Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Great War: Vol, Chapter 5-3

War is coming, and this installment brings us to the cusp of 50k works: 49,580. If I had to guess right now, Volume One will weigh in at about 175k.

Friday, July 31st. Walter arrived in the workers’ room at six-forty and found it already bustling. He was not the only one who had had the idea of arriving early in order to see the headlines. There were knots of people scattered around the room, each crowded around a newspaper. Walter looked around for people he knew.

Strange how in such a short time -- what had it been, ten days, perhaps? -- new routines had grown up around the endless need for news. Already the crisis seemed to have become a constant. Get up early, eat while walking to the Cycleworks, see and discuss the headlines with the other workers. The normalcy made it seem as if it would go on and on, and that itself was in a sense a comfort because it meant that war would never actually come.

Kurt was sitting atop one of the tables, a short stemmed pipe clamped between his teeth, holding up a paper and reading snatches from it. Walter drew closer to that group and scanned the headline: “RUSSIA MOBILIZES, Government Demands Russia Stand Down”

“Russia claims that it’s only a partial mobilization along the Austrian border,” Kurt said. “The Kaiser and the Tsar both say they want peace.”

“What do they mean partial mobilization?” one of the onlookers asked. “Are they mobilizing or aren’t they?”

Kurt shrugged. “Doesn’t say. The Chancellor demands that they fully cancel the mobilization.”

“Are they attacking Austria?”

“It just says mobilizing.”

“God, what’s wrong with these Russians? Do they want a war?”

Kurt continued to read, summarize and answer questions until the bell rang for the shift to start, when he knocked out his pipe, folded the paper, and headed rapidly for the production line. The groups broke up as well and workers drifted to their stations, though talk continued on the floor.

When Walter reached his station he found a folded piece of paper with his name on it waiting for him. He opened it and read the brief instruction, “Come see me immediately. Meyer.” He folded the paper up, shoved it into his pocket, and headed back across the floor to the iron stair. With others just starting to settle down to work this drew more notice than usual, and one acquaintance at the enameling station shouted, “How’d you get in trouble this early, Walter?”

Meyer was sorting mail at his desk, tearing open letters, scanning them, and then dropped them into different baskets.

“I got your note, Herr Meyer.”

“Good. Sit down. I have something I want to discuss with you.”

Walter sat, and Meyer continued to sort until he had worked through his stack of mail. Then he lined the baskets up neatly on the left side of his desk and turned his attention to Walter.

“I have a form here that I want you to sign.” He pushed a piece of paper with large, official looking, Gothic lettering across the top. “It’s a request for exemption from reserve service due to essential war work. Most of my men here were never selected to serve their two years active duty -- the army doesn’t want a bunch of socialist agitators any more than I do -- so they don’t have anything to worry about unless the Landsturm is called up. More’s the pity. Marching every day under the orders of a good sergeant would make them realize how good they have it here. You, on the other hand, are still active reserve. If there’s a mobilization order, which judging by the papers could happen any day, you’d likely be called up immediately. And you I don’t want to lose. I’ve talked to a friend in the Ministry of War, and he says that if I have you file the appropriate paperwork, even if it’s not processed in time you can simply not show up at mobilization and once the paperwork clears your exemption will be granted. But we need to get it filed now. We can’t wait till you’re already called up, or I’ll have to let you go and then try to get you sent back. So,” he nudged the paper close to Walter. “Fill it out: Your depot. Your regiment. Your Company. Your name and military identification number. Sign at the bottom, and I’ll get it filed and stamped today so that whatever happens we’re in the right.”

Walter tried to skim the block of legal text filling the top half of the form as Meyer spoke but found it impenetrable to his half attention. The excuse seemed an attractive prospect. Certainly, the memories of his two years in uniform were not particularly fond, especially the chronic shortage of food which could only be made up by begging his mother to send packages from home. And yet there was something about Meyer’s assumption that he would apply for the exemption, that he was Meyer’s man rather than the Kaiser’s, which sat poorly with him. Just as the Brandenburg Gate had stood above the peace march three days before, huge and indifferent to the protest of the workers passing below it, there was at least some sense in which the army and the empire was something which stood above and aloof from the divide between management and workers, between Meyer and the Ehrlichmanns.

Ever since the offer of the foreman job people had been demanding that he take sides. Side with Meyer or side with Paul. A future with more responsibility and better pay, or a future in which he had a chance with Berta. Perhaps this other, higher road provided a way to satisfy all of these. Earn responsibility and leadership. Satisfy his mother’s desire for a more respectable occupation. Excel in a way that Berta could still find attractive. What would Berta think of a soldier? Or with a little time, and luck, perhaps a sergeant?

And this paper Meyer was pushing towards him meant turning away from that higher allegiance and taking Meyer’s side in the smaller conflict between bosses and organizers. If only there were more time to think it all out.

“Do you think there really will be war?” he asked. “Or that they’ll call up the reserves?”

“Who knows? I think it’s just as likely it will all blow over. But if so, there’s still no harm in getting this filed. Why have the possibility of being called up hanging over you? You’re not just an East Prussian village boy anymore. You’ll be managing a manufacturing line. That’s important work. They can always get peasants to carry rifles.”

“Protecting the Fatherland is important work.”

Meyer flushed slightly, and Walter realized this last must have sounded as if he were questioning the owner’s patriotism. “Of course it is! But see here: They’ll have five million men carrying rifles if they mobilize the reserves. How many of those men can build a folding bicycle? If war comes that test order for two hundred bicycles will turn into orders for thousands. We’ll run shifts around the clock. Think what a bicycle trooper can do compared to an infantry man on foot! He could cover sixty miles a day instead of twenty. If you want to serve the Kaiser, you’ll do it better here.”

“I understand that, but-” From what came after that there could be no return. He hesitated on the brink.

[Continue reading]

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Little Light Christmas Fiction, Throwback Edition

For all readers of DarwinCatholic fiction, here's a small present: the Midnight Mass section from Profiles in String, cleaned up from its initial NaNo posting.


In this quiet way Christmas approached. I put out Emma’s old Advent wreath, and she made it part of her daily schedule of wandering to pause at the wreath and rearrange all the candles. Each evening she sat in front of the wreath, mesmerized, and watched the flames flicker and dance, and I would watch her through the flames, wondering what other little secrets were hidden in her mind, and whether I cared enough to know anymore. Now I was the remote one, automatically giving generic replies to her generic remarks. If Emma noticed that I’d withdrawn from her, she didn’t let it get her down. She was still delighted to see me every day, and told me so. She was still grateful for my help each evening, though by now I accepted her gratitude as my due. She was never wounded by my sarcasm or offended by my passivity. She was untouchable in her own little world.

As I avoided the library, Emma took to haunting it, pulling books off the shelves and flipping through them. Several times I found books in her drawers or tucked in with the dishes, but usually she would take down a volume, page through it and read a few words here and there, and put it back in some other spot in the room. Sometimes she would sit watching TV with a book in her lap, every now and then calling a cheery observation to me as I decorated the tree or cleaned out the old fireplace.

Peggy Harriman next door had offered to keep half an eye on the house and the sleeping Emma while I attended midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and I accepted eagerly. I would take Emma to morning Mass, but the Vigil was to be my own time. 

The preparations of the day -- the baking and laundering and bathing -- had wound Emma up. She hovered at my door as I pulled on my good boots and smoothed my thick wool skirt and knotted my scarf. 

“When I was your age, we didn’t bother about pinning our hair up,” she said, watching me twist my hair into a bun. “We kept it short, let me tell you! None of this fuss! Let me have a brush, and I’ll show you how you should fix it.” By this time she was behind me, trying to pull out my bobby pins. I twisted in frustration. 

“No, Emma! I like my hair this way!” I tried to grab her fingers as she unwound my hair. “I never brush my hair unless I have to. It gets fluffy. Ow! Emma, stop!” She was trying to comb through my hair with her fingers, but now she turned and left the room. I picked up my box of pins that had fallen off my bed and searched for the scattered contents, wondering if Emma was offended. But she reappeared in the doorway holding her own hairbrush. 

