. The Eckhart quote follows:

Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time. And not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but termporal affections; not only temporal affections but the very taint and smell of time.

Well and good, one might say. Well and good for poets of high rank , for mystics. But does this feeling permeate all of humanity as well? Does it also touch that “temporal affections” that Eckhart views as yet another barrier born of time? I would assert that it does—and the easiest way to prove that is to look at the words we use to say good-bye.

Time plays a significant role in most of the phrases used. Hasta la vista. That may be translated, with generous unpacking, as [May the] view [of you] rapidly return. The German Auf Wiedersehn also evokes seeing, which is here and now, in the present, and time by reference to “again.” Until [we] see [one another] again. A rividerci, of course, says the same thing; the Italian phrase has us re-seeing. The Hungarian Viszontlátás is identical to both of these; látás is vision, viszont is again. The Japanese Sayonara has much the same basic meaning, but the structure is expressed with more subtlety. The word comes from sayo, meaning “thus” followed by nara, meaning “if it be, indeed”: [We shall be] thus, [together,] if it [is to] be, indeed. Along with such English phrases as See you soon and ‘Til later, we are dealing here with what might be called secular expressions of the inner wish that it might be well if time would cease when we desire to be with those we care for.

A more religious or transcending phrasing has reference to God. The French Adieu preserves this meaning most directly. It might be fleshed out as [I hand you over] to God [while time separates us]. But the same idea is also present in Goodbye, although it is much more compressed. It is a compression of God be with ye. And then there is that most compressed and totally casual German “bye,” Tschüss. When spoken it sounds almost like an imitation of a brief sneeze. So where does that Tschüss come from? It entered the German language from Walloon, the romance language of a part of Belgium. The word there is adjüs—the Walloon way of pronouncing adieu. Virtually no German-speaker knows the root of Tschüss.

When we are at last with God, we’ll always be together. So long.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Diagnosing Silk

Those in their fifties today were in their teens in 1975 when Rumpole of the Bailey first aired on television. Its creator was Sir John Mortimer, a genuine British barrister, played by Leo McKern. The series eventually featured 44 episodes the last of which appeared in 1992. The show has, at minimum, produced a phrase destined never to die. “She who must be obeyed” was Horace Rumpole’s muttered reference to his wife, Hilda, played by Peggy Thorpe-Bates.  Both actors have since passed away. For Brigitte and for me, the series also presented what we viewed as a realistic insight into the workings of the British legal system as viewed from the perspective of a senior barrister and a lawfirm, called chambers, of which he is a member.

In the United States series based on lawfirms have been quite numerous. The American Bar Association cites 25  such shows, labeling them Best; of these 24 were made here—and that list does not even include The Good Wife. In Britain the second such series, in structure entirely echoing Rumpole, is Silk. It just aired its third and last episode of Season 1 on Public TV last night. It has all the necessaries: Barristers, solicitors, criminals, victims, police, odd judges, wigs, chambers, drinking in dark crowded bars by night, conniving chamber clerks, etc., except that, in Silk—is that a sign of leveling?—there is no evident Head of Chambers, that role filled, and perhaps by default, by the Chief Clerk.

This is a rather long, but alas necessary, introduction to my actual subject. It is that Silk appears to have been born with a disease—but one which afflicts all too many new television series, be they fiction or documentary. Don’t get me wrong. Silk is in many ways quite excellent and benefits much from its lead character, Martha Costello, played by Maxine Peake, a relative newcomer. Martha Costello has values. I thought I would try to diagnose this disease.

The show suffers from what I call flicker, by which I mean a chopped-up character where video images, certainly in action sequences, last much less than one second each. In scenes with many people, thus out- and inside courts, continuous motion, also continuously interrupted, adds to one’s sense of trembling or tremor. Based on this feature—the object of which, presumably, is to induce excitement in the viewer—makes me weight Parkinson’s disease as perhaps the appropriate diagnosis. But there is also a lot of noise. The noise is present over, above, and beneath the dialogue; and all through this noise, except in the most tense exchanges, there is a constant musical sound as well. This audio-based distraction reminds me, deeply schooled as I am in diseases, of Synesthesia, in which sounds and smells and even symbols, like writing, turn into colors and, possibly, colors turn into sounds. One interesting feature of Synesthesia, however, is that many people who are said to suffer from the syndrome deny suffering at all—and treat it as an added source of stimulation and of meaning.

