Another Tale of Two Churches

Went to SoCal over the weekend to see Elder Daughter in a play. (She’s about to graduate from an acting conservatory she’s been in for 2 years now.) So we caught a Saturday morning Mass in Santa Clarita at St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s and a Pentecost Sunday Mass at the Thomas Aquinas College Chapel. Both Masses were of course efficacious and a privilege to attend.

Both churches were built around the same time. St. Kateri:

On Friday, September 4, 2009, Blessed Kateri Church and the Administration Building were blessed and dedicated by Cardinal Mahony. Families began celebrating Masses in the new church on September 26, 2009. The original building became Kateri Faith Center, and the former Worship Area became Slattery Hall.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel:

After a dozen years of planning, thousands of contributions from generous benefactors, and more than three years of construction, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel was dedicated on March 7, 2009.

Both churches show fairly high construction standards, although the TAC chapel’s are higher, with much polished stone and obvious care lavished on detail. St. Kateri is not slapdash by any means, but does show less, how to say? Self awareness.

Arcade View
Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, exterior.
Interior of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel
Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, interior.
Image result for st. kateri church santa clarita ca
St. Kateri, exterior.
Related image
St. Kateri, interior.

Is the difference money? Did TAC simply spend vastly more? I don’t know the numbers for St. Kateri, but I’d bet it’s nothing like an order of magnitude less than the $23M spent to build the TAC chapel. I’d guess somewhere in the $5-10M range, but what do I know about such things? (1) What’s different is the vision of what a church is supposed to be. Duncan Stroik, who designed the TAC Chapel, shared a vision with the College of what a church building is supposed to be. The designers of St. Kateri evidently shared an idea of what a ‘gathering space’ is supposed to be with the designers of game show and talk show sets. Or maybe to be a little more fair, convention halls.

It’s the sheer cluelessness of the place that was most striking. For example, I sure hope that thing with that guy nailed to it doesn’t interfere with the sound system. Would hate for the acoustics to suffer:

speakers and cross
Somebody looked at these massive overstated speaker stacks hanging above the altar, clashing with everything else, dwarfing the Crucifix, and thought – that looks great! Out of the frame is a bandstand complete with a glassed-in drummer’s box. Priorities are clear.

Now, we didn’t get to attend a big Feast Day Mass at St. Kateri’s, but, based on the sound system’s prominence and a band/choir area bigger than the sanctuary, I fear I can guess what it would be like. At TAC, their incredible chant/polyphony choir – or  as much of it is around during Summer break – filled the chapel with angelic, unamplified voices singing beautiful, timeless music. Sadly, the TAC choir could probably not have been heard over a jet engine at 100 paces – something I’m confident the musicians at St. Kateri’s with their array of technology could deal with. But I don’t know, a Saturday morning Mass did not require that particular Kraken to be released.

Both buildings use much nice stone and wood; one is a timeless yet warm church, loved by all; the other doesn’t know what it is, and is only loved by its figurative mothers. If the TAC chapel had been burned down in the late fires, there would have been mass mourning, and funds would have been raised quickly to rebuild it. If, God forbid, St. Kateri’s were lost to fire, some people would be sad, sure, but devastated? Would they insist it get rebuilt just like it was, as a link to their posterity and, indeed, heaven?

I doubt it.

  1. Here’s an article talking about costs to build churches. Based on the numbers they are throwing around, and this being California within commute distance of LA, and St. Kateri’s being a pretty big church, that $10M guess is starting to look tame. Probably safe to say that if one went tile instead of marble and maybe scaled back on the fixtures, toned down the stone capitals and arches a bit, the people of St. Kateri’s could have had something like the TAC chapel for the money they spent on what they got. That this probably never occurred to anyone involved (not that Mahoney wouldn’t have shot it down if it had – see: LA’s new Cathedral he built) is the real problem at this point. Meanwhile, the little old ladies and people who have traveled some and those who take their faith seriously would have probably voted overwhelmingly for something more traditional. But we’ll never know, and they (we) don’t get a vote.
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A Further Thought on Politics & History

Yesterday’s post got off leash and wandered, going places I didn’t start out intending to go. Nothing wrong with that, or, rather, nothing wrong with it that isn’t also wrong with about 95% of the content on this here blog. That said, let’s take up the theme again, see where it goes this time.

I posited that there are two consistent themes in America’s political history, one of which believes that all problems can be solved if the right people – good, forward-thinking people – have overwhelming power. The power is required to be overwhelming, as there exist Bad People who must be overwhelmed. In fact, the problem definition of those who embrace this line of thought always, as in, always, contains the idea that it is only bad people who oppose them, that good people would never dream of opposing them.

