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January 2011

Chuck Berry: You Never Can Tell

Weekend Music

One of the master's less well-known but most engaging songs. I don't know whether he invented the word "coolerator" or not, but it's a great word.


I find myself hoping that Pierre and the mademoiselle are still alive and still married somewhere in east Louisiana, and that they still get up and dance to a Chuck Berry song every now and then.

Some Local News

Dr. Ed Dyas, RIP

Almost twenty years ago, in late 1991, I developed severe back problems that eventually made it hard for me to stand up for more than a few minutes at a time, and resulted in my having surgery on Mardi Gras of 1992. The surgeon was Dr. Ed Dyas. As far as I remember it was just an accident that he was assigned to me: I had gone with my trouble to an orthopedic group practice of which he was a member. I knew nothing about him, but I was impressed with him when he came to visit me the night before the surgery to discuss the operation. I was struck by the humility with which he addressed the problem: he described what he expected to find and what he expected to do and what he expected the result to be in straightforward terms, and then added: "But we're talking about a human body, so we never can be completely sure." As he talked, he handled the rosary lying on my bedside table as if he knew what it was, and said something to the effect that it would be of help to me, so I figured he was Catholic.

Well, he must have done a good job, because he fixed my back, and almost twenty years later I've had no further serious problems. Over the years I noticed that his name came up from time to time, and realized that he was well thought of by a lot of people. I remember someone mentioning that he had been a good football player in college (at Auburn, but it was only a couple of years ago that I learned he had been very good indeed, having finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting (for those who don't follow football, that's probably the most prestigious award a player can receive). But he had given up football to go to medical school.

He died a few days ago. Here is one of several pieces in the local paper about him. That picture must have been taken well into his illness, because it looks nothing like what I remember, even accounting for the passage of 19 years. He was stocky and strong-looking, as you might expect of an old football player. A good man, to whom I am grateful. RIP.

Carmelites in Mobile 

Also from the local paper, a story about several elderly Carmelite nuns who have had to move from their convent to a nursing home operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. They have spent their whole lives separated from the world, "hidden with Christ in God," and on the occasion of leaving the convent submitted to an interview. Watch the video. Sister Rose, the one they call the humorous one and the one with the merry look on her face, is the aunt of a friend of mine, also named Rose.

The reporter, by the way, Roy Hoffman, is from an old Jewish family in Mobile, which makes me think of my gripe of a few weeks ago about the Jewish New Yorker who believed that it would be certain death for a Jew to enter the state of Alabama. I'm not sure I really communicated an important part of my point in that piece: there's nothing especially wrong with having misconceptions and prejudices, but there's something definitely wrong with hanging on to them in the face of facts to the contrary.

Yevgeny Sudbin: Rachmaninoff Prelude in Gm (in lieu of Scarlatti)

Weekend Music

My friend Robert introduced me to Sudbin's Scarlatti album some months ago. I was initially a little cool to it, writing to Robert that Sudbin seemed too fast in the fast parts and too slow in the slow parts. Also, most of the sonatas were unfamiliar to me, and I had to get to know them. But after a couple of listens I changed my mind completely. I've had a particular love for Scarlatti since first hearing Landowska's recordings when I was in college, or soon after. I now like this recording as much as any other Scarlatti I've heard, and more than many.

The piano has never been my favorite instrument. I know it has an expressive range greater than any other solo instrument (with the possible exception of the organ), and I know there is a huge treasure-chest of great music written for it, but the basic clanging percussive  sound of it has never appealed to me greatly in itself. You could almost say I like the music written for it in spite of the instrument itself, and have never had the slightest desire to play it.

Yet Sudbin's Scarlatti has done something to me that no other piano recording has ever done: it has made me wish I could play the piano. This came to me about halfway through my third or fourth hearing of the Scarlatti, when I found myself thinking how wonderful it must feel to produce such sounds with one's hands. I think my hands actually started moving a bit, with a sort of physical longing to feel such richness for themselves, just the way one's tongue might long to taste something delicious.

I am, however, unable to find on YouTube any Scarlatti played by Sudbin. So here's something else. I like this, and the video is pretty. I really don't know much of Rachmaninov's music aside from the famous piano concertos. I think I will be buying Sudbin's Rachmaninov album.