“Here, honey, I’ll fix you up,” she said, sitting on the bed and patting the spot next to her. I edged out of reach of the brush.

“How about I fix you up?” I countered. “I’ll brush your hair, Emma, and make you look all nice.”
To my relief she handed me the hairbrush without protest, and I knelt on the bed behind her and gently smoothed her thinning hair.

“You look nice tonight, honey,” she murmured contentedly.

“Thank you, Aunt Emma,” I said. “I’m going to Mass tonight. It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Oh, I should get ready,” she cried, dismayed, but I continued to stroke her hair.

“No, no, Emma, you’re going to Mass in the morning. You’ll have more time to get ready then, don’t you think?” I ran the hairbrush softly over her head, and her shoulders relaxed. “Peggy Harriman is going to keep an eye on the house while I’m gone, but don’t worry about it. You’ll be sleeping peacefully. Don’t you think it’s time to get ready for bed?”

Emma brightened at the mention of Peggy. “I haven’t seen Peggy in so long,” she said. “I ought to go over there and chat. When is she coming over?”

“No, Emma, she’s going to be at her house, but she’ll be watching out for you.”

“She’ll be watching me?” Emma didn’t like that. “I don’t like her watching me. When are the folks coming?” Her hands fidgeted in her lap, and she raised one as if to take the hairbrush.

“The folks will be around,” I said easily, sliding the brush through her hair. “Don’t you worry. Now, shouldn’t you get some beauty sleep before Christmas?”

Emma sighed and got up, and I handed her the hairbrush. She puttered slowly down the hall to the bathroom, speaking quietly to herself of Peggy and the folks and visiting. I sighed as well, overwhelmed by an intense yearning to be by myself at the Vigil Mass, to dissolve into the beauty and the peace of Christmas Eve, responsible for no one but myself.

Tucked against the wall at Our Lady of Lourdes, I tried to shut my mind to the ever-swelling crowd in the church. My back pew, which had been empty when I had slipped into it, was now shared with a man in glasses quietly studying a missal, and flustered young parents sitting guard on either side of a minute baby sleeping in a carrier. I ignored them all. I wanted to lose myself in the beauty of the church and the quiet of the painted creche on the steps of the altar. Ever since I was a child, Christmas Vigil has been the most momentous night of the year to me: all waiting culminating in the joy of the angels and the gentle smile of the Madonna gazing at her miraculous infant. If I were Mary, I would never have put my baby in a manger for animals to sniff and shepherds to gawk at. I would have held my baby close and warm and kept him all to myself, so that no one could steal him from me and ever cause us pain.  I thought of Stacy and her tiny baby sheltered safely within her womb, and was surprised to feel a stab of jealousy at her happiness. Being the oldest, she had beaten me to husband and child, and now she was going to spend Christmas in a happy nauseous glow rather than with a senile old woman.

The choir coughed, the organ rumbled into a prelude, and I unclenched my hands as the familiar strains of Silent Night restored a measure of my peace and perspective. I was even able to smile sympathetically at the man when he murmured an apology for being shoved against me by the young couple scooting down to make room for another arrival, an impeccably dressed gentleman of immense proportions. This newcomer removed his hat, settled his stately bulk, nodded graciously down the pew, and reposed, unmovable, a bulwark against further encroachment by latecomers. Before us, a mass of people filled the church; behind us, the standing crowds teemed and shuffled. Soon I felt myself wrapped in warm anonymity, and my troubled thoughts eased and cooled.

At that moment the choir burst into Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and the congregation struggled to its feet in a flutter of songbooks and missalettes. The acolytes, lectors, and priests processed in, followed by a press of people seeking the last inch of seating. An usher cast a speculative eye on our pew and beckoned toward the doors. People parted with difficulty, and a walker slowly emerged, pushed by an elderly woman in a turquoise jacket. She shuffled to the pew and carefully parked her conveyance as the massive gentleman grunted and edged against the young couple, who were striving to shift copious amounts of baby paraphernalia down the pew. The man and I looked at each other in alarm as we were squeezed even closer to the wall.

Inside his cocoon of blankets the baby, awakened by the commotion, began to wail. His parents flew into a flurry of action, unstrapping him from the car seat, bouncing him, excavating in the diaper bag for his pacifier. He would not be pacified, but squalled with increasing fury. As the organ swelled out the Gloria, his mother dropped onto the pew and began the laborious process of draping the tiny ball of rage in order to nurse him. The space against the wall grew tighter, if that was possible. I gave up trying to follow the words in the flimsy missalette, and, as I was almost wrapped in the man’s arms anyway, I read along in his handsome volume.

The priest having prayed the Collect, everyone sat as best he could. The elderly lady, once settled, had not risen from her seat. The large gentleman conscientiously gave her plenty of breathing room, so that the young husband had to deposit the diaper bag precariously atop the baby seat. His wife was wrapped up in the baby and his blankets. I perched as formally as possible without actually sitting on the man’s lap. The church quieted. And then my phone vibrated in my purse.

In a situation of this density, the easiest thing to do would have been to ignore the buzzing. But at midnight on Christmas Eve, the only person who could possibly been trying to reach me would be Peggy Harriman, calling about Emma. And my purse was tucked carefully under the pew, under the feet of the nursing mother. 

“Please,” I whispered to the man, “please, can you reach my purse? I’m afraid it might be important.” He glanced at my pale face and silently rummaged beneath the seat, straightening a moment later to hand me the prize. As I fished for the phone, he tried to push a lock of hair out of his eyes without elbowing the snorting infant. The baby, outraged at having fallen off the breast, howled in time to the refrain of the psalm. His mother’s harried efforts to reattach him pushed the man even closer to me, so that he couldn’t help reading the text over my shoulder: Front door open. Emma not in house.

Emma not in house. Emma had gotten out, was in the cold and snow wandering, perhaps in her pajamas and slippers. Where could she be trying to go? A sick wave of panic washed over me, but I fought it down as I dropped the phone back in my purse.

“I have to get out,” I explained to the man, in a voice I hoped was reasonably calm. “It’s an emergency, and I need to leave now.”

He and I jostled awkwardly as we rose together so I could slide past him. The nursing mother looked up in irritation, having gotten her baby back to sleep, and whether from inability or disinclination, refused to move. The car seat blocked my passage. The immense gentleman took up the same amount of space sitting or standing. The elderly woman was oblivious to the confusion by the wall, and her walker blocked the opening of the pew. In dismay I squeezed back past the man, but the pew was hard against the wall and would admit no exit. I looked up at the man, who seemed to be my sole ally, and said, “I have to get out.”

He considered me for a moment -- his eyes were gray, shot through with green -- before he surveyed the impassable pew, the tight crowd near the door, and, with a glance at the altar, the progress of the mass. After an almost imperceptible hesitation, he put his missal in the pocket of his coat, swung himself over the back of the pew, and held out his hands to me. Now it was my turn to hesitate, as I imagined trying to clamber around in my skirt and boots.

“Isn’t there some other way?” I whispered.

“Do you want to get out or not?” he whispered back, but the corner of his mouth twitched as I climbed with as much dignity as I could muster onto the bench and balanced with one foot on the back of the pew, pondering how best to get over without kicking baby or mother. I was sure he was laughing at me when I put my hands on his shoulders and prepared to jump. But as I stepped up I felt a firm grasp on my waist, lifting and lowering me gently to the ground.

At this moment the congregation stood for the gospel. The crowd behind us surged forward, and my ankle knocked painfully against the pew. Stifling a gasp, I clutched at the man and sagged against him for a second, pressing my head against the wool of his coat and inhaling the faint scent of bay rum until my vision cleared. He clasped me tightly against his side and began to shove through the protesting crowd, carrying me along until we emerged out the great doors into the sharp midnight air, the first snowflakes already swirling around us.