Thus, we have a dichotomy: the rhetoric used by such people will always be about justice, fairness, the little people, and how their goals would be simply achievable, inevitable, even, except for the bad people who lie, bully and obfuscate in order to stop them. The rhetoric is ultimately moral; with all morality on the side of those on the team, and complete immorality the defining characteristic of the opposition.

But: the concrete actions proposed are always, as in always, a power grab; the methods are almost without exception immoral by any objective measure. The likes of Dewey and Alinsky even acknowledge this when they denounce any who would hesitate to lie, manipulate or do any other evil to further the cause. Freire, among others, makes it clear that there are no rights except those gained by commitment to the Cause. While life and property are the obvious targets – we kill you and take your stuff  being the logically inevitable next step of these self-appointed messiahs – the right one might imagine one has to be told the truth is, in practice, the first victim of effort. As Dewey, taking a break from re-architecting our modern school system, said in his defense of the Russian Revolution, the end is all that matters; the collective means everything, the individual nothing.

As, I think, Zinn, of all people, points out: the Puritans fled relative religious freedom in England and Europe in order to establish their own theocracy in America. Be that as it may, the founders of Harvard were graduates and professors from Cambridge miffed that that hoary institution wasn’t Puritan enough, but still tolerated less pure and Puritan ideas. So off to America they go, to set up a proper Calvinist state. Per Wikipedia’s article on Harvard: 

A 1643 publication gave the school’s purpose as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”; in its early years trained many Puritan ministers. It offered a classic curriculum on the English university model‍—‌many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge‍—‌but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism. It was never affiliated with any particular denomination, but many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.

The ‘never affiliated with any particular denomination’ is an odd claim – when the stated goal is to provide replacements for ‘our present ministers’ and the state is an arm of the Church, as it most certainly was in colonial Boston, what would ‘never affiliated’ mean? Also, one might get the impression from the way the above is worded that Congregational and Unitarian ministers were trained together at Harvard in a lovely gesture of ecumenism. What actually happened was that around 1800, a battle raged between the ‘almost certainly damned and there’s nothing you can do about it’ Calvinist Congregationalist and the ‘we’re all saved and there’s no way for us not to be’ Univeralists, which was ultimately won by the Universalists. Because Universalists, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, don’t really believe anything, Harvard quickly fell to the secularists. (1)

The point here is that, while what has proved to be the superficial aspects of religion have been shed, the core belief that, if only they were in charge, the leaders of the Harvard community would bring about some sort of paradise on earth has persisted unabated, and, having shed the restraints of even Calvinist Christianity, is even more hell-bent on the destruction of its enemies.

While really truly Calvinist Puritans despised all other beliefs, believing Methodists, for example, almost certainly damned, they shared with other Protestants a particular hatred of Catholicism. They (we) were the real enemy, the Church the whore of Babylon. Over the last century or so, many ‘good’ Catholics have fallen under the sway of Harvard, and will, as the price of sitting at the cool kid’s table, embrace the project.

Of course, not everyone gets to go to Harvard. But there are workarounds. Early in the 19th century, Harvard ditched its ‘classic curriculum on the English university model‍’ and refashioned itself into a research or Prussian-model University, after the then-new University of Berlin. In the 18th century, various president and scholars at Harvard had prided themselves on their mastery of Latin and the classics; commencement speeches were delivered in Latin. But this began to pass away, as Harvard lost its religious drive and replaced it with the Prussian model’s research drive. It became much more important to discover new things, to advance mankind, than to pass on old things such as Latin and the classics.

As the oldest and most successful University in America, and as the source of key faculty and administration to other American colleges, Harvard was the model to follow. Publish or perish. Get in line with Progress. We are centuries smarter than those old guys anyway.

Everybody learns this wherever they go to school in America. (2)

The dominant position of this take has made assuming those who do not share it are ignorant, stupid and evil as easy as falling down for those who accept it. You, the true believer, owe them nothing but contempt. Following Marx, you would assume there is practically no chance you can awaken them to the enlightened truth, although, out of the goodness of your heart you might try. That’s how it happens that we who disagree get lectured on what we believe by those hoping to convince us, and dismissed with ad hominems when we push back. You either get it and are woke, or you don’t and are broke beyond repair.

The other thread mentioned yesterday, the one championed by Washington and the writers of the Federalist Papers, is the ferocious commitment to being free from tyrants of any flavor. To such a one, the most pathetic belief possible is that today’s wannabe tyrant, arriving in the fullness of time and one the Right Side of History, cares, really cares, about Justice, Fairness and all that is good, and will only inflict the degree of harm on our enemies that is necessary to achieve the Good.