The Weather, Straight Up


This is strikingly foreshadowed in Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome:

During the minute or so of happy talk at the end of a newscast, when other members of NewsTeam-7 are smiling and making pleasantries and semi-jokes as they stack their papers, Chandra will have none of it: no grins, no banter. Instead, she often challenges the anchorman: "What you talking about, have a nice day--what's nice about that?"--socking the weather map with her pointer.

(Hat tip to Janet.)

A Rare Sight

You don't see much naturally-occurring ice in this part of the country. This is a fountain in the chapel quadrangle at Spring Hill College. Taken a couple of weeks ago, with my phone so not a very high quality photo. Notice how the students are dressed. They don't look very cold, do they? Well, they weren't. This was about two o'clock in the afternoon, and the temperature was well above freezing, after having been a few degrees below it for a couple of days. The ice was melting at this point.


Prayer requests

I have to make this quick, because we just lost power and I think it's going to be down for a while, and I only have a few minutes of battery time left.

Please pray for my friend Daniel (Nichols), who is going to have a heart catheterization procedure on Thursday. It should be routine, but don't let that stop you from praying.

You may have seen this in her comment, but Louise, our Australian commenter, has asked for prayers for her husband's job situation--the company he works for may be about to go under.

Thank you. Both these families have numerous small children depending on their fathers.

Big Town, Small Minds

A recent piece in The New Criterion—I can’t even remember which one now—mentioned in passing that the writer had seen advertised in the New York Times t-shirts which read “I Fear Americans.” I thought that was a pretty striking sign of how deeply estranged some of our urban sophisticates are from the rest of the country. I don’t know to what degree they really believe this sort of thing, but it seems to make them feel good to say it. I think a more accurate word than “fear” would be “loath;” that seems pretty clearly the case, but it wouldn’t give the t-shirt-wearer the same sense of moral superiority.

New York City of course has plenty of its own “Americans,” in the sense of this t-shirt, but I suppose they’re used to this sort of thing

This weekend I heard a story of something similar, only this time it was person-to-person, and not an anonymous slogan. Someone I know, an Alabamian, had occasion to be at a gathering of affluent, educated New Yorkers, many of them involved in show business. The gathering was at a Manhattan club for Yale graduates, which should tell you what the socio-economic as well as political profile of the group was. All was friendly except that the Alabamian began to realize that most of the people there thought that Alabama had not changed since the 1930s or so. The revelatory moment came when the Alabamian said to a dinner companion, with whom she had had previous dealings and become pretty friendly, “You should come down and visit us sometime.”

“Oh no,” came the horrified response. “I couldn’t do that. I’m Jewish. I would be killed.”

My informant was hurt and offended, as I probably would have been had I been in her place. As it was, I laughed out loud, and my next reaction was “Didn’t she ever see Driving Miss Daisy?” (which, if you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, involved a Southern Jewish family). That merely to exist as a Jew in the South constitutes mortal danger would come as great news to those Jewish families who have been living here quietly for generations. I don’t say they never suffered prejudice or mistreatment, but for all its faults the southern United States is not a land of pogroms.

This sort of insularity is instructive as well as maddening (or funny, depending on your mood or temperament). What was so striking about this story was not just that the holders of a deep and stubborn prejudice were precisely the people who pride themselves on their tolerance and openness, but that they were utterly unconscious of it, and closed to any challenge to it. I venture to say that the average Alabamian knows more about New York City than the average New Yorker knows about Alabama—after all, we in the provinces have television and movies and journalism from New York coming at us continually—and the average educated Alabamian probably knows far more. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the Alabamian may well be more conscious of what he does not know. He knows that he doesn’t know all about New York, but does the New Yorker know that he doesn’t know all about Alabama?

