As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, I’m not a scientist, but rather a layman with a science jones, one I’ve had from before I could read. So, having read a great deal of science, and of philosophy and history, and, while no mathematician, having at least a feel for numbers and being unafraid of them, I have strong opinions about the use and misuse of science.
But – here’s the thought – whenever I try to explain why something is *obviously* nonsense, I run into the whole issue of what’s obvious to me isn’t obvious to very many people. A sports analogy: I can critique somebody’s jump shooting form at a very high level, but know next to nothing about pitching – I’ve done the one, but not the other. A pitcher who, say, fails to properly rotate his hips (or whatever – ignorant, remember) might be totally obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to pitch, but I’d never catch it. But a jump shooter who fails to get properly squared up and lets his elbow wander? *Obvious*!!! And this is true everywhere: my wife can look at a row of crochet and spot the *obvious* problem, and all I see is a bunch of yarn; my daughter can wing a cake recipe, and correct the batter mid-stream – it’s obvious to her what the problem is. For two of a million such examples.
Back to science. Extreme example: when I read through the abstracts of the first few papers widely reported to *prove* the efficacy of masks in cutting the spread of certain airborne viruses, the flaws of the first few studies were glaringly OBVIOUS. To me. So obvious I never got past the abstracts – why bother?
But then, try to explain it in words laymen can understand. The first study was a meta study, a survey over time of the effects of mask use across a number of states and times frames, which revealed, if I recall, a 2.5% decrease in the rate of case growth in a state where masks had been most rigorously legislated versus a state where mask wearing had been less rigorously called for.
This is obviously stupid, right? Right? What sprang to mind unbidden:
A vast array of factors figure into case growth – you really think a meta-study is going to properly account for them state by state, such that mask-wearing is going to then account for the remaining difference? How? Bloody unlikely.
What are the underlying dynamics of the spread of the virus? How can we assume they are the same from state to state, or, indeed, from block to block, such that masks can be credited with effectively changing them?
Data consistency: measuring numbers across time and space, on different groups with different people doing the measuring in a highly stressful situation? Unlikely to be very good, consistent data. Like, not going to happen.
Compliance: who cares what the rules are – are people doing as they are told? In any crowd, I’ll see a large range of interpretations of ‘wearing a mask’, from the dude with a paper mask not covering his nose, to people with 2 masks and a clear shield, and everything in between, including my pirate t-shirt scrap hanging down to my sternum. How would you even begin to account for such differences?
Did we take ALL the states into account? If we left some off, why? The temptation to simply pick a few we like and consciously or otherwise skew the results must be prevented.
2.5% You got to be kidding me. Well within the range of ‘noise’.
And so on.
Thus, every time I’ve tried to explain, for example, that not just the list of variables, but order in which they are analyzed, will largely determine the outcome of a regression analysis – um, not so obvious, right? Or that the implicit assumption of homogeneity across patently heterogenous populations – like, for example, talking about *a* population fatality rate – is insane? Clear? Or that scale matters – that you have to have a clear baseline against which to measure change, or your numbers are meaningless?
(While, certainly, a William Briggs or Mike Flynn, among others, would be more qualified to write this than I am, it both needs to be written and I need to get it off my chest.So, what do you think? Do this? It will be short. BTW: The fam liked the over the top “how not to be a gullible moron” subtitle, but I’m not in love with it.)
(Below is a rough draft of the opening.I’m thinking each chapter starts with a quotation or very short story from science history, where either egregious mistakes were made, a scientist was an utter jerk, where an entire field fell under the spell of what turned out to be a fraud, etc., with maybe equally short stories at the end of each chapter showing the triumph of science over the flawed humanity of scientists . Since stories are stickier and more interesting than lectures…)
This short book addresses a increasingly desperate situation: the near universal state of scientific illiteracy among virtually all Americans. This state of profound ignorance of how science works is especially prevalent among those think themselves highly educated, yet say they ‘believe’ or even ‘effing love’ science.
To anyone with an even modest grasp of what science IS, such claims are embarrassing oxymorons.
If the truth of the above sentence isn’t instantly clear to you, this book is for you.
Over the decades during which I’ve been following the news, ever more desperate and panicked claims have been made in the name of Science. We’re all going to die from: famine, overpopulation, destruction of the oceans, pollution, pesticides, smoking, salt in our diets, deforestation, nuclear winter, global cooling, global warming, disease, and on and on. I merely point out that: here we are, and we are showing no signs of going away. Today, the cacophony is deafening, and, because of the inability of the vast majority of Americans to rationally examine evidence and compare outcomes to predictions, we’re still falling for it. We’re gullible rubes, putty in the hands of the next fear monger.
What is needed, and what this book aims to supply, are a few basic principles, a few rules of thumb, as it were, to help us laymen sift through the incessant, shrill claims made in the name of science. Science is not, and never has been, about trusting scientists. Science has always been about evaluating evidence. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
Science is, in fact, quite often hard, but we are not trying here to get to the bottom of astrophysics or evolutionary biology or any other specific science. Instead, I intend to show you how science works, the principles and practices that give weight to truly scientific arguments and claims. Understanding science in this way is, I fervently hope, within the grasp of any moderately intelligent person.
After absorbing this book, it is fervently hoped the reader will be able to eliminate the noise from the
Some basic principles and definitions, which will be discussed in more detail in the text:
The correct, scientifically informed answer to almost all questions is: I don’t know.
Trust the evidence, not the scientist.
You could probably find a study that ‘proves’ anything you might want to claim.
Scientists are just people like us, subject to the full range of human failings: ambition, envy, greed, peer pressure, and so on. That’s why it’s reasonable to say: show me the evidence. Further, scientists, since they’ve been told how smart and special they are for most of their lives, are even more prone than most to falling into hubris.
Models, in the apt words of Michael Crichton, are expressions of prejudice. Model output is not scientific evidence. People pushing model output as science are frauds.
Many people are technicians; few are scientifically literate. Doctors, for a key example, are no more likely to be scientists than long haul truckers or computer repair people. People in these and many other professions use technology they almost certainly don’t understand. When such people tell you you should do something because science!, they are almost certainly blowing smoke.
