30, 2005: "Hello, May I Practice My English on You?"
Slashdot aggregated a nice entry from John
Barlow's blog yesterday, concerning people who call him on Skype
from overseas to practice speaking English with him. I laughed out
loud; I thought that I was the only one with that experience.
It must be a more general phenom. (Has it happened to you?) I installed
Skype almost immediately on its release two years ago, and I use
it regularly to talk to friends. I also get calls from complete
strangers, usually ham radio ops who are used to calling people
they don't know. As I list my callsign in my Skype profile, I figured
it was natural, and in fact unless I'm on deadline I enjoy it.
Then there are the calls from faraway places, from people who are
not hams at all. At least twelve or fifteen times, people have called
me and freely admitted that their mission was practicing English
with an American. (Do guys in England get these calls?) A 14-year-old
boy named Mads called me from Denmark early on, and explained that
he was taking an important English exam in a couple of days and
wanted to brush up a little. I was floored; his enunciation and
grasp of grammar exceeded that of most Americans. I'm very chary
about striking up friendships with kids anywhere, especially online.
Conventional wisdom today seems to be that all middle-aged men spontaneously
talking to young people are sexual predators. Still, his parents
approved, and I consider him a friend, tho I haven't seen him log
in recently. (Perhaps he graduated.) Mads, if you're out there,
give a yell. Maybe you can teach me some Danish.
Like John Barlow, I've gotten calls from several young Asian women,
including one from Singapore now living in Seattle and trying to
improve her English to help get a better job. (Her boyfriend is
there on an H1B.) After the first few, I started asking callers
why they chose me. One said that Colorado was in the center of America,
and seemed to think (it was a difficult conversation, as her English
was, well, fragmentary) that the closer you got to the center of
a country, the more quintessential were the people who lived there.
(Having been to Boulder, I rather hope not.) Another thought that
a guy who liked kites would have an affinity for Japanese culture.
Good guess, though no truer with me than for many other cultures.
One said I had a "noble face." The rest were puzzled by
the question, and apparently just went eenie meenie mynie moe and
there I was.
I don't consider these calls a nuisance. I like helping people
out, and freely admit that I'd like to see English become a universal
language. I also see this as a refutation of the common lament that
"everybody hates Americans." Many among the intellectual
elite overseas with access to the media seem to hate Americans,
from what I read in the news. It must be a gene of some kindone
that we have here as well. By contrast, the common people seem to
assume that we're trusting, basically honest, and generous with
our time. Shucks, I think so too. (Invading Iraq was a horrible
mistake. Invading Harvard and leveling it would have been easier
and done far more good.)
Skype is an amazing thing, not only for what it is functionally, but
for what it seems to bring out in people who are not already soul-dead
with hate: A sense that human beings are basically good, and generally
willing to help others in small ways. Eat death, PC cynicism!
29, 2005: Pigeon Forge, Toe Rings, and Collage Girls
I seem to be winning the spam wars, and I don't quite know why.
As I've mentioned here before, changing hosting services from Interland
to Sectorlink not only cut my monthly hosting costs by 40%, but
also cut my daily spam count by 80-90%. I used to get 500-600
spams per day. I now get from 55-70. That's especially astonishing
since Sectorlink says they're not doing any server-side filtering.
Sorry. They must be. There's no other explanation. The drop happened
virtually overnight, and since then has demonstrated a fascinating
"collapse of the middle."
About half the spam that remains is of the illiterate variety:
short, badly written, no graphics, obviously coming to me from spam
zombies. This includes far less porn spam than I used to get, and
what I'm being offered these days are not MILFs (see my entry for
15, 2004) but "collage girls." (I can only picture
young women with magazine cutouts, elbow macaroni, and photo-booth
snapshots pasted over their naughty bits.) The rest are the usual
mix of scammy stuff: gray-market prescription drugs, OEM software,
dicey investments, and weird miscellany.
At the other end are slick, professional-looking HTML ads that
come to me in massive, repeating campaigns. One day I had never
heard of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and by the next day I had received
15 ads begging me to partake of some hootenanny holiday there. ("Hooters
Spring Truckin' Nationals!") The next day it was fifteen pitches
for "hip sandals" (do people really call things "hip"
anymore, or is that a new style?) and the day after that, toe rings,
presumably after you've ordered your hip sandals. More recently
it's been acne cream. The name "Jeff" must have crossed
the gender gap at some point, as I'm also receiving occasional ads
with the headline "Jeff, the right fit in a bra is important!"
You get the idea. What's fascinating is that the spam is either
near-illiterate or ad-agency slick. There's nothing in the middle.
And the slick stuff is coming from a small group of large marketing
firms, including Zinester,
Aptimus and Intermix
Networks. Poking around a little revealed the scam here: The
big shops are hosting dozens of idiotic "directory" or
"newsletter" sites like FreebieFix, QuickInspirations,
SoYaWanna, and GossipFlash. (See this screenshot
for a typical morning's spam harvest. Note the concentration of
senders.) The links are old, the gossip thin and the jokes stupid,
but I'll bet that they have the funds to threaten legal action against
spam filtering services that blackhole them. The emailed newsletters
are pure spam, and in the fine print of their "privacy policies"
they reserve the right to "transfer your information"
to "other organizations." The modest-scale spammers in
the middle must have either hit the wall of pervasive blackholing,
or outsourced their crap to the spam zombie gangs who clearly didn't
do well in sixth grade.
My guess is this: SectorLink's server-side filters can't include
the high end spammers (because they're barely-legal "newsletters"
with big legal budgets) and can't keep ahead of the spam zombie
swarms on the low end. More universal port 25 blocking might help
with the zombies, but I'm not entirely sure what to do with GossipFlash
and SmilePop, except dream vainly of packing them all up (with their
damned hip sandals and toe rings) and shipping them to Pigeon Forge,
Tennessee in a fleet of monster trucks driven by Hooters girls,
who understand better than any of us that getting the right fit
in a bra is important.
Heh. With email like this, who needs recreational drugs?
28, 2005: The Cruise-Boat Photo Phenom
forgotten to post the full photo from which my column-header picture
was cropped, but here it is, taken with Carol at our dinner table
on our Hawaii cruise last November. This may qualify as one of the
best pictures ever taken of me as an adult. Carol, of course, never
takes a bad picture.
Which reminds me of an interesting phenomenon that never fails
to startle cruise newbies: Cruise lines are constantly taking
your picture. The photos are posted on a wall in a special area,
and you can buy the ones you like. The rest of them are dumped.
Sometimes, as in this photo, they do a really good job and I'm more
than willing to pay for it. Most of the rest of the time, they're
snapping you on deck, before dinner, at dinner, after dinner, and
all over the ship, and even at the end of the gankplank while you're
on your way to one shore excursion or another, with costumed pirates
ready to jump in, grimacing, to add a "festive touch"
(yukkh!) to the photo. (I have to wonder if the "mature demographic"i.e.,
old peoplewho dominate the cruise market really like photos
of themselves with grimacing pirates or guys in dolphin suits.)
The cruise lines are clearly hoping you'll just go nuts with the pictures,
and maybe some people do, but Carol and I rarely bring home more than
two or three. Judging by the enthusiasm with which they do all that
snapping, it must be hugely profitable for them, even if 80% of the
prints get dumped. So if you're ever heading off on your first cruise,
be warned: The cruisarazzi will be waiting for you, pirates optional.
Think of them as cutpurses where you do the cutting.
27, 2005: A Cat May Look at an Apple
They're at it again. Sheesh, some people never learn. The other
day, Apple Computer ordered all books published by John Wiley &
Sons out of Apple's retail stores. They were annoyed because Wiley
published iCon: Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History
of Business by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon. I haven't
seen the book, so I can't tell you precisely what they object to,
but my sense is that they object to anything that isn't fawning,
uncritical praise. Jobs has always been a bit of a mixed bag, but
he's learned a lot in the last 25 years. Could the book be worse
on Apple's reputation than The Journey is the Reward? I can't
have a button in my button collection reading, "Keep your Lawyers
off My Computer," dating back to the second half of the 1980s.
I picked it up at Comdex or some other show and no longer remember
precisely what it was protesting, but Apple has a long, long history
of suing first and thinking it through later. Note that I'm excluding
recent legal efforts against several guys who leaked details
about unreleased Apple products, since what was done violated various
laws, including the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. I'm more talking
about hubris like borrowing heavily from UI research at Xerox (where
I was working at the time it happened, and using Xerox workstations
long before the release of Lisa or Mac) and then later on claiming
extreme exclusivity on those UI concepts in numerous lawsuits against
many companies. (One of those suits finally sank Digital Research.)
It seems like every time I put an ear to the Apple ground, I hear
about legal action against critics and imitators. Small wonder that
many people carry grudges against them, which doesn't help when
your market share is in single digits and shrinking.
Pulling all of a publisher's books out of your stores in a snit
over a single title is stupid, not the least because Wiley is one
of the largest publishers of Mac books around (Mac for Dummies
is in their catalog since their acquisition of Hungry Minds a couple
of years ago) and pulling them all means your customers have even
fewer reasons to wander into your stores. Apple stores are not,
after all, an enormous retail channel, and losing them won't put
a dent in billion-dollar Wiley's business. No, the single stupidest
reason not to engage in this sort of tantrum-throwing is that it
will almost certainly make a best-seller out of iCon, and
therefore make bushels of money for Wiley and the book's authors.
Keith and I were actually pondering what huge company we could insult
to get some free megaPR like this. Degunking Daimler-Chrysler?
Boy, that would be fun. We'd be zillionaires in no time.
