Frivolous Links/Update

Every night this week I’ve had something up, and have something scheduled for tonight and tomorrow. A week straight of ‘free’ time rare and in 30 minute chunks. Mostly, I’ve been working on Bach in those breaks. But no stretches of an hour or two, not if I want to sleep – and I do.

Many of these things are fun – Chesterton Society Reading Group, Caboose’s violin lessons, the Feasts & Faith class I run – but they cut seriously into blogging time. Boo hoo, cry me a river.

I also sometimes look at stuff on the web – one can do that in small (exhausted) chunks of time. I’m addicted to people making stuff – go figure. The more outrageous, detailed and beautiful, the better. For example:

Here’s an Aussie who makes clocks and is working on making a replica of the Antikythera Mechanism:

Here’s a young couple who are building their own boat to live the rest of their lives on: https://saltandtar.org/

Here’s a maniac after my own heart: older guy building an ocean-going ship. In his front yard. In Tulsa, OK.:

And a 19 year old British kid who blacksmiths like a boss:

I’ll post something real first chance I get – I’m up to 102 drafts! Eyeeeeiii! Something in there has got to be blogable.

 

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Updates: Reading & Weekend

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius by [Machiavelli, Niccolò]1. Am reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, about 25% through. This is a book Jefferson had in his library. Got to wonder: in the concrete sense of what structures and laws were enacted after the Revolution, most importantly the Constitution itself, is this book the most influential of all? Not Locke or Hume and that crowd, but the 16th century Italian patriot?

Consider:

I say, then, that all these six forms of government (monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy & anarchy – ed.) are pernicious—the three good kinds, from their brief duration the three bad, from their inherent badness. Wise legislators therefore, knowing these defects, and avoiding each of these forms in its simplicity, have made choice of a form which shares in the qualities of all the first three, and which they judge to be more stable and lasting than any of these separately. For where we have a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy existing together in the same city, each of the three serves as a check upon the other.

 – CHAPTER II.—Of the various kinds of Government; and to which of them the Roman Commonwealth belonged.

Machiavelli is a fascinating guy. He points out that a new prince, having siezed the government, needs to destroy as much as possible all existing practices and institutions upon which people may resort in efforts to unseat him, going so far as to physically relocate people from their homes. Very The Prince, But then he says:

These indeed are most cruel expedients, contrary not merely to every Christian, but to every civilized rule of conduct, and such as every man should shun, choosing rather to lead a private life than to be a king on terms so hurtful to mankind. But he who will not keep to the fair path of virtue, must to maintain himself enter this path of evil. Men, however, not knowing how to be wholly good or wholly bad, choose for themselves certain middle ways, which of all others are the most pernicious, as shall be shown by an instance in the following Chapter.

– CHAPTER XXVI.—A new Prince in a City or Province of which he has taken Possession, ought to make Everything new.

The next chapter recounts tales of how even bad men flinch, and don’t do all the evil they should do were they without conscience and intent on ruling. This is the the kind of things that fuel the whole ‘Machiavelli is a patriot, and the Prince is a cautionary tale’ school of thought of which I am a member.

2. Ordered a couple more books that should get here early next week. I’m up to two stacks of books to read, one on the desk and another next to the bed,  that are approaching red tag status as they could kill somebody where they to collapse. OK, they could scare the heck out of the cat and cause a trip hazard – but it’s getting bad!

These two were on my wishlist from way back, saw them and said – I’ve got to read those! More education history stuff:

Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America Don’t know who the author is, but I figure he’ll at least point me to source materials.

The blurb:

Catholic education in America seems to have degenerated over the last few decades into a morass of modern humanism and secularism. How did we get to this point? This book provides the answers. By tying the relevant Magisterial documents into American history, we see how Catholic education began in America, why it suddenly changed in the late 1800s, and how those changes essentially guaranteed the failures we see in the 21st century.

This lines up with the impression I was getting from my other readings – that Shields and the experimental psychologists at Catholic University made an end-run around the bishops, slipping modernism into the Catholic schools by controlling the texts books and training of teachers.

And: American writers on education before 1865  just because. 

