Previous month:
January 2011
Next month:
March 2011

February 2011

A Few Odds and Ends

Sunday Night Journal — February 27, 2011

I'm not able to write anything very substantial tonight, so instead I'm going to throw together a few miscellaneous things I've noticed over the past week or so.


Simcha Fisher explains why she loves her ugly little liturgy. I'm much of the same mind, after many years of complaining and getting depressed about the dreariness of the typical Catholic liturgy.

This is your big opportunity. You can either clench your teeth, wrap your scapulars around your ears to block out the tambourines, and hightail it out of there as soon as you can . . .

Or you can think to yourself, “Christ is here. And if he can stand it, then so can I.”


I think I'm finished with CNN. I just performed a ceremonial deletion of the bookmark from my browser. I have a bad habit of checking in on several news sites fairly often during the day, which I really shouldn't be doing, as it's a big distraction from work. I used to check Fox and CNN about equally. I got disgusted with Fox's sensationalism, and the fact that they so often find some reason to include a picture of a girl in a bikini on their front page. So I quit going there regularly, although I still sometimes look there for an alternative view. But today CNN is running a very prominent story about anti-Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan. Of course it's the usual fawning stuff about ideas that have been old for a century now ("Jesus didn't really rise from the dead! I know because I'm so smart! And also brave for telling advanced people like me exactly what they want to hear."). But I'm sick of it.  I can't remember ever having seen a similar feature on an orthodox Christian theologian. The reduction by eight or ten of the number of page views they get in a day won't hurt CNN, but it will please me. To object to stuff like this only gets the usual "You can't handle the truth!" response. Might as well just ignore it.

Why don't they get that this drives people away? Wouldn't it be more consistent with journalistic ideals to try to be...what's the term?...fair and balanced? Part of the explanation for the success of Fox News can be found in this sort of thing.


Here is a rather striking story about what really happens when a "Do Not Resuscitate" order is implemented and the patient doesn't die as anticipated. 


Cats Adore, Manipulate Women. The scientific findings recounted in the story are not nearly as remarkable as the title suggest--there is nothing in it about "adoring"--but they're still interesting. However, I have not found this to be true: "If owners comply with their feline's wishes to interact, then the cat will often comply with the owner's wishes at other times."

Speaking of cats, this one belongs to my mother, and sleeps on the back of the couch like this all the time:



Tomorrow the Carmelites I wrote about last week  formally enter the enclosure from which they will not emerge unless they become too sick to be taken care of by the other sisters, or, as was the case with the last four who preceded them, they're all too old to take care of each other. Here is one of their cells, the only private space each of them will have:


My first thought on seeing it was "I want to live here." As we were about to leave and were looking for the way out, the extern sister who was showing us around joked that the door was locked now and we would have to stay. "Really?! That would be great!" was my response. But I know I probably wouldn't last more than a week.



The Roots: Dear God 2.0

Weekend Music

I've never heard much rap/hip-hop that I like. But considering all the wonderful music made by black Americans for the past hundred years or so, I thought there must be some, and so for years now I've had an eye, or rather an ear, out for it. I read somewhere that A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory was one of the best hip-hop albums ever made, so I gave that a try, and although it was interesting it wasn't something I wanted to hear very much. And I enjoyed The Fugees' The Score. I heard something by The Roots a while back that I liked, and so when I saw their How I Got Over on sale at Amazon a month or so ago I bought it. And I've finally found it: a hip-hop album that I really like. The video is worth watching, too:


I was slightly disappointed to learn that The Roots didn't write the actual song part of this. It's sampled from a group called Monsters of Folk. Here's their original.

When I saw "Dear God 2.0" I assumed at first that it was a reference to XTC's unhappy atheist "Dear God" from the '80s. Even if that's not what The Roots meant, it works; that is, it seems an appropriate companion or successor piece. You can hear XTC's here.

How I Got Over is not completely free of the egregious crudeness, violence, misogyny, and tough-guy boasting that seem to characterize an awful lot of rap, but there's really not very much of it (although the language is pretty rough overall).  Almost every track has substance, and the whole album has a rich, somewhat dark and melancholy vibe. It's not something I'll put aside after a few listens.


Morbid thought after reading some comments on a political blog: when will civil war break out in the United States? I don't think it will be soon but it sure looks like it could happen if present trends continue.

