Tuesday, January 14, 2020


Last winter I heard the eulogist of Abbot Aidan Shea say that in one of the upper level Latin classes about 1960, he had been unable to muster enthusiasm for Virgil, and that Father Shea had put him to reading Juvenal, whom he found more sympathetic: "sarcastic, rude, vulgar, right up my alley".

This weekend I happened to pull from the shelves Heinrich Böll's What's to Become of the Boy?: Or, Something to Do with Books, where I noticed, of one of Böll's high-school classes in Cologne in the late 1930s,
I don't know whether Juvenal was in our curriculum, or whether Bauer had recognized how topical he was and chosen him for that reason: in Juvenal, arbitrariness, despotism, depravity, corruption of political mores, the decline of the Republican idea, were described with ample clarity, even a few "June 30's", staged by the Praetorians, and allusions to Tigellinus.
Fortunate are the generations that can appreciate Juvenal for his sarcasm without finding him too topical.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Books as Gifts, Again

Suppose that you are a young intellectual working in Washington, D.C., for the minimum wage, $14 per hour. Suppose further that you wish to give a friend a copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation as a gift. Politics and Prose has it on its shelves for $25. The book will cost you less than two hours' wages before tax.

The Reformation has 812 pages. According to my recollection, twenty pages per hour would be a very fast rate for reading it with comprehension, but let's assume that the friend can read it at that rate. It will take the friend forty hours to read it, twenty times as long as it took you to earn the money to buy it. Now, if the friend is also employed at the minimum wage, and would have been likely in any case to acquire the book, he or she is two hours to the good. If your friend hadn't thought of reading the book, but does so dutifully, that will be three weeks of reading at two hours per night, not previously budgeted for.

This sort of consideration makes me think twice before giving books as gifts. It also gives me a bias in favor of books that can be picked up and put down--collections of essays for example. This is not to say that I wouldn't give someone a copy of The Reformation--which, after all, is admirably organized in chapters of about twelve pages--or a similarly hefty book. But I would have to know the recipient's taste very well.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Three and a Half Hours

In the time it takes to see the movie "The Irishman", a minute under three and half hours, one can
  • If suitably fit--under 35, and putting in reasonable mileage--run a marathon.
  • See "The Marriage of Figaro", and depending on the length of the intermissions maybe make it out of the Kennedy Center parking garage.
  • Read any one of Hadji Murad, A River Runs Through It, one of Plato's medium-length dialogues, or (aloud) two books of the Iliad.
  • Walk from Alexandria to Mount Vernon, with time for lunch along the way.
It is only fair to say that running a marathon will leave one with sore legs for a couple of days.

"The Irishman" struck me as being in some ways an accumulation of the weaknesses of the 1970 generation of movie making. It has actors who were young in 1970 playing in 2020 the young men of 1950. It has a Mafia of near omniscience and omnipotence. It has notably asinine assertions about two generations of the Kennedy family. (In a different movie from this generation, the CIA would have murdered JFK for wishing to pull us out of Vietnam; in this one, the mob votes him into office to overthrow Castro, helps him to stage the Bay of Pigs, and perhaps shoots him for failing to carry it off.)

I have wasted a lot of equivalent chunks of time in my years, and will soon enough stop grudging the time lost to "The Irishman". The man who strikes me as having a legitimate grievance is Jack Goldsmith, who makes a compelling case that his stepfather has been libeled.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Monday, December 23, 2019


Today I saw on the side of a Metrobus an advertisement reminding the young of their duty to register with the Selective Service. It seemed to me that the last men drafted into the US military must have been born in 1953. On getting back to a computer, I looked it up, and found that
  • Some men born in 1952 were inducted into the military in 1972. No men born in 1953 or after were drafted.
  • The draft lottery continued through 1976 even so. I imagine that few men born between 1954 and 1956 could tell you the order in which their birthday was drawn; many of those born between 1950 and 1953 must still remember it. Certainly it was a matter of conversation.
Those due to register next year are therefore fifty years younger than the last men drafted. The Pentagon has been quite clear for many years that it has no interest in expanding the military to a size that would require a draft. Yet the young must still register, and penalties attach to a failure to do so. The Selective Service's FAQ says that
Registration is a way our government keeps a list of names of men from which to draw in case of a national emergency requiring rapid expansion of our Armed Forces. By registering all young men, Selective Service ensures that a future draft will be fair and equitable.
Well, maybe. The WW II draft was more or less fair and equitable, but then the US military had something around 14 million in uniform from a much smaller population--the 1940 census counted 132 million persons.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Amazon Web Services

Monday's New York Times has an article on Amazon Web Services (AWS), its ubiquity, and its effect on software providers. It writes of Amazon in the tone which twenty years ago people wrote of Microsoft. I did not see "embrace, extend, extinguish" in the article, but maybe I didn't look closely enough.