3. Writing this post to avoid cleaning up for another Brick Oven Blowout!!! (read in an epic Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! voice). Yep, having 20+ people over for some pizza, steak and ciabatta. Also going to try roast chicken. Got 3.5 hours to clean and prep, more than enough, if  – and only if – I get up RIGHT NOW and do it. Yummy fun!

IMG_4543

 

SciAm Reaches New Low?

Updates: 

  1. This came to my attention via a tweet from Joe Gehret. The screen capture and the observation about the crazy chronology are his. Didn’t link earlier because I just now figured out how to link back to Twitter (obvious in retrospect). Apologies – I’m a Luddite. 
  2. Angelius tracked down both the original and the revised/’corrected’ versions – this really is from SciAm – as you can see in the comments. Thanks! 

I hesitate, as I don’t even know how to check the source – tweet? blog? where? – but having this spewed out by SciAm unfortunately doesn’t seem far-fetched:

SciAm

How stupid is this? Let me count the ways:

  • 2500 years ago, there was no Alexandria – it was founded around 2300 years ago;
  • 2500 years ago, there were no bishops – that started just shy of 2000 years ago. Same goes for clerics;
  • Not the slightest evidence exists that the bishop ordered Hypatia’s death, or that he was offended she was a woman. He would naturally care she was a pagan, as that would mean she needed saving, but that would have made her one of many thousands in Alexandria to which that applied;
  • Re: Christian bigotry against educated women: About 100 years earlier, another woman scholar – Catherine of Alexandria – was also murdered. According to legend, she was a leading scholar of the time. In any event, she was martyred for being Catholic. (Also see this.)

Finally, if you want the real scoop on Hypatia, check out Mike Flynn here, as he’s helpfully assembled what is known and points out what is not known and contrary to fact. It takes a few minutes to read through and understand, thereby revealing Flynn’s bigotry against those with the attention span of squirrels and the intellectual depth of a coat of paint. You know, like the editors of SciAm. Nobody’s perfect.

Man Was Not Meant to Think Alone

I’ve long been struck by the philosophical and theological sundering of man from other men that began in the 16th century. Since ideas matter, as Sola anything and Cartesian navel-gazing replaced living tradition and the Question method and, indeed, the very notion of a ‘school’ of thought, these bad ideas have also resulted in the physical separation of people from each other.

You need people, lots of people, for there to be traditions. You need people, generally a good number of people, to have a school of thought. Neither traditions nor schools of thought are created and maintained through correspondence or Twitter. Real, often obnoxious, people rubbing elbows make them and keep them alive. In the case of Sacred Traditions, those people included the Person of Jesus and His apostles and disciples, and their disciples down to the present day; schools of thought, at least until that fateful 16th century, were formed, developed and reinforced by actual scholars, often in actual physical proximity to each other in actual physical schools, arguing, yelling and occasionally knifing each other (1). It may not have always been pretty, but, boy, you can’t get any more human than that!

In the early 1500s, Luther declares his ‘Alones’ shifting the standard of religious study  from monasteries, which, despite the ‘mono’ in the name, were gatherings of men, to the lone plowboy reading the Bible all on his lonesome. Sure, that plowboy might benefit from talking with others, but in theory, all he needs for spiritual enlightenment is the Good Book and the ability to read it.

In 1630, Descartes goes to his room, pulls the curtains and writes his Meditations, shifting the process of philosophy from what men can figure out by interacting with the world around them – most particularly, interacting with the *people* around them – to what a man such as Descartes, Hume, Berkeley or Kant can figure out in the privacy of his own cranium. If that cranium can even be said to be known to exist.

Image result for school of athens
A gaggle of philosophers. That’s old school! That’s how you do it!

If we hold being Alone in our theology and philosophy to be the highest court above which no appeal can be made, how long will it take for us to assert that being alone in our personal judgements about, say, culture, government and my true self are likewise beyond appeal?

About 500 years, evidently.

Three things this day bring this to mind. First, this excellent essay by David Mills: The Bible’s not enough, which discusses the pervasiveness of Sola Scriptura even among Catholics. Second, a Twitter thread (so shoot me. I mean, think less of me.) where Morgon Newquist tells of her father, in a wheelchair at Disney World, offering to let a little girl sit in front of him to have a better view of a parade – and the parents react like he’s a child molestor. Finally, I’ve recently become part of the the RCIA team at our parish, and was given the task (and 10 minutes!) to explain how the Church reads Scripture.

