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January 2009

More Waugh Stories

From Douglas Woodruff, in Evelyn Waugh and His World:

[Waugh] said that one of the particular pleasures of being a father was when the children believed what they were told, and he would point to the golf links near Dursley and expound how it was a punishment ground or exercise yard in which poor colonels had to go round and round, hitting a ball into a distant hole, and then starting all over again before they were allowed anything to eat.

Which sounds to me like a perfectly accurate description of golf.

But then he had very strong views against exercise, taking the line that in middle life everyone’s inside is full of poisons which will lie dormant unless provoked by violent exercise and sent swirling round inside their unfortunate carrier.


Imagine, if you will...

...reading the newspaper online in 1981. Then you'll probably want to try to forget. This comes via Will, who observes: “The caption ‘Owns Home Computer’ is the funniest part. Who knew that those Internets would become so powerful? Now we just have to figure out what all these young people with their FaceTubes and GoogleyPods are talking about.”

My first home computer was a Morrow Micro-Decision 2, purchased probably in late 1982 or early 1983. I don’t remember it looking exactly like any of these three pictures. The terminal was the one shown in the middle picture. I was thinking it had the half-height drives as shown in that pic, but I don’t recall that vent-sort-of-thing. Probably the computer itself looked like the top picture. Each of those floppy-disk drives (hard drives were still rare) held a little under 200K. For comparison, the full-size versions of the images on the site above would not have fit on them. If you find this sort of thing interesting or amusing, check out the ads and documentation linked at the bottom of the page.

And don’t laugh too hard—it was way better than a typewriter. I wrote a book on it.

And by the way, CP/M ruled vs. DOS.


Evelyn Waugh and His World

This is a collection of reminiscences of Waugh by various people who knew him, edited by David Pryce-Jones. I checked it out of the college library many months ago, read about half of it, got a bit bored with it, and put it aside for a while. But since I’m a staff member and am allowed to keep books for a ridiculous length of time, I hadn’t bothered to take it back. (I doubt that I was depriving anyone of it—this appeared to be the first time it had ever been checked out.) A few days ago I decided that the time had come to do so, but then I read the next unread memoir and changed my mind. It’s by Penelope Chetwode—how’s that for an English name?—and contains this bit:

...when I let [Evelyn] know that I was under instruction with the Dominicans in Oxford, he was naturally delighted (though he would have preferred the Jesuits as he thought, or pretended to think that all Dominicans were Communists)...

I expect it would be the other way around today.

The best stories in the book provide a fascinating window into Waugh’s life and the world he lived in, a totally foreign world to us middle-class Americans. Definitely recommended for Waugh fans.


John Updike, RIP

This is a slightly dishonest post, because apart from a few graceful short stories I’ve read nothing of Updike. So I can’t say we’ve lost a giant of literature etc. Mainly I just want to quote this remark of his, which appears in a Washington Post obit (hat tip to Clairity), on the subject of his continuing although perhaps eccentric Christian faith:

“I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe,” Updike told The Associated Press during a 2006 interview.

“I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can’t quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, ‘This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.’”


This Is Cool

Via Will, an amazing ginormous pannable-zoomable picture of the inauguration. Play with it and you'll be amazed at how much detail you can see. For instance, if you knew someone sitting on the top row of the seats sort of directly across from you, in front of those trees, you'd be able to identify them—maybe even someone in the mob stretching out to the water, which you can barely see in the initial view, if you knew where to look. The Clintons, all the Bushes, and I'm sure lots of other VIPs are in the section behind and to the right of Obama.


One Cheer for Obama

For an executive order prohibiting the use of “enhanced interrogation” aka torture. See Waterboarding Is Torture...Period from a source that, to say the least, can’t be accused of being either naive or ignorant on the subject. (I’ve previously written about torture here and here.)

And one quiet sigh of relief that Wednesday has come and gone and Obama has not reversed the Mexico City Policy, as he had been expected to do, by supporters and opponents alike. I’ve been cautiously hopeful that Obama really wants to avoid alienating social conservatives. This is only one day, of course, but still, it’s slightly encouraging.

Update: Well, that didn’t last long. Disappointing, of course, but not surprising, of course. That cloud I see is a fair amount of goodwill evaporating.


