Time Wears On Us All

My furnace has recently been failing to heat the house, and after a bit of investigation I discovered that the fault was in the inducer motor. (The inducer motor powers the fan which induces, i.e. sucks, the air through the combustion chamber.) I did some lubrication and manipulation of it, which managed to coax it into working for another day or two until a new motor arrived.

Replacing it turned out to be about maximally difficult; the inducer fan had rust-welded onto the shaft and even copious amounts of WD-40 specialist rust remover did nothing to loosen it. I eventually had to drill out not only the screw which held the fan onto the motor shaft but the motor shaft itself, then I had to resort to using a claw hammer to pry the thing off. Once that was done taking the old motor off and putting the new motor (and new fan which I had fortunately thought to also purchase, just in case) was the work of a few minutes.

Once my furnace was back to heating the house I turned my attention to the motor, because I was very curious what was wrong with it. From the occasional screeching sound, the help of lubrication, and the fact that once in a while turning it backwards allowed it to start spinning freely in the correct direction, I had thought that a piece of metal debris had gotten lodged in the motor.

It turned out to be wrong.

It was actually that one of the two bearings on which the motor shaft rested had rusted out and disintegrated to the point of no longer working.

If you’re not familiar with how a bearing is constructed, there is an inner sleeve and an outer sleeve. These sleeves are held apart by a number of balls. The outer sleeve rotates against the inner sleeve by rotating these bearings; they reduce the friction of rotation because—being spheres—a tiny fraction of them is actually in contact with either the inner sleeve or the outer sleeve. Moreover, they allow the two sleeves to rotate relative to each other by rolling along both, rather than by the sleeves rubbing against each other. They’re ingenious inventions.

There is, however, the problem of keeping the balls between the sleeves. This is done with some walls and also with what one might call a retaining bracket. If you look, you can see that the retaining bracket on the ball bearing of my motor had rusted into nothing in parts (specifically, the lower right part). Actually, that’s probably not quite true; I suspect it had mostly rusted by some small parts hadn’t rusted but instead got caught into the balls, preventing them from rotating smoothly. That would explain why counter-rotating it might occasionally allow the shaft to spin freely—it would have dislodged the tiny bits of metal and moved them to somewhere harmless. Until they fell back in the way, again. Which in practice seemed to be every few hours.

This is the problem with metal—it is very hard, but it is dead. It cannot repair itself from the wear-and-tear of life, so it eventually fails. In theory one could have taken the motor apart and thoroughly cleaned it, periodically, to prevent the build-up of the sort of grime which causes rust, but this is still a living thing fixing a dead thing.

This is the curious thing about life. All things are dying, and can only survive by being continually renewed. Avid fans of Chesterton will note this as Chesterton’s Post:

We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

He went on to note, by the way, that these is as true of human institutions as it is of material objects; this is a curious property of our universe—truths always have echoes. You can find this idea in C.S. Lewis’s essay Myth Became Fact, but you can also find it in real life. I once had a pumpkin which grew large and looked beautiful but when I went to harvest it it had turned out that mice had eaten almost the entire thing from the back and inside. It’s a wonderful metaphor for all sorts of things—modern universities, for example—but it also was a very disappointing event in my garden, years ago.

Our universe is full of echoes.

Edit: as Mary in the comments pointed out, the story I quoted is Chesterton’s Post, not Chesterton’s Fence. (Thanks, Mary!)

Inherited Guilt

There are various ways of talking about original sin and the fall of man within Christianity. One of the most difficult for modern people to understand is the legalistic language which is quite common amongst Roman Christians. Having recently explained it on Twitter, I’m going to re-present that explanation here, more coherently.

The key to understanding inherited guilt in the legalistic framework is the concept of guilt within the legalistic framework is not identical with the common understanding of guilt one finds today. The problem is that the modern understanding of an individual is as an atom, utterly unconnected from anyone else. Guilt, then, is taken as a moral judgment of the individual more-or-less as a proxy for the final judgment on Judgment Day (at the end of time).

Guilt within the legalistic framework is only concerned with the justice of a punishment. Now, punishment is in all cases some sort of deprivation—whether it’s the imprisonment of a man which deprives him of his freedom or the removal of his hand which deprives him of his hand or the removal of his head which deprives him of his life. But these are all individual punishments, which can only be just when they re-balance some sin of the offender himself.

There are also corporate punishments, which punish groups, but we tend not to be familiar with them because the atomized view of the individual prevents us from recognizing corporate goods. So we have to start there.

Inheritance is the natural order of things; children are supposed to inherit the possessions of their parents. As such, a man does not really own anything himself; it is owned by his family and he keeps it in trust for his descendants. Moderns will rebel against this, but there’s really nothing to be done about that because they are, simply, wrong. Human beings are not merely members of a group, but they are not merely individuals, either. This is just a more extreme but more common form of when people tell police officers that they are sovereign over themselves and not citizens and thus may not be detained by the police. Great theory, just not true.

Depriving a man of goods—as in, for example, the seizing of land, though even just a fine of money is the same in theory—is a punishment not merely of the man but of all his descendants, too, since taking it from him is also taking it from them. The natural order of inheritance is being broken, and this demands some justification. Why may the descendants be deprived of what is theirs by the natural order of things? By what right does one punish the descendants as well as the wrongdoer?

And this is where the concept of inherited guilt comes into play. If it is just to deprive the descendants of a wrongdoer of some good, it means, by definition, that they are guilty. Recall that the definition of guilt, within a legal framework, is nothing other than the infliction of a punishment being just. If the infliction of a punishment is just, it is, therefore, being guilty (in this sense). And when one asks where the guilt came from, it must have come from the same ancestor who did the wrong; that is, just as one should have inherited the good, one may inherit the guilt which makes the not-inheriting of the good just.

Within the legalistic framework, if the guilt were not inherited it would be unjust to not restore the property to the wrongdoer’s descendants.

