A Further Thought on Politics & History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it any wonder the Bern wants college for everyone?

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

I only understand maybe 50% (and that may be optimistic) of the esteemed William Briggs’ latest post, but must share: Quantum Potency & Probability.

Here’s my take on the issue: I’ve heard most of my life about how, at a quantum level, reality is probabilistic. What this seems to mean to people propounding it is that reality, viewed on a fine enough level, is not governed by the laws of cause and effect, nor even by the law of noncontradiction. Things can come into being and pass out of being for no reason; and some things can truly be said to both be and not be at the same time in the same way.

To be fair, it’s not often put exactly like that, but it sometimes seems to be. ( As is almost always the case, the better the scientist, the more careful they are about how they express themselves. Heisenberg was a great scientist, and so he was generally careful. His acolytes, and especially those who use him as a club with which to beat their enemies, not so much.) And to honest, as mentioned above, it’s not like I understand the math or even the finer points of the experimentation that is claimed to lead to these assertions. What I do understand is that math is not reality, however useful and even indispensable math may be to our understanding and using of the world.

In his book on the philosophy of statistical analysis Uncertainty: the Soul of Modeling, Probability and Statistics (which I still need to reread and review here! Time eats life, as some French dude once said) Dr. Briggs takes great care to distinguish between epistemology – how we understand things – and ontology – how things are. Applied mathematics belongs to the world of epistemology. I am reminded of a section of the Feynman lectures where he pauses after having filled a couple large blackboards with equations to note that it sure took a lot of math to describe what was, essentially, a simple motion, and that nature in doing what it does certainly isn’t doing all that math.

Related imageAnd, for me, that is the point. Just because quanta are nigh impossible to see and measure and appear to behave in incomprehensible ways doesn’t mean that their states are not caused, nor that they are anything other than what they are regardless of what we are able to deduce about what they are. It is a radical and unnecessary step, and contradicts the minimalist approach embodied in Occam’s Razor, to assume a new principle: that there are classes of uncaused phenomena, not just phenomena the causes of which we don’t yet understand.

The discussion on Dr. Briggs’ blog is far more nuanced and deep than my feeble understanding. One part I do understand, and which is commonly discussed on this blog: Insofar as science actually advances, they are following Aristotle and not any of the post 1630 philosophers. (1) Hylomorphism – the understanding that any object in the real world that we can consider is made up of form and matter – is, of course, how science routinely understands the world, even if the terminology has been beaten out of it. Modern science desperately wants there to be material and efficient causes only, and so does its best to pretend that there are no formal or final causes. This results in the absurdity of saying, for example, that a bird’s wings are not *for* flying, that it is not possible to describe them in terms of how they are to be used.

Of course, nobody talks this way except when pushed to the wall. But our analytic philosopher comrades, living on the cutting edge of the early Enlightenment, must insist that we don’t know and can’t meaningfully talk about formal and final causes lest we fall into the trap of *gasp* metaphysics. Can’t have that. Can’t live without it, either, but that just makes them mad.

Anyway, the most fascinating idea:

Additionally, hylomorphism entails a gradual spectrum of material beings with greater degrees of potentiality to greater degrees of actuality. Something has greater actuality if it has more determinate form (or qualities) and something has higher potency if it is more indeterminate with respect to being more receptacle to various forms. For example, a piece of clay has higher potency insofar as it is more malleable than a rock and thus more receptacle to various forms. A rock can likewise be modified to receive various forms, but it requires a physical entity with greater actuality or power to do so because it has more more determinate form as a solid object… [H]ylormophism predicts that you will find higher levels of potency because you are getting closer to prime matter. This is precisely what we find in QM. The macroscopic world has more actuality, which is why we experience it as more definite or determinate, whereas the microscopic world has far less actuality, thereby creating far less determinate behavioral patterns.