Mysterious Renewal

A few weeks ago I mentioned the Carmelite monastery in Mobile (here). The last four nuns were moving out, having grown old and infirm and in need of a good deal of assistance. I've been meaning to follow up on that story. 

As with many religious orders, new vocations have not been arriving for many years, and so it seemed that when these last nuns died or grew to ill to remain, the Carmel would be finished. But through a complex series of providential events, there is a new group of nuns arriving to take their places. They are from Vietnam: in a beautiful turn of providence, a country within which the U.S. fought a terrible war against totalitarian atheism is now sending the bright green shoots of spiritual renewal to its former enemy, no doubt entirely unaware of the real significance of what it is doing. I don't know the whole story; perhaps part of it is that the Communist government is not terribly unhappy to get rid of a few religious people from time to time. Apparently it took a while, but the young nuns were eventually granted permission to leave.

I visited the monastery last weekend. I'd like to say more but once again an evening has slipped away from me, so for now I'll just post this picture of three pictures, one of the elderly departing nuns (with the Archbishop of Mobile) and two of the new group, taken before they left Vietnam. (They arrived here last Sunday). I'm not sure whether it will come through here, but I found it hard to look at the original pictures without smiling. (This is a photo of a bulletin board in the monastery on which the pictures were posted.)


Feeling Sorry For Gertrude Stein

It's  not something one has occasion to do very often, but I did feel a twinge of pity for her when I read this rejection letter.  Read this first if you've never read any of her writing.  

This reminds me of Flannery O'Connor in one of her letters, dismissing the work of some avant-garde writer: "If it looks funny on the page I don't read it."

Be wary of that free WiFi

I don't know how many people who read this blog are in the habit of bringing their laptop or phone to places like Starbucks and using the free wireless Internet. But if you are one of them, you should read this. If you don't want to bother, here's the crucial part:

Firesheep is an incredibly easy to use add-on for the Firefox web browser that, when invoked while connected to any open and unencrypted WiFi hotspot, lists every active web session being conducted by anyone sharing the hotspot, and allows a snooping user to hijack any other user’s online web session logon with a simple double-click of the mouse. The snooper, then logged on and impersonating the victim, can do anything the original logged on user/victim might do.

"open and unencrypted WiFi hotspot" describes the services offered in many coffee shops and restaurants. If you're able to simply walk into the place and connect without any sort of password, this is probably what they have. 

Here's a blog post by the author of the program explaining that he wrote it in hope of forcing web developers and providers to take the fairly elementary precautions required to prevent Firesheep from working. It includes a few screen shots that will make clear what he's talking about, in case you aren't sure.

There is an important exception to what it can do: if you're accessing a web site that encrypts all traffic, which you can ordinarily identify by the fact that the URL displayed in the browser begins with "https" rather than "http," intercepting the data doesn't accomplish anything for the would-be hijacker, because the data is heavily encrypted. So Firesheep is probably not a danger to your bank account, because financial data is almost universally handled with HTTPS now. But Facebook, for instance, does not. Your email provider may not. Etc. If you're just surfing around, reading the news and whatnot, not doing anything personal or embarrassing, on any site that doesn't require that you log in, this doesn't matter--there is no "session" to hijack.

(Hat tip to my wife, who is becoming quite the technologist.) 

Can the Modern World Outlive the Anglosphere?

Sunday Night Journal — February 20, 2011

The January issue of The New Criterion includes a symposium called “The Anglosphere and the future of liberty.” It’s been on my mind a good deal since the issue arrived some weeks ago.

“The Anglosphere,” in case you haven’t encountered the term, refers to the English-speaking world, to all the nations which have their political roots and some significant cultural roots in England, even if the connection began with conquest. It includes, obviously, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, and a good many other former colonies of the British Empire. The broad thesis of the symposium can be summed up in this sentence from Mark Steyn’s contribution, “Dependence Day”:

We are coming to the end of a two-century Anglosphere dominance, and of a world whose order and prosperity many people think of as part of a broad, general trend but which in fact derive from a particular cultural inheritance and may well not survive it.

