Contributors

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Slow News Day?

I'll concede that much of the 24-hour news cycle is filled not just with fluff, but with stale fluff.  At the same time, I was surprised yesterday to see "Soldier salutes funeral procession in pouring rain", picture and all, held up as a story of national interest.  What's next?  "Man removes hat when entering church"?  "Man opens door for woman"?  "Child thanks grandma for Christmas gift"?  These are all instances of good manners, and Heaven knows we need more examples of good manners these days, but are any of these really news stories?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Preserving Monuments


Yesterday I visited Serpent Mound in Peebles, OH.  There are not many truly ancient constructions still visible within the United States, but this one dates to about 300 B.C., is relatively nearby, and the head of the snake and several coils appear to be aligned with astronomically important directions, as signs at the site indicate.



These combine to make this perhaps the best local counterpart to Stonehenge.

The precise significance of Serpent Mound to its builders, or for that matter to later people who lived in the area, is not entirely clear.  Think of all the migrations that have taken place in Europe since 300 B.C.; well, people in the Americas moved around, too.  Likewise, since 300 B.C. Europe has seen not only the various pagan traditions that were present at the time, but also Christianity (with significant developments like the Protestant Reformation), Islam (particularly in the Iberian Peninsula and southeastern Europe, Mithraism, and Gnosticism, and these various religions frequently used the same symbols to illustrate different ideas.  Even within the superficially stable area of Egyptian polytheism, there were important changes from pre-dynastic Egypt to the banning of polytheism in favor of Christianity.  Again, the native inhabitants of North America must likewise have had dynamic religions, only they left no written record.  It is safe to say, though, that what American Indians believe today is not identical to what they believed in 1492, and what they believed in 1492 was not the same as what they believed in 300 B.C.

Although we do not share all the beliefs of the people who created Serpent Mound, it is widely accepted that we should respect the monuments for historical reasons.  Not everyone does this, of course.  In 2001, the Taliban dynamited the "Buddhas of Bamiyan" because they did not agree with the ideas represented by those statues.  More recently, ISIS has destroyed countless buildings, statues, and artifacts (to say nothing of people) that represent ideas with which they disagree.  And, in much the same vein, it has become fashionable for universities and cities to remove Confederate monuments that have stood for decades, or even for over a century.  No one (except, perhaps, a Buddhist) who approves of that has any solid basis for condemning the Taliban for destroying the Buddhist statues.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The West's Problem with Islam

Somewhere, I seem to recall, Chesterton said that the best way to understand current events was to read newspapers that were fifty or a hundred years old.  His own writings are now in that range, and they certainly do a good job of explaining the world of 2017.  Take, for instance, this passage from Heretics.

Carlyle said that men were mostly fools.  Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle's pathetic belief (or any one else's pathetic belief) in "the wise few." There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob. Every oligarchy is merely a knot of men in the street--that is to say, it is very jolly, but not infallible. And no oligarchies in the world's history have ever come off so badly in practical affairs as the very proud oligarchies--the oligarchy of Poland, the oligarchy of Venice. And the armies that have most swiftly and suddenly broken their enemies in pieces have been the religious armies--the Moslem Armies, for instance, or the Puritan Armies. And a religious army may, by its nature, be defined as an army in which every man is taught not to exalt but to abase himself. Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered, with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures. And this virtue of humility, while being practical enough to win battles, will always be paradoxical enough to puzzle pedants.
This sums up an important dimension quite admirably.  Our current leaders believe themselves to be the "wise few", and whatever they may say, their lives show that they acknowledge nothing truly greater than themselves.  The ISIS combatants are monsters in human form, but they really do know that they are not the supreme beings in the universe.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Difference Between Prayer and Magic

Michael Pacher 004

BEGIN RAMBLING INTRODUCTION

I have to admit to having an attraction to outlandish ideas.  I suspect this is true of more physicists than most people would expect, but isn't it obvious that physics is more about the edges of what is possible than about what is commonplace?  Physicists are fascinated by the detection of gravity waves indicating that two black holes have merged more than a billion light years away, but to anyone who is only interested in the practical, that must seem as wasteful and pointless as detecting the sound of a beetle colliding with a paper clip.  To a physicist, it is an interesting question whether or not it would be possible (in principle) to build a time machine; to an engineer, such a question is a waste of time, because even if the universe permits it in principle, we do not have access to the sort of stuff needed to build one -- exotic matter, black holes, things like that.

That is an explanation, if not exactly an excuse, for listening to a few YouTube channels that deal with outlandish topics such as time slips, Sasquatch, ghosts, unexplained disappearances, etc.  Some of these topics certainly have more substance than others -- in the list I gave, in my opinion the substantiality increases from time slips (which, though making for entertaining stories, are as close to utter nonsense as can be found for any proposed physical phenomenon) to unexplained disappearances (which do of course happen, and which are subject to being explained on a case-by-case basis).  However doubtful the supposed witness accounts may be, they are much more interesting, and more plausible, than the conjectures that the hosts (or guests) typically offer or even positively assert.  Few are able to resist the "mystery religion" temptation to pretend to have secret knowledge.