After reflecting on this for a while, though, I began to take it more seriously. As a sub-rational fear and hostility, it may be having a more serious and destructive effect on the country than is immediately apparent. The point has been made more than once that too many of our elites, too many people with wide influence and power, really do not like the country in which they occupy a highly privileged position, viewing the masses outside a few big cities as savages who must, above all, be restrained, and prevented from practicing the violence and oppression which is their natural impulse. This must account in part for the impression one gets from, for instance, the ACLU, that, where southerners, Christians, and other unenlightened persons are concerned, the Constitution exists mainly to suppress freedom rather than to enable it, and that a Christian prayer at a high school graduation is one small step toward genocide. If these un-liberal liberals were to see such prejudice exercised against a group with which they had any sympathy, they would see it for the bigotry it is.

Long Weekend, Long Drive

Well, I got back on Monday night from one of my whirlwind 36-hour trips to visit family in north Alabama, and after coping with domestic issues such as the little fuzzy-haired dog being covered, yet again, with cypress needles and cypress cones that ooze a glue-like resin, sat down and half-wrote my half-composed Sunday Night Journal, hoping to finish and post it on my lunch break. Then this morning I forgot to put it on the flash drive which I use to carry such documents back and forth between home computer and work computer. So I hope I'll be able to finish it tonight. 

In the meantime: My wife and I listened to a recording of George Macdonald's The Princess and the Goblin on the trip. It was a free recording available from an admirable outfit called Librivox. I had heard of them and wondered what the quality of the recordings was. On the basis of this one, the answer is "excellent." This recording was by a young woman named Lizzie Driver, and she does a great job. She has a wonderful voice and uses it well. I thought she might be an actress, but apparently that's not the case. The recording doesn't have quite the polish of a commercial production, but it's delightful.  Once or twice I heard a nice un-professional but wonderful touch: the distant sound of birds singing. That was especially appropriate at the end of the story, which by the way I loved. Here's a link to the recording, in several formats. I'm looking forward to hearing the sequel, The Princess and Curdie, recorded by the same person.

Nick Drake: From the Morning

Weekend Music

Just finished watching a documentary on the master, Nick Drake: Under Review. Anyone at all interested in Nick Drake will find it worthwhile. I think it calls for a song, and let's make it one that doesn't encourage the depressed martyr-poet image. Personally I will always doubt the verdict of suicide. 


I just learned, from this interesting site, that toward the end of his life, very disappointed by the commercial failure of his music, he had begun work as a computer programmer. Funny to think of how that might have turned out. He could have been 62 years old and an obscure IT manager at some little college somewhere. Well, of course, he really couldn't have, because his music was already beginning to make its way in the world very soon after his death in 1974. I believe it wasn't later than 1975 that I first heard him. 

I also learned, from the documentary, a slightly distressing fact: Pink Moon is his biggest-selling album--because of that Volkswagen commercial. 

Fun With Sound

I'm not sure how many people who read this blog are interested in this, but I am, so....

For a month or so now there has been a great furor at, an online music store that sells mp3 files, about an acquisition of some major-label music that seems to be encoded at a slightly lower bit rate than has been standard at eMusic. Never mind for the moment what that really means--the important point is that it represents at least a potential decrease in audio quality. Some people say they hear a huge difference, others say that if there is a difference it's too subtle for them to notice. I'm in the latter camp. I did some searching online and found this interesting test. See if you can hear the difference. I got it right but was not 100% certain of my answer.

All the eMusic files in question, by the way, are encoded at higher rates than the 128k used for the lower quality file here, so any difference among them will be more subtle than what you're hearing on this test. Some kinds of music are more affected than others. I found that I have two copies of an album of the solo piano music of Phillip Glass, one encoded at 128k and the other at a variable but generally higher rate (the encoder uses a higher sample rate in more complex passages, a lower in others--the point is to optimize the tradeoff between sound quality and file size). I could pretty easily distinguish the 128k and VBR versions--the notes of the piano sounded noticeably more alive in the VBR one. 

I also did some testing with a CD, comparing it to mp3s of the same music encoded at different rates. I think I could distinguish the cd, though it was hard to be sure, because the mp3s were being played back through my computer and at first were noticeably quieter. Once I had matched the volume on the cd and mp3 setups, it was harder to tell the difference.