It's not anybody's law that I know of, but it should be: The bigger
you are, the more criticism and imitation you have to tolerate.
Swatting flies hurts you more than it hurts the flies, and there are
always more flies where those came from.
26, 2005: The Ultraviolet StinkFinder
still P-10 and counting, but Carol and I are buying new-puppy paraphernalia
like we were expectant parents. We have treats and toys and housebreaking
pads and a collar and leash (in purpleMr. Byte's color was
green, Chewy's blue, and Max's black), food and water bowl set,
and earlier today, while poking around in PetSmart, Carol ran across...the
We had a problem with Mr. Byte and Chewy at times: They were "stealth
pee-ers" and would lay down small puddles in out-of-the-way
spots in the house and not say anything about it. We found a big
splotch of dried pee under the TV cabinet when we moved out of our
Arizona house a couple of years ago, even though Mr. Max left us
in 2001and Mr. Byte in 1995.
It's a combo spot-beam and fluorescent flashlight, with the fluorescent
bulb replaced by a blacklight bulb. Turn off the lights, shine the
blacklight on the floor, and urine shows up in bright yellow. I had
known that certain minerals and even certain species of desert scorpion
fluroesce, but pee? God must have a sense of humor. StinkFinder really
works, too. How I tested it may be too embarrassing to describe (recall
that old commercial that began, "Do you have men or boys in your
house?") but trust me, there will be no more stealth pee-ers
25, 2005: Should I Review Bad Books?
I don't review but a fraction of the books that I read here , for
- Many are too narrow to be of general interest, such as commentaries
on Anglican theology or microwave radio handbooks.
- No small number are simply bad books, and I've never been inclined
to give bad books any space, whether here in Contra or earlier
in the print magazines that I've edited. I've seen it said that
a bad review is the next best thing to a good review, and I don't
want to encourage sloppy work.
Nonetheless, Michael Abrash suggested that reviews (or at least
lists) of bad books might be helpful. If I do such reviews, they
will be very short, and will not include cover shots.
One difficult part about doing negative reviews is separating an
objectively bad book from one that simply irritates me due to its
slant or ideology. A perfect example is Morris West's novel The
Clowns of God, which I savaged on Amazon some years back for
being mean-spirited, polemical, anti-American, Manichaean, and just
plain nasty. Nonetheless, I took another look at it just now and
I'm forced to admit that he told the tale well, well enough so that
it infuriated me. (Most bad novels I just sigh over and drop in
the giveaway box without much emotion.) And I'm sure that people
who subscribe to the three-days-of-darkness Jesus-is-coming-back-soon-and-boy-is-he-pissed
school of Catholic reactionism will probably love it, for the same
reasons I hated it. However, as a novel it's vivid and at least
competently written. So is it a good book or a bad book? I will
readily admit that because the book pushed virtually all of my buttons,
I may not be qualified to judge.
Some books may be important enough to read even if they're badly
written. (We don't buy K&R for its inspiring prose, and most
of my theology books are, from a craft standpoint, hideous.) Some
books are beautifully written but lack useful content or simply
wander around without making much of a point, like Patricia Hampl's
Virgin Time. Some books may well be cult classicsin
somebody else's cult. I couldn't make head nor tail of Quinn &
Whalen's Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife, but the writing
is dopey enough so that I can call it a bad book in good conscience.
Michael Shermer's Science Friction claims to be a book on
skepticism, but it wanders between polemic and personal story and
in the end is just a disjointed collection of indifferent essays.
Louis A. Berman's The Puzzle promises us a theory as to why
homosexuality is not bred out of the gene pool, but whereas he writes
well and presents an enormous amount of interesting information,
his theory is unconvincing, and I can recommend the book only as
a compendium of other people's research on the subject.
The biggest problem with publishing reviews or lists of bad books
here is that people generally don't go looking for books not to buy.
The chances that you will be cruising to buy a book that I've read
and found wanting are slim, especially since a good many books that
I read are years or even decades old. So perhaps I'll present an occasional
mention of a book that I don't recommend, along with twenty words
or less as to why. I doubt such items will be useful very often, but
on that outside chance, well, if I can save you the money or (more
importantly) the time spent on a bad book, it's probably worth a couple
of lines of Web-stuff.
24, 2005: Interdictionphobia
Some of my religious liberal friends and correspondents (all from
the far-left wing of the Old Catholic Church, which has as many
wings as it has bishops, but rarely flies) are now in a lather,
fearing that the new Pope Benedict XVI will begin using an ancient
tool: Interdiction. I had thought that there might be some slight
chance that a pope might try this, and it still may be true, but
that pope is not Benedict XVI.
Interdiction, if you know your history, was the Pope's nuclear
option against secular governments: basically, an order to shut
down all sacramental life within the interdicted country. Back when
Christianity was basically the only significant religion in the
known world (which then consisted mostly of Europe and North Africa)
kings and emperors trembled at the threat. During interdiction,
there are no baptisms, no church-sanctioned weddings, no funeral
masses or internments on church grounds, no confessions, no confirmations,
and no Masses. The machinery of the Church grinds to a halt, until
the panicking populace threatens to overturn the secular government
that triggered the interdiction. People who should damned well know
better have even suggested that Benedict might insist, on pain of
interdiction, that the U. S. government withdraw from Iraq or cease
This sort of thing actually worked at one time, when Christianity
was universal, Hell was a Really Big Deal, and faith contained a
strong (and sometimes dominant) element of superstition. All of
that is gone today. A pope could still use interdiction to put pressure
on secular governments, but it would only harm the Church and the
people who support the Church's policies. (All the others have left
long ago.) One can barely imagine the media circus that would ensue.
Benedict, being a European German, is not that dumb. (I'm not sure
all cardinals in the world meet that criterion, especially some
from the Third World with a grudge against the West.) Barely anybody
in Europe goes to Mass today anyway, and an interdiction against
the U.S. would simply send what are now faithful and reasonably
faithful Roman Catholics down the street to some other church, from
which they would likely never come back.
Interdiction is really a relic of a different set of historical
circumstances. It's no longer an option.
As I've said earlier, the new Pope has plenty
to deal with in his own sphere. Benedict will likely first tighten
the screws on the clergy and especially the religious orders, who
are now the main powers behind Roman Catholic liberalism. He may direct
priests to begin preaching that the Church's moral theology is something
that can't simply be ducked or ignored. Less likely though possible
would be a directive to priests to begin quizzing Roman Catholics
in the confessional on whether they're using birth control, as was
done with a peculiar intensity until the 1970s. (It's less likely
because so few people go to confession anymore, and in the wake of
such a move most of the rest would stop.) One way or another, it's
likely that the Pope will begin to require explicit acceptance of
the Church's teachings from both clergy and laypeople, and while this
would make for a stronger and more unified Church, it would be a much
smaller Church. (It would also largely become a Third World Church.)
It should be an interesting couple of years on the Roman Catholic
23, 2005: Understanding "Lyke Wake Dirge"
While redesigning Contra earlier this month I ran across an abandoned
HTML file I had begun some time ago (egad, 2001?) and never finished.
There's a fascinating folk song from the north of England (Yorkshire,
actually) called "Lyke Wake Dirge" that a British folk
group called Pentangle recorded in 1972. It was a creepy little
thing about the hazard-laden path of a newly-departed soul from
this world to Purgatory. I recall sitting in De Paul University's
student union my senior year and talking about the lyrics with some
friends who also had the record, trying to work out what the lyrics
were. The fact that they were in a Yorkshire dialect of Middle English
certainly didn't help, and we all went home none the wiser.
The Catholic tradition of Purgatory has become a minor interest of
mine in the intervening 30 years, and finding odd things is easier
today. I did some Web research and pulled together enough information
on the song to do a modern translation and add some notes about the
odd words used in the song. It's too large for a Contra entry, so
I created it as a standalone page: Understanding
"Lyke Wake Dirge". A fascinating hiker's subculture
has arisen around the song and the
Lyke Wake Walk, a 42-mile deathmarch across the thorny Yorkshire
moors, which must be done in 24 hours or less. Whew. I'll have to
work into that one, heh.
22, 2005: Nature's Building Blocks
fiction writers are a little bit like theologians looking for "God
in the gaps": They're always trying to find odd little corners
of our scientific knowledge that can fill another chink in the wall
of a tall tale. I read somewhere years back that ytterbium was one
of numerous metals being researched for odd compounds exhibiting
room-temperature superconductivity. That, and the fact that "ytterbium"
is a very cool word, led me to incorporate it in my totally fictional
It pays (though not in money, at leastor especiallyif
you're an SF writer) to be on the lookout for chemistry and physics
trivia, and today I present a book that is all that and nothing
Building Blocks, by John Emsley. It's an encyclopedia of
the elements, arranged alphabetically, comprising 540 pages of relatively
fine print. In addition to most of the elementary facts you'd find
in the CRC
Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (atomic weight, melting
point, boiling point, density, isotopes, common compounds etc.)
Emsley provides individual essays up to 2,000 words long, summarizing
the history of each element and the details of its creation in nature
and its abundance in the universe, its presence in the environment
and the human body, and its major uses in industry. In addition
to that, in his section "Element of Surprise" he lays
out trivia like the fact that bismuth is used to give nail polish
a pearlescent finish (in the form of bismuth oxychloride) and that
sodium azide is the explosive that deploys and inflates airbags
in cars. He explains how bad breath is produced by bacteria in the
mouth, and cites the three sulfur compounds that produce the odor.