All this is to explain why, a few days ago, I put on one such channel to keep my mind busy while I was busy away from the computer.  The title of the topic that was to be discussed meant nearly nothing to me; if anything, it sounded like something that might be related to a pirate movie.  (I am being deliberately vague because I do not want to drive even the little traffic that I could drive to either the channel or the topic.)

END RAMBLING INTRODUCTION

The actual topic the guest was discussing involved his researches into Western magic.  By "magic" he did not mean stage tricks, he meant the real thing; and by "research" he did not mean anthropological research into it as a belief system or cultural practice, but as a practical means of obtaining actual results.  In fact, this is something he emphasized strongly:  what counted were actual results, which he believed he had witnessed or produced, and failures to produce results were not to be explained away, as has so often been done.

At this point I was able to break away from what I had been doing and shut this discussion off; this is a topic with which I do not wish to contaminate my imagination.  The guest's comments had reminded me a little too much of Chapter 6 in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, particularly the following two passages.
Whether it be because the Fall has really brought men nearer to less desirable neighbors in the spiritual world, or whether it is merely that the mood of men eager or greedy finds it easier to imagine evil, I believe that the black magic of witchcraft has been much more practical and much less poetical than the white magic of mythology. ... To start with, some impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. And indeed that popular phrase exactly expresses the point. The gods of mere mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. They had a great deal of good nonsense about them; in the happy and hilarious sense in which we talk of the nonsense of Jabberwocky or the Land where the Jumblies live. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work, but the work would really be done.
... But with the idea of employing the demons who get things done, a new idea appears more worthy of the demons. It may indeed be truly described as the idea of being worthy of the demons; of making oneself fit for their fastidious and exacting society. Superstition of the lighter sort toys with the idea that some trifle, some small gesture such as throwing the salt, may touch the hidden spring that works the mysterious machinery of the world. And there is after all something in the idea of such an Open Sesame. But with the appeal to lower spirits comes the horrible notion that the gesture must not only be very small but very low; that it must be a monkey trick of an utterly ugly and unworthy sort. Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting thing he can think of. It is felt that the extreme of evil will extort a sort of attention or answer from the evil powers under the surface of the world. 
Before I move on, let me emphasize that I know nothing of the guest, and I cannot know how far he has trod this path.  Perhaps he is still closer to the "superstition of the lighter sort", with its comparatively innocent gestures.  That said, there is a difference between tossing a pinch of salt over the shoulder (which I would say is today more of a tradition than an actual superstition, and so is likely completely innocent), and a "small gesture" that is, to at least some extent, intended to have a magical effect, such as playing with a Ouija board or playing the "Bloody Mary" game, just as there is a significant difference between playing with a Ouija board and participating in a black mass.

Also, it is worth pointing out that the felt need to do terrible deeds in order to attract dark powers is an observable fact independent even of the existence of those entities.  "Slender Man" is just a creepypasta, but two young teenage girls really did stab another girl 19 times in an attempt to win the favor of the fictional character.

But what about Christian prayer?  Isn't that all about obtaining a result as well?  Isn't prayer just another kind of magical incantation?

NO, IT IS NOT.

Of course, many people mistake it for one.  That's part of the reason so many think there is nothing wrong with the "prosperity Gospel".  It's also the thinking behind the "study" of the effects of prayer on recovery from heart surgery.   This seriously misunderstands prayers of petition, which incidentally are only one kind of Christian prayer as described in the Catechism (which is obviously a good place to look for a much more detailed discussion on prayer).

Perhaps the best place to see the difference, though, is in Luke 11:11-13.
And which of you, if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him?   
There are several things to notice here.  Our relationship with God is analogous to that between a child and the child's father.  This is a relationship of dependency and trust, and in the case of God, that trust is justified.  The Monkey's Paw or the old man on Pell Street might provide precisely what is requested -- choose your words carefully! -- but a loving parent will only provide what is actually good for the child, even if the child asks for something harmful.  Note that the father in the example given by Our Lord is not guaranteed to give the bread or the fish or the egg, only that he will not give something bad for the child.  Most modern children have at some time asked for candy and been given a piece of fruit.  Likewise, to a child, a tetanus shot may be as unpleasant as a scorpion, but the the parent knows that the child needs the inoculation; whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.  The one specific gift we are explicitly offered is one we would never think nor dare to ask:  the Holy Spirit.

These are things Christians are supposed to know.  We are supposed to know that "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," and "Not my will, but Thine be done," are implicit in every true prayer.

So what exactly does a prayer of petition do?  God is omniscient, so it does not tell Him anything He did not already know.  God is also all-good; when we pray, "Lord, have mercy!" it is not because He is not always merciful.

I suspect that what prayer actually does is to prepare the right disposition to receive blessings.  If we are thoughtless or ungrateful, material blessings are only material blessings -- which means they are ultimately shallow and unfulfilling.  Besides, the Father already "maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust."

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Prayer for Permanent Peace?