The chill, after the stifling atmosphere of the packed church, braced me. He was watching me curiously, and I realized that I was still holding onto his coat.

“Thank you,” I said, straightening up and smoothing my hair, which had escaped from the last of the hairpins in the struggle to get out. “I’m very grateful, and there’s no way for me to repay you.” I had remembered where I had parked, and now I tested my foot on the stairs as I leaned on the brass railing. 

“You’re welcome,” he replied. I could feel his eyes on me as I limped cautiously down the icy steps, favoring my wobbly ankle. “Will you be all right?”

I turned my head to reply, but there were so many answers that could be given to this question, and there was so much riding on my being okay, and it had been so long since anyone had asked me how I was doing, that I could only stare mutely at him. My breath began to rise in shuddering gasps and I clamped my lips tight and clutched the rail. For the second time that evening he seemed to hesitate slightly, then he strode down the stairs to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and guided me briskly down to the parking lot. 

“Where are you parked?” he asked. His spurt of action cleared my head and focused me.

“Against the wall in the back.” 

We made a rapid pace against an intensifying bombardment of tiny snowflakes.

“Who is Emma?” he asked after a moment.

“My aunt. My Great-Aunt. I live with her. She has Alzheimer’s. She must be out in the cold, and I have to find her quickly. She could be freezing to death in this weather...” My voice trailed off as I paused to regard the cars parked two and three deep.

“Which one is yours?” 

I gestured at the old green Toyota trapped against the wall, not just double but triple parked. We stood silently for a moment. Then I let out my breath and started for the parking lot gate.

“Wait,” he called. “Where are you going?”

“I’ll walk home. I don’t live far away.”

“But your foot...”

“Is better. Thank you.” I crunched on with determination, calculating the fastest route home on foot.

  “Stop,” he said, seizing my arm and catching up to me. “You can’t walk home in this weather.”

“My aunt is already walking in it!” I said, shaking him off. He placed himself squarely in my path. The rising wind lashed my hair into wild curls which whipped across my eyes. I shoved it back and piled it against my head as I faced him.

“You’ve already been a great help,” I said firmly, “but you don’t have to concern yourself. I need to go, please.” 

“Seeing as I’m missing Christmas Vigil for this, I might as well consider myself involved already,” he said. “Listen to me. How can you help your aunt by trudging through the snow and making yourself sick? You need to find her fast. Let me drive you.”

I fought down my first, unreasonable instinct to refuse his offer. “You’re very kind,” I snapped.

We hurried back up the parking lot, the man keeping a stride ahead of me. His brown hair faded to yellow as we passed under the harsh glare of a street light, and he pushed it out of his eyes in an echo of my own struggle against the wind. Suddenly ashamed of my lack of graciousness, I swallowed and sighed. “Thank you. Again. I seem to be singularly ineffective tonight.”

“You don’t have to do everything yourself, you know,” he answered, with the same hint of amusement he had displayed when I was about to jump off the pew.

“Often I do,” I answered in all seriousness, and with a sidelong glance at me, he bit off whatever snappy reply had been on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he unlocked the passenger door of a small silver car and held it open for me. I slid in and laid my head back against the rest, closing my eyes, willing the rising panic in my stomach to calm and dissipate. My willpower achieved precisely nothing, but the slam of his door gave me a therapeutic jolt, and the way he peeled out of the parking lot was positively cathartic.

As we sped through the deserted streets, I gave him directions to Emma’s house. He looked at me oddly, but said nothing. We rode in silence while I exchanged frantic texts with Peggy. It had been twenty minutes since I’d first received her message. Emma had not been found yet and Peggy was ready to call the police. She was on her home phone with her husband John, who was driving an opposite route from the one that would bring us home from church. I had to refrain myself from pressing on the imaginary passenger-side accelerator to hurry us along. In every shadow between every street light lurked the potential terror of a collapsed body slowly freezing to death.

“Look,” the man said urgently, and then I too saw a figure moving slowly down the dark sidewalk, huddled against the wind. She wore a bulky sweater and a scarf over her head, but over her thick elastic stockings were nothing but slippers. We pulled over and I leapt from the car, screaming her name. The man, close behind me, wrapped her in his coat. I flung open the car door as he rushed her into the back seat, and then I squeezed in beside her and placed my own coat over her legs.

“Emma, Emma, what were you doing?” I cried, chafing her hands between my own. “You’re almost frozen! What were you thinking?”

“Hi, honey,” she croaked. “It sure is cold out.” 

I thought I heard a choked laugh from the driver’s seat.

“This is nice,” Emma chattered, looking around the interior of the car. “Howard has done well for himself. You tell him to take me home now.”

“This isn’t Howard’s car,” I said. “Emma, where were you going? What were you trying to do?”

“The folks never came over,” she said as we sped the short distance home. “I couldn’t find Peggy’s house with the big tree. You remember Peggy? She’s my neighbor, but I can’t find her tree.”

“That tree blew down in a storm three years ago,” was the man’s unexpected remark as we pulled in Emma’s driveway. Peggy flew out of her kitchen door, and I could see her bawling into the phone as we bundled Emma out of the car and into the house. Peggy and the man hustled her to her bed while I seized every blanket I could carry, including the electric blanket, and tossed them over her. He and I set to tucking Emma in while Peggy headed to the kitchen to heat water for tea.

Being back in the familiar environment was like a tonic to my jittery nerves, such that I could start to feel some pity for the ordeal Peggy must have endured. In her hysteria she was babbling at the man as if they were old friends. 

“I was getting so desperate, I was going to call you next,” she yelled to him as she rattled around the kitchen making hot drinks. 

“I don’t know why I should fall last on your list of emergency heroes,” he said easily. I had to admire his composure; he accepted even this bit of incongruity with complete equanimity. 

“You two get under the blankets with her and keep her warm,” came the order from the kitchen. “The more body heat, the better.”

He and I pressed ourselves on either side of the uncomplaining Emma and eyed each other over her icy body.

“This is my great-aunt Emma,” I said, all embarrassment at the whole situation finally evaporated, “and my name is Emma too. Emma Trapnel.”

“I’m Martin Harriman,” he said, as sociably as if we were chatting at a dinner party. “Peggy is my aunt.”

“Aren’t we cozy?” purred Aunt Emma, and she patted his cheek.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Holly and the Ivy

We have a disintegrating book of Christmas carols which I can't bring myself to get rid of because it's nice and playable. Most of the carols are old standbys, but The Holly and the Ivy has an unfamiliar tune, one I'd never heard anywhere else. But lo, the choir at King's College, Cambridge has a lovely arrangement of this unusual setting.

Merry Christmas to all from the Darwins.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Men Support Abortion On Demand More Than Women

Razib Kahn of Gene Expression is someone on can rely on to take an unvarnished look at data which conflicts with cultural pieties. A call in to NPR prompted him to use the General Social Survey to take a look at whether abortion is really a "women's issue" in the sense that women are more likely to support abortion on demand than men. (A few years back I used the same question on the GSS to look at how women with no children are the most likely to support abortion on demand, while the more times a woman has actually given birth the less likely she is to support abortion.) Razib's results would be surprising to progressive cultural assumptions, though they're probably less so to most pro-lifers:

All you need to do is look at the General Social Survey, which as a variable “ABANY” which asks respondents if it should be legal for a woman to have an abortion for any reason. The question has been asked every few years since 1977. I limited the data to whites only, and what you can see above is that year to year there is actually a correlation between men and women when it came to a “Yes” response. I was actually surprised by that. The jumps are not total noise, but reflect changes in the Zeitgeist (the rule of thumb is that the populace becomes more pro-choice during Republican presidencies and more pro-life during Democratic ones).

The second plot illustrates that for most of the years since 1977 men have supported abortion on demand at a higher clip than women. It doesn’t prove anything, except that reality is a little more “problematic” than some people who regularly call in to NPR might think (that’s what triggered this post).