The only way to know for sure, of course, is with a completely blind test, in which the listener doesn't know which recording is which.  I thought about drafting my wife to do a blind test for me but decided I wasn't really that interested. I am very skeptical of the people who claim to hear a huge difference between, say, a 320k mp3 and a 192k VBR mpr, to the point of emitting cries of pain when exposed to the latter and declaring them unlistenable.  But then I don't have the most sensitive ears in the world, and my ability to hear high frequencies is far from what it used to be (a common effect of aging, especially in men).

Supporting my suspicion, here is an article about such a blind test. The "uncompressed WAV" they refer to is, for listening purposes, identical to the audio on the cd. Summary: people didn't do as well as they expected to.

And speaking of the ability to hear high frequencies, here is another interesting listening test, in which you can find out how far your high-frequency hearing extends.  I pretty much stopped at 12k. I had to turn the volume up a little from 10k to hear the 12k at all, which makes sense because it's around 10k that my sensitivity drops off, according to a hearing test I took more than ten years ago. I had my wife try it and she was still hearing something over 20k, which is pretty amazing. Note, though--if you're listening on your computer and/or with cheap speakers/headphones, the equipment may not even be capable of reproducing the very highest frequencies, almost certainly not at the same volume as lower ones.

By the way, I've mentioned before that I have tinnitis: the 12k sample on this test is pretty much what it sounds like inside my head all the time. 

On the reaction to the Tucson murders

I don't talk much here about current events, but I want to register my objection to the hideous attempt to exploit the killings in Arizona for political gain. It's hard to tell how much of this is just partisan hysteria and blindness, and how much is calculated, and it doesn't really matter: it's repulsive. 

I could link to any number of criticisms and refutations of this stuff, but I'll confine myself to this one from National Review. Here's the key passage:

The irony of criticizing the overheated rhetoric of your opponents at the same time you call them accomplices to murder apparently was lost on these people, most of whom have never been noted for their subtlety (or civility). It is vile to attempt to tar the opposition with the crimes of a lunatic so as to render illegitimate the views of about half of America.

I have yet to see any report that the Arizona killer had any connection to or even paid the slightest attention to Sarah Palin, the Tea Party,  And even if he did, it wouldn't especially discredit them, because he is crazy. I don't think I've ever heard anyone try to blame Squeaky Fromme's attempted assassination of President Ford, or the Manson murders themselves, on the left just because the Manson "family" were hippies. I don't recall an outcry for Hollywood to tone down its violence after a young man obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver, which involves a character who plots an assassination, did in fact try to assassinate President Reagan. Indeed, it's been a feature of national life for thirty years and more for the entertainment industry and most progressives to deny vehemently that there is any connection between the pervasive violence and general degeneracy of much of that industry's "product" and anyone's behavior.

How about considering the possibility that deploring hatred while stoking your own hatred is neither a persuasive tactic nor healthy in itself? How about if we all try to stop hating each other? 

UPDATE:  Looks like sanity is beginning to take hold

UPDATE 2: The New York Times is now saying Loughner is a Nietzsche-reading nihilist/anarchist.

War In the Closed World 31

Sunday Night Journal — January 11, 2011

Until I was sixteen or so, and began working for my uncle on the family farm, my summers were very idle and isolated. We didn’t live within walking distance of any of my school friends, so they only other young people around were my siblings and cousins, and there was a limit to how much time we wanted to spend together. I read a great deal, mostly fairly simple stuff that I went through quickly. So it was very important that I have a steady supply of books.

Into my life one wonderful day came a very wonderful thing: the bookmobile. I believe it was at school that I first encountered it—I don’t recall our little school having a library—but it was most important to me when it stopped near our house in the summer. It occurs to me now that I don’t know where it came from, that is, which library. The phrase “Wheeler Basin Regional Library” floats into my mind. I don’t remember a specific library by that name, so perhaps it was a consortium of libraries. The region in general was (is) known as the Tennessee (River) Valley, and Wheeler Lake was the nearest of the many lakes created by hydroelectric dams built on the Tennessee by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal agency born of the New Deal.

