Kid Stuff & Week in Review

1. While sitting outside a Jamba Juice store, overheard a couple little boys talking with their mom:

Little boy # 1: Mom, when you pass the driving test, do they give you a free car?

Mom: (unintelligible)

LB #1: Then how do you get one?

LB #2; You have to *buy* it!

Life is harsh.

2. Last night, we had a half-dozen or so little boys over for the Caboose’s 11th birthday sleepover, delayed over 3 weeks since his actual birthday due to sickness and scheduling. After extensive trampolining, video-game playing and personal pizza making, the living room was converted into a single massive blanket & sheet fort, and about midnight, kids actually went to sleep. (Sleep? I believe we were made of sterner stuff Back In The Old Days(tm))

This morning, I made the crew pancakes. There was some leftover pizza. A kindly neighbor, who buys a box of donuts for a Saturday morning gathering of Mormons of some sort, brought over the leftovers, as he often does (we’re the neighbor with the most kids around).

So: was little boy heaven achieved? Breakfast of pizza, donuts and pancakes? My wife whipped up a batch of whipped cream to go on, I imagine, the pancakes, but who an I to judge? Here’s a little photographic evidence:

Historic Breakfast
In order: the remains of pizza, syrups, donuts, whipped cream, and pancakes, during a lull in the action.

3. On a somewhat more serious note, someone on Twitter pointed out that 18 minutes of conveniently erased tape was considered damning evidence against Nixon, but now days, years of government emails go missing not once, not twice, but an amazingly coincidental number of times as was required to remove all trace of thousands of IRS and State Depart official records that could have shed some light on certain activities that, on the surface appear to have been, you know, not to put too fine a point on it, traitorously criminal , and – what? We who are curious are somehow the bad guys, while those members of the press who brought down Nixon for far, far less serious crimes(1) are heros to this day? This right here is a farther, faster decent into unchecked government power than even I, at my most curmudgeonly, thought we were now capable of.

4. Finally, I’m of mixed feelings about the following, which appeared in Facebook the other day – it’s illustrative but a little childish. The game is to take spewings from a Social Justice Warrior, and replace their targeted ‘hate group’ with ‘Jews’ and then frame it up (usually with a picture) as something Hitler said. It’s enlightening, I suppose, if one had failed to notice the similarity before – I mean, you either hold individuals accountable (judging by the ‘content of their character’) or you condemn all individuals within a group for the crimes of the group – blacks, say, or capitalists, or men, even.  The first is what we think of as justice – each suffering or rewarded according to his merits – while the second is just tribal bigotry with several coats of Hegelian/Marxist paint on it. I don’t know if funny pictures playing the Hitler card will help, even if they are accurate and justified.

So, I guess I won’t link it here, unless somebody asks.

1. Not that Nixon didn’t deserve what he got, but if cheating to win an election were such a terrible crime, how does any politician from Chicago ever get hold office? Compare this crime with fomenting revolt in foreign governments – that’s what our cheerleading of the ‘Arab Spring’ (how’s that working out, btw?) was, effectively, and having said revolts result in our own diplomats getting murdered by mobs, or using the most coercive and invasive arm of the government – the IRS – to get at your enemies and, well, cheat at an election – and THEN have vast numbers of official government documents (that’s what the emails are, no matter what certain harpies and sirens may claim) be admittedly destroyed – and that’s ok? So OK that only a partisan meanie would even bring it up? That’s Teapot Dome we see receding quickly in the political rear view mirror.

Old Maps

From Wikipedia/public domain. The oldest original cartographic artifact in the Library of Congress: a portolan nautical chart of the Mediterranean Sea. Second quarter of the 14th century.

Here is an article from Discover on old ‘portolan’ maps. I’ve been interested in them since childhood because of this book, which I pulled off the shelf at the Whittier Public Library sometime during elementary school period.

John Hessler, the cartographer upon whose work the article in Discovery is based, believes that ancient cartographers could have obtained the remarkable accuracy seen in portolan maps by very carefully compiling the notes and compass directions used by the pilots of the day, and iterating. Charles Hapgood, the author of the book from my childhood, took the position that, in order to account for the amazing accuracy of the maps, the cartographers would have had to have had access to accurate longitudinal reading on the various locations.

