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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Carmen Possum

The homeschoolers had a speech meet on Sunday, and Eleanor gave a particularly fine dramatic recitation of Carmen Possum, a poem by that prolific fellow Anon which we'd dug up in some Best of American Poetry book. It strikes me that our readership is probably the prime audience to appreciate the blend of erudition and cornball humor in this forgotten gem, so for your Wednesday reading pleasure, I present:


THE NOX was lit by lux of Luna,
And 'twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o'er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
On sic a nox with canis unus,
Two boys went out to hunt for coonus.
The corpus of this bonus canis
Was full as long as octo span is,
But brevior legs had canis never
Quam had hic dog; et bonus clever.
Some used to say, in stultum jocum
Quod a field was too small locum
For sic a dog to make a turnus
Circum self from stem to sternus.
Unus canis, duo puer,
Nunquam braver, nunquam truer,
Quam hoc trio nunquam fuit,
If there was I never knew it.
This bonus dog had one bad habit,
Amabat much to tree a rabbit,
Amabat plus to chase a rattus,
Amabat bene tree a cattus.
But on this nixy moonlight night
This old canis did just right.
Nunquam treed a starving rattus,
Nunquam chased a starving cattus,
But sucurrit on, intentus
On the track and on the scentus,
Till he trees a possum strongum,
In a hollow trunkum longum.
Loud he barked in horrid bellum,
Seemed on terra vehit pellum.
Quickly ran the duo puer
Mors of possum to secure.
Quam venerit, one began
To chop away like quisque man.
Soon the axe went through the truncum
Soon he hit it all kerchunkum;
Combat deepens, on ye braves!
Canis, pueri et staves
As his powers non longius carry,
Possum potest non pugnare.
On the nix his corpus lieth.
Down to Hades spirit flieth,
Joyful pueri, canis bonus,
Think him dead as any stonus.
Now they seek their pater's domo,
Feeling proud as any homo,
Knowing, certe, they will blossom
Into heroes, when with possum
They arrive, narrabunt story,
Plenus blood et plenior glory.
Pompey, David, Samson, Caesar,
Cyrus, Black Hawk, Shalmanezer!
Tell me where est now the gloria,
Where the honors of victoria?
Nunc a domum narrent story,
Plenus sanguine, tragic, gory.
Pater praiseth, likewise mater,
Wonders greatly younger frater.
Possum leave they on the mundus,
Go themselves to sleep profundus,
Somniunt possums slain in battle,
Strong as ursae, large as cattle.
When nox gives way to lux of morning,
Albam terram much adorning,
Up they jump to see the varmin,
Of the which this is the carmen.
Lo! possum est resurrectum!
Ecce pueri dejectum,
Ne relinquit back behind him,
Et the pueri never find him.
Cruel possum! bestia vilest,
How the pueros thou beguilest!
Pueri think non plus of Caesar,
Go ad Orcum, Shalmanezer,
Take your laurels, cum the honor,
Since ista possum is a goner!

I am so tickled to find that Carmen Possum has its own Wikipedia entry, with some serious analysis of style and content.

Historical Novel Location Research in the Age of Google

Jasper Kent has a piece up at Writing Historical Novels about the location research he did for his novels, which are set in set in 19th Century Russia. As you can imagine, this is a topic which I can identify with at the moment, so I was fascinated to read about his process.

Some of the most satisfying compliments I’ve received regarding The Danilov Quintet are along the lines of ‘The city becomes a character in its own right’, – the city in question being either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, depending on which of the five novels is being reviewed.

I’ll let you in on a secret: for the first novel, Twelve, my geographical knowledge was almost entirely derived from the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Moscow. Looking at my copy now, a decade on, there are still folded-down corners marking locations that appear in the novel. It was only when I was putting together the final draft, ready for publication, that I actually visited the city and checked that what I had written stood up to reality. For the most part, it did.

Looking back, the approach has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main benefit is in saving time. It would be fruitless to wander randomly through a city the size of Moscow and expect to find the best locations for a novel. As with any tourism, it helps to have an itinerary and to know what has to be seen and what does not. Moreover, when writing historical fiction, the present-day location can be deceptive – the buildings of a modern city would make it unrecognizable to an inhabitant of centuries ago, even though the street plan may remain the same. Guidebooks can provide detail on the history of a building which only an archaeologist could determine by looking at the structure itself.

[Read the rest]

It was a month or two ago, as a co-worker was talking about going to Europe with her husband later this year, that it suddenly dawned on me: If I saved up a bit, I could go back to Europe and see some of these places that I'm writing about. The one time I was in Europe was back in 1999 as a college student, but it's conceivable that some time next year the kids would be old enough we could leave them with family for most of a week and go see Verdun, the Marne, and the village that I've modeled Chateau Ducloux on. However, in the meantime, my research has been heavily reliant on books. Lots of books. Here's the "active" shelf of books I've consulted within the last chapter or so. There's another larger one in the other room devoted to books that I've already read (or am planning to read) to research past or future chapters.

Since The Great War is a big story with five sets of characters in different parts of Europe, I've relied heavily on the primary and secondary sources that I've read for ideas on incidents, as well as for all the actual history and geography that underlies that story. However, when it comes to sense of place, one of my biggest helps has been Google. Indeed, so much so that it's almost hard for me to imagine writing this project in the pre-Google age.

Sometimes it's the sort of historical details that you almost wouldn't know to look for if you were having to get all your information by picking out specific books. For instance, while researching the first Natalie chapter I was looking for the train stations which had existed in Warsaw in 1900-1914, and trying to find out which one you would likely arrive in if you were coming from Paris. What I discovered is that you basically had to go through Vienna, and with that I found some fascinating detail about how the rail lines were different in Russia, making Warsaw (that part of Poland being in the Russian Empire at that time) the gateway to Russia.

It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.

For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.

Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.

And although the Dworzec Wiedeński Station was destroyed during World War II, I was quickly able to find pictures of it online.

In the next chapter, when I needed a Viennese coffee house for Josef to meet his friend Friedrich in, I consulted a period map of Vienna, considered which theater Friedrich's mistress would have been singing in, and then I used Google Maps to search the area for coffee houses until I found the Cafe Sperl which was the right age and style.

When it came to Walter participating in the opening action of the Battle of the Marne, around the French town of Penchard, I used Google Maps and satellite imagery and cross referenced them with the detailed maps I had in my books about the battle. Then I used Google Street View to see what it looked like to approach the town across the fields, and what the church where the artillery set up looked like now.

A few countries in Europe restrict Google Street View for privacy reasons, but where it is available it's an amazing tool for getting a sense of what a particular area looks like. I've used it to "walk" areas of cities and towns and see the architectural style, see the terrain of a battle field, and get a sense for the types of trees that grow in an area.

Then there's Google Translate, which has allowed me to pull up electronic copies of French and German newspapers and do on-the-fly translations of stories so that I can get a sense of what headlines characters would have seen and what sorts of stories were appearing on specific days. (Most of the headlines and stories in Henri and Philomene's newspapers are drawn from real editions of those papers within a day or two of when they appear in the story.) Primary sources that would have required a research library (and a better knowledge of the languages) I can now pull up and read at my computer at one in the morning as I'm writing a chapter.

The electronic world brings an amazing set of tools to the historical novelist's hand. The age of Google has made levels of research easy and quick that would have been fiendishly hard before. All of which, I hope, adds to the sense of place and authenticity for readers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Probability, Rap Sheets, and Police Brutality

Consider this thought experiment: In the city of Metropolis, the police force makes a secret pact to randomly beat senseless 1 out of every 100 people they arrest. Aside from this, they are a model police force. What sort of people would mostly get beat up?

Most of them would be frequent criminals with lots of prior arrests. Why? Because people who get arrested frequently get arrested frequently, and thus would have a higher chance of getting one of the 1% of arrests that included a senseless beating. Someone who's never been arrested would have zero change of a beating. Someone arrested once would have a 1% change. Someone arrested ten times a 10% chance.

If all you looked at was whether the person who got beaten was frequently in trouble with the law, and assumed that if the person was frequently arrested, then probably the beating was somehow justified, the random beatings would mostly look justified, and the beatings of people without prior criminal records would look very rare.