Amazon has identified a soft point in "open source" software: it is in general freely available for anyone's use, it is in principle freely available to be modified and extended; but this can mean that the advantage goes to the user with the most hardware, and the one with the most money to fund the adaptation and enhancement of existing products. These days, Amazon might well have the most hardware and the most money. Those who developed MariaDB, MongoDB, and Redis get a smaller share of the revenue generated from their work than Amazon does.

Yet for one who has followed this for some years, there are omissions in the picture. IBM has run Linux virtual machines (VMs) on its mainframes for many years, and has recently purchased Red Hat, which makes one of the most popular Linux distributions. During the years before the purchase, did Red Hat or IBM make the most money from this? Nor are IBM and Amazon the only companies that have made money off Linux: Google, Oracle, Facebook, and these days Microsoft run a lot of Linux. Does anyone consider any of these corporations more benevolent than Amazon?

Google based its Android operating system on Linux. If you set up an application on the Google Cloud Platform and need a database, one of the options you will have is MySQL, from which MariaDB is derived. (To be sure, at the moment the entities most scared of Google in the cloud world are its customers, who believe that it has considered abandoning GCP and could do so if it can't outdo AWS.)

I find Amazon's tactics troubling, and not only in cloud computing. Still, I thought the article could have used some nuance.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


A few times, over the years, I have been passing by Carter Barron when the carillon at the Presbyterian church opposite was working. The first time, I was nearly out of earshot before I recognized the tune as that of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God". The next time, I quickly recognized "Faith of Our Fathers". Now, I don't know what a classically Presbyterian hymn would be, but I was interested that they drew on the Lutheran and Catholic traditions.

My interest in this really began years ago, when happening to be in a Lutheran church, I noticed that the hymnal, and maybe the service, included a text by Peter Abelard. Since then, whenever I happen to be in a strange church, or near a new hymnal, I have a look for ecumenical borrowings. Owing to a falling off in weddings and graduations, I seldom have a chance to look now. It seemed to me that
  • The Catholic hymnals reliably carry Charles Wesley, and Martin Luther. John Newton's "Amazing Grace" will almost certainly be there, Calvinist though it clearly is.  Alexander Means's "What Wondrous Love Is This" will be there. You will also find "We Gather Together", and a number of hymns by Isaac Watts.
  • In a Protestant hymnal you will likely find Aquinas for "Adoro Te Devote", but of course not for "Pange Lingua"/"Tantum Ergo". Probably you will find Frederick Faber's "Faith of Our Fathers", and you may find the Jesuit martyr Brebeuf's "In the Moon of Winter". You can count on finding the "Come Holy Spirit" of Rabanus Maurus.
This weekend, in a Methodist church for a concert, I had a chance to browse the United Methodist hymnal. It was about as I expected: Brebeuf and Faber were there, also Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux though not Aquinas. At the end of the list of sources, I was interest to see "Wotyla, Karol: see John Paul II"--a litany for peace.
(Is it cheating to count as Catholic the hymns from before 1517? I think not, at least in the case of Abelard and Aquinas: both did a great deal to fit Aristotelian thought into Christian theology, and Martin Luther did not approve of Aristotle.)
On the other hand, the (Catholic) International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) does take only so many Protestant hymns. In Worship, there are seven by Charles Wesley, six by Isaac Watts, and three by Martin Luther, one by Alexander Means. By comparison, Richard Haas, who must be known mostly to choirmasters and the obsessives who read the matter in the back of Worship and Gather, has something like 30, as does Rory Cooney, though some of these must be psalm settings.

One sees, in looking through the hymnals, that there are only so many periods that have produced great hymns. There are notable Latin hymns from the high Middle Ages and before. The Reformation, particularly the Lutheran portion, produced some remarkable hymns, as later did the early Methodists and the American "Great Awakening". But  there are long periods that produced nothing memorable. In the United States, the later 19th Century produced a lot of Protestant hymns that one charitably might call "indifferent", and I don't know that the English contributions of that day were consistently better. A Catholic friend, an amateur of musicology, says hard things about the St. Louis Jesuits, who produced some of the hymns that linger on in American Catholic churches. Nor are they the only offenders in Gather and Worship.