Useful to fiction writers are his descriptions of compounds that
are modestly toxic, like arsenic oxide, to extremely toxic, like
nickel carbonyl gas. Odd facts abound: Selenium deficiency lowers
sperm count, though too much (only five milligrams taken at one
time) slides into toxicity. Lithium metal is so light that storing
it apart from air and moisture (which corrode it rapidly) is difficult,
because it floats on almost all liquids that don't absorb water.
Best results are had by smearing lumps of it with Vaseline.
I think you get the idea. The writing is clear and engaging, and I
found it remarkably easy to find facts due to the division of each
element's text into sections, and the similar treatment among elements
within each section. A long and detailed explanation of the Periodic
Table is included, with an illustration of an uncommon layout of the
Table as a circle, with hydrogen in the middle. Google may make books
like this less useful than they once were, but Google doesn't give
you nearly as good bathroom reading as this book doesand if
you claim to be an SF writer of the 'hard' variety, you'd better have
Nature's Building Blocks (or the CRC Handbook, or both)
on your reference shelf. Highly recommended.
21, 2005: Odd Lots
- From the so-obvious-why-didn't-we-all-think-of-it department:
A chap in Florida spent a little time with a list of the popes
shortly after the late John Paul II passed on, and registered
six domains corresponding to six of the most likely "next
up" names the new pope might pick. He registered ClementXV.com,
InnocentXIV.com, LeoXIV.com, PaulVII.com, PiusXIII.com...and BenedictXVI.com.
(PiusXIII.com and JohnPaulIII.com had already gone to other people,
as had the propheteers' perennial favorite, GregoryXVII.com.)
- From the it-happens-all-the-time-and-especially-to-me department:
The 1 GB DIMMs that Pete and I spent $235 on a month ago are now
down to $176. Postscript: I bought a second 1 GB DIMM for my PC
just ten days ago...for $235. Arrgh.
- From the it-wasn't-a-pope-it-was-a-bomber-but-then-again-it-wasn't-quite-a-bomber-either
department: There is in fact a B-16 bomber on the
list of official US bomber designations (XB-16, actually;
the "X" prefix means "conceptual" or "prototype")
but it never got out of the design stages and wasn't even prototyped.
The Martin XB-16 was very large for its era, and loosely resembled
XB-15, which itself was a damned big aircraft for 1935. The
XB-16 had six engines, including two turning pusher props. More
Click the drawing labeled "Model 145A" for a larger
view. Damned if it doesn't look like something peeled out of the
film Things to Come. Now, if we ever get a Pope Benedict
XVII, we can have B17. (Please, Cardinal, please/Don't pick B17...)
- From the everything-old-is-new-again-especially-everything-really-old
department comes this
article from the man who would be (and now is) Pope. I'll
save you the trouble of reading what is a very technical
paper intended for theologians by simply saying that we may well
be on the verge of spinning the Roman Catholic altars again.
- From the does-it-belong-in-your-pc-or-in-your-porsche department:
Look at this
thing. Just look at it. Are we becoming an industry of fetishists
20, 2005: Betting on the New Pope
Heh. He who went into the conclave a pope came out...a pope. I
guess that happens now and then. (Supposedly, it was the case for
Pius XII.) So it wasn't exactly a surprise that the world's bookies
took a bath on the betting. Papal conclaves are generally not as
predictable, so they stack the odds in favor of the house. In this
case, Cardinal Ratzinger was always in the top three (along with
Cardinals Arinze and Lustiger) and in many places was a heavy favorite.
Had some dark horse taken the Throne, the bookies would have walked
away with virtually all the money. The Irish bookies are
willing to talk about it (I assume such bets are legal in Ireland)
and I wonder if during the next conclave (which will not be in 25
years, trust me) they'll be as enthusiastic.
One thing that puzzled me early on was why the bookies placed the
shortest odds on the name "Benedict." Cardinals are known
quantities prior to conclaves, but a Pope's chosen name isn't known
to anyone until the Pope himself announces it. In fact, the favor
shown to the name wasn't connected with Ratzinger at all, but rather
with Cardinal Lustiger. Centuries ago, St. Benedict predicted that
one day a converted Jew would be elected Pope, and Cardinal Lustiger
was born a Jew. The prophecy freaks (whom Bishop Samuel Bassett
of the Old Catholic Church sagely calls "propheteers")
assumed that Lustiger, if elected Pope, would naturally choose the
name Benedict. Most people who foresaw Ratzinger as Pope assumed
he would take the name Pius XIII. I've begun to wonder what the
emergent abbreviation for the fairly long papal name "Benedict
XVI" will be. BXVI? B16? (Naw. Sounds like a vitamin...or a
Ironically, Cardinal Ratzinger was one of only three cardinals
in the conclave who was not appointed by the late Pope John
Paul II. He was, however, the Dean of Cardinals, an extremely close
associate of the late Pope, and had the reluctant support of many
in the mostly-Italian Curia. Sure, they wanted an Italian Popebut
they wanted a Pope who would preserve the ban on married and women
priests even more. Everyone felt that Ratzinger was a known quantity
on all the key gender issues, whereas a more obscure cardinal whose
theological leanings were not as well known might have surprised
everyone by rocking the clerical celibacy boat. Me, I'm less sure.
JPII was an idealist, and idealists have this bad habit of trying
to crowbar human nature into a tidy, abstract, and often absurd
structure of ideal behavior. Ratzinger is no idealist, but a rugged,
iron-fisted pragmatist. He knows as well as anyone that clerical
celibacy is at best a quaint custom and has very little real theology
beneath it. If our new Pope decides that clerical celibacy has outlived
its usefulness, it will be gone in sixty seconds, and the bitter
old guys who want the youngsters to suffer as they suffered will
not be a part of the equation.
The only thing worse than not getting your man in as Pope may be...getting
19, 2005: Contrarian Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI
The first email showed up not five minutes after the bells of the
Vatican began to ring. "Didn't take them long, did it?"
the message asked. No indeedfour ballots is pretty quick as
these things go. We got the Abrash's rarely-used TV running, and
then listened to newpeople say mostly redundant and often silly
things for over half an hour. Nonetheless, when former Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger came to the balcony, I was genuinely moved, and
when he at last gave his first papal blessing, I made the Sign of
the Cross here in Seattle and wiped a small tear from my eye, not
in frustration or in anger, but in quiet joy. So he's a conservative.
So what? The church, and the laity, have survived much worse.
People, listen to me: It's not about us. It's about the
working through of a project that reaches 2,000 years into the past
and will yet be in process for tens of thousands, and maybe millions
of years into the future. The Catholic Church (Roman and otherwise)
is not, as its reactionary adherents insist, a fixed, unchanging
institution. It is a work in progress, but what all of us forget
(some of us more than others) is that it is a work of millennia,
not the work of a few decades. People on planets in the 47 Tucanae
system will be arguing with the Pope in the year 10992. Seen from
that perspective, our current struggles will seem so small as to
I'm annoyed with my fellow liberals for all the mean-spirited (and
often hateful) kvetching about women priests, divorce, and even
birth control, which I admit is a hot button of mine. Principled
dissent is possible, and there are places in the greater Catholic
Church where dissenters can thrive while they work out the lifelong
tension between authority and conscience. The Orthodox, Old Catholic,
and Anglican traditions exist, I am convinced, so that the Catholic
Faith can survive the disagreements that are inevitable within a
Church composed entirely of fallen human beings.
Sure, I would have liked a Pope John XXIV who would wave his Magic
Pope Wand and heal all the wounds that the Roman Church is suffering.
On the other hand, I knew it wouldn't happen. We'll have our Pope
John XXIV someday. It may not be within our lifetimes, and we have
to let go and let God do His work on His schedule. God's schedule
can surprise us. A Benedict XVI can become a John XXIV when we least
expect it, heh.
Pope Benedict XVI has far worse problems to confront than quibbles
over birth control and divorce. Brutally put, his job is to keep
the Church from disintegrating. It's way easier to keep the church
together (by being a hardass or however) than to pull it back together
after it's been blown to the four winds. His #1 problem is the shortage
of priests. We can reserve our opinions about contraception and
still go to Mass. But if there's no priest at the altar, there is
no Mass. The numbers are bad, very bad. If the Roman Catholic Church
doesn't do something about the priest shortage within the next 50
years, the institution could find its own sacramental foundations
disintegrating. Without priests, we can pray and read the Bible,
but we can do that as Protestants, or as simple unchurched Christians.
If we want sacramental continuity, we need priests, and we need
them by the tens of thousands.
This is one reason I'm glad that we have a European for Pope, and
not an African or a Latin American. We have taught the Third World
to look at the West with a significant touch of subconscious contempt.
A Third World pope would be tempted to let the West fend for itself
(or hand out blanket excommunications) while focusing on the Church
in those lands where it's booming. That would be a mistake. The
Roman Church has to continue to engage the West, even if it doesn't
embrace the West. A German Pope can't ignore the fact that Europeans
are deserting the Roman Church. The reasons are subtle, and while
our new Pope may not be able to find common ground, I suspect that
he recognizes the need. He could reinvigorate the Roman Church in
the West without sacrificing all his principles. He could easily
allow married priests. He could reconsider the irrational contention
of our last Pope that preventive contraception is part of the Culture
of Death. He could restore the laity to something like respect without
giving them everything they want.
He could, as it were, surprise the hell out of us. Let us hope that
he doesbut if he doesn't, let us not make the mistake of insisting
that the status quo is necessarily an insult to those of us alive
in this very brief instant amidst the millennia of Catholic time past
and yet to come.
