Friday, November 30, 2007

Shelley's First Cause

In The New Individualist's latest issue, which is not yet available online, Roger Donway goes after Shelley's knowledge of theology:
His youthful essay The Necessity of Atheism, which got him expelled from Oxford, was simply an outpouring of ignorance. For instance, it presumed that the First Cause argument is designed to prove that the universe had a temporal beginning, which is just a mistake.
I think Donway's wrong about this. You'll note he doesn't actually sketch out the first cause argument, nor does he quote from Shelley's essay.

Well, I went to a Jesuit high school. So I know the first cause argument, a.k.a. the cosmological argument, has a history, and multiple versions.

The legendary first cause
Pops up in Plato's Laws.

Then it takes off full throttle
In two works by Aristotle.

But perhaps it shows its finest
In 4 "proofs" from Thomas Aquinas.

If we only look at these 3 guys, Donway is right. They don't attempt to prove the Universe had a beginning in time. They try to prove that God exists, but they don't try to prove he created everything.

But it was against the Creator that Shelley was actually arguing:
There Is No God. This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.
So Shelley attacks a version of The Argument which tries to prove temporal beginning for the Universe.

Did Shelley create this version ex nihilo? No:
The mutakallimūm, theologians who used reason and argumentation to support their revealed Islamic beliefs, developed the temporal version of the argument from the impossibility of an infinite regress, known as the kalām argument. For example, al-Ghāzāli (1058-1111) argued that everything that begins to exist requires a cause of its beginning. The world is composed of temporal phenomena preceded by other temporally ordered phenomena. Since such a series of temporal phenomena cannot continue to infinity, the world must have had a beginning and a cause of its existence, namely, God (Craig 1979, part 1). This version of the argument enters the Christian tradition through Bonaventure (1221-74) in his Sentences (II Sent. D.1,p.1,a.1,q.2).
Good golly,
They credit al-Ghāzāli.

I'm not saying Shelley read Bonaventure, but it's pretty clear he had been reading Hume, and Hume argues in particular against a temporal version of The Argument:
Add to this, that in tracing an eternal succession of objects, it seems absurd to enquire for a general cause or first author. How can any thing, that exists from eternity, have a cause, since that relation implies a priority in time, and a beginning of existence?
In such a chain, too, or succession of objects, each part is caused by that which preceded it, and causes that which succeeds it. Where then is the difficulty? But the WHOLE, you say, wants a cause. (Dialogues on Natural Religion Section 190)
To those who have followed this far -
What brave fellows you are!

So here, at last, is what Shelley had to say:
It is urged that man knows that whatever is must either have had a beginning, or have existed from all eternity, he also knows that whatever is not eternal must have had a cause. When this reasoning is applied to the universe, it is necessary to prove that it was created: until that is clearly demonstrated we may reasonably suppose that it has endured from all eternity.
I conclude that he made no such bonehead mistake.
He refuted one version. So give him a break!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Stunning Complaint

The UN "anti-torture committee" doesn't like Tasers. The only thing is... what are the alternatives exactly, when someone is resisting arrest?

Clubbing, tackling, grappling, shooting.

The United Nations may be amazed,
But I'd just as soon be Tased.

Barrelling Along

Is this Stacy Peterson disappearance mystery about to break? The Trib says:
After allegedly helping Drew Peterson haul a large container that was warm to the touch from a bedroom, a male relative of the former Bolingbrook police sergeant told a friend Oct. 28 that he was afraid he had just helped Peterson dispose of the body of his wife, Stacy Peterson, a source close to the investigation said.
But the Sun-Times says:
Prosecutors have not called Morphey to testify before a grand jury examining the 23-year-old woman's disappearance because he has "memory lapses" about loading the barrel into Peterson's GMC Yukon Denali, the source said.
This story just won't let up.

Are these spotty, mysterious memory lapses,
A knotty problem with the man's synapses?

Or is one sometimes better off forgetting -
Avoiding confessing to aiding and abetting?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Left Brain, Right Brain

Suppose you need brain surgery. Not good.

Now suppose the doctors operate on the wrong side of your brain. Double not good.

So if you need brain surgery, be careful about Rhode Island Hospital. They've had 3 operations this year where neurosurgeons got their left and right mixed up.
"We are extremely concerned about this continuing pattern," Director of Health David R. Gifford said in a written statement.
Concerned. Good.

In the mean time, if you opt for brain surgery at this institution, I do have a suggestion:

Write with magic marker on your head,
"Open This Side Only" - or you just might wake up dead.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

From Rioting To Quieting?

