February 26, 2005

Another Testament to My Profound Ignorance

(but, by the Grace of God, I'm recovering.)

Following on posts at Against the Grain, I began to wonder about rock music. I confess a point or more of disagreement with the good Cardinal on the matter--but it was more an off-hand comment about Country Music that spawned this confession.

I have never cared for country music--far too whinyand twangy to my ears. Yes, I liked the occasional song here and there and sometimes I have liked a performer, more for their personality than for their music. However, my feeling about country music is summed up in the nausea I feel every time I hear Billy Ray Cyrus and his "Achy Breaky Heart."

However, another off-hand remark, this time in a conversation with a friend, spawned rethinking. This friend spends a great deal of time listening to the likes of Nine-Inch Nails and Ministry. I have found that I have gone beyond the need for these expressions of rage. However, he said that recently he had been buying a lot of Hank Williams Senior and Patsy Cline. And that got me thinking.

Thinking to the point where I've actually done something--borrowing a Patsy Cline disc from the library. Now, I know you all will find this hard to believe, but I have kept myself deliberately ignorant of the likes of Patsy Cline for much of my life. I heard her name and tossed her in the Loretta Lynn bucket and said, "Not for me."

Well imagine my surprise when I found out that I had tossed her in the wrong bucket. Yes, there's the occasional yodel and the once-in-a-while twang--but Patsy Cline can really sing and she sings honky-tonk bluesy sorts of things that are absolutely gorgeous.

So, I'm happy again to admit my ignorance and to find that as I move forward in life, God works hard on me to round off the rough edges.

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You Heard it Here First!

Florida Judge Orders Pope Removed from Life Support

NARAL, the ACLU, and attorney's for Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, have already begun work on amicus curae briefs in support of the judges decision to euthenize the Pope. "The right to die is an essential aspect of human dignity," said George Felos, Michael Schiavo's attorney and spokesman, "and the right to kill those who no longer have any value and are a drain on the economy is unseperable from this right."

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The Blessing of Great Works

Guide for the Perplexed --Moses Maimonides (aka Rambam)--one of the great scholars and writers of his, or any time.

Excerpt of above:

My primary object in this work is to explain certain words occurring in the prophetic books. Of these some are homonyms, and of their several meanings the ignorant choose the wrong ones; other terms which are employed in a figurative sense are erroneously taken by such persons in their primary signification. There are also hybrid terms, denoting things which are of the same class from one point of view and of a different class from another. It is not here intended to explain all these expressions to the unlettered or to mere tyros, a previous knowledge of Logic and Natural Philosophy being indispensable, or to those who confine their attention to the study of our holy Law, I mean the study of the canonical law alone; for the true knowledge of the Torah is the special aim of this and similar works.

[And another from "On the Three Types of Evils"]

MEN frequently think that the evils in the world are more numerous than the good things; many sayings and songs of the nations dwell on this idea. They say that a good thing is found only exceptionally, whilst evil things are numerous and lasting. Not only common people make this mistake, but even many who believe that they are wise. Al-Razi wrote a well-known book On Metaphysics [or Theology]. Among other mad and foolish things, it contains also the idea, discovered by him, that there exists more evil than good. For if the happiness of man and his pleasure in the times of prosperity be compared with the mishaps that befall him, — such as grief, acute pain, defects, paralysis of the limbs, fears, anxieties, and troubles, — it would seem as if the existence of man is a punishment and a great evil for him. This author commenced to verify his opinion by counting all the evils one by one; by this means he opposed those who hold the correct view of the benefits bestowed by God and His evident kindness, viz., that God is perfect goodness, and that all that comes from Him is absolutely good. The origin of the error is to be found in the circumstance that this ignorant man, and his party among the common people, judge the whole universe by examining one single person. For an ignorant man believes that the whole universe only exists for him; as if nothing else required any consideration. If, therefore, anything happens to him contrary to his expectation, he at once concludes that the whole universe is evil. If, however, he would take into consideration the whole universe, form an idea of it, and comprehend what a small portion he is of the Universe, he will find the truth. For it is clear that persons who have fallen into this widespread error as regards the multitude of evils in the world, do not find the evils among the angels, the spheres and stars, the elements, and that which is formed of them, viz., minerals and plants, or in the various species of living beings, but only in some individual instances of mankind. They wonder that a person, who became leprous in consequence of bad food, should be afflicted with so great an illness and suffer such a isfortune; or that he who indulges so much in sensuality as to weaken his sight, should be struck With blindness! and the like.