If you heard something put forth as science on the news, or read it in the papers or in a popular magazine, it’s wrong. Seriously. I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to science ‘news’ for 50+ years, and don’t think I’d run out of fingers on one hand counting the times some non-trivial science was presented correctly in popular media. So, if you get your science from the news, assume it’s wrong. Corollary: You have to look at the evidence, and judge for yourselves. That’s what this book is for.
General Omar Bradley once said: amateurs study strategy; professionals study logistics. In the same way, gullible posers talk ‘studies’, the scientifically literate look at the evidence.
Not all evidence is equal. A lot of evidence that seems overwhelming falls apart upon inspection. Before we can judge the scientific value of evidence, we must – as in, MUST – understand how the terms were defined, how evidence was gathered, and how rigorous and controlled the process was. This book will help learn how to do this.
Chapter 1: What Is This Science Thing, Anyway?
(1st story, if I can find it: if I’m remembering correctly, a tutor, some famous chemist, I think, was teaching a young prince – Swedish? – some basic heat content formulas, and used some liquid and lead as examples. After they had gone over the principles and done the math, the tutor then had the student carefully cup his hands, and filled them with the liquid. He then brought over a crucible of molten lead, and asked the student what would happen if he poured the lead into the liquid in his hands. The students says: it would quickly cool. So, the tutor proceeds to pour molten lead into his student’s cupped hands.)
Let’s start with a traditional definitions of science:
Science is the study of the metrical properties of physical objects
This is our first test: Are we talking about properties of physical objects like rocks, stars, or the human body? Are these properties things that can be measured? If so, we’ve passed the first preliminary threshold: we may be talking science.
Also, implied here, is that we must be very clear on what we are measuring or counting, and clear that it can, in fact, be measured or counted. One sometimes hears of studies claiming to measure, for example, human happiness. It’s conceivable (barely) that some clear property that plausibly corresponds to human happiness might be discovered and measured. But asking people to rate how happy they are on a scale of 1 to 5 isn’t it. Such mistakes can sometimes be subtle. Beware any claim that some feeling or thinking has been measured. In this regard, scientific polling is a patent oxymoron.
…and so on. I’ve already written a bunch more along these lines.
Taking Sunday off from worrying over the current state of post-Weimar Germany our fine nation, at least until I go to Mass and am forced to assume the face diaper of compliance in order to not get our parish fined out of existence…. Let’s talk writing! Huzzah!
A. Now have 6 short stories finished, as in: not going to edit any more unless at an editor’s instruction. Three are bleh, 1 is OK, and 2 I really like. The two I like add up to over 20K words – half a pulp novel’s worth. One, The White Handled Blade, a modern-day Arthurian YA type story that a couple of the Loyal Readers critiqued for me a couple years ago (Thanks again!), is almost begging to be the first part of a series of stories featuring Lynnette Redlands, a 15-year old American living in Wales in the heartlands of Arthurian lore with her older sister Ness and their father, who teaches at a nearby university on a fellowship. They discover, in the words of Commander Peter Quincy Taggart: It’s all real. Adventures ensue.
I’ve lavished a lot of care on a bunch of characters who I now love, seems a shame not to have them do more stuff. Write three more of these roughly the same size, and I’d have something I never dreamed I’d write in a million years: a YA novel(ish) starring a teenage girl. Tempting, Hammy, very tempting…. (Yes, I mixing movie references. Sue me.)
The approach: take one or more of the (very weird) Welch Arthurian stories, and reimagine them in a modern world (yea, real original idea) where the Roundtable still exists – as a standing committee at a small Welch college. Heck, the last story could be fighting the daemons of Diversity – fell, indeed – as they attack the College! Cliffhanger!!
The problem, here, is that while I’m a fan of Mallory, and enjoyed White’s Once and Future King a lot, I’m hardly some sort of Arthurian geek. This whole YA-based on Arthurian legend stuff seems to be a well-trod and highly worked field. Do I run a risk of violating some sort of canon? Not losing sleep over that. The comforting, if absurd, though: maybe I could be the Raymond Chandler of the genre? You know, the bored and highly educated Englishman, who, being a great writer and all, took detective pulps and made them into literature? Ya know? Humor me. Of course, he’d read a bunch in that genre first…
The other is a little fairytale called Seed Music, set in the same universe as my generations ship novel but a couple centuries after the colonists arrive at the Systems. I’m using fairytale in roughly the same sense C.S. Lewis used it to describe That Hideous Strength.
They’re both highly superverse, if that even needs saying.
Of the 4 remaining short stories fragments, two are fairly far along. I should finish them up, on principle. Then there are two others little more than Ideas with a couple pages of text attached; then there’s another folder and a list containing maybe a dozen ideas or very rough sketches. Plenty to work on.
B. Novels, on the other hand… Percolating in the back of my mind for 2-3 decades now is not exactly a story, but a world. Within this world, I’ve come up with ideas for a number of stories, 2 of which I’ve even written. BUT the big framing story, the who, what, how, and why of the whole thing, is not coming together for me.
I’ve mentioned rabbit holes and the hard science vs handwavium issue. I would like whatever science I throw out there to be plausible enough to not take the 1% of my potential readers who care about such things out of the story.
Which brings us to rocket science. I would really like it if my generations ship could, via acceleration to near-light speed and the resulting time dilation, get my colonists where they’re going before the people who set out as children are all dead. Because reasons. One can play with calculators that do the math: pick a distance, plug in an acceleration factor, and they will spit back how long the trip will take from both the on-board (dilated) and home planet view, and what your top speed will be.
Nice. The one I was playing with today also spits out how much fuel you’d need to accelerate and decelerate a ship of specified mass – you must flip your ship and fire your drive for as long as it took to get up to full speed in order not to simply fly by your target system. The more massive the ship, the more fuel you’ll need – and mass is going to be almost equal to fuel for any near-light speed ship.
If your trip takes 100 years, you’ll be firing your engines for a good portion of 100 years. At least, that’s the assumption. I’m going to play with it, to see how long at a given acceleration to reach a speed where the time dilation is enough to keep my young characters alive long enough to arrive at their destination as old people. That’s what I’m concerned with.
Then: how much fuel do I need, which almost translates to: how massive is my ship? In hydrogen fusion, about 0.008% of the mass is converted to energy; in an antimatter reaction, it’s 100%. So, we’d need some sort of antimatter creation thingy that can crank out a lot of the stuff – or something else.