As Becky Roach describes on her blog, Donald Trump has called for this upcoming Memorial Day to be a day of prayer for "permanent peace".  "Regardless of how you feel about President Trump’s policies and actions, we can all agree that praying for permanent peace throughout the world is a non-partisan desire," she writes.  OK, what she clearly meant was that permanent peace throughout the world is a non-partisan desire for which we can all pray, not that the prayer itself is the desire, but even so, is this something we can all agree to pray for?  I don't think so.

Suppose your granddad is still alive.  You love your granddad, and you hate the thought of one day losing him.  Should you pray for his life and health?  Absolutely.  Would it be wrong to pray that the Lord will grant him many years?  By no means; that is a good thing to pray for.  What about praying that he never undergo death at all?

That is a problem, because "it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment".  God has already made known His will in the matter, to pray contrary to that revealed will is to have the wrong attitude toward prayer.  I have already written something about this, and I will say more in my next post.

It is the same with peace.  We should pray for peace in our day, and for a peace that lasts a long time, but it has already been revealed that permanent peace will only come with the return of Christ.  

676 The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism.

We can pray for the return of Christ, of course (671 ... That is why Christians pray, above all in the Eucharist, to hasten Christ's return by saying to him: Marana tha! "Our Lord, come!") , but that is not what is really being urged.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

More Fake News from Fox News

FoxNews just can't stop with the fake news.  In the article under the headline 
RUSSIAN INTRUSION
US Air Force intercepts bombers, fighter jets off Alaska we find this:
The Russian fighter jets were unarmed and remained in international airspace, officials said.
So was this or wasn't this fake news?  It was.  The headline is there to create the first impression, the interpretive lens through which the article will be read -- if indeed it is read at all.  Just think how different the reception would be if the headline had read, "US Air Force Flustered by Unarmed Russian Jets Flying in International Airspace".  Many people will simply browse the headlines and not bother with the text.  It is good that the body of the article was less sensationalistic, but that ends up being a lame attempt to have it both ways.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

TENSION IN THE AIR Russian bombers buzz Alaskan shoreline for second day in a row

So screams the headline from Fox News.  (Yeah, I know:  What grounds did I have to expect good reporting?)  I wonder if anyone there remembers the "Line of Death" in the Gulf of Sidra?  From the L.A. Times, March 27, 1986
The battle over the right to navigate freely in Libya's Gulf of Sidra officially ended today with a Defense Department announcement of a halt to ship and flight operations in and over the disputed waters. 
President Reagan sent the 6th Fleet a "well done" message, saying it has been the "spear and shield of American policy in a troubled and volatile region."
Back in 1986, the US contention was that international waters (and airspace) remain, well, international, and that Libya has no right to declare part of these international waters off limits.  This is  the same principle that the US invokes when performing exercises off the coast of North Korea or in the Black Sea; it is also the principle to which the US appeals when protesting when China creates and arms artificial islands in the South China Sea.

As for "buzzing" the Alaskan shore, the text of the article specifies that the planes came "within 36 miles of the mainland" and that "U.S. territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from shore."  In other words, they "buzzed" Alaska by staying two dozen miles out in international waters.

Of course, I am overlooking the key factor in the Fox worldview:  Rules are for everyone else.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Refuse to Play the Game

Not long ago, I posted a comment on the Martin Scorsese film Silence, and quite some time before that (and likely on many different occasions) I commented on the problem with voting for the lesser evil.  These share the theme in which there are two evil alternatives, at least one of which is actually a freely chosen action by another person, but we must choose which evil will happen, and in so doing give our consent to it.  This was also an important part of the plot of Sophie's Choice.  "Will you trample on an image of Christ, or will you let these other people be tortured to death?"  "I and others like me refuse to consider a candidate who advocates a morally sane position, but our candidate is less evil than the other one.  Will you support our evil candidate, who has a chance of winning, or will you refuse to and give the more evil candidate a better chance of winning?"  "Who is to be sent to the gas chambers -- your son Jan or your daughter Eva?"  It is argued that it is not only permissible to consent to a "lesser evil", but in fact it is obligatory to do so.

This is, of course, the fallacy of the false dilemma.  It assumes we must play that game and give our full consent to one evil option or the other.  The reason for doing this is usually a desire (at some level at least) to choose an option which we already know to be evil.  Sometimes it is the equivalent of the adolescent male fantasy of being captured by a group of beautiful women and "forced" to have sex with them (as happens in the book Logan's Run, which is much more risqué than the 1970's TV show); in other cases it is a desire to "disprove" the existence of actual right and wrong in general, so that it is possible to do as one pleases without the pangs of conscience.  The correct choice, though, is to refuse to play the game, however passionately it is thrust upon us.  If a samurai chooses to torture to death prisoners, that is his choice, not ours; if millions of others choose to support an evil campaign platform, that is their choice, not ours; if the Nazis send the whole family to the gas chambers, that is their choice, not ours; and everyone will be made to account for his own choices at the end of his life.