But it doesn’t matter. As far as I was concerned, the bookmobile seemed to have fallen from heaven. It was a sort of van or panel truck with closed sides and folding windowed doors, like those on buses, at the front and rear on one side. I believe it was air-conditioned; at any rate it had, in the burning Alabama summers, a cool look, with blue-green glass in the doors and blue-green carpet on the floor. Was there also a sort of skylight of the same tinted glass? I’m not sure, but the interior was well-lit. The side walls…and perhaps the rear?...were lined with wooden bookshelves.

Every few weeks—or at some interval which seemed very long to me—in the summer, the bookmobile arrived in Greenbrier and parked in the east end of the parking lot of Greenbrier Barbecue. Our house was about a quarter-mile away, across an open pasture, and from the porch or the yard I could just make out the bookmobile as a gleam that was not normally there. (I want to say it was blue-white, which makes me think perhaps there really was a skylight.) On the day it was due to arrive I watched for it with a near-Christmas level of excitement.

It was in the bookmobile on one of its summer visits that I first encountered science fiction, when the mere title on the spine of a book caught my attention: Citizen of the Galaxy. Those words did something to me, came to me as a sort of call, suggesting distance and mystery. I no longer remember anything at all of the plot beyond a vague picture of a young man having adventures across the galaxy. But I was enchanted, and looked for more books like it. The name of the author, Robert Heinlein, meant nothing to me. And I don’t think I knew the term “science fiction.” But I looked for more books like it, more books involving space travel, the distant future and its technological marvels, and the magical strangeness of alien worlds. Citizen of the Galaxy was soon followed by Rocket to Limbo, by Alan E. Nourse, and Star Gate, by André Norton.

This was the beginning of a sort of love affair that went on for several years. I read all the science fiction I could get my hands on, including novels and stories by all the big names of the genre prior to 1965 or so—Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, Asimov—and others less well-known outside of sci-fi fandom: A.E. van Vogt, Damon Knight, James Blish, Frederick Pohl, Poul Anderson, and Clifford Simak are some of the names I remember, though I cannot now name a single work by any of them.

One day my mother took some of us children with her (not her normal practice) when she went to shop at the Post Exchange on the army base in Huntsville, a privilege afforded by my father’s service in World War II. The PX had a bigger selection of magazines than I had ever seen, and in browsing it I had something like a repeat of my bookmobile experience. I saw the cover of a magazine called Analog: Science Fact – Science Fiction. I snatched it up, bought it, and read it in total fascination. Not only was it full of great stories, it was full of what seemed to me very sophisticated and fascinating ideas, including a certain amount of hard science and what I now see to be some fairly ordinary empirical philosophical talk. But the empiricism itself (of course I didn’t know the word) was appealing to me, because it was an attempt to question and understand the world rationally. I immediately subscribed to Analog, and soon afterward joined the Science Fiction Book Club, which I saw advertised in the magazine.

Some time after my conversion to atheism, my mother and older sister and I were on a long drive at night—I forget the circumstances—and, as it often does in that situation, when there is nothing else to do, the talk turned toward weighty matters: religion, morality, the meaning of it all. They must have been challenging my anti-religious views, because one of the two or three specific things I recall from this conversation is my sister asserting that “Mac’s problem is he reads too much science fiction.” I was so astonished by this, and thought it so entirely stupid, that I could only laugh.  

But thinking back on it now, I believe she had a point. Science fiction had not in any way persuaded me to atheism, but had abetted the process in a subtle way, by providing me with an alternative means of investing the mundane world with mystery, wonder, and significance. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to believe that the world we see around us is not all there is, and that somehow one ought to be able to escape it for a better one. Science fiction gave me a substitute for the supernatural in which I had ceased to believe. Its imagined future and alien civilizations were marvelous enough to fascinate me, but they didn’t require believing in the implausible God. I could in fact believe, or at least hope, that something like them really was out there somewhere in space and time. In its appeal to reason, imagination, and hope, it was like a cheap imitation of the Catholic faith.

The magic lasted for only a few years, though. By the time I was a senior in high school I was growing bored with science fiction, its marvels beginning to seem drab and rickety, with some very mundane machinery visible behind the fanciful scenery, like the sight of a Mardi Gras float sitting still in broad daylight, so that you can’t avoid noticing that it’s only a sort of crude sculpture sitting on a truck, or a movie theater with all the lights on.