It is easy to see where confusion arises in the modern world because people, hearing the word “guilt” cannot help but think this refers to the state of the man’s soul on judgment day. But this is not what is meant; what is meant is what is just to the man here and now.

When Romans, writing legalistic explanations of theology, talk about our inherited guilt from Adam, this is what they are referring to—the justice of our present deprivations.

It should also be noted that this is quite different from mercy, which is giving to a man more than what he justly deserves. This is also a problem in the modern world because moderns are not used to the idea of considering two ideas at once. We have become so accustomed to demanding the bottom line that considering both obligations and generosity is—almost literally—unthinkable.

Leading Atheists Into Admitting They Reject Reason

A skill I’ve been refining over time is leading atheists who are trying to argue with me into admitting that they reject reason. Typically by getting them to say that the laws of logic aren’t true, that reason cannot reach truth, or that logic does not describe reality. If I were fourteen, I would probably do that because it’s a game and fun to outwit them. Since I will soon be bidding goodbye to my 30s, I have a practical reason for it.

Christians have a duty to give the truth to anyone who will accept it. However, modern technology (such as twitter, comments to YouTube videos, etc) has put each of us into contact with more people than one can possibly talk to in a lifetime. Worse, there is a minority of people who love to waste other people’s time who go around looking for people whose time they can waste. Since they will merrily go from victim to victim, one such person can waste the time of hundreds; this greatly magnifies the problem for those open to talking with strangers.

As a result, it is only practical to become efficient at weeding out people who are not talking in good faith. The difficulty is that since their purpose is not honest they will try to disguise themselves as honest questioners. However, they cannot hold an actual position or there quickly becomes nothing to say. If they pretended to some particular belief they would quickly end up where actual believers of that belief did, which is at the stalemate of differing perceptions of the universe. Hindus and Christians, for example, rarely argue because they simply have incompatible starting points, and there’s not to say about that.

When it comes to trying to waste the time of Christians, a popular approach these days is “lack of belief” atheism. I’ve written and done videos about this extensively, but the short short version is that they don’t lack a belief, they only pretend to, so that they can pretend that they don’t actually have a position. But of course since they live in the world whether or not God created the world and gives it purpose is of fundamental importance and unavoidable. By living, one either acts in ways compatible with God’s purpose for the world or one acts in ways incompatible with it. If the atheist is not living exactly as if God exists—and they never do—then he is behaving inconsistently with his profession that he has no idea whether or not God exists.

When this is pointed out to them they will try to squirm out of it in various ways, but in my experience the most popular, by far, is some variation of rejecting reason. “I’m not being inconsistent if contradictions can be true!” they say, only far less clearly. They don’t want to be clear, of course, because the moment one rejects reason the game is up. There’s no point in talking to a man who rejects reason.

This is both because language is fundamentally rational, and because nothing can possibly be achieved by trying to reason a man into a conclusion when he rejects reason. No matter how good your argument, he will simply reject some step in it because he can reject any step in it as his whim.

So, to sum up, when a stranger is asking questions on the internet and especially if they’re things he should already know with a few minutes of reading if he was actually interested, it can save a lot of time to force him into admitting some unpleasant consequence of his claimed position—or lack thereof. If he actually believes it, he’ll admit what comes along with it. If he’s just trying to waste your time, he’ll try to wriggle out of it and odds are very good he’ll deny reason.

It’s not an insincere denial, and those who deny reason tend not to have much foresight.

Time Chasers

I recently came across a fascinating interview with David Giancola, director of the movie Time Chasers. A cult classic after it was aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Time Chasers is connected in my mind to Hobgoblins which was also an early movie from an independent director which became far more famous and made vastly more money than anyone expected once it was featured on MST3K. They’re also two of my favorite MST3K episodes.

About a year ago I started doing some research into Hobgoblins. Like all low-budget films, it made extensive use of a few locations. Then when re-watching Time Chasers, I realized how much bigger a film Time Chasers was. It had far more locations, more props, flying planes, a crashed car. The thing which really made me notice, though, was the fight scene on the wing of a flying airplane. It’s not brilliant, but all things considered it actually looks decent.

That’s hard. And not cheap.

That’s when I looked up the budgets for the movies. Hobgoblins had a budget of $15,000 while Time Chasers had a budget ten times that—exactly; it’s budget was $150,000. Though I discovered reading the interview that that’s not entirely accurate. Time Chasers originally had a $40,000 budget but then secured additional funding as it was going over budget (it took three years between the beginning of the project and the end of post-production). Still, a budget ten times as large shows.

In the interview David Giancola mentions that they get compared to movies where the catering budget was larger than the entire budget for Time Chasers. I think it’s worth noting that the reason it gets compared to big budget movies is that while it’s not nearly as good as a big budget movie, it’s comparable. Hobgoblins is not. And I think it’s impressive that David Giancola managed to accomplish that at the age of twenty (to twenty three) on such a small budget.

I’ve said before (though I forget whether I said it on this blog) that the biggest fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are probably people who would love to be part of making a movie. There’s a magic to movies. We enjoy MST3K so much because we know that we’d happily make a cheesy movie if that’s all we had the budget for. We’re really laughing at ourselves.

Though we also enjoy thinking about what we’d do better. For example, I wouldn’t name the main villain Generic Corporation. (It took me something like ten viewings to realize that’s what Gen Corp. stood for.)

But ultimately I think this is why Time Chasers works so well for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It feels like it’s within reach, but it’s pretty good for something that’s within reach. So, hat’s off to David Giancola. He made a much better movie than most people would have on such a small budget.

And watching it with Mike, Crow, and Tom Servo has given me many hours of enjoyment.

Blackmail Spam

I’ve periodically seen (and heard about) spam emails which attempt to blackmail the recipient. They’re an interesting phenomenon, and tend to use the form of starting out with “you’ve been hacked and your password is [common password]”. I’ve seen some variations, like “password”, “a1b2c3”. I forget the name for that but it’s an interesting technique where by being specific you throw out most of your potential audience but seem to have information you shouldn’t to the small bit that remains.