The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite aka St. Denis (in some Medieval Works).

from "The Treatise on the Names of God"

Concerning this then, as has been said, the superessential and hidden Deity, it is not permitted to speak or even to think beyond the things divinely revealed to us in the sacred Oracles. For even as Itself has taught (as becomes Its goodness) in the Oracles, the science and contemplation of Itself in Its essential Nature is beyond the reach of all created things, as towering superessentially above all. And you will find many of the Theologians, who have celebrated It, not only as invisible and incomprehensible, but also as inscrutable and untraceable, since there is no trace of those who have penetrated to Its hidden infinitude. The Good indeed is not entirely uncommunicated to any single created being, but benignly sheds forth its superessential ray, persistently fixed in Itself, by illuminations analogous to each several being, and elevates to Its permitted contemplation and communion and likeness, those holy minds, who, as far as is lawful and reverent, strive after It, and who are neither impotently boastful towards that which is higher than the harmoniously imparted Divine manifestation, nor, in regard to a lower level, lapse downward through their inclining to the worse, but who elevate themselves determinately and unwaveringly to the ray shining upon them; and, by their proportioned love 4of permitted illuminations, are elevated with a holy reverence, prudently and piously, as on new wings.

from "The Letters of Dionysius

The Divine gloom is the unapproachable light in which God is said to dwell66. And in this gloom, invisible67 indeed, on account of the surpassing brightness, and unapproachable on account of the excess of the superessential stream of light, enters every one deemed worthy to know and to see God, by the very fact of neither seeing nor knowing, really entering in Him, Who is above vision and knowledge, knowing this very thing, that He is after all the object of sensible and intelligent perception, and saying in the words of the Prophet, “Thy knowledge was regarded as wonderful by me; It was confirmed; I can by no means attain unto it68;” even as the Divine Paul is said to have known Almighty God, by having known Him as being above all conception and knowledge. Wherefore also, he says, “His ways are past finding out69 and His Judgements inscrutable,” and His gifts “indescribable70,” and that His peace surpasses every mind71, as having found Him Who is above all, and having known this which is above conception, that, by being Cause of all, He is beyond all.

Keep in mind that these may be the works of the "Pseudo-Dionysius" no less respectable despite the questionable name.

Of God and His Creatures St. Thomas Aquinas

The Catena Aurea for the Gospel of Mark

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February 24, 2005

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

You have seen sufficient excerpts of this book on and off at this blog, so that I need say little more about it except to emphasize how very accessible and interesting this whole study is. Mandelbrot is attempting to define a new science of economics and the stock market and admits that he is far from being there; however, the problems he unearths are significant and should give pause to those who argue loudly (and at length) about the privatization of Social Security. The risks involved in even the most conservative stock/bond/cash portfolio far outweigh the perceived advantages until there is a better way of managing risk.

That is largely what the book is about--how does the market really run and how can you best assemble investments to minimize risk and maximize profits. In the process of this discuss Mandelbrot touches on invariant and scalable phenomena in markets, in language, and in the annual flooding of the Nile. That so many disparate phenomena can be looked at through multifractals and brownian motion is interesting in itself. That the common practice of Monte Carlo simulation based on Gaussian rather than Cauchy distributions is a dangerous misstep is made evident throughout.

The main difference between the simple bell curve (Gaussian) and the Cauchy curve is that in a bell-curve an additional bundle of data will not particularly disturb a heavily weighted center. That is, if enough data has been collected, then additional data will not appreciably affect the "center of gravity" of the curve. Large outliers will not affect averages.