Digression: if I have a sextant, and can see the North Star, I can get a pretty darn good reading on my latitude – how far north or south I am. (at least, in the Northern Hemisphere). Finding latitude is a simple, well-understood process. But to find my longitude – how far west or east I am – I need a very accurate clock in addition to a sextant. Say I take a reading on a star above the eastern horizon. Unlike the North Star, which appears to stay put at almost exactly true north, this eastern star appears to move as the earth rotates. In order to determine my position east or west, I need to know at exactly what time the star appeared to be, say, 30 degrees off the horizon.

The way that works: my clock – a marine chronometer – is set to the time at a place at which the apparent distance above the horizon of many star has been carefully measured at precise times. Say, Greenwich, England, where, not coincidentally, the Royal Observatory is located, and through which runs the Prime Meridian. So, I know that, at Greenwich, the star I’m looking at at precisely 10:00 p.m. Greenwich Mean time is, say, 20 degrees above the horizon due east. But it’s 30 degrees above the horizon where I’m looking at it through my sextant. Using the difference between where the star appears in Greenwich and where it appears to me at the exact same time, with a little math, I can figure out where I am east and west relative to the Prime Meridian – assuming my clock is very accurate. A few seconds off can mean miles, or safely out at sea or on the rocks.

So, Hapgood assumed that there was no way to get the degree of longitudinal accuracy without very good timepieces. Therefore, he asked: who had such great clocks? and then speculated on some lost ancient race of navigators. All very exciting – and far-fetched.

Now Hessler proposes a more mundane explanation, which merely requires a vast catalog of navigator’s notes and great patience and attention to detail. Not sure we should declare the mystery solved quite yet. I suppose some place like Genoa or Venice might have the navigational notes, and certainly Italy has the geniuses, and they did lots of stuff – cathedrals, mosaics – that took insane perseverance and attention to detail. So, maybe it would work. Must think about it more.

Anyway, fun stuff!

While We’re Talking Education…

This essay by Theodore Dalrymple, brought to my attention via a comment here by Mary, on this post at Sarah Hoyt’s blog (phew!) contained the following:

Education has always been a minority interest in England. The English have generally preferred to keep the bloom of their ignorance intact and on the whole have succeeded remarkably well, despite a century and a quarter of compulsory schooling of their offspring.

Dalrymple is a master of that English art of bitter cynicism with a light touch. Somewhere, I once read that the genesis of compulsory schooling in England had to do with Labor demanding shorter working hours (full-time work was running 60-72/hrs/wk at the time) in order that workers would have time to educate themselves, among other things. The thought that poor people should get to choose what they studied and be provided with time to study it so terrified the leaders of the day that compulsory schooling was instituted instead. Dodged a bullet there!

Dalrymple goes on:

In the past their ignorance was purely passive: the mere absence of knowledge. Of late, however, it has taken on a more positive and malign quality: a profound aversion to anything that smacks of intelligence, education, or culture. Not long ago, there was a popular song whose first lines successfully captured this widespread mood of hostility: We don’t need no education,/We don’t need no thought control. And a couple of months ago, I noticed some wall posters advertising a new song: “Poor, White, and Stupid.”

Hey, I kind of like that Pink Floyd song! (As much as I like anything by them – I think you need drugs to truly appreciate Pink Floyd.) I always read it as anti-schooling (‘though control’) not anti learning. Evidently, based on the rest of the essay, I was wrong. Oh, well.