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Great War: Vol, Chapter 5-2

Tuesday, July 28th. The air was already sticky with humid warmth as Walter hurried to the Cycleworks on Tuesday morning. Sunday, as they had been returning from their hiking trip, it had begun to rain, soaking them as they trudged back to the rural rail station. The rain had continued Monday, and Walter had wished angrily that the sun would return. Now it had, but the combination of wet and warmth was far more oppressive than the rain had been.

The newsboys were out in force in the streets, calling the day’s headline, “Serbia Offers Partial Capitulation!” With the mounting international crisis, and rumors of war now increasing daily, the news sheets were doing a brisk business: morning, afternoon and evening editions all had their readerships.

“Have you heard the latest?” were the first words Walter heard as he entered the workers room at the Cycleworks and hung his coat and cap on one of the forest of pegs.

“I saw the headline this morning was that Serbia agreed to Austria’s ultimatum.”

“Does that mean it’s all over? Danger past?”

“Not yet. They didn’t accept every demand. We have to see if the partial agreement is enough.”

“Austria ought to be satisfied with this. How much more do they expect?”

A week before there had been no talk of Austria and Serbia and world affairs. Now it was a source of commonality between friends and strangers alike. What’s the news? Have you heard? The crisis provided the first topic on all occasions, and like any other topic which draws all those in a large city together -- whether a sports championship or a natural disaster -- this shared experience provided a sort of closeness which was itself an attraction. Fear drove the interest, fear that war would break out. And yet, the excitement of the crisis was such that people did not quite want it to end.

The workers room hummed with news and speculation until at seven the starting bell sent everyone scurrying for their assigned places. Then the day became like any other, ruled by the rhythm of the assembly process.

Walter was at his station, welding the stays of a frame into place, when Kurt approached him.

“Meyer wants you. In his office.”

[Continue reading]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Darwin on the Radio: 1914 Christmas Truce

I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show tomorrow morning at 6:35AM EST talking about the Christmas Truce of 1914. There will also be a replay at 7:45AM Tuesday. There's a live streaming link at their website, so you can listen live on the web. If a recording becomes available afterwards, I'll post it here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Small Lives

When I was a banged and befreckled Brownie, 'round about third grade, I made a friend in my troop. She had glasses and curly hair and maybe pierced ears, and was bright and self-confident and talked about interesting things, and most wonderful, she didn't go to school.

"Everyone has to go to school," I said, surprised.

"I don't," she said. "I homeschool."

This was one more layer of fascination. Her house, too, was, as I remember it, in a woodsy neighborhood, older and rambling and spacious, very different from the trailer out in the country where I lived. The house was full of books, and little steps and up and down, and there was a fireplace in the den, in front of which her mother kept, and used, a spinning wheel. A spinning wheel! My family didn't have a television, but hers did, and we could watch Mathnet on Square One TV after Brownies. My friend had her own bedroom, which might have been painted purple, while I shared a bedroom with my brother and two sisters. But her name was the same as my sister's, although spelled unusually, and her two younger brothers had the same names as my two younger brothers (well, one of her brothers had my brother's middle name, but close enough), and beyond all these similarities, we liked the same things, and we didn't much care for the things other girls talked about, like fashionable stuff or cliques or boys. We had sleepovers at her house, and we would sit up talking for hours, and then trace the etymology of our conversation and try to follow threads all the way back to our original topic.

She told me one day that she was going to name her first daughter Glinda Galadriel, after the two most powerful, most beautiful, most good sorceresses. Glinda I knew -- everyone had seen The Wizard of Oz -- but I'd never heard of Galadriel. She was surprised. Hadn't I read Lord of the Rings? It was full of adventure, and I would love it, and she would lend it to me if her parents said it was okay.

I have since inherited my grandfather's collection of Tolkien books and appendices and maps and paintings, so I know that he was a buff, but neither of my parents had ever heard of Lord of the Rings. So I set out by myself at age eight with three paperbacks, reading them at night, sitting over the floor heating vent, wrapped in a blanket to trap all the warm air, skimming over the parts I didn't understand, browsing forward to try to find the thread of the plot, often confused and sometimes bored, but, like the hobbits, taking small steps in a strange land and understanding only the parts of it that touched me. My memories of that first reading are vague. I was as surprised as Merry and Pippin to discover that Strider was the returning King. I found the Battle of Pelennor Fields overwhelming and too full of incident. I liked Merry and Pippin best because I could always understand them. They were my viewpoint characters. When I was bewildered, they were bewildered. When I was scared, they were scared. Gandalf and Strider and all the Elves and even Frodo and Sam were doing grownup things I couldn't comprehend, but Merry and Pippin were comfortingly small and basic and just my speed, and they got home after all and did brave things and lived happy uncomplicated lives.

Children are not, in the end, able to maintain the obligations of friendship all alone, and our families didn't have all that much in common. They were more affluent than we, but our dissimilarities were probably mostly religious. Although my family began homeschooling, we joined the Protestant-affliated group of which her mother had spoken dismissively. We were Catholic and they were Unitarian of the stripe that believes that children should be able to make up their own minds about God (or perhaps that's all Unitarians; I don't know). I always had the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that I ought to "witness" to my friend, and yet, not being a member of those Bible Belt denominations which presented their adherents with pre-packaged Come to Jesus scripts, I had no idea how to begin, and so never did. Eventually both of us dropped the Girl Scouts, and I lost touch with her before my family moved to Ohio when I was 12.

This came to mind last night as I read some of the reviews of Peter Jackson's last installment of The Hobbit. Many of them are the kind of delicious rout that reviewers deliver when the blinders have fallen off their eyes, but the Joe Morgenstern in the WSJ had a glowing tribute to the movie, and to all six of Jackson's Tolkien-flavored ventures, which had to be read through the lens of the first and last lines:
The best way I know to give “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” the heartfelt praise it deserves is to acknowledge that I’m anything but a scholar in this field. As a late arrival to the J.R.R. Tolkien canon, I tried my best to keep track of all the characters, intricacies, symbols, nuances, layers and interconnections in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, but it wasn’t easy. 
...One of the signal achievements of Mr. Jackson and his myriad colleagues in this film is maintaining not only a sense of momentousness but of individual purpose, crisis and tragedy. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, touching as ever, is an observer of Thorin’s madness, up to a point; when he finally intercedes, it’s with courage and thrilling clarity. Other stalwarts of the series are present and vividly accounted for: Ian McKellen’s Gandalf; Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel and, especially moving for devotees of genre films, Christopher Lee’s Saruman. The six films in Mr. Jackson’s two trilogies have come to constitute a genre unto itself—peerless fantasy, flawlessly rendered. 
He has not, in other words, read the books. Which of these last mentioned "stalwarts of the series" do not belong in The Hobbit? Which one is cut from whole cloth? Mr. Morgenstern doesn't know, and his review slips into a strange alternate world in which Peter Jackson's computer-generated padding, every moment built up into an epic confrontation completely unmoored from the raison d'etre of its source, becomes the standard of cinematic accomplishment:
The dragon is, of course, born of bits and bytes. The same goes for the contending armies of this climactic tale, in which the races of dwarves, elves and men must unite against a common enemy if Middle-earth is to have a future. Indeed, much of “The Battle of the Five Armies,” like the films that preceded it, could qualify as an animated feature, but that magnifies the awe, rather than diminishes it as in the case of so many middling attractions that depend on mediocre technology. The computer-generated effects here are executed so gorgeously—my favorite is a battle on the ice—and intertwined with such stirring live action, that the film as a whole is seamless, quite astonishing and deeply satisfying.
I have better things to do than watch Jackson's stapled and mutilated orc-goblins rampage across a three-story screen laying waste to the remnants of Tolkien's plot, but Darwin will go see it with the guys. Then he'll come back and tell me strange tales, just as he did last year with the second Hobbit movie, when I was nine months pregnant and bedridden, listening in wonder as my husband babbled the most arrant nonsense at me and claimed it was the plot. I had the strangest deja vu, a memory of a child trying to make sense of a book too big for her, trying desperately to hold to an unfamiliar path, only in this case the familiar path had been bulldozed into a smooth triumph of technology, gleaming and senseless.