Briggs quoting Gil Sanders “An Aristotelian Approach to Quantum Mechanics” (which I haven’t read yet, but will). My paraphrase: the higher up a thing is on the scale of being – the more ensouled, the more natural in the sense of having a fuller nature – the more primary is form. The lower one goes, the less primary is form. Thus I am a human animal, among the most natural objects in the universe, one where over my 60 years has had pretty much all the matter in my body swapped out one or more times. Yet no one sane doubts that my form – human animal – has persisted through all those changes. Once we get down to barely perceptible objects, we barely are able to perceive their form at all – all we can see are the mysterious undulations of prime matter as various forms subsume it. And this is what an Aristotelian would expect: less or lower forms, less nature, less definition.

Mind blown. I’m going to need to think this over a lot.

  1. 1630, more or less, is the year Descartes retreated to his room, drew the curtains, contemplated his navel and started producing the anti-Thomist philosophy that spawned all the crap since. I wouldn’t object to using 1517 as the real start date, but it’s Easter Week! We’re playing nice!

Space: In Search of…?

Taking a break this week from crying woe and attacking my friends and ancestors to get all skiffy, asking the Question That Shall Not Be Asked Too Loudly: why do we want to explore space, again?

Sure, I get the adventure and romance part, and space pirates buckle my swash right up, but, really: why?

Consider: here is the first of a few videos, well worth the hour they take to watch, of a bunch of nuts building a traditional 18th century trading ship.

By the time you get to the launch, you’ll have seen many men spend many hours cutting trees, shaping timbers, bending planks, applying tar and hemp caulking, forging fixtures and nails and otherwise engaging in feats of manly craftsmanship. Getting from a design to a plan to an ocean-going vessel made of wood is dazzling. And, even in modern times with modern tools, pretty expensive.

Or this, to take it back a few centuries, the classic viking long ship, the big version known as a dragon ship:

Amazing and beautiful ship. Aside: the Vikings generally used bog iron to forge the iron nails on their ships. When iron-rich water drains into bogs, the iron tends to settle out into accumulations of iron-rich ores. All it takes to get this stuff is slopping around in bogs with a shovel and something to carry the ore in. Evidently, finding the deposits was a combination of skill and luck.

After you’ve collected enough ore, you’ll need to heat it and crush it. Many times as much wood as ore is needed to melt it down, so somebody is cutting  A LOT of firewood. (Aside on the aside: it is claimed that the Zulus, who were master iron workers, created a lot of grasslands and deserts by cutting down forests of trees to fire their smelters.)  Then build a clay furnace, heat the crushed ore in the furnace for many hours, including pumping some sort of manual bellows, until the dross (liquid rock!) flows off and you’re left with a bog iron bloom – a lump of very impure iron. A team of smiths alternately heat (meaning: somebody cut down and gathered yet more wood) the bloom and hammer out the impurities. You heat and pound for hours until you’re left with a few pounds of usable iron – from which you can forge a few nails.

A dragon ship needed hundreds of iron nails. Building wooden ships: a labor and resource intensive exercise.

Or, going back as far as we can in the West, bronze-age stitch ships:

People cut down huge oaks with bronze hand tools, and then carved those oaks into the pieces needed, fitted them and tied them together to make boats that could ply the English Channel. Again, fabulous amounts of labor and ingenuity.

Those 18th century Indiamen came back laden with spices and other valuables. The Dragon Ships came back with booty as well as trade goods. Even the stitch ships seem to have been used to ship out English tin and other trade goods and bring back copper or bronze. But a lot of those ships, and the people on them, didn’t come back. Every trip was a life and death adventure. People had to really want to go for these trips to take place at all, even apart from the enormous investment it took to build the ships.

People will put tremendous effort and take huge risks if there is a payoff at the end. Only rarely will people spend a lot of time and money just to see what’s out there. Even then, what they want to know is if there are goods out there worth the trouble of getting. The Age of Exploration was the age of finding and getting stuff worth getting. It would have ended pretty quickly or followed a much different trajectory if it weren’t for the spices and gold and other goodies that came flooding back to Europe.

Back to space travel. I read once that the moon rocks brought back by the landing missions have mostly sat in boxes collecting dust. Once a few were thoroughly analyzed and found to be very ordinary, science mostly lost interest in them. Be that as it may, so far, we have not discovered anything in space worth the cost and risk of getting it. Reality check. People love to speculate on the value of certain asteroids, and start in predicting that we might go fetch those big rocks full of valuable metals. And maybe we can. It won’t be easy or cheap.

