Book Review: The Iliad

Amazon sent me a reminder to rate the Iliad, because I bought a copy of Lattimore’s translation for one of the kids a while back. OK, flattered to think the Interwebs want to know if I recommend the Iliad, so I obliged thus: 

Destined to be a Classic! Wow, what a great book! It’s got heroes, babes, fights, love, betrayals, narrow escapes, intrigue and lots of memorable lines I expect people will be quoting for years to come.

I’m going to see if this Homer dude wrote anything else, because I’m betting it would be a perfect thing for next summer when I’m lounging by the wine-dark sea. Highly recommended.

Lattimore’s translation is good but challenging to anyone who hasn’t read a bunch of the classics (and maybe some who have). For new readers Lattimore, because he tries to be faithful to the Greek,  can be confusing. Greek writers including Homer tend to like nested structures of ideas expressed in long, complex sentences, not at all USA Today compliant. But well worth the trouble.

Can’t Complain…

Perhaps I should even be *thankful*?

For years, the family has gone down to visit extended family in Southern California for a few days before Thanksgiving. This year, a friend of my little brother cut us a deal on a beach rental. This beach rental:

That’s the view off the balcony. It’s a two-bedroom apartment above an ancient snack shack right on the pier in Newport Beach. Way Cool. This fine Sunday morning, I grabbed a cup ‘o Joe at an establishment for that purpose a 45 second walk away, and am watching some surfers and paddle boarders do their things to the south of the pier.  Last night, after a dinner of homemade pastrami sandwiches with my brother and his wife, we walked out on the pier and watched 5 seals swimming down below. Our theory: the lights on the pier perhaps attract fish the seals eat? The seals were very active(1).

We’re a 12 minute walk along the beach from the local Catholic Church. They even have daily Mass. The high yesterday was 82; today it’s forecast to be 79. Flip-flops and t-shirts. Insanely beautiful. In late November. There are reasons 20+ million people live in SoCal.

Wednesday morning, we leave to go back north. On the way, we’ll grab Son #2 and a couple of his friends from Thomas Aquinas College, drop them off at their families, and have Thanksgiving proper with the extended in-laws in San Francisco. The only insane part: We’ll bomb down next Sunday to return said college students to their school – a 10 hour round trip under good conditions, but on the most insane traffic day of the year. But hey, c’mon, all in all, small price to pay.

Only downside so far: my beloved wife has a cold! She from whom germs flee in despair! Praying for a quick recovery.

If I’m ever so tragically stupid as to complain about my life, you could, right after smacking me upside the head, remind me of Thanksgiving, 2015.

  1. One of the little shops at the base of the pier has mounted on the wall a 600 lbs Great White – caught off the pier back in the ’60s. So, seeing both those seals (which I never saw here as a kid – but don’t forget, we are Destroying the Planet(tm)) and surfers in the water is a little bracing. Seals are to Great Whites as Deer are to Mountain Lions – if there is a supply of one, you’re will eventually find a supply of the other.

‘Danger’ Is My Middle Name

Sort of a general update & various musings:

A. On occasion, we have visited the public educational labs in the basement of the Lawrence Hall of Science. One lab contains all sorts of animals in cages and tanks – snakes, large lizards, bunnies and more exotic furry, scaly and aquatic things, for the kids to look at up close. At the time, I wondered at the mix of predator and prey animals – some of those bigger snakes, for example, would no doubt happily eat many of the furry critters in cages a couple feet away.

One of the things that has long fascinated and often saddened me is how easily people push animals past the range of situations for which their instincts are adapted. Most obviously, cars are not part of animals’ environment of evolutionary adaptation – thus, the phrase ‘deer in the headlights’ and all that roadkill. On the positive side, when a human being picks up a small creature and *doesn’t* kill and eat it, that creature is in uncharted territory, instinct-wise. Who knows what is going on in those tiny brains when that happens? The result, however, is that such animals can often become quite tame, as they incorporate getting-picked-up-and-handled-by-humans-doesn’t-mean-I’m-dead into their little worlds.

It’s a mystery, as is the state of mind of little creatures who can see and smell nasty horrible predators in the neighboring cages in that lab. At first, that’s got to be crazy-making. Over time, do the bunnies and rats and things learn to ignore it, or do they live in a constant state of terror, or some other state? Hard to tell.

This all comes to mind because, couple days back, my son and I were feeding a couple mice to his corn snake. Circle of life, and all that. This time, our new cat, kitten really, who clearly thinks himself a fierce predator, noticed the little paper bag with the mice in it. He followed upstairs when we took them up to David’s bedroom where the snake lives.