Elvis Presley: Can't Help Falling In Love

Weekend Music

I have fallen into the habit of reading an item in the local paper which lists notable events that happened on this day in history. I find myself paying particular attention to the birthdays of famous people who are around my age; for some reason I find it interesting that, for instance, David Bowie is older than I am, and that, for instance, some punk rocker whose wild-boy image remains fixed from the 1970s has turned 50. It was there that I discovered that today is Elvis's birthday. I'm not much of an Elvis fan, really, but those early recordings reveal a tremendous talent which was mostly squandered. This song, which came out in 1961, is one of the last of his recordings to have made any impression on me. I would have been a moony 13-year-old, and I guess it was a pretty strong impression, because I remember the song perfectly--except that it sounded to me as if he was saying "Some things aren't meant to be," which puzzled me. It brings a visual memory with it: I am hearing it on the radio in the family car in the parking lot of the Methodist church after the Sunday service.

It's a lovely song.


On the Last Day of Christmas

The once-unconventional idea that the Church placed Christmas near the winter solstice in order to substitute it for a pagan festival has long since become conventional wisdom, a way of belittling Christianity, at least, if not attacking it head-on. Well, it seems to be another bit of conventional wisdom that probably isn't true, according to this. There is a much more ancient tradition that Jesus was conceived on the same day of the year on which he was crucified, and that that date was March 25. So, nine months later...

(I know, the last day of Christmas is the 6th, and I'm posting this on the 5th, but I won't have time tomorrow.)

Is the Future Here to Stay?

Sunday Night Journal — January 2, 2011

Here I am, writing on the second day of a year which would once have seemed impossibly far in the future to me, and which I would have expected to be a very different place, more “futuristic” in what is now itself an antique sense of that word. When I was a teenager reading science fiction in the early and middle 1960s, even Orwell’s 1984 seemed distant enough that one could imagine his vision coming to pass—that is, there still seemed time enough for those massive changes to occur. (Of course I was looking at the idea of “twenty years” through the eyes of one who had lived fewer years and could remember fewer still, so it seemed a far longer time to me than it does now.)

The science fiction writers, middle-aged men (and a few women) with a longer perspective, nevertheless still apparently saw the year 2000 as being far enough into the future to serve as a canvas on which all sorts of technological and social changes could be painted. Most famously, Arthur C. Clarke postulated a permanent moon base and easy airline-style travel to and from it, and saw these as marking the end of humanity’s childhood. Now we are ten years past that, and in the most fundamental ways our society has not really changed substantially. Technologically, there has been less development than expected in some areas—air and space travel—and more in others, mainly electronics, and specifically in digital electronics, which now allow us to hold in one hand more computing power than could be found in an entire floor of an early computer installation. (I’m particularly conscious of this because I entered the computing field just as the personal computer was moving out of the hands of hobbyists and into the hands of ordinary people, beginning the revolution which is still in progress.) Socially and politically, there have been many changes, some good—the end of legal racial segregation—and some bad—the terrible weakening of marriage, and its almost complete collapse in some segments of society. (I’m inclined to think the bad outweighs the good, but that’s another topic.)

But those changes have not produced a world that would be unrecognizable or disorienting to a person transported abruptly from 1965 to 2011. Some details would be startling—the mp3 player in place of the transistor radio, for instance—but the fundamental structures and mechanisms of society would be more or less the same. This is perhaps a bit surprising not only to those of us who remember the future imagined in the mid-20th century, but to another group with which I’ve also had something in common: the apocalyptics. I don’t mean those Christian groups who believe that the end of the world is very near, but others who believe that our industrial-democratic civilization will inevitably collapse in the fairly near future. You can find these all over the political spectrum, from environmentalists who believe that technologists are destroying the plant to technologists who believe environmentalists are destroying civilization. (For the record, I think both have a point.) And in the space of a year or two we went from having a large number of people saying that the apocalypse was not coming but actually in progress during the Bush administration, to an equally large (or at least equally loud) group saying the same about the Obama administration. (For the record, I think both have a point.)