Having seen the world operate under tyrants, under Central Committees and Committees for Public Safety and Five Year Plans, having read about Athens and Florence and Paris and the whiplash of mob rule to tyranny to aristocracy and back, and all the innocents destroyed and all the wealth robbed and wasted, we aren’t buying that now, finally, it will work of only we put a nice man like Bernie in charge. He’ll only seize the wealth of those who have too much (presumably more than three houses and a net worth of a couple million, but I’m sure that’s flexible…) and give it to those who deserve it!

What could go wrong? We, the Enlightened, the Woke, simply won’t repeat the results of EVERY OTHER ATTEMPT THROUGH ALL OF HISTORY to anoint a secular savior. We just won’t, and you’re a meanie, an unenlightened bad  person to even bring it up.

Is it any wonder the Bern wants college for everyone?

  1. I’ve long noticed something I call the Christian Hangover, where those who have drunk deeply of Christian ideals typically stay drunk on them for a generation or even two, all the while claiming their behaviors are not based on Christianity. Thus, we often see rabid atheists, at least for the first generation or even two, behaving more or less like traditional Christian gentlemen. It falls to their children or sometimes grandchildren to reach the logical conclusion that gentlemanly behavior is stupid under their current beliefs. This is why it is a good thing atheists have so few children. Harvard kept up appearances until almost 1900. It went from demanding traditional moral behavior from its staff – a manifestation of its internalized Puritanism – to tolerating bad behavior if you kept it quiet, to tolerating bad behavior out in the open to, today, demanding the enthusiastic embrace of immorality as a condition of employment. Increase Mather’s corpse is doing about 1,000 RPMs.
  2. With, one hopes, the exception of the Newman List schools and some of the committed Evangelical schools. And maybe St. John’s College.

A Brief Thought on Politics & History

Now, I know hardly enough of either subject mentioned above for my opinions here to carry much weight, so I will be receptive to correction by any who know better: Onward!

Two political opinions, let us call them, have existed side by side in America from colonial days, that continue to war with each other. The first, represented by Washington and the Federalist Papers, is the idea that no man can be trusted with unlimited power, that even when a happy accident blesses us with a Charlemagne or a Theodosius, say, he will sooner rather than later be followed by a more typical French king or an Honorius.

This state, where huge amounts of power are held by an unworthy man, is called tyranny or perhaps chaos, and is to be avoided. The best way to avoid it is to never entrust overwhelming power to any man. This is *the* lesson of history in the eyes of the Founders.

The second, a sign of intellectual development arrested during adolescence, is the belief that I could make everything better, if only I had enough power. Since most of us are too lazy to do anything at all to gather ‘enough power’, those in thrall to this belief most often identify someone seeking power who they think shares their goals, and wish him to have ‘enough’ power. They never imagine how this could go wrong, or, rather, they care SO MUCH for fixing the current problem, whatever it is, that all other issues are so much dust in comparison. Only a doody-head would even bring them up!

These attitudes are nothing new here in America. The second, for example, reveals itself in the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, where the question of how best to free the slaves is subsumed under pure religious righteousness. It’s God’s work to go to war; anything less is, by unavoidable implication, the work of the devil. If only we had enough power, in this case an army, we could fix everything! No consideration for what would happen next is allowed to rise to mind.

Leading up to the Civil War, many people who fervently hated slavery nonetheless had practical doubts about the wisdom and ultimate efficacy of waging war to do so. They could point to successful efforts to free slaves and outlaw slavery well short of war all across the Western Hemisphere and Europe. Slavery is bad, but then so also is war, so maybe other options should be considered? They thought the strict Abolitionists were foolish and dangerous, that once a war started no one could say how it would end, and they refused to give any thought to the next steps even if the war was won. (Of course, this is a summary. Things never divide this neatly, but there were certainly plenty of people at the extremes.)

Once the bullets started flying, four score and 7 years of pent up fury was unleashed, until, as Lincoln said, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” (I think one factor motivating non-belief these days is the thought, deep down, that divine justice on the evils of this age would put even the Civil War’s carnage to shame. This thought must be suppressed. But I digress.)

We have one group of people, of which I count myself a junior member, who think history mainly a cautionary tale, or, rather, one cautionary tale after another, the point of which would be something along the lines of: trust not in princes. We see no evidence of a Capital H History moving dialectically ever forward. Not squinting, not with the rosiest of glasses. All there is is people being people. There’s plenty of beauty in there, but it hard won, and only raises its head above the waves of horror and misery when hard men make great sacrifices.

Great sacrifices have been made. Saints and heroes large and small have gotten us here, today. Our heads are just above the water still.