What we call the modern world, say the contributors, has been in very large part shaped by the combination of constitutional government, technological innovation, and capitalism which is particularly characteristic of the English-speaking nations. That’s a very broad statement, and one can immediately begin a list of contributions toward that sort of development which came from other peoples, and of nations which have adopted the general pattern at least as successfully. But it does strike me as a defensible generalization. (If you broaden the category from the Anglosphere to include the Nordic countries, it’s even more defensible, and if you make it Europe and nations rooted in Europe, it doesn’t even need much qualification.) As Steyn says, “We forget how rare on this earth is peaceful constitutional evolution, and rarer still outside the Anglosphere.”

Steyn is a polemicist, and I don’t agree with everything he says in his piece. He includes a few overly-simplisitic or sensational jibes, and in general is certainly not concerned with doing justice to the opposing case. But he raises a serious and important question. Granting that his characterization of the Anglosphere’s role in making the modern world is at least a defensible generalization, what will happen if those nations become incapable and/or unwilling to do and to be what they have been? We have seen in the last two centuries a continuing trend toward the recognition of individual rights, the rule of law, and representative government. Most of us consider that to be progress, whether or not we applaud every aspect of modernity, although like any form of progress it has its defects and proceeds in a zig-zag way, not in a straight line, with rights gained here and lost there. And sometimes, as is particularly the case in the U.S. and Great Britain now, it becomes cancerous, so that the right to vote becomes the same thing as the right to paint a butterfly on your cheek which becomes the same thing as making pornography. Steyn notes a case which represents the reductio ad absurdum of this, in which the government of the U.K. paid for a man with learning disabilities to fly to Amsterdam and have sex with a prostitute—because, of course, he had a right to sex. (Why he had not been able to procure it on his own was not made clear.)

But what struck me most from Steyn’s piece, and has been most on my mind, is this: “ cannot wage a sustained ideological assault on your own civilization without profound consequences.”

It is typically those who argue for the institution of a sort of extreme version of human rights, which involves not so much liberty of action as the equation of liberty with the satisfaction of all wants and the duty of the state to provide it, who are least respectful of the actual history and traditions of human rights as understood in the Anglosphere. They tend to see history as a parade of injustices: the most notable features of the history of the United States, for instance, are slavery and the crushing of the Indians. They are far more ashamed than proud of the civilization that produced them, and they see themselves as standing apart from it. They tend to see the Anglosphere’s tradition of liberty and law as a sort of scam designed to preserve the power and possessions of the ruling class. Their rhetoric generally seems more that of rebels seeking to overthrow an oppressor than of citizens seeking the improvement of an order of which they are members and inheritors.

The inheritors, and also the beneficiaries: it is no secret that over the past several decades many of these quasi-revolutionaries have found themselves very comfortably situated in the academy, in the entertainment industry, in journalism, and in government. Especially in the first two of these, they exercise influence far greater than would be suggested by their numbers. And they’ve had a fair amount of success: it’s now quite common to hear people of no particular sense or education toss off secular-leftist platitudes as readily as others might say “God bless America!”

Well, all this is pretty well-known, and I’m pretty sure I’m repeating things I’ve said before. But I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Stein’s “profound consequences.” There’s a disconnect between the vision of the radical critics, which holds their civilization to be fundamentally corrupt—racist, imperialist, sexist, etc.—and their complacency about their own position in it. They act as if their own prosperity, security, and liberty have no connection to the history of the country that produced them—as if it had just somehow appeared, a pure product of nature like rain and sunlight, to which they have a natural right. There is sometimes, at least in the younger sort of radical, a sense of guilt about this, but it appears to diminish with age, perhaps still making itself felt but being directed outward, resulting in an intensification of the critique.

Moreover, there is an assumption that they can continue to propagate the idea that contemporary Western prosperity, security, and liberty are the fruit of a poisonous root which must be yanked out of the ground and destroyed, and yet continue to enjoy those same fruits. Well, it doesn’t work that way with plants, and I don’t think it works that way with societies, either.

Maybe this is partly just a swing of the pendulum, a needed correction to the natural tendency of any nation or culture to ignore the dark side of its own history. I’d like to think so. And I should note that I’m speaking in worldly terms here. From the most important point of view, that of the spiritual fate of mankind, it is certainly arguable that the worldly goods which the Anglosphere has excelled in procuring are serving now to pull people in the direction of hell. If so, then it will be a good thing if we lose them. But we shouldn’t have any illusions about what that will mean.