Now, of course, it’s well to remember that TV shows are not people. They are social constructs. To apply human diseases to them too directly may be inappropriate, except by analogy. And one analogy might be to fuse, as it were, Parkinson’s with Synesthesia into a single syndrome—and then search for a broader cause of it in the social world. Then a proper diagnosis finally comes into focus, sort of, flickering and music-making all the while. Call it Advertisingitis.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Recalling Stephen Jay Gould

Few among my own almost literal contemporaries have had as much influence on my thinking as Stephen Jay Gould, the paleontologist. I’ve noted that before on this blog (here) when discussing his The Mismeasure of Man (1981). The subject of that book is aberrant uses of science—a subject that popped up the other day in one of our morning discussions. I found the book again. It came as one of two in a boxed set. The other was The Panda’s Thumb—probably the best known of Gould’s books written for the general public. I began reading the book again after many years—and discovered that some writings retain their originality, freshness, and still bring new delight.

In the current context, for the first time, I did in about a minute what in the good-old-days might have required a trip to the library. I looked up Stephen Gould’s biography. And it stunned me to realize that he was born some five years after I was (1941) and died at 60 (in 2002). Had I been asked before this lookup, I would have imagined him my elder, my father’s age perhaps—so singular are his accomplishments. Speaking of libraries, the Library of Congress established, as part of the bicentennial celebrations of 2000, an award called Living Legends. Gould received this award in April of 2000; two years and a month later he had passed on, a victim of cancer. The Library was just in time.

The Panda’s Thumb, published in 1980, is a selection of some thirty-one essay, of a total of 300, Gould wrote for the magazine Natural History. Oddly now, in time’s distorting mirror, reading it one cannot help but think that it reads like a strongly-themed biology blog. A kind of aura of unity rises above it rainbow-like, with each essay drawing its light from that aura and in turn contributing to it.

Gould’s chief scientific contribution to evolutionary thought, developed with Niles Eldredge (1943-), is the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Let me hazard to put the essence of this theory into a sentence. It proposes that evolutionary change is rare but, when it happens, very rapid. Evolution happens every now and then, therefore rarely in geological time; but when it happens it does so with a Bang—not with a continuous whimper. The orthodox theory is gradualism.

Gould, of course, belongs to the originals—who are rarely celebrated by the always fossilized orthodoxy of their times. The best proof that Gould had something real to say is to note that Richard Dawkins (he of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, among others) dismisses Gould’s theory as a “minor gloss” on evolutionary thought.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Some Radiations of Alienation

It occurred to me, the other day, that “alienation” may be viewed as a two-sided coin. A spatial element was present in this thought, as follows. For the moment I saw the word defined as “a turning away from something.” But if it is a turning away, the person engaging in this act is also causing him- or herself to turn toward something else. And if the stress is then laid on the new view, the person is no longer alienated. Suppose, however, that this movement from something to something else is arrested at mid-point. Then we get social alienation—estrangement without a new attachment, feeling strange in a strange land. Not good.

Interesting word—and one firmly anchored, originally, in the ownership of property or, rather, the giving it up. Both “land” as property and “strange” as in “not mine” play a role in its etymology. Webster’s first definition of the word is “conveyance of property to another,” therefore, simply, “a sale.” The root here is the Latin alienare, to make something another’s. Behind that lurks the Latin alius, meaning “other,” thus literally translated the sale is a kind of “othering.” Strikes me that the negative connotations of that sale have lingered on in the linguistics of it—as in “I want to keep the money and the land as well. Too bad that I cannot.”

The human tendency of ferociously keeping a grip on something even after we’ve alienated it for a payment applies as much to intangible properties as to tangible real estate. Two examples of such ownership are affections and sanity. Alienation of affections means transferring them from one to another object; the loss, however, is not that of the person who moves his affections to another—but the person from whom he takes them. The phrase is alive and well in law. As for sanity—it may be lost or severely disturbed. The alienist, in that case, is the person to consult for a cure. The word is still alive in the dictionaries, but I’ve never heard anyone saying that he or she was seeing an alienist.