17, 2005: Why Some Comic Books Work, and Some Don't
Still in Seattle, with Michael Abrash. My parents never let me
have comic books, and so the only way I could read them was at friends'
houses, or down at my cousin Ron's in Blue Island. (Ron could have
anything he wanted, and comic books were the least of it.) So I
read them mostly as a stranger in a strange land, and never generated
much passion for them. I remember intermittently following Elfquest
25 years ago while hanging out with Mike and Alice Bentley, but
what most people were reading then (and a lot are reading now) were
mean-spirited, boring, cynical and violent offerings like American
Flagg, which was mostly about people getting holes blown in
them. (No, the talking cat didn't help much.)
has a pretty eclectic collection here, but his feelings about cynical
violence map pretty well to mine, and I was intrigued by what he
had in his stacks. Although I have read Scott
McCloud's brilliant Understanding
Comics, I had never seen any of his "real" comics
work until now. Over the past few days I've read most of his series
Zot, which ran for 36 issues in the 1980s. It was intriguing
to see Scott play around with the ideas he later explained in his
book and its sequel, Reinventing
Comics, which explores the future of comics technology,
especially online art and micropayments. Zot started out
well, with some extremely clever classic-style comics villains like
the freefloating evil computer program 9-Jack-9 and Dekko, who looks
like a robot wearing the Chrysler Building. Alas, by the end of
its 3-year run it had devolved into teen-angst soap opera, focusing
on a love triangle among a troubled young girl, a sweet-tempered
guy with glasses, and teen superhero Zot from a parallel Earth.
Toward the end, the sweet guy gracefully bows out, and with him
out of the way and walking into the sunset, the first thing Zot
says to Jenny is, "Wanna have sex?" Cripes, I'm glad I'm
not a teenager anymore.
by all measure the best thing I discovered in Michael's stacks is
PVP, which (in severe
contrast to Zot) is simply a comics sitcom set in the office
of a gamer magazine called Player Vs. Player. There is an
ensemble cast consisting of The Boss, the Babe, the Nerd, the Sophisticate,
and a peculiar trollish creature called Skull whom not everyone
can see. In PVP, the art is well-drawn but simple, with each
character a brilliantly succinct expression of its underlying archetype.
"Simple" is an understatement. In fact, strip creator
Scott Kurtz is clearly using templates of his characters, in maybe
two or three versions having different facial expressions, tilting
their heads now and then while very occasionally adding a simple
background and sometimes a secondary character or two, like the
deliciously sleazy Max Powers, who owns a competing magazine.
Understanding that simple art is not necessarily weak or bad art,
let me emphasize that PVP as a whole is brilliant,
better than any single comic strip I have seen in the daily papers
in years, and certainly not since the retirement of Calvin and
Hobbes. Why? Kurtz knows how to create situations and write
gags. It is truly and consistently funny, and the strips hit home
with a regularity I can't cite for any other strip in living memory.
(Part of it may be that I used to run a magazine myself, and bear
more than a passing resemblance to bossman Cole.) I laugh at syndicated
strip Zits probably one strip out of three, but with PVP
it was more like four out of five. One strip sequence that Kurtz
published in flats (i.e., the classic thin comic book format) was
a parody of The Matrix that was one of the most fiendishly
funny things I've seen in years. Admittedly, it's full of comics
insider stuff: Scott McCloud's distinctive self portrait (see the
cover of his book shown above) plays the Oracle. McCloud/Oracle
says to Neo: "Have a seat. Let's talk about micropayments."
Yes, there's some self-indulgence here, but it's bang-on. You can
read most of the strips online, but middle-aged bald-headed fossil
that I am, I much more enjoyed the ones Michael had in flats.
Scott Kurtz has very recently been nominated for the
Will Eisner Award for creative achievement in the comics industry,
and if the other stuff I saw in Michael's stacks and in corners
of other people's houses is any guide, he should walk away with
It's true of film (especially animated film) and clearly true of comics
as well: Good writing can float bad or minimalist art way better than
dazzling art can float bad or indifferent writing. Maybe I find that
true because I'm a writer, but I suspect it's a kind of universal
stemming from the way words transcended imagery once humanity invented
language. The story can emerge from the art to some extent (the late
Will Eisner pioneered many of the techniques here) but if there are
words at all, the words will dominate the storytelling.
15, 2005: Selling Serendipity
I'm up in Seattle hanging out with my old friend Michael Abrash,
who wrote easily the
thickest book I have ever edited, in this life or any other.
We both love books, we've both written books, we both have piles
upon piles upon piles of books, and when we're together, we generally
end up haunting one bookstore or another. But earlier today, while
riding the Seattle Monorail, we were reflecting that bookstores
are now selling one thing more than anything else: Serendipity.
If you know the name of a book that you want (even if you know it
indistinctly) you can go right to it online, and in three clicks
it's on its way to your house. In a bookstore, the whole experience
has changed. Rather than charging down the aisle to the section
where you know your targeted volume lies, you stroll up one
aisle and down another, waiting for something to jump out at you.
Some people are less patient than I, and don't have the same skill
at scouting out books reviews online. But I've noticed that these
days, I only go to bookstores when I really don't know what
I was wandering around a used bookstore in Manitou Springs a couple
of weeks ago, gathering odd volumes like gum on the bottoms of my
shoes. Cognitive dissonance really stands out for me, and when I
saw Geddes MacGregor's somewhat loopy 1989 book Reincarnation
in Christianity I couldn't resist. I read only the first hundred
pages or so, but as it cost me just four bucks, I felt that I came
away ahead. The key is that I never would have deliberately hunted
that book down, and if I hadn't seen it atop the jumble in the "near
four dollars" dump bin, I might never have understood why Origen
had been (falsely) accused of teaching reincarnation. I have high
hopes that another $4 book on Kaiser Wilhelm will shed some light
on the mystery of World War I. Close by was a sort of manual on
how to be an officer in the U.S. Army, which may turn out to be
useful background material for writing fiction. Again, it was a
book I didn't know existed, and while I've long been modestly interested
in the topic, I was never interested in it enough to go looking
for it. Instead the book came looking for me.
Meatspace bookstores are having a tough time competing with online
discounters who don't have bricks and mortar to protect, clean,
staff, and keep warm or cool as appropriate. Although one can browse
an online catalog, not being able to pick up and flip through a
promising book makes it much less likely that the sale will be made.
You see, sometimes it's the less-obvious characteristics that tip
the balance in the book's favor: Illustrations, endnotes, the picture
on the cover, or even the scribblings in the margins from the book's
previous owner. Pure chance can also come into play: More than once
I've gone looking for a specific book, only to find and buy a completely
unrelated book from elsewhere on the same shelf or stack. Sometimes
a fully ordered bookstore works against serendipity, and sometimes
a measure of chaos can make this sort of intuitive search a lot
I can only think that the bookstores that best survive will be
the ones who figure out how to make serendipity happen more easily.
Most are trying, but my intuition is that there may be radically
new and undiscovered ways to make books walk off shelves. Dump bins
are rare, but they have a sort of grip on my imagination: Dig around
a little and who knows what you'll find! I'd love to be able to
more easily see the covers of more books in a store, and the store
that figures out how to allow this will sell more books.
Serendipity should be a marketable commodity. Sydney J. Harris's newspaper
column often contained a section entitled "Things I stumbled
across while looking for something else." That's the ticket:
A little chaos, a little imagination, and bricks'n'mortar bookstores
may thrive again.
13, 2005: Odd Lots
- Meetup.com has decided to become a pay site, and will
soon begin charging meetup organizers (not the general meetup
user base) $19/month for the privilege. Meetups without
organizers willing to pay the bill will not be serviced. Meetups
are supposed to pass the hat so that the organizer doesn't have
to pay the $228 annual charge out of pocket, but meetups down
on the fringes of a sustainable user base (like our local Delphi
meetup, and most meetups in smaller towns) probably won't be able
to swing that, and will fold. Meetup's system is by no means rocket
science. Will a competitor pop up? Will somebody do an open-source
version in PHP? We'll see.
- Harry Helms W5HLH has a very nice, um, blog on
the future of radio. Rather than being backward looking (as
a lot of ham and classic radio sites are) this one definitely
looks ahead to what we may see on the wireless front in five to
ten years. I've begun to check it daily, especially the sections
of special interest to me, like WiMax and software radio. Highly
- Our good friend and Old Catholic priest Mary Ramsden (who presided
25th wedding anniversary Mass back in 2001) has published
a wonderful little book called God's
Listening: Prayers for Dog Owners. The book is a fundraiser
Vest-a-Dog, which provides bullet and stab-resistant vests
for dogs in law enforcement service. Any donation $10 or over
will get you a book, and if you have ever had a dog (and are not
a militant atheist) it will bring tears to your eyes.
- Speaking of dogs, Carol and I are about to begin a new dog cycle.
It's been almost 25 years since the birth of the
famous Mr. Byte (and 10 years since his death) and now that
we're settled in Colorado Springs we're ready. Way
out in Idaho is a 7-week-old white furball who will be old
enough to join us early in May. Names are still in the brainstorming
stage. (Already eliminated are Geist and Turbo.) More details
as they happen. Expect a photo here May 6 or 7.
12, 2005: Monopsony and Oligopsony
Blinded as we in technology are by Microsoft as OS monopolist,
we don't think much about market constraints that work in the other
direction. In fact, I'll wager that you've never heard the word
is a little commoner. Neither is exactly a household word, and that
in itself may be a problem. When you can't name something, it's
much harder to get a grip on it and its effects.
