Friday, December 10, 2010

Good Bye

This is, indeed, and finally, our last post. But all is not lost. You may find us here, blogging, posting, and keeping you up to day about all things Chesterton, so come on over.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why We Still Need Chesterton

Complete article here.
Paradoxically, Christopher Hitchens must be due for canonisation as a secular saint. In the broadcast snatches of his Toronto debate against Tony Blair on whether religion is a force for good, Hitchens assumed a kind of divine grandeur.
I am no theological expert but this seems to overlook the religious virtue of humility. When G K Chesterton was asked by The Times to write on the theme, “What's wrong with the world?” he submitted the following: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G K Chesterton.”
Why didn't Blair produce Handel's Messiah as his witness? Perhaps followed by the Liberian war- lord, General Butt Naked, interviewed at the weekend, who apparently turned from inhuman slaughterer to meek and repentant sinner after a blinding vision of Christ.

G K Chesterton advised the use of “fairytale” language properly to evoke the nature of the world. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. Hitchens and his fellow atheists talk of the superiority of reason over faith.

Chesterton countered that “reason itself is an act of faith”. Demonstrating this should be Blair's Bewitched project.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Chestertonian Homework Help

I recently had an email from a young University student who thankfully is studying Chesterton. Since there aren't Spark or Cliff notes for Chesterton's work, students can feel at a loss for help with Chesterton assignments.

I'll post her question first:
We are to write about the moral discoveries that Father Brown made in “The Mistake of the Machine.” However, I am having a very difficult time since, as I stated above, I can not fully grasp what the writing means.
So here's my answer:
I guess I want to suggest reading it again, with some thoughts in mind. There are two very major themes in this story. One is that Man is NOT a machine, although Father Brown calls Man a machine several times, just to confuse you. But the contrast of Man and Machine is a theme. Can a machine tell one the truth? Can a MAN tell one the truth? Can a machine lie? Can a man lie? Can a machine read a man's heart (motives, for example)? Can a person act in a way contrary to his human nature?

The second theme is the assumption of who a person is based on appearance.

Both of these themes take place within the conversation between Father Brown and the Governor/Detective Greywood Usher, Greywood taking the "scientific" view point, Father Brown taking the more reasonable, faithful view point, the view point that allows for man to act as a man, and not as a machine (scientifically, in other words, science cannot explain a man's motives, his "heart") which was brought out in the beginning by talking about blood and circulation, etc. The word blood is repeatedly used, in both scientific terms and in terms of class "blue-blooded" etc. to emphasize the assumption that blood makes a man what he is, which science or even aristocrats may believe. But a rational person like Father Brown knows that blood is just blood, and tells one nothing about man's soul.

So, I hope I've pointed you in the right direction and given you some clues and hints to work from.

Chesterton is difficult. I totally understand that. When I had to read Chesterton in college, I really, truthfully, hated it, because I couldn't understand it. But hang in there, he does get better with time.
And the young student said it helped her write her paper. So there you go, we'll call them ChesterNotes.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Make a Small Donation, Get to Hear it First!

Your donation will help us with the production costs, which include audio equipment, room rental, music and sound effects. In return, we have some gifts for you!

$10 will get you the free MP3 files two weeks before the public!
$40 will get you the above plus a free 3-Disc CD set when the project is complete!

In the absence of the money to make a feature film, “The Man Who Was Thursday” will come alive as a high quality, fully produced radio play. Actors breath life in the characters, sound effects and foley keep you in the scene, and a musical score ties it all together.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ink and Fairydust Magazine

A fairly new e-zine, created by talented young people interested in literature and Chesterton and a whole lot more, who provide Something Good To Read. Check out Ink and Fairydust Magazine now!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Start of the Transition to Something New

I'm pleased to announce that we are beginning the transition to a new American Chesterton Society web site, one that will combine the best of the old site with the best of the Gilbert Magazine site, with an interactive component like a blog. So it will be the best of three worlds combined into one.

You'll be able to get more content, interact with Gilbert columnists and readers, and much, much more.

As soon as the new site is ready, you'll be the first to know. And thanks for 5 great years of blogging here.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Coming to a Conclusion

The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.
[GKC Heretics CW1:196]
Yes - we have come to a conclusion. This the last column I am writing for Nancy, since this blogg is being closed. There must be some mystical significance to this, since today is the feast of the Holy Rosary: the anniversary of Lepanto and the victory over our dark enemy; but then this blogg began on a Marian feast nearly five years ago, and it seems fitting that my role end on one.

God willing, I shall continue to write on my own blogg, "GKC's Favourite". I also contribute to The Duhem Society, which studies the work of Pierre Duhem and S. L. Jaki, great historians of science.

Apologia: Lest there be any doubt, I am not so much interested in Chesterton except for the way in which he proclaims the truth of Jesus Christ, and the cosmos made through Him. I hereby submit all my work to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church; if any of my writing is at odds with her teachings, I humbly ask for her correction.

And so... well... what really has to be said in such a conclusion? Only this: Let us take GKC's warnings about pride seriously, and let us keep things in their proper order: let us strive to be Christians who also read Chesterton, not Chestertonians who also read the gospels. Let us heed the warning given in GKC's own discussion of St. Francis, who did not want people to follow him, but to follow Christ. And good things may come from bloggs, as we Chestertonians happen to know, far better than others... (hee hee!)

A Chestertonian blogger once asked me: "You don't expect me to revolutionize society on my blogg?"
And I looked straight into his eyes and smiled sweetly. "No, I don't, but I suppose that if you were serious about your Chesterton that is exactly what you would do."
[cf. GKC TMWWT CW6:481]
Let us be serious about our Chesterton, and thereby turn society back - to our Lord.

May God bless you always, and your families!

Let us conclude with Chesterton's own last words:

"The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Conjugating your sonnets and integrating your relations

Caution: HUMOR WARNING. This posting contains Funny Material. Laughing may result. Prolonged laughing has not been observed in lab rats so all those government-acronym places don't know what will happen and don't really care. (Recent studies indicate they have no sense of humor.) But you have been warned. Hee hee.

You get a bonus today: this posting contains a lesson in elementary heraldry. You see, I was thinking again about heraldry, since I am trying to work up a coat-of-arms for one of the organizations in my Saga... Actually I probably need at least two more. Neither are critical to the story, at least as far as I can tell at present, but one never knows. The others I have made are already in play: I built one merely from a certain artistic sense - it actually derives from Chesterton's last words about the battle between light and darkness (See Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 650). This is Joseph Chandler's arms, from my Saga:

Sable, a chevron Or; in chief an antique lamp fired proper, radiated of the second.

But as my writing progressed, this interesting design has proven to fit into the plot in a way which almost shocked me - one rarely expects such minor details as a fictional coat-of-arms for a fictional character to have any significance. Though, as we Chestertonians know, it ought to. We might try an epigram, sort of like this: "There is no such thing as a minor detail". And this is borne out in other authors, if one pays attention. I just finished re-reading Tolkien's The Hobbit, which I had to reference in my own work (it's a GREAT quote, really cool in the context, and connected with the above arms) and if you've been to Middle Earth you know that Tolkien's names are - ah - what verb - perhaps sculpted. He is very careful to provide an entire history and etymology for his roots. No wonder it took him so long to write. I have a similar difficulty, not because I am a philologist but because I am a computer scientist, and have to be sure to arrange every last BIT of things... hee hee. The challenge, whether one writes software or stories, is to be sure that one writes with an END in mind - that is, one must have a purpose, and every word ought to be justified - it should be chosen and placed, as a mosaic artist selects tesserae. Chesterton was aware of this. I would not attempt to argue about Chesterton's choice of words in general, and (since I am not a lit'ry scholar) I would prefer to avoid such criticism of his work. Rather, let's consider how GKC applies this consideration to another great English writer:
There was never a better criticism of Chaucer than that written within a hundred years of his death by old Caxton the printer; nor has this particular aptitude with words been expressed in words so apt. The medieval master printer's estimate is worth libraries of the patronizing pedantry, that has been written in the four hundred years that followed. 'For he writeth no void words; but all his matter is full of high and quick sentence'; that is, sense; sententia. The melodious but monotonous etiquette of much medieval poetry was a perpetual temptation to write void words; like the void words of modern journalese; except that the medieval words at least were graceful and the modern words base.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:319]
Now, any programmers who are reading this (especially those who are familiar with the language called "C") will have to laugh, since in "C" there is a keyword "void" which has a particular meaning and usefulness; hence excellent and efficient programs will often have "void words", hee hee. If you aren't laughing, don't worry, it's not that funny. But then don't expect me to laugh at your horrible 17-line sonnets. Hee hee. (I hope you noticed my title; that's one of the points I'm getting at.)