This isn't to claim that police brutality is in fact random, or that the police are never justified when using grave or even deadly force on someone. It's the nature of the job of the police to deal with situations which often require the use of force, and sometimes make it very difficult to know what's really going on. Mistakes that may look bad to outsiders may seem fairly reasonable to an officer at the time -- though with training and experience police departments try to reduce that as much as possible.

However, if even a completely arbitrary use of excessive force by police would end up being primarily used against people with frequent arrest records, one clearly can't simply take the existence of a long arrest record as proof that force was justified in some given situation.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 11-1

Chapter 11 is going to have 5 or 6 sections, and focuses on Henri. I'm determined to pick up the pace a bit. The next installment will go up Thursday night.

Paris. August 19th, 1914. The 22nd Company was drawn up on the trampled grass between the Allee de Longchamp and the surrounding trees of the Bois de Boulogne, the large wooded park to the west of the Paris city walls which since mobilization had become both an encampment and training ground. Two weeks after being called up, the men were beginning to show signs of martial precision. The four sections of the company were drawn up into four neat columns, each column five men across. Within each column, three rows of five men formed one squad, with its corporal the leftmost man in the first row as Henri faced them. Two squads formed a demi-section, commanded by a sergeant, with that sergeant prowling up and down next to his two blocks of men, making sure that all was as proper as it could be. Two demi-sections formed a section: sixty riflemen and their officers.

The commanders of the four sections -- his three lieutenants and the first sergeant -- stood quietly behind Henri, awaiting his verdict on their efforts.

“Very good,” he said, turning to them. “Have them fall in by sections. We’ll march down to the hippodrome at the double.”

They hurried to give their commands and one by one the sections stepped out onto the Allee de Longchamp, wheeled to face southwest down the road, and set off at a brisk pace. The maneuver was done with a precision far more creditable than the state of their uniforms would have suggested. Because the 6th Battalion had been left behind as part of Paris’s defense force when the rest of the 104th Infantry Regiment and its reserve counterpart the 304th had been dispatched from Paris to fight in Lorraine, they had been put at the very bottom of every supply list. Although the men all carried rifles and wore their dark blue army overcoats (oppressive in the August heat) half of them were still wearing grey or brown civilian trousers rather than red uniform trousers. The fourth section had not yet been issued blue uniform kepis, some of the men going bareheaded while the rest wore an assortment of workers caps, straw boaters, and dark bowler hats. But they could march. Henri had drilled them every day, and their marching was beginning to be downright soldierly.

The fourth section fell in, and Henri himself fell in next to them, marching alongside Sergeant Leon Carpentier, the company’s First Sergeant and thus the one non-commissioned officer to command a section.

Sergeant Carpentier was one of the handful of regular army non-commissioned officers assigned to the reserve battalion when it was mobilized in order to give the officers and men who had been out of active service for anywhere from one to ten years a bit of polish and order.

“The section is doing much better,” Henri offered. “The drilling shows.”

The sergeant gave a shrug. Then after a moment’s pause he responded, “For two week’s drilling.”

Henri looked over at the sergeant, trying to read his expression, but his eyes were straight forward and his mouth nearly obscured by his heavy, walrus mustache. Carpentier did not seem a talkative man at the best of times, and he followed strictly the view that men, non-commisioned officers, and officers were three distinct classes between whom the less mixing there was the better. One the day the company had been moved into the entrenched camp, he had caught one of the privates using the NCOs’ toilets and had insisted that the entire company be drawn up so that he could bawl at them, “This is the army, and there will be order! Lavatories are for officers. Toilets are for NCOs. Latrines are for men. If any of you forget this again, you’ll be cleaning latrines for a week.”

It seemed likely enough, however, that his taciturnity was also a result of resentment that he had been assigned to the reserve battalion left behind in Paris when the rest of the regiments had shipped out to Lorraine and combat. He was in his mid forties, several years Henri’s senior, and unlike Henri had spent his entire adult life as a professional soldier. To be relegated to drilling reservists behind the lines on the first time that the opportunity of war presented itself in his twenty-five year army career must smart, but it would only be a sign of weakness to allow him to indulge in bitterness publically.

“When we reach the hippodrome, the men are to fall out and have lunch. Then have them clean their rifles and do weapons drill. I’ll be back with the lieutenants at two, and then we will spend the afternoon on combat drill.”

The sergeant nodded crisply. “Yes, sir.”


It was Sous-Lieutenant Vincent Dupuis who knew the 16th Arrondisement well, and who selected the little cafe on the Rue de Passy for their lunch. The son of a banker, he was also the only one who was not alarmed by the prices on the menu when they sat down. Aware that the other two lieutenants had far less money than Lieutenant Dupuis, Henri had suggested moving to a less exclusive nearby cafe, but Lieutenant Dupuis’s offers to treat them all had shamed the other three men into waving off the expense and insisting they didn’t mind at all.

The food was excellent, and so was -- as Lieutenant Dupuis had promised -- the house wine. Although the cafe was crowded they were, for perhaps the first time since Henri had returned to Paris, the only soldiers in the establishment. This seemed to make them an object of curiosity and pride for the other cafe patrons. Two elderly gentlemen in pale grey summer suits repeatedly stole glances in their direction as they discussed their newspapers, and a stately woman in a wide, lace-trimmed hat (with two younger women kept sedately in her wake) stopped to say, “We are all of thinking of you. We think of all our brave soldiers.”

“I wish those two young ones would do more than think of us, eh?” said Lieutenant Dupois once the three women had put up their sun parasols and set off down the street.

“There’s the difference a uniform makes,” replied Lieutenant Gilbert Morel, the commander of First Section now, but in civilian life a lycee math instructor. “Ah, but you’re worse off, Rejol,” he added, addressing Lieutenant Maurice Rejol, the commander of Second Section. “If you were in your usual uniform perhaps those little angels would slip into a confessional with you and tell you all the naughty things they’re up to.”

Lieutenant Rejol, who since his two years service as a reserve officer had become a priest, shrugged but did not reply. Since learning his fellow officer’s peacetime occupation Morel had kept up a steady stream of anti-clerical pinpricks, but while not otherwise taciturn, the priest doggedly refused to rise to the bait of these.

Coffee and sponge cakes arrived, and Henri decided it would be as well to change the topic.

“After lunch I want to start putting the men through fire and movement drill.”

[continue reading]

Monday, April 27, 2015


This NY Times piece by an environmentalist, blasting the anti-GMO movement, seems so delightfully calibrated to ruffle feathers that I can't resist immediately sharing it:
Why was there such controversy? Because Mr. Rahman’s pest-resistant eggplant was produced using genetic modification. A gene transferred from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (more commonly known by the abbreviation “Bt”), produces a protein that kills the Fruit and Shoot Borer, a species of moth whose larvae feed on the eggplant, without the need for pesticide sprays. (The protein is entirely nontoxic to other insects and indeed humans.)

Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere.
I, too, was once in that activist camp. A lifelong environmentalist, I opposed genetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind.

After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.

There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues, I realized, that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe. I could not defend the expert consensus on one issue while opposing it on the other.
The environmental movement’s war against genetic engineering has led to a deepening rift with the scientific community. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed a greater gap between scientists and the public on G.M.O.s than on any other scientific controversy: While 88 percent of association scientists agreed it was safe to eat genetically modified foods, only 37 percent of the public did — a gap in perceptions of 51 points. (The gap on climate change was 37 points; on childhood vaccinations, 18 points.)

On genetic engineering, environmentalists have been markedly more successful than climate change deniers or anti-vaccination campaigners in undermining public understanding of science. The scientific community is losing this battle. If you need visual confirmation of that, try a Google Images search for the term “G.M.O.” Scary pictures proliferate, from an archetypal evil scientist injecting tomatoes with a syringe — an utterly inaccurate representation of the real process of genetic engineering — to tumor-riddled rats and ghoulish chimeras like fish-apples.
As someone who participated in the early anti-G.M.O. movement, I feel I owe a debt to Mr. Rahman and other farmers in developing countries who could benefit from this technology. At Cornell, I am working to amplify the voices of farmers and scientists in a more informed conversation about what biotechnology can bring to food security and environmental protection.

No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.

We need this technology. We must not let the green movement stand in its way.
Of course, attachment to political tribes being what they are, perhaps his piece will backfire. One of the initial responses I saw to it was a conservative saying, "He believes in climate change, so he's probably wrong about GMOs being safe too!" Which reminds me that one of these days I should write a piece on the good versus the bad types of skepticism on global warming alarmism.