We are so Alone. The ruins of go it alone theology and philosophy are everywhere. Rather than discovering ourselves in our relationships, we defiantly declare that only we alone can say who we are, depending solely on what we feel we are. We define *individual* rights, and deny they come from nature or nature’s God or even from our relationships to other people. Even the right to vote – especially the right to vote – is seen as definitive of *individual* worth, even if it is only practiced occasionally, and then as part of a large group for the purposes of the large group. It is an expression not of my role in society, but of my personal universe of truth. Thus, instead of seeing losing a vote as a worthy and acceptable outcome and motivation to try to change people’s hearts and minds, each loser is personally threatened, the victors seen as evil people trying to destroy his world.

Many seem to both want rights and want to be able to define them away from others. You must bake me a cake or give up your guns even if neither has any real effect on me, but I get to tell you who I am (and woe if you mess it up) and what world view you must adhere to so that I can feel good about my feelings. This trick is only possible for an more or less unconscious nihilist, who of course believes other’s worthiness depends on how well they support his view of himself, but also betrays how meaningless he feels his own feelings are.

The antidote is religious by definition. We must believe we are all in this together, that nobody can go it alone, in order to understand why the modernist nihilism won’t work. Or rather, why modernist nihilism should never be tried. We can try, doomed though the effort is, to believe in the unity of Mankind without believing in the God Who created that unity. But with or without God, the Brotherhood of Man is like the Equality of Man: nothing you can observe will support such beliefs unless you already believe them without evidence.

  1. Documents relate to “a student who attacked his professor with a sword” resulting in great damage being done to a lecture room – and to the lecturer himself.  From Medieval Students. Violence in medieval university towns was not uncommon.  I suspect there’s more than a bit of bias, both in the recording and interpretation of history – violent acts are memorable and judged noteworthy. A period of peace not so much. Read somewhere somebody saying that, by modern standards, the violence of the past was psychopathic. Of course, modern standards tend to overlook violence like firebombing cities, nuclear weapons, and the slaughter of a 100 million unarmed civilians by their own governments, so take that into consideration.

Bach is Good

Bach is good. I just know you were all waiting breathlessly for me to tell  you that. But really, Bach is good in so many ways. Trying to play some Bach on the piano focuses and calms the mind. Even fairly simple Bach – all I’m ever likely to try – occasions that lovely combination of real learning and humility one gets, often, from reading Great Books – on the one hand, you have the thrill of learning new and beautiful things, while on the other, a growing certainty that you’re missing even more, and more profound, stuff, so that if you kept at it for the rest of your life you might not plumb the depths.

The side benefits include improved technique – I don’t know if I’ve ever tried a new piece of Bach’s without running into some requirement that I’d never run across before, framed up so that you’re dying to get it down. Also, the thrill you feel the first time, however haltingly, you play one of those little pieces all the way through – hard to describe, other than ‘satisfying.’

Bach may be the poster child for Chesterton’s quip that whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly.

You are without doubt the worst pirate I've ever heard of ...
Going the other direction, here: he can only be the worst pirate you’ve ever heard of if, indeed, he is a pirate. 

I am a terrible piano player. No false modesty here – I suck. But, like Jack Sparrow being a pirate, I am a piano player – just not a very good one. To put it generously.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been hacking away at the Well-Tempered Clavier off and on. It’s Just So Good. My playing would cause good musicians to cover their ears or leave the room. I’ve hacked through maybe half a dozen of the preludes and fugues so that I at one time could kinda play them all the way through without cratering too obviously, and a dozen more where there’s at least a few spots, often more, where, as they politely say of Rolls Royces, it fails to proceed.

The pattern: I get all enthusiastic, have my 40 year old copy of the WTC open on the piano, and start hacking away. My reading sucks – I look like a nearly blind man deciphering hieroglyphics as I stare at the mysterious black squiggles, and sound almost that good. Painful. But after a few tries, my one musical talent – I can memorize, at least short term, like a boss – I’ve uploaded the music into RAM. (This talent, not coincidentally, contributes to why I’m such a poor reader. That, and my squirrel-level attention span and focus. And lazy. Always figure lazy into it.)