And this sounds a lot like America:

Clearly, something very strange is happening in our schools. Our educational practices are now so bizarre that they would defy the pen of a Jonathan Swift to satirize them. In the very large metropolitan area in which I work, for example, the teachers have received instructions that they are not to impart the traditional disciplines of spelling and grammar. Pettifogging attention to details of syntax and orthography is said to inhibit children’s creativity and powers of self expression. Moreover, to assert that there is a correct way of speaking or writing is to indulge in a kind of bourgeois cultural imperialism; and to tell children that they have got something wrong is necessarily to saddle them with a debilitating sense of inferiority from which they will never recover. I have met a few teachers who disobey these instructions in an atmosphere of clandestinity, in fear for their jobs, rather reminiscent of the atmosphere which surrounded those who secretly tried to propagate truth behind the late Iron Curtain.

Now now, we wouldn’t fall for that – we have Common Core, through which our kids learn to regurgitate correctly on command. Good thing we broke off from England, when was that? 1940s?

Not a single one of my young patients has known the dates of the Second World War, let alone of the First; some have never heard of these wars, though recently one young patient who had heard of the Second World War thought it took place in the eighteenth century. In the prevailing circumstances of total ignorance, I was impressed that he had heard of the eighteenth century. The name Stalin means nothing to these young people and does not even evoke the faint ringing of a bell, as the name Shakespeare (sometimes) does. To them, 1066 is more likely to mean a price than a date.

Right now, I’m half way through Mike Flynn’s excellent Firestar, in which the protagonist, in order to reignite space exploration, takes as a necessary step the (partial) take over of the schools. She knows that, as long as kids have no vision, let alone no competence, mankind cannot explore space – you need fired-up, skilled people for that, and plenty of ’em.

If the state of education was the result of mere incompetence, we’d have fixed it already; if it was a result of bureaucratic inertia (and Pournelle’s Iron Law) we might still make progress. But what if it is working exactly as designed? What if the incompetence and inertia are means to an end? Not unavoidable problems, but rather the tools chosen for the task? How do you change that?

When we say that whatever can’t go on forever will eventually end, that doesn’t mean it will end well. Chesterton once said that juries exist because some things are just too important to leave up to the experts. The education of our children is one such thing.

Education Unrest in Hong Kong

Here is an essay by Michael Sadofsky, titled Dateline: Hong Kong, describing his experiences at a recent conference on education, from the Sudbury Valley School blog. It describes the currrent state of education in Hong Kong that is, in many ways, the fulfillment of the vision of schooling shared by our modern educators as well as by Fichte, Humboldt and Mann – the total takeover of the child’s life by the education process, as well as the parent’s subsumption into that process, whereby they become agents of the schools in this effort.

The conference was pitched on alternative approaches to the mainstream model that was described as: “Behave + study well = University + success ever after.” In HK this means: 800,000+ school children, 150+ months of school, 100+ (high stakes) tests, exams, and interviews, 60 hours of schooling and homework each week, and finally a single exam to determine which 18% enter university.

In HK, two and three year olds compete in interviews to determine their eligibility for selective preschools. As an example, from the South China Morning Post, “Pinky Cheng Mei-nang, 38, is another tiger mum-turned-revolutionary. She once applied to more than 30 kindergartens across several districts for her son, forcing the then two-year-old to endure several interviews a week, sometimes two in a day.” Academies and “cram-schools” are everywhere. It’s competition from the get-go.

Well? Isn’t this what we want? It’s a mean old world out there – better educate the living hell out of kids from the moment of birth, until they are the fit that survive, not the unfit who don’t. How does something like 30 hours of homework a week sound as an after school program? Whether a kid actually learns much of anything academic from all that work is questionable; that he learns that school culture is his culture is ensured – he has no time or opportunity to learn otherwise.

As Fichte says, the ‘State and its advisers’ are to take control of the education of children. The modern refinement: properly educated parents, the kind who sweat bullets over getting their 2 year old into the proper preschool, are the means to this end.

BUT: This conference is evidence that, even in Hong Kong, the homeland of high-achieving kids, this act is wearing thin. When kids start killing themselves over shortcomings in school, that will get the attention of at least some parents. So there’s a group starting a Sudbury School in Hong Kong – about as diametrically opposed to the current practices as can be imagined. I’m praying they succeed. However, if they do, they then pose a challenge to the existing gigantic and lucrative educational structure. Some places – Germany is a prominent (and inevitable) example – simply outlaw any education not in conformity with the national model. I don’t know enough about Hong Kong to imagine how this will shake out. It’s a very good sign that they’re trying.