The other major thread believes that things not only can be fixed, they can be fixed by trying things that were ancient when the ancient Greek cities tried them and fell back into tyranny. History shows that while the strong man’s promises to use his power to kill the enemies and institute a paradise of fairness, the power grab and killing is as far as this sort of action ever gets. The only newish trick, the trick decried by Orwell: putting power into the hands of a dictator, and all his subsequent unilateral self-serving actions are called ‘democratic’; the farcically unexamined dogma imposed to justify this is called ‘scientific’.

And so on.

Years ago, realized that the victims of Marxist fantasies both overt and subtle have, with few exceptions, never heard a real counterargument. They haven’t so much been convinced as conditioned to be unable to imagine any alternatives. That’s the benefit of controlling the schools. The teachers and professors, more or less consciously as the case may be, spout dogmas as simple facts. Years of careful training in regurgitating what the teacher says in order to get the good grades and the other pats on the head schools hand out virtually guarantees that students thus educated will be simply baffled by any arguments or facts that somehow make it past the defenses. Mostly, the reactions are Pavlovian. I’ve seen this in college professors – I’ve seen it especially in college professors.

The only point here, and I think it’s one Trump, for all his bluster, gets: there is no point in arguing with such people, especially once they formed a mob. Individually, maybe, sometimes. But as a member in a reinforcing group, where the threat of losing standing is real and executed with remarkable alacrity, nothing you say will matter. History won’t matter. Facts won’t matter. Only the beauty of the promised paradise and the conclusively presumed evil of any who do not share the vision matter.

And through it all, they will call themselves open minded, educated and reasonable for shouting down all contrary opinions and wishing death on those propound them. It is a truly remarkable thing to behold.

Well, it’s not as bad as all that, really. But this post has gone on long enough.

 

Two Schools

For those just joining us, to recap –  my main point about schooling: the graded classroom model is the problem. Segregating children by age, putting them into classrooms and teaching them all the same stuff at the same time regardless of what they already know or are interested in is such a crazy and destructive idea it could only have come from academia.

And it did.

But but but… people imagine there’s something logically or historically compelling about this barbaric practice, as if compulsory graded classroom schooling somehow represents a rational evolution in education. They imagine poor children, neglected by? parents? If not, who? who needed to be rounded up and MADE to sit in a classroom, for their own good. And that Science! had discovered, for example, that having 35 kids learn See Spot Run together was *better* than having them taught individually to read from the King James Bible on grandma’s knee. (1)

Were some kids in the bad old days neglected and uneducated? Sure – just as they are now, except now, it’s generally among those in school. Do you imagine kids in those ‘underperforming’ inner city schools are learning much? Before they drop out for good, as a majority in such schools do? Whatever horror stories the education establishment can cook up about homeschooled kids pale to insignificance compared to their failures as seen in the products of their own schools.

Horace Mann, after Fichte as taught in the University of Berlin, saw state run compulsory schooling not as a way to educate children in anything so trivial as reading, writing and arithmetic. Rather, he saw it as a way to morally educate children.  Fichte had floated the idea to the educated elites of Berlin that the problem with Germany wasn’t to be found in the mirror, but rather in the education of the children out there. Those peasants and shopkeepers imagine that their children are, you know, theirs. But all enlightened people, such as the Berliners who paid to attending lectures by Fichte, know that the individual only has value as a part of the state. Therefore, proper education destroys the free will of the child and replaces it with unquestioned obedience to the state. Proper education also removes the child as completely as possible from the influence of the parents. Fichte imagined that children would be seized at some very young age, removed from their homes to be educated by state officials.

Fichte says as a simple matter of fact that what a child most wants as he matures is the approval of his father, which desire can easily be transferred to the teacher certified by the state for just this task. Just so long as we get the actual fathers out of the picture early enough.  The compulsory state-run graded classroom model of schooling was invented specifically to implement Fichte’s ideas.

happy school
Fantasy, as presented by the Marketing Department. 

 

Reality. And this is a *good* school, the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Hells Kitchen, NYC. Just so you don’t think I’m cherry picking, this was designed and built by fancy architectes and stuff, and won awards. 

 

Does anything going on today ring a bell? Schoolwork and activities eliminating family time? Fathers out of the picture much? Wide diversity of thought encouraged in school? Most of all, conformity to the opinions of your betters if you want to get ahead?

You can search the archives here for the source materials for the above. Today, I want to discuss the problem of what I’ll call the two schools. One school would be in an expanded sense a home school. Sometimes it indeed took place in the home, such as the above mentioned grandmother teaching a child to read on her knee. Other times, it would be schooling that supported what went on in the home, including the personal relationships of siblings, cousins and neighbors, such as the classic American one-room schools. For the upper crust, it would include all the tutors and even the academies provided for their children. These practices and institutions reinforced what a child would learn in the home – or the parents wouldn’t inflict them on their kids. They tend to be much less time and energy intensive than modern schooling.