About ten years ago I Googled and found my old friend, thanks to the unusual spelling of her first name, and found that she'd gone on to high school, and to a prestigious women's college, and was now a teacher at a private school. I sent her an email. I hoped I'd written to the right person, and did she remember me, her friend from Brownies in Blacksburg, Virginia, all those years ago? My family had started homeschooling as well, she might remember, and now I planned to homeschool my own children, and I would always be grateful to her for introducing me to Tolkien. She sent back a pleasant note and said that yes, she did remember me, and that I'd been one of the nicest girls she knew. That was about the end of it, and I was left pondering exactly where the scales had finally balanced on our friendship. You introduced me to Tolkien / You were one of the nicest girls I knew. I suppose being nice, and specifically being nice to someone, is a nice, if unexciting, legacy, and after all, if there's one thing we've learned from Peter Jackson, it's the hollowness of blowing up every moment to it's most epic incarnation. Better to play a small role in a vast drama you can't entirely comprehend than to constantly shine in pixelated moments of created, and forgettable, glory.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Crowdsourcing the Ten Commandments

What to my wondering inbox should appear but a press release about the winning entries in a contest to crowdsource a secular ten commandments, run by a collaboration of several different atheist groups. The numbers involved give a sense of the sheer scale of this undertaking: almost 3000 entries were received! More than 6000 votes were cast to select the ten finalists! The prize was a whopping $10,000, split ten ways!

Numbers aside, let's contemplate the results, along with the explanations provided by the winning contestants for their entries:

I. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence. Why?  It is essential in order for us to be able to collaboratively work together to find common solutions to pressing world problems. 
II. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true. Why? We're more likely to believe what we wish to be true over what we wish not to be true, regardless of veracity. If we’re interested in learning the truth, then we need to actively separate our beliefs from our desires. 
III. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world. Why? Every time humans have questions this method is used to solve them. If we don't know, we don't know but instead of making up the answer we use this method to reach a conclusion/answer. 
IV. Every person has the right to control over their body. Why? This includes a person"s right to not be murdered, raped, imprisoned without just cause (violating another person's rights), kidnapped, attacked, tortured, etc. This also protects a person's freedom of speech and freedom to dress and represent themselves as they so choose. 
V. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life. Why? When one does a good deed it isn't because God tells one to do a good deed, but because one simply wants to be good person. As Human beings we are capable of defining our own, different, meanings for our lives, with or without a god. 
VI. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them. Why? It may sound obvious, but negligence and refusal to take responsibility are an immense source of harm in the world, from interpersonal relations to Global issues. 
VII. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective. Why? If everyone did their best to carry this out as far as it can go, everyone would get along much better. 
VIII. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations. Why? As human beings, we have great power. As Voltaire noted "With great power comes great responsibility." To not consider others would be selfish and petty. We have demonstrated the ability to be magnanimous, are rapidly becoming more so, and will be even more so in the near future. 
IX. There is no one right way to live. Why? If you look, even a little, you find many cultures living in moral societies that are fundamentally different, with only a few very basic principles being adhered to between them. Just because one group is different, does not mean they are wrong. 
X. Leave the world a better place than you found it. Why? The Japanese concept of Kaizen teaches that small incremental improvements can have a profound effect over time. We should all strive to leave the world better than we found it be it through relieving the suffering of others, creating works of art, or passing along knowledge.

(This list is copied from the press-release email, and the explanations from the website. This is a service to make the list more intelligible, as on the site commandment I is repeated three times in place of others shown here.)

What amazes me is how many of these entries assume some kind of higher objective standard, something that can impose obligations and and allow for judgment and comparison between alternatives.

I. Be open-minded. Is that open-minded according to my own assessment, or is there some external standard of open-mindedness I should be conforming to?

II.What is truth?

III. How, exactly, does this assertion rise to the level of a commandment? And what is the standard of reliability?

IV. Every person, but who defines personhood? My children have a right to be treated with dignity, but they don't have a right to control over their own bodies, or diapers would never be changed and medicine would never be taken. My throat is sore -- is this my own body rebelling against my right to control it?

V. A good person? What is good? Can we agree on what is good, and if so, does that make the good an ideal outside of oneself to which we can conform? If all goods conform to this ideal of good, could it be that this highest good is what we call God?

VI. What obligation does being mindful of consequences and taking responsibility for them entail? Any psycho can know the consequences of his action and be willing to acknowledge them.

VII. A subjective standard like this doesn't give a lot of guidance when dealing with people with low self esteem.

VIII. Where does this responsibility come from? Who imposes it?

IX. It strikes me that IX negates the rest of the list, and indeed the whole undertaking, because if there is no right way to live, then what is the point of developing secular commandments in the first place? The gloss on IX is interesting: if all these "fundamentally different" moralities have "only a a few very basic principles being adhered to between them", are these commandments an attempt to highlight those basic principles? Are those basic principles the right way to live? Is the corollary of "no one right way to live", "no one wrong way to live"? Why is this not this first item on the list?

X. Better according to whose standards? Your own? What if your version of leaving the world a better place conflicts with someone else's version? Better than what?

Even Fight Club has a more consistent code than this.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Novel Scheduling

I think I'm finally mostly over it, but having been sick for the last week I got seriously behind on novel writing. As a result, there's not an installment of The Great War going up today. I'll have an installment up Monday.

Since the next two Thursdays are Christmas and New Years, I'm going to be skipping those days as well. So, expect posts on Monday. Dec. 22, Monday, Dec. 29 and then the regular schedule resuming in the first week of January with installment on both Jan. 5 and Jan 8.

This hasn't been a NaNoWriMo, so I haven't been posting numbers, but the novel as it stands thus far is at 41k words. My goal is to hit 50k before New Years.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The People and the Police

Part I: Why People Are Inclined To Support The Police

There have been a number of stories in the news lately in which prosecutors have considered and then failed to deliver indictments against policemen in cases where they have killed people. There's been a fair amount of outrage about this, some of it justified, some of it not. One of the things that has generated so much outrage is that, through it all, most people have supported not indicting these officers. I think it's worth considering why.

Police are in a difficult position. We, as a polity, pay them to insert themselves into situations that we do not feel ourselves well able to deal with, whether that means domestic disputes, fights between gangs, the mentally unstable, or runaway cows. In return, they get the generic "gratitude towards those in uniform" which our society includes among its civic pieties, but not necessarily huge amounts of comprehension of what they deal with which day (which, of course, varies a huge amount from city to city. What a small town policeman deals with is going to be a lot different from what an LAPD officer in Watts deals with.)

A basic understanding of this is, I think, why in general people are willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt (and then some) most of the time. The police are out there dealing with stuff so that we don't have to, and there's an implicit understanding that it would be rather churlish to turn around and prosecute them criminally if they make a misjudgement in doing their job. It's one thing to go after the obvious "corrupt cop" cases which involve drug dealing, extortion, etc. People see this as a clear abuse of power. However, when the killing can be framed up in terms of "the officer thought he had to do this in order to protect himself/do his duty" people are unwilling to send him to jail.

I don't think this is entirely unreasonable. It doesn't hurt to recall that police do deal with genuinely bad situations, something which seems lost on those who've been going around proclaiming that police intervention makes every situation worse. One resource that I found interesting in this regard is a site which the Dallas Police Department put up in order to provide public transparency, which describes the circumstances and outcome of every officer involved shooting in Dallas in the last two years. Not only is this a noteworthy example of providing public accountability and transparency, it also allows us to get a view of what the whole range of officer involved shootings in a major city looks like, not just the few that manage to make the news cycle. You can access the whole list here. But here are some samples:

On Wednesday, October 1, 2014, at approximately 5:14 P.M., uniformed patrol officers in marked vehicles answered a Robbery call at a business located at 4807 Maple Avenue. As detectives and uniformed officers were searching the wooded area near the shopping center, the W/M/48 suspect was located. The suspect reached down, as if retrieving a weapon and one uniformed officer fired one round at the suspect missing him.