The apocalyptics, too, have been around for a while—as long as the things they worry about. I remember some of this sort of thing from the 1960s, and quite a lot of it from the 1970s, when the term “survivalist” became familiar to us. And of course from 1945 until the end of the Soviet Union everyone, at least in the industrialized world, had a perfectly rational fear of a nuclear apocalypse.

Underlying much of this alarm, I think, is a sense that this can’t go on forever. The civilization we know is very new, in historical terms. For several thousand years, the basic circumstances of life had changed very little, and for much longer than that in societies that did not develop agriculture. But the industrial revolution turned things upside down in roughly a hundred years. In 1820 it was just getting under way; by 1920, it had made a new world. Most of what shapes this thing we call “the modern world” have been in place since 1920. The distance between societies with and without the telephone, for instance, is far greater than the distance between “hello central” telephony and the hand-held smartphone. If you pick any year after 1800 or so and look forward fifty years, you find a society very much changed, often by the introduction of some technology which enables man to do things never done before. This holds until roughly 1930, when the pace of fundamental technological change slows down: except for television and computers, all the major technological components of our contemporary society are there and in fairly widespread use (and radio performed much of the same function that television does today). The difference between, say, 1870 and 1920 is far greater than the difference between 1950 and 2000.

And similar observations apply in politics and economics. So are we entering a new equilibrium? Is this the point at which the future, a phrase which has for almost a hundred years now suggested a much different and much better world, signifies more or less a continuation of the present, as it did for thousands of years?

I’m no historian but I don’t know where one would look in history for another example of change of such simultaneous speed and scale, change that alters the fundamental conditions of life. The pace of change has been so rapid that it’s almost redundant to say the situation has been unstable. Any person who gives the matter much thought at all must recognize this, to feel that the instability continues, and to wonder if the speeding vehicle might not spin out of control at any time and end up overturned in a ditch, or smashed against a wall.

It seems very likely to me that present conditions—advanced technology, great material wealth for large numbers of people, rulers chosen by the people—will not last for more than fifty or a hundred years, and that they might come to an end in one of two different ways (apart from the Second Coming and the end of the world as we know it).

One: the complex technical, social, financial, and political machinery might break down, for reasons either external (e.g. the end of cheap energy) or internal (e.g. a collapse of morality and discipline rendering nations incapable of maintaining the institutions that make the system work). There is a very respectable body of Catholic opinion that actively desires this result, not as an unwilled catastrophe but as a decision, and envisions a return to agriculture and handicrafts. I’m very sympathetic to this movement, but have never quite been able to commit myself to it, because I don’t see how it can happen without great hardship. At any rate, it doesn’t require much imagination to envision something like this happening; from a simple common sense standpoint it seems more likely than not, and I suppose there are a hundred books published every year explaining that it must and will happen unless dramatic action is taken to prevent it.

Two: the complex technical, social, financial, and political machinery might succeed all too well in producing the society toward which it naturally tends, a society something like that foreseen in Brave New World, in which most of mankind is emptied as far as possible of all that is genuinely human and becomes a slave to pleasure and to those who control the availability of pleasure for purposes of their own. In this soft totalitarianism, the individual would surrender all other freedoms in favor of the freedom to seek the maximum personal pleasure, under the control and guardianship of the government and large corporations. This requires the weakening and suppression of the family and religion, and I admit I fail to see how it could come to pass and endure for more than a very short time. But it is certainly what some people want, though they would not describe it in the same terms I have, and they have made some progress toward it.

I used to be more alarmed by these possibilities than I am now, but pessimism has jaded me somewhat—pessimism, and the continual advance of the forces of disintegration which often seem unconquerable, because most people have already accepted them. I can still be amazed that we are taking seriously the logically absurd idea that a man can marry a man or a woman marry a woman, but I don’t think we are likely to stop it from assuming the force of law. The contradiction is to be removed by a redefinition of the word “marriage,” and no matter what is done with the word, reality will not change, and the union of husband and wife will always be something different from the association of “partners” (wretched clinical term). But it’s difficult to see what reason and persuasion and political activism can do in the face of such…I was about to say such madness, but it is the logical result of a process that has been under way for several generations, and not many people are willing to reconsider those old mistakes about sex and marriage and children.