One of the interesting challenges in building a story, as in building a computer program, is the selection of names. I have used several different mechanisms, depending on my mood, or the particulars of the person (or data item) at hand... but this isn't a "meet the author" (or programmer) column, and I am NOT telling my very cool secrets here! But I bring up the issue since Chesterton talks about it in at least two places I can recall even without consulting the texts. The one is the exceedingly famous encomium in Heretics of the great and awesome name "SMITH" and if you EVER want to write fiction or anything where you will need names - including software, I must add - you ought to know this excerpt, and keep it near you as you work:
I remember a long time ago a sensible sub-editor coming up to me with a book in his hand, called "Mr. Smith," or "The Smith Family," or some such thing. He said, "Well, you won't get any of your damned mysticism out of this," or words to that effect. I am happy to say that I undeceived him; but the victory was too obvious and easy. In most cases the name is unpoetical, although the fact is poetical. In the case of Smith, the name is so poetical that it must be an arduous and heroic matter for the man to live up to it. The name of Smith is the name of the one trade that even kings respected, it could claim half the glory of that arma virumque which all epics acclaimed. The spirit of the smithy is so close to the spirit of song that it has mixed in a million poems, and every blacksmith is a harmonious blacksmith.
Even the village children feel that in some dim way the smith is poetic, as the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic, when they feast on the dancing sparks and deafening blows in the cavern of that creative violence. The brute repose of Nature, the passionate cunning of man, the strongest of earthly metals, the wierdest of earthly elements, the unconquerable iron subdued by its only conqueror, the wheel and the ploughshare, the sword and the steam-hammer, the arraying of armies and the whole legend of arms, all these things are written, briefly indeed, but quite legibly, on the visiting-card of Mr. Smith. Yet our novelists call their hero "Aylmer Valence," which means nothing, or "Vernon Raymond," which means nothing, when it is in their power to give him this sacred name of Smith - this name made of iron and flame. It would be very natural if a certain hauteur, a certain carriage of the head, a certain curl of the lip, distinguished every one whose name is Smith. Perhaps it does; I trust so. Whoever else are parvenus, the Smiths are not parvenus. From the darkest dawn of history this clan has gone forth to battle; its trophies are on every hand; its name is everywhere; it is older than the nations, and its sign is the Hammer of Thor.
[GKC Heretics CW1:54-5]
(By the way, if you don't know what arma virumque means, check back next Tuesday and you'll find out.) Gosh it's almost enough to make me want to change my name!

The second instance where GKC discusses the selection of names for fiction is quite funny, and comes up in a notable setting. His brother's wife Ada, was also a writer and (gasp!) undercover reporter. She got sued because she had used a name in one of her fictional stories - and there happened to be a real person with that name. You really need to read two essays, but I don't have room to quote them all. But... be forewarned! This one is REALLY funny. It has some of GKC's best creative stunts, where he approaches (asymtotically, perhaps) to the mathematical stuntmanship of that famous mathematician, Professor Dodgson.. but you don't care. I just want you to realize I laughed VERY loud when I first read this, and I expect you may also. So finish your food and drink before you read this next excerpt:
Legal decisions lately made bring this tomfoolery to the point of the intolerable. It is the judges' business to explain the law; and the law may be as the judges said: in those cases the law is what Mr. Bumble said it was. But it is not only an ass, but a wild ass; one capable of kicking down whole cities and civilisations. The cases to which I refer are those in which gentlemen obtained damages from newspapers because articles in them contained characters with their names. It was not alleged that the characters specially recalled or suggested the plaintiffs; it was not alleged that the characters were specially unpleasant. But it was laid down by the judges that damages for libel were due. Well, if that is the law, let us alter it. But, indeed, it is not properly a law, but one of the accidents of an anarchy.

I need not point out the insanely perilous position in which it places that already harassed and emaciated person, the author. He must take names for his tales; and if he takes natural or possible names, he must know that there are probably many real people who bear them. In fact, some of the most famous and isolated figures in fiction bear names that are common and general in reality. On this principle many a mild Welsh dissenting minister may consider himself saddled with the private life of Tom Jones. On this principle, every person bearing two other ordinary names may be found nervously consulting his own character in "Tom Brown at Oxford." For the matter of that Iago is a very common name in Spanish; and if we only pushed this legal logic a little further, the translation of such names might be included, and we might have a man forbidding the performance of "Othello" on the ground that his name was James. These cases seem to me no crazier than the actual cases as settled.

The question, of course, is simple enough: what is a novelist supposed to do? Is he to leave blanks for the names, or number them? Should he advertise first for all the claimants to a title and square them moderately beforehand? The only other way I can think of would be to give the characters names that no one of ordinary strength could possess, pronounce, or endure - say, "Quinchbootlepump" or "Pottlehartipips." One might cherish a hope that few prosecutors could establish a claim to these. How far they would enrich or weaken the style of the author it would, of course, be more difficult to say. One must think mainly of the average romantic novel; one must imagine some paragraph like this: "As Bunchoosa Blutterspangle lingered in the lovely garden a voice said 'Bunchi' behind her, in tones that recalled the old glad days at the Quoodlesnakes'. It was, it was indeed the deep, melodious voice of Splitcat Chintzibobs." It seems to me that this method would ruffle, as it were, the smooth surface of the softer and more simply pathetic passages.
[GKC ILN Feb 11 1911 CW29:36-7; the law case is discussed in ILN Dec 9 1911, CW 29:201]
Several times at Chesterton Conferences I have considered altering my name tag to read "Hello my name is Doctor Splitcat Chintzibobs" - except that Dale would probably expect me to change it to something else. I would, too - except those name tags are too small to fit "Hello my name is Doctor Plakkopytrixophylisperambulantiobatrix". Ah, well. So I don't. And besides, people would wonder if I had a twin brother. (I do, but I am the evil twin. Hee hee. Gosh I wish you could hear what "hee hee" actually sounds like when I do it; I had a whole course in grad school on how to do that sinister doctoral laugh. It's very effective.)

You can also find a very good commentary by GKC on Dodgson's use of fantasy words - no, I don't mean those like Tolkien's. I mean "brillig" and the Bandersnatch and the Jubjub bird and that sort of thing, as well as "uglification". You may think this is crazy - but then you weren't in the assembly language class (which I taught while I was doing my doctorate) when I read to them from Dodgson's text. People still think I am crazy, but what do they know. If you want to understand the first and most important technical aspect of flow-of-control in computer programming, you can find no better text than Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (I was going to quote it, but I think this time I will let you do some research.)

I was going to talk some more about this, and relate it to my title, but I decided to do it another time. Instead I want to talk about heraldry a little more, since heraldry really is both art and science at once, and ought to be more widely known. I've seen some exceedingly HORRID web sites which would be greatly and easily improved if their designers knew that very first rule of heraldry. I've seen commercial trucks and advertising banners and even license plates which break the rule as well, so perhaps it will be worth our consideration. Besides, it's fun, and really very easy, and you can do it with kids if you have any around. Be sure to get some crayons and nice white paper if you don't have any. You can probably find kids at the store too, if you don't already have some at home. If not, you will have to act like a kid for a little while; it doesn't hurt. Even if you are at work, or perhaps at some unfortunate "institute of higher learning" you ought to keep a box of crayons and some clean paper with you. It is very helpful, and also people will wonder what that smell is (ah the good smell of a crayon!) and then they will want to work on heraldry too, and they will improve their web sites... who knows how much good may result!

All right, so let us begin. I won't give the usual introduction today - another day perhaps - but leap right to the chapter about colors.

In heraldry we use just SIX different pigments - generally. There are two or three others but they are rarely used, and there a few other oddities, one of which is extremely high-tech, but we're just starting out today, and we'll come back to those special things later. Since heraldry is an ancient art, we use some very interesting terms for the hues we already know, and we group them into two main classes. (This is not hard, it just takes getting used to; it's a technical language like any science or art.) Here are the six:

There are TWO "metals":

1. "Or" which is gold or yellow. Note: we always capitalize this word; it comes from the Latin aurum = gold. You can use a yellow crayon or paint when you make yours; if you have money and work out your own arms, perhaps someday you might buy gold leaf and use that... but see what GKC says about gold first, as you may be disappointed.)
2. "Argent" which is silver or white. Note: that's like the Latin for silver. When you make yours, you can just leave the paper blank, unless you are painting and have some of that fantastic Titanium White, or can buy some silver leaf.

Then there are four "colors":

1. "Gules" which is red. You can use any bright red, though perhaps sometimes you'll make it deeper. Remember, it is an ART; you must do it RIGHT.

2. "Vert" which is green. You can use any bright green - again paying attention to what it is that you are making.

3. "Azure" which is blue. The same, but this time any bright blue.
4. "Sable" which is black. This is black. You may think the term "bright black" is sheer lunacy - but the Romans didn't think so! Oh yes: Latin has two words for black: niger which is bright or "shining black", and ater which is dull or "dead black"; the dictionary also just translates it "dark". Very interesting, but let's get back to heraldry.

All right. There are the six heraldic pigments: the metals Or and argent, the colors gules vert, azure and sable. Now, you need to know the RULE. It is very simple:

Never place metal upon metal, or color upon color.
Do you understand? For example, don't use anything white against a yellow blackground, or red against green, or blue against black (and so forth).

Why? you ask.

Well... remember that business - I must have quoted it a hundred times - about reverting to the doctrinal principles of the 13th century in order to get things done? Heraldry was NOT just fun art. It was something of extreme importance... but I will give you that explanation in my introduction some other time. (Have you caught on? I'm breaking the flow of control rule, just to demonstrate how one conjugates a sonnet. Hee hee.)