There has been a steady stream of new stories, from the Chi-town Trib to the NY Times, about life being better lately in Iraq.

I have no special reason to care about the Iraqis, but I know some young men over there, so I hope the stories are true.

I remain amused by the people who confidently declared that "the surge" couldn't possibly work. I wonder what they will say if we somehow... sorta kinda... win.

I will give them a written excuse if they have actually studied counter-insurgency. Everybody makes mistakes. It's the people with no military knowledge, but who were making military predictions, that I feel bad for.

They gave into the urge
To condemn the hopeless surge,
But might it now emerge
As successful?

How stressful.

Socked by SOX

Congress doesn't want to change the Sarbanes-Oxley law. Folks in London will be glad to hear it.
Financial chiefs in London have pointed to the booming public offering business and the omnipresent construction cranes in the financial district, calling their industry “the house that Sarbanes-Oxley built.”
Sarbanes and Oxley,
Wrote their law foxily
Crippling their target:
The U.S. stock market.

Earning the thanks
Of big London banks.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Pearl Poet

There's a funny old term for alliteration: head rhyme. The Old English poetry relied on head rhyme for it's most striking effect. During the time of Middle English, a transition occurred to "normal" rhyme. There were actually some transitional poems, including "The Pearl," which uses both techniques at once:
Perle, pleasaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.
Tolkien rendered it this way:
Pearl of delight that a prince doth please
To grace in gold enclosed so clear
I vow that from over orient seas
Never proved I any in price her peer.
Another transitional poem, probably by the same author, is "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight." Here, the main narrative is head rhyme, but each verse paragraph is ended with a quatrain in end rhyme.

Challenging was this change in chime.
Gallantly, he got along with the game,
Switching from starting the sounds the same
To rendering the rear in rhyme.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What's Hwaet

Saw Beowulf.

As some critic already rhymed about seeing it 3D at the Imax theater, it was: eye-popping and jaw-dropping.

They reworked the story a lot from the original Old English epic. Which was a good idea.

Beowulf boldly bursts through the screen
Landing in your laps while you lap up the action.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Preaching in Place

My wife and daughter attended the Thanksgiving ceremony at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. That's Rockefeller as in John D.

They went to hear the performance of the Chicago Children's Choir. My daughter used to sing with them. Their performance, I'm told, was excellent.

Not so excellent was the chief sermonizer. He advocated moving beyond hybrid cars, and just staying in place and enjoying your community.

Who needs a car?
Just stay where you are!

You'll soon be feeling noble
If you keep yourself immobile.

A small exception can be made
To march in the Earth Day parade.

But here's what I find ironically funny:
That chapel was built with oil money.

Snow Thank You

With yellow leaves still hanging on the maples,
The snow is whirling down with giant flakes.

So beautiful. Who cares what mess it makes?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

No Paltry Poultry

Gobblin', quackin', and cluckin' -
It takes 3 birds to make a turducken.

Gassing Up

Today I'm feeling especially thankful
For gas at fifty dollars a tankful.

You may think my judgment has blundered,
But in Europe it's easily over a hundred.

Of course, it's their taxes that give the big bump
And drive their prices up at the pump.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Seasonal Affective Disorder Strikes Again

I'm feeling sort of surly -
Why is it dark so early?

Why was this planet built
With its axis on a tilt?

Is there a solid reason
For this constant change of season?

Really, I'm way into summer,
But winter's a bit of a bummer.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Descended From Survivors

I'm not a big Giulani fan. But I liked this:
Do we think our parents and our grandparents and our great grandparents didn't live in danger and didn't have difficult problems? Do we think the Second World War was less difficult that our struggle with Islamic terrorism? Do we think that the Great Depression was a less difficult economic struggle for people to face than the struggles we're facing now? Have we entirely lost perspective of the great challenges America has faced in the past and has been able to overcome and overcome brilliantly? I think sometimes we have lost that perspective.
Amen to that.

Don't assume
That current doom
Somehow outdoes
What already was.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Me, Thee, and the UCC

At one point in last night's discussion, I compared state laws about marriage to the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).

A friend commented afterward: "how romantic -- JE really knows how to sweet talk!"

Perhaps I should write an ode
To our great Commercial Code.

Of course, people routinely talk about "the marriage contract." And psychologists frequently talk about the need for couples to "negotiate fairly." And Objectivists always talk about romantic relationships being based on "trading value for value."

Whether quirky or Uniform,
Marriage works to keep hearts warm.

More Fire on Amazon

My recent (since '94) collection, More Fire and Other Poems, is now available on Amazon.

Many of the poems appeared here first. I published through, so I didn't really have to spend any serious money.