Still, the feeling that this can’t go on is not necessarily correct. Perhaps it is at least possible that we can carry on enjoying the benefits of technological and social progress without either destroying them through folly or leaping into the abyss where souls die. If this can happen, it requires a repudiation of certain aspects of the Enlightenment and its offshoots: of utilitarianism, of the philosophical silence at the heart of classical liberalism, of everything that encourages the human person to see himself as the center of an ever-expanding sphere of personal liberation, and government as the guarantor of that expansion.

When I was a new convert, I read a three-volume history of the Church by Philip Hughes. The volumes were subtitled The World in Which the Church Was Founded, The Church and the World the Church Created, and The Revolt Against the Church: Aquinas to Luther. Since the time of Luther, the revolt and the arguments on which it was based have continued and advanced. The Church has not always been right on everything in these arguments; she was right on spiritual matters, certainly, but not always on questions of the management of worldly life. But the Church has learned, and now sees the strengths and weakness of the modern world more clearly than that world itself does. It remains to be seen whether the world can learn.

A Few Dawn Treader Reviews

Please note that some of these will tell you more about the movie than you may want to hear if you haven't seen it, but plan to, and prefer, like me, to have as little prior knowledge as possible. Be careful of the comments on some of them, as they sometimes give away more details than the reviews do.

Steven Greydanus at the National Catholic Register. He likes it, and there are a few things in the review that go a long way toward explaining my difference of opinion. For instance, he liked the siege of Miraz's castle in Prince Caspian. I thought it was terrible. It shouldn't have been there in the first place, and in execution it was just another long special-effects battle scene full of unbelievable feats. These scenes are supposed to be exciting but they just bore me. I'll mention one thing that serves as an emblem of all that's wrong with these movies, something that should never even have occurred to a screenwriter: Lucy using her martial arts skills against the Calormene slave traders.

David Downing at Ignatius Insight. He shares some of my reservations but comes down more favorably than I did.

Here's a secular reviewer at Film Journal. I include it just as an indicator of the way critics with no apparent interest in the book viewed it. And here's Roger Ebert, seeming to be pretty bored with it while giving it a basically positive review. His synopsis has some things seriously out of place, which makes me wonder if he was really paying attention.

It appears that one's reaction is likely to be heavily influenced by whether or not one likes the Big Loud Fast Movie, full of special effects. For me, such movies can be enjoyable as lightweight entertainment, but I can't take them seriously. They don't make me feel anything deeper than passing excitement that fades as soon as the movie ends, or leave me thinking about anything substantial. And when they try to do something serious, it just doesn't work--it's like a troupe of jugglers and acrobats performing Macbeth


The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Movie

This was the first 3D movie I've seen, not counting one or two really primitive ones when I was a kid in the '50s. I really was expecting the 3D business to be an annoying gimmick that would just get in the way. I was pleasantly surprised. For the first three or four minutes it was almost disorienting, and it actually crossed my mind that I might get motion sickness, which is not something that I normally have a problem with. But my wife does, and I was really concerned about her--the one and only time she went to an IMAX movie she had to get up and leave almost immediately.

But after that first few minutes, we got used to it. I quickly began to take it for granted, and didn't consciously pay attention to it except when there was something obviously designed to take startling advantage of it, like a monster coming straight out of the screen at you. 

I won't be surprised if ten years or so from now most movies use this technique. I suppose it adds a lot to the production and exhibition costs, so perhaps it will always be limited to big-budget spectacles. One does feel a little silly wearing those glasses. And I got the impression from my wife that one looks a little silly, especially if one has to wear them over normal prescription glasses. And the glasses are discarded afterwards, so maybe environmentalists will object.

I suppose it's just another symptom of our current lawsuit craziness that the packaging for the glasses contains a dire warning that they are not to be used as a substitute for sunglasses, accompanied by a gruesome graphic which appears to show an evil sun thrusting a pointed beam through the glasses and consequently through what would be the eyeball and brain of a person wearing the glasses, who fortunately is not depicted.

As for the's a big loud Hollywood movie. It's not all bad, but lovers of the Narnia books should approach it with low expectations, if at all.