So, once the blush of conquest fades, why do we want to explore space? People, seems to me, are grasping at straws: we’re going to use up the earth! Too many people! We need to spread out or we’ll all die!

Where to even start. Carrington Event, anyone? That’s when the sun emits enough radiation to fry anything in space out to the orbit of Mars. They happen quite regularly, just rarely hit the earth – a planet with a thick atmosphere and a strong magnetic field. Which is why there are still people here. Out in space, or on the moon, or on Mars – not so good. The people in the International Space Station know that, should a Carrington Event happen while they’re up there, they’re not coming home alive.

Same goes for people in transit, people in space habitats, or maybe people on Mars if they’re facing sunward at the time it hits. Maybe we can figure it out, maybe not. The Carrington Event hit in 1859, so we’re 160 years without anything quite so big. Due? Overdue? Don’t think anybody really knows.

I mention this merely to point out that space is, if anything, even more inhospitable than people seem to think. It’s not just the freezing vacuum and occasional bits of high-speed rubble that can kill you. Remember the galactic capital of Trantor from Asimov’s Foundation series? He imagined it as located somewhere near the galaxy’s heart. These days, astronomers strongly suspect that the galaxy’s core is a black hole, and in any event that the denser inner part where most of the stars are is bathed in enough radiation to render it uninhabitable by us. It may just be the case that only out here on the fringes of the spiral arms, the sticks, as it were, are things calm enough long enough for life to survive.  That’s not counting the more local difficulties, like novas, neutron stars and black holes, which will make their local neighborhoods very inhospitable.

But forget about all that. Just focus on how valuable something would have to be in order for people to build some way of going into outer space to get it. In Dune, Herbert imagines a drug that confers long life and way cool mind powers on people – that’s the spirit! I can see people risking their lives and spending a trillion or two to get something like that.

But it had better be relatively close by. If it’s not in or very near our own solar system, we’d have a situation where the generation that footed the bill and took the risks is dead long before the payoff. Taking a look at people in general, most of us have trouble planning ahead two weeks, or caring about what happens in 10 years. All of the sudden, we’re going to start investing planetary-level resources into ventures with a payoff (if any) generations in the future?

So: what reasons do we propose for people to venture out into space? Here’s my list of ideas that are at least usable for SFF:

  • Romance/adventure: people just want to go because they can. This is Elon Musk and the thousands who signed up for that one-way trip to Mars he proposed.

People – I suspect some very small subset of people, when the rubber hits the road – really, really want to explore strange new worlds, etc. They imagine they are Columbus, heading off into the great unknown, and that something like a New World awaits them.

This works, to some extent, if they are or know billionaires. An industry, such as the shipbuilding industries described above, will not spring up to fund these romantic adventures unless there’s money in it. Columbus had to bring back the goods to keep the exploration flowing. Governments just might do it, but romance and adventure don’t commonly figure into the motivations of governments.

Problems: such people are not rational. Musk and others try to dress it up with reasons such as the ‘need’ to spread out to preserve the species (it’s that payoff in generations thing again) or maybe finding something valuable enough to warrant the expense. Bottom line, such people are hopeless romantics. That one-way ticket to the imagined Mars colony is a death sentence, probably much sooner than later. Even if it works, you’d be living inside a camp or in holes in the ground, trying not to suffocate, freeze or starve. Assuming you survive the trip. People are going to stay sane under these conditions?

Other romance/adventure scenarios are at least this bad. You want to live on/in an orbital structure or asteroid? For something like a few trillion dollars, we could build a nice habitat in space, and a few thousands of people could live there until something hits it, a Carrington Event, a system failure – assuming we can solve the Biosphere 2 problems.  Which we have not yet done, nor are there efforts to fix them or even understand them actively underway. Weird, huh?

  • Spice/Stroon/That Very Valuable McGuffin.

Sure, that’ll work. Now find it before you’ve driven earth into penury.