One such story I’ve heard was about a con artist who selected 4096 names and addresses from the phone book, then sent each of them a letter introducing himself and giving a free tip. He picked a stock and to half said that it was going to go up, to the other half that it was going to go down. The stock then went up or down, and he threw out the half for whom his prediction was wrong. He then did the same thing to the remaining 2048 people, dividing them in two again. Finally he was down to only 4 people but from their perspective he had made 10 accurate predictions in a row! It couldn’t be chance!

Obviously this is less sophisticated, but it’s interesting for other reasons, too, so I’m going to go through it and point them out.

Subject: Frauders known your old passwrd (a1b2c3). Password mut be changed.

I find it very interesting that it starts out as if it’s from someone in a position of authority, which I suspect is just for the obvious reason of getting someone to read it. I’ve also heard that spammers don’t spend much time on plausibility because only very gullible people will fall for the scams anyway. Curious start, though.

Hello!

I have bad news for you. 19/09/2018 – on this day I hacked your OS and got full access to your account [redacted]. On this day your account [redacted] has password: a1b2c3

The friendliness is interesting, given that this is an attempt at blackmail. Anyway, we see the use of the common password which will be right for only some people.

So, you can change the password, yes.. But my malware intercepts it every time.

How I made it: In the software of the router, through which you went online, was a vulnerability. I just hacked this router and placed my malicious code on it. When you went online, my trojan was installed on the OS of your device.

This starts off plausible, but after that (mostly) only works in movies. Hacking a router is a start, but you can’t just “install a trojan”. Trojans are programs which do something real but also have a malicious payload. Routers don’t automatically install software onto client machines every time those machines go online.

Worse, it’s been a while since almost all web traffic has switched to SSL, which, granted, a router can try doing a man-in-the-middle attack on, but that’s not easy since these days browsers make it hard to trust self-signed certificates. Again, we see a surface veneer of plausibility. Much like science fiction.

After that, I made a full dump of your disk (I have all your address book, history of viewing sites, all files, phone numbers and addresses of all your contacts).

This is pretty boiler-plate for these sorts of emails. Kind of a standard “I have power over you”. Now is when it gets interesting:

A month ago, I wanted to lock your device and ask for a not big amount of btc to unlock.

It’s interesting that it’s using the generic “device”. The English in this one is fairly good; enough that I wonder if the occasional “foreign speaker” mistakes are a put-on in order to disguise where this stays generic.

But I looked at the sites that you regularly visit, and I was shocked by what I saw!!! I’m talk you about sites for adults. I want to say – you are a BIG pervert. Your fantasy is shifted far away from the normal course!

I’ve got to say that I love the idea that the criminal who was planning to break your computer and ransom your data was utterly shocked by pornography. I think it makes a certain amount of sense in terms of trying to set the tone, since the blackmail that is to follow depends upon a sense of shame in the victim.

And I got an idea….
I made a screenshot of the adult sites where you have fun (do you understand what it is about, huh?). After that, I made a screenshot of your joys (using the camera of your device) and glued them together.
Turned out amazing! You are so spectacular!

The faux-friendly tone is quite interesting, especially when coupled with a sort of flattery. I wonder if the idea behind the flattery is to pretend to knowledge that the story would have be true to have, or something else. Possibly it’s just to try to amplify the sense of shame in the victim.

I’m know that you would not like to show these screenshots to your friends, relatives or colleagues. I think $719 is a very, very small amount for my silence.

And here we finally get to the blackmail. (Incidentally, “I’m know” is an odd mistake. And someone who doesn’t speak English natively seems unlikely to use “huh?” so correctly in the preceding paragraph. And they got the second sentence correct including punctuation.)

Also curious that there’s no reference to having looked at the victim’s online banking and saw that he can easily afford this.

Besides, I have been spying on you for so long, having spent a lot of time!

This may be the part I find most interesting—the blackmailer is basically appealing to a living wage theory of the time-value of work. He’s put so much time in, he deserves a lot of money!

Pay ONLY in Bitcoins!
My BTC wallet: 1J5SXcupgaq2tUas5S7wVtf7evJp6YC3LJ
You do not know how to use bitcoins? Enter a query in any search engine: “how to replenish btc wallet”. It’s extremely easy

Curious that they include instructions to search rather than actual instructions. On the other hand, writing good instructions is hard work and the willingness to do hard work is not why criminals get into crime, by and large. (note: I didn’t redact or change the bitcoin wallet because, well, why should I?)

For this payment I give you two days (48 hours). As soon as this letter is opened, the timer will work.

Now we’re basically in the realm of complete fantasy. Email clients don’t send read-receipts any more and haven’t for a long time. Granted, the blackmailer has (in theory) installed a trojan on the victim’s computer, but in that case why not say that he’s watching via the webcam? Of course, that might prompt the victim to take immediate action which would make him find out it’s a hoax.

It’s also curious that it’s 48 hours. It’s short enough one can’t put it off indefinitely, but it’s also plenty long enough to do some basic searching and find out that this is a common hoax. And to install anti-virus software and find out that there are no trojans. (Though there’s some mention of this later.)

I think the idea is that there’s supposed to be a relatively short timer which will cause the victim to panic and act before thinking, but why two whole days rather than, say, 60 minutes or 4 hours or something short enough that there isn’t much time for non-compliance?

After payment, my virus and dirty screenshots with your enjoys will be self-destruct automatically. If I do not receive from you the specified amount, then your device will be locked, and all your contacts will receive a screenshots with your “enjoys”

I think that the automatic self-destruction of the evidence is a nice touch. It suggests that one doesn’t need to trust the villain to obtain the desired result, though about a quarter of a second of thinking about it would make such assurance worthless (if for no other reason than the villain could be lying about the automatic self-destruct). Presumably, though, they’ve discarded the quick witted as potential victims anyway.