We put the cat out of the bedroom, closed the door, put the snake and one of the mice in a large clear plastic tub with a lid that is the snake’s feeding place (keeps him from accidentally ingesting the wood shavings that might cling to a mouse’s fur – eating wood shavings is bad news for a snake.) As he did his thing, I took his water bowl and opened the door to wash and refile it in the bathroom.

The moment I opened the door, little Razor the cat was in, on the bed and on top of the tub with the snake and the mouse in it in under a second – damn, cats can move fast when they want to.

The mouse was beyond caring, having left this mortal coil within the snake’s coils (1); the snake, however, was Not Happy. Usually, the snake is more than content to get fed and put back in his quarters. Corn snakes have this thing they do when frightened – they pretend to be rattlesnakes by assuming strike position and wiggling their tails very fast – well, he went into full-on ‘I’m a big bad rattler’ mode, so I just dumped him back home, not wanting to handle him at that point. He can’t really hurt you, but there’s an unpleasant primordial human reaction to having a snake strike at you, and I don’t like it.

The cat seemed Very Disappointed when we put him back out of the room. We are running, it seems, the same accidental experiment that Lawrence Hall of Science runs: we are putting predator and prey in uncomfortably close proximity, and messing with their tiny heads. We could, I suppose, get a big snake to mess with the cat’s head, bring it full circle – nah, I like the cat.

  1. Evidently, snakes don’t actually suffocate their prey – the squeeze them hard enough to stop their hearts from beating. Isn’t nature wonderful? All cuddly and nice and fuzzy and BLOODTHIRSTY AND BRUTAL AND rainbows and waterfalls and…

B. Draft-itis strikes again! Got some ill-formed and incomplete thoughts in draft form on Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and the Mob Rule of Judges, the late Paris unpleasantness and the psychotic need of people to cling to the idea that Islam is a religion of peace, and the idea that the Church is being mean to deny communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. But each grows out of control, becoming both larger and more diffuse the more I work on them. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but there’s a bunch of fascinating stuff on and by OWH jr right there on the Web where it can ambush the unsuspecting into reading it for HOURS AT A TIME. And there’s also Orestes Brownson. And more Hegel. And books by Flynn, Wright and Wolfe. And we’re heading out on vacation for the next week. Soon and very soon, we’re going to see some posts, for values of ‘soon’ out beyond next week.

C. Two Questionable Spiritual Theories:

  1. Redemptive Mockery. Developed by my older daughter and some friends a few years ago and formalized by me, this theory proposes that the value of the redemptive suffering of an individual can be increased by the loving and humility-increasing mockery of her friends. Much spiritual discernment is required, as well as a biting sense of humor.
  2. The Holy Order of Dormition. Proposed by the late Fr. Crume (may he rest in peace!) during his (and my) college days, the logic goes as follows: Man is only fully united with God in death; Sleep is as close to death as we get in this life. Therefore, if we wish to be close to God, we should sleep as much a possible. An order should be established to this end.

The efficacy of mocking people as they sleep as a road to spiritual growth has yet to be fully explored by the proper ecclasiastical authorities, of by anyone else, for that matter.

D. Finally, don’t let The Man push you around:

Sports Fishing and Honest Graft

A Tammany Hall member once admitted that, sure, what they were doing was graft, but insisted it was ‘honest graft’. In addition to demonstrating that the properly conditioned mind, with enough motivation, is willing to believe anything no matter how manifestly self-contradictory, this brought to mind sports fishing. Bear with me:

When you deep-sea fish, which I’ve done twice in my life (1), the ship takes on a large number of small bait fish. Then, when the fishing grounds are reached, most of these bait fish are released. They quickly form a little school. Some are left to be used more dramatically as bait – they are put upon hooks at the end of lines, and cast into the sea.

Ideally, the little school of bait fish will attract predators – the sports fish. With luck, some of those sports fish will go after the hooked bait fish and get caught. Most of the sports fish probably do not get caught, but are likely to get a meal out of the school of bait fish. It’s possible some, perhaps many, of the bait fish will also survive.

So: from the point of view of the bait fish, it could be said that many of them are freed by the actions of the fishermen – they were caught once to be used as bait, but by the actions of the fishermen made it back out to the open ocean. The sports fishermen can be seen as their benefactors in this sense.

For the sports fish, more likely than not, they get a meal out of the deal – most of them probably don’t get caught, but get to eat some bait fish. Again, the fishermen are  benefactors, distributing meals to the sports fish.

Finally, the fishermen themselves take some, but not all, of the sports fish and eat them. It’s a win-win-win! At least, for the fishermen and many if not most of the fish involved.

Thus, sport fishing as a whole can be seen as an act of benevolence on the part of the fishermen, with the fish who get eaten as an unfortunate but unavoidable necessary side effect.