Note that asteroid mining, which is still more than a little dubious as an economic activity, isn’t really exploring space in the sense that science fiction imagines it. At best, it’s an excuse to set up bases and space stations. Economically, what you’d want to do would be to send robot drones to capture and redirect asteroids into more convenient orbits, maybe with robot refineries on them to extract the valuable materials.

What is utterly uneconomical is to send people up there to do this. Why? It’s dangerous, boring work that is ideal for a robot which needs neither food nor air and can easily survive high G’s.

So, we’d need to be talking about something much more valuable than minerals, and something that somehow requires physical human intervention.

  • Alien life, intelligent or not.

I imagine the lure of alien life would be too great to resist for long. If we knew for sure, somehow, that non-terran life existed anywhere we could get to, I think we’d go.

  • Pulling a geographic. Grass is always greener.

Upon consideration, this seems to me to be about the best, most realistic reason for exploring and colonizing space. It works well with and even largely overlaps the Romance/Adventure motive.

We all know or are this person. Many, many people at some point in their lives just want to leave. They will talk themselves into some reason for wanting to leave, but the basic motivation is that feeling that if they could just leave, they would leave their troubles behind.

Let us imagine a surplus economy. We are effectively there, barring major wars or the advent of universal socialism. Everybody is fed, clothed and housed. Nobody works themselves to death unless they want to.

Let us further imagine a civil war between, oh, let’s call them the Party of Death and the Party of Life. (It should not need to be pointed out that these groups do not at all correspond to any current political parties.) The outcome is better than we have any reason to hope: the Party of Life wins its freedom, but allows the Party of Death to exist so long as it does NOTHING to interfere with the free functioning of families and the government instituted by them. You know, to ensure domestic tranquility and secure rights for us and our posterity? No messing with that. Otherwise, you can live your self-destructive, hedonistic lives as long as you keep it to yourselves.

Since the future belongs to those who show up for it, this may not be too far-fetched to at least work as SF&F: those hellbent on their own destruction lash out and destroy – but they don’t have many children. Those dedicated to their families and kids don’t destroy things and do have children. Choosing one course means you are not represented in the future; choosing the other means you are.

The civil war is won when the Party of Death loses control of the government, the schools, and, as a result, of the media and entertainment industries. In my fantasy here, a relatively small number of people die – some when the Party of Life is finally pushed to fight back, some few especially deserving individuals are lined up and shot at dawn due to a (slight) excess of fervor on the part of the victors. But not much real war, as the people with the guns – cops, soldiers – will mostly very much want to stay out of it, and are more sympathetic to the Party of Life anyway.

Hey, it’s my fantasy.

Imagine a world where there are many hardworking people devoted to their families, who now hold power to the extent of vetoing policies and programs that harm them, yet there are also millions of people who want no part of this family nonsense, and are left to destroy themselves in a million ways, if they insist.

More to have something to do and dream about than anything else, such a culture might build generation ships to explore and colonize the stars. So we burn a trillion dollars building such ships and perhaps giant space lasers to help propel them…

It’s not like we don’t burn a trillion here or there even now.

And people will go. Romance, adventure, and the desperate hope that you can leave your troubles behind will drive them.

You can never really leave your troubles behind. Unless you die, which may or may not lead to other troubles.

Thoughts?

Thought on Black Panther

Some minor spoilers ahead.

As part of a 14 year old’s birthday party, saw Black Panther last night.

Image result for black panther movie
Ok, maybe just the Alps. But, seriously?

It was pretty OK. Beautiful to look at and very well acted (if you ignore what I suppose is supposed to be everybody’s generic ‘African’ accent). But I got up at one point to use the men’s room, and all I seemed to miss was how the Himalayas ended up in central Africa. (Really –  isn’t Kilimanjaro the only peak in equatorial Africa that ever gets any snow? Or did I miss a geography lesson? Or are we hiding major mountain ranges now?)

Couple thoughts:

Viewed as mythology,  the Black Panther is fascinating. I’m not much of a comic book or classic pulp guy, most of what I know I got from movies and hearing other people talk about them.  Take that into consideration here.