What if the broad order of which Steyn speaks really is by and large the work of the Anglosphere, and its internal critics succeed in demoralizing it to the point where its best institutions are no longer respected and cultivated? Take a good look at most of the rest of the world, and ask yourself if you really want to make Euro-American societies more like it. This doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world—quite the opposite is true—but I think most of us, even the more alienated, really would prefer to keep our basic institutions. Certainly there is no substantial migration out of Europe, America, Australia, And those institutions are in turn dependent on a huge number of cultural habits and presumptions, ways of thinking that have roots in Europe generally and in the Anglosphere specifically. Our idea of citizenship, for instance, is by no means a feature of all societies. It is under attack in many ways, of which the radical critique is only one—self-indulgence, aka consumerism, is another—but without it our representative institutions will inevitably fail.

Sometime in the late ‘70s or so, when the economy was looking bad and the Reagan-era reaction against government social programs was beginning, someone (perhaps Reagan himself), speaking of the capitalist economy as the goose that laid golden eggs, observed that it was time to stop arguing about how to divide up the eggs and start worrying about the health of the goose. Something similar might be said now about our political health and stability, upon which so much else depends: it’s time to stop arguing about who is going to get the best rooms in the house, and start worrying about the cracks in the foundation and the leaks in the roof.

In my view what the Anglosphere requires for its renewal can only be provided by the Catholic Church. But that’s another topic.

The Intellectuals

Who shall deliver my soul from the words of men?...

Harken ye loud and presumptuous ones, wind-strewn children of your own caprice:

We are parched beside your well-springs, we are starved by the meat you offer us, we have grown blind by the light of your lamps.

You are like a road that leads nowhither, like so many small steps taken around yourselves.

You are like a driving flood, the sound of your gushing is forever in your mouth.

You are the cradle of your own truth, tomorrow you shall be its grave.

—Gertrude von Le Fort

I had never heard of this German poet until I read an excerpt from a poem called "Return to the Church" in Magnficat. Presumably this is a translation. This is an excerpt from the excerpt, and the title of the post is mine. I especially like the last line. The whole thing seems to me an accurate description of much (or most) contemporary intellectual life.

Misguided Promotions

I received this unpleasant-looking object in the mail at work a few days ago.  It's supposed to make me want to buy stuff from HP (Hewlett-Packard). In fact I do buy stuff from them, and have always respected their engineering, but this certainly did nothing to encourage me. It's about the size of a large egg, and it arrived in a little box containing either nothing else or a very small piece of paper with a bit of advertising on it (I can't remember for sure).  The color in this picture is not accurate--the thing is actually a very plain grey, and made of a sort of foamy plastic. The orange lettering is the address of a web site.


This wouldn't be at all remarkable, except that it could only have happened with the work and cooperation of a number of people, most of whom must have thought it was a good idea. I know! We'll send them this plastic brain, and it'll be like "Now that you have a brain, buy HP!" It'll be huge!" And it probably represents an investment of many thousands of dollars.  Someone had to design it. Someone had to find a manufacturer (probably in China--so picture the cargo hold of a plane stuffed with boxes of these)...etc.

Well, my cat really loves it. I brought it home from work to show it to my wife, and left it on my desk. The cat immediately started playing with it and when I got home the next evening it was two rooms away. Come to think of it, maybe the cat is trying to tell me to get rid of it...



Isn't it funny how sometimes you get behind a car and you somehow know it's going to turn without signaling? And pretty soon it does.

Singularly Mistaken

Sunday Night Journal — February 13, 2011

It's probably an indication of just how deeply materialism has been adopted by educated and partly-educated people that the ideas of Ray Kurzweil are generally accepted as fundamentally plausible, even if not as close to becoming reality as Kurzweil and others insist. In a nutshell, Kurzweil believes that computers will very soon--within a few decades--become more intelligent than humans, and that their intelligence will then increase very, very rapidly as they use that intelligence to make themselves more intelligent. He also believes that we will figure out how to transfer our consciousness--our very selves, our "I"--into computers, and thereby live forever. 

He believes all kinds of wild stuff, actually, a lot more than I can quickly summarize. You can read all about it, as reported very excitedly by Time, in a piece titled, quite misleadlingly, "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal." He is certainly a very intelligent man, with all sorts of technical achievements to his credit. But I think his ideas are taken more seriously than they deserve because most of us are so awed by scientific and technical expertise.