The suspect was not injured.

Suspect was armed with an airsoft handgun.

The suspect was charged with Robbery.

No officer was injured.

One officer fired 1 round. Involved Officer: W/M 2 years, 6 months service.
On Sunday, March 10, 2013, at approximately 12:29 A.M., uniformed patrol officers in marked vehicles, responded to a Major Disturbance Emergency at 3303 Southern Oaks Boulevard. A witness gave a description a former roommate to the officer and stated that the B/M/35 suspect had kicked in the door to her apartment earlier in the day and then returned and refused to leave. The officer located the suspect at which time the suspect began physically assaulting the officer. The officer deployed his Taser on the suspect, but it did not stop the assault. The suspect began choking the officer, with his hands from behind and lifting him off the ground. The officer fired his weapon at the suspect striking him.

The suspect was pronounced deceased at Baylor Hospital.

Suspect used his hands to choke the officer.

The officer was injured.

One officer fired 9 rounds. Involved Officer: W/M 4 years, 8 months service.

On Sunday, August 10, 2014, at approximately 6:03 P.M., a uniformed officer working off-duty at an Extended Neighborhood Patrol assignment driving a marked vehicle responded to a call regarding a W/M/26 walking along 100 N. Windomere Avenue making lewd comments to women. The officer located the suspect and began following him waiting for additional officers to arrive. The suspect was walking in the street at 400 S. Rosemont Avenue when an approaching vehicle occupied with a family stopped. The suspect attempted to enter their vehicle at which time the officer exited his vehicle and pointed his firearm at the suspect while issuing verbal commands. The suspect then charged the officer who fired his weapon. The suspect was struck five times. The suspect was pronounced deceased at Methodist Hospital. Suspect was unarmed.

No officer was injured.

One officer fired 5 rounds. Involved Officer: L/M 7 years, 3 months service.

On Thursday, August 21, 2014, at approximately 6:40 P.M., an off-duty officer in plainclothes, was on his way to a family function when he observed an altercation at 4800 Veterans Drive. A female victim was shot in the face while stopped at the intersection by a B/M/20 suspect. The officer then acted to stop the continued aggravated assault on the victim. The officer fired his weapon striking the suspect one

The suspect was injured and transported to Methodist Central Hospital.

Suspect was armed with a .357 magnum revolver which was reported stolen out of Fort Worth Texas.

The suspect was charged with Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon. The victim survived her injuries.

No officer was injured.

One officer fired 3 rounds. Involved Officer: L/M 3 years, 1 month service.

Part II: The Problem With Supporting The Police

While there are good reasons to object when people assume in every case that police must have acted in the wrong, it is also problematic to assume that in every case police acted rightly. Police are, after all, people, and like other people police officers do things that are good, bad, or indifferent. Thus, it becomes problematic when people "support the police" in the generic sense of always assuming that when there is an altercation in which a police officer kills or injures someone, the police officer was in the right.

Too often, both those who reflexively defend the police and those who reflexively condemn them see "the police" as a monolithic group rather than as a group of individuals with their own experiences and moral choices. Neither one of these approaches is good.

What makes having a balanced view even more difficult is that those of us who aren't police lack some of the experiences that would doubtless help in reaching a reasonable conclusion on whether police in certain situations behaved reasonably or not. This barrier of experience, between police insiders and civilian outsiders, is one of the things that anthropologist Joan Barker talks about in her fascinating book Danger, Duty, and Disillusion: The Worldview of Los Angeles Police Officers. (Though twenty years old at this point, the book is definitely worth a read and gives some really interesting insights into the experience of working in a big city police department.) Since there are strong cultural reasons for police officers to hang together when dealing with outsiders, this creates a situation in which civilians are not necessarily well equipped to judge policing situations, while police themselves are hesitant to speak up about each others behavior. Needless to say, this isn't a good situation for anyone. It is not good for police officers to be grouped monolithically in with those who abuse their power and position. And it is not good for the rest of society either to constantly suspect police officers, or to defend every action they take, regardless of the merits.

I don't think there's a quick and easy solution to all this. Probably one key element is having a healthy relationship between the city population, it's city government, and the police department. Given that, I suspect that a strong internal review process in which police leadership is successfully held accountable by city government for disciplining and if necessary taking off the streets cops who use excessive force is more likely to be successful than sporadic interventions of media attention and criminal prosecution. Such a situation would be constantly in danger of spinning off balance and failing to achieve it's objectives, but then, as I said, it's necessarily a difficult balance to maintain.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Drink for the Cure

It is always an inconvenient time to be sick, but this week is an especially unfelicitous time for us to be descending into the throes of the throat/cough/fever thing, so Darwin and I are dosing with hot toddies. Drink one yourself.

Hot Toddy

In a large cup, combine 1 spoonful honey, juice of ¼ lemon, 1 cinnamon stick, small dash tabasco (optional but recommended) and the tea bag of your choice. Stick 3 cloves into 1 small lemon wedge and add to the cup. Pour in a slug of bourbon, as much or as little as you like. Fill cup with boiling water, stir well and let steep 5 minutes. Savor slowly; repeat as necessary.

I have a sinking feeling that this has passed the toddy healing stage, maybe because my cough sounds like a bark and feels like sandpaper on my esophagus, but I keep taking the cure. "Medicinal," as Uncle Willy said in High Society.

The Great War: Vol, Chapter 5-1

Berlin. July 25th, 1914 The Cycleworks, like many more desirable employers, had a shorter work day on Saturdays, reducing the usual eleven hours to only eight. This had allowed Paul and Berta’s weekend excursion to catch the 6:10 local. The third class carriages were packed, forcing the group to disperse and find seats in ones and twos. Walter was squeezed onto one of the wooden benches next to two farm wives returning from a day of marketing. They eyed him suspiciously as he sat down next to them and settled his knapsack between his feet. When he showed no immediate signs of trying to snatch their purses, however, they returned to discussing the prices for eggs, poultry and feed, and exchanging anecdotes about the regular sellers and buyers at the market.

After a long wail from the train’s whistle, it began to chuff up to speed. Buildings slid by outside the windows. There were two more stations before the local cleared the city, and then stops slowed to every fifteen or twenty minutes. With each stop the benches thinned out. Trees and fields and steep-roofed farmhouses slid by outside with a speed that was fascinating to watch. With stops every block or two, the streetcars never much exceeded a running pace, but with four or more miles between stops Walter guessed that the local at times neared twenty miles an hour. He wished he could get forward into the engine and see the crew at work, managing machinery so much more powerful than anything he touched in the factory. The engine powering the locomotive was doubtless larger than the one which powered all the drive belts in the factory, and the power was all poured into moving the big steel wheels.

The shadows were lengthening when they pulled into yet another rural station, and Berta stood up and led the way out of the railroad carriage. The eleven of them, seven men and four women, assembled on the covered platform with their packs on their backs.

Continue reading

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Projecting The Group on the Person

An argument broke out on a mostly British World War One group that I follow in the wake of someone posting a picture of Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander through the latter part of the war. Haig had been a big booster of veterans groups and veterans welfare after the war, and hundreds of thousands of veterans turned out for his funeral.

But this isn't a World War One post. What I thought was interesting is the structure of the argument that broke out among members of the group, which went roughly like this:

A: Hundreds of thousands of veterans turned out for the funeral of the general they respected.
B: My grandfather and great uncle both fought in the war and they wouldn't even join the British Legion because they said it was Haig's group. They loathed Haig.
C: As B's point underlines, Haig was a butcher and soldiers hated him for wasting lives.

This went on for many rounds, but of course, none of these contradict one another. It's entirely possible that hundreds of thousands of veterans respected Haig, while others hated him because they perceived him as a butcher who wasted lives. However, people have a tendency to think of groups, particularly groups with some kind of unifying visible "otherness" as monolithic: Soldiers think that... Police think that... Jews think that... Women think that... Latinos think that...