In the meantime, have an eggplant.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Confessions of Sixth-Grade Catechist: the Q&A Session

A few months ago, the morning session of religion class was canceled due to snow, but the afternoon session, the one I work with, still met. The kids were less than thrilled, understandably. So our leader decided to shake things up a bit. He passed out index cards and gave the kids a few moments to write down a question, any question, and then we answered them on the fly. Since we couldn't get through all the questions in class, this past Sunday was the follow-up day.

I volunteered to consolidate the questions into families and write up some talking points, and asked permission to share them, because that's just good policy. The questions have been only minimally altered, for spelling mostly, but they're pretty much as we read them off of the sixth- and seventh-graders' cards. This is not so that everyone can get a laugh at the state of education these days -- how eloquent were you at 12? -- but to make it a bit easier to enter into the mind of the questioner. Sometimes I really couldn't tell exactly what the questioner was getting at, but I did try to give a sincere answer to all of them.



Why is Jesus called God?/ What is the difference between God and Jesus?

Jesus is God! He is the second person of the Holy Trinity, God become man. He became human to atone for our sins. “The Church never ceases to proclaim her faith in only one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (CCC 232)

Related: the Holy Trinity

Why is Jesus' name Jesus Christ? Why did Joseph name Jesus "Jesus" if the angel told him to call him Emmanuel?

“Emmanuel” means “the Messiah” or “Savior”, and so does the Greek word “Christ” (CCC 436) which is why the first followers of Jesus were called “Christians” by Greek speakers (Acts 11:26 ). In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “God saves” (CCC 430).


Are Catholics Christians? 

Yes! Catholics are the original Christians. The name “Catholic” means “universal” or “total, complete” in Greek. The Catholic Church has the fullness of truth from God has been sent by Christ to the whole human race (CCC 830-831).

Why are Catholics so faithful to God?/ What is faith?

Faith is our response of trust and belief in God. Having faith in God means freely assenting to the whole truth that he has revealed (CCC 150). Catholics cannot separate faith in God the Father from God the Son -- Jesus says so over and over again in the gospel of John. Faith is also a gift from God, and he will give it to those who ask him for it. So ask! Catholics can be faithful to God through the sacraments, since the Eucharist joins us to God himself, and Confession wipes away the sins that cloud our faith.

How do we know our religion is correct?/ Why was the Bible made?

All humans have a longing for goodness, for truth, for beauty, and for love. These longings can be filled only by God, who is Goodness, and Truth, and Beauty, and Love Itself. At the same time we know that there is something wrong with human nature. We are inclined to do bad things. We cannot always act as good as we want to. And so we look for people and for groups that can tell the truth about human nature. The Catholic Church, established by Jesus himself, teaches the fullness of truth about humans and all creation because it is the Body of Christ on earth (CCC 789). The Church teaches some truths that we can observe for ourselves, such as the idea of original sin, and some truths that had to be revealed by God, such as the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

We know that the Catholic Church contains the truth because it was founded by Jesus Christ, who is truth itself. The Holy Spirit guides and protects it. The Catholic Church is older than the Bible itself, because the books of the Bible were finally assembled and chosen by the Church in the fourth century after Jesus was born. The Bible, which includes the Jewish scriptures as part of the Old Testament, tells the story of how God reveals himself to humans throughout time, especially to the Jewish people, and how he finally came to earth himself to reconcile us to himself through Jesus. The Gospels tell how Jesus gave us his Body in the Eucharist, how he established a Pope to lead his Church on Earth, and how he gave his apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins in his name. All of these marks, the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Confession, and the Pope as leader, are found only in the Catholic Church.

Why is the Pope so popular (Francis) and why do we have him?

Jesus put St. Peter in charge of the Church on earth as the first Pope (Mt. 16:18-19) (the word “Pope” means “Papa”), and there has been a clear line of succession from Pope to Pope down to the present day. The Pope is the highest spiritual authority on earth. He represents Christ. Pope Francis is so popular because he is a strong witness of Christ’s truth and love to the whole world, and he can be funny too!

Do you have to be straight to be Catholic?/ (Follow-up question: So Catholics don't have to hate gay people?)

To be Catholic, you have to be baptized and accept and live what the Church teaches. That is what Catholic means. Every individual person is called to chastity in accordance with their state in life: married, vowed religious (priests and nuns), or single. Everyone has sinful inclinations and temptations and struggles against chastity of some kind or another, and none of these are excuses for not living a Christian life. “The Church believes that, in the order of creation, man and woman are designed to need each other’s complementary traits and to enter into a mutual relationship so as to give life to children. That is why homosexual practices cannot be approved by the Church. Christians owe all persons respect and love, however, regardless of their sexual orientation, because all people are respected and loved by God (YouCat 65).

Follow-up answer: No, we don't hate gay people! We are not supposed to hate anyone! "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God: for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). Since God is love, any time we act in love, we participate in his life. Love doesn't mean just agreeing with everyone about everything, because God is also Truth and Holiness, but it does mean that we treat everyone with the same respect that Jesus did "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he love us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4: 10-12). Love is holy, pure, sacrificial, and to be given to all, just as Jesus died for all.

Related: Sex is reserved for a man and a woman vowed to a permanent married state because one of the primary ends of sex, both biological and spiritual, is the procreation of children. And marriage exists -- as an age-old institution in every society, not just something made up by “religion”! -- not because adults in love want to have some way of showing that love permanently, but because children have a god-given right to live with their biological parents in a stable married family.

What would happen if you died before being baptized?

CCC 1257-1261
“Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.” (CCC 1257)

God doesn’t play gotcha with his creation. He desires that everyone be saved. Baptism is a great gift, an assurance that we are freed from original sin and reborn as children of God. Outside of baptism, we can’t know for sure how God will save each person.

We believe that babies and children who die before being baptized are entrusted to the mercy of Jesus, who said, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14). Those who die while preparing to receive Baptism receive what we call the baptism of desire -- God knows that they wanted to be baptized and were not avoiding it. Those who die for the sake of the faith without being baptized receive the baptism of blood -- an example is the Muslim man who chose to die with the Egyptian Christians executed by ISIS. For those who don’t know about Jesus or the Church (many people throughout history!), we assume that someone who sought the truth in their lives and lived the will of God as they best understood it would have made the choice to be baptized if they had known about baptism being necessary, and we trust them to God’s mercy.

Related image: trying to get to a far-away city; taking a highway that runs directly to that city vs. setting out across country on foot with no roadmap. Baptism is the highway which we are assured runs straight on the way to salvation -- and John the Baptist himself was the "one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord'" (John 1:23).


Why do we use holy water at the beginning and end of Mass?

Holy water is a “sacramental” -- a sacred sign or action in which a blessing is conferred (YouCat 272). We use it as a physical reminder of God’s blessing. And as something blessed, it’s to be treated with respect and not splashed around, etc.

Why doesn't the priest read the first and second reading?

He could! The priest is the primary celebrant of the Mass, offering prayers to God on our behalf in persona Christi: he doesn’t just take Christ’s place, Christ acts through him. Priests are actually ordained to the office of Lector, which tells you how important reading God’s word is. But lay people are allowed to assist in particular ministries in certain parts of the mass -- reading, serving, singing. (CCC 1142-1144)

Related: Since the Mass is a liturgical prayer, that means that we believe that the form of the Mass has been established by God through the Church as the way he most wants us to worship him, which is why we can’t just make up new stuff every week. The liturgy is meant to be celebrated by the whole community, but different members have different roles. The priest is ordained to the special service of acting as Christ; the lay people are called to “active participation”, which doesn’t just mean sitting, standing, singing, but actually praying the Mass through listening to the words and raising their minds to God.

Why do we go up for Communion?

We receive Communion because it is the true Body of Christ, and in the Gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus says over and over again that his body is the bread of life, real food that we can eat and which strengthens us. He means that literally: the Eucharist, the consecrated host, is Jesus himself, making himself food for us, to be digested and become part of us as we are part of him.