The quick reason is this: the purpose of a coat-of-arms - or of any real piece of art - is to get a message across. For example:

If you write yellow letters on a white background, it will be hard to read.

Could you read that? That is (in heraldic terms) placing metal on metal, "Or upon argent". It's difficult to read. Here's what I wrote, but obeying the rule, and placing "sable upon argent" (color on metal):

If you write yellow letters on a white background, it will be hard to read.

It's true. It's not impossible - but it's not as clear. However, metal on color, or color on metal is quite easily seen and grasped. But let us see some example coats-of-arms - just simple ones which will demonstrate the rule. You can try drawing these for practice. All three are from Chesterton:

Argent, a cross gules.
The national flag of England is the Cross of St. George, and that, oddly enough, was splashed from one end of Dublin to the other; it was mostly displayed on shield-shaped banners, and may have been regarded by many as merely religious; but it was the authentic St. George's Cross; gules on a field argent, with the four arms of the cross meeting the edges of the flag.
[GKC Christendom in Dublin 9]

"Our bearings," continued Syme calmly, "are 'argent a chevron gules charged with three cross crosslets of the field'."
[GKC The Man Who Was Thursday CW6:565]

The arms borne by the great Border family of Scrope, in popular language a blue shield with a gold band across it (I can say 'azure a bend or' quite as prettily as anybody else) was found to have been also adopted by a certain Sir Thomas Grosvenor, then presumably the newer name of the two.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:214]

Now that you have learned the first rule of heraldry, you are in a position to understand a curious little line in one of GKC's essays. I will just give it to you - see what you make of it:

The alphabet is one set of arbitrary symbols. The figures of heraldry are another set of arbitrary symbols. In the fourteenth century every gentleman knew one: in the twentieth century every gentleman knows the other. The first gentleman was just precisely as ignorant for not knowing that c-a-t spells "cat," as the second gentleman is for not knowing that a St. Andrew's Cross is called a cross saltire, or that vert on gules is bad heraldry.
[GKC ILN Dec 2 1905 CW27:70-71]
I would like to say more about that powerful bit about how the alphabet is a set of arbitrary symbols - recently I tried (with both hands I tried) to tell you a little of that mystery. But of course this is one of those odd little Traditions "liberals" require - just as "Free Speech" is one of those little Liberties "conservatives" demand. The challenge to us is to recall what Chesterton said in his book on Browning: "Free speech is a paradox". So, in many ways, is heraldry.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Secret of the Sword

"To St. Michael, In Time Of Peace"

Michael, Michael: Michael of the Morning,
Michael of the Army of the Lord.
Stiffen thou the hand upon the still sword, Michael,
Folded and shut upon the sheathed sword, Michael,
Under the fullness of the white robes falling,
Gird us with the secret of the sword.

When the world cracked because of a sneer in heaven,
Leaving out of all time a scar upon the sky,
Thou didst rise up against the Horror in the highest,
Dragging down the highest that looked down on the Most High:
Rending from the seventh heaven the hell of exaltation
Down the seven heavens till the dark seas burn:
Thou that in thunder threwest down the Dragon
Knowest in what silence the Serpent can return.

Down through the universe the vast night falling,
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Morning!)
Far down the universe the deep calms calling,
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Sword!)
Bid us not forget in the baths of all forgetfulness,
In the sigh long drawn from the frenzy and the fretfulness,
In the huge holy sempiternal silence,
In the beginning was the Word.

When from the deeps a dying God astounded
Angels and devils who do all but die,
Seeing Him fallen where thou couldst not follow,
Seeing Him mounted where thou couldst not fly,
Hand on the hilt, thou hast halted all thy legions,
Waiting the Tetelestai and the acclaim,
Swords that salute Him dead and everlasting
God beyond God and greater than His Name.

Round us and over us the cold thoughts creeping,
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the battle-cry!)
Round us and under us the thronged worlds sleeping,
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Charge!)
Guard us the Word; the trysting and the trusting
Edge upon honour and the blade unrusting.
Fine as the hair and tauter than the harpstring,
Ready as when it rang upon the target

He that giveth peace unto us; not as the world giveth:
He that giveth law unto us; not as the scribes:
Shall He be softened for the softening of the cities
Patient in usury; delicate in bribes?
They that come to quiet us, saying the sword is broken,
Break men with famine, fetter them with gold,
Sell them as sheep; and He shall know the selling,
For He was more than murdered. He was sold.

Michael, Michael: Michael of the Mastering,
Michael of the marching on the mountains of the Lord,
Marshal the world and purge of rot and riot,
Rule through the world till all the world be quiet:
Only establish when the World is broken,
What is unbroken is the Word.

[GKC CW10:174 et seq]

Please don't forget: today begins our annual Rosary novena, inspired by our memory of Mary's gift of victory to the naval forces of the West at Lepanto. There is so much evil in our world, and our foe is deadly - but we have a far more powerful ally. Let us unite in prayer, contemplating the mysteries of our Lord's life, death, and resurrection, and together ask for aid in our battle.

PS: if you need something to aid in your appreciation of this truth, please read Janney's The Miracle of the Bells.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tuesday's Bit of Latin: Franciscan Humour

Since next Monday is the feast of St. Francis, I thought I would post this in advance so you can tell your Franciscan (and Benedictine) friends about it.
--Dr. Thursday.
There is a joke about a Benedictine monk who used the common grace of Benedictus benedicat, whereupon the unlettered Franciscan triumphantly retorted Franciscus Franciscat. It is something of a parable of mediaeval history; for if there were a verb Franciscare it would be an approximate description of what St. Francis afterwards did. But that more individual mysticism was only approaching its birth, and Benedictus benedicat is very precisely the motto of the earliest mediaevalism. I mean that everything is blessed from beyond, by something which has in its turn been blessed from beyond again; only the blessed bless.
[GKC A Short History of England]
In case you don't get it, the Latin Benedictus benedicat means "May Benedict bless..." As GKC points out in his introduction, there isn't any Latin verb Franciscare or rather Franciscere - but that really is the whole point of the joke. You know, it's when the door isn't a door that it's a jar. Or about getting down from the duck. It's how you get UP on the duck in the first place which is the mystery.... hee hee. Perhaps when you are a Franciscan, you know how.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

4294967295, or, the Last Number

Today is the Equinox, the beginning of Autumn. As I am sure you know by now (as Chesterton points out) since the God of Christianity is the real God of the universe, Christianity has something say about everything from pork to pyrotechnics, from pigs to the binomial theorem - so too, Christianity has something to say about Autumn. I apologise for the pun, but I cannot resist...
Christianity spoke again and said: "I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is - the Fall."
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:321]
Yes, the Fall. (Which means that business with the snake and the fruit in the Garden happened in late summer, hee hee.) With the arrival of the autumnal equinox, Autumn (or the Fall, if you call it what it is) comes to our Northern Hemisphere, and our thoughts are naturally urged to contemplate the mystery of time.

Now, everyone will expect some sort of stiff physics or perhaps speculative cosmology - but that is not suitable for our column, even though GKC certainly mentioned Einstein nearly a hundred times in his various writings. I especially like the bit about how people ought to be fined if they mention his name without knowing what they are talking about. (That's in ILN May 23 1931 CW35:526) But we are not going into that sort of thing here - at least not today. If you're moving near the speed of light, however, perhaps we'll go into it yesterday, hee hee.

No; actually I was thinking more about numbers - which sometimes happens for me, since I play with numbers a lot - but also because of my recent writing about the chirality of letters. Now, the common Man (as GKC loved to say) does not normally think there is any difference between a NUMBER and a DIGIT. In fact, the use of that word "difference" is a hilarious pun, and gets into one of those things that - uh. As usual, Chesterton has gone into this, and he says it far better than I can:
They differed from the reality not in what they looked like but in what they were. A picture may look like a landscape; it may look in every detail exactly like a landscape. The only detail in which it differs is that it is not a landscape. The difference is only that which divides a portrait of Queen Elizabeth from Queen Elizabeth.
[GKC TEM CW2:245]
"They differ from the reality not in what they looked like but in what they were." There is a huge difference between a number and a representation of that number - and there is no pun at all in that context, since the "difference" isn't the mathematical kind of subtraction. One does not subtract paintings from English sovereigns; it is that old line about mixing apples with oranges... the possibility of fruit salads notwithstanding. Indeed, it is this grand conundrum which has misled several otherwise wise writers into distortions which ought not be dignified by the term "paradox", even though that is the word which is usually applied. But I am wandering and you are lost too. (Whew!) Let us return to numbers, or rather words about numbers, and about digits.

You see, I was thinking about time, and starts and ends - about measuring (as God states was His design in fashioning the various lamps in the sky, Gen 1:14) and about giving order to things. As soon as we examine this truth, we find a paradox, and we don't have to be a Chesterton to appreciate it. The paradox is that the sun and the moon do just one thing: the sun appears to travel, from east to west, over and over again. The moon does the same, while it slowly gets bigger and then smaller, and moves slowly from west to east against the background of the stars. (Yes there are some other wobbles but we'll let those details aside for today.) The sun and moon appear to make the same motions - but they make them in seeming endlessness. We have that grand insight into science given by GKC in his "Ethics of Elfland" chapter of Orthodoxy about how God says "Do it again!" to these heavenly bodies - and even if you have already read that chapter I urge you to Do It Again.