An Ontological Intuition

 As I never tire of saying, I am not a philosopher or theologian. But to the extent that I understand it, I’ve always thought St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God strange, intriguing, and unconvincing. I didn’t know until this morning that Anselm’s is not the only ontological argument, and that they all arrive by different paths at the conclusion that if we can conceive of God he must exist. When I say this seems unconvincing to me I mean in the literal sense that it didn’t convince me and I found it unlikely that it would convince anyone else.

Lately, though, I’ve been meditating on something that may be a sort of intuitive counterpart to the ontological argument: Is it possible to grasp, fully, the idea of God as Christian revelation, theology, and devotion understand him, and not believe in him? I’ve begun to suspect that it is not.


A Little Rain on the Inaugural Parade

Ok, the whole country, even those of us who were not Obama supporters, is justified in feeling a warm glow about the fact that a man of mixed race has been elected to our highest office. (I find it difficult to refer to him as “black,” since he really isn’t, in either the literal or cultural senses.) And ok, his supporters have every right to rejoice and to expect great things from him. But the quasi-religious quasi-messianism surrounding this event (as it has surrounded his whole candidacy), is, to put it very mildly, not healthy; less mildly, it’s really sick. And really creepy. Witness the video below. I recognize some of these people as entertainment celebrities so I assume they all are:

“I pledge to be a servant to our president.”

If that doesn’t give you the creeps, it ought to. Liberals would be quaking with fear of fascism if people—powerful, influential people—were talking this way about a Republican president. I can only hope that Obama doesn’t take this stuff as seriously as his followers do.


No Wonder We Like Them

I’ve been thinking of these two lines since posting the anecdote below. They were all I could remember of the poem, and I wasn’t sure who wrote it, so it took me a bit of looking to find it.

Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.

—Kingsley Amis, “A Bookshop Idyll”

I’m doing an injustice to the poem by quoting only these two lines, but it’s a bit long to post, not to mention that it’s no doubt still under copyright. Amis is noting the focus on love in poetry written by women, and the scary vulnerability involved—dread of that scary vulnerability was part of what sent me fleeing from the gathering I described. A bit more context:

And the awful way their poems lay them open
Just doesn’t strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

I picked this up on a whim at the library a couple of weeks ago, when my daughter was home from college and the only Netflix movies we had at home were very serious, heavy things (e.g The Machinist). This looked like a pleasant light romance that all three of us—wife, daughter, and self—might enjoy.

It is that, but if you look at it right it’s more than that. I don’t want to say very much about the plot lest I give too much away, but it opens out onto love, death, and eternity.


A Roomful of Women

In a comment yesterday (somewhere in Janet’s Undead Thread, I think) Francesca mentioned a female student who was uncomfortable as the only woman in a class. It reminded me of something that happened to me quite a few years ago, in the early 1980s when I was maybe 35 or so. I was participating in a small group that met weekly to read and critique the members’ poetry. By “small” I mean it was never more than six or eight people, and the majority of those were women. That was not a problem for me—writing poetry is not a very macho activity, and I am not a very macho guy.

One night I found myself the only man present. For some reason we were meeting in the apartment of one of the members, a middle-aged divorcee, instead of in the usual institutional meeting room at the Civic Center. I wouldn’t have thought anything about being the only male, but somehow the fact that we were in this woman’s apartment made it a little uncomfortably social, even intimate.

Before we got started on the poetry, the woman whose apartment we were in announced dramatically “There’s something I want to share with everybody.” Then, after a pause while we focused our attention on her: “I’ve started a new relationship.”

This set off a lot of warm cooing—these were not just women, but southern women—from everybody except me. I’m sure my memory is exaggerating this, but it seems to me that I bolted from the apartment as if they had threatened to set me on fire. I remember feeling almost panicked by a sense of suffocating and totally inappropriate intimacy, and that I must get away before the talk went any further. At any rate, I left, quickly.

I draw no particular lesson from this; it’s only amusing. The interesting thing (if any) is that it wasn’t the fact of being the only man in a roomful of women that bothered me, it was the particular turn that the conversation took. I could have had that conversation comfortably with one woman, but not with six.

I never went to another meeting of the group, by the way.