We go up to communion because a) it’s an efficient way to receive communion, instead of the priest walking to every single person; b) many of the psalms and scriptures speak of “going up” to worship the Lord -- making the physical effort to approach close to him and receive his graces. All churches used to have a communion rail, where people could kneel while receiving the Eucharist as a way of expressing our worship, and some churches still have them and use them. In Europe, people don’t line up for communion. They surge forward in a crazy mass and push their way to the front. It’s pretty wild.

Why do we use incense?

Incense is used in the Bible (and throughout history) for sacred rites because the perfume is a sign of honor and worship. Also, the Psalms talk about our prayers ascending to heaven like the smoke from incense. Next time you’re in Mass when Father is using incense, watch it drift upward and think of the prayer of the Mass rising to God.

Why do we celebrate Holy Week?

Holy Week is the celebration of the week before Jesus died, and is the most sacred time of the Church year because it contains the essential mystery of our salvation: Jesus’s death and resurrection. We celebrate because Jesus has defeated the power of death through his resurrection, and restored us to his own life of grace.

Why do we go to church on Sunday instead of any other day of the week?/ Is it a sin if we don't come to church once every week?

The Jewish people worship on Saturday because that’s the day God rested after creating the world (Genesis chapter 1), but Sunday is our holy day because Jesus’s resurrection makes us all new creations. (CCC 2174). Sunday Mass is the basis of our practice of the Catholic faith -- from the very day of Jesus’s resurrection, Christians have always gathered on this day to worship and give thanks for God’s gift of grace. As Catholics, we have an obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, and it is a grave sin to skip Mass without a serious reason such as illness or urgent family duties. As kids, you can’t drive yourself to Mass, but please, ask your parents to take you, and to come with you, every Sunday. As you grow and live on your own, at college, for example, the obligation to go to Mass on Sunday is on your own soul, not your parents’ souls.

Why do people not go to church but call themselves Catholics?

We can’t judge anyone’s spiritual state: many people may want to be Catholic but not understand the teachings of the Church, or may not have strong faith. But it is true that those who know that they have an obligation to worship God in church and don’t do it are setting a bad example of living the Catholic faith. Lead by your own example and go to Church! And invite others! Many people are waiting to be asked.


Why do we use the tabernacle in the church?

The tabernacle shows our respect for the Eucharist. “If there are consecrated hosts left over after the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, they are kept in sacred vessels in the tabernacle. Since the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in them, the tabernacle is one of the venerable places in every church. We genuflect before every tabernacle.” (YouCat 218). The tabernacle is a reminder of the Jewish Ark of the Covenant, and is made of precious metal and jewels to show our honor and respect for the Blessed Sacrament. Don’t be afraid to visit it! There’s a kneeler up in front of the tabernacle for anyone who wants to pray right next to Jesus.

Why are there candles in church?

Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), and the fire of candles brings that light into church in a very beautiful and holy way.

If the church is God's house why aren't the pews padded? Does he not want a couch?

Because the essential part of every home is not how the furniture looks, but whether love is present there. In many parts of the world, there aren’t even any pews in the churches, and people have to stand throughout the mass!

Catholic Practices and Traditions

Why are we supposed to eat fish on Fridays during Lent?

We’re only obligated not to eat meat on Fridays in Lent (and the rest of the year, to either not eat meat or to offer some other penance on Friday), but fish is a handy substitute.

Why do we do Communion in the 2nd grade?

To receive the Eucharist, a person has to be old enough to understand that it is the body and blood of Jesus, and to desire to receive him worthily. There’s nothing particularly sacred about the second grade year: it’s just a way of organizing classes in America. Some dioceses have confirmation in second grade and First Communion in third grade, to emphasize that the Eucharist is the highest sacrament. The important thing to remember is that these schedules are all man-made traditions, just like wearing a suit or a white dress, or even having a parish day for first communions. They are not necessary to our faith, but they can be nice reminders of the holiness of the occasion.

Related: The same is true of Confirmation: it’s not a graduation from religion class or a sign of Christian adulthood. It’s the sacrament of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have man-made traditions like “sacrament years” and service hours to demonstrate our respect for the sacrament and our desire to know and to serve God, but these things are not necessary for the sacrament to be effective, and if, for example, someone were sick and in the hospital all through eighth grade and never attended class or did any service hours, that would not be a valid reason to deny anyone the Sacrament. NOTE: An unworthy reception of a sacrament is on your own soul (1 Cor. 11:27-31), so don’t skip your Confirmation classes because you feel like they’re a waste of time!

Why do they have white and black smoke for the election of the pope?

The ballots from the papal election are burned in a stove, and everyone watching can see the smoke. Black smoke (made by adding straw to the ballots) mean that not enough cardinals could decide on a new pope; white smoke (made by burning ballots by themselves) mean that we have a new pope. These days chemicals are added to make the black smoke blacker and the white smoke whiter, so there isn't so much confusion for the people standing down in St. Peter's Square looking up at the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.

Why is Easter called Easter?

Easter is an English word which comes from the name Estre, an old Germanic goddess whose festival was celebrated in the spring. Christians took over the name for our own springtime celebration of Christ's resurrection. Many other languages call Easter some variation of Pascha, which comes from the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach. The Church decided at the Council of Nicaea (325) that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.

Why is Ash Wednesday not a holy day of obligation?

Ash Wednesday is a great day to go to Mass, but it’s not a holy day of obligation because it’s not a great feast of the Church. And ashes are not a sacrament! They’re a sacramental, a blessed object that is a physical reminder of grace.

Why do we have to go to PSR (Parish School of Religion, our name for classes) every year instead of just sacrament years?

Because there’s a lot more to learn about God and the Catholic faith than the Eucharist and Confirmation, as excellent as those topics are.


Why is Mary so important?

Mary is important because she is actually the mother of God. She carried Jesus inside of her for nine months, and through her he is a descendant of the Jewish people. She was brave and holy and strong, able to accept God’s will and participate in it by becoming the mother of his Son. And she is our mother too, because Jesus gave her to all humanity when he was dying on the cross. She prays for us and sends us graces from God. Catholics don’t worship Mary, since we can only worship God, but we honor her above all other humans because God honors her so much.

If Mary is the mother of God and God tells Mary to be a mother of a baby does that make God that baby's brother?

God did ask Mary to be the mother of a baby: Jesus! But we know that “Jesus is the only son of Mary in the physical sense” (YouCat 81, referencing CCC 500-501). “In Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue, there is only one word for sibling and cousins. When the Gospels speak about the ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus (for instance, in Mk. 3:31-35), they are referring to Jesus’ close relatives.” (YouCat 81).

In fact, the Church teaches that Mary was always a virgin, and that Jesus was conceived by her not by human actions, but by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has no human father because he is already the Son of God. Jesus is the New Adam, the first human since the very beginning not created by the union of a human father and mother, but solely by the action of God. Her virginity shows us that we are reborn in God not by human actions, but by the working of his grace.

Some people claim that Mary’s virginity is only symbolic, or some kind of legend, instead of reality, because they think it is impossible. Even Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know man?” (which means, I’m a virgin). And the angel answered, “Nothing is impossible for God” (Lk. 1:34-37). Creating the world from nothing is not impossible, rising from the dead is not impossible, giving us his flesh and blood to eat under the appearance of bread is not impossible, and God coming as a human conceived miraculously in the womb of a virgin is not impossible.


How was the first person born? God was born so how was the first person born according to the Catholic Church?

(CCC 282-285)
God was born as a human through his mother Mary, just as you were born. That’s how everyone is born! But if the question means, “How did the first human come to be created?” then what is necessary for us to believe is that God established time and created everything from nothing, and that humans are the “summit of the Creator’s work” (CCC 343).