I spent hours reading up on this. Creating antimatter, turns out, is almost trivial if you happen to have a nice big accelerator, and are happy with unimaginably tiny amounts that, with the proper application of superconducting magnets, you can hang onto for about 0.17 seconds before it annihilates itself by contact with regular matter. So, how about this – spit-balling here – you start with millions of gallons of nuclear salt water and a set of nuclear reactors. Some small portion of your reactors’ power is used to get your nuclear salt water drive going, but most of it is used to power accelerators and anti-matter rifles, let’s call them. How it works: (very well, than you) is that the accelerators are bombarding something – the walls of the hollowed out asteroid in which all this is located? – thereby creating a bit of antimatter. That antimatter is captured by magnetic fields that fire it (thus, antimatter rifles), in its microseconds of existence, into the combustion chamber of the nuclear salt water drive. You then have an antimatter drive: the nuclear salt water fuel is replaced by (much, much more efficient) antimatter annihilation. The mass of the ship itself is consumed as raw material as it is superheated and flung out, equal but opposite wise , in the matter/antimatter annihilation.
Hey, it’s *something*, as in: not just a bunch of handwavium. There’s a tiny spec of science in there! No, really! makes it all better.
And (almost) nobody will care.
C. Grabbed a military sci-fi series for $0.99 off Amazon, written by one of those 20 Novels to $50K people, just to see what it was like. Very much Dent, Lester Dent style, full of sound and fury, with the protagonist in a world of hurt by about page 3, which is about as far as I’ve gotten. While I do love me some stories where stuff done blowed up good, I also love me some Canticle for Leibowitz style storytelling – slow-paced, but full of character development and table-setting. Can’t we all just get along?
Slightly more seriously, the story starts with Our Hero already in a tough spot, and engaging in playful banter with her crew, and getting out of it by blowing the living heck out of some aliens. Like, by paragraph 3. Then, we have some exposition, some by way of telling us what people are doing, some just flat out ‘here’s how it works’ sections. More banter to establish the heroine as a Tough Broad with a sketchy past, who takes no guff and has trouble with authority. Then, disaster #2 – oh, no! How do we get out of this?
Judging by this very short sample, the writing is perfectly workman-like and functional. Dude can write, in other words. And, if I picked up a book expecting Mil-SF action, I’m getting what I paid for. So, there’s that, and that ain’t nothing. There’s probably a bigger audience for it than there would be for the more – introspective? complicated? amateurish? – stuff I like to write.
Basically, setting the obvious disparity of talent and skill aside, on a conscious level, I want to be a blend of Cordwainer Smith, Heinlein (from his non-dirty-old-man period) and maybe Mike Flynn? Capturing wild ideas, adding some action, but allowing room for some love of history and melancholy to occasionally shine through?
The muse, however, goes where she may, and fights against the goad. I’m probably the worst judge of what I’m actually doing.
Finally, need to make sure I don’t let a day go by where I don’t write something new, in addition to whatever rewrites and research I may fell compelled to do. All this is stuff I should have learned 45 years ago. Better late than never. As a friend pointed out, if I start now, by the time I’m 82, I will have been at it for 20 years!
D. The Caboose, our youngest, is trying in this time of (insert lighter description of our current time than any I can come up with), to reach the rank of Eagle Scout. Since the bulk of normal, healthy activities that might otherwise occupy a Scout’s time are banned or severely circumscribed, he’s working on some cooking activities. His troop, which of course can’t meet in real life, are holding virtual ‘Chopped’ style cooking contests.
While as a contest it doesn’t really work – how are you judging food you can’t taste? – as dinner it is excellent. A couple nights ago, our 16 year old prepared a dinner of pork tenderloin roast on a bed of wild rice covered in a savory cranberry sauce, with creamed spinach on the side.
It was really yummy. The cranberry sauce, for which he sautéed onions and herbs, then added and reduced chicken stock & red wine, then added fresh cranberries, was way good, prefect on the pork. The spinach – well, as son pointed out, any recipe that starts with melting a cube of butter its pretty likely to be good.
As the youngest by quite a bit – 6.5 years – he had older siblings cooking around him while he grew up, which, as sometimes happens, seems to have unconsciously disinclined him to cook himself. Now that his siblings are not around much anymore and he’s a little older, he’s following in their cook/foodie footsteps.
A week ago, before the dawn of the Crazy Years and all his pomps and vanities, I posted an update wherein I recounted the gripping tale of having spent 20 hours going through all the fiction I’d written over the last roughly 5 years, finding, formatting, and organizing it. It’s now all tidy. Got everything in OpenDocs on my slightly more secure laptop and on a 2T backup drive.
In the past week, I have gotten more fiction written than in the previous year, for a gain of maybe 4-5K words net, with some fairly extensive rewrites.
I also grabbed some files for the education research projects I go on about here, but have not gone through them. Huge number of notes, drafts, and sources. I think I have more stuff on GoogleDocs, I need to do a thorough search. The amount of work needed to get all THAT stuff organized will be in the same ballpark as the fiction. Sigh.
The goal is to have everything organized, not in GoogleDocs, in a more or less consistent format, with local backup. So far, so good. Not to be a drama queen, but I want to be able to go full samizdat in the unlikely event that becomes necessary. I don’t want anymore stuff out there where our tech lizard overlords can look at them.
The big question: how soon and how well will our new Winston Smiths do their jobs? I often do download and format* the old books I find on the web – the internet is really cool, sometimes – but mostly I just have links. Part of me is going: oh, come on! Nobody is going to take down all that old boring, stuffy stuff with single-digit downloads, of interest to only the geekiest of geeks! But – could some pensive child, in an excess of zeal and caution, cause the Internet Achieves to cease to be? Or, like Herod, decide everything that might someday be a threat needs to die now?
But that is for another day.
Finished one old short story, about 5,000 words, and just have the denouement (if that idea even applies to a short story) to put in on another of about 8,000. Somehow, the first two I choose to finish are both about guys pining after their gals, more or less – in space! Alas, in neither does anything much blow up good. Spaceships and robots do get smashed – that’s got to count for something, right?