Science and engineering have been spectacularly successful in transforming the conditions of life in much of the world. Yet they are not at all well understood by most people, and so those who do understand them, and who discover the principles and craft the machines that make technological civilization what it is, take on some of the mystique that pre-technological cultures ascribe to practitioners of magic. And people tend to take them seriously when they're talking about things in which they really have no more expertise than anyone else. Those who might think that there is something fundamentally wrong in the expert's thinking are intimidated by the sheer power of intellect confronting them. If Einstein was smart enough to come up with the theory of relativity and all its abstruse mathematical justification (one thinks) while I can't even understand it, who am I to challenge him when he talks about religion? or politics? This is how the idea that "science" has somehow disproved "religion" gets its power.

In the case of Kurzweil, I'm both more and less intimidated than other people might be, and for the same reason: I know something about computers. I don't know anywhere near as much as he does; I'm just a sort of everyday journeyman programmer, and my ability in that line is to Kurzweil's as a beginning piano student's is to Yevgeny Sudbin's.  On the other hand, I do know how computers work, and I know that there is no reason at all to suppose that computers will ever come to life, which is essentially what Kurzweil says is going to happen. 

Like those who assume that "evolution" produces consciousness, Kurzweil erects his whole structure on the materialist assumption that the human mind (soul, the conscious self) is a purely material phenomenon, a sort of side effect of the brain. This seems obvious to the materialist. But it only seems obvious because he is a materialist. And it only seems persuasive to others who are not necessarily committed to materialism because the scientific rationalism of our time has disposed them to think this way. On the face of it, the idea that there are non-physical things which are just as real as physical ones is every bit as plausible. We experience them constantly, in the form of our own thoughts and ideas. What is, for instance, justice? It is very difficult and unpersuasive to try to define that word without appealing to some principle that is independent of the material. And we experience ourselves as somehow in our bodies, but not entirely identifiable with them. (I don't mean that the experience proves the immateriality of the soul, only that the idea should not seem strange to us.)

Let me describe, for those who don't know how computers work, a simple one, one that you use dozens of times a day without thinking much about it. You know it by the name "electric light." You walk into a room. The switch by the door is in the off position, and the light is off. You turn the switch to the on position, and the light comes on. You could say that the switch tells the light to turn on, and that when the switch is in one position the light knows that it should shine, and when it's in the other position the light knows it should stop shining. If you spoke of it this way, you would know you were speaking figuratively, and that the light doesn't "know" anything. 

Well, that doesn't change if you postulate 10 billion or 10 trillion switches instead of one. A computer is only an extremely elaborate configuration of a very large number of on-off switches, with even more elaborate mechanisms for controlling them so as to represent and manipulate information. If you log in to a system and it displays a message along the lines of "Hello, Dave. It's nice to see you," the computer has not recognized you in the way that a person would; it is only retrieving a pattern of ones and zeroes which result in the words "Hello, Dave etc." appearing on your screen. This is true whether you provided it with a username and password, a thumbprint, or a DNA sample: it doesn't "know" you except in the way that a lock "knows" the key that unlocks it.

But if you leap over those facts and assume that when all these ones and zeroes and switches reach a certain level of complexity they will become conscious, you are free to invent anything and claim the authority of science for it. 

I'm almost certain that I remember a prediction from the late 1960s or '70s so that when computer memories reached a certain size and processors reached a certain speed, we would have true machine intelligence and consciousness. And I think the size and speed specified were achieved some years ago. I wish I could remember where I read it. At any rate, no one believes the PC on his desk is a sentient being (setting aside the occasional suspicion, apparently entertained by many people, that it is capable of hostility). The truly intelligent, to say nothing of conscious, computer, remains off in the future somewhere. 

As for the idea that a human soul can be converted into some electronic form that can be stored in a  computer: the Time article was noted at Inside Catholic, and I'll just reproduce a comment I made there, in response to someone asking if anyone could explain how this might work:

No, because nobody has any idea how it might be done beyond a far-fetched theoretical conception which is based on huge assumptions. The supposition that it's even theoretically possible rests on the leap-of-faith assumption that our selves consist only of data held in the brain, and moreover that the data is represented, or can be converted to, the same ones-and-zeroes system that computers use. Or if not, that we can invent some means of data storage that will do what the brain does. Really, it's hard to overstate just how far removed this stuff is from anything we actually know and can do. And, again, it's all 100% based on a materialist assumption, and if that's wrong the whole thing is not just far-fetched but nonsensical.