I hope you understand your situation.
– Do not try to find and destroy my virus! (All your data, files and screenshots is already uploaded to a remote server)
– Do not try to contact me (you yourself will see that this is impossible, the sender address is automatically generated)
– Various security services will not help you; formatting a disk or destroying a device will not help, since your data is already on a remote server.

This is an interesting attempt to head off common responses. Of course, since this is a hoax, the real intent is to prevent the victim from finding out that there’s no virus. Still, it’s curious that it suggests alternative courses of action. I suppose they will arise anyway since everyone’s first thought will be how to get out of this situation without paying, so shaping the thoughts in a direction that’s unlikely to work is to the blackmailer’s benefit.

P.S. You are not my single victim. so, I guarantee you that I will not disturb you again after payment!

Interesting that the blackmailer takes thought for the possibility that he’s lying, or will be back for more, and tries to head this off. I wonder if it’s partially the result of blackmailers never stopping being such a common idea in murder mysteries? Could that popular form of entertainment have made life slightly harder for real-life blackmailers? It’s an interesting idea.

This is the word of honor hacker
I also ask you to regularly update your antiviruses in the future. This way you will no longer fall into a similar situation.
Do not hold evil! I just do my job.
Good luck.

This sign-off is very curious. Presumably the blackmailer doesn’t actually care what the victim thinks of him—and has no hope of the victim thinking of him in a friendly way, anyway—so it must serve some other purpose. Making the hoax seem more real? I remember reading C.S. Lewis commenting on how the art of including irrelevant details to make a narration seem more real was part of what distinguished the modern novel from more ancient tales; could this art be used in hoaxing in this manner? Or possibly it’s akin to the stage magician’s art of redirection? If the blackmailer can get his victim to focus on whether or not the blackmailer has a black heart he will forget to ask whether the blackmailer actually has the evidence he claims? It would, after all, be very easy to include a screenshot from the claimed video as proof, were the blackmailer actually telling the truth.

Of course, it’s easy to read too much into such a scam. There’s no proof that I know of that anyone has actually fallen for it. The victims of such a scam are not likely to come forth and tell the world they’ve been scammed since it would be admitting exactly what they wish to conceal, and for no gain since the odds of recovering money sent to an anonymous bitcoin wallet are not high. And without knowing how successful the scam is, there’s little we can tell from it besides what a scammer—who possibly has no experience—thinks is likely to be a good scam.

That said, I still find it interesting from the perspective of someone who writes murder mysteries since those tend to be stories that involve at least one amateur—the murderer. But there are often more; red herrings are almost always, by definition, people who are not practiced. After all, if they were skilled, they’d be the murderer, not a red herring.

Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night

My favorite novel is Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Among my favorite mysteries is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I don’t know how often they are connected in other people’s minds but they are connected strongly in mine, and in case this is not universal, I’d like to explain why. (Spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read both, go do that now.)

Both novels are, fundamentally, stories of reconciliation. Pride & Prejudice includes the incidents which separate Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the real story is that of them coming together. Gaudy Night does include a bit of the strange and strained relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter—and, if one wants to be tedious, a mystery—but it too is a tale of the fixing of a relationship.

But these are not merely reconciliations. Reconciliation can be done in many ways, such as the revelation of information which fixes a mistake, as in the movie Top Hat or the Shakespearean play, Much Ado About Nothing. But both Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night are reconciliations in which the characters reconcile with each other by improving themselves.

Also curious about both is that this improvement is effected both through the help of the other, as well as by the help of someone else acting viciously. The improvement thus becomes a push-pull. The protagonists are both pulled toward virtue but also pushed toward it by the bad example of the witness of vice.

It only takes a few sentences but I think it is a very important part of Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth hears her sister say that Wickham didn’t care two farthings for Miss King—who could about such a nasty little freckled thing, and that though incapable of such coarseness of expression, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal. This was one of the first moments of true self-knowledge for Elizabeth, though it was led up to, certainly, by previous realizations.

It reminds me very greatly of how Harriet saw a picture of herself in Violet Cattermole’s desire to bite the hand of her friend toward whom she was always having to be grateful. Harriet’s advice in this case was quite interesting and also a piece of self-insight; she advised Violet that if she disliked being grateful she should stop doing things that would require her to be grateful to others.

Harriet’s being tried for murder was in a sense bad luck, but it was bad luck that she had let herself in for by living with the poet on terms other than marriage. Had she done what she ought, she’d never have been tried for murder. Had Violet Cattermole not went out without leave and gotten drunk, she’d not have had to be grateful to her friend for helping her into her room and nursing her. Though Harriet didn’t say it, I think she realized in the moment of giving advice that her own bitterness at gratitude was not, in fact, bitterness at being grateful. It was bitterness at her own misbehavior. Genuine gratitude is a pleasure; what Harriet disliked so much was having to acknowledge her own bad judgment.

There is a curious aspect to repentance: it is difficult not because one must do something differently, but because one must admit that one was formerly wrong. The meaning of hell is that it can be so painful to admit that one was wrong that people can cling to it instead of letting themselves be happy. Curiously, the feeling which attends admitting that one was wrong is a freeing feeling. It’s also, interestingly, freeing in social circumstances. If one announces a mistake oneself, most people don’t care past whatever trouble is now involved in fixing it. It can be amazing how much, if one takes all of the blame one is due, no one else bothers to give it to one. There’s probably something in here related to, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.

Gaudy Night

I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)

Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.

The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.

A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.

Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)

All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.

One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.

For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.

Instead they talked of how the truth is important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not that the lower should serve the higher, but the higher should also stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a completely triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.

In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.

In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

A Traitor To Dreams

Alex over at Amatopia has just published his first novel, A Traitor To Dreams:

I had the pleasure of reading a draft of the novel. It’s not necessarily easy to characterize; in a way it’s a coming of age story for someone who is also coming to terms with how she should have grown up a long time ago. It blends into this a beautiful and interesting setting and memorable characters.