All this was brought back to mind by the very correct answer of Fr. Murray to some statements by Cardinal Coccopalmerio, and by Fr. Z's approving response to Fr. Murray's analysis.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Christian Hope and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

We all learn early on -- maybe in 4th grade? -- that the conservation of energy is a LAW OF SCIENCE, and we are told that a LAW OF SCIENCE is something that has been very, very thoroughly tested, with no exceptions being found.  Later on, if we stick to studying science, we discover not only that the word "law" is not really used that way in science (many "laws" are just robust and very useful approximations), but that energy isn't conserved quite the way we had thought.  Specifically, the deviation ΔE is required by quantum mechanics to satisfy the following relation, called the time-energy Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, with the time ΔT over which the deviation might exist: 
 (ΔE)(ΔT) ≥ ħ / 2, 
where ħ is Plank's constant divided by 2π -- about 10-34 J s (a value so small that classical mechanics, which would make that value zero, is perfectly adequate for most engineering purposes).  Crudely, one might say that the Law of the Conservation of Energy holds well over the long term, less well over the medium term, and is wildly violated over the short term.

How is this related to Christian hope?  There is an analogy linking the two, in which the deviations from law may be large in the short term but are negligible in the long term.  We know that over the longest term, good triumphs over evil completely.  Over the medium term -- which is certainly one of several generations, probably several centuries -- we might expect nature (including human nature), which was created good by God, to assert itself so that evil, which is contrary to the nature God created, is frustrated and fails.  For example, a totalitarian regime might come to an end because its power allows its bad decisions to remain unchecked until they have borne their full fruit, or confidence in its power may lead its leaders to become overconfident and lazy.  In the short term, though, evils can become widespread and powerful, and they can seemingly triumph over good.  That is why Christian hope is really a confidence in the long term, not a wish for the short term.  The analogous statement to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle would be, 
In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world.

There is a huge temptation to forget this, and to think that what happens in the short term controls what happens in the long term.  This makes us both fearful and prideful, because we think we (and our contemporary opponents) are the masters of destiny.  We are also tempted to make compromises by choosing "lesser evils" for the short term.

"Put not your trust in princes:  in the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.  His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return into his earth: in that day all their thoughts shall perish."  His thoughts will perish, whether they are in your favor or against you, whether they are right are wrong.  Put not your trust in princes, even though you yourself are, in a sense, a prince, in that you make plans and take actions.

Monday, March 13, 2017

2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Picks

In the SOUTH Regional 

In the 2nd Round:
16 Texas Southern  @  1 N. Carolina  -->  1 N. Carolina
15 North. Kentucky  @  2 Kentucky  -->  2 Kentucky
14 Kent St.  @  3 UCLA  -->  3 UCLA
13 Winthrop  @  4 Butler  -->  4 Butler
12 Middle Tenn. St.  @  5 Minnesota  -->  5 Minnesota
11 KSSt/Wake  @  6 Cincinnati  -->  11 KSSt/Wake
10 Wichita St.  @  7 Dayton  -->  7 Dayton
9 Seton Hall  @  8 Arkansas  -->  8 Arkansas

In the 3rd Round:
8 Arkansas  @  1 N. Carolina  -->  8 Arkansas
7 Dayton  @  2 Kentucky  -->  2 Kentucky
11 KSSt/Wake  @  3 UCLA  -->  3 UCLA
5 Minnesota  @  4 Butler  -->  4 Butler

In the Sweet 16:
4 Butler  @  8 Arkansas  -->  4 Butler
3 UCLA  @  2 Kentucky  -->  3 UCLA

In the Elite 8:
3 UCLA  @  4 Butler  -->  4 Butler


In the WEST Regional 

In the 2nd Round:
16 S. Dakota St.  @  1 Gonzaga  -->  1 Gonzaga
15 North Dakota  @  2 Arizona  -->  2 Arizona
14 Fla. Gulf Coast  @  3 Florida St.  -->  3 Florida St.
13 Bucknell  @  4 West Virginia  -->  4 West Virginia
12 Princeton  @  5 Notre Dame  -->  12 Princeton
11 Xavier  @  6 Maryland  -->  11 Xavier
10 VCU  @  7 St. Mary's  -->  10 VCU
9 Vanderbilt  @  8 Northwestern  -->  9 Vanderbilt

In the 3rd Round:
9 Vanderbilt  @  1 Gonzaga  -->  1 Gonzaga
10 VCU  @  2 Arizona  -->  2 Arizona
11 Xavier  @  3 Florida St.  -->  3 Florida St.
12 Princeton  @  4 West Virginia  -->  4 West Virginia

In the Sweet 16:
4 West Virginia  @  1 Gonzaga  -->  1 Gonzaga
3 Florida St.  @  2 Arizona  -->  2 Arizona

In the Elite 8:
2 Arizona  @  1 Gonzaga  -->  1 Gonzaga


In the EAST Regional

In the 2nd Round:
16 MSMC/UNO  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova
15 Troy  @  2 Duke  -->  2 Duke
14 N. Mex. St.  @  3 Baylor  -->  3 Baylor
13 E. Tennessee  @  4 Florida  -->  4 Florida
12 N.C. Wilmington  @  5 Virginia  -->  12 N.C. Wilmington
11 Prov / USC  @  6 SMU  -->  6 SMU
10 Marquette  @  7 South Carolina  -->  7 South Carolina
9 Virginia Tech  @  8 Wisconsin  -->  9 Virginia Tech