The second school might be represented by the work of St. John Bosco. His schools were indeed centralized, highly structured affairs. The boys boarded there. The approval of the priests and brothers did indeed substitute for the approval the boys’ fathers. There was indeed a fairly rigid code of behavior rather strongly enforced. So one might be tempted – indeed, many seem to have succumbed – to think that modern schools are much like the best Catholic schools of yore.

But there is one great difference: in the first schools, more or less intact families operating within solid social structures and rules used very flexible and diverse means to educate their kids. Read the biographies of early American heros to see this in practice. Less rich or ambitious families might do less than the better off more ambitious ones, maybe going with apprenticeships and such at earlier ages, but the general pattern of seeing schooling as something done within and to reinforce existing social relationships is clear.

Don Bosco was dealing with abandoned boys. He understood that first, before any formal education could take place, he needed to provide some form of home to his students. Homes set examples, provide comfort and structure and enforce basic discipline. There were no fathers or mothers, so the brothers must step up into that role as much as possible. Thus, the practices of Don Bosco’s school were much more defined by needing to provide a home than a school. The schooling, while excellent (and directed toward getting the boys gainful employment and thus a place in their society) was by necessity very secondary.

Don Bosco found orphaned or abandoned boys begging and stealing on the streets, and, out of Christian love, wanted to help them.  His highly structured schools thus arose from a very different set of needs and goals than modern schools.

We must not get sucked into accepting parallels between modern graded classroom schooling and schooling that grew out of trying to care for orphaned and abandoned children. They might look very similar superficially, but the needs and goals are completely different.

Based on history and reason, the practices we should consider when thinking how schooling should truly be done are the practices of the first kinds of schooling, homeschooling broadly considered. We should assume family and culture as that within which education takes place. We should grow more comfortable with the freedom such educations provide to both the child and the family.

We should not be sucked in to imagining that modern schooling could be made to be more like the benevolent model set up by the early Salesians under Don Bosco. Both modern schooling and Don Bosco’s schools are trying to replace families. The difference is that modern schooling seeks to destroy the families that exist, while Bosco sought to stand in for families that should have been there but weren’t.

  1. One review I read of the remake of True Grit pointed out that the dialogue, being based on the language of the book, captured the KJV flavor of everyday communication in what was then the West. In literate households – and practically ALL households were literate in 19th century America outside slaves, former slaves and some new immigrants – the one book that was likely to be everywhere was the Bible. So the King James translators’ flavored the English in America for generations. Read some of the letters written during the Civil War, and you’ll see it.

Friday Roundup

Contrary to the above title, I will not be deploying a chemical solution to the weeds of the Internet, but rather plucking a few flowers:

First, David Warren talks about the history of health and medical care. He is the son of a mother who spent her career in healthcare, and so has perhaps a different perspective than most. Much of what he says is news to me: that the adoption of anesthetics, which make life easier on the doctor, was all but instantaneous across the Western world once demonstrated in Boston in 1846, but that the effectiveness of sterile surgery in preventing infections and increasing patient survival chances was demonstrated in 1865 in Glasgow – but was not universally adopted until well into the 20th century – soldiers by the thousands were dying of easily preventable infections in WWI, half a century after it had demonstrated that such deaths were easily preventable. If you sedate patients, you can more easily perform surgery and people will more easily submit to it (that anyone submitted to significant surgery without being anesthetized is frankly amazing) – and that’s good for business. But someone with a bullet wound is in no condition to complain about filthy conditions in your operating room. He’ll be in no condition to complain about much of anything soon enough, most likely.

His point is that what history shows is that doctors are all over changes that make their lives easier, and less ready to adopt changes that impose work on them – while simple enough, it is a lot of work to keep things sterile – even when it benefits the patients greatly. I think it’s fair to say Warren isn’t picking on doctors uniquely here, but rather pointing out how things work among us fallen people.

Image result for surgery
Hardworking, dedicated people. But people, nonetheless, subject to the same foibles and temptations as anyone else.

One of his main points is also one of my main points, made occasionally here: you want to improve people’s health? Sanitation and clean water get you most of the benefits. The formula I usually use: Sanitation, clean water, plenty of calories on a regular basis and political stability.  These cover by far the lion’s share of the improvement in life expectancy that the modern world has experienced.

Then, for medicine, it’s the cheap basic stuff that provides almost all of the benefits: antibiotics, vaccines, and a sterile environment for medical care. Now, I am personally very grateful for some of the more fancy stuff – blood pressure meds, various straight-forward surgeries, and – very big one, this – modern dental care (people died from infections around impacted teeth and dental abscesses, or had their health greatly compromised).