Kurzweil himself apparently hopes to keep himself alive long enough to save himself in this way, which is a pretty sad hope. Obviously what's at work here is a badly misdirected religious impulse, manifesting itself as a pseudo-scientific variation of the ancient Gnostic quest to escape from the body. He believes that we are heading toward something called the Singularity, when the arrival and immediate enormous expansion of conscious intelligent machines will fundamentally change the world, and then ourselves. You can read a long list of his predictions here.  Not all of them are over-the-top; some of the less dramatic and purely technological ones may well come true.

Here's a prediction of my own: in the year 2100, man will still be pretty much what he always has been: a somewhat faulty union of matter and spirit, still wishing he could be something better. And neither Ray Kurzweil nor I will be here.

Gary Moore: Still Got the Blues

Weekend Music

Sad to say, I had never heard of this Gary Moore (older folks may remember a long-ago TV personality name Garry Moore) until I saw news stories a week or so ago saying that he had died. Then Anja posted this clip on Facebook and I saw that he was a really fine blues guitarist, and a very respectable singer. 


I really love his tone. RIP.

Not Surprising

Anyone who's been anywhere near higher ed in recent years knows that standards are declining, in general, though I think (think) that the good and conscientious students and teachers are still doing good work on each side of the relationship. Here is an interesting report confirming what is pretty apparent. 

The problem is complex but one important aspect is the expectation that most everybody should go to college, and that a college degree is the ticket to a good job. Neither of those is true, and one effect of the pretense that they are is a general reduction in seriousness and a devaluation of the credential, so that a BA is fast becoming what a high school diploma used to be.

I saw this coming thirty-five years ago when I spent a miserable few weeks trying to teach remedial writing to college freshmen. I found myself introducing concepts such as "sentence" and "paragraph" to people who were taking college classes.  I don't know how many of them graduated with little improvement in their writing skills. 

It's Antarctica Month!

I've been meaning to mention this for several days: Craig Burrell has declared February to be Antarctica Month at his blog, All Manner of Thing, in part because "February is dang cold," (and he lives in Canada, so when he says it's cold he doesn't mean the temperature will dip below freezing for a day or so). Already, a little over a week into it, he's put together a lot of fascinating information, presented in his usual elegant way. Click here to go to the first entry, and from there you can proceed through all of them via the link at the upper right corner of each post. Unless you're already an expert on the subject, you'll probably learn a lot. And you'll enjoy it (that's an observation, not a command).

Two Books and Three Movies

Sunday Night Journal —February 6, 2011

A Few Seconds of Panic, by Stefan Fatsis. Football season is over, so it’s a bit late for me to be mentioning this book, but maybe anyone who’s interested will be as dilatory as I am and won’t get around to reading it till late next summer. It’s one of two books about football given to me by Jesse Canterbury after several email conversations on the subject. (The other was The Blind Side, which is excellent, and is pretty well known thanks to the movie made from it.) A Few Seconds is the story of Fatsis’s attempt to emulate the feat of George Plimpton, who in the mid-‘60s convinced the Detroit Lions to let him train with them and play a few downs in an exhibition game, and then wrote a book about the experience, the famous Paper Lion, which I haven’t read but would like to.

Plimpton attempted to play quarterback, a pretty bold move. Fatsis, having been a decent soccer player, and at 43 years old, 5’8’’ and 160lb, too old and small to do anything else, decided he might have a shot at place-kicking, and talked the Denver Broncos into giving him a chance. In this age of highly specialized players, a place-kicker is in a strange, isolated, and isolating position. Apart from the occasional trick play or odd situation, he doesn’t do the things that other players do—blocking, tackling, carrying the ball—and his time on the field hardly adds up to a minute in the average game. But when he is needed, all eyes are on him, and a field-goal kicker sooner or later finds himself in the position of having the outcome of a game depend solely on him. He may achieve lasting fame (Van Tiffin, Alabama vs. Auburn, 1985, 52-yard field goal to win the game as time expired) or humiliation (the New Orleans Saints kicker who was fired last fall after missing in a similar situation).