Ah, the intoxicating grandness of astronomy, where everyone on earth "has access at all times to the original objects of his study ... the masterworks of the heavens belong to him as much as to the great observatories of the world." [Robert Burnham Jr., Burnham's Celestial Handbook 5] Did you know that of the seven so-called "Liberal" Arts, there are four (or five) which are properly in the technical or scientific realm, and not in the non-science side? Oh yes. All four of the Quadrivium are about numbers in one sense or another: this is nothing new, but has been understood in this sense as far back as the twelfth century - for example, see the Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor:
Now, multitude which stands in itself is the concern of arithmetic, while that which stands in relation to another multitude is the concern of music. Geometry holds forth knowledge of immobile magnitude, while astronomy claims knowledge of the mobile.
[The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor translated and annotated by Jerome Taylor; Book 2 chapter 6]
Or, to put it as computer scientists do, in the form of a tree (which is sometimes called an "outline"):
a. The discrete
1) the absolute = Arithmetic
2) the relative = Music
b. The continued
1) the stable = Geometry
2) the moving = Astronomy

[Above from The World of Mathematics 85]

We know a bit more about mathematics now, and might adjust this tree and add to it significantly, but it is a good start, and does indeed suggest that there is a lot more to the intellectual life than a stream of dull plot-schemes, or the dates kings died on, or philosophical dreams (or nightmares) aimed at dethroning God... hee hee! The fact that the typical philosopher is not set on understanding Reality but on dethroning God is stated in Chesterton's grand epigram about modern thought: "With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it." [GKC Orthodoxy CW1:237] However! I have digressed, since it is quite tiresome to continue to read the whine of the liberal arts crowd here on the INTERNET. I wonder where they think computers come from! Plants, maybe. Ahem. The point here is not to make a digression on liberal arts - or even on liberal sciences - but to suggest an important truth about numbers - and about time.

In order to help reveal more of this, I have to go back to something I mentioned previously, and about which I recounted an interesting story almost a year ago: the fact that computers cannot add. Perhaps I here need to stress an even more surprising truth, and one which will distress the public educrats who read this blogg: the fact that computers do not use numbers. Yes, computer do not deal with numbers at all. What they deal with is something else - and the closest I can come to describing it without formalisms is to say, like I did previously, that they deal with things which have properties like railroad cars, that can be manipulated. (The Latin here is rather exaggerated; we do not use our hands (Latin manus) to manipulate railroad cars unless they are toy railroad cars!) But yes, those things which we call BYTES are arranged, and linked together and "manipulated" - they are physical in a way that no number is physical.

Remember how (long ago) we learned about counting? We had three sheep or three cherries or three toy engines... we found out the mystery that this "three" thing was like "red" or "soft": it did not depend on the things, but on the three-ness of those things. There has been much written about this mystery of number - but it is not a mystery. It is caused by some refusing to learn the first Learning, which is why the Greeks called it "Mathematics" = "That Which is Learned". Again, Chesterton says it far better than I can:
It is as easy to be logical about things that do not exist as about things that do exist. If twice three is six, it is certain that three men with two legs each will have six legs between them. And if twice three is six, it is equally certain that three men with two heads each will have six heads between them. That there never were three men with two heads each does not invalidate the logic in the least. It makes the deduction impossible, but it does not make it illogical. Twice three is still six, whether you reckon it in pigs or in flaming dragons, whether you reckon it in cottages or in castles-in-the-air.
[GKC ILN Nov 11 1905 CW27:59]
However, we are not concerned today with these things that do not exist, with flaming dragons or with castles-in-the-air, but with something far more mysterious: the LAST NUMBER.

Yes. (Oh boy, exciting!) Now, you will laugh about this, since you probably think it is a joke. It's not a joke. You may have followed Milo through The Phantom Tollbooth and asked the Mathemagician about the Biggest number, or the Longest number - and he has sent you up the infinite staircase, or out along the infinite line - both of which take you to the same place. But that is another sort of thing. (People worry about infinity, and get confused; they must have been absent that day, or haven't gotten that far in their coursework. Oh well; another time for that.) But I do not mean THAT sort of Last Number.

If you have owned a car long enough - or have bought a used one which someone else has owned long enough - you will know what I am talking about. There comes a point when the odometer "goes back to all zeros" - suddenly you have a New Car again. (hee hee) It sounds very Christian, let's see: "unless your car turn and be built again, it shall by no means..." Ahem. But we know that the car is not new. It is still the same old car. But the odometer says something astoundingly small!

Yes. But there is a better example, and one which we are even more familiar with, and will tell my point far better. It is called the Clock.

Now we all know how to add - or we think we do until we go to balance our checkbooks, though that usually means subtraction - and usually we are pretty good at adding. And I am sure that if I gave you a number, you feel fairly certain that you would be able to add two to that number and give me the correct answer. Let's try a little quiz:

I ask and... you answer:

Five plus two is... Seven.
Seven plus two is... Nine.
Nine plus two is... Eleven.
Eleven plus two is... Thirteen.

Good. Now, let's just try it with some other words put alongside, shall we? And we'll see what happens.

It's eleven o'clock in the morning now - let's meet in two hours - will you be free?

And you respond: At one this afternoon? Yes, I'm free.

Ah ha! But you just added two to eleven and got one!

Is that oops or sure? Well, well. What is going on?

It's the same as the car odometer - and the same as the computer. The clock provides us with just one "wheel" and when it runs out, we start over. We do as Chesterton says God tells the sun: "Do It Again." The repetition after noon is our homage, not (oddly enough) to the non-Copernican terms of Sunrise and Sunset, which is the way the Romans named the hours, but to the far more mysterious zenith and nadir of the globe, to midnight and noon.

In the computer, there is something rather like an odometer - there is a fixed number of places, sort of like those little dials of digits, and when they fill up, it starts over again at zero. However, because the computer's "numbers" (which are NOT numbers) represent values using a base-two scheme, the Last Number of a computer isn't all nines. That was the Great Media Fear some ten years ago, remember? They called it Eetook, or Y2K - the comet which was supposed to hit on New Year's of 2000 (or maybe 2001 depending on when you believe the millennium began, hee hee) No; in a thirty-two bit computer, which is what most personal and business machines are these days, the Last Number looks like this in our common tongue:
or if you prefer it in words:
four billion, two hundred ninety-four million, nine hundred sixty-seven thousand, two hundred ninety-five.
It's the last number, because after it comes zero again. (Remember, as I said, the things in the computer are NOT numbers, but that is another topic for another day. Huh? Are you looking at a computer? Do you see numbers here? I didn't think so. Hee hee!)

It's not all that hard. Look at the clock. After 12 comes 1. Yeah, our "12" on the clock ought to be "zero" - and on computers, midnight is called "00:00". If your clock or watch is digital, you may (as I do) have it set to use the 24-hour clock, sometimes called military time, in which case the Last Number looks like "23:59" or "23:59:59".

I had to hunt a good bit to find whether GKC ever played with this puzzle, and I am not sure he didn't. But he has a lovely joke about time:
Mr. Birrell ... remarked that all the children appeared to be consumed with a desire to ask him the time. He appeared mystified as to why they asked him the time. I am unable to answer with accuracy (although I have studied the phenomenon many hundred times) beyond being quite certain that it was not because they wanted to know. A careful examination of the conduct of Battersea Park children shows quite clearly that the mention of no hour of the day (however sensational) makes any difference at all to their dignified and dilatory behaviour. Children live in an almost entirely timeless world (in which they resemble the Deity of Thomas Aquinas), and most of us who can remember our childhood can remember a certain sense of spaciousness in the hours, a sense that might be called a kind of happy emptiness. ... And I think very few children (certainly not the countless hordes that lie in wait for Mr. Birrell and me in Battersea Park) take any particular interest at all in the time of day. If you followed the disgraceful example of Policeman Peter Forth, and answered them "A quarter past thirteen," I think the information would be received with a refined indifference.
[GKC ILN May 5 1906 CW:178-9]
Perhaps all my lengthy discussion of the Last Number will also be received with a "refined indifference" - but it has some relevance. There is a last number assigned to each of us also... As a true priest and teacher, Father Jaki often reminded people of the Four Last Things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. In thinking of the waning of the year, we may do well to ponder the coming Harvest - our Lord actually mentioned such a thing - and consider how our odometer is counting off the seconds and minutes and hours. How are we using our time and our lives? Is it fruitful? But it is also important to remember that while the northern hemisphere begins autumn, the southern hemisphere begins spring. This is NOT a matter of dualism. This is not a suggestion that we believe, as the pagans, in the Cycle or "Great Year" - this topic is examined in all its bitter barrenness in Jaki's Science and Creation. We are Christian: we believe in the Strict Linearity of Time. This absolute linearity of Christian history is also found in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man: "It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. [CW2:398-9, emphasis added] You cannot have a middle of a circle... or to put it another way, no circle can have its center on its edge.