This Christmas my wife decided to put these big globes covered with tiny lights in the live oak tree in the front yard and in the vines over the swing. The effect was rather enchanting. I tried to take pictures of it but without a tripod I got a lot of blurring. Still...

Click through to the larger images for a better view.



...tell me our new president is not going to own a breed of dog known as the “labradoodle.”

Why can’t he just get a basic all-American kind of dog? Like, you know, a German shepherd?


Agnosticism Is Not A Solution

Still more from Ratzinger/Benedict’s Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. The book is concerned with the implications of our modern attempt to create a civilization that denies the existence of God, but much of it applies to the individual as as well as to cultures.

Even if I throw in my theoretical lot with agnosticism, I am nevertheless compelled in practice to choose between two alternatives: either to live as if God did not exist or else to live as if God did exist. If I act according to the first alternative, I have in practice adopted an atheistic position and have made a hypothesis (which may also be false) the basis of my entire life….

Let us leave this question here: it is clear that the prestige enjoyed by the agnostic solution today does not stand up to closer examination. As a pure theory, it may seem exceedingly illuminating. But in its essence, agnosticism is much more than a theory: what is at stake here is the praxis of one’s life. When one attempts to “put it into practice” in one’s real field of action, agnosticism slips out of one’s hands like a soap bubble; it dissolves into thin air, because it is not possible to escape the very option it seeks to avoid. When faced with the question of God, man cannot permit himself to remain neutral. All he can say is Yes or No—without ever avoiding all the consequences that derive from this choice even in the smallest details of life. Accordingly, we see that the question of God is ineluctable; one is not permitted to abstain from casting one’s vote.

This is a point I’ve sometimes tried to make in conversation, with of course much less skill. I’ve never heard anyone say “I don’t know whether there is a God or not, so I’m going to become a Catholic.” No, a commitment to agnosticism—as opposed to agnosticism still open to the alternative— is a form of atheism.


Father Neuhaus, RIP

Of course everyone in the English-speaking Catholic world knows that “Father Neuhaus” is Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things and prolific writer, and that he died a couple of days ago. Francesca Murphy mentioned it in a comment (I’m not sure on which post), and I replied that I hadn’t posted anything about it because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, having some reservations about his work. I think it is fair to say that he was most prominent as a controversialist, and I sometimes disagreed with him. But never mind that now. Here is an essay on death which he wrote eight years ago, and which you really should read. It’s for such work as this that he will be most remembered, I think, after the controversies on which he thrived have become the province of historians.


Classical Music Lovers: Incredible Bargain

At, 104 mp3 tracks, 10 cds' worth, of Ormandy-Philadelphia recordings for $9.99. The selections are not identified by composer but there seem to be a good many complete symphonies and other works, as well as the tidbits one might expect in a collection like this.

If you're not a classical music lover but are curious (and at ease with managing and listening to downloaded music), this would be a great place to start--I mean, it's less than the price of one CD. I don't know how long it will be there. Or if it's available outside the U.S.


Further Thoughts on that Ratzinger Quote

The important word in the quotation in the previous post is the one in italics: rational. You can offer smoke, mirrors, and shouting as an explanation for anything, and a lot of people will be distracted enough by the spectacle to believe you. But you won’t convince anyone who’s thinking clearly.

I’m not sure that our highly visible materialist-atheist types like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett really even attempt the sort of explanation of which Ratzinger points out the absence. I may be doing them an injustice, as I’ve never actually read one of their books all the way through (I read a third or so of Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and browsed the rest), but they seem to view the existence of the undeniable order in the universe as simply a given which needs no explanation. They stop where the real quest of philosophy and religion begins, perhaps accepting an infinite regress of physical causation as if that solved the problem. Like Christopher Hitchens on the question of morality, they seem to accept the existence of certain fundamental realities and regard them as being beyond inquiry. (I don’t know if they bluster the way Hitchens does when this is mentioned to them.) That’s a respectable position—I don’t object to someone saying “we just don’t know and it’s useless to inquire.” But I object to him claiming to have explained everything.