On the novel front: Yikes. On the one, got a ream of references, notes, outlines, characters names and arcs, and descriptions of planets, ships, and so on. But, reviewing this stuff, noticed what I don’t have is any clear outline. What I do have is more or less vague ideas for a story that might take place over 3-4 books, describing the goings-on on a generational starship and the planets the colonists settle. I’m torn between looking stuff up to get the science more or less plausible, and just ladling on the handwavium. The Heinlein vs. Bradbury approach. How does it work? Very well, thank you.
Ex: What’s important for the story is that the ship works, that it can get a 100,00 colonists to strange new worlds to colonize within a couple centuries. How it does so just needs not to take one out of the story. Buuuut: the design of the ship does figure into the story. A lightsail or magsail is appealing, but isn’t plausible for the kind of acceleration needed; having orbital lasers push it is kinda a fun idea – but also doesn’t work in the story for reasons. So I started with the sort of not-quite plausible set up used on the Sparrow – an asteroid hollowed out as a ship, that consumes itself in some sort of fancy ion drive.
Handwavium. But then, read up on nuclear salt-water rockets (NSWR), which I had somehow not heard of before. Very cool, and produce the level of thrust to at least within an order of magnitude or two that one would need to get up to the significant percentage of light speed – which is what you need. So: what I’ve done so far is create a sort of hybrid ship, a nickel-iron cigar a couple kilometers long, with nuclear reactors being used to ionize and accelerate the asteroid itself as fuel. But for near sun work and help braking when they get where they’re going, add a lightsail and maybe a magsail as well. Do I work NSWR drive into the story? So that I and the 1% of potential readers who might appreciate a little plausibility are a little more happy?
If so, this morning after a cup of coffee, I’d probably stick with the hybrid idea: inside the hollowed out ship are nuclear reactors, a million tons of water, tons of salts of enriched uranium and plutonium. Maybe they unfurl the solar sail and mag sail (one or the other? Do more research and decide? AHHHH!!!) while still in the inner system, then, once they have slowly spiraled their way out a bit, fire up the NSWR drive….
And, there you go: HOURS will be spent getting this right – and it doesn’t actually matter to the basis of the story. BUT IT’S COOL!!! Multiply this by some factor for other tech and science I don’t understand (I’m Rocket Maaaan!!) and, um, I could be tied up for a while. Meanwhile, the actual plot is laughable. Stuff happen. In space. To loveable and hateable characters. I think. Probably better figure it out pretty soon.
Anyway, something I didn’t expect: as the political scene spirals deeper into 1984-land to the applause of the bleating sheep, I find writing a great distraction and comfort. When the world gets to be too much, I can retreat (with an inner chuckle) to a world where a hapless engineer finds himself hanging from a wire a thousand meters above a canyon floor on an ice moon named Flee orbiting a gas giant called Tough Nut, because it seemed like a good idea to this woman art critic, who is falling for him but he’s clueless, as a means to help him get his music degree while rubbing the noses of some pompous artists in their own stupidity. Or a world where a beloved mother of 10, who happens to command an army of drones and bots called spiders helping to construct a spaceship, is hiding a dark secret with a deadline. Or where a fat man in his underwear, who happens to be heir to an empire, is exiled by the queen mother to a planet completely covered in a single life-form that tastes like mashed potatoes, and is awaiting his next shipment of butter.
You know, the usual.
To stay sane and not hate anyone, I try to keep in mind the helpful image of sheep without a shepherd. That’s us, me as much as them. I may have a clue or 2, but, still, I’m a dumb sheep like everybody else. Castigating people who have been terrified by their false shepherds for not thinking things through is like blaming panicked sheep for running the flock off a cliff. It’s horrible, but they are (mostly) not to blame. Those false shepherds have a millstone or two in their furfures, however. If they’re lucky to get off that easy.
The thoughts of many hearts are being revealed these days.
Holy Mother of Mercy, pray for us! Heavenly Father, remember your promise of mercy. For Your Name’s sake, for the glory of your Son, in the Power of Your Spirit, have mercy on us!
* I’ve grabbed key old books that have been scanned into electronic form from some library copy with all sorts of marks, smudges, and stamps on the pages, not mention hard line returns. They are messes. In very bad cases, I will have the pdf and the OCR versions open side by side, in order to better verify my guesses at the text. While trying to read them, I will often start correcting & formatting as I go, because the messiness drives me crazy. This only doubles, at least, the amount of time it takes me to read these books. Obsessive much? Me?
When an aggressive psy-op is being conducted against you, you’ve got to protect yourself. Take measures. I’ve seen people turn into a cowering mess. It’s very sad.
Rule #1: curate your sources of information extremely carefully. Look at the lengths we go to in order to protect our bodies from a virus. We need to do the same to protect our minds.
Rule #2: the philosophy of “I’m such a special cookie” will be your downfall. It’s precisely the people who believe they are too smart to be manipulated who succumb the most easily. I have developed a narrative of “I’m extremely sensitive and impressionable, so I’m high-risk.” It helps you still feel very special yet protect yourself from the onslaught.
Rule #3: dedicate 2-3 days a week to a complete news and media blackout.
I succumbed to the corona-panic back in March, folks. I’m a hypochondriac and an OCD neurotic with a history of late-term pregnancy loss. It could have ended badly. But I used these strategies, blacked out the media, avoided FB, and saved my sanity.
Currently, the second part of this psy-op is being unleashed. So please, stay vigilant, and curate, curate, curate.
On a spiritual level, these are also good first steps. We don’t need to let ourselves get hammered over the head with the glee and flexes of our self-appointed betters. Living well is not just the best revenge, but is also the first steps to recovery. Don’t feed the black dog.
I’m reminded of two passages from C.S. Lewis, another college professor who was immersed in but not of his academic tribe. In That Hideous Strength, Jane, Lewis’s stand in for the relatively harmless modern enlightened and therefore clueless people, visits Dr. and Mrs. Dimble, old friends from her student days. Their home is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Cottage of Lost Play or even the Last Homely House – except the magic is wholesome normalcy:
Cecil Dimble, a Fellow of Northumberland, had been Jane’s tutor for her last year as a student and Mrs. Dimble (one tended to call her Mother Dimble) had been a kind of unofficial aunt to all the girls of her year. A liking for the female pupils of one’s husband is not, perhaps, so common as might be wished among dons’ wives; but Mrs. Dimble appeared to like all Dr. Dimble’s pupils of both sexes and the Dimbles’ house, away on the far side of the river, was a kind of noisy salon all the term. She had been particularly fond of Jane with that kind of affection which a humorous, easy natured and childless woman sometimes feels for a girl whom she thinks pretty and rather absurd. For the last year or so Jane had been somewhat losing sight of the Dimbles and felt rather guilty about it. She accepted the invitation to lunch.