There is A LAST NUMBER to the Cosmos, and it WILL end. (The mystery of "end" is also something we shall consider another day, since it also makes people itch, like "infinity".) But the fact that we humans CAN add (unlike machines) suggests something infinite at work. In fact, we do have something infinite, and it is the very fact (among others) that we CAN imagine adding correctly, regardless of how huge a number, that we are distinguished from machines. And if you think about this a little more, you will begin to see into both "infinity" and "end"... but let it go for today.

A good friend of mine, a brilliant engineer, once put it into a satirical "poem" (I think that is what he called it). I don't have his precise phrase to quote but it was something like "intelligent rivers perform addition." That is the whole point. A computer cannot add, or rather it adds only in the way in which a river adds its water to the ocean.

But there is a greater point to be made, and I bring in the term "poem" intentionally, so that I can conclude with a Chesterton quote:
In one of his poems, he says that abyss between the known and the unknown is bridged by "Pontifical death." There are about ten historical and theological puns in that one word. That a priest means a pontiff, that a pontiff means a bridge-maker, that death is certainly a bridge, that death may turn out after all to be a reconciling priest, that at least priests and bridges both attest to the fact that one thing can get separated from another thing - these ideas, and twenty more, are all actually concentrated in the word "pontifical." In Francis Thompson's poetry, as in the poetry of the universe, you can work infinitely out and out, but yet infinitely in and in. These two infinities are the mark of greatness; and he was a great poet.
[GKC ILN Dec 14 1907 CW27:603-4]

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tuesday's bit of Latin: omniBUS

Not that I have loads of spare time, but since things seem to be a little too quiet these days on the INTERNET I thought I ought to start something. Ahem. I mean start another posting series. Also, since the word has actually made it down to even our diocesan paper that the CORRECTED form of the words for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is scheduled to begin use in Advent of 2011 - you know, sort of like a software upgrade: (Hee hee: "The Vatican today announced the release of "Mass 2.1" Ahem!) Even though this version is English and not Latin, I thought we ought to consider a little about Chesterton and Latin.

To start with, let's see one of my favourite bits of Latin in GKC - one of those lovely places where an ending for the ablative plural has become a common word in English. Oh yes, very funny, but true.... But read it for yourself:

The word "omnibus" is a very noble word with a very noble meaning and even tradition. It is derived from an ancient and adamantine tongue which has rolled it with very authoritative thunders: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus. It is a word really more human and universal than republic or democracy. A man might very consistently build a temple for all the tribes of men, a temple of the largest pattern and the loveliest design, and then call it an omnibus. It is true that the dignity of this description has really been somewhat diminished by the illogical habit of clipping the word down to the last and least important part of it. But that is only one of many modern examples in which real vulgarity is not in democracy,
but rather in the loss of democracy. It is about as democratic to call an omnibus a 'bus as it would be to call a democrat a rat.
[GKC ILN Jan 13 1917 CW31:22-3]
GKC is quoting what is known as the "Vincentian Canon" (or rule) phrased by St. Vincent of Lérins (+ ca 440) "That must be regarded as true which is believed EVERYWHERE (ubique), ALWAYS (semper), BY ALL (omnibus)". [See e.g. Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary]

One curious note relating to this is something I picked up in my explorations of molecular biology - there is an important enzyme called "ubiquitin" which might be roughly nicknamed "the everywhere stuff"... There are some other "ubi" compounds too, but you can hunt for them yourselves.

Perhaps someday, someone somewhere will take up the question of whether the tech term "SCSI-bus" is a dative or ablative plural, and then discuss the root of this very odd noun and give the rest of its paradigm. (Hee hee.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Palin again: rRNA beyond the pale, or the suppressed pun?

In this, my final posting of the summer, I will get political. Hee hee. Yes, in a rare foray into the maelstrom of the popular news, I reach in for a piece of verbal excitement, much as our Uncle Gilbert did - and behold I am rescued by a name and a word from the newspaper!

Yes, I was pondering what I would write about for some time, in fact. There's lots of computing to talk about, and lots of science, and lots and lots of Chesterton to apply - he is, after all, a great bridge-builder, if not quite as the ancient Romans used the word pontifex, or the ancient Hebrews spoke of the order of Melchizedek... and I am not the engineer he was, but I try. I thought about starting a series of "Chesterton-related" books - but could hardly get past The Phantom Tollbooth and The Miracle of the Bells and The Haunted Bookshop... Or, if I had more guts-and-gumption, something on the INTERNET or even on the hilarious 14th century "Tweetbook" phrase gaudent moderni brevitate. The character limit is so silly, it feels Aztec (or is it Mayan) with their 260-day horoscope calendar - but I am far too busy to write such studies just now. Thinking of the INTERNET and the nearly complete collection of GKC's writings now available "for free" (as people say) made me apply a standard method of inversion, one of those rare "problem-solving" techniques which escape the moderns who delight in brevity like those who are employed in education: that is, I could consider some questions which the usual "search tools" cannot solve, even if there really was such a collection available - like, what Latin did GKC use. I explored that some time ago, and had a list somewhere... and something made me wonder what... Ah but I must not anticipate my pun. I wondered about GKC's use of a certain form of word, and was about to ask that question of AMBER (since I am the one who does the work, not my computer) But it seemed too dull as a topic - a verbal firework, indeed, but a fizzle. I had almost decided on starting a little "education" series on heraldry, since I have those five coats-of-arms from my Saga hanging on my laser printer for inspiration, and I had recalled from memory my little cheat-sheet I handed out at the seminar I gave some years ago at the Chesterton Conference. It would be fun, talking about the colors, such curious words: Or, argent, gules, azure, vert, sable - and the Law, and the Ordinaries, the fess, the pale...

(For example, this arms is blazoned: Vert, a pale Or.)

Then I stopped. Pale. Verbal fireworks. Oh my. GKC's use of... Well, what is a "pale"? In heraldry, this is a vertical band or stripe. It comes from the Latin palus = a stake, related to pango = I drive in, fasten. It comes up in the odd, almost antique sounding phrase "beyond the pale" which really means nothing more than "outside the fence". Chesterton uses "paling" (fence) over 30 times; we heard it used recently in his The Ball and the Cross where a staurophobe saw the cross repeated. And then, I noted the prefix in this word "paling" was the same five letters (though not of the same derivation) as the prefix in another famous word - the word which had been on my mind as one worth researching in AMBER: the word palindrome.

We know that drome comes from the Greek "run" - a hippodrome is a place for horse-races. But what is this prefix PALIN?

Ah, you say, and laugh, with smug running down your face. Doc, Doc! This is some political column! BORING.

No it is not. I know who Sarah Palin is, and have my own opinions; they are irrelevant for my purpose today. You will find neither encomium nor obloquy here. (If you don't understand me, you had better go buy a dictionary. You'll need it when you go to read Chesterton; he uses them too.)

But let us consider words. The Greek palin means "again" or "once more". It comes up in several very curious English words:
palimpsest = "scraped again"
palingenesis = "born again"
palindrome = "run again"
palinode = "sung again"
But since you have your dictionary out already you can consider the others as you wish. (To my knowledge GKC only uses one, and that only once; guess which.) For now let's just look at "palindrome" - or rather at palindromes.

You know them. Words like "noon" and "radar". Sentences like "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama." That one is perhaps the best known and most famous. They come up in other languages, too: one need not study very much Latin before one trips over that famous irregular verb esse - or illi or ibi or non or ecce. In a book called Mother Tongue [page 227] I found mention of two from the classical tongues:
Nispon anomimata mi monan opsin

Which the Greeks wrote on fountains: "Wash the sin as well as the face". And the Romans had this witty saying:
In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni
If Bilbo and Gollum had been trading Latin riddles, the challenge "We enter the circle after dark and are consumed by fire" would be answered by "moths" (or tinea).

Now, of what earthly good are palindromes? Or are they just a silliness, a toy of the tongue, or prehaps more correctly, of the printed word?

Well... besides being a kind of rarity, and hence interesting, they happen to arise in a very curious place, where they have what I would suggest is a rather startling purpose. When I was doing my doctorate, I got to become familiar with something called prokaryotic rRNA - the ribosomal RNA of bacteria, which was being studied by some of the biologists at that School-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. Among other things, I learned a little about the "shape" of rRNA. Remember what I said in previous columns, how letters have two "hands" - a left hand and a right hand - by which they chain together to form a word. In the same way the nucleotide "bases" of rRNA have two hands, a 5-prime hand and a 3-prime hand, by which they chain together to form the molecule of rRNA. These are around 1500 bases long, and have various amazing details which would take far too long to describe... maybe some other time. But one of the additional things about these "bases" are that they have a characteristic like letters - in fact, we use letters to name them: A, C, G, U. These letters, however, are unlike the written letters of language in that they have an additional property. We cannot pile a letter on top of another (Note, in Scrabble, we merely agree to let "up" mean left and "down" mean right.) These "bases" are able to BIND or link in a kind of vertical sense - yes, even while they stay in their places within the word! But they must obey a certain rule. The base called "A" may link with the base called "U". The base called "C" may link with the base called "G". And it is permitted that the base A "sit next to" a "G" base.... Anyway, this binding is called the "Watson-Crick" pairing, and one may even form palindromes according to this pairing, such as ...AAAGGGU.....ACCCUUU...