In the 3rd Round:
9 Virginia Tech  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova
7 South Carolina  @  2 Duke  -->  7 South Carolina
6 SMU  @  3 Baylor  -->  3 Baylor
12 N.C. Wilmington  @  4 Florida  -->  4 Florida

In the Sweet 16:
4 Florida  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova
3 Baylor  @  7 South Carolina  -->  7 South Carolina

In the Elite 8:
7 South Carolina  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova


In the MIDWEST Regional 

In the 2nd Round:
16 NCCENT/UCD  @  1 Kansas  -->  1 Kansas
15 Jacksonville St.  @  2 Louisville  -->  2 Louisville
14 Iona  @  3 Oregon  -->  3 Oregon
13 Vermont  @  4 Purdue  -->  13 Vermont
12 Nevada  @  5 Iowa St.  -->  12 Nevada
11 Rhode Island  @  6 Creighton  -->  6 Creighton
10 Oklahoma St.  @  7 Michigan  -->  7 Michigan
9 Michigan St.  @  8 Miami (FL)  -->  8 Miami (FL)

In the 3rd Round:
8 Miami (FL)  @  1 Kansas  -->  1 Kansas
7 Michigan  @  2 Louisville  -->  2 Louisville
6 Creighton  @  3 Oregon  -->  3 Oregon
12 Nevada  @  13 Vermont  -->  13 Vermont

In the Sweet 16:
13 Vermont  @  1 Kansas  -->  1 Kansas
3 Oregon  @  2 Louisville  -->  2 Louisville

In the Elite 8:
2 Louisville  @  1 Kansas  -->  2 Louisville

In the FINAL FOUR:
1 Villanova  @  4 Butler  -->  1 Villanova
2 Louisville  @  1 Gonzaga  -->  2 Louisville

In the CHAMPIONSHIP GAME:
2 Louisville  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova

NCAA BASCKETBALL CHAMPIONS:  Villanova

Notes:

In the South Regional, (8) Arkansas defeats (1) N. Carolina.  That would be a huge upset.

In the East Regional, (7) South Carolina has a brief run as Cinderella, beating (2) Duke and (3) Baylor.  They're looking really hot!!! Can they pull it off???  No; they get clobbered by (1) Villanova.  There is always some sort of Cinderella story, and it usually turns into a pumpkin.

In the Midwest Regional, (13) Vermont defeats (4) Purdue and (12) Nevada defeats (5) Iowa State, insuring that a 10+ team makes it to the Sweet 16 (where (13) Vermont is crushed by (1) Kansas).

In 3 of the 4 regionals, the 12-seed beats the 5-seed. 

(4) Butler advancing to the Final Four would not really be much of a surprise, nor would (1) Villanova -- the overall #1 seed -- winning it all.

Update March 18:  Wow, it did not take long for that bracket to be utterly busted!

Update March 29:  Interestingly enough, I kind of got South Carolina right; not only did they beat Duke and Baylor, they actually made it to the Final Four.  Remember, all I am doing with this program is trying to produce a bracket with the right amount of flukiness.  On those terms, the bracket is doing pretty well.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Unelected Businessmen

On my way in to work this morning, I heard an ad on the radio for some kind of political campaign.  The speaker was complaining that key decisions about the kind of power plants supplying electricity in my state are made by "unelected bureaucrats" who live out-of-state.  I'll take for granted that this is correct.  The real alternative, though, is that those decisions will be made by unelected businessmen -- and they may also live out-of-state.  Something tells me, though, that in the speaker's mind, "unelected" is offensive only when the "unelected" person is a government employee, and that he would have vigorously defended the rights of unelected businessmen to make decisions that impact everyone else.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

As a prayer in the Eastern Orthodox churches says, 
Let us, sinful and humbled, now earnestly run to the Mother of God, and let us fall down in repentance, crying from the depths of our soul: O Lady, help, have compassion on us. Make haste, for we perish from the multitude of our sins. Turn not thy servants empty away, for we have thee as our only hope.
Since Protestants will inevitably take offense at that, read Acts chapter 9.  Of course it was Jesus Who healed Saul of his blindness, but He did not do so alone; Ananias was also involved.  This is actually a consistent pattern throughout Scripture, and it continues to this day.  The Blessed Virgin is not, of course, the ultimate source of our hope, just as Ananias was not the ultimate source of Saul's hope; yet she has a role in bringing healing to us from Jesus, just as Ananias brought healing to Saul from Jesus.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Not My President?

That's a slogan that has been popping up recently, though not for the first time with Trump.  The slogan seems to be greatly irking some Republicans today, but it really should not -- not if they were "true Conservatives", or at least not if they really believed in the strict and literal interpretation of the Constitution.  That's because the Constitution defines the position of "President of the United States of America", but it does not define a position of "President of Each and Every Person in the United States of America."