I’ve now made it to 60, which means, historically, I’m playing with house money from here on out.  Life expectancy for an American male in 1900 was 49. While there are many cases like me, of people whose comparative longevity and vigor have resulted from some more advanced medical care, the overall increase is due almost entirely to simple, cheap, proven practices.

Lots more good stuff in that essay – you’d do better reading it than hanging out here, that’s for sure.

Next, some Feynman quotations, in honor of his 100th birthday (he didn’t make it to the celebration). These are not my personal favorites, except for these:

2. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

As Feynman said in The Character of Physical Law, many people understand other sophisticated physical theories, including Einstein’s relativity. But quantum mechanics resists an equivalent depth of understanding. Some disagree, proclaiming that they understand quantum mechanics perfectly well. But their understanding disagrees with the supposed understanding of others, equally knowledgeable. Perhaps Feynman’s sentiment might better be expressed by saying that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics, doesn’t.

I find this comforting, somehow, as I certainly don’t understand it. Also, it illustrates something that would fall out from the assumption that the mind – oops, the brain, which is assumed to be the mind and not merely the organ of the mind – resulted from Natural Selection: we would not expect anything in nature that falls outside the realm of things that affect our survival chances to be understandable by a brain designed by exactly those things which affect our survival chances. Quantum mechanics cannot have had any role in our ancestors’ environment of evolutionary adaptation. They did not shape spears or hunt warthogs better based on their understanding of Heisenberg, with those with a better understanding somehow, all other things being equal, killing more warthogs.

The more interesting question: how is it, under Natural Selection, that anybody cares about quantum mechanics at all? Or about any of the other millions of things humans have been interested in, obsessed over, even, that have no effect on our survival chances? I think the claim that, somehow, understanding quantum mechanics, however imperfectly, or art or music or philosophy and so on falls out from evolutionary theory should be accompanied by evidence that masters of such fields have comparatively many and vigorous children. Otherwise, it is a just so story in the face of contrary evidence.

Natural Selection, while beautiful in its way, cannot be the whole story.

1. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The best Feynman quote of all (from a 1974 address), and the best advice to scientists and anybody else who seeks the truth about the world. The truth may not be what you’d like it to be, or what would be best for you, or what your preconceived philosophy tells you that it is. Unless you recognize how easily you can be fooled, you will be.

This idea is unknown to most people, it seems, and applied to others first by most who do know it – that guy over there is fooling himself. Rare is the man who consistently applies this to himself first. I aspire to this, but it is hard.

Next, on Twitter, which I use to publicize posts here and follow writers, Catholics, scientists and the various combinations of those traits the real world provides, I’m conducting a whimsical experiment. 20 years ago, I wrote a bunch of jokes for a defunct humor list. No money involved, mostly just the honor of amusing the other writers. While obviously I’m not great at it – I’m working a desk job, and have been for almost 40 years now – I did make the honorary Hall of Fame and have a small pile of fan letters from readers. So, no great shakes, but not totally worthless either.

So I’ve taken to posting a recycled joke or 2 each day, to see what happens. Note: I think I understand Twitter about as well as I understand quantum mechanics. ‘Impressions’ is twitterese for eyeballs (well, eyeballs divided by roughly 2) in front of which pass your tweet. I have a bit over 200 ‘followers’ who, if they all checked their feed every day, should result in about 200 ‘impressions’ per tweet as a baseline.

Some followers are just people trying to sell stuff – they come and go, and at any rate are not checking their twitter feeds every day. The reality is that I’ll get around 100 ‘impressions’ for just some random tweet.  But if people ‘like’ or better ‘retweet’ a tweet of mine, I’ll get well over 100, since the tweet is now exposed to the eyeballs on the likers or retweeters tweets.

Clear?

Once, I tweeted some insults at Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and that Tyson fellow. These resulted in over 100,000 impressions a day for a few days. People took sides, tempers flared, people insulted me back. Good times. Otherwise, I’ll post from 0 to 2 tweets and get 250 impressions on a typical day.  Days go by without me tweeting or even looking. I really have no idea what to make of Twitter.

Anyway, back to my research. What I’ve discovered: using ‘impressions’ as a surrogate for ‘funny’, I have no idea what other people think is funny.  What I mean: if people ‘like’ and retweet a joke, more eyeballs hit it. If they don’t, fewer. So the number of eyeballs could be a measure of how funny a joke is. Maybe. It’s a stretch, but – maybe.

Back when I was writing these jokes, this one, that I tossed off as a ‘meh’ joke, was my most admired quip based on largely anecdotal evidence, for reasons that escape me:

People often wonder what it is that makes the Beatles so great. I think it is probably their songs.