Doc you are crazy. Why bother with all this?

Yeah, well, that's what some biologists seemed to think too. They fuss about evolution and linked mutations and stuff like that. But you see there's something else going on. As Chesterton liked to say, it's too big to be seen. [See "The Three Tools of Death" in The Innocence of Father Brown] And perhaps you won't see it. It's not easy to guess unless you've been reading along with us.

Normally, there are lots and lots of things we SEE but we do not OBSERVE. There are many of these, in our spoken language, and even more in our printed language. I have said several times how ancient Latin and Greek did not use something so simple and common - something we use constantly, something which if I left it out you would GO INSANE, even if you weren't reading my writing. Take a look:

It's the very simple character called the SPACE - ASCII 20 hex, if you want the technical term. They strung their letters and words together without spaces - ah, how much more advanced we are. (And now, since "the moderns rejoice in brevity" perhaps our twitbooks will ban that character, hee hee.) But without trying to get technical, the space plays an important part, even if it is no more than making something readable.

So too, perhaps, the Watson-Crick palindrome plays a part. It may be suggested that these things play a role akin to the spaces - or, perhaps to make the argument a bit stronger, akin to the indentations in poetry. Now, I happen to know (since I read Chesterton) that not all indentation implies a rhyme scheme - for example I propose his poem that doesn't rhyme. You may wonder if I have completely lost my marbles, maybe got infected by those prokaryotes in the lab? Chesterton wrote a poem that doesn't rhyme?

Oh yes... It's one of my favorites, too. I wonder if it's been reprinted. Ah well, I'll leave that to you for homework. Hee hee.

But, as odd as it sounds, due to this matter of what the biologists call "linked mutations" - that is, when one base on one side of the palindrome changes, it is almost guaranteed that the corresponding one on the other side will also change, and to the exactly proper matching base. It appears that these palindromes form "helices" which hold the rRNA molecule in its proper shape... so in some sense, it is irrelevant what the bases "spell" as long as there are just enough to keep the two parts aligned and stuck together - and the rest of the thing at its proper shape. In the same way, we don't mind TOO much if there is a little MORE spacing between words, or a little less - this is the trick typographers use to make that elegant right-justified margin which is the trademark of tradition, and so repelling in this age of the "all-powerful" modern computer. Ahem. Yeah, that was being sarcastic: remember they cannot even add correctly! Oh my.

I have just one more little item to add - maybe I should say one word. Hee hee. Perhaps it was lurking in my mind, as it was over a week ago when I saw the article, and I laughed, since no one wanted to mention Dodgson in the context. Maybe it was too striking - or maybe I just happen to read the right books - like Chesterton, who (thank God) read Dodgson, even if he was a math professor. (How many of you lit'ry folk read books by math professors? Or even blogg-postings by computer scientists? Oh, very good. Welcome to our family, sit down and make yourself comfortable, but be sure to fasten your safety harness it gets bumpy.)

What word? you ask.

Apparently there was some discussion centering on something which the newspaper spelled "REFUDIATE" - which it seems was used by someone named Palin. Palin again? Yes, indeed.

And this word - which is not really a word at all, but a sort of verbal glitch - made people laugh. I don't know if it was a slip of the tongue or a typographical error, and it hardly matters. One of Chesterton's most profound scientific statements is based on a typographical error which I expect he encountered many times:
...the printer's tendency to turn the word "cosmic" into the word "comic." It annoyed me at the time. But since then I have come to the conclusion that the printers were right. The democracy is always right. Whatever is cosmic is comic.
[GKC ILN June 9 1906 CW27:206]
It's too bad more astronomers and physicists have not encoutnered this typograpical error - maybe like me they do their own typesetting and proofreading, hee hee. Now this laughter is a good thing, as we know, even if, as GKC speculates in the last sentence of Orthodoxy, that Christ hid His own laughter from us. I could spend a whole column on this - and no doubt will, though I prefer to handle it in my fiction, as you may already know. Ahem.

In that important reference work called The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo defeated the demon called the "Senses Taker" with laughter. Harry Potter tells Frank and George to work on their joke-shop, since: "I could do with a few laughs. We could all deal with a few laughs. I've got a feeling we're going to need them more than usual before long." [JKR Goblet of Fire HP 4:733; see note below] In other words, laughter may be important in the impending battle. And of course we can all recite Chesterton's most famous quote about angels being able to take themselves lightly - which is about the importance of laughter. (No wonder he would think it correct to say "I'm what's wrong with the world"!)

But more than being simply a joke, this word "refudiate" happens to be an example of an important method of word-formation: a method which was practiced by one of the Great Authors of Literature, the mathematician named C. L. Dodgson. Perhaps you do not know Dodgson, or only know him under his logon screen ID or whatever the twitbook thing is called, hee hee. But since Chesterton happened to write about it, I will give you the references. It's grand:
In my pure and ardent youth I had a proposal that the names of husband and wife should be not hyphened but telescoped. They could be made into portmanteau words, as Lewis Carroll made "Slithy" out of "Writhing" and "Slimy." In that case my imaginary married couple would not be called Ponderbury-Ballymulligan; they would be called simply Ponderbulligan or Banderpulgury. This would be more convenient for telegrams, if not for shipwrecks. One can see how swiftly and smoothly it would fit itself to most marriages of society.
[GKC ILN Apr 29 1911 CW29:78]

Now, Lewis Carroll was a very Victorian Victorian. But he did identically the same thing; only he happened to know that it was funny, and therefore he did it for fun. He invented what he called "portmanteau words," with the sense of two words telescoped into one. Thus he explained that "brillig" is a combination of "brilliant" and "grilling"; or that "slithy" is a portmanteau of "lithe" and "slimy." This particular instance happens to illustrate what I mean when I say that I am not a mere partisan. The author of "Alice in Wonderland" is not an ideal being whom I revere, or hold up to be revered. In some respects he was much too Victorian a Victorian. On some matters he really was much too solemn. But he was not solemn about portmanteau words...
[GKC ILN Sept 12 1931 CW35:589-90]

I am almost certain that many moderns suffer from what may be called the disease of the suppressed pun. I mean that, in men who ould disdain to make anything so vulgar as a joke out of a verbal coincidence, there is a subconscious movement of the mind to meet the sound of the word. Thus those who would denounce creeds (a Latin word for anything that anybody believes) are seldom or never, you will notice, moved to describe them by any milder name; they must have a word that sounds like a portmanteau of "crank" and "crabbed" and "greed." They cannot really let themselves go in reviling doctrine. It must be in reviling dogma. They would never sink so low as to make a positive pun about it...
[GKC The Well and the Shallows CW3:347]
Ah, wonderful! Let us all strive to refudiate the grave and the glum by taking ourselves lightly. For homework, try to make up your own portmanteau word. Get it into the media somehow - at least post a comment with its derivation, meaning, and use in a sentence. Special bonus points to anyone who contrives one in Latin or Greek.

P.S. If you dislike my quoting Harry Potter, recall that Aquinas quotes pagans - even St. Paul quotes pagans, Benedict XVI quotes Nietzche, and Chesterton quotes Shaw. We need to continually recall the friendship of GBS and GKC, always recalling that Chesterton could write about his foes in this way:
I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.
[GKC Heretics CW1:46]
I may be quite wrong too - but I hope to be honest, and I trust we shall remain friends. We need only look to Uncle Gilbert as a reminder.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Violence on the Planes

Yeah, I almost choked at Holy Mass today when I heard that in the readings - and something about the destruction of the buildings in the north. The gospel (about the cure of the centurion's servant) was most reassuring, however - just as He did at Cana, our Lord can perform miracles-at-a-distance, and we surely need His power to heal and to restore us. We must recall that profound insight of Newman: "[Jesus] has, if I may so speak, the incomprehensible power of even making Himself weak" - an idea sketched for us in GKC's gorgeous Christmas card: "...the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle." [GKC TEM CW2:301] This is something neither His enemies nor ours can tolerate - and something which is their defeat: "The cross cannot be defeated - for it is Defeat." [GKC The Ball and the Cross]

This day, a day when we failed to be vigilant, recalls John Philpot Curran's famous epigram on vigilance:
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
and GKC's comment upon it:
...which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin...
[GKC The Thing CW3:312]
The term "vigilance" reminds me of WATCHER, the monitoring tool which watched all our other machines and programs. It reminds me of how nearly every one of the 48 television monitors, each showing a different cable TV channel, were all showing the same thing. I also think of how I quoted Chesterton as we watched the big screens in our Control Room - the screens which showed not WATCHER, but something more terrifying, but NOT surprising - and how, soon after, I changed WATCHER to display the American flag:

And if you'd like more detail, click here for an account of how it happened. It's phrased in a fictional style, but it's a good approximation. And yes, I really did quote GKC...