With the Cauchy curve it is these large outliers that define the essence of the curve. It is a better measure of rapidly fluctuating environments with inherent turbulence (at least so Mandelbrot implies, and I certainly am not one with the least ability to naysay). As a result, additional data added to the Cauchy distribution will result in significant differences in the measures of central tendency.

Another interesting idea uncovered by Mandelbrot is that it is not only the fluctuations in prices that are important, but also the order in which they occur. And this extends to the study of floods on rivers as well. He pointed out that if the data is entered randomly and stirred together, you end up with a nice well-behaved bell curve distribution. But if the data are analyzed in order, what you find instead are a series of parallel curves that reveal a scalability in the phenomenon that is otherwise invisible.

Mandelbrot argues that as long as outdated means are used to evaluate the market, events like October 1987, and the entire year of 2001, but particularly 9/11 (we're speaking here only of market effects) are inevitable. Bubbles will arise and burst based on old means of buying, holding, and selling stocks. Portfolios will continue to experience rapid fluctuations, even based on very conservative, very deliberate buying and selling. Anyone who went through 2001 realizes what this can mean in a very, very short time.

Mandelbrot's book is required reading for all of those who will propose a means whereby social security will be partially privatized. It is recommended reading for everyone else. Despite Mandelbrot's annoying, but slight, tendency toward focusing the spotlight on himself, the book is quite good. It is one of those eye-opening works where many phenomena of the natural world are brought together and part of the pattern underlying them revealed.


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February 23, 2005

Terri--Keep Praying!

Is Judge Greer coming to his senses? Let us pray!

CLEARWATER, Fla. - A judge Wednesday extended a stay keeping brain-damaged Terri Schiavo's feeding tube in place, saying he needed time to decide whether her husband, who wants to let her die, is fit to be her guardian.

Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer extended until Friday an emergency stay that was to expire Wednesday afternoon. He said he also needs more time to determine whether Terri Schiavo needs more medical tests to determine if she has greater mental capabilities than previously thought.

And this note:

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Children & Families moved to intervene in the legal battle over the life of the severely brain-damaged woman. Details of the agency's involvement in the case were not immediately available. Greer denied a DCF attorney an opportunity to speak at the afternoon hearing.

The DCF involvement came hours after Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters he was seeking a means to intervene in the case.

George Felos, who represents Terri Schiavo's husband criticized the DCF move, saying it "reeks of the intervention of politics into the case and is an affront to the court."

I don't know if Terri's site has been slashdotted, has a DDOS, or is simply reflecting the outpouring of concern. Here is the notice from the site about today's ruling.

The Schindler family are encouraged at the outcome of today's hearing before Judge Greer and are overwhelmed at the public outpouring of care and concern being shown to them and their daughter, Terri Schiavo.

The Schindler family also welcomes the involvement of Florida's Department of Children and Families (the state's health and human services agency) in their investigation into serious and detailed allegations of abuse and to ensure that appropriate care and treatment of Terri and patients like her is being delivered.

We ask that you please continue to think and pray for them and for Judge Greer as he takes this matter under advisement. Terri's life and the lives of many disabled, elderly and vulnerable people in Florida hang in the balance.

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Adoption Day

A quiet day for me today as we went out and celebrated Adoption Day with all due pomp and ceremony. Magic Kingdom--Haunted Mansion, Tom Sawyer Island, Pirates, Lunch, Two TTA, The Drag Race, Buzz Lightyear, and Snow White. Then dinner.

God has been so gracious and kind to us. Please join me and my family in thanksgiving for the wonderful gift every family has in its children, and most particularly for blessing us with Samuel to make up our family. We would have done just fine if God had not seen fit to grant us children, but I am so thankful that His providence has so blessed us.

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February 22, 2005

A Medical Professional's Blog

Adding to our list of medical professionals in St. Blogs, Clueless Christian tells us about medicine and becoming a Catholic. Go and enjoy.