It's simple, actually: Monopsony is the power of a single buyer
to drive down prices when buying from many sellers. It's monopoly
aimed away from consumers, toward producers. The highway construction
business is almost entire monopsonistic; who buys highways except
for governments? The government of Canada has a monopsony on health
care services, which is why being a doctor in Canada is not the
road to wealth that it is here. Oligopsony is similar, and is the
power of a small cadre of buyers (not necessarily in collusion)
to drive down prices paid to a much larger community of sellers.
The classic example is the fast food industry, in which a small
number of enormous fast-food chains control the majority of the
U.S. market for beef and to a lesser extent chicken. In general
retail, Wal-Mart is coming very close to being a monopsony. If you
won't take the price Sam is offering for bath towels, well, suddenly
you're a boutique towel manufacturer, and they'd better be really
good bath towels.
I worry way less about monopoly than monopsony and oligopsony these
days. This is in part because my own rice bowl is tied to the book
business, where the oligopsony of Borders and B&N drives down
what publishers (especially small publishers) realize from book
sales by demanding ever larger retail margins. It's happening across
the board, and I don't think most people understand the dynamics
of monopsonistic dominance of the retail channel. The conventional
wisdom is that downward pressure on goods prices comes from competing
manufacturers, and that outsourcing of manufacturing to low-cost
nations is simply a matter of corporate greed. That's not the whole
story. If the Wal-Mart and Target price is too low to cover the
cost of goods produced here, manufacturers (especially small ones
that no one would point at and call "corporate") have
to start looking at offshoring simply to stay in business.
I'm not offering any answers here. I simply wanted to point out that
there are other mechanisms than manufacturer greed at work in what
some call the "hollowing out of America." Retailers have
as much to do with it as anyone else, and as time goes on (and as
our retail channels come to be dominated by fewer and fewer giant
retail firms) manufacturers will have less and less choice where to
make their goods. There are no laws against monopsony (who's against
lower prices?) but I thought it would be good for people to learn
the word for what may be the largest single force behind the offshoring
of American manufacturing.
11, 2005: A Whole New Look for Contra
I threw together the current design for ContraPositive Diary in
early 2000, and I remember thinking, "Well, this will do for
the time being. I have to get something done and out there. I'll
come back and make it pretty later on." Well, I never came
back, and that was five years ago. Earlier this year, I started
sketching out what I wanted. Here were my objectives:
- Readability: A narrower text column
- Above the fold: Make sure the latest entry is visible when anyone
navigates to Contra.
- Pertinent to the above: Navigation and archive in the left column.
- Lose the color: Whether or not it's my favorite color, I got
tired of everything in shades of blue. I'm a books guy, and books
are (the good ones, at least) in black and white unless they can't
possibly avoid it. Back to my monochrome roots. (Photos will remain
- A new header font: Every damned fern bar in the Western Hemisphere
uses Copperplate Gothic Bold in their menus. I was there first,
but there's no fighting a fern bar. I bought the full set of Albertina
fonts years ago for book layout. Time start using 'em.
- Two-month lookback, not three: Narrower text columns mean longer
text columns, and so I decided to have only the two most recent
months in the Contra home page, rather than three.
- Entry titles: Everybody else does this, and I've had numerous
requests from people who are scanning Contra files for a particular
entry. Fair enough, though titling all my old entries isn't going
to happen anytime soon.
- A recent picture. I'm amazed how many readers want to know what
Carol and I look like. Carol, sure. Me, well, there's no accounting
for taste. The new photo was taken last November while we were
on our Hawaii cruise. It's actually cropped from a photo of both
of us, and one of these entries, I'll post the full photo here.
- A new tagline: A big part of positioning myself via tagline
is distancing myself from the abhorrent and overwhelmingly political
blogosphere, where people tend to be owned by one of the two parties,
or by the idea of politics itself. I owe my allegiance to God,
Carol, America, and the common good. It's that simple. I think
everything through and establish my own positions on everything.
That's tough to capture in five or six words, but I've got to
The results are what you have in front of you. I'm not a designer
in the art sense, but I've been in the book and magazine business
for a lot of years, and I think I know what works. A professional
designer might have made it prettier, but it's functional and not
an eyesore. That was the main objective. I'm just a little ashamed
that it took me five years to achieve it.
Later in the day: Well, almost nobody liked "In No
One's Shadow" (part of my first crack at a tagline) and the
rest didn't understand what it meant. One piece of advice stood
out: If you have to explain a tagline, it's not much of a tagline.
Touché. So take another look if you haven't already. This
isn't as original, but it's a lot more self-explanatory.
10, 2005: Old McHacker Had a Pharm
The article I promised for today got too big this morning to publish
as one entry, so give me a day or two to break it down. Time's a
little tight; I'm working hard on a complete redesign of Contra,
and want to get it uploaded before my next trip out of town.
Even though it was first described (as best I know) in 1993, DNS
poisoning is only just now become a buzzword, especially in
the form of its applied criminal technique, unfortunately dubbed
pharming. (Too many people assume that "pharming"
is related to "pharma," which is industry jargon for "pharmaceuticals".)
Pharming is by far the worst form of cybercrime I've yet seen described,
because you as an end user (especially a nontechnical end user)
currently have absolutely no way to know when you're being pharmed.
Briefly: The entire Internet depends on a relatively simple translation
protocol called DNS (Domain Name Service). DNS does one thing and
one thing only: It translates a domain name (like duntemann.com)
into that domain name's raw numeric IP address (like 192.168.1.107)
which is how all Internet traffic is routed around the world. DNS
keeps you from having to memorize strings of numbers instead of
"amazon.com". There are many DNS servers on the Internet,
and when a domain owner changes hosting IP addresses, they upload
a change record to their nearest DNS server. This local DNS server
then begins to pass DNS record changes to nearby DNS servers, and
so the changes go, passed from hand to hand, propagating around
the world automatically. In pharming, a crook subverts that process
of propagating changes, and injects a bogus change record into the
DNS system. Shazam! Suddenly, the citibank.com domain translates
to the address of a cybercrook somewhere in the Caucasus. There's
no easy way you can tell that this has happened. You can carefully
type www.citibank.com into your Web browser's URL field,
and you'll still be connected to the phony site, where you might
enter your online banking data and allow the crooks to clean out
your bank account. The crime does not occur on your PC. It
occurs at the level of your Internet Service Provider or even higher
up in the DNS server hierarchy.
There's a clear but very technical description of the problem in
PDF form here. It's
a nasty business, and Internet protocol experts are trying to figure
out how to plug this gaping hole, which has the potential to make
the Internet unusable for e-commerce and online banking. To completely
eliminate pharming, every single DNS server on the Internet would
have to be upgraded to something "hardened" against the
exploit. BIND 9.x has some protections, but more are probably needed.
At the end user level, nothing can currently be done. I can imagine
a future browser feature that caches domain names and their resolved
IPs locally, and if the resolved IP ever changes, a warning would
be shown to the user. Emailing to an address on the domain to confirm
the change wouldn't help, because all domain traffic (email,
Web, FTP, everything) would be rerouted to the crook's site. Banks
and large e-commerce sites might be reduced to publishing "IP
change notices" in the New York Times or the Wall Street
Journal. Certainly, SSL will become much more popular. And Carol
and I are not yet banking over the Internet. Never have. Maybe never
9, 2005: A Rant from A Freak in the Freakshow
People have been sending me a great many pointers to articles about
our late Pope, after seeing my entries for April 2-4. It's been
interesting seeing him through many eyes, on all sides of the political
spectrum. And although the knucklehead Democrats have been pushing
me further and further to the right over time, I rediscovered in
reading one of these articles why I am less and less willing to
think of myself as a conservative. It's a
column by John Derbyshire in the National
Review Online. What he says about the late Pope is far less
interesting than what he says about life in our society. Apparently
we are heading for a "posthuman" era. Oh, please. Not
This seems to be part of a sort of script that conservatives of
Derbyshire's stripe follow. (Is he really a conservative? A neocon?
The political bestiary is getting away from me.) I've heard it a
few too many times before: that all people who choose not to have
children are soul-numb hedonists. It's simply not true. Many or
most of our friends are childless, because most of our friends who
have children are too exhausted to socialize. And it's nearly universal
that our married childless friends work hard and live relatively
modest lives, loving one another deeply and maintaining a vigorous
life of the mind. I see nothing there I could point to and call
"hedonism." Except...I have a strong suspicion that our
childless friends have a lot more sexand better sexthan
our "childed" friends. Of course, to guys like John Derbyshire,
that's hedonism. Sex to them is a guilty pleasure, justified only
when children are the major object.
In his own words:
...the real culprit
is the irresistible appeal of secular hedonism to healthy, busy,
well-educated populations. We live, as never before in human history,
in a garden of delights, with something new to distract and delight
us every day. None of that is enough to turn the heads of those
who are truly, constitutionally devout; but not many human beings
are, nor ever have been, that committed to their faith. And so
the flock wanders away to the rides, the prize booths, and the
WTF? The truly devout can only work, and go to church, and make
babies. Everything else is rides, prize booths, and freak shows.
The other major part of the script is this weird obsession with
"toughing it out," "being a soldier," and embracing
all pain and discomfort as a badge of courage and nobility of spirit.
The distresses of life,
especially physical sickness and pain, are gradually being pushed
to the margins.
Look, dude, that's the idea. Let's see how well you "tough
it out" with cancer eating you alive, like it did my father.
You'll be screaming for Demerol just like everybody else. And:
...it seems to me highly
probable that the world of 50 or 100 years from now will bear
a close resemblance to Huxley’s dystopia — a world without pain,
grief, sickness or war, but also without family, religion, sacrifice,
or nobility of spirit.