The Dimbles, childless but with a house full of ‘children’ as it were, have a garden famous among those children; the N.I.C.E. is planning to bulldoze it along with their house. An echo of Adam and Eve in Eden, certainly, but with the added New Testament touch of having no natural offspring, but plenty of adopted children, as it were. (I could write a long essay just about this scene – better stop now.)
Normal, happy people and their stuff must get bulldozed by the progressive people – they offend and terrify them. For good reason. For our parts, we should try to be those normal, happy people. And plant spectacular gardens according to our skills and gifts. If it get bulldozed, plant another.
And fromPerelandra, the Lady has been listening to the Un-Man as Ransom watches helplessly:
But the Lady did not appear to be listening to him. She stood like one almost dazed with the richness of a day-dream. She did not look in the least like a woman who is thinking about a new dress. The expression of her face was noble. It was a great deal too noble. Greatness, tragedy, high sentiment — these were obviously what occupied her thoughts. Ransom perceived that the affair of the robes and the mirror had been only superficially concerned with what is commonly called female vanity. The image of her beautiful body had been offered to her only as a means to awake the far more perilous image of her great Soul. The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.
Our play has likewise already been written, and from the same source. Sadly, we are not unfallen Adams and Eves, but rather fatally crippled souls in need of salvation. So, when we are tempted to see ourselves as noble, heroic, great souls, we grab is with no hesitation. I’m not going to look it up – curate! – but we all remember that speech delivered to SS people, explaining how only truly far-sighted and heroic people could bring themselves to kill all Jews, even the nice ones they had been friends with. Men can make themselves do unspeakable evil when the story they tell themselves is how tragically heroic they are.
And everybody today is repeating the same story.
I suppose I’m required to end with one more Lewis quotation:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
A. What a great word. Buried in the idea of things that hinder your journey is the idea of stuff you need for that journey, maybe, even, things essential for the purpose of the journey in the first place. Dictionaries consistently give the example of the baggage an army carries. But wouldn’t weapons, say, constitute a large part of that baggage? Weapons both hinder your travels AND allow you to do what you’re traveling to do: wage war. The examples I came across were in Manalive, where Innocent Smith carries a large bag full of items essential to his being Innocent Smith, and in The Metal Monster, where Dr. Goodwin’s scientific equipment are so described.
I seem to have accumulated a lot of impedimenta over the years. I hope it’s of the essential kind. Speaking of which –
Two years ago, several of you were kind enough to do a little beta reading on a couple of my stories, which I do deeply appreciate. For a number of reasons, I set aside almost all fiction writing then. Now, I’m jonesing to get back to it.
In another context, someone (Severian?) was describing the nature of personal change, where one is doomed to failure if one simply tries to muscle through a particular activity – dieting, say, or writing books. Instead, to succeed in loosing weight or writing books, one must, cognitive-therapy style, become the sort of person who weighs an appropriate amount and writes books.
Easier said than done, of course, but at least it’s possible. In the great Catholic tradition of both/and, I will remind myself, as I diet and write, that I’m exactly the sort of guy to weigh around 210 and publish stuff. Do and believe.
And ignore that Bullwinkle never did pull a rabbit out of that hat of his, IIRC.
B. On the Covidiocy front, we’ve reached the point where we are plumbing the depths of the psychological damage done to our rootless, abandoned, manipulated population, children of all ages deprived of all normal human relationships, ‘raised’ by equally damaged parents, taught to worship the abstracted individual and, above all, that their personal worth derives from doing as they are told and saying what they are told to say. The family, village, and church being destroyed or abandoned, and the idea that purpose and satisfaction derive from duties we mostly don’t get to choose having been reduced to incomprehensibility, school becomes an oasis of order – do as you are told, and get a gold star! Get a degree, a job, a life! Get the only affirmation, the only sense of belonging, you may ever get. Woe to any who kick at this goad!
I wonder: is there anything at all that would convince the rabbits they’ve been had? What would it take for your typical Front Row Kid to admit: wow, I’ve been royally played. What can be stricken from the list, at least insofar as they are considered individually:
Evidence. It’s no so much that the rabbits don’t care about evidence, it’s that years of training have both 1) rendered them incapable of looking at or even knowing what evidence, as opposed to hearsay and bald unsupported statements, is, and 2) convinced them that parroting whatever the approved authority figure says IS considering the evidence. They don’t know what they don’t know, but are convinced they do.
The examples of our betters. Brix, it appears, is travelling to one her vacation homes and Christmassing with 3 generations of her family. So much for lockdowns, social distancing, etc. – for her, Pelosi, Newsom, and many others. Not that the rabbits have heard of this contempt, because the hairdos with journalism degrees are unlikely to mention it.
Their own lying eyes. How many rabbits personally know even 1 otherwise healthy person who died of COVID? Of course, this would require acknowledgement that the people, if any, they know whose deaths, in CDC terminology, *involved* COVID were well on their way to assuming their places in the Choir Invisible with or without the help of a respiratory virus. Which is a thought not allowed to enter their minds.
Basic logic. E.g., if masks work, then they are trapping billions of live, dangerous viruses. If so, handling used masks without a hazmat suit, gloves, a hazardous waste disposal containers, incineration, etc. would be SUICIDE! OH MY GOD!!! Yet, they are treated with less care and caution than a used Kleenex. Stuffed into and dragged out of pockets, fiddled with, thrown any old place, used for hours, days, weeks at a time. I find them on the street whenever I go walking. Same logical problems with social distancing: if 6 feet is good, why is there still a pandemic? If we’re not safe to meet indoors, why are stores still open? why are there lockdowns, when it’s safer outside? And so on.