It seems that the archetype for an American hero is either a vigilante fighting as much against a corrupt system and against bad guys, or a tragic yet honorable character who finds himself the possessor of mystical powers. With of course some overlap. Batman versus Superman, I suppose. Or The Shadow versus Spiderman. Philip Marlowe versus the Cisco Kid? Either way, a lone man, or a lone man with a tiny support team, takes on Evil for the sake of Justice. In Superman’s case, that would be defending the innocent. In Batman’s, part of the tragedy is his love for a city full of the not-so-innocent. Both are good men, motivated in the end by a desire to do good. They are only accidentally public figures.

The Black Panther isn’t one of these. He’s a king, and not just a king but an absolute monarch. His kingdom depends on his virtue for its survival – and not just his, but his ancestors back for thousands of years! The only thing holding him in check are tradition, especially ancestor worship, and some sort of mysticism. The only laws shown to constrain him at all were laws of ceremonial combat – which merely determined who got to be absolute monarch.

As if that isn’t enough fantasy for one movie, it is also imagined that this little nation that could have easily conquered the world given its massive tech advantage, didn’t because something something. Instead, they use all that tech to hide so that, evidently, Wakandans can buy colorful hand-woven baskets from each other in open markets when they’re not inventing nanotech.

(Aside: were the war rhinos a nod to Jared Diamond? He speculates in Guns, Germs, and Steel that the Zulus, who for centuries had better steel tech than contemporary Europeans, might have conquered Europe if they’d only had domesticable mounts  – he even used rhinos as his example!)

In real life, African mysticism has never constrained Africans from slaughtering each other, in the same way neither Buddhism nor Christianity have succeeded in stopping Asians and Europeans from slaughtering each other. But we accept it, somehow, like we accept Superman’s race being super just and peaceful when they’re not blowing up planets (as mentioned above, I’m fuzzy on the details here.) It makes the Black Panther and his people as alien in this respect as the natives of Krypton.

Clearly, Black Panther is meant to some extent as a departure from American superhero stories. I think the better comparison goes back much farther. Camelot leapt to mind as a better match. Not perfect, by any stretch, but better.

Arthur is a king like no other. He seeks first Justice, and the reform and improvement of those around him. His mythical kingdom is an island of high ideals in a sea of brutality and bloodshed. Fabulous and magical weapons are everywhere. The land he trod is in some sense hidden and impossible to exactly locate.  His downfall and the downfall of his kingdom is due to his personal weaknesses as embodied by Mordred.

And that’s about it. With the Gawain from the Orkneys and Palamedes the Saracen, Arthur’s court was symbolically drawn from the ends of the earth, not a monoculture hidden in secret. Arthur came from flawed parents and left a destroyed kingdom behind him – no mythology of millennia of practical perfection.

Yet we await the Once and Future King, who will be God’s chosen instrument to set things aright. That’s the core mythology that Black Panther shares. His inhuman moral strength contrasts with Arthur’s clear personal failings. The vague mysticism that somehow guides T’Challa to seek justice and refrain from exercising his absolute monarchy to his personal benefit contrasts greatly with the concrete demands of Arthur’s Catholicism which Arthur concretely fails.

Of course, people are mostly talking politics. I have my doubts: an absolute monarchy that bans all refugees and refuses all trade with the outside world? Talk about border control. The happy ending isn’t a scene where millions of impoverished Africans cross into Wakanda and are welcomed and taken care of, but rather Wakanda sending way-cool aircraft to Oakland and delegations to the UN. Ummmm – what?

The best part: a black boy is deprived of his father and inheritance and grows up to be a psychopathic mass killer. The man, a king, no less, deprives this child of his father then abandons him to his fate when it was well within his power and was his duty to care for him. This act of betrayal ends up almost costing that man his own son and almost destroys his kingdom. N’Jadaka is pretty much Mordred, in other words. That all this begins in Oakland is almost too broad. The message here would be?

Possibly the weakest part of the movie is N’Jadaka’s sort of reconciliation with T’Challa at the end. We are given the ‘this is a bad, bad man’ scenes that make N’Jadaka not just a bad man, but an insane, evil man – he simply kills his lover in cold blood to get at Klaue  and shows not the slightest remorse over this or any other of his dozens of kills. Yet, he gets almost soft at the end. Next to the fantasy elements of an absolute and absolutely virtuous monarch of an invisible country, this deathbed conversion of sorts is the least realistic thing about the movie. That, and the Himalayas.