Science! Sci Am Needs a Thought Checker

Today, from the formerly fine publication that was the second magazine I ever subscribed to as a teenager in the 1970s, which I read religiously for decades, and, finally, about 15 years ago, canceled once it became dumbed down political noise, we hear that Mass Deaths in Americas Start New CO2 Epoch. How would that work? Like this:

The atmosphere recorded the mass death, slavery and warfare that followed 1492. The death by smallpox and warfare of an estimated 50 million native Americans—as well as the enslavement of Africans to work in the newly depopulated Americas—allowed forests to grow in former farmland. By 1610, the growth of all those trees had sucked enough carbon dioxide out of the sky to cause a drop of at least seven parts per million in atmospheric concentrations of the most prominent greenhouse gas and start a little ice age. Based on that dramatic shift, 1610 should be considered the start date of a new, proposed geologic epoch—the Anthropocene, or recent age of humanity—according to the authors of a new study.

“Placing the Anthropocene at this time highlights the idea that colonialism, global trade and the desire for wealth and profits began driving Earth towards a new state,” argues ecologist Simon Lewis of Leeds University and the University College of London. “We are a geological force of nature, but that power is unlike any other force of nature in that it is reflexive, and can be used, withdrawn or modified.”

“the most prominent greenhouse gas” is CO2? Really? More prominent than, say, water vapor? Oh well, this is only from Scientific American, we can’t expect them to get the science right or anything.

But I miss the point – we are GUILTY!

“This little rat is GUILTY!”

The horrors inflicted by the ancestors to some of us (1), even though they lead to reforestation, are still, I guess, bad. Let us count the ways. Remember, this is Science! About 500 years ago:

1. Millions of Indians died of smallpox and other diseases once these diseases were introduced or reintroduced into the population by the early European explorers. Some (much smaller) number were killed more directly by the European settlers;

2. Africans were rounded up (by other Africans, but why start quibbling now?) and sold to slavers who sold them to plantation owners in the Americas and elsewhere;

3. Due to the resulting reduction in the number of farmers represented by the fall in the number of Indians and the transfer of entire populations of Africans, forests grew on what used to be farmland;

4. Trees suck CO2 out of the air when they grow. A lot of trees suck a lot of CO2 out of the air;

5. A reduction of at least 7 PPM in atmospheric CO2 resulted by around 1610;

6. A little ice age resulted.

Now, let’s apply a little thought to these points:

A minor quibble: taking African farmers and turning them into slave farmers doesn’t in itself reduce the number of farmers. Maybe they just mean the ones that died? That would reduce the number of farmers. Then again, per capita, perhaps slaves farmed larger areas than did free Africans? That would seem to be the goal – get as much farming as you could out of the slaves. So, it’s not clear what, if any, role slavery played in reforestation. No big deal, except scientists owe it to us to be precise in such claims.

Now for the real issue:

If a change in 7 PPM in the atmosphere – a coupe percent change – is enough to start a little ice age, then the massive change of over 100 PPM (from a tiny, tiny percent to a somewhat less tiny percent, but still)  that’s happened in the last couple hundred years should, if in fact the atmosphere is that sensitive to CO2, caused a complete meltdown of everything – by, like, now. But even by their own numbers, the atmosphere is heating up just a tiny bit, and hasn’t heated up at all in the last couple decades, even as the CO2 keeps piling up.

The reasonable conclusion: temperature just isn’t very sensitive to changes in atmospheric CO2. Almost doubling it has had, at most, a tiny effect. So, if theory says it should have a huge effect, such that a 7 PPM decrease was enough to start a little ice age, then a 100+PPM increase should have remarkable effects.

But it hasn’t. Therefore, the theory is what we call ‘wrong’ and needs to be discarded.

Here’s the inevitable confusing graph:


Note how CO2 is indicated to decrease in 1610, which causes – well, nothing much. The trend revealed by the eyeballs seems to be continuing unchanged from the beginning of the graph.