Scientific studies can bring to light new information on the age of the earth, on early fossils that can give us a better understanding of the beginnings of our planet and life on it, and can help trace human activity on the earth. But we don’t have any eyewitnesses or records of creation, and of the earliest humans. Genesis chapter 1 gives a spiritual account of God’s work of creation on earth, and how he brings order from chaos and develops the layers and richness of both physical and spiritual creation. Genesis is not, and was never meant to be, a literal account of how God made the world. Remember the four senses of scripture? Rather, the account of creation in Genesis is put right at the beginning of the Bible to show, in beautiful language and poetic imagery, the deeper truth of creation: how all creation is founded in God, how he called everything he created “good”, how humans are the summit of creation, being made in God’s image and likeness, and how, even though sin cuts us off from God’s grace, he promises to make all things new. These themes are repeated all through the Bible. (CCC 289)

(CCC 306-314) In creating humans in his image and likeness, God entrusted them with the great job of being co-creators with him. Now, after God’s first act of human creation, he wills that new life enters the world through the act of a mother and a father -- only Jesus is the exception to this! And there are other ways in which God trusts us to help carry out his plan. He makes use of our cooperation with him and our free will, in allowing our actions to affect creation, both for good and for ill. Our prayers and sufferings become part of God’s work of salvation. Our free will is a gift of love, because it means that we are free to choose to love. W It also means that we are free to reject God and choose to do evil. God is not the cause of evil, but he permits it because he respects our freedom and does not impede the natural consequences of our actions. He can, however, turn all evil to good, as he showed through bringing about the greatest good ever from the greatest evil ever: Christ’s death and resurrection.

But just because God can bring good from evil, that never makes evil a good thing, or doing an evil deed justified.

Which leads to:

Even though God gives us free will how come he didn't save millions of lives in the Holocaust?

(CCC 309-314 Free will and the problem of evil)
It is very important here to understand what we’re talking about. When we ask why God didn’t stop some big event in history, we might imagine that things like the Holocaust, or slavery, or war, are dropped into some time period out of the blue. But the Holocaust isn’t simply one action, and it didn’t have one starting point and one stopping point. Even wars, which may officially begin with one battle, and end with a peace treaty or a defeat on a certain day, don’t just exist between those two dates on the calendar. Rather, all events in history are the effect of the choices of individual people throughout their lives. Some of those choices are sinful and produce great evil, such as Adolf Hitler’s decisions -- but Hitler’s sins would not have affected so many people if other people hadn’t made sinful choices to support his decisions. And very rarely do people kill others out of the blue. Rather, sin builds on sin until a person’s conscience and will to do good is weakened. If you’ve spent a lifetime thinking of slaves as less than human, it’s easier to beat them or sell them and treat them like property.

Other people affect history by making holy choices. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest, was sent to a concentration camp. He saved the life of a Polish prisoner by offering to die in his place, and he was sent to a hunger bunker with other prisoners and starved. That Polish man survived the war, made it home to his family, and spent his life telling the world about the goodness of St. Maximilian and the power of his holiness.

It’s easy to look at history and think that we would have done the right thing always, or been on the right side, if we’d been there. The question is: do we always make the right choice now? Will people in the future look back and say, “Why didn’t God stop abortion? How come he didn’t save the lives of all those innocent babies?” About 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews. By 2011, 57 million babies had been aborted legally in the United States alone. This is history happening now. How are we using our free will to respond?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Makeup More than Skin Deep

Despite the fact that your little sister is definitionally a girl, you don't necessarily relate to your little sister as a girl because... Well, she's your little sister. As a result, this guest post that my little sister wrote as part of the blog tour for her new novel Crimson Bound was kind of doubly fascinating to me: I thought it was an interesting human insight which is distinctly female, but there was also a sense in which reading it involved meeting my sister as a woman in a way that I would not otherwise have thought of.

I was lonely in Oxford. And when you're lonely, it's easy to feel bad about yourself. "Nobody loves me and I deserve it" starts to sound pretty plausible when you literally have not had physical contact with another human being since that cashier accidentally brushed your hand while handing you groceries six days ago.

And that's when I discovered makeup all over again. I hadn't brought much with me to Oxford--at that point, I still didn't wear it everyday, just for special occasions. But one day I was sad and wanted retail therapy, so I started buying cheap makeup at the drugstore. I started putting it on in the mornings, even though I wasn't going anywhere special, even though I knew I wasn't going to talk to anybody, even though I felt sure nobody would notice if I died or wore lip gloss.

And I found that I felt better when I wore makeup. Not just prettier, but like I was more in control of my life. Like I mattered.

I'd always thought of makeup as being something you did because you wanted to look pretty. And I really, really wanted to be pretty, so I really wanted to wear makeup. But what I learned in Oxford is that makeup can also be a way of saying that you matter. It can be a way of saying: I deserve to look pretty. I deserve to be taken care of. I am precious and my body is precious and I deserve to spend time perfecting my mascara technique.

Crimson Bound is a novel that deals a lot with self-hatred. The heroine, Rachelle, killed somebody to save her own life and has never been able to forgive herself for it--because that killing also gave her supernatural badass powers, so she's still benefitting from it. She feels completely unworthy of being alive, let alone loved or happy or pretty. Her only lifeline is her friendship with Amélie, a girl who dreams of being a makeup artist and likes to practice on her. And it's through Amélie's cosmetics that Rachelle is first able to imagine what it might feel like to be worth loving again.

Read the whole thing.

She also did an interesting one on the particular fairy tales which inspired this novel.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 10-3

This is the last installment of Chapter 10. I'm doing some business traveling and hoping to have some time for writing once I'm back to my hotel in the evening, so my plan is to have the first installment of Chapter 11, which focuses on Henri, up no later than Saturday.

Chateau Ducloux, France. August 26th, 1914. The morning routine was gone. No newspapers were delivered from the station. Madam Ragot and Emilie did not arrive. Philomene considered going out to pick up breakfast things herself, but when she looked out the window she could see only German soldiers in the street, no townspeople. She cut slices of yesterday’s bread and spread them with jam for the children’s breakfast while Grandpere cranked the coffee grinder so that they could make their morning pot of coffee. Pascal stared at this bread and jam without eating and then returned to his room rather than going out into the garden with his sisters as on a usual morning.

It was just as the two adults were sitting down at the table with their pot of coffee that someone pounded on the front door.

They looked at each other.

“Perhaps it’s only someone needing something from the shop,” said Philomene. Naming some harmless explanation seemed to hold more terrible ones at bay.

“Go wait in the kitchen,” said Louis. “The girls are in the back garden. If something bad happens, you can go out through the kitchen door and take them over the garden wall into the next street.”

“But Pascal. He’s in his room.” She was gripping the spoon with which she had been stirring her coffee, holding it like a dagger as if for protection.

“There’s no time. He’ll hear if something happens, and he’s a grown boy now. Look how he came through yesterday.”


“My child, there’s no time.” Louis was moving towards the door as he heard the pounding again, louder this time. Philomene nodded and left the dining room in the other direction, into the kitchen.

He opened the door. Outside in the street was a young man in an officer’s uniform. The shoulder boards and high collar of his field grey tunic were marked with silver braided rank insignia. A buttoned-down holster of polished brown leather hung at his belt, as did a slim, straight sword in a black leather scabbard.

“Good morning. Are you the owner of the Mertens shop?” asked the officer in surprisingly unaccented French.

[Continue Reading]

Monday, April 20, 2015

The $70k Minimum Wage and the Difficulty of Generalities

A fairly small business named Gravity Payments became huge national news last week when the founder and CEO announced that he was going to set a $70k/yr minimum wage for his company. The 11-year-old company has 120 employees and offers credit card payment processes services for small businesses. CEO Dan Price founded the company in 2004 when he was 19 years old. After seeing the owner of a coffee shop where he was playing a gig struggle with the coffee shop's payment system, Price thought he could do better. This year he expected to turn a $2.2 million dollar profit and pay himself a salary of $1 million. However, after reading some research on how increases in income up to about the $70k/yr threshold have a much larger impact on happiness and security than increases thereafter, Price decided to cut his salary to $70k and use 75-80% of the anticipated profits for this year to begin a phase in (over several years) of getting all his employees up to the $70k mark. The average wage of his employees is currently $48k and about 70 will be seeing some kind of an increase, with 30 seeing their earnings at least double. Price plans to keep his own salary low until the company has grown enough that its profits return to the pre-wage-increase levels.

Given all the attention to inequality and wages, it's no surprise that this has attracted a fair amount of political commentary. Joe Carter has a piece up at the Acton Institute arguing that this dooms Gravity Payments to go out of business, and thus is of questionable ethical value. He has two arguments. The first is based on competitive pressure:
Imagine a competitor, Anti-Gravity, has both the exact same number of employees and the exact same non-salary costs as Gravity. The only difference is thatAnti-Gravity has decided to pay all of their employees a minimum of $60,000 a year ($72,000 in total compensation). Because of the differences in salary costs, Anti-Gravity would need to bring in $1.4 million less in revenue that Gravity. They could pass that savings along to their customers and completely undercut Gravity.