Anyway, rough outline of what’s going through my mind at the moment. Subject to revision as my loyal readers point out just how crazily I missed EVERYTHING about this flick. 😉

Hail Lithuania!

Until I spent a few minutes googling around just now, all I could tell you about Lithuania is:

  • One of those surprising medieval empires was built by Lithuanians, as a kingdom that passed into a duchy (I think.)
  • A disproportionate number of tall, athletic men hail from Lithuania. Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis being perhaps the most famous.
  • They have very good and cheap wireless access there (read this in some business publication somewhere…).
Sabonis Lipofsky (1 of 1).JPG
This dude, for example, is HUGE!

Aaaaand – that’s about it. Sounds like a fascinating place, just never really read up on it. How such small countries/nationalities retain their identity and culture when so many others are crushed and forgotten is a subject of great interest to me, so I suppose I should try to find out how a couple million people managed to hold on when surrounded by much larger and more aggressive cultures (Russia and Germany, for starters). There must be something strong about Lithuanians.

Why am I writing this? the inscrutably bored reader might wonder in passing. According to WordPress’s blog stats, some person or persons from Lithuania have been surfing this humble blog over the last few days.

So consider this a shout out! Welcome & thanks!

 

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Semi-random thoughts on what I enjoy reading. Less coherent, perhaps, than usual around here:

Dante famously ratchets his storytelling up through the course of his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by how he shows things. In Hell (and I’m not going to Google the exact quotes, nope, not going to do it!) he starts his description of the horrors of the damned by saying: O Memory! Here thy shall show thy worth! or something like that. In other words, he is relying on his merely earthy and human mental faculties as the sources of his vision. However fantastic the tortures and dooms of the damned may be, they remain within the grasp – and experiences, poetically understood – of anyone, really. Reason in the person of Virgil is perfectly competent to see and explain the poetic justice that is at the core of Hell.

Once in Purgatory, among the saved who have been judged by a judgement they willingly embrace to be unready to endure the full glory of the Face of God, Dante can’t rely on his merely human faculties to describe and understand what he sees. Virgil seeks guidance and instruction from the souls whose understanding has been expanded by the Light of Christ denied simple human reason by the Fall. There is a lovely medieval symmetry in climbing through various stages of purgation to get back to the state of original human innocence at the Garden of Eden atop a mountain. Yet the penances here, and the Mercy and Justice of God that have degreed them, are not something Virgil can completely grasp unaided.

Dante the poet invokes the aide of the Muses in order to be able to describe what he sees, and points frequently to the substantial mystery of salvation that falls outside their ken. As a reader, in Hell you are having terrifying things pointed out to you, a terrible justice, and told to see. It is in your power, you know, your reason can work it out, that the punishments of the damned are chosen by them, and are just. The tone changes radically in Purgatory, where grace is asked for to aid our understanding. For we are walking on sacred ground.

Finally, in Heaven, we leave mere human reason behind. Virgil is left standing in Paradise. The message here is not that reason is wrong and that we should abandon it in favor of some murky idea of God’s direct infusion of divine grace. Instead, we use the grace of reason – the blessing of being made in the image of God – to seek His guidance. With His help, delivered through a hierarchy of secondary causes – other penitents, the prayers of the faithful, the teachings of the Church, the very penances assigned to the particular sins, the whole world around us – we can climb back to a state of innocence.

Which is not enough.

In Heaven, Dante the poet seeks the aid of highest Heaven, and acknowledges his inadequacy. While Hell is described via definite statements – here I saw, there they lay – Heaven’s glories are couched in doubt – I think I saw, it appeared to me. It works. The reader gets the awe and wonder through sharing Dante’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of the Divine. By not describing anything in Heaven with definite certainty, he manages, paradoxically, to describe Heaven in its awe and wonder and love. The Lover is compelled to praise the Beloved, and words fail, and in that failure succeed.

In this sense, Dante succeeds by neither showing nor telling.