This is what is meant by ‘honest graft’.  The error is imagining it is done for the benefit of anyone except the fishermen or Tammany Hall or the Chicago Machine. Sure, they can all point to the little fish that benefited from their benevolent actions – the immigrants who got government jobs, the downtrodden Irish or Polish or whatever who were welcomed and fed and housed. But such benefits are simply the price paid by those on top for their privileged positions and piece of the action(2).   Their interest in the little people is the interest of a cattleman in his steers.

  1. I spent most of the second trip throwing up over the rail, which is why there is unlikely to ever be a 3rd trip.
  2. As a young man, Orestes Brownson went to New York to fight Tammany Hall, because the jobs they controlled were not paying the workers their full wages. He joined the Workingmen’s Party, which ran people against the Tammany candidates, but lost. Imagine. That branch of the Workingmen’s party fell into obscurity once Tammany figured out it was necessary – a necessary evil, from their perspective – that they just pay the men. In fact, if they paid them and treated them well, they could count on the workers’ political support. The only thing left was to enforce Callicles’ definition of virtue: reward your friends, punish your enemies, and do whatever you want. Thus, the small – insignificant, really! – price one pays for being the beneficiary of a political machine is merely one’s soul – willful blindness to and cooperation in the evils they work in enriching themselves and punishing their enemies. You do this to have a job. “But for Wales?”

Headline I Have Somehow Not Seen:

No One With the Slightest Toe-hold in the Last 1,300 Years of History the Least Bit Surprised by the Paris Attacks

I mean, come on. 

Europe 755 A.D.

Europe 1580. From 732 until 1571, the followers of Mohamed conquered all of North Africa, all the Middle East, and huge areas in Europe. Their only significant loss was Spain, from which a conquering army flowed into France in 832, and were finally turned back – not very far from Paris. This is the ONLY significant defeat in the early history of Islam. You don’t suppose France represents unfinished business? Unlike pasty, limp-wristed moderns, other cultures have memories that go back further than yesterday afternoon.

That said:

Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

May there souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the Mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Comfort those who love the dead, O Lord, and convert those who rejoice in those deaths.

Our Lady of the Rosary, Pray for us!

Our Lady of Victory, Pray for us!Lepanto

Education: The True Picture Forms

Dennis Holy Grail

Woman: Oh, there you go bringing school into it again.   Dennis: Well, that’s what it’s all about! If only people would…

Since it always better to go unread in as many places as possible, here is a comment I, the one-trick modern-schooling-is-BAD! pony, made on an excellent essay on John C. Wright’s blog:

Modern education has two short-term goals: to render its victims utterly unable to think, and to convince them that they are the most intelligent, open-minded and morally good people ever to walk the earth. The first makes them easily lead – Fichte’s primary goal in creating modern education was obedient soldiers and workers. The second inoculates them against the sort of mental activity that might lead them to question or challenge the leadership of their betters.

If you are intelligent, good and open-minded by definition, those who oppose you must necessarily be stupid, evil and bigoted.

Thus, in the debate recounted in Mr. Wright’s essay, it is not at all surprising that a college professor, a member of the most highly educated class of people, would be totally unable to process the idea that Mr. Wright was anything other than stupid, evil and bigoted. His open-mindedness precluded his grasping an argument contrary to his rote training; his goodness prevented him from seeing that he might be wrong; his intelligence prevented him from recognizing the intelligence in a position he has been trained not to believe exists.

One branch of my family has pursued education to the nth degree: a 30 year old with multiple advanced degrees, 25 year old in grad school after 6 years in a demanding undergrad program, that sort of thing. I have better luck trying to reason with the welder/farmer end of the family than with these over-educated folks. It is impossible to establish even one position contrary to their training: it is dogma, it is anathema to dissent from the belief that we are destroying the planet through overpopulation, that religion causes war, that businesses are evil and governments good, that opposing any nice-sounding social program is a sign of an evil soul, and on and on, in an incoherent and contradictory heap of ideas. Which is the point – we can’t have the poor dears trying to make sense out of things, that might lead to actual thought. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

The problem in America isn’t that our schools don’t work – it’s that they work exactly as designed.

But that can’t really be true, right? Here’s an excerpt from an essay I’ve linked to before, wherein a Yale professor laments what really goes on in elite higher education amid all that over-achievement and brilliance:

These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them—the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.

I should say that this subject is very personal for me. Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.” What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want one—all this was off the table. It was only after 24 years in the Ivy League—college and a Ph.D. at Columbia, ten years on the faculty at Yale—that I started to think about what this system does to kids and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it.