It may be that—although my trusted source on etymology, Online Etymology Dictionary, does not confirm this—the real root, perhaps further back than we can see, derives the word from the Latin ligamen, meaning a “bond, link, or tie.” That’s where the word lien, comes from by way of Old French. It means “the right to hold the property of another until the debt is paid.” Here lien is a link and, presumably, alien is a non-link. That might be so much simpler. But where property rights are involved, it’s a jungle out there—and such research uncovers the weirdest words ever.

Today’s excursion landed me on a Wikipedia site entitled Subinfeudation. Now in mediaeval times all land was viewed as owned by the king, but for purposes of administration pieces were granted by sovereign to lords, lords to others, and so on. Certain obligations went with these lands. In efforts to escape these, the titular owners sold parts of it to others by alienation; this practice was known as subinfeudation. The granting lord therefore lost services; not surprisingly, this had to be and was fixed by legislation in 1290 in England, forcing subinfeudators to require buyers of land to render, toward the granting lord, the same services as the original grantee.

Never fear. Financial scandals and real estate meltdowns had their horrid place even when Christendom was still in flower. We’ve sprouted derivatives, synthetic CDOs, and hedge funds. The Mediaevals worried about subinfeudation, wardships, substitution, escheats, serjeanty, socage, and such. Enough, in those days, to make you feel downright alienated.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sagi the Finicky Eater

A while back now I put up information about the black hole at the center of our galaxy. To reintroduce that creature, its name is Sagittarius A* (read A-star). My post (here) reported that the hole was drawing, to itself, a vast cloud of gas. And the NYT story that I’d read and quoted there assured us cheerfully that Sgr A* will eventually eat the whole galaxy. I confessed problems believing that.

Well, the other day, we saw a story that appeared in Science, originating from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The chief investigator was Daniel Q. Wang, professor of astronomy and leader of a team researching Sgr A* using NASA’s X-ray telescope Chandra. Wang and company discovered that this, our most potent black hole, actually rejects more than 99 percent of the matter flowing toward it. Why it does so—when other black holes are thought to be swallowing masses and masses of matter (or so they say, so they say)—is not yet understood.

Reading that I got to thinking about some future, galactically rich man who decides to commit suicide by plunging his rocket into Sagi’s center—and gets rejected as inedible.
The image is NASA’s picture of the day today (link - but it may change tomorrow). It is titled The Quiet Sagittarius A*. The credit line reads: X-ray - NASA / CXC / Q. Daniel Wang (UMASS) et al., IR - NASA/STScI.

An Ecumenical Exchange

Rarely in our travels have we passed a cathedral we did not at least briefly visit. Thus many years ago, on a trip to California—which also took us down to San Juan Capistrano—we stopped in Garden Grove, CA on the way back and spent part of a mid-week morning visiting the Crystal Cathedral and its environs. Wondrous weather. Glass and light all over. Virtually no one about. 

This morning I learned that this church, built by Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Reformed Church in America, and famed for his Hour of Power television show (which we quite often watched) has become the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, now named Christ Cathedral. The legal transfer of ownership took place November 17, 2011—but the facility was leased back to the Reformed Church for a while. That church performed its last services there on June 30, 2013. Thereafter the congregation, has been occupying, yes, a Catholic church once known as Callistus; its new name under the Reformed Church is Shepherd’s Grove. Let’s call that an ecumenical exchange and ignore what history certainly shall—the bankruptcy and all the rest. Deep digging into the history of any cathedral will bring that sort of thing into focus, but time overlays it with a more pleasing patina. The image is Wikipedia’s (link).

Schuller founded the Reformed Church in 1955; the cathedral was completed in 1981—and, as is the case with such structures, saw further additions and changes; and those are still going on.

Reading about this exchange, memories of other unusual houses of worship rose—suggesting that church construction, and at striking scales and splendor, has not disappeared. Far from it. The first church we attended in America—or, rather, tried to attend—was Saint Francis of Xavier in Kansas City. Three of us children travelled there by street car—like on our first or second Sunday in the United States. It was a famous church, referred to as the Fish Church. Alas we did not speak English very well yet. They stopped us at the door—and it took quite a while to understand that we couldn’t go in because my sister, Susie, was bareheaded—she should have had a scarf over her head. Here was a new Catholic rule we knew nothing about. Saint Francis Xavier was built in 1949—thus two years before we arrived. I got to know the church quite well later because it was right next door to Rockhurst College, a Jesuit school, and served as the locus of college services. The images that follows are from Wikipedia (link); the second shows the “fish” shape.