So I start pounding away. Bach is very unforgiving of poor fingering, and of course my default fingering sucks, so I start in with the pencil, writing little numbers next to notes, circling them, arrows, stars – whatever it takes to remember I need a ‘1’ there or my left hand will look like a knot by the end of the phrase. And it won’t sound very good.

Hack hack hack. After a hundred times through, the fingering starts to feel natural, things start to get a little smoother. And –

Ever seen a little kid playing basketball start throwing up 30 ft shots?  Because his idol Steph Curry throws up 30 ft shots? The little kid ignores his own inability to make a layup and the couple of decades Curry spent honing his ungodly natural talents.  The kid doesn’t make very many Curry style.

Invariably, right about the time I start getting it down at a nice slow pace, I go all Glenn Gould or Vladimir Ashkenazy, playing it way too fast for me, because a lot of these little pieces sound good real fast, and that’s how the big dogs play it.

Here’s Daniel Berenboim playing the C# Major Prelude. This isn’t even particularly fast for this little piece.

I can play it that fast. Kind of. Even sounds OK about every third try if you don’t listen too hard. But at about 75% of that speed, I can play it so it’s not horrible – where the two hands mostly stay together, and the little turn-arounds Bach puts in about every 2 measures (anybody who’s tried this knows exactly what I’m talking about) where there are fingering landmines and just awkward bits (like notes that need to be crisp, fast and played with the 4th and 5th fingers of the left hand) – well, still working on getting those right at pro speed.

Anyway, the next step, after a few weeks, couple months, tops, is I get frustrated, bored or distracted and wander off to the next shiny object in view, with another 2-3 preludes and fugues almost down, not quite – and the memory bleed-off starts.

A year or three later, after ignoring the piano or playing blues and lame renditions of jazz and ‘free improv’ (to give a hoity-toity name to just futzing around to see if I can make something pretty), I’ll see that WTC sitting there, and maybe try to play one of the now half-forgotten pieces, and maybe remember how much fun it was, spend most of the time trying to relearn what I forgot, then add maybe another piece or two…

So, I’m in maybe the second or third week of another Bach WTC obsession. Got the E-Minor fugue nearly down (at light speed, with brio, because I’m weak – I do not play it nice and restrained and tidy as in the following video)

and the C# Major prelude, but still need (need?) to get it ever so slightly faster than Berenboim’s tempo above (Why? Don’t ask that!). I’d almost had these 2 down last obsession cycle. Then, need to dust off/relearn the four preludes and fugues in C  – the 4 part C–Major fugue it the hard one, for me, about as hard as anything I’ve ever played. Fingering from hell, and trying to play so it’s 4 lines, not just a bunch of notes. And the D-minor set, which I had pretty cold at one point years ago, but has bled away…

Then pick a couple new ones to learn (I’ve hacked through 90% of them at some point, so I have ideas.)

And get this done while I’m still hot to trot. Because, if history is any indication, in a few more weeks something will distract me…

Bach remains good, even when I abuse or ignore his little masterpieces.

Prayer

Prayer. Always prayer. Perhaps, today, these:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May their souls, and the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Amen.

and:

Lord, look upon your servants
laboring under bodily weakness.
Cherish and revive the souls
which you have created
so that, purified by their suffering
they may soon find themselves healed by your mercy.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sts. Joseph & Michael are the patrons of a Holy Death & a merciful final judgement (Michael, in his role as defender of humanity, is sometimes conceived as protecting the souls of the newly deceased and bringing them safely before the judgement seat), so it would be well to ask their aid. And of course the Blessed Mother, whose prayers we always ask for ‘now and at the hour of our death.’

Science! It’s Not Getting Better

Tales from the Old Wooden Art Table: Magical Movie Monday ...
Unlike Science! reporting, this former newt got better. 

After the cheery weekend of pizza, steak and ciabatta, was fortified to take a look at what passes for science – Science! – on the Google news feed.

It’s not getting better.