The book does an excellent job of capturing the struggles Fatsis wages with himself (physical and mental), with the other players, and with the coaches and management of the Broncos. As one might suspect, the stress and isolation of being a kicker are reflected and reinforced in the culture of the team, in practice and in pretty much everything the team does. It’s also a vivid portrait of several other players, some of whom have names a fan will recognize (e.g. Jay Cutler, now quarterback of the Chicago Bears) and of the life of a professional player. I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise to anyone that it’s not a bed of roses. Recommended to anyone who has the least interest in the subject.

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. This is an outstanding novel, but one of the grimmest you’ll ever read. It combines the skillful suspense of Elmore Leonard with great philosophical depth. The story, set in 1980 (a significant fact which you can easily miss, or at least I did) along the Texas-Mexico border, begins with the aftermath of a drug-related shootout in a remote desert area. A hunter, a Vietnam veteran named Llewellyn Moss, comes across the scene and finds a lot of dead men and a suitcase full of money. He decides that the money might just as well be his, takes it, and goes on the run, pursued by some very bad people. This may sound like the beginning of an ordinary thriller, and it is a thriller, but it’s also much more.

Among the bad people is a very cold-blooded killer named Anton Chigurh, who seems to see himself as a sort of incarnation of fate or nemesis, an impersonal force which is only doing the inevitable when it encounters another person who could in any way inconvenience or impede it. “I have no enemies,” he says, in one of his more chilling lines, to one of his victims before shooting him. “I don’t permit such a thing.”

Trailing along behind the bloodshed, trying to figure out what’s going on and stop it, is a wise and kind old sheriff, Ed Tom Bell. A significant part of the book is taken up with his meditations on a long life in a rough country, and it is these, and in particular their revelation of the effect upon him of his growing knowledge of what Chigurh is, that give it much of its depth.

It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you are, and even then you might be wrong.

I’ve known for years that McCarthy is a highly regarded novelist, but never really considered reading him because of my generally low opinion of contemporary fiction. Well, that was a mistake.

A relatively minor thing worth mentioning is the startling accuracy of McCarthy’s ear for a certain sort of southern and apparently Texan turn of speech. I don’t think I’ve encountered in any other writing the use of “kindly” as a synonym for (or mispronounciation of?) “kind of,” e.g. “it’s kindly warm today.” I would think that would be confusing to those who aren’t familiar with it.

No Country for Old Men, film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It was in large part the recommendation of this movie by people on this blog that caused me to read the book, as I generally don’t like to see movies made from books before reading the book (unless it’s something I know is pretty lightweight). The movie is excellent. I really can’t find fault with it as a movie; it is very skillfully done and extremely well-acted. Tommy Lee Jones is absolutely perfect as Sheriff Bell. I personally didn’t find the portrayal of Chigurh as chilling as it might have been, but I think that’s just my idiosyncracy, and not any fault of the actor, because I had formed a somewhat different mental image of him. (If you’ve seen the movie: I imagined Chigurh looking more like a somewhat younger version of Carson Wells.) And the movie is as faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the book as one could expect a movie to be. Its limitation in comparison to the book is the fact that it is a movie: only a small amount of Sheriff Bell’s monologue, which in the book appears to be voiced well after the events, can be fitted into the movie, and without that the bloody action takes over almost completely. But it’s worth seeing, if you can stand a fair amount of violence and the challenge of the pure evil which Bell knows he is confronting. I might mention that the violence in the book is not so viscerally disturbing, because most of it isn’t described in great detail.

District 9, film directed by Neill Blomkamp. I’m always on the lookout for good sci-fi movies, and had heard this was one, but I found it pretty disappointing. The premise has a lot of potential: a large number of aliens have been stranded on earth (some sort of problem with their spacecraft, not clearly explained) and become semi-prisoners in a sort of ghetto, subject to a full system of apartheid. The movie was in fact both produced and set in South Africa and was apparently intended to suggest a parallel between the situation of the aliens and that of black Africans under apartheid.

