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.

Monday Recap 11/9/2015


Following up on this bit about journalists overseeing science and this on the increasing thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet, we have a journalist telling us how we should understand things with this headline:  A controversial NASA study says Antarctica is gaining ice. Here’s why you should be skeptical. Chris Mooney, the reporter, has a bio here, which the uncharitable might notice contains no science background but is positively lousy with climate change advocacy. That ice sheets might be getting thicker at the same time they’re supposed to be melting is not a fact against which we measure and, if needed modify or discard our theories, it is a problem that needs to be explained away in order to save the theory.

Lets start by looking at that headline itself. First off, Mooney labels the new study ‘controversial’ – right off the bat, we’re pulling a ‘teach the controversy’ approach, which is bad in other contexts, but OK here I suppose. What’s going on, if you follow the links he provides, is that, once again, just as discussed in the post a couple days ago, we are comparing *as if they have equal weight* direct measurements of the ice sheet thickness (or as close as is possible to direct measurements as you can get in this situation – wide-spread satellite altitude measurements over time) with model output. The links to the people disputing the NASA findings are the usual incestuous pile of spaghetti, wherein everybody points to everybody else’s model output, and studiously avoids inconvenient truths like that the ‘hiatus’ disproves the models and that no model predicted the observed thickening of the ice sheets, which, you know, likewise disproves the models. He specifically refers to the other study I discussed yesterday, where a new model predict that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will, over the course of thousands of years, slip into the ocean and raise sea levels by over 10 feet – more recourse to model data in the face of observation. The dead god of reification waits dreaming.

It’s models all the way down. Which might be OK if they worked, as in made reasonably accurate predictions. But they don’t.


Local Wildlife Update: I’ve lived here – Concord, CA – for almost 20 years, and in the area for about 30. During this time, I’ve walked or biked on the canal path quite a bit, which takes one along the edges of some open space parks and a creek or two. We also lived for most of a year on the north side of Mt. Diablo, where people ride horses and carry rifles in case a mountain lion gets too curious (they tend to attack and kill the foals).

One trend is clear – there are more critters running around now than there were a couple decades ago. Over the last few years, we’ve had raccoons and opossums in our back yard, skunks in the front yard, and now see deer along the road and creek not 5 blocks for our completely suburban house.

Just waiting for the mountain lions to put in an appearance in the neighborhood – they could get from Mt. Diablo to here without hardly crossing a street by using the open space parks and creek.

Today, we’ll talk lizards:

Displaying IMG_2180.JPG
Small lizards, of the kind that hang out on the canal path.

In early spring each year, as soon as the weather starts warming up, one can see scads of these little lizards warming themselves on the asphalt of the canal path. Then, as summer rolls around, one sees fewer but larger specimens, until, when autumn falls, we’re down to very few but full grown (like 6-7″ long) adults, who vanish for the winter.

This year, spotted these two little ones – in November. Hmmm. Are they a different species, or did mom and dad jump the seasonal gun a bit? They are a bit lighter-colored than I remember. We’ve either added a species to the parade, or come across a change in reproductive behavior. Either way, it’s cool.


Speaking of lizards, a big one, different kind than the canal path lizards, hangs out by our compost bin. Unfortunately, so do rats. I wage war off and on against the rodents, but the world is certainly big enough for me and the Compost Pile Lizard.

But: conflict! I put out a rat trap, the old-school snap kind, and, not wanting to do in any squirrels or birds or a stray cat or skunk or – see the list above – I put it in an empty paint can and wedged it up against the fence in such a way as to prevent access to anything much larger than a rat. When I went back later to check, in the can, next to the untripped trap, sits the big lizard! No! I’d feel terrible if I killed it and worse if I maimed it. I managed to get him out without tripping the trap, then tripped the trap and took it out.

The next time I went out to dump compost, I looked again into the paint can which I’d left next to the bin – and there he was. That can was home sweet home. He has since disappeared, for the winter, I hope.


Mrs. Darwin’s thoughts on marriage are very good. A good marriage points both spouses toward God, as they come to see how, even as their love for each other grows and gets more perfect, it is not enough. Only God is enough.

I appreciate her recognition of how different her marriage is than anyone else’s. I’d generalize: no two marriages are identical, and there’s a wide range of good marriages.


Turns out I’m most like Catherine of Sienna among Dominican saints, according to a no doubt infallible internet quiz. Even though Dominic is my confirmation name. But I do love St. Catherine, so I’m good.