And I'm not stuck with giant piles of physical books to unload. I just read a story in the Wall Street Journal about a guy whose garage was packed full of skids of his wife's book. See article and picture here. I cannot afford to be that guy.

I need the garage to keep my car.
There's "No Parking" where we are.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Sacrament of the Last Supper, Sonnetized

There's a big painting by Salvador Dali, called The Sacrament Of The Last Supper, that hangs in the National Gallery in DC. While popular, it has always remained controversial.

My theory: Dali was a big critical hit until he started doing paintings that were properly proportioned and pretty.

Paul Tillich, the famous German theologian, intensely disliked it. Michael Anthony Novak, a theologian from Marquette University, defends it in a pdf here.

I've admired it for a long time. I like a lot of Dali's more realistic-looking paintings, but this is my favorite. I even like it better than his hypercube crucifixion, which I like very much.

I wrote a sonnet years ago about the hypercube crucifixion, and I have tried, in the past, to write one about this last supper painting. But it has tripped me up, perhaps because of its mysterious air. I was unhappy with my results. But, having seen the painting in person again, last month, I have dared a new attempt.

The other heads are bowed, but his is not.
He seems immune to what has humbled them.
Glimpsing the darkness, seeing through the plot,
He beams with light, transparent as a gem.

Behind him, rocks and sea. Before, red wine
And broken bread. He casts a shadow far
Into the future. Some obscure design
Surrounds them; something hovers where they are.

For me it is his face that makes the painting.
He wonders at the beauty of the world.
The petals of his inner rose unfurl.
There will be time enough for fateful straining.

He contemplates beneath a glowing sky.
I search for words and worship with my eye.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Shelley Gets Shellaced

After they were done
Kicking Edgar Allen Poe,
They had a bit of fun
Giving Percy Bysshe a go.

Tiny Dancer

Thanks to the illustrious and industrious Ergo for posting about this fascinating optical illusion of a nude woman spinning.

Clock or counter, whichever -wise!
It's in your brain but not your eyes.

Noodle Power

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is starting to show up on the academic menu.

The Pastafarian cult
Has reason to exult!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Marriage, Inc.

kraorh commented that "of course [marriage] should be privatized!"

So I'll take the opposing position.

But before I can do that, we need to define what "privatized" means. I take it to mean that the 50 states would stop licensing marriages. I also take it to mean that we would abolish the category of "common law" marriage - which still exists in some states.

People could still have church wedding ceremonies, or whatever kind of ceremonies they wanted. No one wants to interfere with that.

But couples would just have to agree among themselves what kind of agreement they had with each other. They could just have a verbal agreement, or they could have something formal written up and witnessed.

As far as I can tell, the state gets out of the job of defining who is a spouse and who isn't.

So here are a few problems I propose off the top of my head:

1) The common-law right to not have to testify against a spouse seems to vanish, since spousehood is no longer a state defined category
2) Inheritance rules allocating a percentage to spouses (in the absence of a will) seem to vanish.
3) People who are already legally married, who had relied upon the legal institution, will suddenly find themselves... without a contract
4) There is little to be gained from privatizing, because through the proper use of prenuptial agreements one can already custom-tailor the marital agreement. What's more one can already "go private" with a long-term romantic relationship by formal agreements as to assets, terms, conditions, and penalties.
5) Children - a key "issue" in many marriages - are not parties to the contract, so the state will end up involved in custody disagreements anyway, looking out for the "best interests" of the kids.
6) When a (written or verbal) contract dispute arises, the state - or some arbitration board - will have to get involved anyway.

Privatize marriage? Many say yes.
But might it turn into an unholy mess?

Making Marriage Private?

This Saturday, at NIF, in chilly Chicago, we'll have a discussion on: Should marriage be privatized?

It's my question. I can argue it either way. But I'm not presenting an argument, just hosting an open discussion.

I even have a few subsidiary points and questions:

In our society we speak of marriage as a contract, but most U.S. marriages do not involve a written contract. Are custom pre-nup agreements unromantic? If a couple splits and children are involved, must the state be involved? If we privatize marriage, do we end the acrimonious debate over gay marriage? What are the practicalities, under current law, of not officializing your long term relationship?

Is private matrimony
Without ceremony
Somehow phony?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Making Free Speech Expensive

Indoctrinate U, the funny movie about campus correctness, is in some kind of legal trouble. According to their website:

"Due to threatened legal action from a major taxpayer-funded university, we've temporarily taken down the Indoctrinate U homepage while we assess our options."