That got a fairly decent response on Twitter. I have no idea why. I’ve only been doing this for a week, but so far, my ‘best’ joke by far based on Twitter metrics is:

The tiny fish gets eaten by the little fish, which gets eaten by the big fish, which gets eaten by the bigger fish, which gets put into a can and fed to my cat.  Personally, I’m holding off marveling at the grandeur of Nature at least until the cat can use the can opener.

Ok, I guess. Over 700 sets of eyeballs have seen this in the couple hours since I threw it up there.

For comparison, here are two of my favorites that still crack me up, in the form of headlines – haven’t tweeted them yet:

Child Development Center Releases Prototype

and

Phlogiston Blamed in Antique Shop Fire

My understanding of humor is, um, idiosyncratic? Is that too nice a way to put it?

 

 

Data

(30 seconds of web searching didn’t uncover one of my favorite cartoons – a solid, no-nonsense business man at his desk, reading a magazine titled “Raw Data”. So you’ll just have to imagine it.)

Two items drifted across my computer screen recently brought to our attention by author and inventor Hans Schantz:

First off, a way-cool map

This is a way-cool map, but brought up a few questions. I responded:

Fascinating. Does this show that Europeans are much better at keeping track of their battles, engage in more formal battles, some combination, or what?

He didn’t know. I didn’t see this information on the map’s web page, but I didn’t really search hard, either. And:

Big picture data collection/validation problems are often ignored. e.g., what’s a battle? 10 guys throwing rock? 20? How about spears? Is a siege a battle? How about an invasion, with little resistance? All those Italian Renaissance ‘battles’ w/ mercenaries & few/no casualties?

A few other considerations: 10 guys throwing rocks might, indeed, be a battle if we’re talking Irish villages of 1,500 years ago or conflicts between hunter-gatherer tribes, while a hundred men with machine guns slugging it out on the periphery of major battle lines might not even qualify as a footnote. Was the bombing of Nagasaki a battle? Why or why not? And so on.

I dig a good map as much as anyone, and admire clever representations of data. But, alas! experience has taught me the sad truth: few, if any, popular maps/data representations are worth the electronic media they are encoded in. This map says, at a glance, that Europeans have many more recorded battles than anybody else. One is sore tempted to think, therefore, Europeans are just that much more violent than other peoples.

Well? Does the map actually say that? We can’t tell without a boatload more information. We do know that, in general, Europeans (and Southwest Asians and Egyptians) were very much into written (and engraved – you get the picture) records than most other cultures at most other times.

Next, this movie of the sun at various wavelengths and enhanced various ways.

Really beautiful stuff, and glorious to see the coronal mass ejections and the magnetic field lines.

But, obviously, we, meaning actual human beings, are not ‘seeing’ any of this directly. All the images of the sun are heavily filtered and enhanced to give us these views. This is true not only here, where simply looking at the sun would blind us, but also for all those glorious Hubble pictures and the fly-by images we get of the planets and other objects in the solar system.

This is a different kind of data problem: we’re trusting that the technicians that worked on this are trying to show us what’s there, in a way. What’s there is, strictly speaking, mostly invisible to us – too bright, too dim, not enough contrast, and so on. I trust the technicians are trying merely to give us the most beautiful and informative pictures they can, mostly because that serves both their mission and their interests. Not so much on the battles map, because it could be used to serve a popular political position. Not saying the map makers are necessarily doing that, just that is very easily could be done. Examples of just such underhanded dishonesty are unfortunately legion.

Data points get made into facts, as Mike Flynn often points out, via the assumptions and theories that surround their collection and presentation. No great landmines in these two examples, but even here it bears keeping in mind.

Make a Difference! 5/6 Music at Mass Review

Attended a lovely and efficacious mass at which a passel of 2nd graders received their first Holy Communion. The younglings cleaned up nicely, and were dressed in lovely little white dresses and little coats and ties, each according to the sex God gave them.

I mention this because we were in San Francisco, among people many of whom consider those who merely roll their eyes at Archbishop Cordileone reactionary troglodytes. Take nothing for granted. This lovely church is in North Beach, perched between the harbor below and Embassy Row above.

The views are nice. Million dollar, even.

We entered this lovely building and discovered a cacophony. It seems the idea that the interior of a Catholic Church especially in the minutes before Mass might be a place best reserved for silence or at least quiet is one of those ideas held only by the above-mentioned troglodytes.

File:DVinfernoVirgilShowSoulsOfWrathful m.jpg
Virgil shows Dante the souls of the Wrathful. Not so much silent reflection on the sins that brought them here, but rather a whole bunch of wailin’ and railin’. Seriously, it wasn’t like this at Mass. The people were clothed. 