There are some common experiences which nearly all members of a visible group will have in common. Basically all Blacks (and most people who look strongly Hispanic, in areas of the country where there's a large, poor Hispanic population) have had some kind of experience of being treated with suspicion by police and others in a way that those of us who "look respectable" seldom do. Police all have the experience of being called in to deal with the sort of situations that most of us virtually never see, and also the experience of being treated like police (and the different things that means to different segments of society.)

However, even given these basic commonalities within a group, it's a huge mistake to believe that everyone has the same experiences in total, the same reactions to them or the same beliefs. Assuming that people's beliefs are fully determined by their group membership is treating them as if they are not really people at all, but rather projections of the group. That doesn't mean that group membership means nothing. It does often serve as a marker for certain shared experiences which can be powerful shapers of beliefs. But people still respond to those experiences in their own different and individual ways.

Friday, December 12, 2014

La Guadalupana

As always, for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe:

It is touching to hear my children, who are 1/4 Mexican, warbling La Guadalupana around the house, and to know that although I myself have no Mexican, Hispanic, or even Latino heritage, La Guadalupana is my mother too.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Great War: Vol, Chapter 4-4

This is the last section of Chapter 4. On Monday, I'll be posting the beginning of Chapter 5, which returns to one of the characters we've already met to begin the final run-up to the war.

Below, you can see some cartridge dueling pistols from the early 1900s, such as Friedrich wanted to use.

Jozef had been standing on the sidewalk just a few moments, blinking in the early morning sunlight, when he heard the growl of an approaching car and Friedrich’s grey Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich pulled up in front of him. Friedrich, with motoring goggles providing a stark contrast to his uniform coat and shako, sat in the the front seat next to his driver. The two seconds were sitting in the back and Jozef climbed in next to them. It was a snug fit. The Prinz Heinrich was narrower than other models, and the bullet-shaped back meant that the second row of seats had less legroom as well. However, the two seater version of the same car had set a race track record of ninety-two miles an hour, and Friedrich had immediately determined to have one, whatever inconveniences might come with it.

They attempted no such speeds as they rolled along the cobbled Vienna streets that early morning. They crossed the Danube Canal and drove southeast along tree-lined roads between the canal and the river. The car was forced to slow even further when the driver suddenly turned off the paved road and guided the car gingerly along a dirt track. Large trees loomed on either side of the track, making it a dim tunnel with walls and roof of foliage and shadow. Only small specks of sky were visible through the branches which met overhead. Later in the day, or on a different errand, this might have seemed a cool, woodland shelter from the summer sun, but now it looked a gloomy place from which night had not yet released its grip. As the car jounced slowly over roots and ruts in the track, Jozef had time to wonder in what kind of dark, Wagnerian place the duel would be held. Perhaps an abandoned graveyard. It looked like a proper place for death. Then light appeared at the end of the track and as quickly as darkness had descended they emerged into a clearing where the sun shone down brightly on dewy grass. It was an open space a hundred yards wide and several hundred long, screened in all directions by the surrounding trees.

Another car and a horse-drawn carriage already waited there. Friedrich’s driver pulled the Prinz Heinrich to a stop some distance away from the other two vehicles and turned off the engine.

Rittmeister Granar opened his door and stepped down. “Oberleutnant, let us go meet the other seconds.”

The two seconds walked off, leaving dark footprints in the shimmering dew. A moment later two officers in the distinctive brass helmets of the Dragoons stepped down from the carriage and approached to meet them in the middle of the clearing.

There was the scratch of a match and Jozef turned to see Friedrich lighting a cigar. “Do you want one?” he asked Jozef. “It will take them a while.”

Jozef shook his head. The aftereffects of the previous night had left his head sore and his stomach unsettled.

“You went to sleep. That was your mistake. Stay awake and the body remains in the will’s custody.”

“I’m glad you’re able to. When I woke up this morning, I was worried that you would feel the way that I do.”

Friedrich closed his eyes and blew out a long slow plume of smoke. An automobile could be heard approaching. “Ah, here she comes.” Friedrich opened his eyes and pointed.

Two cars pulled slowly into the clearing. One pulled up a dozen feet from Friedrich’s and stopped. A man in the back seat lifted his hat to them, but Friedrich’s attention was on the other car, which skirted the edge of the clearing and stopped some distance away. It was a dark Mercedes double phaeton with the roof up and the side curtains down, obscuring any view of whoever was sitting in the row behind the driver.

“Minna,” said Friedrich. “I told my father’s driver to come and wait in front of the flat where she could see the car. I thought she’d come.” He turned and gave Jozef a half smile, only the right side of his mouth quircking up under his mustache. “About half concern for my well being, I should think. And half hatred of the idea of someone else coming to tell her if something happened to me.”

[continue reading]

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Why Were The Trolls After Marie Curie in 1911?

In one of those little bits of history which catches the imagination, Astrobiologist and Sky & Telescope columnist David Grinspoon created something of a social media sensation when he tweeted out the following (translated) letter from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie with the description "Found this in newly released Einstein letters: advice to Marie Curie on ignoring the trolls."

[you can read this letter and others online at the Einstein Papers online]

We'd all like to think that we're being line famous scientists when we ignore the troll, and it's pretty cool to see a letter which is primarily written to say in a friendly way that you shouldn't let the haters get you down, and then drops in a PS: "I have determined the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule in Planck's radiation field by means of a comical witticism, naturally under the constraint that the structure's motion follows the law of standard mechanics. My hope that this law is valid in reality is very small, though."

So, yeah, we may all be able to ignore the haters like Einstein and Marie Curie, but we don't generally have that kind of news to pass on in a postscript.

But, being the curious fellow that I am, my first question was: Why exactly were the trolls after Marie Curie in 1911? I suspected I had a good idea, but I had to go research around a bit to be sure.

To go back a bit: Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska, youngest child of two teachers in Warsaw, which was in the Russian-ruled part of Poland. (From 1795 to 1918, Poland ceased to exist as an independent country, having been divided between Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia.) Marie showed an early aptitude for math and science but due to family and financial problems (her father at one point lost his job for having Polish nationalist ties which the Russian authorities disapproved of) her serious studies were delayed until she left Poland for Paris, France in 1891. In Paris she dived into scientific pursuits and first met Pierre Curie when she was looking for more lab space and a friend introduced her to him as someone who might have room to spare for her work. They married in 1895.

Marie was doing work on what she eventually named radioactivity, and the work eventually interested her husband Pierre sufficiently that he dropped his own work and joined her in hers. Working together, they discovered two new elements (radium and polonium) and did a variety of work relating to radioactivity. In 1903 they received the Nobel Prize in physics for their work. Marie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize.

In 1906, Pierre was knocked down by a horse-drawn vehicle while crossing the road and killed. As the couple had become famous for their work, the University of Paris had created a chair of physics and given it to Pierre. On his death, the Physics Department decided to give the chair to Marie, thus making her the first female professor at the University of Paris. As such, she was a well known public figure. Using the lab which came with her new position (one which the University had agreed to build for Pierre but had not been finished before his death) she succeeded in isolating pure radium in 1910.

However, she was rocked by scandal in 1911 when newspapers broke reports that during the last year she had been conducting an affair with a former student of her late husband's, physicist Paul Langevin (who was himself married, though separated from his wife.) Not only was this seen as deliciously shocking behavior in a woman who had broken so many barriers, but it provided fodder for per-war France's periodic bouts of hysteria over foreigners. It was all very well to claim Curie as French when she was receiving major international awards such as the Novel Prize, but when she was being attacked in the press they suddenly remembered she was actually Polish.

However, that same year, the Nobel Committee awarded her a second Nobel Price, this one in Chemistry, for her work on isolating and studying the properties of radium.

This was the environment in which Einstein wrote to Marie from Prague in 1911 telling her to ignore the rabble with its lust for sensationalism.