*** AH! I made a gross error in the post. Goofed in reading the above graph. Must be going blind. Eliminated the wrong picture and comments. Sincere apologies to all, especially the authors at Sci Am. Thanks to TOF for pointing it out***

The essay concludes:

And this new epoch could end quickly or endure through millennia, depending on the choices our species makes now. “Embracing the Anthropocene reverses 500 years of scientific discoveries that have made humans more and more insignificant,” Maslin notes. “We argue that Homo sapiens (2) are central to the future of the only place where life is known to exist.”

(I always love the flexibility with which ideas are used or discarded based on emotional needs. For example, I’m betting these folks would argue all day that free will is an illusion over coffee in the faculty lounge – here, it is an ominous central reality; or that life must be all over the place in the universe due to uniformitarianism, Sagan, the Drake equation and so on, but here we need to think we’re all there is in order for the proper emotional note to be struck. It’s odd, isn’t it?)

So, this little piece, under the guise of an arcane discussion of geological classification, end up trying to get us all nodding together and clucking our tongues at how mean people have been historically, and how we’re going to ruin everything unless we are made to behave better. Who, oh who, will save us from ourselves?


1. Not me, personally, I don’t think – I got Eastern European peasants, low-lifes from Scotland and Ireland, and even a little Cherokee in me. I don’t think any of those guys did much Indian slaughtering or African enslaving. Some of them eventually did farm land in Oklahoma and Texas, which means they benefited indirectly from the deaths of Indians and the slaughter of buffalo (don’t forget the buffalo!) which made land available, as it were. Not to mention that I personally haven’t slaughtered or enslaved anyone, or even killed a buffalo (although a lot of innocent cows, pigs, chicken and fish have realized their personal final causes for my benefit) – that would seem to be part of ‘guilt’ wouldn’t it? Am I missing something here?

2. If we are just mammals, all precedent suggests we’ll not last more than a few million years, tops, and probably shorter than that. Mammals are just not very long-lived as species – hardly any that are around today are more than a few million years old. The earth and the life on it is almost certain to outlast people by hundreds of millions of years. Plus – get real. It is all but unimaginable that humans could do anywhere near as much damage as the event that wiped out the dinosaurs – and, within a couple million years, a visitor from another planet would hardly suspect anything untoward had even happened – the earth was back to crawling with life of every sort. I guess what I’m saying: pick a perspective and stick to it – don’t keep jumping around from various geological to various human scales.

Why Kids Are Not Taught Poetry

Now I’m totally hooked on Firestar, a novel by Mike Flynn. Was up till midnight reading, and so am doing that whole neck-snap thing as I doze off at my desk. Just fetched my 3rd cup of coffee. 5 hours of sleep is just not enough any more. I’m around page 200 of around 850. Couple more nights…

I may be the only reader who finds the educational reform aspects of the novel more gripping than the spaceship stuff. They are very well imagined, and, with a little effort I can suspend my disbelief: is meaningful reform of the current educational system more or less fantastical than, say, warp drive? Hmmm. But it’s really refreshing to find somebody really smart willing to rethink it all.

In a wonderful scene, inner city black kids are shooting hoops on a court that is a trap: two sides are building walls, the side that faces the street is chain link fenced with a single gate, and the back, which fronts an alley, is also fenced, although local wisdom has resulted in a hole being cut in it.

A black sedan drives slowly by, and everybody freezes – it’s the rival gang. After a couple moments during which the kids fear for their lives, the cars speeds away.

Lars Porsena from the Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum.

Three of the kids are best friends. They imagine themselves as, somehow, defending the neighborhood from the rival gang; at the very least, they would be defending themselves and the rest of their gang. The wisest of the three knows they have just escaped a very dangerous situation, in which, had violence broken out, all 7 people on the court would likely have been gunned down. One of them starts reciting a poem that they learned in their reformed school: Horatius at the Bridge

The three stood calm and silent,

And looked upon the foes,

And a great shout of laughter

From all the vanguard rose;

And forth three chiefs came spurring

Before that deep array;

To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,

And lifted high their shields, and flew

To win the narrow way.