This condition is what he calls "posthuman" without really
explaining how a world without misery necessarily spawns a world
without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility. Carol and I and
most of our childless friends have the first three; whether we have
nobility of spirit is for others to judge. If our lifestyle is "posthuman,"
then this sort of humanness (i.e., self-congratulatory asceticism
and the exaltation of pain and privation) was well worth transcending.
On the other hand, the wind is bringing me a certain scent. Are
there horses around somewhere?
As you can see, stuff like this makes me a little nuts. There are
threads here that I intend to pursue here in the future. Patience,
patience. The freak here is gathering his thoughts, and when he strikes,
he will strike hard.
8, 2005: Jared Diamond's Collapse
finished Jared Diamond's Collapse
some weeks back, and I've been thinking since then about how to
position it. I admit some disappointment, but that was mostly because
the author's earlier book, Guns,
Germs, and Steel, was so startling and original (to me,
at least) in its insights. Collapse is an excellent book,
even though I've read a lot of similar material before, especially
on Easter and Pitcairn Islands and the Maya and Anasasi collapses.
What I had not read before, however, was the story of the Norse
colony in Greenland, and how it failed. For me, that was by far
the best part of the book, and well worth the price of admission.
The writing is superb, the research thorough. I only wish that his
conclusions were more upbeatthough if I were forced to accept
the research at face value, my conclusions might be just as grim.
The overall message of the book is threefold: To avoid societal
collapse, 1) be flexible, 2) strive to cooperate with your neighbors,
and 3) don't exceed the carrying capacity of your territory. Diamond
adds a few grace notes but those are the big ones. He thinks that
religion acts against survival, without digging deeper into the
nature of religion and its effects on society. (I would argue the
reverse, but it's a subtle topic.) Certainly religion helped the
Easter Islanders become extinct, but taking religion out of the
picture might only have delayed the inevitable.
But back to the Norse, who (in my view) present the lessons most
applicable to modern humanity. First of all, some perspective: Calling
the Norse colony in Greenland a failure is a bit of hubris: The
colony lasted 450 years, which is longer than the English
have been in North America, counting from the establishment of the
Roanoake colony in 1585. This may be a testament to the toughness
of the Norse, but one has to wonder if they might still be there
if they had colonized Greenland as a clean slate with a whole new
set of challenges, without assuming that it was a carbon copy of
Norway. The onset of the Little Ice Age finished them off by 1450,
but the curtain was closing on its own by that time, due to the
Norse having violated all three of Diamond's major survival tenets.
They were not flexible people. They came to Greenland and attempted
to live as they had in Norway. They refused to eat fish for reasons
that we do not understand. (Perhaps one of their chiefs had gotten
sick on some bad fish at some point.) They persisted in using boats
unsuited for Greenland's ice-choked waters. They grew European crops
and animals that needed longer growing seasons and gentler climates.
They refused to learn from the Inuit peoples who also lived in Greenland,
but were far more adapted to local conditions.
They were a violent people, and rather than befriend, learn from,
and trade with the aboriginal North Americans in Labrador and Newfoundland,
they simply attacked the first natives they saw, and lost many men
and trade opportunities in the subsequent skirmishes with the "skraelings"
there and in Greenland itself. Records that have survived show that
they fought fiercely among themselves as well, so going so diametrically
against their temperaments and culture might have been too much
Most significantly, they exceeded the carrying capacity of Greenland's
fragile ecosystem. Most houses in Greenland were made from cut turf
(about ten acres per house!) and once the turf was cut, the land
became useless for farming or animal husbandry. The Norse were dairy
farmers, and they brought their cows and their buckets and cheesemaking
equipment with them. Milk being what it is, used vessels have to
be washed in very hot water, which requires biggish wood fires every
day. Greenland is big, and it had forests (especially before the
Little Age Age) but those forests grow very slowly. The relatively
few Greenland colonists managed to deplete the easily accessible
forests in the first 250 years or so, after which the colony began
its decline. Without abundant firewood, it was impossible to smelt
bog iron, and so without constant imports of metal from Europe or
Iceland, they gradually wore down their tools until the metal was
simply gone. The settlements were in steep decline after 1300, but
once trade with Europe stopped about 1400, the colony went extinct
within fifty years.
Jared Diamond's conclusions about modern humanity are mixed. Clearly,
we're more flexible than ancient peoples, and we have the advantage
of literacy to allow us to learn from the past. Far from being a
world of warring fortress nations, globalization is now seen as
the result of enlightened social thinking. (At least until your
own job goes to Bangalore.) The third of Diamond's issues now basically
becomes all three: Population, population, and population. We're
being far more clever about use of resources, but because there
are so many of us, we're basically treading water. He says he has
hope, but between the lines one clearly reads his conviction that
Earth is well past its carrying capacity, and our troubles are only
So how would I characterize Collapse? Well-written, fascinating,
and ultimately depressing. I enjoyed it less than Guns, Germs,
and Steel in part because his earlier book was about the past,
which I could read safely in the here and now. Collapse's lessons
teach us about our own future, and that always makes us look over
our shoulders. Highly recommended.
7, 2005: Jeff, Belt the Fat Controller Machine!
I was doing one of my periodic looks through
my Web site activity logs yesterday, and I got to wondering how
my activity compares to that of other other non-commercial sites.
Traffic is between two and three times what it was the first month
I was hosted on SectorLink (July 2004) which isn't bad for less
than a year's work. (8,400 different readers! Wow!) Note that I
do no promotion on this thing, though I sometimes wonder
if I should ask more people to link to me. Anyway, here are the
duntemann.com numbers for March 2005, and if anyone has a sense
for how good this is, I'd be interested to see how I'm doing:
Unique visitors: 8395
Number of visits: 13489
Page serves: 19918
Page hits: 223212
Bandwidth: 3.05 GB
I always ask people who email me about Contra how they heard about
it. About half are people who have read my other published material
(books and ancient magazine articles) and half are people who find
Contra while searching for other things.
Some of these "other things" are, um, peculiar. Because
I pack a lot of words into each HTML file (Diary.htm covers three
months) I get a lot of screwy search queries that point at my pages.
(If you don't yet understand how Google etc. work, remember that
if you don't enclose a query in quotes, you get any page that contains
all the words in your query, however scattered through the text
they are.) I've selected a few below, with my own commentary. The
only thing scarier than some of these queries is the fact that the
querier thought my site was a likely enough target to click through
to and read.
- birds of pray in southern colorado.....Is that anything like
"people of color"? Or cardinals?
- women getting their hare dan naked...Sorry, my hare is named
- literal description of heaven...............Infinite bandwidth
and all the smoked brats you can eat.
- how to put rhinestones on a palm pilot...Dude, you need something
- patent cat door thermonuclear...........If the cat can't
get out, it goes off.
- how to eat without things getting stuck under expander........Carefully.
- diabolical dingbats.............................Look in the
Capitol buildingor any major university.
- men wearing pantyhose tell wives all..I'll just bet.
- cobol programming murder...............Yup. It used to make
me nuts too.
- women having sex with llamas...........I guess I shouldn't
use the word "sex" anymore.
- photos of vatican s basement.............Watch out for those
piles of old National Geographic!
- weird views of david hume................Stand on top of
his tongue and look down.
- why aren t we knee-deep in bacteria throughout the world?.....One
- jeff belt the fat controller machine......I will do no such
- why contrapositive is sound.............. Because I write
6, 2005: One Case, Two Motherboards?
Pete and I have been tuning and fussing with our new PCs for some
time (with various minor difficulties and one major one) and every
so often we lift our heads and wonder: How long can we manage with
Win2K? I have an XP lab machine here, but I don't like the way it's
constantly going out on the Net, doing things it isn't talking about.
I also have fundamental problems with hardware-signature based product
activation, which means that every time I change a middling component
on a PC, I have to ask Microsoft's permission to use it again. I
don't need all the supposed XP security features, though I admit
that non-technical people may be better off with them. XP wireless
support is full of bugs (see my entry for February
11, 2005) and mostly worthless. (How can I trust an OS that
can't even agree with itself as to whether it's connected to an
AP or not?)
Basically, the more I learn about XP, the better I like Win2K.
There may be a point down the road where it becomes problematic,
but scratch my head as I might, I can't hazard a guess as to why.
By that time, we're hoping Linux will have enough software support
(either native or through emulation, as with Wine)
to make Windows unnecessary for the kind of work we do.
Which led to another idea: A transitional PC, with literally two
independent motherboards in it, one running Win2K, and another running
Linux, with a SATA link between them for passing files. Motherboards
are getting smaller, as are other PC components. I was amazed at
how much dead space was left inside the Sonata cases once we had
put everything in.
I already have the ability to put two PCs side by side and easily
switch I/O between them with a couple of key taps. (See my entry
6, 2004.) But that's two boxes and a lot of cables. Why not
reduce some of the cable clutter by loading both functional PCs
in one box? I admit, that would be a bigger and (more significantly)
a hotter box, but it would be simpler to set up physically and move
around. A quick scan around the Web showed nothing, but it may exist
somewhere. I imagine a chunky case with two removable side panels,
and the motherboards mounted in the center, back to back. From what
I know about SATA, it would be no big deal to give each mobo its
own boot hard drive, and then share a third monster SATA drive for
data. As a bonus, the box would have its own router with a NAT firewall,
to share a single network connection between the two motherboards.
(If every PC sold had its own built-in NAT firewall, there'd be
a lot less worm damage in the world.)