And yes, there is a difference.  The president's role is to preside, within narrow Constitutional constraints, over the central government of the United States; he is not some king or Führer to demand the personal loyalty of each person.
Sadly, Americans have long made a habit of regarding presidents (particularly those of their own party) as secular messiahs.  For instance, many years ago, I took a course in classical philosophy, and at some point the professor mentioned that he remembered his feeling of shock when FDR died, because he had had the vague notion that FDR was sort of "the fourth Person of the Holy Trinity."

Before I proceed any further, I should acknowledge that yes, there are legitimate forms of government that demand loyalty to an emperor or monarch without making the emperor or monarch into a secular messiah; obviously, though, the United States is not supposed to have either an emperor or a monarch.  Yes, the president should receive some measure of honor from citizens, but the honor he receives from a citizen should not exceed that that Pharaoh gave to Joseph in Genesis 41:40 (RSVCE):

... you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.
The president is supposed to be a public servant, so Luke 17:7-10 (RSVCE) has to be held in tension against the appropriate honor due to a president:

Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, "Come at once and sit down at table"? Will he not rather say to him, "Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink"? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty."
In other words, #heismyemployee is more accurate than #heismypresident. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Silence

Suppose a producer -- we'll call him Alan Smithee -- decided to make a movie with the following plot.
Amidst the horrors of World War I, an inconspicuous German enlisted man encounters a mysterious being who claims to be from another world.  After demonstrating his ability to do the seemingly impossible, the being tells the soldier that he has been selected for a test that will determine whether or not the human species is serious enough to merit existence.  The soldier will be given help -- uncanny luck, some will call it, or even divine intervention -- but he must prune humanity of a significant fraction of its "undesirables".  Failure to do this will be punished by the extinction of mankind.  Also, the soldier must not tell anyone of his real reasons for embarking on this mission.  The soldier will be both loved and hated during his lifetime, but after his death he will be the universal symbol of evil; no one will know that he has actually saved the human species.
The soldier's name?  Adolf Hitler.
How would this movie be received?  Would critics praise it for asking "hard questions" about right and wrong, or about judging the actions of another when we do not have all the information?  Or would it be criticized on the grounds that there is no historical evidence this ever happened?

No, the response would be much simpler:  What the hell are you doing trying to find a way to excuse the indefensible?!?!  

That's because it has always been understood that some actions are so wrong that even to consider them as real possibilities compromises one's character.  This is captured in the exchange that has been attributed to many famous men, including Winston Churchill
Churchill: "Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?"  
Socialite: "My goodness, Mr. Churchill... Well, I suppose... we would have to discuss terms, of course... " 
Churchill: "Would you sleep with me for five pounds?" 
Socialite: "Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!" 
Churchill: "Madam, we've already established that. Now we are haggling about the price."
It should come as no surprise that the Catholic Church has had something to say about this.  The most explicit treatment of it probably comes in Pope St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which includes this:  
In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture....  If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain "irremediably" evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person.

What might be more surprising is that even within the Church, such an obvious truth can no longer be taken for granted.  In fact, whether or not this Teaching remains in force is precisely the fourth dubium submitted by four cardinals regarding the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.  Thus far, Pope Francis has declined to answer, but it seems almost certain that he cannot answer no -- cannot, because the Holy Spirit would prevent him, whatever his personal will might be.

Even though almost everyone would admit there are some acts which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever, the identity of those acts varies from person to person, time to time, and culture to culture.  On the whole, it seems that there are fewer items on most people's lists of unthinkable acts today than there were a half century ago.  Nevertheless, for any kind of Christian, publicly repudiating Jesus Christ is clearly on that list; if there is some price for which you would deny Jesus, then you have already tentatively and implicitly denied Him.

This is the context of Martin Scorsese's movie Silence.  No doubt it was made "very tempting, very persuasive" to the priest to deny Christ -- a phrase that comes from a passage hinting at equally dark deeds performed by one of the characters in "Two Doctors" by M.R. James

But I told him that I could not easily conceive of an arrangement, as he called it, of such a kind that would not include as one of its conditions a heavier payment than any Christian would care to make; to which he assented. "But," he said, "I have no doubt these bargains can be made very tempting, very persuasive. Still, you would not favour them, eh, Doctor? No, I suppose not." 
But really, where is the line to be drawn?  If the priest is willing to deny Christ in exchange for an end to the torture of others, would he be willing to sacrifice incense to Satan?  Would he be willing to sacrifice one baby to Satan to stop the torture of twenty adults?  Ten babies?  Nineteen babies?  Where is the line he would refuse to step across -- and why, if he truly believes what he has been preaching, is that line more bright and clear to him than the one he has already violated?

Friday, January 20, 2017

How will history view Obama?

For the past week, one of the most repeated questions has been, "How will history view Obama?"  That is really a meaningless question.  How has history viewed Thomas Jefferson?  Sixty years ago, he was something like a Greek god:  the author of the Declaration of Independence, the president who had the foresight to buy the Louisiana Purchase, and a scientist to boot.  Today he is more likely to be condemned as a slave owner and an expansionist.  How has history viewed Andrew Jackson?  He has cities and counties named after him, and his face is still on the $20 bill -- but that honor is scheduled to be taken from him, due in no small part to his role in Indian removal.  How has history viewed Queen Elizabeth I of England?  How has history viewed Christopher Columbus?  How has history viewed the emperor Constantine the Great?  How has history viewed the pharaoh Ramses the Great?