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The Mysterious Ways of God

from The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson

Lastly, the cotton story shows the strange liaison among different branches of the economy, and between economics and nature. That cotton prices should vary the way income does; that income variations should look like Swedish fire-insurance claims; that these, in turn, are in the same mathematical family as formulae describing the way we speak, or how earthquakes happenn---this is, truly, the greatest mystery of all.

Mystery?--Yes and no. Mathematics is one of the ways in which we discern the organizing principle behind all creation. When these things fall together and there is no correlation among them in terms of causes or events, we begin to see the Mind of the Maker. We can deny it, if we choose--and many do. But the reality is that the thumbprint of God is on all creation if you merely look for it.

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For Terri

Barring a miracle, today is the date scheduled for the destruction of an innocent human being at the whim of another. Please pray for her and for God's will in this whole matter. Also, if you can choke the words out (and it is very difficult) please try to pray for her misguided and outright pernicious husband/guardian, who in pursuit of some other "good" has decided to destroy this poor woman.

Those who are more knowledgable, help us work toward an end in which this outcome is not possible. I don't understand a court system that allows an execution when the facts are not clear. I don't even understand the personal motivations of Judges and Lawyers who could think of supporting this horrific act. May God have mercy on them and on us.

I now understand Jesus weeping for Jerusalem in a way I wish I never had experienced. We are so lost as a society and we don't even know it. If ever there were a time for civil disobedience and the showing of some Gubenatorial spine, this is it. After all, what's to lose--you defend an innocent woman in your last term as governor. Yes, I know we're hoping for a White House run here, but what is the balance of powers for if not to thwart the tyranny of one or another group?

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February 21, 2005

More on NASCAR

Throughout the book St. Dale the point is made of how most people regard fans of NASCAR. It seems that NASCAR gives those who are interested in hockey, soccer, and rugby someone to look down upon as rubes, rednecks, and somehow less than creditable.

I've thought a lot about this and it strikes me as absurd that people who can extol the virtues of jumping on a lump of pigskin, or striking a horsehide (I know, no longer) ball with a stick of ash would have the audacity to look down on anything.

Personally, I have no time or interest in any of it--it all strikes me as a form of bread and circuses with which I can readily dispense--I've too many time-wasters in my life anyway. But, I cannot fault those who enjoy these things. And in some ways I would love to be able to emulate them. I would have so much more to discuss with other "normal" men whose thoughts seem to channel in one of several ruts (pun intended). But it does provide ready entrance into the society of men in some circles, and I do not have that.

I also don't regard NASCAR racing as a sport as such (which is not intended as a criticism and may reveal only my ignorance of the matter). It may require great endurance--it does require great skill. (Think about being in a perpetual traffic jam at between 90 and 180 mph.) It apparently requires a great deal of knowledge and strategy--I'm astounded by some of the things that racers appear to consider. NASCAR racing doesn't seem to be a sport, but it is a contest--a legitimate one.

So were I to undertake to examine contests including atheletic sports and car racing for their virtues, I tend to think I might find more to admire in the skill and knowledge of a racer than in two teams of people who use each other as crash-test dummies.

Consider this just a plea for those inclined to look down upon others for what they enjoy to look first in the mirror and see what you enjoy boiled down to its essentials. I don't claim to have any great understanding of any sport or contest and I often wish I did. But I admire the enthusiasm of those who do participate--I find it refreshing and oddly, another way of encountering God. In truly allying yourself with a team or with a contest or with a person you live in that moment and in a sense abandon yourself to the joy that God has opened for you. Sports have the great value of what Disputations is inclined to call eutrepalia. I don't get it, but I rejoice in those who do. I only ask them to look kindly upon the enthusiasms of others.

(I guess my "sport" of choice ranks close to dead last in everyone's estimation of the worthwhile. But where else can you see water as blue as God's eye and people balanced on the edge of eternity, falling, falling, falling so gracefully, so perfectly, so evenly into the wide blue water.)