Just a thought, and it's a few years off yet. Right now there's nothing
I need to do that can't be done (and in some cases, as in Wi-Fi, done
better) in Win2K.
5, 2005: Odd Pope Lots
How about a few odd pope lots? Ok, all right, after this I'll give
the pope thing a rest for a few days, or probably until the conclave
begins later this month. So here goes:
Francis Arinze, if elected pope, would not necessarily be
the first Black pope. Many historians now feel that Pope Gelasius
I (493-496) was Black, though as you might imagine, we don't have
a lot of hard information from that era, and although a fair number
of Gelasius' writings have survived, he wrote little about himself.
He was certainly African, though most older histories suggest
that he was a Carthaginian, or of some other non-Black stock from
an article with a slightly less than worshipful analysis of
Pope John Paul II's reign, and I cite it here mostly because it
was written by Peter Hebblethwaite, who wrote the excellent if
now obsolete book The Next Pope in 1994. It is also not
new (Hebblethwaite died in 1994) but has been updated by his wife
and an associate.
- One little-known reason why Pope John Paul II was the first
non-Italian pope in 400 years (since Adrian VI, a Dutchman, in
1523) is that the number of cardinals was fixed at 70 during the
reign of Sixtus V (1590-1595) and most of those were Italians.
It was Pope John XXIII who began expanding the College of Cardinals,
especially by naming cardinals to dioceses outside the West. By
1978, there were enough non-Italian cardinals so that a non-Italian
pope was not unthinkable.
- Many people still believe that Pope John Paul I was murdered
by conservatives, masons, muslims, anarchists, or aliens, but
after a significant investigation, author John Cornwell (who has
done a great deal of research on the popes and Catholicism generally)
wrote a book that concluded that, yes, he really did have
a heart attack. The "Smiling Pope" was even showing
symptoms in his last few days alive, and everyone was too elated
by his upbeat, outgoing personality to notice. The book is A
Thief in the Night, and is very well-written, assuming
you're interested enough in the topic to read a whole book on
it. (Sometimes a heart attack really is a heart attack. No aliens
- And speaking of aliens, the various seers and prophets around
the Web are placing their bets that the next pope will be Cardinal
Jean-Marie Lustiger. Why? The
famous prophetic mottoes of St. Malachy tell us that the next
pope may be understood as "The Glory of the Olive."
In much mystical and occult writings, the olive is a symbol for
the Jews, and Cardinal Lustiger was born a Jew, and later converted
to Catholicism. On the other hand, I could as well point to Cardinal
Carlo Maria Martini of Milan as fulfilling the motto. After
all, where is an olive most in its glory? I'll take mine (as with
my humor) dry, please.
4, 2005: A Few Good Pope Books
26 years of speaking of The Pope, it's finally become fashionable
to talk about popes and the papacy as concepts and major elements
of Western history. People who have heard that I've done some research
on the papacy (I looked just now and find that I have almost two
shelf-feet of books on the popes, the papacy, and the Vatican) are
starting to ask me questions like, How do we get a new pope,
anyway? It's sobering to ponder that a lot of these people were
not even alive when we last elected a pope.
So today let me point you to a few good books. Perhaps the best
single description of how the papal conclave works is found in Fr.
Andrew Greeley's imaginal White
Smoke, which is a detailed description of the papal election
process set into the framework of a novel. It's a fun read, although
Fr. Greeley's inescapable Irishness can get real old after
awhile. (It may not bother you if this is your first Greeley novel.
Read a few more, and certain themesall of them colored bright
greenwill begin to loom large.)
good book, though much denser and not as much fun to read, is Inside
the Vatican, by Thomas J. Reese. Subtitled "The Politics
and Organization of the Catholic Church," the book is precisely
that, and never have I seen a clearer description of how and why
the Vatican is a prisoner of its own traditions. It's less about
the pope than about the organization headed by the pope, though
there is a nice description of the conclave process. Dry reading,
but I haven't seen all the information it presents gathered in any
other single book.
get yelled at for saying this, but The
Pope Encyclopedia by Matthew Bunson makes great bathroom
reading. Short, accessibly written independent entries on every
pope and much papal minutiae can each be read in a few minutes,
and Bunson presents the information with neither a pro nor anti-Vatican
slant. However, he does skip over some of the uglier details of
the lives of some of the "bad popes," like John XII and
the first John XXIII. (We had two Pope John XXIIIs! It's
an interesting story, which I'll try to tell here in coming days.)
This book is where I first learned of Vatican City's "sede
vacante" postage stamps and coins, which are only issued during
the few weeks between popes, when the Chair of Peter (Latin, sede,
chair) is vacant.
of bad popes, if you want to explore a little pope lore that the
Vatican would prefer to bury, you have no shortage of options. The
best single book here is E. R. Chamberlin's 1969 work The
Bad Popes, which is a solid and very readable layman's history
of the worst popes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Because
the paperback print is so small, I suggest you look for the 1986
hardcover edition, which is common on the used book sites and in
public libraries. The book covers the years between 900 and 1534,
which is when the worst papal shenanigans occurred. It was here
that I first read how Pope John XII got the back of his head bashed
in by the husband of the woman he was beddingwhile the pope
was still in bed with, and on top of, his unfortunate mistress.
(History is silent on what the enraged husband did to her.)
Bad Popes is good, objective history. If you want slant, you
can have it (peculiarly enough) from the two opposite points of
the spectrum, in books with the exact same title: Vicars of Christ.
Best known is Michael
P. Riccards' 1998 work, which tells the stories of all the popes
since 1846, through John Paul II. Riccards tells no fibs, but he
is clearly being gentle on a few of the popes of our modern era,
especially Pius IX, the longest reigning pope in history for whom
we have reliable dates. "Pio Nono" started out well, but
by the end of his 32-year reign had become a raging, paranoid, borderline
psychotic parody of the man he had been when elected. (The Italians
hated him, and threw mud clods at his casket during his funeral
procession in 1878a detail Riccards does not relate.)
polemical, peculiar, and almost impossible to find in libraries
is Peter De Rosa's 1988 book with the same title. An angry outsider,
De Rosa takes on the entire 2000-year run of popes, but spends most
of his time (almost half the book) on popes of the 20th century.
The book is pastiche of history (factually accurate, for all the
points I spot-checked against other references) and protest against
papal absolutism. It's beautifully written and wincingly fun to
read, even when De Rosa goes totally over the top fuming against
clerical celibacy or some other disputed Roman Catholic doctrine.
Wars, treason, adultery, papal bastards, financial skulduggeryit's
all here. He covers more ground than Chamberlin, especially involving
popes between 1530 and today. De Rosa issued a
revised edition of the book in Europe in 2000, but you have
to order it new from amazon.co.uk, as the American Amazon does not
list it except used from third parties. Used copies of the 1988
edition are more abundant (and cheaper) than they were a few years
ago. I've never seen it in libraries.
That's it for today. Other books are out there (including a third
papal history called Vicars
of Christ!) and I certainly haven't read them all. It's been
26 years since we've seen this brand of history being made, so indulge
yourself. Read! Who knows when we'll see sede vacante again!
3, 2005: A Roman Catholic Oath of Fealty
A lot of my fellow ultrajectine
(non-Roman) Catholics used to gripe about Pope John Paul II because
he was unyeilding, conservative, or (as we Americans put it) a "hardass."
I suspect that during his life, PJPII heard that common critique
more than onceprobably from Americans. My perception of our
late pope's position lies on that same axis, but in the other direction:
He was nowhere near hardass enough.
Crisply put, my first of two major criticisms of Pope John Paul
II is this: Over his 26 years on the Throne of Peter, he elaborately
systematized the Roman Catholic Church's moral teaching, and
then did not enforce it. He preached, and he chided, and I'm
sure he prayed as much as any single human being could, but in the
end he stepped back from the brink, and did not require that those
who call themselves Roman Catholic explicitly declare their adherence
to their own church's teachings.
Nearly everybody loved Pope John Paul II, but nearly everbody ignored
him. The 1995 National Survey of Family Growth (alas, not online,
though its "home page" is here)
found that 96% of American Catholic women who have had sex have
used contraception at some point in their lives, and 75% of Catholic
women who are currently sexually active use some form of contraception
forbidden by the Church. These aren't scofflaws at the fringes.
This is almost the entire population of Catholic women in the United
States. And it isn't just us: Roman Catholics are still required
to attend Mass every Sunday, and as much as the Italians loved their
Pope, Italian churches are now as empty or emptier on Sunday than
any Roman Catholic churches anywhere in Europe. Divorce is now as
common among Roman Catholics as it is among the general public.
Support for abortion is not as high among Roman Catholic women as
it is among women in general, but according to the Vatican it should
Karol Wojtyla was a philosopher-theologian, and probably the most
articulate and best educated of any pope in a century or more. His
encyclicals and other works are not breezy reading, but they're
readily available in English (and most other languages) and a determined
layperson can bull through them. I am impressed with the thoroughness
of his moral reasoning, even as I question how applicable it can
ever be to the human condition. (I'll return to this issue here
as soon as I can.) However, there is no question that popes generally,
and certainly JPII, have the right and the resources to formulate
a moral code for Roman Catholics. Heck, that's their job.
But the formulations are only part of it. A moral code that is almost
universally ignored is a mockery of the very idea of moral codes
and moral conduct.
You might rightly ask what a pope can do. Tell people that doing
or believing certain things are a sin? Popes do that all the time.