There really is no entity called "history" that forms a stable judgment on the past.  Instead, each generation forms a new judgment based on their own values and concerns, and of course based also on a longer view of how actions in the distant past have had consequences for future events.

Nevertheless, a good rule of thumb is that, from a more distant perspective, the human flaws of a hero make him seem less remarkably good, and the initial innocence and occasional virtues of even a monster make him less completely a monster.  The heroism may be real, and the crimes may be real, but their true significance is often exaggerated in the heat of the moment.

My guess is that in a century or so, our descendants will certainly not see Obama as a kind of American Messiah, but nor will he be seen as a kind of demonic force driving America to perdition.  He is more likely to be seen as a kind of willing cog in the machine of the Zeitgeist.  He will not be seen as a Chernabog, but more of an Eichmann; he willingly cooperated with evil, and bears responsibility for that, but the evil would have happened without his cooperation.

One way or another, it will take some time to reach a "verdict of history".  It will require a generation with no emotional attachment to his presidency, whether positive or negative, with information on the long-term effects of Obama's choices, and (rarest of all) with the honesty to refuse to make him a cardboard figure for their own propagandistic dioramas.  If you voted in the 2016 election, it is safe to say that you will not live to see that kind of dispassionate evaluation.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Dream about WW2 in Italy

Here's another dream, but one from a long time back.  I was in high school or maybe even middle school when I had this dream, but it was striking enough for me to remember through the years.

In my dream, I was an American soldier fighting in Italy somewhere just south of Rome in World War II.  In this case, we were clearing a building of German soldiers, who were mostly refusing to surrender.  It was dangerous, but the Germans in this building were clerks, not fighters, and they had pistols in contrast with our rifles, so we had a distinct advantage.  I remember the deeply recessed doorways of the building -- both sides used them for cover.

Suddenly, another German popped around the corner, only this time it was not a man, but a lovely blonde woman in an army auxiliary uniform.  What happened in the seconds immediately after she came into view was a little blurry -- I think that I dreamed and re-dreamed that sequence until I found a successful compromise between my upbringing, which strongly emphasized that no real man hurts a woman, and my desire for self preservation.  After all, she did have a pistol!  The resolution was that I shot her in the shoulder, a nonlethal wound that forced her to drop the pistol.

She also had with her a sort of document box.  This was a box about a foot square and about 4 inches high that would be used to secure important documents; if anyone tried opening it without knowing the trick, it would explode, destroying both the documents and the person opening it.  This was something we were looking for, and in the dream I suspected it contained details of the movements of German tanks being brought up from Yugoslavia to reinforce their positions in Italy.  (Yes, this was a very detailed dream.)  I took the box from her, and she was led away to have her wound treated and to be processed with the other prisoners.

I took the box to headquarters, which in the dream was ridiculously close to the front -- apparently in the next building, actually.  There I found the general who was (at least theoretically) in command of the operation, along with my colonel.  The general was useless, though; he was preparing for some sort of confirmation hearing for his appointment to a position in the OSS, and his mind was entirely on that hearing.  As a result, the man effectively in charge was my colonel, who, as further events would show, was a complete idiot.

The colonel examined the box, and he noticed that the lid was held on by something like a tie strap fastener; it was designed so that once inserted, it could not be pulled out.  "You see how they don't want us to pull this out?  That's just what we're gonna do," he announced. 

This sounded like a terrible idea to me -- simply applying brute force to a box that we knew was booby-trapped.  I suggested that maybe the woman who had been captured in possession of the box would know how to open it, but he would have nothing of it, telling me (in words I can never forget), "Do you think I got all this rank without knowing how to defuse a Nazzy bomb?"

When I heard that and knew he was just about to force it, I turned around and started running.  I had just made it outside the building when the charges went off.  Then I woke up.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Russia, the Election, and Fake News

There are several aspects to this story, but let's start with what is alleged to have happened.
  • The most serious thing that Russia could have done would have been to directly tamper with the electoral process by hacking voting machines, meaning that the vote tallies corresponded with the decisions of the hackers and not the decisions of the voters.  This would be such an assault on our system of government it would be an act of war.  Thanks be to God, there is no evidence this happened, and no one is seriously suggesting it did.  However, the language used in American media to describe the allegations of Russian interference seem purposely designed to plant that suspicion in the minds of those who only keep up with the news casually.
  • It is worth pointing out that any serious world player could pretty easily assassinate a political candidate.  Although this would probably provoke a more extreme emotional response, and undoubtedly lead to a real, "hot" war, it would actually be less of an affront to our system.  Even in the absence of assassinations, people die due to accident or disease, and we have a very robust system for providing equivalent replacements in case an office holder, let alone a candidate for office, should die.  This obviously did not happen, though.
  • Russia could, through hacking or bribes or some other means, illegally obtain access to classified information held by the U.S. government.  This undoubtedly happens, as the U.S. likewise undoubtedly obtains classified information held by the Russian government in violation of Russian laws.  I suspect the Russians have acquired the technical details to the F-35 Lightning II in this way, for example.  This is the only thing that can really be called spying, but it is pretty old hat, and at any rate it is not what the media uproar is about.
  • Russia could, through hacking or bribes or some other means, illegally obtain access to confidential information held by private parties.  This, finally, is one of the things that has been alleged to have happenedRemember, political parties may control the government, but they are not the government.
  • Russia could have made sure that compromising information, however obtained, about a candidate was leaked to the public.  This is also alleged to have happened.
  • Finally, Russia could have found plenty of compromising information about either candidate not only by performing perfectly legal investigative journalism, but by merely paying attention the the news over the past three or four decades and using a little common sense.  If this didn't happen, some Russians definitely need to lose their jobs.

