Thursday, January 14, 2010

Greek Frogs and Cable TV and Subsidiarity

Yes, you read that title correctly. It says Greek Frogs and Cable TV. (Well, all right, perhaps it ought to say ancient Greek frogs!) Do you know the link between them?

And what do those things have to do with Subsidiarity - or with G. K. Chesterton?

Well, if you've been following along, you may recall that (sigh) once upon a time, there was this cable TV place which needed some work done, and they turned to this lunatic GKC-reading computer scientist... He resorted to "thirteenth century metaphysics" since he was inspired by the general hope of getting something done." [See GKC Heretics CW1:46] He designed a system to transport the "local spots" (TV commercials) over a satellite network to several dozen remote location - the method was based on the work of the Popes from Leo XIII to John Paul II, and the whole company learned to say the word "subsidiarity". It's a wonderful idea, and far more so now that we are nearing the tenth anniversary of the starting of that system which ran round the clock, 24/7, for about five and a half years. The work of designing, implementing, and supporting that system helped to define and illuminate the nature and character of subsidiarity, and a book has been written about it (though it is still awaiting a publisher). According to a monk and medieval scholar who has read that book, this study of a difficult theoretical abstraction by resorting to a known real-world analogy is most Thomistic, and fully in keeping with the traditional methods of the middle ages.

Yeah, that's the big dish that made everything work. What fun it was! And a useful, practical example of Subsidiarity, too. Amazing.

Ah, but what about them frogs?

Well... the point here is the same point as the Latin quotes which appeared on "WATCHER" the monitoring software for that cable system. The most famous was the great aphorism from Juvenal's sixth Satire: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? that is, "Who will watch the watchers themselves?" You may not understand why a cable TV company needed Latin aphorisms, but then you've not tried to approach the issue as Chesterton would. He understood the artistic magic of traffic lights (which he called "signal-boxes", and the magic of "pillar-boxes" which we call mailboxes - the magic of both goes right to the heart of that entire cable TV spot delivery system:
It is common enough that common things should be poetical; it is not so common that common names should be poetical. In most cases it is the name that is the obstacle. A great many people talk as if this claim of ours, that all things are poetical, were a mere literary ingenuity, a play on words. Precisely the contrary is true. It is the idea that some things are not poetical which is literary, which is a mere product of words. The word "signal-box" is unpoetical. But the thing signal-box is not unpoetical; it is a place where men, in an agony of vigilance, light blood-red and sea-green fires to keep other men from death. That is the plain, genuine description of what it is; the prose only comes in with what it is called. The word "pillar-box" is unpoetical. But the thing pillar-box is not unpoetical; it is the place to which friends and lovers commit their messages, conscious that when they have done so they are sacred, and not to be touched, not only by others, but even (religious touch!) by themselves. That red turret is one of the last of the temples. Posting a letter and getting married are among the few things left that are entirely romantic; for to be entirely romantic a thing must be irrevocable. We think a pillar-box prosaic, because there is no rhyme to it. We think a pillar-box unpoetical, because we have never seen it in a poem. But the bold fact is entirely on the side of poetry. A signal-box is only called a signal-box; it is a house of life and death. A pillar-box is only called a pillar-box; it a sanctuary of human words.
[GKC Heretics CW1:55-6]
(Yes, and since that computer scientist is a Chestertonian, there 's a poem too - you can see it here. Hee hee!)

But why do I mention the frogs? Well... it's a lot worse of a pun, of course, but it is not my pun. You see, though I am a tech, I also know things like Chesterton, and the medievals like Hugh of St. Victor, and a bit of Latin, and even a sniff or two of Greek. And there was once an ancient Greek who wrote stuff - plays, among other things, as I am told. Here's just a little glimpse of GKC on him, relevant to my point:
... the jokes of Aristophanes, like the jokes of Bernard Shaw, were good jokes; but they were obvious jokes. There was not normally any question of a new and secretive sense of humour, which only a certain school of aesthetes or critics could understand.
[GKC The Well and the Shallows CW3:354-5]
Maybe you need to have read a little of Aristophanes - or maybe you need to have had a bit more knowledge of cable TV than what shows are playing at a given hour of the day. The cable bit is not all that tech, come to think of it, just as the lit'ry bit is not all that lit'ry - and not even all that Greek. And yes, it is a Greek word, but I checked in Lewis and Short and it really is in there.

The word, of course, if you've thought about the Frogs, is the hilarious sound they make in Aristophanes' play:
Brekekekex koax koax
Or to put it into Roman characters so more of us can read it:
Brekekekex, Coax Coax!
Yeah, Cable and Frogs. If you don't get it, you really need to take some time off and read some more Chesterton. There's more to see, if you attend the school of GKC:
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
You may begin to see tech puns in Greek drama, write poems about traffic signals or post offices (or the net!) - and you may even learn how to use papal encyclicals to write software. It may be too large to notice until you start looking - but you have to start somewhere.


  1. In terms of poetical names and unpoetical names, I personally think the computer age has shown a vast improvement. "Blog", "wiki", "virus", "combox", "mouse"-- they're all so much lighter and brigher and sturdier than all those very mechanical sounding words like telephone and television and automobile. Having said that, I disagree with Chesterton in that I think the term "pillar-box" is eminently poetical. The pillars of Hercules, Pandora's box....both elements of the term can do some pretty hefty poetic work.

  2. Maybe it's because I'm sick today, but I'm not figuring it out. Or perhaps it is because I haven't read Aristophanes, or enough Chesterton.

    What Chesterton do I need to interpret Brekekekex coax coax?

  3. I THINK that "coax coax" (the croaking of the frog chorus in Aristophanes' play) made Dr. Thursday think of coaxial cables. Anyone got a better guess?

  4. Quite informative and hilarious at the same time.Watch Satellite TV and unwind.Shakespeare quote is appropriate and don't make an issue on this..if people are using it...Period


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