Check out the book, but to make it easier, here’s the back cover text:

Ideomatic, Inc. has perfected humanity. Their Dream Trashcan can create the ideal you.

Elpida Kallistos has everything she wants . . . almost. There is one unfulfilled dream, one desire standing between her and happiness. Enter the Dream Trashcan from Ideomatic, Inc., guaranteed to eliminate unwanted desires while you sleep. All it takes is the click of a button and the desire is gone, permanently.

And it works! But when Elpida has second thoughts and opens up her Dream Trashcan, she finds more inside than circuitry and wires. She finds a whole other world . . . the Dreamscape, a realm where angelic, winged beings called Stewards hunt down desires made flesh. But her presence makes the Dreamscape unstable, and Ideomatic will do anything to get her out.

Chased by Ideomatic’s minions, Elpida must discover her Steward’s true identity, learn the secrets of the Dream Trashcan, and unravel Ideomatic’s plans . . . before she’s devoured by her own desires.

Elpida’s journey through the Dreamscape begins as The Matrix meets Alice in Wonderland as fantasy and reality collide in A Traitor to Dreams.

Justice and Generosity, Hierarchy and Equality

I recently said, on Twitter:

If you wish to understand how society always organizes itself:

Equals can get along if they have nothing to do with each other or both are generous to each other.

Superior/sub-ordinate can get along if both will be merely just to each other.

There was some interest in this so I’ll explain what I mean and why it is the case.

There are and have been many forms of social organization—democracy, republics monarchies, dictatorships, bureaucracies, clubs, churches, friends, families, neighbors, villages, cities, etc.—but they all share some basic traits because they are organizations of human beings and human nature imposes restrictions upon how human beings can be organized.

In a fallen world, one of the biggest problems which needs to be handled in human relationships is how to handle when two people’s wills diverge. There are only three possible outcomes: both get their way, one gets their way and the other doesn’t, and neither gets their way. I’m going to count compromise as a sub-set of both getting their way so we can disregard the last outcome—neither gets their way—because a situation in which no one ever gets what he wants will not last long.

There are a very limited number of ways in which society can be organized such two people with divergent desires can both have their way. The simplest is for the people to have nothing to do with each other. Neighbors can both do whatever they want in their own homes since it doesn’t get in the way of the other. This is the “good fences make good neighbors” organization of society.

If separation is not possible then the only alternative is for some form of compromise to occur. This requires one or both to give up something for the sake of the other. That is, this requires generosity.

(There is also the case of bargaining but bargaining is only possible where the wills of the two mostly align. The merchant is willing to sell the item for its value plus a profit, the buyer is willing to buy the item for its value plus a profit; the only divergence is on the the size of the profit and possibly their evaluations of the value. This is very different from the buyer being willing to buy the item but his wife wanting him to buy something quite different instead.)

Where there is not separation or generosity, the only possibility left is for one to force their will on the other. This may be done through warfare or through a proxy for warfare such as lawsuits. That is, it will be done by appealing to someone who is superior within the social hierarchy (the court) or to the superior force of arms. If we leave off warfare as being not a social order but the breakdown of social order, this leaves us only with hierarchy.

The court system, however, is very inefficient. Suing or being sued consumes a lot of time and money. If people can’t leave each other alone and people can’t be generous to each other, then sooner or later they will embed hierarchies into social organization for the sake of efficiency.

Social equalities which do not consist of people leaving each other alone, as neighbors mostly do, are themselves quite a lot of work. It is not easy for fallen humanity to be generous to each other indefinitely. This is why modern marriages so often break up. It’s also why high school is so often remembered as hellish.

Hierarchies may not be perfect but they’re vastly less work because they contain within them the mechanism for resolving the conflicts of will which so often come up between fallen creatures. A feature of living within a hierarchy that’s often missed by those who deride hierarchies is that people naturally adapt to reasonable hierarchies. That a reasonable boss imposes limits may be inconvenient but not particularly more so than that the walls impose limits. One may not do what the boss does not permit; one may not walk through the walls. So long as the boss is as predictable as the wall, the human psyche eventually thinks of the limitations of both in roughly the same way—merely part of reality. Even the boss operates in a manner heavily constrained by limits, if merely different limits than the subordinate.

(Where people really come to hate their bosses is when their bosses are unreasonable. An unreasonable boss is unpredictable; one can’t conform to him and get along because he has no definite shape. What he approves of one minute he disapproves of the next, and one must take constant notice of him. They would have the same frustration at walls that reshuffled themselves three times a day.)

But this is also true of social clubs. Clubs which must carry on some definite business will form hierarchies with elected offices because the alternative is so much more work. Even large groups of friends will form hierarchies because group decisions are so painful to accomplish. Where four or five regularly gather together just to enjoy each other’s company you will still see one or two becoming the leaders of the group and carrying out most of the decision making process while two or three simply go along and one or two are more active but willing to defer.

Monasteries which are founded on the principle that all of the monks are brothers will elect a Father Prior or Father Abbot to lead them and make decisions which the rest obey. Nunneries will elect a Mother Abbess or Mother Prioress. If all the farm animals are equal, some animals will become more equal than others. The alternative is just too much work.

You can even see this in YouTube communities which form; it’s not hard to pick out the leaders who set the tone for their respective communities. They change over time, of course, because nothing in a fallen world is stable. But communities of equal are vastly less stable than are hierarchies.

Human beings are made for more than mere justice, so we have a natural distaste for hierarchies. We chafe under them. And yet, we tend to be happier within a hierarchy because all that’s required of us is mere justice. Our superiors have certain rights over us, so if we discharge our duties to them we need do no more and all is well. We have certain obligations to our inferiors but if we discharge them we need do no more and all is well. Our inferiors owe us certain obligations, but as long as they discharge those obligations to us we are satisfied and all is well. It may not be perfect, but it’s easy.