Heading out of town for the next few days, so may not get a chance to post much, so i leave with these thoughts: if the best of the best that these elite schools train up have no idea where they’re going or why, they can be easily lead – which, as I pointed out, is the goal. Second, the admissions process itself, with its emphasis on judging people’s souls (read it carefully – that’s what they’re doing) based on essays and extra curricular activities will almost inevitably select such lost souls. In this, it merely completes the illusion of achievement school so carefully cultivates: getting a high SAT score is an achievement? As opposed to getting a job, or making life-long friends, or building a stable family? Yet a Yalie is seen as having achieved something simply by having gotten into Yale, and is entitled to look down upon the man with a job, friends and family who didn’t.

Today’s Themes in Science! and Media

First: This one just sort of cracks me up, even if it is as predictable as the sunrise: scientists are always surprised and never expected whatever it is they are looking at, once they get a good close look at it. Today’s example: Pandemonium! Motion of Pluto’s Moons Perplexes Scientists

“The orbits of Pluto’s four smallest moons are even more chaotic than scientists had expected, according to new results from the New Horizons mission, which made a close flyby of Pluto in July.”

See? It’s safe to say that no one had yet gotten a close look at small moons orbiting a distant planet-thing, yet scientists had expectations about what they would find when they did, and these expectations were destroyed by the actual observed reality. Evidently, they had expected *some* chaos, but got pandemonium!

This is all fairly harmless, of course, as it is most of the time – as long as observation sooner or later (preferably sooner) is allowed to correct expectations, it’s all good. But taken to extremes, such as where edifices both theoretical and financial have built based on expectations, then the observations become too rude and mean to be allowed to destroy a beautiful theory and lucrative careers. That would be a real problem, one to which astronomy is, thankfully, largely immune.

2. Once got into it in a completely friendly manner with what might be called a technological super-optimist about the plausibility of interplanetary travel and colonization for humans. I, kill-joy curmudgeon that I am, suggested that the dangers to human health in space travel were typically understated. Off the top of my head, all travel to any other planet will end up exposing astronauts to radiation for a year or more. Further, the sun rather unpredictable emits large bursts every once in a while, to which space travelers would be exposed. Staying healthy or even alive in space will be a crap shoot. The idea of people being born and living their lives in space is even a greater unknown, but has similar risks to space travel, only more so. My interlocutor just assumed technology would take care of these problems, and it was just a matter of deciding to do it. I reflexively counter such arguments with commercial nuclear fusion, cancer cures and faster than light travel – there are physical problems technology has not solved in decades of trying, which may simply be unsolvable. .

Anyway, I *want* people to travel in space and colonize planets and moons – it’s just that I have my doubts.

Today we get: Space Missions Have Major Effects On Astronauts’ Brains. And these effects are not good. Like I just said, I hope we figure it all out, and send people traipsing among the stars. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

3. Occasionally, like today, the Google news science feed sends me the Huffington Post, after the viewing of which I sometimes feel the need for a shower. The articles ‘suggested for me’ (Why? What did I do?) on the right sidebar included tips for having a safe 3-way (I’m hoping not getting involved in one would be pretty safe) and a headline that contained the phrase ‘problematic dichotomy’. OK.. My faith that readers who worry about safe 3-ways would actually need the phrase ‘problematic dichotomy’ to properly capture the subtle nuances and, I don’t know, joie de vivre? of this particular iffy distinction is not high. Sounds like the mewlings of somebody who did way too much (any at all is more than enough) critical theory in college, and learned that the teacher would fail them unless they played the tortured vocabulary game. I like a $10 word or phrase as much as the next guy, but I like it to communicate something.

4. Hope for Humanity Moment: The other day, two younger coworkers and I were visiting a client, and the poor dears were trapped in a car with me for over an hour. I cannot be expected to let pass such a perfectly good opportunity to corrupt the youth.

The subject turned to what we’d each studied in college. Usually, like Arlo Guthrie’s experience on the Group W bench as recounted in Alice’s Restaurant, business people mentally slide away from me when I say I studied classics via the Great Books in college, but decide I’m OK and slide back when I add that I later went to business school.  But my coworkers are too generous or callow for that, bless them! In fact, it turns out that they have, respectively, degrees in Japanese and Sociology – and so code for a living. I love reality in high tech!

Of course, I opined that I would not be able to take sociology seriously unless they rejected the glamour of Margaret Meade and all her works. And – I couldn’t believe it – my young friend said that, in his sociology studies, Meade had only ever been mentioned as an example of what not to do and as a general cautionary tale. He assured me it had been this way for at least the last 20 years! Huzzah!  I must investigate further. Has evidence overturned expectations? Later rather than sooner, but it is good development.

A funny thing: I dragged in something about anthropology, and he reflexively grabbed his 10′ pole – evidently, there’s some sort of chasm in academia between sociologists and anthropologists? Really? I thought the distinction almost arbitrary, except perhaps for paleoanthropology, which does seem like a fundamentally different thing.