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Art and Technology, or, the Magic of Chiral Letters and Trains

One of the odd lines I overheard at the Chesterton Conference was something regarding a tension or division between "art" and "technology". I laughed, since it is so a-Chestertonian. Note: I did not say anti-Chestertonian. It is not so much against GKC as much as "lacking" or "avoiding"; perhaps I should say without GKC. Do I mean this as some sort of unkind retaliation against whoever said it? Of course not. We don't go into such personal things here. Besides, it would not be quite right, as I don't have any actual statement about the matter to examine. Besides, I might as well go into a debate with Father Jaki about what he called the "Impassable Divide", which was his way of trying to examine the variety of fields of study. (He was too much of a student of Cardinal Newman to jump to the wrong conclusion about this, but more on that another time.) Rather, I just take the chance adjacency of these words - "art" and "technology"... No. I really need to say "chance conflict" there, though I will grab onto that "adjacency" for examination in just a little.

But first I want to show you how Chesterton dealt with this sort of conflict. It's quite elegant, especially since his words provide a precise paradigm for us in this case. It comes up in a remarkably relevant way, where he is (as Father Jaki puts it) writing as a Seer of Science:
The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. It is the ignorance and not the knowledge that produces the current notion that free thought weakens theism. It is the real world, that we see with our own eyes, that obviously unfolds a plan of things that fit into each other.
[GKC, The Thing CW3:170-1]
We could do this as musicians when given violin parts in C and simply transpose for our E-flat and B-flat saxes. But it's funnier to me because we don't even have to do that much work!
The general notion that art establishes a-technology is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Art is the Latin for skill. A-technology is the Greek for lack of skill. It is not self evident that lack of skill is the goal of skill.
Yes. You see, the Latin word ars, artis and the Greek tecnh (pronounced "techE", with a long e at the end) mean the same thing - skill, human cleverness, "art" in the widest sense. The opposite to these terms is rather surprising: it is natura or ingenium in Latin, or fusiV in Greek (pronounced "physis") - that is things which are natural in their work, and emphatically not human. (Incidentally, all this is from dictionaries and other references, and is not "my" opinion; if you don't like it, you'll have to take it up with them, and not me. Or perhaps you'd prefer to join me in my new university, which will deal with all these things in a just manner.)

Now what is particularly funny about this is the real opposition (at least from the words themselves) is not between "art" and "technology" but between "technology" and "engineering"! Oh yes - engineering descends to us from ingenium, and really means "something you're born with". Amazing.

But for Chestertonians - and indeed for all those who appreciate words like "catholic" (not upper-case) - we do not have a conflict; we do not face an impassable divide. We are following a well-trodden path; Newman and Chesterton and others have pointed the way to an excellent bridge. We know that God is just another Name for "truth" - even that atheist attests to this when (finding himself without God) he immediately created one as the device which detects truth! (Hee hee hee!) Just this past week I found another stunning link from Newman to Chesterton - and indeed to Duhem and Jaki. I can't give the whole essay, but I will just give the trigger sentence for you:
Though sacred truth was delivered once for all, and scientific discoveries are progressive, yet there is a great resemblance in the respective histories of Christianity and of Science.
[Newman, University Sketches 14: "Supply and Demand: the Schoolmen"]
Ah... does that sound familiar? Here's how Chesterton put it, in that classic debate between the Catholic MacIan and the Atheist Turnbull:
[MacIan said:]"...there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church."

"Physical science and the Catholic Church!" said Turnbull sarcastically; "and no doubt the first owes a great deal to the second."

"If you pressed that point I might reply that it was very probable," answered MacIan calmly. "I often fancy that your historical generalizations rest frequently on random instances; I should not be surprised if your vague notions of the Church as the persecutor of science was a generalization from Galileo. I should not be at all surprised if, when you counted the scientific investigations and discoveries since the fall of Rome, you found that a great mass of them had been made by monks."
[GKC The Ball and the Cross chapter 8]
I would suggest this excerpt when faced with the question, "Did Chesterton know of Pierre Duhem?" Duhem, of course, is the great French thermodynamicist and historian of science; next Tuesday marks the 94th anniversary of his death. He wrote the ten-volume Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic which examines in huge and meticulous detail the actual development of science during the Middle Ages. (See Jaki's Science and Creation chapter 10 "The Sighting of New Horizons" for details, or his biography, Uneasy Genius: : The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem.)

It would be fun to go into this further - I know some people like such debates - but I want to go into something even more difficult today. Last week we talked briefly about "chirality" - the idea that the basic chemicals of life come in two forms, mirror images of each other, possessing the paradoxical sameness/differentness as the left hand and the right hand. (Though as Sheila points out, all living things use only the L-form.) Today I wish to tell you a little more about the mystery of right-and-left, or rather about that "adjacency" I mentioned a little earlier, and show you how it enters into another field of study. No, not chemistry, but literature.

Oh yes. You see, I know where the bridge is - or perhaps I should say the Gate... and so I can "go in and out" (see John 10:9) It is remarkable (no, not my insight, but the truth of the thing) perhaps because it arises in such a strange and hard-to-see place that few ever spot it. It really takes a Chestertonian perspective, as we say over and over here: "the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing." [GKC Tremendous Trifles ch 1]

That mystery arises for me in particular because I am a computer scientist, and have to deal with extremely detailed matters which very VERY few people ever touch, and most never even suspect even exist! Last November I posted the story of how I shocked an intelligent young man by showing him how a computer cannot add. (Well, speaking as a computer scientist, I know computers cannot add; after all, computers do not even deal with "numbers" - but people persist in thinking such silly things. Computers, however, will do what I tell them, as long as I tell them correctly, and then they do it very fast. Ahem.) Well, today I must tell you (who I am sure are also intelligent, though you may be older or younger, male or female) a little more about what computers can and cannot do...

No. I won't. This is NOT a blogg about computers. I will use another analogy, one which I delight in, and which for me long antedates my awareness of computers.

I live in a famous town, a town whose name appears on a very popular board game - for a number of reasons I do not care to mention it here. The name of this town happens to look like the English gerund for what one does with books - which may explain a little about me - but it is not pronounced like that gerund. I live just three blocks from the railroad (that's how the name appears on that board game) and I have known that railroad from a very early age. Perhaps you also like trains; children do tend to admire them - and we know how Chesterton admired them:
For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys' habit in this matter.
[GKC ILN July 21 1906 CW27:239]
Here is yet another project for a wise student to pursue: GKC on trains. Ah. I must quote one other, to set up my argument correctly:
The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!
[GKC The Man Who Was Thursday CW6:479]
(Of course you must remember that "Bradshaw" means the book of train schedules.) Oh my, you look pale. Did I just say something evil? I told you this would be much more a cause of debate than my struggle over "art" and "technology". Let me say it again, in isolation, in case you missed the fighting words:

Man is a magician.

Oh my oh my.

Yes. Let us proceed with our lesson, shall we? Wands out, then, class.

You don't have a wand? Oh yes you do... I have a bunch here on my desk. I use them a lot, even though I also use a computer. My favourite is made of a very special sort of wood, and contains a core which has a remarkable power... contained in that core are countless spells. Oh yes, let's say that NASTY word again...


(hee hee!) Have I made it clear yet what that wand is?

Oh, perhaps not. (sigh) But then let's talk about what comes out of those wands. You see, as hard as it may be for you to realize, what comes out is just like those trains. While the wand is in your hand - ah - above the paper, it is like the empty track. It is nothing at all... it is a mystical expectation, it is that strange line from "Little Town of Bethlehem" about the "silent streets" filled with "hopes and fears of all the years"... or, as Chesterton told us about a writer with "writer's block":
"He did no work lately; sometimes sat and stared at a blank sheet of paper as if he had no ideas."
"Or as if he had too many," said Gabriel Gale.
[GKC "The Purple Jewel" in The Poet and the Lunatics]
But then - ah, then, with a rush of noise like the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost, with a blaze of fire and smoke (in the old days when they were steam-driven) comes the Engine... that first and most mystic of the mystical components of the train! Behind it, in that grand order, which is the First Rule of Heaven, comes a chain of cars, linked at their ends - and on they roll.

But each must follow, according to that order. Not one can ever depart from the forward motion of the Engine... Once the handedness has been chosen, all the train cars, all the monomers (to use the chemistry term) must abide by the chosen direction.

There is a mystery here. Yes, you can yap at me for pretending that there is some occult thing lurking in a common pencil - but I shall defend (as Chesterton's Gabriel Syme) that Man is a magician, and never more so as when he wields that mighty wand full of spells... er, spelling.

The secret, of course, is that every single letter comes with two hidden and marvellous hands, and they are as distinct as our left hand from our right hand. Oh yes. Our letters are chiral. They are like the railroad cars, and they must follow the engine in proper order.

Now you will not see them, if you pick up a Q or even an X, and examine it under a powerful magnifying lens. These hands aren't seen in that manner.