These are all rhetorical questions, of course. Nothing so trivial as loss of liberty and sanity will cause the properly educated Front Row Kids to reevaluate their self-image as the smartest, best educated, most moral people in history. Such wunderkind couldn’t possibly be clueless rubes, ignorant of even the most basic principles of science and logic, mindless parrots of whatever they hear, easily-frightened, historically illiterate rabbits about as likely to think or act independently as the gears in a pocket watch. What would you rather be, the smart kid with membership in the circle of smart kids, or the kid suddenly alone, cut adrift from the only society he’s every really known?
Good thing I believe in miracles. Otherwise, I’d have to start throwing punches, and I’m too old for that.
C. Still have hardly decorated for Christmas. Stuff came up, and the available slots for family-time activity sort of vanished. Decorating by one’s self seems kinda sad. But we will get it done.
We have passed the point of her family/my family scrambling over holidays. Except for my MIL, who lives with us, parents are dead; brothers and sisters are far away or cowering rabbits or both. So no plans at that level of family. BUT: now we have a married daughter! Her in-laws, to their credit and with our approval, want to be friends. This daughter and her husband just bought a house, appropriately about 1 hr 15 min from each set of in-laws – just far enough for a little separation, but close enough for regular visitations and family activities.
So now we get to coordinate among our children’s families (well, 1 so far, but I’d bet 2 or even 3 extended family branches within the next few years). I’m digging it.
On the home-home front, failing to get commitment on what people want for Christmas dinner(s). The fam is not big on turkey – fine by me, a lot of work for something not really all that popular. Tried to ask after lamb – ambivalence. Then, partly in jest, suggested: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy – probably the most popular thing I make around here (1) (I do make d*mn fine fried chicken). I got the ‘not special enough’ response.
Seriously considering getting some ribeye steaks. That’s what I’d like to do. Maybe for Epiphany, when Middle Son and his girl will be in town. Or maybe a slab of salmon?
Merry Christmas to all!
I love to cook. Things I regularly make for dinner, in order of family popularity: fried chicken; hamburgers; Napa cabbage tacos (fish, chicken, beef, or pork, using cabbage leaves instead of tortillas – makes for a much lighter meal), pork chops, various curries and rice. Make a lot of other things, too, but these are staples.
Read this ancient epic with a bunch of 8th graders, in a slightly scrubbed version as discussed here. We read the first half 2 weeks ago, and the second half last week.
I had to share with these very bright kids the wisdom of one Robert Bart, a tutor (professor) at St. John’s College: Great books are not children’s books. He was saying this to a bunch of 18 year olds (I being one at the time. Printing had been invented, just barely). I have been fortunate enough to have had the chance to reread much of the Great Books in the intervening years, and can confirm: while you have to start somewhere, there’s a reason Aristotle recommended (but, of course, did not follow) that one delays the study of philosophy until age 50. Same goes for epics and classics of all sorts. Get a lifetime under your belt, and the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, the Book of Job, Dante, and all the others are a LOT different experience.
The kids were universally disappointed with the way Gilgamesh ended. I tried to tell them that, at +/- 13 years old, grasping how life looks to an old man is going to be – difficult. I, on the other hand, was almost brought to tears.
Both the solemnity and wackiness of the adventures are taken up several notches after Enkidu dies on Tablet 5. The mythic pair of wild man (Enkidu) and over-civilized man (Gilgamesh) took on classic forces of nature and heaven, defeating the monster guarding the forest with the help of the gods, then killing the Bull of Heaven sent as vengeance. The pair shook, as it were, a manly and even kingly fist at the eternal forces – and so had to pay the price. The wild man loves civilization, but must die for city living to continue. The civilized man has lost what he most loved, that aspect of manhood that provided the test and vigor to his life. After inordinate morning – the body of Enkidu is allowed to corrupt well past its bury-by date so that Gilgamesh can mourn over it -he is willing to abandon the city so as not to suffer the same fate as his friend. He seeks the secret of immortality from the one man – Babylonian Noah, Utnapishtim – to whom the gods have granted it. He lives now forever on the other side of the Waters of Death.
On his journey, he confronts nature at its wildest and most beautiful – a pride of lions – and slays them all, and wears a skin as a cloak. The skin of the king of beasts merely hides a civilized man trying to escape, without passing on to him any of Nature’s native power or glory.
He must pass through darkness, after getting past the scorpion men, a bizarre human/creature blend who bar his way at first, then let him pass. Twelve leagues of the deepest darkness later, he passes through the Garden of the Gods.
When he reaches the coast, the theme of women/bread/wine as the gateway to civilization first encountered with the literal seduction of Enkidu by Shamhat followed by the wild man’s introduction to the signature victuals of civilization – fruit of the earth and vine, the work of human hands. Gilgamesh, however, does not encounter the beautiful and brave temple prostitute, but rather a giant barmaid – Siduri, who flees from the wasted wreck that mourning and hardship have made of Gilgamesh. She eventually warms to him, serves him some very civilized food – and tells him to give up on seeking immortality, and instead seize the day. He should return home, get married, and raise some kids.
Unlike Enkidu, Gilgamesh doesn’t need the comfort of women to civilize him, but rather their wisdom. Which he promptly rejects. He wants to know how to get across the Waters of Death. He’s passing out through the gateway of civilization – wine, women, and song, as it were – and into the afterlife, or at least trying to.
Siduri directs him to the Sumerian Charon, Urshanabi the Ferryman. Gilgamesh finds him painting his boat on the shore, and attacks the ferry, as if it needed to be defeated.
The boat is death, it is what happens to souls at the end of life. By attacking and damaging the boat, he makes his quest to cross over the Waters of Death much more difficult. Gilgamesh has destroyed the magic that guides and propels the soul from this life to eternity.
After crossing the Waters of Death to Paradise Shore, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim and his wife, who are languid: what’s the hurry when one gets to live forever? He tells our hero he gained immortality after saving creation from the great flood. The creator god Enlil found people too noisy, and decided to drown them and all creatures right out. Through the machinations of a lesser god, Utnapishtim is instructed to turn his house into a huge square ark and thus saves creation. Eternal life is his (and his wife’s) reward. He repeats the advise Gilgamesh has repeatedly received on his journey: accept your mortal lot, go get married and father some children.