This is much like the basic situation of an older movie, Alien Nation, but is worked out very differently. It gets off to a very interesting start, because the filmmakers took the unusual step of making the aliens pretty repulsive in both appearance and behavior, so that you have some sympathy for the earthlings who want nothing to do with them. (I mean that it’s unusual when you’re supposed to sympathize with the aliens; usually when the aliens are repulsive they’re also evil.) A further unusual step is the portrayal of the former victims of apartheid as being just as willing as everyone else to engage in bigotry toward the aliens and to exploit them ruthlessly.

But it doesn’t hold up. It soon turns into a rather ordinary sermon-ish portrayal of the evils of being hostile to people who are different, unless they’re businessmen or soldiers, and then into an even more ordinary action movie. It’s not terrible, and it’s well-made, with a particularly excellent performance by the actor in the lead role, a corporate employee who undergoes a conversion which is more than usually thorough for this kind of story (if you’ve seen it, you’re supposed to chuckle at that). But it’s very violent and very, very disgusting. The last scene is very sweet, though, and helps ameliorate the rest.

Summertime, film directed by David Lean and starring Katherine Hepburn. I think my wife and I only watched this because it happened to be on tv. It’s a slight, simple 1955 romance which I might have liked if the leading lady had been someone other than Katherine Hepburn. I know she’s one of our great stars, but I’ve never much liked her. She reminds me of a certain type of upper-class WASP woman with progressive ideas and puritan, if not prudish, instincts—the kind of woman who advocates free love while expecting that it be exercised in a cool, controlled, hygienic way, with no violent emotions and no diseases and absolutely no unplanned babies, and doesn’t understand the havoc her ideas wreak when set loose among more impulsive people. These words may be unfair to Hepburn as a person, though there is plenty of evidence in her biography that they are not—she was in fact an upper class WASP and a supporter of Planned Parenthood, of which her mother was a founder. What’s relevant here, though, is that she comes across that way in her films: she is too chilly and brittle to be appealing to me as a romantic lead. She’s better as the prickly straitlaced missionary in The African Queen, a role that gives expression to what is admirable in the type.

Macdonald and Giles: Suite in C

Weekend Music

A conversation on Facebook a few days ago reminded me of the sole and self-titled album by former King Crimson members Ian Macdonald and Michael Giles, released in 1970. I am one of the few people who bought it, even though I had not been a King Crimson fan. Now I can't remember why...maybe I heard it in a record store. I sort of liked it, but it was not one of my favorites, and my copy escaped somewhere along the line. Years later, in the 1990s, I sometimes thought of it, and wanted to hear it again. I discovered it had been unavailable for years and had acquired the status of "lost classic." It finally reappeared on cd, and judging by the number of YouTube samples available is certainly out of the "lost" category now. It's really one of the better albums of the prog-rock genre, mostly devoid of the pomposity that tended to be part of that genre.

This is not a song, exactly, but, as the title says, part of a suite.

One would think they might have gone on to do great things, but Ian Macdonald is now mostly known as a founding member of...Foreigner.

Personalities of the Catholic Combox

 For instance, Encyclical Man, who "has a quote at the ready that will clearly establish that anyone who does not share his opinion on the matter is a heretic." I'm sure there are other species awaiting identification but I'm too distracted to think of any: I hope that doesn't make me "Could Do Better But Can't Be Bothered Man".  (Hat tip to Margaret Cabannis at Inside Catholic--she has some other links you might enjoy, too.

Sign of the times, or just a sign of me? I'm going to have to put in several hours of work this weekend--I mean job-work, what I get paid to do, not house or yard work or writing. The task is a software upgrade for which I have to shut down a system which is normally expected to be available all the time. So I'm about to send out an email announcing the outage, which means I have to decide exactly when I'm going to do it. I spent some time mulling over whether to do it on Saturday or Sunday, and my deliberations were entirely confined to the question of balancing my convenience with that of the system's users. It was some time before it hit me that the Church has something to say about this.

So, ok, Saturday it is.

Simcha Fisher On the Question of Married Priests

I'm basically in favor of allowing married men to become priests--we have at least one in my diocese, and he's excellent. But I think those who see it as a magical cure-all for various problems in the Church are very mistaken. It would bring its own set of problems, as of course Protestants, and I suppose the Eastern churches, have known for a long time. Here is Simcha Fisher with a concise summary of some of the predictable ones.