From the sublime to the not as sublime: in The Night Land,  Hodgson gives evocative names to the horrors of the Night Land and consistently resist any temptation to describe them in any detail – you get gigantic, imperceptibly slow-moving, cold, eerily lit – but that’s about it. They’re just Out There, full of malice and inhumanly patient.

Way scarier than any detailed description could ever render them.

As a counterpoint, was thinking of Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth. In this classic story, Vance creates with a few deft strokes an incredibly vivid and alien world, and fills it with amazing cultural detail. One the one hand, he, like Dante and Hodgson in their very different ways, leaves a lot to the imagination. Yet he also dumps a huge amount of information on the reader, which is critical to the satisfactory resolution of the protagonist’s problems.

As a reader, I never even noticed the info dumps at the time. Only in retrospect are the fairly frequent passages of explanation in Vance’s short stories apparent. Part of the trick, I think, is spooning it out over time so the individual chunks aren’t too big, and leaving plenty of mystery. In Moon Moth, it is only in the last couple paragraphs that all the pieces come together, and only after you’ve reached the point where the protagonist is surely doomed – by the same social conventions that end up saving him! In The Dragon Masters, he pulls a related trick, where only at the end are you able to piece together the large number of clues he’s left lying about to reach the shocking conclusion.

Asking how he does this – how he manages on the one hand to be very spare in his descriptions while on the other packing the exposition with what often seem like asides but turn out to be critical information – and yet writes as gripping a story as just about anyone, is, I suppose, where the genius lies.

Now somebody who writes tell me it’s just planning and hard work.

Finally, there’s Cordwainer Smith, who, even more than Vance, drops you in the middle of the action and only gradually throws you a lifeline but never quite gets you feet back on solid ground. It feels like he never explains anything, although a moment’s reflection – thinking of Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (I spelled that wrong in the right way, before looking it up! And I can’t spell ‘amatuer’ right 9 times out of 10.) shows that he, indeed, does. It’s a weird morality play, where Smith breaks the wall to talk to the reader on a number of occasions, yet still maintains an air of mystery, surprise, and inevitable horror.

Most of his stories leave me a bit awed and scratching my head – what was THAT? Where did that come from?

Thus ends the brain dump for today.

Personal Interlude

I’ll be 60 in 2 months. This is cause for self-indulgent navel-gazing self-reflection. Also, I’m feeling a bit better, let’s see if I can write anything.

The only things in my life I’m unequivocally happy about are my marriage and our children. Work? Nah. Grim necessity that is made worthwhile by the just mentioned wife and kids.  I’m a stone expert in certain arcane corners of equipment finance. Not a great conversation starter. I dread answering the question: what do you do for a living? I tend to say ‘sell software’ because it’s true, although not really the heart of the story – which no one wants to hear anyway.

Got a boatload of hobbies that have evolved over time. Love to make things out of wood – our house is full of bookcase, tables, shelves, and boxes I’ve made.

060
e.g., this triple bunk bed for the younger daughter’s room. Put in rails after this picture. 

For the last few years, it’s been bricks:

The woodworking I’ve been doing since I was 5. The first thing I remember trying to build was a boat, out of scraps of paneling left over from redoing the garage. Remember cutting a piece into a gothic arch sort of shape, and trying to attach sides with finish nails – yikes! Didn’t get real far, but kept at if for a good while, as my handsaw chops were, I imagine, only slightly better than your typical 5 year old. Realized it would never work because I could never get the seams closed enough to hold water. I remember sitting in it and pretending, though.

My proudest childhood achievement was a total remake of a 4′ x 8′ playhouse my older brothers had built earlier, when I was 11:

  • Added a 2nd floor, which required reinforcing the ceiling/roof;
  • Repurposed a ladder from a bunk bed into a super-cool retractable ladder hinged to a board that fit into the ceiling – the whole thing was balance by a series of pulleys, nylon cord and a coffee can full of rocks, so that when you lifted it, it just rose right up into the ceiling;
  • Added a door and windows that could be closed.
  • Added some railing around the top floor so kids wouldn’t fall 60″ to their deaths.