There’s an adventure where Gilgamesh retrieves and then loses a seaweed that grants youth to 100 o0ld men, but that’s a lost consolation prize. The message to him from beings natural, unnatural, and supernatural remains: it is your lot to die. Do great and memorable things, marry and father children – that’s the best you can do.
Gilgamesh returns to Uruk a different man. He finds the people have done just fine without him, and realizes their dread of his wars and building projects. He softens some. He does marry, and his first child completes his transformation into a truly civilized man.
A great story. A perfect example of what I was trying to get across to the kids: myths are how a people explain the world and themselves to themselves. The Sumerians had carved out a handful of towns and cities in a land that could be both generous and harsh. Nature could and routinely did wipe out what they had so painstakingly built, flooding and washing away their farms and villages. Further, they were surrounded by wilder peoples who wanted what they had. Finally, death was always there, ready to take you without warning.
Gilgamesh must deal with all these issues, and answer what it is that makes a man civilized.
(Aside: as long as I can remember, I’ve pronounced – in my head, because who says such words aloud? – ‘cuneiform’ “CUE-neh-form.” Now I hear, on some of the videos I’ve watched prepping for this class, ‘coo-NAY-eh-form’. To MAY to, to MAH to. I think I like my way better, but, while I sometimes argue (tongue in cheek, mostly) for multiple orthodox orthographies, using Chaucer as my hero, not sure I want to do the same for pronunciation. Communication being the goal and all.)
Sure I read this epic way back, but only vaguely remembered it. Today, with my 8th graders, we read the first half of it in conjunction with our studying of Sumer and the succeeding cultures. At the suggestion of the two moms who make up the curriculum committee, we used a version slightly cleaned up for younger readers – Gilgamesh the Hero – where Shamhat merely kisses and caresses Enkidu, and untangles the knots in his (body covering) hair – not the 6 days and 7 nights of lovemaking described in the original(s). Also skates around the whole issue of Gilgamesh’s use of the young women of Uruk, which figures in the sources as a complaint of the people against him.
But not too far off the sources. Since we’re reading translations from languages and cultures distant from us in more than just time, anything is going to be somewhat of an interpretation. It was sufficient.
What struck me this time, after we had just begun studying Sumer, is how perfectly the epic illustrates what I’ve been telling the kids about the fundamental role of mythology: myths are the stories we tell to explain the world and ourselves to ourselves. Consider:
Gilgamesh the historical figure traces back to the original 7 cities of Sumer, around 3200 BC. They were surrounded by Nature in its less cuddly forms.
Enkidu might as well have been an Akkadian: one of the wild men who lived on the borders of Sumer, who built cities of their own in imitation, and conquered it – and were in turn conquered by its culture. It was one of those very common cases in history where less civilized peoples conquer a higher civilization, but then, in turn, absorb and are conquers by it. When the Akkadian empire reverted to the control of Sumerians, did anybody much notice?
Shamhat is the bravest character in the story, sitting naked and beckoning to Enkidu, then ‘civilizing’ him through lots of sex and sympathy (our version emphasized the sympathy, of course -and the two things – sex and sympathy – might not have been all that different in the minds of Sumerians).
Then Nature and barbarism – the two things Sumer knew from experience to fear – embodied by Enkidu, fight the cruelty of of Gilgamesh, who is the corrupted civilized man. Gilgamesh is without any sympathy -he takes the young men of Uruk and spends them like arrows from his quiver, and uses the young women without remorse. But the newly civilized and sympathetic Enkidu – raised to that state by the concubine/temple prostitute Shamhat – fights him to a standoff, and becomes his first and best friend. Their epic tussle destroys much of Uruk, which seems to get reconstructed off screen – at least, it is there to be largely destroyed again by the Bull of Heaven a few tablets later.
So the civilized man by birth, becoming friends with the recently civilized wild man, tempers his excesses, even if unconsciously. The people rejoice because, enraptured by his new friendship, Gilgamesh lays off the wars and rape that have so drained his subjects.
Sumer was built of three materials: mud bricks – very common; fired bricks – less common; and stone – imported at great expense. The locally available timber was meagre, and hardly suited to major projects. So the epic takes our hero and his new friend over to what later becomes known as Lebanon, where suitably epic cedars grow.
With the help of the sun god, they defeat the monstrous spirit who guards the forest. They then chop down the largest tree in the forest, to be used to make city gates for Uruk, and a temple for the sun god. Again, what is more important to or symbolic of an ancient Sumerian city than its walls and gates? Nature is not conquered so much as civilized in an almost comically literal sense.
And so on. We only covered the first half of the story this week, saving the second half for next. All this is very much in keeping with the actual history of Sumer and its surrounding peoples. I imagine it as a Sumerian bedtime story, the sort of tale every kid would learn from infancy. The fatalistic, if not tragic, ending is the only one possible to a people like the Sumerians.
I just assigned a 16 page (Ariel, 12-point, standard margins) reading from Belloc’s Europe and the Faith to a bunch of 9th graders.
If you were a 9th grader, and some teacher assigned this:
A generic term has been invented by these modern and false historians whose version I am here giving; the vigorous, young, uncorrupt, and virtuous tribes which are imagined to have broken through the boundaries of the effete Empire and to have rejuvenated it, are grouped together as “Teutonic:” a German strain very strong numerically, superior also to what was left of Roman civilization in virile power, is said to have come in and to have taken over the handling of affairs. One great body of these Germans, the Franks, are said to have taken over Gaul; another (the Goths in their various branches) Italy and Spain. But most complete, most fruitful, and most satisfactory of all (they tell us) was the eruption of these vigorous and healthy pagans into the outlying province of Britain, which they wholly conquered, exterminating its original inhabitants and colonizing it with their superior stock.
There went with this strange way of rewriting history a flood of wild hypotheses presented as fact. Thus Parliaments (till lately admired) were imagined — and therefore stated — to be Teutonic, non-Roman, therefore non-Catholic in origin. The gradual decline of slavery was attributed to the same miraculous power in the northern pagans; and in general whatever thing was good in itself or was consonant with modern ideas, was referred back to this original source of good in the business of Europe : the German tribes.