In reality, though, competing companies willing to pay their own employees competitive market wages, which means if their other costs are similar they’ll always be able to price their services lower than Gravity. Payment processing companies are extremely price sensitive, so Gravity has put themselves at a severe disadvantage in relation to their competitors.
Now, since I work in pricing analytics, I'm always kind of drawn to arguments which put price at the center of driving business, but it seems to me that there's a clear problem with this. Gravity is already making enough money to pay the higher wages and then some, it's just that the money is currently being spent on the CEO's salary and on company profits. (And as a private company, they're fairly free to make a high stakes bet with their profits in a way that a public company would have a harder time doing.)

So a competitor with a product and service of similar value was out there, they could already be making the same price play to attack Gravity by choosing to have lower CEO pay and lower profits. There may well be lower cost competitors out there, but not enough to have significantly hurt Gravity up to this point, given that it's gone from zero to 12,000 business clients in eleven years and currently processes $6.5 billion in total transactions per year for them.

With a business service such at this, you typically do what's called "value based pricing". This means that you assess how much your service is worth compared to those of the most relevant competitors. To create a quick example:

I do payment processing and my key benefit is that I have a really great mobile processing app, while the processor my potential client currently uses provides an app that is always crashing, making it hard for the client to sell his widgets and craft widget shows outdoors. My client estimates that he could increase his sales by $40k per year with better mobile processing, and his profit margins are 30%. This means that, all other things being equal, I can charge up to $12,000 more than my competitor and the potential client will be at least as well off as he is now. If I charge $3,000 more per year, my client realizes an increased profit of $9,000 per year by going with me instead of my competitor.

Okay, so that's value based pricing. But so what? What if a new competitor Anti-Darwin CC Processing shows up and offers a service just as good but with pricing $2,000 lower than me. Well, in that case, he may take money from me. But in the real world, having a service which is "just as good" is not always as easy as it sounds. There are a ton of companies who might see it as their mission to produce smart phones "just as good" as the iPhone while undercutting Apple on price, but with a lot of customers, Apple manages to convince people that they provide the best product for the money and thus they keep their massive profits.

All of which is to say: Yes, if Gravity had an immediate competitor who was clearly offering an equal or better value for the price, they would doubtless be taking customers from Gravity (and since they're a small business are credit card processors go, there are clearly a lot of businesses who do choose a provider other than Gravity) but providing an equal or better product is not always as easy as it sounds, and that is shown by the fact that Gravity is already making a tidy profit and paying its CEO lots of money.

One could argue that Gravity is currently more ready to weather a major competitor threat because it's easier to lower profits or lower CEO wages than it is to lay off employees or reduce the wages of employees you've just excited by giving them higher wages, but by that line of thinking any company with a narrow profit margin is already right at the edge of going bankrupt, and we know that many companies live for long periods with low margins.

Carter's second argument has to do with the productivity of labor versus its cost:
Wages are merely the price of labor. The reason wages differ from job to job is because, in general, higher wages are paid for higher productivity, added value, or to compensate for dangerous or toilsome work.

Let’s say Assistant X, who has no degree, has a job at Gravity making copies and getting coffee. They were originally paid $30,000 a year and added $40,000 of extra value to the company. Manager Y has an MBA, works in sales, and is paid $70,000 a year while adding $100,000 in value to the company. After the pay change, both make $70,000 a year. But now, Manager Y is adding no extra value to the company. All his value added is going to make up the deficit of paying Assistant X $30,000 more than he was worth to the company. (For now, we’ll ignore the animosity that would result from Manager Y making the exact same wages as his less educated, less productive assistant.)

Presumably, none of the employees that were previously making less than $70,000 a year were adding $70,000+ in value to the company. So all of them will be operating at a value deficit that will have to be made up by other, higher productivity employees. What would have previously been taken as profit will have to go to compensate for the loss of value.

But the higher wages are based on the current profits of the company. What happens in future years when the company is making less profit because the previous value (previously realized in profits) is going to over-pay for less productive employees? Eventually, the company will start operating at a loss and will have to cut jobs. Guess whose job goes first? Those whose value to the company is now negative because of the pay increase—the people whose labor is worth $40,000 but are being paid $70,000. The people who are cheering today because of the pay increase are likely to be the ones that tomorrow will be lamenting their unemployment.

This one seems kind of odd to me. Let's assume that the two employees described are in fact the only employees at a company.

Year 1: Assistant X and Manager Y produce $140k in value while costing $100k in wages, producing a $40k profit.

Year 2: Assistant X and Manager Y product $140k in value while costing $140k in wages, producing $0 in profit.

Yes, the profit has gone from $40k to $0 because expenses now equal gross sales. Now, if the owner wanted to make the same $40k in profit, this would be a problem, and he would be looking to cut expenses or grow topline revenue while keeping at his new expense structure. However, if the owner expected the profits to be down until he grew out of the current depressed profits (Price's stated expectation, which suggests he thinks he can grow his revenues faster than his expenses) then there's not necessarily a problem here.

Given that the situation described is one in which the company continues to make a (much smaller) profit after the wage increases, and given that the CEO thinks he has a growth plan which will allow him to return profits to prior levels, I'm unclear what mechanism Carter thinks will cause the company to have to conduct layoffs.

Now does all this mean that all businesses can and should go to a $70k minimum wage? No, of course not. It's silly to generalize the situation of this one business out to all businesses. This is a small, closely held company which the owner believes (rightly or wrongly) is able to pay all its employees a higher wage while continuing to charge the same prices and grow. Not all companies can do that. Nor, even given one that can, do I think there's an obligation to have a $70k minimum wage.

The reason I think Carter's analysis falls down is that it works in a sort of Econ 101 world of generalities rather than considering things which may be specific to the business in question. Those who think that all businesses can do the same are falling into the same error. In fact, what we have here is an interestingly novel store about what one business is doing in its specific circumstances. We arguably don't know enough to evaluate well whether this will work out well for them, and the implications for others businesses are not necessarily direct, though the overall approach of the founder/CEO looking out for his employees and trying to make sure they share in his fortunes is admirable.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 10-2

A couple extra days in the making, but tonight's installment brings the novel to 115,000 words. There is one more installment of Chapter 10 to go, and I will be posting it some time during the coming weekend.

Chateau Ducloux, France. August 23rd, 1914. The little church of Saint Thibault was nearly full even before mass began. Surely God would not allow a treasured son or husband to be cut down by a German bullet simply because his loved ones had been lax in their prayers for him, and yet God must somehow hear. Even if prayers could not turn aside bullets, they could at least turn away the self-accusations which might follow: on the day it happened you could not even be bothered to go to mass and pray for him.

Every candle in the votive racks was lit. Many stayed after mass as well, for the rosary which Pere Lebas introduced with the intention, “For the strength and protection of our brave soldiers.”

Once the rosary was over, Philomene gathered up the children to go home. Their behavior had been unusually satisfactory. Charlotte had seemed on the brink of a crying fit when she was told that all of the votive candles were already lit, and so she could not light one for Father. It had seemed the moment to say something inspiring: If you pray to Our Lady and tell her how much you wanted to light a candle for Father, she will light a candle in heaven for you.

But while these little scenes were invariably successful in the columns of devotional magazines, Charlotte was not the type of lisping angel who seemed to inhabit those pages, and so Philomene had instead whispered to her, “Remember that we were going to stop at the patisserie on the way home to get breakfast.”

The thought of her favorite little cake instantly drove thoughts of candles -- and perhaps even of father -- from the seven-year-old’s mind, and she had showed complete decorum as prayer books were collected and the family left the church.

Outside, blinking in the bright morning sunlight after the nearly windowless, candlelit interior of the church, Philomene saw an unusual crowd in the square before the church. A two-wheeled farm cart was stopped in the street, the shaggy pony between the shafts standing with its head down. On the driver’s bench was a woman in a brown dress. The sheen of the fabric and the gathers along the seams made it clear it was a Sunday-best, yet it was also visibly old, and it showed the dust of days on the road. She was flanked by two small children, and the cart was filled with a variety of household valuables: a cedar chest, a mattress, several wooden crates with straw showing through the slats, a treadle sewing machine.

Several people who had just left the church were gathered round the cart asking questions.