Next, let's consider just what it means if the accusations against Russia are true.  
  • Imagine if, instead of it being Russia hacking computers belonging to the Democratic Party, it had been Japan hacking computers belonging to Greenpeace -- perhaps out of frustration at Greenpeace's continuing interference with Japanese whaling.  Would this have received anything like the attention the Russia story has gotten?  Not at all.  There would have been some diplomatic protests and probably some minor retaliation, but it would scarcely have become a major point of friction between the two nations.
  • But really, shouldn't we retaliate against a nation that interferes with our presidential elections?  If that is the case, I demand sanctions against the United Kingdom.  Remember when British parliamentarians were talking about how Trump should be barred from entry to the U.K.?  That interference is much more blatant, and in fact much more of a real influence, but note the complete absence of any reference to it whatsoever, let alone any calls for retribution.  UPDATE 2/20/17:  Meddling from the Limeys continues.  I am not a fan of Trump, but I take great offense at this kind of interference, which would demand retaliation.  Many Americans will feel even more strongly about it than I do.  
Then there is the question of the trustworthiness of the accusations.
  • Would the U.S. intelligence community really lie to the public?  Um ... yeah, at least if they felt they had some reason to.  They've never really even pretended that their mission is to provide accurate and complete information to the public, and the public has generally been quite accepting of this.  The whole bits about "We're not spying on the American civilian public!" and "We don't perform torture!" demonstrate that this is not just a theoretical possibility. 

    The question is, do they see themselves as "having some reason to" lie to the public?  We cannot be sure, but the possibility definitely exists.  Senior leadership in the intelligence community may be legitimately frightened that the U.S. stands to lose preeminence in the Middle East if Russia is seen as responding to ISIS  more effectively than we do, or they may be worried about trouble Trump might stir up with China, or they may just fear his unpredictability.  For any of these reasons, they may feel the idea that he was helped into office by Russian meddling might make him less willing to break sharply from policies pursued by previous presidents, or it might at least make him more defensive and preoccupied with domestic criticism.
  • Regarding the evidence redacted from the report but made available to American officials, that is only as meaningful as the authors of the report are trustworthy.  The sort of electronic records they could create would be very difficult for even a professional with the full resources of another country's intelligence agencies to confirm or deny.  If the evidence was faked, it was faked by professionals, and it would appear flawless to even professionals lacking independent access to the raw records.  There is no way for the public, or for the government, for that matter, to confirm its authenticity.
  • Then again, some readers with experience in reading such reports are claiming the language used actually is less definitive than the press and the Obama administration are suggesting.  Remember Saddam Hussein's WMD -- the ones so fearsome that the mere possibility of their existence was said to justify war?  When George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq, the intelligence community certainly seemed to be supporting him, but when the WMDs turned out to be nonexistent (or to have been long-abandoned projects), that same community pointed out that they never actually claimed that the weapons absolutely, definitively existed, only that there was some evidence suggesting they existed.  This kind of maneuver allows them to technically tell the truth, but in a way that rather dishonestly leaves the whatever impression their bosses desire to be left, regardless of the truth.
  • The other tool one can use in a situation like this is an examination of the balance between risk and reward.  The players we are discussing will obviously avoid major risks unless they are accompanied by great rewards.  We have already considered possible rewards for the American intelligence community to lie, and the fact that the risks are greatly limited by the difficulty in verifying or falsifying their supporting documents.  What about the Russians?

    That's a hard question to answer.  Clinton was the embodiment of the American governmental status quo, and the status quo had become increasingly anti-Russian, so there was some benefit to them if she were not elected.  On the other hand, I seriously doubt she is such a moron as to actually provoke a war with a nation controlling 7,000 nuclear warheads.  Furthermore, she obviously needed no outside help in destroying her candidacy -- her "basket of deplorables" comment is almost certainly what cost her the election.  As for the risk, it could have been expected to have been comparable to mere industrial espionage, which goes on all the time.  Would they accept a modest risk for a modest reward?  Maybe.

Taken together, all of this means that the Russians may well have hacked into the Democratic Party's computers, though we cannot be sure, but that even if they did, it's not really that important.  Contrast that conclusion with what we hear from the major news bureaus, though, which is CIA locuta est, causa finita est, and that only a simpleton could doubt that Russian meddling was not only real, but that it completely delegitimized the last election.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect example of fake news.