Marie weathered the storm and went on to lead the Radium Institute, later the Curie Institute, to study radioactivity and related phenomena. When World War One broke out (you knew there had to be a WW1 angle, right?) she became active in the war effort and helped produce mobile radiology units for treating the wounded, as well as working on new medical uses for radioactivity.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 4-3

There will be one more installment of Chapter Four going up on Thursday, then it's on to Chapter 5, which is a return to one of the characters we've already met.

Before they parted for the night, Friedrich asked Jozef to call on him early the next morning. As a non-officer, Jozef could not serve as a second, but since he was a witness to the confrontation he must come and attest to the insult which made the duel necessary.

The flat was still when Jozef left his rooms the next morning. Lisette was never an early riser. The door which led to her bedroom and sitting room usually remained closed until ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, when she rang the bell for her breakfast and the morning’s letters to be brought in. Jozef’s own habits were not as late rising as his mother’s, but even so he felt tired and rumpled as he issued forth onto the street before eight o’clock, blinking in the summer morning sunlight at the crowds that seemed far too awake and busy for what seemed to him a very early hour.

Friedrich’s flat, when he arrived, was a contrast to his own: bright and bustling with activity. A soldier servant was serving out small cups of coffee. Friedrich and another officer sat together at the breakfast table, leaning over a document they were drawing up and consulting several others. The third officer stood behind, leaning against the wall. All three officers were polished and crisp in their uniforms, contrasting starkly with Jozef’s grey summer suit and straw boater. The outfit that would have looked athletic and casual at the student cafe here was weak, almost effeminate.

“So you’re the witness?” asked the officer lounging against the wall. Rittmeister Istvan Granar was an experienced duelist who frequently stood as second and advisor to officers in Friedrich’s regiment in their affairs of honor. His greying mustache and the heavy creases around his grey-blue eyes gave him a demeanor of intensity, and there was clearly no regard for this little civilian in his gaze.

Friedrich looked up from his work with the other, younger officer. “This is Jozef von Revay. He is a good friend, and he stood with me when I was insulted last night.”

[Continued reading]

Friday, December 05, 2014

I Remember MrsDarwin: Ten and End

It's that time for the last time: this is the tenth annual birthday installment of I Remember MrsDarwin, and ten years is a good enough run for any feature. So, your final set of instructions:

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME. 
It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE. 
When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you. 

Send me out proud! Old friends, new friends, commenters, lurkers, chums, enemies: warm the cockles of my heart with some false anecdotes before I pass into my dotage and forget what really went on with that guy with the thing at that place. And Happy Birthday to Me!

Read 'em and weep: the past nine years of my faux social life.

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 4-2

Sorry to be late in the evening. It was a really busy day at work.

The Cafe Sperl stands at the confluence of the Gumpendorferstrasse and the Lehargasse, a block away from the Theater an der Wien and two from the Hoffburg. The two streets come together at an acute angle, and nestled into that angle is a four story building of yellow stone with stone pediments above the upper storey windows and large red and white striped awnings over the cafe windows on the ground floor.

It was just after ten thirty when Jozef entered the cafe, following a walk through the mild June evening. The coffee house was a blaze of electric light, making the dark wood chairs and tables cast reflections on the polished wood floor. The theaters were not yet out, and so the tables were only half full. Leutnant Friedrich Haas von Goldfaden was easy to spot. He had taken one of the best tables, situated before a window, with a view both out into the street and back into the room, and he was magnificent in his Hussar’s uniform: pale blue tunic heavily ornamented with gold braid, red trousers, polished black boots. His shako sat on the table before him, and his sabre was pulled upright to lean against the chair, so that it would not block the walkway behind him. He sat with his legs crossed and leaning back in his chair as he gazed out the window.

Jozef felt a poor contrast in his black and white evening dress. He and Friedrich were within months of the same age, but Friedrich was taller and broader, and he sported a thick, black mustache in true cavalry style, which Jozef silently envied because he knew that he was not able to produce a similar growth.

The one sense in which Friedrich did not look a typical cavalry officer was that he was, to a city used to determining by eye the finer points of ethnicity, obviously a Jew. The good looking sort of Jew, such observers would have been quick to assure. He had thick black hair, a slight cleft in his strong chin, and brown eyes, but clearly a Jew, and thus not someone normally to be seen in the uniform on an Imperial Hussar. His father, Samuel Haas, had made a fortune in textiles whose full extent was the subject of much speculation. He had invested this fortune in a brilliant mansion just off the Ringstrasse, in good matches for his three daughters, in a cavalry commission for Friedrich, his second son, and in a title of nobility for the family.

There was a simple logic in the sale of nobility. The Imperial-Royal house was always in need of money, and there were many among the wealthy who were in need of some sense of legitimacy. A title of nobility cost nothing to produce, and yet provided great value to those who bought them. Samuel Haas had made the exchange with pride, and in selecting the title which would be appended to his name and that of his sons, chose one which reflected his pride in the means by which he had earned his wealth, von Goldfaden: golden thread. Those who had, by the turning of fortune’s wheel, been born with titles considered such an obviously invented one to be a source of amusement rather than dignity, but Samuel himself was unshaken in his pride and so his sons were left to negotiate the troubled waters of status in the way they thought best.

With one booted foot, Friedrich pushed out a chair for Jozef, who sat down.

“How were the opening acts?” Jozef asked.

[Keep reading]

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Peter Pan

Initial impressions: Allison Williams is a better actress than Carrie Underwood, but the rest of the cast is going to show her up.

I miss Mary Martin's and Cathy Rigby's energy in the role -- they had stage presence.

Gorgeous set. And Kelli O'Hara as Mrs. Darling and Christian Borle as Mr. Darling are simply treats to watch.

Allison Williams's singing: not exciting! Not Broadway!

Pym's England

When Darwin and I were students traipsing about Europe, we stayed in a lodging house in Bath, England. In the morning, the assembled lodgers sat in the dining room as the proprietress, Mrs. Guy, came in to take the breakfast egg orders. She stopped by my chair first.
"How would you like your egg, fried or scrambled?' she asked.
"Scrambled," I said.
"Scrambled please," she said.
"I beg your pardon," I said, flushing. "Please."
"I only mention it because you seem like a nice girl," she said, "but I'm not a servant, so it's important to say please. I know in America you're used to having servants, but here it's important to be polite."
A hundred answers to this flashed through my mind -- Americans don't have servants; I was raised in a trailer park -- but I was so flustered that all I could say was, "I'm very sorry."
"Oh, don't apologize!" she exclaimed. "Now I feel bad!"
You can be sure that the rest of the breakfasters were copious with their "pleases", and that there wasn't much conversation around the table.

I was reminded of this bit of ancient history as I was reading a novel by Barbara Pym. Her books, or the ones I've read, have been set in post-WWII England. Women work in offices but still spat over whose standing is low enough to have to make the tea for everyone. Rations are still hoarded. Clothes are serviceable shoes or dowdy tweed skirts or elegant cotton frocks. Hats are worn and holidays are taken. There are vicars and clubs and feuds amongst the parish worthies, and always, in the background, lurks the danger that someone might go to chapel or turn to Rome. And people know their places in the social order.

The blurb compares Pym to Austen, and perhaps that's apropos if all Austen means is "comedy of manners". But I don't find any deep moral center to Pym. The church is central, but it's a church of mere activity: jumble sales and teas and rivalries and deep grudges over who reads the Lesson. Things seem to happen, and they're often comic things that beguile an evening, but no one is striving to become a better person, to ask moral questions, or even connect with anyone else. Indeed, there's a strain of isolation running through the two books I read. Everyone seems essentially unknowable to anyone else. Even relationships and marriages don't seem to be built on a sense of anything shared. The point of view skips about from character to character, even on a line-to-line basis in one of the novels I read, Jane and Prudence, which only serves to emphasize how little people understand each other. I felt a little sad and remote while reading, even as I enjoyed myself.

Still, the novels are charming ("That great English blight"), and Pym has a great turn for cleverly phrased observation and for the ridiculous elements of British society.