Suppose a people who know nothing of modern technology, and have none of their own beyond pottery and the spear, find an abandoned jeep. Eventually the engineers among them figure out what it does and how to make it work, while the philosophers among them try to figure out where it came from. The philosophers postulate the existence of intelligent beings who designed and built it. The skeptical engineers think this is ridiculous, and set about trying to understand how it works. Eventually they succeed, to a degree: although they don’t know exactly what goes on inside the engine, they understand that the liquid in the tank is being burned there, producing fumes from the exhaust and somehow making the wheels go round.

“We’ve solved the mystery,” say the engineers to the philosophers. “Let us hear no more of your mystical claptrap.”

Which reminds me a little of But these go to eleven.


An Obvious Fact

From a wonderful little book by Ratzinger/Benedict, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures:

It is an obvious fact that the rational character of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational!

It is obvious, though I don’t know that it can be proven, and yet there are many who would deny it. I haven’t been able to figure out how to argue with someone who doesn’t see that the problem Ratzinger names is a problem.


Post-Holiday Greetings

The following dialog serves as a guide for the correct exchange of greetings between co-workers after the Christmas-New Year holiday break:

A: Did you have a good break? B: Yeah, it was nice. How about you? A: Yeah, it was nice.

No further information is required or desired, although a supplementary remark about the unpleasantness of being back at work is permissible. (Note: These are the rules for men. The rules for women may be different.)


Wodehouse: Pigs Have Wings

Some years ago in a period of chronically low spirits I discovered that the writings of P.G. Wodehouse are a wonderful anti-depressant. They’re a sort of literary champagne—light, bright, and bubbly. Or like the lighter works of Mozart. If you’re depressed, they’ll cheer you up. If you’re happy, they’ll make you happier. I find that they make especially enjoyable reading around the Christmas holiday season—not that they have anything even indirectly to do with it, but because their general mood of high good cheer is perfectly appropriate.

It’s hard to say exactly how they work their magic. It’s not that any one thing is overwhelmingly funny, but that a sustained current of wit keeps one in a sort of steady bubbling chuckle or giggle. It’s mostly in the language, that constant counterpoint of slang, bombastic periphrasis, and literary allusion, in which the heavy guns of literature are aimed at the most trivial targets. a butler falling asleep in a chair after a ridiculous adventure on a bicycle is rendered: “Worn out by his unaccustomed exertions in the saddle, Beach was knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care.”

On the basis of this book I’d say that the series of novels set at Blandings Castle seems to be as good as the more famous Jeeves and Wooster stories. The central character, Galahad Threepwood, is a sort of reverse Bertie Wooster—about as goofy and seemingly frivolous, and always engaged in complex machinations, but successful. There is a Jeeves-like butler but he is more often saved than savior. The story revolves around the prospects of a sow known as Empress of Blandings in the Fat Pigs competition at the Shropshire Agricultural Show, but that, of course, is mainly a device around which to spin a complicated series of farces and romances. In the end, as always, those who want to get married do, and those who don’t make a clean getaway.

“…there came from the great outdoors the unmistakable sound of a butler falling off a bicycle.”



She might be heartbroken, but she was not so heartbroken as to hold herself aloof from an enterprise which involved stealing pigs.

—Wodehouse, from Pigs Have Wings again


A Patient Readiness to Move On Again

There’s a nice New Year’s Day reflection from the Pope in the Christmas Magnificat. It was written long before he became pope, credited to a 1985 book called Dogma and Preaching.

The year is ending... We feel both the melancholy and the consolation of our own transiency.... As we look back, difficult days are transfigured in memory, and the now almost forgotten distress leaves us more peaceful and confident, more composed in the face of present threats, for these too will pass. The consolation of transiency: Nothing lasts, no matter how important it claims to be.

But this consoling thought...also has its discouraging and saddening aspect. Nothing lasts, and therefore along with the old year not only difficulties but much that is beautiful has passed away, and the the more we move beyond the midpoint of our lives, the more poignantly we feel this change of what was once future and then present into something past. We cannot say to any moment: “Stay a while! You are so lovely!”Anything that is within time comes and then passes away....

A new beginning is something precious; it brings hope and possibilities yet undisclosed.... What can we as Christians say at this moment of transition? First of all, we can do the very human thing the moment urges upon us: we can use the time of reflection in order to stand aside and widen our vision, thus gaining inner freedom and a patient readiness to move on again.