Very appropriate. The poem is about how 3 brave Roman soldiers defended Rome against an invading army lead by the Etruscan king Lars Porsena around 509 B.C. They volunteered to defend the far side a bridge over the Tiber to give the rest of the troops time to cut it down, facing thousands of enemy troops. The kids change the last lines to more appropriately fit their circumstances.

But we can’t teach kids poems like this, not in a modern, state-run, ‘scientific’ school – the lines immediately preceding these, which are not stated in the novel, are:

Then none was for a party—

Then all were for the state;

Then the great man helped the poor,

And the poor man loved the great;

Then lands were fairly portioned!

Then spoils were fairly sold:

The Romans were like brothers

In the brave days of old


Now Roman is to Roman

More hateful than a foe,

And the tribunes beard the high,

And the fathers grind the low.

As we wax hot in faction,

In battle we wax cold;

Wherefore men fight not as they fought

In the brave days of old

This would suggest that not everything is better now than it used to be, breaking the first commandment of modernity: Thou shalt firmly affirm and believe that NOW is in every way better than THEN. Further, you’d need a little history, a little background, to understand this poem. Third, it’s not at a 6th grade reading level and includes plenty of words a kid has never seen before. You get kids started in thinking and investigating, and goodness knows what they’ll be up to next!

But, more important, it shows men willing to die for their city, and condemns partisanship. The poem points out that there is an inverse relationship between partisan fervor and bravery at arms: if a nation’s energy goes into one, the other will suffer – nothing George Washington wouldn’t say. In a world where claiming the appropriate victim status is the height of social enlightenment, there is no place for such things as wholesome patriotism.

Poetry instills a sense of beauty and history, and refines the ear. To love good poetry is to love the past, or at least see a little good in it. Poetry is another gateway drug to independent thought.(1) Can’t have that in a well run modern school.

I commend Mr. Flynn for his audacity and imagination in reforming schooling in his novel, in part, by reintroducing poetry. The Greeks, not to mention Americans in our one room schools before the ‘educators’ exterminated them, taught largely by means of poetry: An educated Greek knew Homer, as in: had the Iliad and the Odyssey committed to memory; the readers used in American one room schools were chock-full of poetry.

Those ancient Greeks and our American ancestors just a few generations back achieved things, set the bar for human excellence in many areas. They were no more perfect than we are, but didn’t let that stop them from dreaming and doing. Now? We wring our hands over stuff like ISIS and Boko Harum – what to do? Woe is us! Can you imagine what a Teddy Roosevelt or a Pericles would do faced with a similar issue? The image of stomping cockroaches comes to mind.

1. I can only remember being required to memorize a poem in school once: Baudelaire’s “The Enemy” in a college French class. It’s a miracle I didn’t need to take up alcoholism in order to drink that memory away. On the plus side, life presents many occasions where  Ô douleur! ô douleur! Le Temps mange la vie is a very proper response – and I can make it! In French, even!

On my own, apart from the many hymns I’ve learned, I’ve memorized Donne’s A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Daywhich, while a perfectly beautiful poem, does not inspire one to political action of any kind. Also, know a boatload of Ogden Nash. And – that’s about it. Sad, really.

Reading Update: Myth, Sci Fi & Fantasy. And Hegel.

Bumbling around on several things at once – let’s just say ‘multitasking’ in a tone of voice neither judgmental nor ironic – and so have more books going at once than usual:

1. Fun reading: 15% or so into Firestar, first novel in a trilogy by Michael Flynn. So far, it is about spaceships and meaningful school reform – it’s Sci Fi and Fantasy!  Nyuck. We’re still at the getting to know the characters part, who, in Flynn tradition, number in the thousands. More or less.

For whatever reason, even though I’v ended up enjoying them a lot, it seems to take a while for Flynn’s books to hook me – this one only took about 100 pages, which is pretty quick. I’m hooked now, so I’ll get through this in a few days.