Here in the Detroit region, the most striking house of worship, at least for members of this clan, is the synagogue of the Conservative Jewish Community, Shaarey Zedek. It is quite easily seen from superhighway I-696 where it intersects with super-artery Telegraph Road. A splendid structure. I show it from the front and from the side; it was built in 1962. For quite a long while the family business, Editorial Code and Data, had its offices on Telegraph, in the Onyx Building yet, itself something of a minor jewel. We saw Shaarey Zedek every day, approaching and leaving by night. These days Brigitte and I sometimes glimpse the structure on our way west to visit Monique and John. I bring the image courtesy of Docomomo, an international group dedicated to the conservation of modern architecture (link).

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Fresh Flavor of Nonconformity

A quite interesting article in the American Conservative, “Freedom or Virtue?” by Donald Devine, cites part of an interview another author (E.J. Dionne Jr.) held with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger had been asked how he could “insist on moral positions that conflicted with the views of a majority of Americans of his own tradition. Why could he not compromise with those people, who mostly took libertarian views on social issues, especially on sexual matters?” I quote the next paragraph in that article:

Ratzinger replied: “If it is true that a Christian faith taken seriously means nonconformity with a not inconsiderable number of contemporary social standards, then a more or less negative image is unavoidable.” Ratzinger concluded that in a confused world, the obligation of a moral tradition, Christian or otherwise, is to recover the capacity for nonconformity rather than seeking either elite or mass approval.

Brigitte was reading this out loud to me yesterday on what must have been the loveliest day of the season yet. And this passage certainly resonated with us. In effect it represents what some call “the third way,” thus avoiding reflexive adherence to this camp or that, participating in the collective social labor without merging with fashion, in effect to be in this world but not of it.

The article is not yet available on the Internet, but it should appear in a month or two. Worth reading.

Nymphalis Antiopa

In what had been a very, very active butterfly spring and summer—we raised 13 Black Swallowtails and have been entertaining a small tribe of Cabbage Whites—late summer, now moving toward autumn in lengthening strides, has left our little eden here bereft of new species. Until yesterday. A very large and virtually black butterfly landed on one of our tomato plants, staying in the shade of its leaves. We watched it for quite a time, just resting. Then I got my camera and tried to make a stealth-approach, but the creature sensed my coming and betook itself, next, to the roof of our sunroom to find a new perch in a coil of cable wiring at is edge. We managed to get a look at it, finally, from a stairway window—from a distance of about three feet. But then, maneuvering my camera to take a shot, I triggered its flight response. No. I never managed to take a picture.

Fortunately I had had a close look. And today, therefore, I was able to identify it as a Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa. The picture I am showing here is taken from Wikipedia’s article on this species, and I chose the image that most closely resembles our own. Mourning Cloak is a particularly large butterfly—and the females are markedly larger than the males. For this reason we’re pretty sure that we’d encountered a lady, furthermore rather an old one. Always a pleasure to say Hello to yet another rarely seen species—but, I am told, quite common in North America.

The name is interesting. The Brits call this butterfly Camberwell Beauty, but in Germanic languages the literal meaning of Mourning Cloak is used: in German, Trauermantel; in Swedish, Sorgmantel. The antiope of the Latin name harks back to Antiopa, a Greek figure with a dramatic history. Tragedy surrounded her, so much so that Pacuvius, a renowned Roman tragedian (he died in 130 BC), wrote a tragedy about her. Mourning becomes Nymphalis…

Added Later: Herewith some additional interesting facts about the Mourning Cloak. It belongs to the Superfamily Papilionoidea, the Family Nymphalidae, also called four-footed. In the American context it is the longest-lived species of butterfly with a life of 10-11 months. It is a tree-dwelling butterfly (willows, elms, cottonwood, birch), likes to feed on tree sap and rotting fruit, and its coloration makes it look like tree-bark. It’s also rather big, with a wingspan of 2.25 to 4-inch wing span. They extend form lower Canada to northern Mexico, do a lot of travelling in the Summer months, rest in the fall, overwinter, and then breed in the Spring.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

One Hand Clapping

The meaning of “technology”—back when I was a paid a salary to analyze of same—was such things as plastics, solid lubricants, and automated machine tools. Today it means hand-held devices, the smartphone—AKA “mobility.” And mobility has come to mean the power to see the very latest postings on one’s Facebook or Twitter pages in what is known as real-time.