Unlike electricity human beings do not always take the path of least resistance. We just mostly take the path of least resistance. This is why you will find hierarchies developing everywhere and why social organizations which purport to finally achieve equality are guaranteed to fail.

Now, it should be noted that it’s not necessarily a problem that something is guaranteed to fail. Everything in a fallen world is. The real question that needs to be asked is whether it’s going to fail gracefully or spectacularly. When the social order fails, will it result only in somewhat elevated levels of injustice or will it end in mass executions?

Because nothing in a fallen world ends well.

That’s what the next world is for.

The Disclaimer on Gaudy Night

Most every work of fiction has at the beginning a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction and should not be read as being about any real person. This is primarily for legal reasons since most fools and all non-fools can figure out that a work of fiction is fictive. However, sometimes a work of fiction touches on real things and this is when the disclaimers can become interesting.

My favorite disclaimer is at the beginning of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. So you can see what I mean, I’m going to reproduce it interspersed with my commentary:

It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist, and contain a number of colleges and other buildings, some of which are mentioned by name in this book. It is therefore the more necessary to affirm emphatically that none of the characters which I have placed upon this public stage has any counterpart in real life. In particular, Shrewsbury College, with its dons, students and scouts, is entirely imaginary; nor are the distressing events described as taking place within its walls founded upon any events that have ever occurred anywhere. Detective-story writers are obliged by their disagreeable profession to invent startling and unpleasant incidents and people, and are (I presume) at liberty to imagine what might happen if such incidents and people were to intrude upon the life of an innocent and well-ordered community; but in so doing they must not be supposed to suggest that any such disturbance ever has occurred or is ever likely to occur in any community in real life.

I really love the first sentence. Sometimes one can invent whole universities and cities, as I did in The Dean Died Over Winter Break, but even when one does it can be necessary to put them inside of larger places that are real.

It’s a delicate balance but intruding somewhat upon real places can be extremely interesting. I think that Ms. Sayers is quite right that murder mysteries are especially interesting when examining murders in places that they shouldn’t be. Technically that’s everywhere, but there are places that are, in this fallen world, more conducive to murder than others. And it’s the places which are least conducive to it that can be the most interesting.

Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first, to the University of Oxford, for having presented it with a Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of my own manufacture and with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute. Next, and with deep humility, to Balliol College—not only for having saddled it with so wayward an alumnus as Peter Wimsey, but also for my monstrous impertinence in having erected Shrewsbury College upon its spacious and sacred cricket-ground. To New College, also to Christ Church, and especially to Queen’s, I apologize for the follies of certain young gentlemen, to Brasenose for the facetiousness of a middle-aged one, and to Magdalen for the embarrassing situation in which I have placed an imaginary pro-Proctor. The Corporation Dump, on the other hand, is, or was, a fact, and no apology for it is due from me.

I can relate to the initial apology since in the course of writing my own mysteries I’ve had to saddle certain diocese with Bishops of my own manufacture. It’s all in good fun and I think that everyone understands the unreality of the thing, but I also understand the impulse to apologize. There is a certain reality, however thin, to the characters in novels. There’s a tension, there, which I think cannot be fully resolved and is just one of the penalties of living in a fallen world.

To the Principal and Fellows of my own college of Somerville, I tender my thanks for help generously given in questions of proctorial rules and general college discipline—though they are not to be held responsible for details of my discipline in Shrewsbury College, many of which I have invented to suit my own purpose.

This is a real advantage to making up a place, even when modeled on a real place—it is so much more convenient to be able to make up details to suit one’s story. On the other hand there’s great value in getting things right where one can.

As I’ve been working on Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral, I’ve been asking some priests and religious questions about religious life (especially with regard to the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office, or the prayers priests and religious say throughout the day).  There’s a real pleasure—at least I find as a reader—to being able to learn real things in the course of having fun. (Though, of course, one must be careful because the novelist never labels which things are real and which changed to suit the story; however, it’s often a good starting point for further research and a decent novelist will be careful to change things in ways that at least preserve the spirit if not the details of the thing he’s changed.)

Persons curious in chronology may, if they like, work out from what they already know of the Wimsey family that the action of the book takes place in 1935; but if they do, they must not be querulously indignant because the King’s Jubilee is not mentioned, or because I have arranged the weather and the moon’s changes to suit my own fancy. For, however realistic the background, the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world.

I find this entire section quite interesting. Consulting detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, or my own Brother Thomas, are unrealistic. For reasons I think largely owing to the limited creativity of murderers, they simply don’t exist in practice. They exist, then in a world much like ours but a little different. It is, in a sense, a world where creative people are less timid. But it is not this world. It follows, then, that one would arrange things such as the weather, the changes of the moon, and even some current events to suit one’s story. It does, after all, take place in a different world.

The final line is very curious. It’s borrowed from Hamlet, prince of the Danes, in the second scene of the third act of the Shakespearean play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It’s something that Hamlet says in response to the King asking, “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in ’t?” Hamlet replies, “No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”

It’s a great line, and I assume that Ms. Sayers was changing the meaning when she borrowed the line. But it is very curious that in the original this was a lie that Hamlet told the King, his uncle who replaced his father as king after secretly murdering him, because the play was designed to cause great offense to the King and his wife, Hamlet’s mother. In fact, it was intended to cause them to reveal their guilt.

But it does ring quite true that the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland. Coordinating events affected by many living people is too complicated for a mere mortal.

Only tangentially related to the last line but interesting: it’s a few lines later that the King asks Hamlet what he calls the play and Hamlet replies, “The Mousetrap”. That’s the name of the murder mystery play written by Agatha Christie which opened 1952 and has been running continuously to this day. It is by far the longest initial run of any play in history, with over 25,000 performances in the same theater.

No, Not All Are Welcome

I was recently reminded of a rather bad hymn that seems to be standard in american Catholic hymnals: All Are Welcome.