Meanwhile the religious hatred these false historians had of civilization, that is, of Roman tradition and the Church, showed itself in a hundred other ways: the conquest of Spain by the Mohammedans was represented by them as the victory of a superior people over a degraded and contemptible one: the Reconquest of Spain by our race over the Asiatics as a disaster: its final triumphant instrument, the Inquisition, which saved Spain from a Moorish ravage was made out a monstrosity. Every revolt, however obscure, against the unity of European civilization in the Middle Ages (notably the worst revolt of all, the Albigensian), was presented as a worthy uplifting of the human mind against conditions of bondage. Most remarkable of all, the actual daily life of Catholic Europe, the habit, way of thought and manner of men, during the period of unity — from, say, the eighth century to the fifteenth — was simply omitted!
Europe and the Faith, Hillaire Belloc, CH 3
… would you be overwhelmed by it? Hate it? Love it? I’d forgotten how sophisticated Belloc’s prose is. Given the dumbed-down texts these kids are likely to have read up till now, even though homeschooling does give them a leg up on the horrifying depths to which public school has sunk, is it going to be too hard? Guess I’ll find out. (As a 9th grader, I could have handled it, but I’m a weirdo from way back.)
Also assigned were a couple pages from the beginning of Machiavelli’s History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy, but, by comparison to Belloc, that’s easy stuff.
Finally, I’m in the process of picking out some Lafferty, from his Fall of Rome, as yet another perspective. He is a scream:
“The dance is something with no survival, lacking verbal or pictoral record. The Goths may have had it. If they painted, it was not in a medium or on a material that has survived. Their history was unwritten. Their scientific speculation may not have gone beyond mead-table discussions and arguments. There is no record of their early philosophy. Since they were Germans, they must have constructed philosophical systems; and also, since they were Germans, these would have been erroneous.”
Lafferty, the Fall of Rome
Don’t think I’d have gotten that joke when I was 15. I want to find his descriptions of Alaric and Stilicho, and his narrative of the events that lead up to the sacking of Rome. In outline of the raw events, he of course agrees with Belloc; yet he assigns much greater, as in a dominant part, to the continued loyalties and emotions of many of the players, specifically, to Alaric and his men.
Lafferty is of course not strictly writing history, in the sense that he’s relying on a contemporary poem as his main source for what makes his account different. We know what the Greeks thought about poets. 1
Aside: that book lists for over $800 on Amazon, with used copies running over $50. I’ve bought a couple copies over the years at nothing like those prices, but now…? Somebody somewhere need to reprint all of Lafferty – he’s too good to languish behind impossibly expensive out of print books.
Plato: “Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.” OTOH, Aristotle: “Homer has taught all other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.”
The City of Philadelphia contains several high class public and private secondary schools, of which the writer had the pleasure of visiting the Roman Catholic High School and the Central High School. Dealing first with the Catholic High School, which was built some 12 years ago, with donations by Thos. Cahill, of the Knickerbocker Ice Company, the students number 300 (all boys), mostly drawn from the 80 parochial schools in Philadelphia. The staff consists of a Rector and Pro-Rector — both clerics — assisted by 18 lay masters. The course of study lasts four years, with a post-graduate course of one year for pupils entering the Universities, the curriculum being arranged by the diocesan superintendent. Candidates for admission must bring certificates of recommendation and pass an entrance examination which is fairly difficult, since out of 240 candidates last year only 120 were admitted. Of the 500 pupils ” graduated ” since the opening of the school, many have taken up the study of dentistry, law and medicine ; a few are drafted into the Seminary at Overbrook, and one or two have entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The course of study is a combination of Classical, Commercial and Manual Training, there being a common course for the first two years. In the third year Manual Training is replaced by Latin for the professional career, but no Greek is taught. The Manual Training consists of drawing, clay modelling, and wood carving, a special feature being that the pupils are taught to use both hands. Special rooms are provided for clay modelling, wood carving, architectural drawing and typewriting, the latter containing machines of various makes. A Chemical Laboratory holding 40 pupils and a Physics Room for 25 pupils are somewhat less elaborately fitted up.
Among the fine specimens of wood carving worked by the students were some types of Old English clock cases, an altar in the large Assembly Room, and vestment cases at the Churches of the Visitation and St. John the Evangelist.
This fine school, erected at a cost of £50,000, provides free tuition and books for all pupils from the Catholic Elementary Schools of Philadelphia, including the Catholic coloured schools.
No Greek?!? They call THAT a high school?
Seriously, most modern holders of Masters degrees couldn’t get into, let lone graduate from, this high school. (That’s because education, social services, and ‘studies’ degrees make up the bulk of master’s currently awarded, but you get my point.)
A more subtle point: the Catholics were in an arms race with the public schools at this time, as they were under constant attack for their poorly staffed and equipped parish schools. The public schools had yet to fall under the baleful influence of Dewey, whose goal was to prepare kids for the upcoming Revolution, not fill their heads with actual thoughts. Preparing kids to think for themselves, as Fichte observed, is not what schools are for. In addition, the public school advocates were in the process of ‘consolidating’ the one-room schools out of business, and thus had to show, somehow, that their big graded schools were better. Since the consolidated schools most certainly were not better in terms of customer satisfaction (students and parents tended to love their one room schools), cost efficiency (consolidated schools were about 4 times as expensive on a per-student basis), and time efficiency (6 hours a day plus homework for 9-10 months a year didn’t get better results than the shorter, less frequent school days of the rural schools), they mostly outspent the competition, while depriving them of government money at the same time.
So we got a glorious blossoming of well-equipped, well-staffed high schools with high standards in America that lasted in most places through the 1950s, or later if the schools were far enough from the major cities. Similar to the way moderns talk positively about Communism now that the bulk of Americans who knew first hand about it have died off, so the educators could move to fully implement Dewey’s (and Freire’s) ideas once those who had been educated outside the system died off or could be marginalized (e.g., Catholics and home schoolers). That’s the source not only of the dumbed-down woke death spiral in public education and the embrace of secular woo-woo by all ‘elite’ Catholic schools who still think they’ll get a seat at the cool kid’s table if only they conform to The Latest Thinking, but also of the perennial calls to ban homeschooling and private schools and to require public school attendance for everybody.
So the archdiocese of Philadelphia was moved to create what sounds like an excellent high school. Good times.