The Peanuts Movie

(A review in which I run completely off the rails. You’ve been warned.)

Last night, found myself in a family crowd containing three young children at a brother-in-law’s house. So we decided to go see the Peanuts Movie.

The creators – a couple of Charles Schultz’s kids, by the look of it – wisely went to the well: the movie featured plenty of Snoopy and the Red Baron, Charlie Brown trying to fly a kite and play baseball, school, and the Little Red-Headed Girl. Where it departs from canon is telling: there’s a sweet as opposed to bittersweet ending, where Charlie Brown gets to unambiguously succeed.

The kids loved it – it is a sweet movie. I liked most of the Red Baron stuff – as a kid, when I saw it for the first time on TV in the 60’s, I don’t think I’d ever laughed harder. Some of the Snoopy-in-love stuff seemed a bit shoe-horned into the story, but it was OK. The not-so-subtle mockery of school that occasionally peeked through in the strips was all but absent – too bad.

On a technical level, it was pretty movie to see, but the conflict arising by trying to preserve the simple pencil-drawing of the characters while sticking them into a lush CGI landscape wasn’t really resolved satisfactorily. Weird little bits like what to do with the little curl of hair on the back of Charlie Brown’s head didn’t work, and were distracting. All in all, the old TV movies captured the mood better, sticking with artwork that would have easily worked as comic strips.

Sadly, the soundtrack used only a few brief snippets of Vince Guaraldi’s wonderful music written for the the early TV movies. The story goes that the producer of the first TV special was looking for someone to do the score, and heard Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio, and the rest is history. Any excuse to use Guaraldi’s Peanuts music is a good one, so I feel a little cheated.

I wonder if people remember how sadistically cruel the strip and even the TV movies are? Here for example is the first strip, from 1950:

Hate him, a smiling little kid. No reason. Over time, it is established that Charlie Brown is incompetent and depressed – what could be more fun and funny than relentlessly mocking and excluding such a kid? At least, that seems to be the seed of the strip’s success.

I’m not a comics expert by any stretch, but I have long noticed the difference in tone between popular strips and cartoons from the 50’s and earlier and those of the 70’s and later, with a weird transition period between. In early Warner Brothers cartoons, for example, Bugs needs no reason to torment and humiliate Elmer Fudd, who had not yet become the murderous yet infantile character he later became in the 60s. Nope, Elmer could just be trying to camp or enjoy nature somehow, and Bugs was free to go at ’em. He needed no more justification than Lucy and the Peanuts kids need to hate Charlie Brown.

By the 60’s at some point, Elmer Fudd was typically trying to ‘kill the wabbit’, so that Bug’s torment of him was fully justified – a sort of Greedo shot first foreshadowing. Fudd was just getting his richly-deserved comeuppance. Similarly, from an emotional perspective at least, the sadistic treatment of Charlie Brown got toned down – he did have some friends, and his intransigent enemy Lucy was portrayed more as a kid with her own problems. Kids didn’t say they hated him as much. Even the name calling got toned down a bit. He’s still a blockhead from time to time – still pretty cruel – but that’s about it. But most important, the kids tormenting him, at least in the shows I saw, never got a commensurate comeuppance. Today, we’d all but expect Charlie Brown to kill himself or snap and go on a shooting rampage – Lucy never pays a price in the ballpark of that kind of damage. But, hey, there a plenty of the TV movies I’ve never seen

As I was talking about the movie with my wife, she pointed out that Peanuts was created by Charlie Schultz, so Charlie Brown should be understood as his alter ego – that he’s writing from inside the picked on, depressed kid, who is, after all, the character we are supposed to most identify with. Are we similarly meant to identify, not with Bugs Bunny, but with Elmer Fudd?

I think we are, after a fashion. In the 40’s and 50’s, when those cartoons and early strips were coming out, parents still told their kids that life isn’t fair. and no one could make it fair. A little boy and girl needed to get past the unfairness, do what they needed to do, and maybe, if they were blessed, life could be good. Not necessarily more fair, but good. So seeing Elmer suffer all those completely unfair indignities and seeing Bugs get no justice for having inflicted them was hilarious – because the people watching the cartoon did not expect fairness, and poor Elmer was getting dumped on in the most excruciating unfair manner possible – by a smirking joker he hadn’t even wronged!