No, my suggestion is much stronger stuff: Take the list of Roman
Catholic hot-button faith/moral issues and build it into a one-pager,
to be handed out to every Roman Catholic at every parish anywhere
in the Roman Catholic world. Start it out something like this:
"I, the undersigned,
claim to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and in making
that claim, I agree that I oppose without exception and will not
engage in, argue in favor of, nor support financially or in any
other way the following:
in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual
activity/marriage, stem cell research, women in Holy Orders, etc.)
"I accept without
hesitation the authority of the Pope and the Magisterium in all
matters of faith and morals and will obey directives issuing directly
from the Vatican or from delegated diocesan church authority.
"By refusing or
breaking this pledge, I understand that I cease to be a member
of the Roman Catholic Church, and stand in excommunication from
the Church's sacraments and its communities."
Extreme? Only in the enforcement. The requirements that I lay out
in this pledge are the requirements supposedly binding on all current
Roman Catholics, according to current Canon Law and papal teaching.
I hear the objection: But that would destroy the Church!
Hardly. It would shrink the Church, perhaps radically, but
the Church that would remain would be a far stronger and more internally
coherent organization. A Church whose moral code is accepted and
obeyed by its members would be an inspiration to the world, not
an object of ridicule and stand-up comedy.
Any pope has the power and the authority to require such an explicit,
signed pledge of Roman Catholics. I firmly believe that Pope John
Paul II failed to require such a pledge not out of weakness (nor,
cynically, because the Church needs the money and membership) but
out of charity. His whole life was the Church, and I think that
to him, excommunication of what could well be hundreds of millions
of Roman Catholics would have been too painful. Like I said, he
was a hardass, but mostly in building and explaining his moral system.
That so much of the Church ignored him must have broken his heart,
but the man who flew so far and met so many people in so many nations
was not the kind of man who, from a lonely tower in the Vatican,
would expel entire nations from the Roman Catholic family.
There are cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church today who might not
be so hesitant. Keep that in mind, as the Sistine Chapel is prepared
for the first papal conclave since 1978.
2, 2005: Pope John Paul II 1920 - 2005. Requiescat in Pace.
Non habemus papam. We no longer have a Pope. It's interesting
to reflect that Pope John Paul II has reigned for literally half
my life: He was elected in 1978, when I was 26, and I'm now 52.
In the first 26 years of my life, we had four popes: Pius XII, John
XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I. That's the historical norm; popes
rarely last for 26 years after their election. But Karol Wojtyla
was a fighter who fought to the bitter end, and it's no secret that
he suffered terribly in his last couple of years. My father was
like that, and in his last horrible years I often wondered why he
didn't simply allow himself to slip back into the hands of his Creator.
It may be as simple as temperament: Some people can lose the will
to live, and some people can't.
One of my more cynical friends holds that John Paul II held out
as long as he did to ensure that he had appointed as many of the
cardinals as possible, so as to reduce the odds of a liberal being
elected to the Throne of Peter, who might undo much of what JPII
has fought so hard to do. I'm sure that was part of it, but the
kicker is that popes are wildcards. They are governments
of one, with very few limitations on what they can impose on the
Churchor release. Pope Paul VI said once that with "a
stroke of his pen" he could end mandatory clerical celibacy.
He didn't, but any pope could. A pope could withdraw Humanae
Vitae by writing a new encyclical to supercede it. But both
of those unlikely events pale in the face of a pope's Nuclear Option:
Convene the Third Vatican Council. Interestingly, Pope John XXIII
had a reputation for being a crusty conservative while a bishop
and later a cardinal. He was elected to be a "safe" pope:
an older man who would do little and die soon while Vatican insiders
could settle the issue of what was next in store for the Roman Catholic
Church. Well, John XXIII surprised us all, and it might be no different
next time. Even a very conservative pope might fall to the temptation
of making his mark on history rather than simply echoing what his
predecessor popes had decreed. And sometimes, of course, it's difficult
to discern the consequences of any single papal action.
It's ironic that government-by-pope is actually more subject to
radical change than government-by-council, as the church was governed
for its first 1300 years or so. In a Church Council, the voice of
any single bishop or cardinal is diluted by the voices of hundreds
of others. With a pope, well, it's one guy who can (like John XXIII)
surprise us all, with just a few strokes of that papal pen. No one
in the Roman Church seems to understand that, and so we continue
to be surprised. This may be how the Holy Spirit works, and if so,
it's actually a good thing. We may get the kind of pope that we
need at any point in human history. If we don't always get the pope
we want, well, we need to remember that it's not really about us
If I am relieved at Karol Wojtyla's death, it's only because he
was suffering. He was an amazing, gutsy man who had a knack for
taking history by the short hairs. He faced down the Soviet Union.
He faced down the wild-eyed reductionists who had been turned loose
by Vatican II and were trying to turn Catholicism into nothing more
than myth and metaphor. He stridently maintained a theology that
I do not agree withbut just as his theology was principled,
so are my objections, and I'll try and get them written down here
in the coming days. He had one very serious weakness, which I will
write about tomorrow. It's important because the next pope
might not have that weaknessand that could truly change
In the meantime, a fond farewell from a man who respects him, even
in the face of disagreement: You done Good, dude. Godspeed on your
continuing journey (which all of us will eventually follow) toward
the Center of All Things.
1, 2005: The Peculiar Matter of Terri Schiavo
Terri Schiavo died yesterday, and my Old Catholic connections are
buzzing about the "Culture of Death." I'm going to have
to do a series on that eventually, as it's an ugly business that
has already had consequences, whether we are willing to admit it
I'll have to do some significant thinking first, so in the meantime,
let me lay out some of the things that have come up in the past
few days, based on my own research or links/letters sent to me by
others. First, about Michael Schiavo:
- There are some damning reports on Michael Schiavo from nursing
people that he worked with in the years since Terri collapsed.
See this MSNBC
article, and read it to the end. One wonders why these people
haven't gotten more attention in rcent months.
- There is a peculiar intensity to Michael's campaign to end his
wife's life that troubles many people. He has shown an astonishing
persistence in the face of rabid push-back from all quarters,
and little support except from the radical left and predictably
left-leaning newspapers. He has spent a huge percentage
of the funds he received from a malpractice judgment on his legal
campaign, money that he might otherwise have retired on. One could
be excused for thinking that something more may going on there,
and the gossip sites are proliferating. I won't post any links
here, but a lot of them are suggesting that Michael strangled
Terri for some reason, and although I seriously doubt this is
true (it's not easy to fool physicians about such things) it's
a suspicion Michael will be dodging for the rest of his life.
One would think that if he simply wanted to get on with his life,
he would have given responsibility for Terri back to her parents,
asked the courts for a civil divorce, and not brought all the
hate and death threats down on his head.
- A marriage to Jodi
Centonze (with whom Michael lives and has had two children)
within the church may be impossible. There is a Roman Catholic
canon law issue called crimen (see this
2004 article) which forbids a person who ends a spouse's life
from remarrying in the churchthis over and beyond the fact
that in the Church's view, he has been comitting adultery since
moving in with Jodi.
- Michael forbade Terri from receiving the Last Rites. (The courts
backed him up.) This says something about him. What, precisely,
I leave to you to decide.
- And on the flipside, here's something every spouse should ask
him or herself: What would I have done in Michael's shoes?
(Be honestit's a sobering thought.)
Next, on the aftermath:
- The Atlantic ran an article a few months back (not online
except to paid subscribers) on how liberals really ought to let
go of the Roe vs. Wade decision. Roe galvanized
conservative opposition to the liberal agenda, and caused the
formerly fractious Evangelicals to bury the hatchet and become
a major political force, ultimately forcing the Democrats out
of power. The Schiavo case will have a similar effect, and bring
more people into the pro-life camp. People I know who have been
"nuanced" (as they say) on abortion feel much more strongly
when a completely helpless woman has died of thirst at her husband's
(and the courts') demands.
- If the Democrats lose their judicial appointments filibuster
(either by the "nuclear option" or by losing more Senate
seats) expect some payback in the form of seriously pro-life judges.
Judicial activism cuts both ways, as the Dems will likely find
out, to their dismay.
- Expect hospitals soon to demand a living will before
they admit a patient. Even if no one sues the facility where Terri
died, hospitals know lawsuit bait when they see it.
Finally, on what we have learned from all this:
- We've learned how venomously nasty our partisan politics have
become. Go out and scan the blogosphere. I sense that many liberals
were howling for Terri's death primarily because conservatives
were trying to save her. (Otherwise the issue would not have interested
them.) It is to pewk.
- We've learned how little we know about what a "persistent
vegetative state" really is. Was Terri really responsive
or wasn't she? Why couldn't we tell? Why was there any real question
at all? Where's the science?
- We've learned that some people consider food and water "extreme
medical intervention." Huh?
- We've learned that there are some truly ugly and unanswered
questions about how life and governance intersect. Is starving/dehydrating
a helpless person to death as legally supportable as removing
something like a respirator or terminating dialysis? How little
of a person can be left and still be considered a person in a
legal sense? What if someday we are able to transplant a brain
into a brain-dead body? What person will the new entity be? (We're
a ways off from thisbut never say never.) Theology, of course,
has answers here, but I'm talking about secular government. The
better our medical technology becomes, the worse the next case
Many thanks to David Beers, Bishop Elijah, and Brook Monroe for
sending me long, thoughtful notes on this issue, and to many others
who sent me links and shorter comments.
By the way, I just learned that Pope John Paul II has been given the
Last Rites. He is having great difficulty swallowing, and has had
a feeding/hydration tube inserted. Perhaps those of us who couldn't
take the time to think about the consequences of medical intervention
in Terri's case will begin to think about it now.