So, a minute or two after Mass was to start, the celebrant came out to ask people to please quiet down so we could begin. After a few moments, things settled down to the usual background of rustling paper and clothes and whispers, and we began.

Silly me – I looked at the hymn board, and looked up the opening hymn, which was Jesus Christ is Risen Today. Alleluia, indeed! Only to have my wife hand me a program a moment later, which had Sing a New Song as the opening ditty.

Aaaaand – it was all downhill from there. But let’s not bicker about ‘oo killed ‘oo. Rather, I here want to beat on another dead horse: participation in the singing was effectively zero: the nice lady sincerely strumming her guitar and singing into the thankfully not deafening sound system basically went solo. At least, the participation in the songs – and we’re talking songs that have been sung to death for 50 years now – was not enough to drown out the ambient (to borrow Brian Neimeier’s favorite word) susurrus. I, following my general rule of singing along if the song, however terrible, is not actively heretical, started singing – and drowned out the other hundreds of people there. With a lingering high chest cold and not going all Pavarotti on it, either. Just audibly singing.

The rest of the tunes were less well known to me, at least. The mass commons were in that style, praise music, I believe it’s called, where one note follows another without nearly enough structure to warrant being called a tune, yet the guitar strumming remains vigorously sincere. Since the sheet music was not provided and no mortal power could consistently guess what note was coming next, the song leader’s solo continued unchallenged, even by me.

Finally, right before the hellish cacophony resumed, we sang a little ditty I’d been mercifully spared from before, or else my mind purged the memory in an act of desperate self-preservation: Go Make a Difference. Check this action out:

Go make a dff’rence, we can make a diff’rence
Go make a diff’rence in the world
Go make a diff’rence we can make a diff’rence
Go make a diff’rence in the world

So, we are to go make a difference – excuse me, diff’rence – in the world. OK, then. My first thought was to find a freeway overpass and drop cinder blocks into oncoming traffic – that will make a diff’rence!

But of course, that’s not what the author means! He mean, I suppose, to make a difference – excuse me again! – diff’rence – by, oh, fomenting violent revolt by the oppressed masses. Because if it were anything such as feeding the hungry or, God forbid! repenting of our sins, he’d have said so right out front.

But he didn’t. In the verses, we get:

We are the salt in the earth, called to let the people see
The love of God in you and me
We are the light of the world, not to be hidden, but be seen
Go make a diff’rence in the world

We are the hands of Christ, reaching out to those in need
The face of God for all to see
We are the spirit of hope, we are the voice of peace
Go make a diff’rence in the world

Salt *in* the earth? Not *of*?  Like, salting the fields so that nothing will grow? Salt in food, is the Biblical image. Merely confused, and unnecessarily so, since in and of scan exactly the same here. So, why?

At least that God person does get mentioned, three times even, albeit not until line two of the first verse. On the other hand, counting the implied ‘you’ of the imperative ‘go,’ we have 27 references to you, we, us, and so on. So we see where this is focused.

But is that God person actually referenced 3 times? Glad you asked – not really, or at least in odd ways that point back to us. At no point is God simply recognized as our God and Savior, Creator of the World, worthy of our love and praise and source of all goodness. In each case, God is raised up only to be a mirror in which we see ourselves.

Each of the three cases, God twice and Christ once, do not refer directly to God. Instead, they not so subtly say *we* are God. In the first and most readily defensible case, the ‘love of God in you and me’ is what we’re talking about. Are we actually talking about our Creator Father here? Or rather about how cool we are that we are showing people a love already in us with no hint of a struggle let alone the real possibility that we could reject that love. Nope, a simple given.

In the second, the writer likewise uses a traditional formulation – many saints have said this – to say we are Christ’s hands. The difference is – oops, excuse… oh, heck with it! – that the saints were cajoling and warning us: don’t wait around for God to act in some miraculous manner. YOU are that tool, however imperfect, in God’s hands. The sense of awe and unworthiness, and concomitant need to rely entirely on God’s strength and grace, is not so subtly lacking here in this song. Nope, we got this.

Finally, the assertion that we are the face of God, while again true, is oddly backwards from how the saints talk about it – Mother Teresa, for one example out of many, recognized the face of Christ in the poor she served, and thus was strengthened in her efforts to serve them. It is others, largely to the horror of the saints so identified, who see God’s face in us. Well, in the saints, at any rate.

Read just about any old Catholic hymn to compare and contrast, and you’ll see what I mean here.

But, again, I am grateful to have attended Mass and received the Blessed Sacrament with my brothers and sisters in Christ on a lovely Sunday in a beautiful church, together with that passel of charming 2nd graders. In comparison to that great act of God’s mercy and love, my complaints are utterly trivial.