“What part of Belgium are you from?” “When did you leave?” “How far have the Germans come?” “Have you seen the French army?” “Has there been a battle?”

“We left Tongeren nine days ago. I don’t know anything,” she said, her French spoken with a heavy Flemish accent.

More questions poured forth but the woman only shook her head. She straightened her back and flexed her shoulders, as if she had been hunched on the seat of the cart for many hours, and as she did so she placed her free hand on her round stomach.

Pregnant. Philomene felt a tightening of her own stomach. This woman was pregnant, her husband gone, trying to bring her children and possessions to safety, driving a farm cart away from the invading armies.

“Is it true that the Germans burn houses and shoot civilians?” “Is the Belgian army still fighting?” “Have you seen the French 212th Regiment? My son is in it.” The crowd continued to press with questions.

Philomene stepped forward. “Let the poor woman alone, she’s said she doesn’t know anything. How could she give us news when she’s been on the road for a week and a half?”

There were some embarrassed murmurs, but the villagers surrounding the cart fell silent and then began to drift away. Philomene stepped closer. “Can I offer you some breakfast? Our house is not far from here. You could have breakfast with us and we could give you food for your journey.”

She reached out and took the woman’s hand in her own. For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes, then the refugee turned away and Philomene saw tears running down her face. “Thank you,” she said. “We will be no trouble. We won’t stay long. Thank you. God bless you.”

It proved an awkward meal. As she stopped at Jeanpetit’s Patisserie and ordered three times her usual number of cakes and pastries, Philomene had entertained visions of the comfort which a little bit of hospitality could bring to this family which had been on the road for ten days. She could give them what they needed while gaining some sense of the plight which faced families in Belgium -- which perhaps awaited families in France as well.

The farm cart stood outside the Mertens shop, and inside the house Louis had brought Madame Peeters and her two children into the dining room. There the little boy and girl sat, very upright in their chairs, having taken to heart their mother’s stern warnings about behavior, lest they appear to be the wrong sort of refugees.

“Good morning!” said Philomene cheerfully. “I have lots of treats to choose from, and you shall have the first pick.” She spread out Monsieur Jeanpetit’s confections on the table and stepped aside, taking Lucie-Marie by the hand when she attempted to rush the table. “Go on. Take as many as you like.”

The two little Belgian children turned to look at their mother, who nodded and held up two fingers. Each child went and carefully picked out two pastries, placed them on one of the waiting plates, and sat down to eat slowly, surreptitiously licking the crumbs from their fingers between bites.

Once she had taken the edge off her own hunger by rapidly consuming three of the treats, seven-year-old Charlotte tried to ply the oldest Peeters girl -- six years old and seemingly all pale blue eyes and blond braids -- with questions, but she only shrugged. “The children only speak Flemish,” Madame Peeters explained, and Charlotte turned away to see if Lucie-Marie really wanted all of her own little cake.

“Where are you going to stay?” Philomene asked, breaking a lengthy silence.

Madame Peeters shrugged. “I don’t know. Reims? Paris?” She paused and again placed a hand on her pregnant belly as if feeling the baby stirring or drawing some strength from inside. “When he was called up, my husband said, ‘Don’t wait until it is too late.’ Now that we’ve left everything, I must not stop too soon and have the Germans come when I can no longer travel.”

Philomene hesitated over the next question. “Your husband…?” She felt guilty as soon as she saw the other woman’s expression. “Mine is with the army in Paris,” she continued, hoping this would provide some small proof of commonality.

[Continue Reading]

Friday, April 10, 2015

Linkety Links

I've been accumulating these links all week, but I haven't had time to post them because I've had the sudden opportunity to revise an opus from my younger days, a play I wrote when I was 16, which is having another youth group performance this summer. You say the litany of humility, and then someone hands you something you wrote twenty years ago, and all pride and self-love is mortified pretty quick. So I've been rewriting in double-time to get this thing ready before the auditions on Monday.

Looking back on my early writing efforts, I can say that the dramatic side of the play still works. The scenes fit together, the style works, and the structure is sound. But the lines themselves, the writing! Heavy-handed, unfunny, inelegant. When I get stuck with revision, I have to remind myself that anything I put down afresh can't be worse than what's already there.

I'm grateful at least that I have the chance for a rewrite. It would have been a true test of humility if it had been performed now as written, with my name attached.


You can't start 'em on lit crit too early, and that's why, on April 1, the Paris Review debuted The Paris Review for Young Readers, featuring such delights as American Lunchroom by Bret Easton Ellis, Goofus and Gallant Read Poetry, and Your Struggle: Karl Ove Knausgaard Helps You Navigate the School Yard.


Brandon had up an interesting post recently talking about conspiracy theorists:
One of the unusual features of conspiracy-theory thinking, distinguishing it from many other kinds of bad thinking, is that conspiracy-theories tend to be unusually evidence-rich. I guarantee you that the average 9/11-Truther knows massively more real and genuine evidence about the collapse of the towers than your average person who rejects 9/11-Truth conspiracies. Very, very few people who are not inclined to believe some conspiracy are motivated to dig into the details to the extent that believers in the conspiracy are -- usually, in fact, it's only people who are irritated enough by the conspiracy theory to spend massive amounts of time and effort answering the arguments that conspiracy theorists multiply.
Following nicely on the heels of that, I came across what is perhaps an example par excellence of the genre: Did Leonard Nimoy Fake His Own Death So He Could Seize Control of the Illuminati?
Details of Leonard Nimoy’s early childhood are necessarily vague. The media has fed us a predictable timeline of predictable life events, though his genealogy is, at best, obscure. However, it is clear that Nimoy’s March 26th birthdate does anticipate his future role in New World Order propaganda for it was on that day in 1484 that William Caxton printed the first translation of Aesop’s Fables and also, in 1830, when the Book of Mormon was published in Palmyra, New York. (Star Trek has long been accused of being a palimpsest of these two works.)

However, the most fascinating counterpoint to Nimoy’s manufactured backstory is the theory that he may have been the secret love child of playboy Maurice de Rothschild and Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia. Smuggled to America at an early age, he was entrusted to a nondescript family in suburban Boston, then a safe haven of New Deal liberalism despite the ravages of the Great Depression. His lineage was crucial, as we shall see, for it bound the child to the two great dynasties of hidden rule — the Romanovs and the Rothschilds. It was also a dangerous bloodline to possess, as the treachery of both families knows no bounds.

As a Rothschild, young Leonard was naturally raised as a Jew and even as a teenager, he betrayed all the trigonometric and sensual qualities of that exotic race.
Best comment on the post: "This is so irresponsible. Now he knows we know."


In a moment of serendipity, I turned on the radio a few Saturdays ago and came in partway through the Metropolitan Opera's broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.

Based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott, Lucia di Lammermoor is the story of a girl forced by her brother to break her betrothal to her beloved to marry a man with money. On the wedding night, she suddenly appears before all the wedding guests, having stabbed the bridegroom in their chamber. The opera contains one of the most famous mad scenes in the history of mad scenes, in which the soprano floats ethereally, insanely, above the rest of the world, her hands and wedding gown stained with  blood. A hauntingly virtuosic feature of this aria is Lucia's duet with a flute, in which she echoes and harmonizes with this music only she can hear.

Joan Sutherland, duet with flute 8: 36 - 10:16

Joan Sutherland is a world-class singer, but not much of an actress, and it doesn't help that there are no horrified guests to provide a backdrop. Here, now, is a stunning performance by Natalie Dessay, in which the flute is replaced with Donizetti's original scoring for water harmonica -- an instrument that just sounds like someone slipping into madness:

The duet is at 4:00 - 5:14, but note how here it really is only Lucia who hears the phantom accompaniment. The melody at 4:26 gives me chills.

I know that there are some who think of opera as a pure art, but that's ridiculous. How can you separate the singing from the acting of the role? Sutherland's voice is exquisite, but no one believes she's going mad. Dessay here is on fire, and every note seems to follow from, or be in reaction to, the breaking of her mind. I believe her, in a way that I didn't believe Dame Sutherland. Sutherland is performing. Dessay is.

(Also, love the set design with the huge moon looming in the background, a clever remark on the theme of madness.)