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Son of the Mask

Yes, I know. I groaned when I saw the preview in the theatres and I asked myself why this was necessary. And when Samuel said he wanted to see it, I said to myself, absolutely not.

Oh, well, so much for resolutions. And thank God for little boys. This is one of those rare films when the trailer really does not do justice to the sheer ingenuity and hilarity of some of the slapstick episodes throughout the film.

I laughed through more than half of it, and I was a grudging attendee. Most particularly amusing were Samuel's reactions to many of the high-energy scenes. But every father who has been left alone with an infant for the first time, every parent who wonders if their children really are out to drive them crazy--this is the film for you.

Naturally the humor was such as to amuse a six year old. Lot's of body fluids, loud noises, and intense swirling action. But the theatre I was in had more than its share of grown-ups and everyone seemed to be laughing themselves silly.

The plot is onion-skin thin, but the main point is about paying attention to those you love. So its got a great many good lessons for children, along with the body fluids, and you won't be bored. If the film is a turn-off, watch your kids and see what they see.


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Presidents' Day Appreciation--George Washington

A travesty of a Holiday smashing together by accident of their birth two such disparate Presidents as Washington and Lincoln. Of Lincoln the less said here the better for all. Let me simply say that he has his cult as has John Kennedy and, in my estimation, they have about equal validity.

But of Washington there are not enough words to say what needs to be said. He has come through the crucible of post-modernism and the worst people can bring up about him is that he wasn't a particularly good military leader, he kept slaves, and he wasn't particularly approachable.

Of the first, perhaps not, but then those he defeated must have been so much worse. On the other hand, perhaps he needn't have been great, merely "good enough." And that was what he was. As a result many may have died who need not have done so. Nevertheless, that is all speculation. Washington may have been a bungler, I am not qualified to say--but he bungled his way, either through strategy or through providence, to an independent United States.

As to the second. Yes he did, with grave misgivings. More, he did not, as Jefferson did, justify keeping his slaves for patriarchal reasons such as, "What will they do on their own." He kept his slaves to serve him and Martha--not necessarily admirable, but something that I think we are presumptuous to judge in our "enlightened" times. Times when rather than keeping slaves we slaughter children by the millions. We have a chronological chauvinism and arrogance in our institutes of learning that is really quite breathtaking.

And as to the last, perhaps that demeanor is why he could serve his country as he did. Perhaps he wasn't approachable. But is that a great sin? It would make a great many of our Saints less than saints--starting with that model of irascibility St. Jerome.

No, if Washington came through his post-modern post-mortem so clearly unscathed there is much here to admire and respect. The depth of his contribution, through his intelligence, his sobriety, his willingness to serve cannot be overestimated. A true hero of history and the true Father of his Country.

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St. Dale

I like the works of Sharyn McCrumb. From the great science fiction convention send-ups of Bimbos of the Death Sun and Zombies of the Gene Pool to the marvelous atmospheric mysteries The Rosewood Casket and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Sharyn McCrumb weaves a fine story with interesting, realistic characters.

She has done so once again with this off-beat story about a tour group going on a Dale Earnhardt memorial tour. McCrumb is at her most comfortable dealing with the people of the southern Appalachians and adjacent territories, and the structure of this story gives her a chance to exercise her gifts in full.

The tour is hosted by an ex-NASCAR driver who leads the party of about fourteen pilgrims through a variety of sites from the Bristol Speedway in Tennessee to "The Lady in Black"--the Darlington Speedway in South Carolina. Along the way the reader learns far more than he or she ever dreamed possible about NASCAR drivers, history, strategy, and fans. From the waitress in New Hampshire who counts her change "One, two, Dale, four, five" to the size and banking in each of the major speedways, to the deaths of NASCAR's major figures, to the meaning of these secular saints.