However, if you have ever managed to see the OLD kind of printing press, where there are actual cases of type - that is, separate little chunks of metal, one for EACH letter - you will have a hint of those hands. You see, I am not talking about the SHAPE of the letters - some of which do possess some interesting symmetries. I am talking about the letters-in-themselves, in the sense that they are powerless unless they are combined into words. But when they are combined, they must abide by the rules of order. They must all stand on their "feet" and all with the "nick" facing in the same direction. (These are the technical terms applied to a single type block.) Yes, there really is a left hand of S and a right hand of H, and they join as mightily as two train cars (though usually not with quite the same crash; I've watched the making up of trains at the local train yard.) They also are like the amino acids - they only combine with the expenditure of energy, and the combination is signified by an advance along an ever-growing chain. That word "chain" is important; in computing, or rather in the branch of finite math where we study the theory of this sort of thing, we speak of "concatenation" - this comes from the Latin catena = chain, and refers to the act of joining two strings (two ordered collections) into one. Concatenation is reminiscent of the idea of "adding", and there are certain similarities, but there are also important differences - specifically there is NO difference, I mean there is no "subtraction"... but I must not go into this fascinating matter further today.

The mystery I am trying to display for you is that these letters - which you are perceiving and yet paradoxically ignoring as you read my writing - these letters are just like a man with his hands spread out on either side. They are like the train cars, linking together at their ends. (You do NOT stack train cars one on top of the other, or side against side; those are not trains but wrecks.) Even when you play Scrabble or work a cross-word puzzle, you MUST abide by this rule: you will always truly link "left hand to right hand" even though you arrange the physical letters in a vertical sense.

Yes, you can say that palindromes (words like "noon" or "radar") work both ways - they are ambidextrous, if you insist. But such are rare. You can also put your switch engine at the rear of the train and push it along - I've seen that done, but it is also rare.

What is the point of all this? The point is my poor attempt at shining light on something you may have not ever noticed: that there exists in each letter two little "connectors" - a right hand and a left hand, just like the amino and the carboxyl groups in an amino acid (which build proteins), or like the 5-prime and the 3-prime hydroxyls in nucleotides (which build DNA or RNA), or like the two couplers at the ends of a freight car (which build a train). Those "hands" are bound, not to the letter in its graphical form, but to the letter-as-it-is. "S" has a certain shape, and as a Scrabble tile it may fit above or below, left or right; but as an idea it can be enigne, car, or caboose: it may Start a word or come in the midSt, or at the end of other letterS - and in each case it always keeps its right hand distinguished from its left. It is in this binding that the mystery and the power of WORD occurs: the distinction which keeps "GOD" from running into "DOG" or into "GDO" (short for "grid dip oscillator" a tool used by radio engineers) or keeps "LIVE" and "EVIL" apart.

It is not for nothing that the wizards of fantasy speak of the power of a spell. We know what power there is in a spell. Remember that next time you pick up your pencil or pen - or when you see a train go by.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

2b or not 2b

Wow. I just spotted an amazing comment made on one of my earlier postings, to wit, the one on positive and negative triangles. Here it is:
Sheila writes: Ooh, I actually knew about the "handed" isomers of amino acids -- Dr. Marshner brought them up in our apologetics class! Only one isomer (I forget if it is the left- or right-handed version) works in the human body -- making the chances of proteins forming randomly in the primordial sludge even LESS statistically likely.
posted August 31 2010
What a triumph - there is a theology professor SOMEWHERE who KNOWS about isomers of amino acids!

Here, for example, is a rendition of the amino acid called alanine. Again, remember, there are two versions - here is one and here is its mirror...

This is excellent... and quite exciting. It may mean there are some philosophers who will have a clue about life and the real world. It is all very well to make odd and unattributed claims (as curiously humorous as they are) about papal encyclicals - but the truth of amino acids will stand no matter how many "philosophers" write journal articles against them or against their study. Perhaps, in this decadent time, there are some who do not believe in such things, as there are some who do not believe in the motions of the earth, or in the multiplicity of the chemical elements. I have no time for such silliness; I have real work to do. And real poetry to write. Indeed! I was able to hear Dr. Marshner at the recent conference, and I can readily imagine how he brought this important chemical fact to bear upon the moral and philosophical topics at hand. Such grand work gives us an excellent and most hopeful vision of greater things to come. And the mystery is far deeper, as we shall consider today.

Since carbon has four bonds, oriented along the vertices of a tetrahedron, there peers out from this common chemical the Sign of the Cross - yes, to the despair of iconoclasts and - er - a certain tribe of staurophobes.

Since this geometric truth is a bit difficult to describe, I will give you some pictures. But - er - since they are two dimensional, you will still have to exert your intellects, though not quite so much as if I only used words.

In the first, we see a tetrahedron - that is, a four-sided thing, sort of like a pyramid, except in pyramids the bottoms are square, and here the bottom is triangular.

All four sides are triangles. You can make one yourself, it's fun. Just cut out four equilateral triangles - that is, where all the edges are the same length - and then tape their edges together. Even easier, just print this picture and then cut it out - DON'T cut into the diagram, just around the outside - then FOLD on the lines, and tape it up, and you will have yourself a nice little tetrahedron.

Now for the intellectual part. Imagine a little ball floating in its middle - you got it?

Good. Let's make it blue, just because I like blue. (Actually, in the usual color scheme it ought to be black, but you already saw that in the diagram of alanine.)

Next, imagine four lines reaching out from the ball to the four CORNERS of the tetrahedron. (Or look at the picture.)

All right. Now for the tricky part. Instead of looking at it from the SIDE of the tetrahedron, try looking at it from the EDGE:


Those four lines represent the four single bonds of carbon. If you make several and then label them with letters, and try rotating them, you will see that there are TWO kinds, which work just like the left hand and the right hand - that is what is called "chiral" or "handed".

Organic chemistry, then, contains its own very special hint - a kind of subtle reminder - of the Passion. It is eminently fitting; all the sciences and all the technical disciplines carry the burden, just as history and civics and literature and music... it's suggested in that very curious and disturbing comment about Christ's lament over Jerusalem:
Therefore the story of Christ is the story of a journey, almost in the manner of a military march; certainly in the manner of the quest of a hero moving to his achievement or his doom. It is a story that begins in the paradise of Galilee, a pastoral and peaceful land having really some hint of Eden, and gradually climbs the rising country into the mountains that are nearer to the storm-clouds and the stars, as to a Mountain of Purgatory. He may be met as if straying in strange places, or stopped on the way for discussion or dispute; but his face is set towards the mountain city. That is the meaning of that great culmination when he crested the ridge and stood at the turning of the road and suddenly cried aloud, lamenting over Jerusalem. Some light touch of that lament is in every patriotic poem; or if it is absent, the patriotism stinks with vulgarity.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:339-340]
If Chesterton can tie patriotism and poetry into the Great Story of the Crucifixion, I shall by no means refrain from tying in chemistry and three-dimensional graphics and all sorts of other matters. It may seem to be an inversion of St. Paul's restriction, "while I was among you I was determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified" [see 1Cor2:2] It is rather a more extensive application of that clause from the Nicene Creed, "per quem omnia facta sunt" = "Through Him all things were made". If there were no rocks there could be no Calvary; if no plants, there could be no cross; if no iron, there could be no nails; if no moon, there could be no Passover to signal the proper date; if no sun, there would be nothing to announce the dire extremity of the death of God... if no humans, there would be no reason for Him to have suffered.

Is it annoying to think of the cross always?

Is it annoying to think of your mother and father, your spouse, your children?

Is it annoying to think of One who loves you? Or the token of His love?

However - we know the cross is annoying to some. You may recall that very interesting introductory chapter to The Ball and the Cross, the great debate between Father Michael and Professor Lucifer...
"I once knew a man like you, Lucifer," he said, with a maddening monotony and slowness of articulation. "He took this..."
"There is no man like me," cried Lucifer, with a violence that shook the ship.
"As I was observing," continued Michael, "this man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round his wife's neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, [vertical stakes; a picket fence] when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the cross-bars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river."
Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.
"Is that story really true?" he asked.
"Oh, no," said Michael, airily. "It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all your rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world."
[GKC The Ball and the Cross]
And so, we now see that this hated symbol stares out from the very essence of life... I once heard how a "certain country" banned a certain kind of army boot because it left tread-marks with a plus-sign... I don't know if they have also banned computer keyboards, along with ASCII code 2b, which produces that "+" character yet; I wonder if they will forbid coal, charcoal, oil, and diamonds - and end up forbidding all organic compounds - compounds containing carbon - including their own bodies. They too follow that man Father Michael describes; they too may be found in the river. It is a pity.

Enough. Let us think more positive thoughts, then.

You didn't catch the Hamlet pun, did you? Or did you?

You should recall this famous line:
If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, "To be or not to be - that is the question," then the massive medieval doctor [Aquinas] does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, "To be - that is the answer."
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:489]
It has fallen to computer science and the ASCII character set to link this great truth of ontology with the very Sign of the Cross. It is the sign that is opposed - but it is also the sign of reality. (The squares of imaginary numbers are negative; the squares of reals are marked with the cross, I mean a plus sign.) This universe, the only real universe, is the one which has sun and moon, rocks and trees, iron and all the rest - it has Man, and thus it has the Cross.

P.S. I am aware that the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross comes later this month, on the 14th to be exact; but somehow this seemed to be a most fitting derivative of Sheila's comment, and I hope you will consult it again, either on the 14th, or during a future Holy Week. All things, after all, science and engineering as much as literature and history, must glorify God. And they do.

P.S.#2: I forgot I had posted (quite some time ago) this poem about this curious character.