People could identify with Elmer and the injustices he endured, and laugh at them as at themselves and their lots in life, even if Bugs escaped Scot-free. Similarly, the manifest injustice of Charlie Brown’s treatment was just a hyperbolic statement of the injustice any man might be called on to endure.

Once the 60’s ponderously whiffled into view, the emphasis switched from doing what is right in an unfair world to making the world fair – from working on what we, ourselves, can control as individuals to the advent of a universal fix only History or the Dialectic or the actions of a vanguard could make stick. As individuals, this means moving away from the idea of the noble failure, that life is unfair, I did my best, and that’s all anyone can do. After all, the old thinking goes, the *good* things in my life are also unfair – I didn’t pick my family or nation of birth, nor my sex, nor my talents. My job is to honor the good gifts and do good, not to wish that they had been otherwise.

In the new world, fairness matters supremely. Just doing good with what you’ve got is naive at best, and on the wrong side of History at worst. The emphasis switches from identifying with the undeserved suffering of Elmer Fudd and Charlie Brown to insisting that justice gets done. Finally, in the new Peanuts Movie (See? I eventually brought ‘er back around!) we get justice and fairness. Charlie Brown is a hero and gets the girl! It’s completely fair!

And more of a fantasy than Wiley E. Coyote’s repeated survival.

Confirmation Bias Unchained

What happens when confirmation bias (to put the best face on this) gets to the point where even facts that diametrically oppose the pet theory are drafted and beaten until they can be made to appear to support it?

Yesterday, as is my habit, was cruising the Google news science feed, and saw reports that satellite data shows that the Antarctic ices sheet is getting thicker. The day before, there were reports that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting (aside: West versus East of what? We’re all but standing on the South Pole. Hope there’s a colorful story to explain this..). Insert Wicked Witch of the West joke here, preferably involving flying monkeys.

Wicked Witch
“Great Circle route, you flea-bitten blue cretin!”

Reading a bit, we have on the one side, facts, as in things based on actual observation: satellite measurements of ice thickness(1). Here, no one to my knowledge is arguing that the facts don’t show that the Antarctic ice sheet is getting, on the whole, thicker. Now, what the facts mean or tell us is another kettle of krill. All I note here is that we’re starting with them:

Antarctica is gaining more ice than it has lost, according to a new study by NASA.

A NASA team came to this conclusion after scientists examined the heights of the region’s ice sheet measured from satellites.

On the other side, we start not with facts, but rather with models:

It won’t take much to cause the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse—and once it starts, it won’t stop. In the last year, a slew of papers has highlighted the vulnerability of the ice sheet covering the western half of the continent, suggesting that its downfall is inevitable—and probably already underway. Now, a new model shows just how this juggernaut could unfold. A relatively small amount of melting over a few decades, the authors say, will inexorably lead to the destabilization of the entire ice sheet and the rise of global sea levels by as much as 3 meters.

And, from a slightly more scientific version:

The current study was not an example of — and cannot replace — this difficult fieldwork. (In other words, no facts were gathered from Nature here –  it’s theory all the way down – ed.) Rather, the researchers used a complex ice sheet model that simulated the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, as well as the Antarctic peninsula and some of East Antarctica. They then simulated what they termed a 20 to 200 year “perturbation” to the region, in the form of increased rates of melt similar to what is believed may have already happened. “Our modeled sea-level contribution from the perturbed region lies well within the range of observations,” they say.

With a 60 year or greater perturbation, the model — which, the researchers caution, is only “a single realization of an ice-sheet model that applies approximations to the ice dynamics” — then produced a retreat that continues even without continuance of the perturbation. That is, after all, precisely what has been feared — that the region has an inherent “marine ice sheet instability,” as researchers put it.

Where, one might ask, are any pertinent facts in these paragraphs? A ‘slew’ of papers and a ‘new model’ are not, in themselves, facts relevant to this question. The idea – the theory, as it were – is that warming seas are causing the point at which the ice sheet cease floating on the sea and instead rest upon the land to move inland. In other words, the ice at the bottom of the West Arctic ice sheet is melting, and as it melts, more of the ices sheet is floating rather than resting on land (Much of Antarctica’s ‘land’ surface is below sea level but buried in ice.) Then, a new model predicts that the slow – one might say glacial – flow of the continental ice sheet into the ocean will speed up as a result. Thus, in the worse case scenario, the entire West Antarctic ice sheet could end up in the ocean, raising sea levels up to about 10′.(2)

Continue reading “Confirmation Bias Unchained”