If you don't like Indoctrinate U,
I'll tell you exactly what to do:
Just get out the government checkbook - and sue!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Vets Day

For those who've worn the uniform,
Officer or raw recruit,
I offer up a brief but warm
And deeply felt salute.


I chased the firetrucks on my bike.

By the time I left the fire was out. As far as I could tell, no one was hurt, which is good, because at one point the roof was swarming with firefighters while the fire still blazed on the 2nd floor.

Apparently no one was home.

It must be a hard to return to your house,
Only to learn it's been charred and doused.

Can I Have A Vowel?

I was always taught that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet.

Is that where "phonics" comes from? I guess not.

But today I read that the Phoenicians just invented the consonant alphabet. It was the Greeks who added vowels.

Th Grks wr frst rt.
Vwls r grt.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fun With Readability

I used this online test to see how I could make my prose sound more educated. Here is a record of my progress:

5th grade: "Readability tests? Use big words to get high scores."

7th grade: "If you want to get a high readability test score, you should use big words."

14th grade: "If your purpose is the attainment of a high readability score, a strategy of using big words is highly recommended."

Post-doctoral: "To facilitate the appearance of impenetrable readability, utilization of polysyllabic utterance is a manifestly successful strategy."

For reading scores with strength,
And to lose the common herd,
Always go for length -
Long sentences, long words!

Only those with college -
In the humanities -
Will have sufficient knowledge
To detect your inanities.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Elementary, Watson!

cash advance

That's how they rated it anyway. Jeez. I need to use more big words. Er, polysyllabic words that is.

It would have been even cooler
If they rated me pre-schooler.

Lutefisk Research

Somehow at work today the topic of lutefisk came up. It has been in the news here and there because this is the season for eating the stuff.

It's basically air-dried whitefish, prepared with lye. Which sounds not so good. In fact, it made this list of 6 most terrifying foods.

But I promised to ask our weekend house guests about it, since they grew up in Sweden.

The young lady wrinkled her nose and said she had never tried it. The young man said it was the traditional Christmas dinner at his parents' house, and that his mother had talked him into trying it a couple of times, but that he had no intention of trying it again.

So even in Sweden
Not many are eatin'
This scary dish
Of lye-soaked fish.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Jimmy Carter, Cat Killer

Yes, the President who was attacked by a rabbit is reportedly also a cat killer.

He just meant to sting it... with a shotgun.

And he buried it with a prayer.

And he offered to get a replacement cat.

The cat belonged to his sister-in-law. No word yet on how she felt about all this.

Please Mr. Carter, stay away.
Let my cats live another day!

Unbearable Whimsicalness of Being

After finishing The Jonkheer's Wife, about the Nazi occupation of Holland, I'm now reading The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, about the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Well, both are about other stuff, too. On the whole I liked Jonkheer's Wife a lot better.

I know Unbearable is a modern classic, and it's keeping my interest, but I just find it depressing. Good thing it has a lot of sex in it. But even the sex is kind of depressing.

I'm sympathetic to Unbearable's whole anti-totalitarian thrust. And the writing is beautiful. But his characters seem so driven by chance and whim, making horrible decisions without giving adequate weight to the alternative futures they face.

Futures turn fearful and dim
When life is steered by whim.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Stretching Words

Had a substitute teacher in yoga class. Different style of yoga. And she was into the mantra thing.

Fortunately, there was still lots of stretching, which is what I show up for.

At the end she said, "Om. Shanti. Namaste."

I knew shanti (peace) and namaste (I bow to you), but it made me wonder what om was doing in the sentence. I thought it was just a special sound for meditating.

Nope. It's that and so much more. It's an overloaded word with more spiritual meaning than you can shake a stick at. Kind of like God and Spirit and Oneness, all rolled together.

Religious words turn blurry
In a hurry.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Pack on those Pounds!

We've all been told how being even a little "overweight" is bad for you... Oops.
However, having a little extra weight actually seemed to help people survive some illnesses — results that baffled several leading health researchers.

“This is a very puzzling disconnect,” said Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “That is a conundrum.”
Pardon me. There's no real conundrum. There are just trade-offs. For some diseases, you're better off a little heavy. For other diseases, you're better off skinny as a rail.

Nature does not designate
A single optimum weight.

As for me...

I'm looking for a disease
Something from which I might die,
That will let me eat as I please,
Including big helpings of pie.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Self Hate Crimes

A GWU student has reportedly admitted drawing swastikas on her own door. She was caught on hidden camera.

Villains must be hissed;
Victims must be lamented.

Where hate crimes don't exist
They have to be invented.