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Granted it suffers from the problem that many hymns written in the post-war period suffer from: it’s really about man, not about God. However, that’s not why I despise it. I despise it because it’s a lie.

All are most certainly not welcome in the place that hymn is sung. The only place in the world of which that’s true is prison. Everywhere else has membership requirements. Whatever they sang, the hippy-dippy hippies who sang this with all of the enthusiasm they could muster would ask the chainsaw-wielding man covered in filth and screaming obscenity-laced death threats to come back some other time.

Some will object that they mean that the man is welcome once he puts away his chainsaw, takes a bath, and speaks politely. So what? It’s not a meaningful sort of inclusiveness to say that one will accept anyone who conforms to the group’s demands. What’s special about that? Everyone will accept those who make themselves acceptable.

Of course, the example I gave, while sufficient to prove the theoretical point, is not realistic. And it’s precisely the realistic extreme example which sheds a lot of light on the theme of that time and the very contrasting theme of our time.

The realistic example is the man in the sweater vest who is openly fornicating and openly saying blasphemies in a normal speaking voice. And the hippy-dippy hippies who sang All Are Welcome did, in fact, let him stay.

There is, of course, a parallel in secular culture. The flagrantly fornicating man who “flirted” with all of the women at the office was welcome too. Modern mythology holds that this was the norm throughout history until fifteen minutes ago but even a cursory familiarity with movies and television from the 1950s and before would tell one that a man who talked openly of sex in the workplace, not just in front of women, but to them, would never have been tolerated.

This is, after all, the repression which the 1970s loved to criticize. Today we call it sexual harassment rather than impropriety but apart from the language a man being fired for “being too free with the ladies” differs only in terminology. But in the 1970s all were welcome, even the sexual harassers.

Our society prefers to call “polite society” by the name “safe spaces” but the thing to which the name refers is the same. There are places and times when people must restrain their impulses and behave in a way that makes everyone comfortable. The idea that everyone should become comfortable with everything simply doesn’t work.

At the same time we see secular culture clawing its way back to propriety in public places we see religious culture clawing its way back to the idea of sacred spaces. Sacred means “set apart” and a thing is set apart not by having walls and doors but by what is and is not done in them. That first part is as important as the second; when it comes to the sacred sins of omission are the equals of sins of commission.

I do not yet know what it was that animated the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s—what it was that made the hippies so dippy that they thought that if they broke down all barriers everyone would somehow get along. (The obvious guess is the devastation of the first two world wars, especially in Europe, and those combined with the trauma of racism in the United States.)

It had the very curious property that it sounded Godly but was actually diabolic—I mean in the original sense of the Greek “diabolein”: to scatter. The diabolic scatters man from man and prevents unity. So surely getting everyone together should be the opposite?

But this is a fallen world and men will not all get along. If you try to force them to all that will happen is that you will break down true friendship and camaraderie. Those need safe spaces in which to grow.

If you let the heretics into church they will not worship God with you. They will only keep you from worshiping God. It is no accident that Christ said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

An even more apt quotation would be what the angels said at the birth of Christ. Curiously, the version most people are familiar with, which comes from the King James translation of the bible, is very badly translated:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Bu when it is translated more accurately, you get something like (this one is from the Revised Standard Version):

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

Just so you can see the main idea in the variety, here’s an alternative translation which is also faithful to the original text (The New Jerusalem Bible):

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those He favours.

Peace is the ordering of the world to the good. That is, it is a rational ordering of the world according to its nature. But a rational ordering must be in a mind and for it to be a property of the world and not merely imposed on the world it must be in the mind of the world’s maker.

Peace is the ordering of the world according to God’s will. Peace is only possible, therefore, among those who do his will. Those who do only their own will can never be at peace with God or each other. 

Which is why people must set themselves apart so that they can get along.

The age of universal peace is finally over. We can now get back to the business of getting along with each other.

Attach the Stone of Triumph

This post is going to be about the false freedom which is won by rejecting God. However, the title is a reference to an early Simpsons episode, so in case you’ve never seen the Stonecutters episode (one of the best), here’s the relevant part:

Human beings have a nature which we did not make, for the very simple reason that we did not make ourselves. This is, properly understood, the source of all of our power to do anything, but since we are finite beings it does come with limitations. And those limitations irk people, sometimes.

The right response to being irked by this is self-examination. If a man is depressed because he cannot fly like a bird, he should figure out what’s wrong with him that he does not appreciate walking like a man. Alas, another response is to try to become a bird. It’s not possible, but every project starts with step 1 so it’s possible to ignore that step 3 is impossible while one is working on step 1.

In this case the first step is to get rid of God from whom our limits come because He’s from whom our nature comes. The problem is that, once God is gone, so is meaning. If there is no God we have no constraints and so anything is possible. The only problem is that nothing is worth the effort.

Suppose you attain enough power to smash planets. Well, so what?

You will of course find those who will say, “then life will have the meaning that I give it!” I tend to assume that they don’t mean this because they’ve clearly never thought about it for even five seconds together. Apart from this just being (by definition) make-believe, if life has the meaning you give it, why not give it a more convenient meaning?

Sure, it’s possible to give life the leaning that after years of work to attain the power, smashing planets makes you great. But as long as you’re the one making up the meaning why not give sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching re-runs of Friends the meaning that you’re great? They’re equally valid.

In short, there’s a reason why, at first, the meaning which atheists choose to give life is always suspiciously close to the meaning which God gives it. But atheism is a degenerative disease. Sooner or later the atheist will notice that this is a lot of work. And it won’t be long before he notices that it’s completely unnecessary work. And at some point he’s going to notice that no work is really necessary, at least if he’s at all wealthy.

He’ll have succeeded in getting rid of the stone of shame. The problem is that he’s exchanged it for the stone of triumph.

And only God is powerful enough to lift a rock that big.

Who’s Dreaming of a White Christmas?

For some reason (a while ago) I decided to look up the history of the song, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”. I think it was after hearing the song and thinking of this XKCD comic:

There’s more to say about this which is not merely about cultural time period or generation, but that’s for another blog post.