2. Research reading: As mentioned earlier, trying to learn a little about various mythologies, since myth plays a key role in the novel I’m pretending to write. So, in addition to Googling stuff and dumping paragraphs from here and there in a Google doc, I’m reading:

a. Polynesian Mythology, Vol I. A fairly slight book, but adequate to my needs. About 30% through.

b. An old paperback I picked up somewhere in the misty past (that is sitting by my bed where I am not now – will update later with exact info), put out many years ago by Oxford, that has too much detail on sources and variations on the actual stories, but is nonetheless useful – it lays out guess and theories about how the Greeks came to synthesize the gods and stories of the peoples they conquered or otherwise encountered, so that, in the end, they ended up with the archetypal Pantheon. I’ll need to think about that sort of process.

c. Our copy of Bullfinch is lying around someplace in the house – I was reading from it to the kids a couple years back. Must find it and reread.

d. Will probably, with a bit of trepidation, reread Man and His Symbols. I don’t like to be reminded of that time in my youth when I took Jung way too seriously. But I recall his classification of mythological types to be good or at least interesting. In particular, I’ll need my Tricksters to be convincing.

Surfing around, touched on Hindu mythology – I’m going to need a bunch of names, figured I’d go with Sanskrit roots for one of my cultures. Wow – that’s a LOT of mythology, there. But, outside some creation myth stuff, not sure what I’d want to know – I fear ‘everything’ is the answer, which leads to the question: how many more decades, really, am I expecting to live?

The final (for now) piece – I need some Mongol mythology. One of my cultures is a steppe-dwelling horse culture, so I’d want to look into that. I have only the vaguest notions, gleaned from the often risible Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern Worldwhich is that weird kind of revisionist history wherein the author thinks he’s revising your views, when every story he tells just confirms them. Put it this way: you really really didn’t want to be conquered by the Mongols – it did not go well for the victims. The (brief) glory that was the Mongol Empire consisted in their ability to accumulate a huge collection of other people’s stuff – their own contributions are objectively pretty negligible.

How my physical books look at me from the shelf or night stand. Kindle books don’t pull that kind of crap.

3. Spiritual reading: the reading group down at a local parish is reading Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. Good book. We’re about 1/3 into it.

4. By design, giving Hegel a rest for now – will pick up with Phenomenology of Spirit after Easter. I’m into the Introduction after surviving the Preface. I trust it gets less grueling.

And I never finished and reviewed that Orestes Brownson book the American Republic, which I should because it is good. It’s easier to forget about books on your Kindle than books physically confronting you with big, sad eyes.

Music at Mass: 03 07 2015, Taken as an Occasion to Explain Something

You know the Ode to Joy tune from Beethoven? One of the most glorious, yet simple and (put in a proper range) singable tunes ever penned. Not liking it is like booing Santa Claus – says more about you than the tune.

The master builds the melody on even quarter notes within a range of a fifth, with the following exceptions – punctuations, really: there is a dotted quarter/eight note figure at the end of 3 out of 4 phrases, and a single syncopated half note that anticipates the 4th line by a beat after a drop down to the dominant at the end of the 3rd line(1). Yet those little rhythmic features kick what otherwise might be a somewhat uninteresting tune to superstar status.

In the hands of Beethoven, a hymn tune can become a shout of martial joy, a march of triumph, while remaining imminently singable, in fact a total ear worm – I’ll probably be humming is the rest of the day. He achieves this through little rhythmic punches on an otherwise super direct and driving tune. This kind of stuff is what shows he’s a genius.

Now consider Kingsfold, one of my favorite tunes:

Here the rhythmic form is two eight notes leading into each phrase and half phrase – every single time. The punctuation here is additional 8th note pairs inserted toward the end of each phrase and in the middle of 3rd and 4th phrases, and a thrilling little run in the last phrase.

Notice that the rhythmic structure established in the first two phrases is deviated from exactly 3 times: in the 3rd beat of the first full measure of the 3rd phrase are two eight notes replacing a quarter; in the same location in the 4th phrase we get that ornamental run; and in last full measure of the third phrase, the 8th note figure is moved up a beat from the 3rd to the second beat.