First up, USA Today – which we’d laugh off, except many people don’t – ran the usual breathless article on yet another giant iceberg breaking off an Antarctic glacier: Iceberg 4 times the size of Manhattan breaks off Antarctica. Now, back, way back, when I used to write jokes for an internet humor list and magazine, the joke was that peak USA Today would simply not have text at all, as its target audience was looking at the pictures and, presumably, hooting and perhaps jumping up and down.

As it is, the text remains minimal, and minimally useful. In this 7 paragraph, 10 sentence article (with 2 pictures and a video), we are of course given no context – are giant icebergs calving off even more giant antarctic glaciers good, bad or indifferent? How would we know? Nope, instead we get this:

The Washington Post reports the iceberg disconnected from Pine Island Glacier, a part of West Antarctica that already loses 45 billion tons of ice annually, contributing to sea level rises.

Is 45 billion tons of ice a lot? Is it increasing, decreasing or remaining constant? Over what period of time? Seems kind of important if one wanted to make any sense of these factoids. Also, so sea levels are rising? Thought the data was a bit ambiguous on that point; at least, the rate of rise is so small that, were it to continue (and why would we suppose that? How sure are we?)  we’d have many generations to address any inconveniences it might cause.

But I’m doubting this iceberg is doing much as far as raising sea level. The picture shows this:

That looks an awful lot like the leading edge of the glacier is already in the water back for miles – can’t be sure from the picture, but that’s what it looks like. What this would mean is that the ice is already displacing as much seawater as it’s going to displace when it melts, so that, like ice melting in your glass of ice tea, the change from ice to water in itself isn’t going to raise the water level. (Now, if the water melts and then heats up enough, then it would expand, and that might raise sea level, but the melting itself isn’t going to.)

Conclusion: information free article with pretty pictures. Useless.

Next up was advocacy disguised as reporting, where the discovery of bits of plastic in the arctic ice means we must immediately institute a totalitarian world government or we’re doomed – something like that, the reasoning was a little loose. Not gonna link.

Finally, somehow, some real science – well, material technology, really, but I’ll take it – made it past the keep it stupid filters: Nanoparticle Supersoap Creates ‘Bijel’ With Potential as Sculptable Fluid

A new two-dimensional film, made of polymers and nanoparticles and developed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), can direct two different non-mixing liquids into a variety of exotic architectures. This finding could lead to soft robotics, liquid circuitry, shape-shifting fluids, and a host of new materials that use soft, rather than solid, substances.

Monsters vs. Aliens (movie) B.O.B. in Monsters vs. Aliens ...
Dr. Cockroach Ph.D.: [about B.O.B] Forgive him, but as you can see, he has no brain.
B.O.B.: Turns out, you don’t need one. Totally overrated!
Sounds cool and sci-fi ready! Combine the usual apocalyptic AI stuff with goopy robots, and you get: B.O.B.!

Bijels. Pronounced By-Jells? Bee-Jills, just to be difficult?

The study, reported Sept. 25 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, presents the newest entry in a class of substances known as bicontinuous jammed emulsion gels, or bijels, which hold promise as a malleable liquid that can support catalytic reactions, electrical conductivity, and energy conversion.

This kind of stuff is really where it’s happening, and has long been. We love our Newtons and Einsteins, but it’s the schmucks working away in some lab trying to put cool ideas into practice who do the real heavy lifting as far a making life materially better. Everybody knows Galileo, who personally contributed next to nothing to astronomy that somebody else didn’t find at about the same time – he was part of a cohort of star-gazers who fell all over each other discovering the same stuff, often within days of each other. But who knows the names of the people who brought us the Green Revolution, nitrogen fixing tech and all these varieties of plants that now make famine the result of political and not natural problems?

And a hundred other things. Cell phones work – that should blow your mind. GPS works. CAT scans work. And on and on. All required a lot of basic science – but vastly more applied tech. Bijels seem a promising field for yet more cool and life-enhancing tech.

“Bijels are really a new material, and also excitingly weird in that they are kinetically arrested in these unusual configurations,” said study co-author Brett Helms, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. “The discovery that you can make these bijels with simple ingredients is a surprise. We all have access to oils and water and nanocrystals, allowing broad tunability in bijel properties. This platform also allows us to experiment with new ways to control their shape and function since they are both responsive and reconfigurable.”