White Christmas is itself a nostalgic song which is, I think, part of what connected the two in my mind. It was first published in 1941 (and made famous in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn) but was written a year or two earlier by Irving Berlin. One story is that it was while he was in a hotel in California. This is supported by the (typically omitted) first verse:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North—

Which brings up the question of Berlin’s history. It turns out that he was a Russian Jew, born Израиль Моисеевич Бейлин (Roughly, Israel Moiseyevich Beileen) in Imperial Russia in 1888 (or 1889—records weren’t as good those days). His family emigrated to the United States in 1893, when his name was changed to Israel Baline. (In 1906, when his first song was published, his name was misspelled as “I. Berlin,” and apparently it stuck. Presumably at some point he changed his name to Irving to avoid anti-Jewish prejudice, but I don’t know.)

Berlin’s family stayed in New York City for years before Irving became a success and started visiting other parts of the country. Thus his youthful memories would be of treetops that “glisten in the snow” in strong contrast to the California treetops which look the same in winter as in every other month.

Which is, of course, quite reasonable—I’ve heard that southern California’s lack of seasons takes some getting used to. The funny thing is that this doesn’t really translate out of the context of someone from New York who’s moved to California (or other southern parts of the US). I was one such person who didn’t have this experience; I grew up in the north-east of the United States in a similar sort of climate to where Berlin did, though around seventy years later. I’d heard the song growing up but didn’t know its context, so I adapted it to the context I knew.

Specifically, to the context where it was snowy on Christmas only one out of every 5 (or so) years. Hence in anticipation of Christmas (when Christmas songs are generally played in the United States) one could dream of a white Christmas like the ones one remembers from years gone by. But this is a very different thing because even a snowless Christmas in the north-eastern United States is still cold and largely dark (happening as it does at most about 5 days after the shortest day of the year). It’s still at a time of year that feels very different to spring-through-fall and still a counter-point to the bleakness of the season.

Thus for me it’s a sort of grass-is-greener wishing for things to be optimal instead of highly different. (If you come from a part of the world that never gets much snow, see my post Snow Is Peaceful for why a white Christmas is nice.) This is a picky sort of nostalgia of which the Boomers are often accused, though in this case unfairly since the song was written much closer to the beginning of the war rather than to the end of it, and by someone who was born in the previous century.

Even saying that this song was part of the Boomer’s childhood, as the XKCD comic does, is not very accurate. Leaving aside the reasonableness of the demarcations of the “baby boom” and using the most expansive definition of it, the Baby Boomers were born from 1945-1964. Assuming that people start forming life-long memories at about the age of 7 this means that White Christmas had been playing for at least ten years before any baby boomers would have remembered it from their childhoods. If the average boomer was born in 1954, the song had been popular for about 19 years before they would remember it from their childhood. And it should be noted that it isn’t seven-year-olds who put songs onto the charts. White Christmas is not a centuries-old tradition but it was clearly an earlier tradition than the childhood of the baby boomers.

(Incidentally, I can’t begin to imagine what this song sounds like to someone who grew up in the southern hemisphere of the world since for them Christmas takes place in the summer and you’d have to live on a mountain or in Antarctica to have snow on Christmas. In fact, in most places in the southern hemisphere I suspect a white Christmas would be an epic disaster since it would mean the death of most of their food crops and probably a good chunk of their livestock.)

Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

In an odd series of events I happened to stumble across this book, which is a kindle reprint of a book now in the public domain. It’s the first in a series by Russell Thorndike about the character Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

The first book was published in 1915, the last in 1944. They’re set in the mid 1700s and the hero of the story is quite a brigand. First a parson, then a man on a quest for revenge, then a pirate, then again on a quest for revenge, then again a pirate, then finally again a parson and in that role also the leader of a band of smugglers who rides a giant black stallion and wears a phosphorescent scarecrow outfit to lead them.

For some reason this reminds me of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not sure why, except for the obvious element of being set in the 1700s and there being a ghostly horse-rider. Anyway, there’s something about the outlandishness of the tale which I find interesting. I think part of it is that it feels like it should have been written about 100 years before it actually was. It’s contemporaneous with the beginnings of Science Fiction, for example. A good example of how one can write any story in any age, I suppose.

The foreward by the author’s sister (who was a famous actress) I found particularly interesting:

DEAR RUSSEL,
Do you remember a long jounrey to Spartanburg, Georgia—I, rigid with fear and thrill, open-mouthed—you, unfolding horror upon horror—the day “Dr. Syn” was born?
Do you remember how on arriving at the hotel, some kindly fate playing up to us so nobly, arranged for a perfectly good murder to take place on the front steps right under our windows—and how the corpse lay there all night, and we being too frightened to go to bed so sitting up most of the night, I making countless pots of tea, while you with bulging eyes gloated over the double-dyings and doings of that splendid criminal, “Dr Syn”?
It was a far cry from Georgia to the Romney Marsh, but I think it was some longing for hom and the Kent lands that made you develop his story with that background instead of the more obviously thrilling country in which we were travelling.
What a pal the old parson-smuggler became to us! I know for me he joined the merry band—the Men of Kent—the Dickens Men of Kent who made the white roads famous.
I envy those who are to make his acuqaintance for the first time. I remember with thrill the feeling i had when you first showed him to me. Here was another of those creature sof the family of Daniel Quilp (Our first great love, wasn’t he?) Creatures that are above the ordinary standards of right and wrong—tho, even if they murdered their favorite aunt would have been forgiven—they being so much large rand more labable than aforesaid Aunt.
Was Syn a play or a novel first? I forget—He walks in Romance and it matter snot al all to me if I meet him again in prose or verse or in actuality—poking his head out of a dyke in our dear beloved Marsh. I shall say Good Luck to him in wahtever form he may appear—the souls like us who love a thrill will be jollier for the meeting.
SYBIL