Ended up converting the playhouse into a workspace for balsa wood models, of which I made maybe 3-4.

Also, at age 5, my mother let me plant some pansies in a little spot by the front porch. I was fascinated by them, watched them grow. I have no green thumb, but do love growing things. Put in an orchard this past spring:

I’ve tried and mostly failed to grow stuff over the years, in the sense that, for example, the few tomatoes I’ve grown are very expensive even if I value my time at next to zero. I can’t even grow zucchini. But I keep trying.

Back to my wasted youth. Then we moved. At age 12, started working for my dad on Saturdays and eventually summers at his sheet metal fabrication shop, sweeping floors and cleaning up the scrap metal. Eventually learned to do most activities except welding (a failure I regret to this day) and set up of the fabricators and presses. (I was pretty good with a blowtorch – 35+ years ago!)

Dad had a heart attack at 59 that nearly killed him, and turned him from a high-energy maniac into a more plodding and easily-tired maniac. His doctor told him he had to sell the business. Neither of my older brothers was interested in working with my dad, I was all of 18 at the time – and so, after a 15 year run, Astro-Fab was sold, and my parents and youngest brother moved to Newport Beach.

Skipping over the boring basketball/drama/choir combo that occupied my time in highschool (and made me the oddest of ducks even before you factor in my reading habits – V-II docs, Plato and Asimov’s non-fiction, for example. Fit right in!), we get to a possibly odd little fact: I grew up in a blue-collar household, where achievement meant making something you could see. There was no value placed on what might be called intellectual achievements.

This bias toward stuff you can, as Ted Nugent says, bite and away from less concrete achievements I absorbed with my mother’s milk. It just is. College was, in some sense, baffling to me: unlike high school, which was filled with students who could have hardly cared less (or were careful to project that image) about intellectual stuff, here were all these people my age who, for example, kept papers they’d written! Like the written word was some sort of achievement to be proud of!

I could not imagine. Intellectually, I get it, but even now there’s a part of me that whispers: writing is not work, it’s not worth anything. (This same voice tells me in the same way that I, likewise, am not worth anything. Package deal.)

I try to battle on. When I decided to write music (left out the part about taking piano at age 15 – bless them, the folks were cool with it), I developed a beautiful music script, even going so far as to get some calligraphy tools to make sure it was pretty. This, despite my handwriting being all but completely illegible. See, I think I needed to make it pretty to look at in order for me to think it was worth anything. Or something – all I know is that, when I wrote music, I compulsively wrote it out again at least once, to get the spacing right and clean it up. Pretty sure I spent as much or more time writing it out as I did composing the music in the first place.

Had one musical triumph: got a composition teacher in Santa Fe when I was maybe 23 who also directed the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble. After a few lessons, she told me the Ensemble would perform a piece if I wrote one for them.

Wow. So I threw myself into writing something, decided to go ultra traditional and set the Kyrie. The first part was very much inspired by traditional polyphony; she told me to make the Christe part contrasting – which I overdid, a little harmonically adventurous, let’s say. Anyway, it was OK – I spent hours writing out a beautiful copy, even got a calligrapher friend to do a cover page – and they sang it, people paid to go to that concert, even got reviewed (favorably – the reviewer compared my piece to Victoria – I blush!) .

And – can I find that review? Can I find that recording? I can lay my hands on the music, I think, because I made a bunch of copies for the Ensemble – in a accordian folder somewhere.

Was I thrilled? Did I go on to be a composer, at least as a hobby? No, and pretty much no. Have a small pile of pieces, almost all incomplete, almost all 35+ years old. They molder.

Around this time I decided I actually enjoyed writing. This is pre word processor, and I don’t know how to type (this self-indulgent dump is brought to you by fast hunt & peck). Don’t know why I liked it. But here we are: half a dozen years, 1200+ blog posts and a million words later. Got piles of mostly unfinished stories and parts of maybe 3 novels accumulated over the last 30 years doing the electronic equivalent of moldering.

So: can I spend the years left to me overcoming a lifetime of failure to follow through and complete intellectual things, and get some stuff finished?

Stay tuned.

And pardon me for the self-indulgent nonsense.