And that is the theme that McCrumb explores in detail as we traverse the book. Why are some people (Elvis springs to mind) embraced by the populace and made a kind of "secular saint" even though the conduct of their lives is hardly exemplary? In this case, we explore the Dale Earnhardt phenomenon. Killed in February 2001 in a horrific crash at the Daytona Speedway, Earnhardt rapidly became the stuff of legends as there were battles fought over his autopsy and photographs from it. Know as "The Intimidator" because of his driving tactics, Earnhardt appears to have been the kind of person about whom there are no "middle opinions." Either revered or loathed, Earnhardt occupied center stage for a great many people. St. Dale attempts to explore why that might be in several cases.

Interestingly, although McCrumb provides plausible explanations for the people in her tour group, she fails to really get at the core of why Elvis, Marilyn, and Princess Diana make such a huge impression with their thousands of admiring fans. We know why Earnhardt spoke to these individuals, but surely that doesn't explain all of the appeal.

Aside from this single miscue, the book is wonderful. I learned more about NASCAR and things like "restrictor plates" than I ever cared to know--I also learned how very dicey it might be to engage a die-hard fan in any sort of discussion that might question the value or integrity of the sport or any of its adherents.

A surprising and by turns amusing and sad book--most sad in its theological speculations and absurdities, it is well worth the time it takes to read and enjoy. And it gives us insight into our need for heroes and how, where they are lacking, we build up new and unlikely ones.

And now, back to the world of Shakespeare and Mandelbrot.


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Because of Winn Dixie

Charming, slight, and very, very interesting to young boys (at least). The story of a girl living with her preacher father in rural Florida. She takes in a stray and learns a great deal about dealing with the strays, the unwanted, and the abandoned in our lives.

The film does seem to suggest that we do well not to rush to judgment on those who are different. Also it teaches that we should not listen to gossip.

The dog is cute and the young female actress is quite a pretty little girl if not yet a top-notch actress. Adults might revel in seeing some favorites that have been missing from the scene too long--Eva Marie Saint and Cicely Tyson--both of whom do a splendid job.

Like the "Litmus Lozenges" featured in the film, it is sweet and sad in about an equal mix, with a happy ending and a goofy dog.


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Advice for Liturgists

I am not enamored of change for the sake of change. But change can be a good and healthy response when it deals merely with discipline and practice and not doctrine.

However, in the past several months we've undergone two significant changes to the liturgy as the diocese finally got in gear and implemented the GIRM. As part of this, it was determined, but not particularly well announced that we would all stand after the Agnus Dei until the last person had received communion. (This was the instruction prior to November.)

In November a new instruction was released which was not announced or implemented in my parish until about three weeks ago. This one restored the kneeling during communion, but had an odd assortment of kneelings and risings between the Agnus Dei and communion. (If I understood the instruction properly we are to stand during the Angus Dei, kneel during the "Lord I am not worthy", stand between the end of the "Lord I am not worthy" and kneel or sit after reception.) Once again the instruction was communicated in the bulletin but not "taught" so as a result in and around communion we have people doing everything imaginable, standing, kneeling, sitting, riverdance--you name it.

Now, I have no idea why we received two sets of instructions so close together. But it little matters. If we are to do them, we must know and understand them. And if we are to celebrate as one body, everyone should be doing the same thing at the same time. This is where I plead with liturgists and with those who are in charge of instructing the people--please do so. Don't rely on the bulletin--evidence indicates that fewer than half the people read it, or at least half do not understand it. Perhaps in the weeks following the instruction it would not be remiss to ask the priest or the deacon or even the cantor (if they are readily visible) to use hand signals to indicate whether or not we should be standing. (There might still be confusion of kneeling/sitting, but at least we'd have the worst of the confusion done away with.)

I also know that there are limits as to what can be done by a liturgist without being disruptive. But what could be more disruptive than having your neighbor lean over and say "You're supposed to be standing," when you know for a fact that it said you were supposed to be kneeling?

If change must occur--an in a living liturgy it CAN and will occur, then it should be introduced and gently guided in a way that all will know what is expected. As I said, I have no real problem with change, but a severe problem with not knowing what the change is or what I'm supposed to be doing--worship and adoration are difficult when you're busy thinking about standing/sitting/kneeling and trying to decide who actually got it right.

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