And that’s it. This is a rocking, memorable, easy to sing tune. Kingsfold qualifies as fairly rhythmically adventurous by hymn standards, yet it works by laying down a very clear and distinctive pattern in lines 1 & 2, then adding clever and arresting variations to it. The untrained singer is not lost at all – after one or two hearings, Kingsfold has that feeling of inevitability that is characteristic of all great music, of how those notes and only those note fit.

The artistic use of structure and pattern not only make for beauty, they also make for singability.

Now consider the tune “Lead Me Lord” that we sang last Saturday at morning Mass (2). The first two lines, which repeat, making them the first 4 lines, look like this:

LML verse

Even quarter notes except for the ending white notes. It is as boring in practice as it is to look at, but a least it is easy to sing. Next comes the refrain, where the composer tries to liven things up a bit:

LML refrain

And so on. The composer totally shifts gear from smooth and easy to frantically syncopated in an attempt to add some interest. As written, it is all but unsingable – we know this by listening to congregations try to sing it.

On Saturday, I made an effort to sing the tune as written, and found myself doing battle with the consensus of the congregation which, not surprisingly, continued to sing even quarter notes with no regard to the desperate syncopation. Musically, this causes the tune to descend to the infantile level of Carey Landry’s work – the composer was right to see that the tune lacked something, and right to try to fix it. Unfortunately, the fix causes the chorus to be unsingable by the casual non-musician.

And this happens All. The. Time. Whereas real composers writing real music establish a melodic and rhythmic structure that the people can hang with *first*, *then* add a judicious amount of spice to kick it up a notch, modern ‘composers’ of church music lack the skill, the awareness and the sensibilities to do so. Instead, we have a sort of free verse style, where you don’t have any idea what’s coming next until it gets there, and tunes only become somewhat inevitable sounding after they’ve been beaten to death through repetition.

Sure it’s possible that with an enthusiastic enough group of singers leading this tune, the people in the pews can be lead to sing this piece sort of like it is written. It can be done; in fact, I’ve probably done it myself (Lord, forgive me!). Virtually all St. Louis Jesuits tunes require this – they are all but unsignable by the congregation as written.(3)  But WHY would you do that? Why not pick music that can enter the souls of the people? Where the internal logic of the music makes it satisfying, memorable and singable, instead of needing lyrics to make any sense out of the music? (4)

How often do we attend a Mass where for some reason the ‘liturgy team’ has deigned to throw the people a bone with a nice old hymn, and heard the volume and participation level double, even though we’re going on three generations since such music was the norm? Isn’t that a hint that something is wrong with the current ‘music’?

Beauty isn’t a sin.

1. All hymnals in my experience leave this out. Shame.

2. I am extremely grateful that there is a Saturday morning Mass 5 minutes from home, and I love all the people and the priest there, and that we sing an opening hymn a capella. This is not at all a criticism of the people choosing the music – through no fault of theirs, the repertoire known to them runs all the way from Carey Landry to David Haas.

3. A fact that goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of Haugen and Haas – by comparison, they are Rogers and Hammerstein level catchy. But only by comparison.

4. Will have to address this issue another day – music can have an internal logic, which all good hymns have, or it can rely on the external logic of a text. If the text happens to be beautiful poetry that written to a strict rhythm, we have at least the potential for a marriage made in heaven; if it’s doggerel or free-form, that’s what the music will end up being as well. Note that a lot of chant is based on unstructured texts, and is beautiful (and hard to sing!). Most modern church music is built on cliches and other adolescent texts, and is ugly (and hard to sing!)

Words I’ve had to look up more than once:

For whatever reason, I can’t (or couldn’t) seem to remember what they mean:

anodyne (and I’ll probably end up looking this one up again.)

cromulent (but, hey, it’s a made-up word from the Simpsons.)


sanguine (no really. I think the root in ‘blood’ makes the optimistic meaning seem weird – so I forget it.)


And, of course, a dozen other words I can’t remember at the moment.