Now the latest rash of news is all about such entities as Blackberry, which is looking to be bought, Verizon buying Vodaphone, and Microsoft acquiring Nokia’s smartphone business. A while back Facebook was in deep trouble; its initial public offering almost failed. Why? Because it wasn’t with it, mobility-wise. But now that’s ancient news. Shudder, shiver. Thank the Lord that’s over. So what is next after all of this? Or will we hear technology/mobility for a few more years yet to come? What will “technology” mean a decade or so from now? Surely not the same thing as today.

This got me thinking about that Zen koan. The thought came, baffling at first, from the barely visible left field. You know the one I mean. It is about the sound of one hand clapping. It took me a minute before I saw my mind’s clumsy intent to say something meaningful on the subject. Let me unpack that.

All this hysterical scrambling to unload or to load up, to cash in or to cash out, comes about because the field of computing, generally, is maturing, putting on some bark, laying thick roots—and the only flower that attracts the bees of investment is the handheld device of people in motion but wishing still, yes, even while jogging, to keep up with where its at: on the Internet. A maturing industry, naturally, has flagging growth. But growth is one of a pair of things. Where there is growth, there is decline.

What is the sound of growth without its brother, decline? On a spherical planet with limited surface? Once we have the answer, satori won’t be far behind.

Reinventing on the Fly

Discussions of Natural Law on the web can seem hair-raisingly complicated, despite the rather strong and persuasive presentation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) (link): it argues that St. Thomas Aquinas presents the central case, these days, and that other theories may be judged by reference to him—some deviating, others approximating his theory. The pertinent words come from the article’s first paragraph. To give this a succinct summary, here is the lead paragraph on the subject from the Catholic Encyclopedia (link):

In English this term [Natural Law] is frequently employed as equivalent to the laws of nature, meaning the order which governs the activities of the material universe. Among the Roman jurists natural law designated those instincts and emotions common to man and the lower animals, such as the instinct of self-preservation and love of offspring. In its strictly ethical application—the sense in which this article treats it—the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.

I rather like this, particularly the grounding of this law in human nature—which in turn is grounded in God’s dispensation. The ability to discern the requirements of Natural Law are assigned to human powers of reasoning and, of course, observation.

The chief feature of this law, therefore, is that it is grounded in a reality above that of Nature, as that word is commonly used. Therefore, it seems to me, acceptance of this theory—namely the existence of a moral order that is innately present in the human soul, although, of course, in an undeveloped form until reason is trained to discern and to apply it—is incompatible with positivistic or naturalistic theories which deny any reality beyond that which is physically discernible. In those ranges concepts like pragmatism (it’s good if it works) and consequentialism (it’s good if the consequences are) rule. Now as for the judgement of what constitutes the good, that becomes a matter of subjective or consensual perception. One might add to this, of course, that principles, as such—thus founding, basic, absolute ideas—also require the same kind of ultimately divine grounding.

My looking at this difficult subject was caused by mentioning Natural Law the other day in the context of war, specifically the looming attacks on Syria. The aim of this policy is obviously to achieve some good. The problem with it is that while the object is good—stopping chemical warfare—the circumstances surrounding this act are much too complex and in conflict with other lawful objectives. SEP cites Aquinas’ argument for comprehensiveness. Any act, to be conformant to Natural Law, must have the right object or purpose; but it must also have a meaningful end; and it must discern and consider all of the circumstances involved.  The means used to achieve the end, one might add, must be appropriate. And the actor must have standing in the matter—which involves the laws of war.

Any international policy in which the broad contexts are ignored to achieve some limited end may be pragmatically desirable but are unjustified under Natural Law. The narrow good to be achieved may be totally swamped by the bad that is the secondary consequence of that action. It amazed me this morning to hear John Boehner justifying the Syrian attack by saying that it will send a message to our enemies, probably meaning Iran. When there is no guiding center to our thought, reinventing motives on the fly becomes the chief art of politics.