(Jest stolen from Glenn Reynolds
Who borrowed it from Voltaire.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cabelas Store/Museum/Aquarium

We went to a grand opening of a new Cabelas store in Hammond, Indiana. It's a mega-store, with stunning museum-like features, all focused on hunting and fishing. They have other stores around the country, and they seem to be on an aggressive campaign to open more of them.

I don't hunt or fish, but the store was spectacular. It had an aquarium, a "gun library" of fancy and historical guns, and an endless parade of stuffed and mounted game - including an elephant from Zimbabwe.

My dogs are both part-labrador.
If they could talk, they would surely implore
That I should take them hunting for ducks.
But I don't hunt, so they're out of luck.

Eat the Runt

According to Chris Jones, theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, "Eat the Runt" is "one of the worst titles in the history of American theater."

But we thought "Eat the Runt" sounded like a hilarious title. So off we went. We laughed a lot. It's wild, and it has some major plot twists.

"Eat the Runt"
Features a stunt
Right up front.

The stunt is that the audience, by electronic voting, casts the parts of the script. For each part you assign an actor from the pool. Then you cast the next part from the remaining pool. Eventually one actor is left, with no designated part.

Each actor has to know all the lines, and all the movements, for every part!

The play is written in a unisex style, with unisex names. But the actors play their own genders, and races. So the dynamics of the performance vary widely. It's so novel that it's actually hard to describe.

We were surprised to find Ayn Rand coming under discussion in the play. I'm not really sure if the playwright likes her or not, but some funny pro and con things were said. It's another example of her becoming just another cultural icon that people are presumed to know about, at least in outline.

There was a presidential poll before we cast the actors, to test the electronic voting. We had a 3 way tie between Obama, Giulani, and None of The Above. I was happy to see my choice do so well.

The actual plot, by the way, is about an applicant for a job at a museum, and the intrigue that ensues. Its portrayal of museum management is highly irreverent.

So, to be blunt,
I liked "Eat the Runt".

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Looking Forward

It's "Fall Back" time this weekend. I'm happy with this part of the Daylight Savings Shuffle, because I support sleeping late.

But when "Spring Forward" rolls around again, I will not be so happy. Get up an hour earlier? Surely there's some mistake.

So I have a proposal for next Spring. Let's NOT do the whole one-hour change all at once. Let's ease into it - in 10 minute intervals.

So Saturday night we move the clock forward 10 minutes. Ditto Sunday night. And so on. On Thursday night we'll be done!

I admit that you'll spend more time changing the clock,
But I, for one, will avoid the rude shock
Of having to arise
Before the sleep has left my eyes.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Seeking Fulfillment

Great headline from the Washington Post:

Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest

But... how could they fail to find fulfillment?

After years of amassing so many achievements, they struggle to find full-time employment with decent pay and realize they might not get exactly what they set out for.

What? They want decent pay? Does that really sound altruistic to you? Don't they know that there are people much worse off than themselves?

Maybe they should take a break,
And go into business, where they can make
A sizable stash
Of indecent cash.

Sacrifice Complete

My beloved writes:


The "Dan Ryan" is the stretch of Interstate 94 that runs down the spine of Chicago's South Side. For 2 years it has been clogged with renovation work.

No more. And Marsha is right to say "wide" open.

How did the traffic gods get so smart?
They added a lane to the crowdedest part.


At lunch I read the foreword to Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled. It's a delightful how-to book about poetic sound-effects. Very British. I hear it was a surprise bestseller in England.

He thinks people are actually somewhat afraid of learning about poetry:
It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity. Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into a resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to 'respond' to a poem.
The worst thing about the "respond" request, for me, is that it's so vague. Spew something forth from your deepest soul? What if nothing much comes up?

The teacher says she wants
An honest aesthetic response,
But you know that "I don't care"
Is something you won't dare

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Personal Readings

There's an old 2-line poem I had remembered for years, the author and title forgotten. Past Googling had failed, but today it popped up. The poem was published in 1962. At that date, everyone knew this key piece of information: We sent chimps into space before we sent people.

Dawn of the Space Age, by John Ciardi

First a monkey, then a man,
Just the way the world began.

The poem is mentioned in an essay on poems about space exploration. It's buried deep in this pdf file from Nasa. The author of essay described the emotional tone of this couplet as "wry and cynical humor."

I agree there's humor, but I don't hear wry or cynical here. What I hear is a comparison of space flight with human evolution, and I find it inspiring. That's why I carried the couplet in memory all these years. Perhaps I'm reading more into it than the author intended. But I doubt Ciardi would have minded.

Within the bounds of reason
You make a poem your own,
Polishing the meaning
Like a stolen precious stone.