I also read The Bride of Lammermoor to imbibe the original story. There's drama aplenty, but one of my favorite moments was the betrothal itself, which Scott, in a moment of dry understatement, abridges between two moments of high personal conflict.
Lucy wept on, but her tears were less bitter. Each attempt which the Master made to explain his purpose of departure, only proved a new evidence of his deisre to stay; until, at length, instead of bidding her farewell, he gave his faith to her for ever, and received her troth in return. The whole passed so suddenly, and arose so much out of the immediate impulse of the moment, that ere the Master of Ravenswood could reflect upon the consequences of the step which had had taken, their lips, as well as their hands, had pledged the sincerity of their affection.
And the consequences are dire indeed, and both parties have cause to rue the engagement long before the fatal end, so let this be a lesson to all the hasty young things out there not to get engaged without careful deliberation.

Scott, in his introduction, relates the true history of the case, as he heard it at his mother's knee:

THE Author, on a former occasion, declined giving the real source from which he drew the tragic subject of this history, because, though occurring at a distant period, it might possibly be unpleasing to the feelings of the descendants of the parties. But as he finds an account of the circumstances given in the Notes to Law's Memorials, by his ingenious friend, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Esq., and also indicated in his reprint of the Rev. Mr. Symson's poems appended to the Large Description of Galloway, as the original of the Bride of Lammermoor, the Author feels himself now at liberty to tell the tale as he had it from connexions of his own, who lived very near the period, and were closely related to the family of the bride.
It is well known that the family of Dalrymple, which has produced, within the space of two centuries, as many men of talent, civil and military, and of literary, political, and professional eminence, as any house in Scotland, first rose into distinction in the person of James Dalrymple, one of the most eminent lawyers that ever lived, though the labours of his powerful mind were unhappily exercised on a subject so limited as Scottish jurisprudence, on which he has composed an admirable work.
He married Margaret, daughter to Ross of Balneel, with whom he obtained a considerable estate. She was an able, politic, and high-minded woman, so successful in what she undertook, that the vulgar, no way partial to her husband or her family, imputed her success to necromancy. According to the popular belief, this Dame Margaret purchased the temporal prosperity of her family from the Master whom she served under a singular condition, which is thus narrated by the historian of her grandson, the great Earl of Stair: "She lived to a great age, and at her death desired that she might not be put under ground, but that her coffin should stand upright on one end of it, promising that while she remained in that situation the Dalrymples should continue to flourish. What was the old lady's motive for the request, or whether she really made such a promise, I shall not take upon me to determine; but it's certain her coffin stands upright in the isle of the church of Kirklistown, the burial-place belonging to the family." The talents of this accomplished race were sufficient to have accounted for the dignities which many members of the family attained, without any supernatural assistance. But their extraordinary prosperity was attended by some equally singular family misfortunes, of which that which befell their eldest daughter was at once unaccountable and melancholy.
Miss Janet Dalrymple, daughter of the first Lord Stair and Dame Margaret Ross, had engaged herself without the knowledge of her parents to the Lord Rutherford, who was not acceptable to them either on account of his political principles or his want of fortune. The young couple broke a piece of gold together, and pledged their troth in the most solemn manner; and it is said the young lady imprecated dreadful evils on herself should she break her plighted faith. Shortly after, a suitor who was favoured by Lord Stair, and still more so by his lady, paid his addresses to Miss Dalrymple. The young lady refused the proposal, and being pressed on the subject, confessed her secret engagement. Lady Stair, a woman accustomed to universal submission, for even her husband did not dare to contradict her, treated this objection as a trifle, and insisted upon her daughter yielding her consent to marry the new suitor, David Dunbar, son and heir to David Dunbar of Baldoon, in Wigtonshire. The first lover, a man of very high spirit, then interfered by letter, and insisted on the right he had acquired by his troth plighted with the young lady. Lady Stair sent him for answer, that her daughter, sensible of her undutiful behaviour in entering into a contract unsanctioned by her parents, had retracted her unlawful vow, and now refused to fulfil her engagement with him.
The lover, in return, declined positively to receive such an answer from any one but his mistress in person; and as she had to deal with a man who was both of a most determined character and of too high condition to be trifled with, Lady Stair was obliged to consent to an interview between Lord Rutherford and her daughter. But she took care to be present in person, and argued the point with the disappointed and incensed lover with pertinacity equal to his own. She particularly insisted on the Levitical law, which declares that a woman shall be free of a vow which her parents dissent from. This is the passage of Scripture she founded on:
"If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.
"If a woman also vow a vow unto the Lord, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father's house in her youth; And her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her: then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand.
"But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her."—Numbers xxx. 2-5.
While the mother insisted on these topics, the lover in vain conjured the daughter to declare her own opinion and feelings. She remained totally overwhelmed, as it seemed—mute, pale, and motionless as a statue. Only at her mother's command, sternly uttered, she summoned strength enough to restore to her plighted suitor the piece of broken gold which was the emblem of her troth. On this he burst forth into a tremendous passion, took leave of the mother with maledictions, and as he left the apartment, turned back to say to his weak, if not fickle, mistresss: "For you, madam, you will be a world's wonder"; a phrase by which some remarkable degree of calamity is usually implied. He went abroad, and returned not again. If the last Lord Rutherford was the unfortunate party, he must have been the third who bore that title, and who died in 1685.
The marriage betwixt Janet Dalrymple and David Dunbar of Baldoon now went forward, the bride showing no repugnance, but being absolutely passive in everything her mother commanded or advised. On the day of the marriage, which, as was then usual, was celebrated by a great assemblage of friends and relations, she was the same—sad, silent, and resigned, as it seemed, to her destiny. A lady, very nearly connected with the family, told the Author that she had conversed on the subject with one of the brothers of the bride, a mere lad at the time, who had ridden before his sister to church. He said her hand, which lay on his as she held her arm around his waist, was as cold and damp as marble. But, full of his new dress and the part he acted in the procession, the circumstance, which he long afterwards remembered with bitter sorrow and compunction, made no impression on him at the time.
The bridal feast was followed by dancing. The bride and bridegroom retired as usual, when of a sudden the most wild and piercing cries were heard from the nuptial chamber. It was then the custom, to prevent any coarse pleasantry which old times perhaps admitted, that the key of the nuptial chamber should be entrusted to the bridesman. He was called upon, but refused at first to give it up, till the shrieks became so hideous that he was compelled to hasten with others to learn the cause. On opening the door, they found the bridegroom lying across the threshold, dreadfully wounded, and streaming with blood. The bride was then sought for. She was found in the corner of the large chimney, having no covering save her shift, and that dabbled in gore. There she sat grinning at them, mopping and mowing, as I heard the expression used; in a word, absolutely insane. The only words she spoke were, "Tak up your bonny bridegroom." She survived this horrible scene little more than a fortnight, having been married on the 24th of August, and dying on the 12th of September 1669.
The unfortunate Baldoon recovered from his wounds, but sternly prohibited all inquiries respecting the manner in which he had received them. "If a lady," he said, "asked him any question upon the subject, he would neither answer her nor speak to her again while he lived; if a gentleman, he would consider it as a mortal affront, and demand satisfaction as having received such." He did not very long survive the dreadful catastrophe, having met with a fatal injury by a fall from his horse, as he rode between Leith and Holyrood House, of which he died the next day, 28th March 1682. Thus a few years removed all the principal actors in this frightful tragedy.

You may read the whole book at Project Gutenburg.


Very interested in reading the newly released translation of Umberto Eco's 1977 guide, "How To Write a Thesis":

We in the English-speaking world have survived thirty-seven years without “How to Write a Thesis.” Why bother with it now? After all, Eco wrote his thesis-writing manual before the advent of widespread word processing and the Internet. There are long passages devoted to quaint technologies such as note cards and address books, careful strategies for how to overcome the limitations of your local library. But the book’s enduring appeal—the reason it might interest someone whose life no longer demands the writing of anything longer than an e-mail—has little to do with the rigors of undergraduate honors requirements. Instead, it’s about what, in Eco’s rhapsodic and often funny book, the thesis represents: a magical process of self-realization, a kind of careful, curious engagement with the world that need not end in one’s early twenties. “Your thesis,” Eco foretells, “is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget.” By mastering the demands and protocols of the fusty old thesis, Eco passionately demonstrates, we become equipped for a world outside ourselves—a world of ideas, philosophies, and debates.