Friday, May 22, 2009

I wonder . . .

Alexander the Great wasn't a Greek but a Macedonian.
Napoleon Buonaparte wasn't a Frenchman but a Corsican.
Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, Stalin, wasn't a Russian but a Georgian.
Adolf Hitler wasn't a German but an Austrian.
Barack Hussein Obama is . . . ?

Deja Vu All Over Again

I'm reading a book right now that has a very interesting passage:

"Its stated purpose was . . . to insist that having been undertaken as a war of liberation, it must not be turned into one for empire. The quest for power, money, and glory abroad, the League maintained, would distract from reform at home and bring in its train a strong central government destructive of traditional states' rights and local liberties. Americans had enough to do to solve the problems of municipal corruption, war between capital and labour [sic], disordered currency, unjust taxation, the use of public office for spoils, the rights of . . . people . . . before taking alien peoples under their rule."

It could have been written today about today's problems; The Proud Tower (Bantam, 1967, p. 176) was written by Barbara W. Tuchman concerning the year 1898 and America's "adventure" in the Philippine Islands.

Like it says in the Bible, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

De gustibus non disputandum est

Roughly translated with apologies to Fr. Z., it means matters of taste are not to be argued about. (This of course is not at all the same about matters of doctrine, faith, and morals.) Note by the way the word gustibus: I suspect the English word disgusting refers to something that literally takes away your appetite.

Anyway, opinions vary about favorite time-wasters. I don't consider blogging -- or writing letters -- a waste of time. There is too much solid Catholic commentary and trenchant political analysis out there, and I learn a lot from it.

I mean real time-wasters, things we do just for the fun of it. My two favorites are the New York Times daily crossword puzzles, with which my sister keeps me supplied, and playing Freecell.

Now you who do the NYT puzzles know that they start easy on Monday, and get progressively more difficult as the week goes on. By Saturday they're positively demonic, made up, as my sister and I agree, by demented gonifs. (She shares my liking for Yiddishkeit, and during college roomed with an orthodox Jewish girl who still keeps a kosher household.)

I boast that I have never really lost a game of Freecell. There are games that I have had to restart many times, but I always get them in the end. If I have to leave one, I write down its number and come back to it later, and I don't cross out the number until I've won it. I have fifteen games listed that I haven't won yet. But I will, unless I pop off first. (I hope they let me have my machine in the nursing home or hospice.) Game number 1941 is exceptionally difficult. I must have started it a hundred times.

I suppose some people will point their finger and say, "A-HA! Obsessive-compulsive!" Well, so what? I'm old enough to have a few quirks; I've earned, the right, by golly. Besides that, one thing I like about Freecell is that it reminds me, in a playful way, of a very important truth for the spiritual life:

Never give up! Never, never, NEVER give up!

Or as it says in Scripture, "He who persevers to the end shall be saved."

Of course, I need the advice as much as anyone else, because I get downcast and disheartened sometimes. Partly because almost every confession is the same old same old. "Same stuff, different day," we used to say at the office.

There's a nice meditation on this in the seventh station of the Way of the Cross according to St. Alphonsus Liguori (the gutsy Stations we used when I was a kid, not some of the weeny bland-as-bread-dough stuff I heard in the 70's and 80's):

Priest: "Consider the second fall of Jesus under the cross -- a fall which renews the pain of all the wounds of the head and members of our afflicted Lord."

People: "My most gentle Jesus, how many times hast Thou pardoned me, and how many times have I fallen again, and begun again to offend Thee! Oh, by the merits of this new fall, give me the necessary helps to persevere in Thy graces until death. Grant that in all temptations which assail me I may always commend myself to Thee. I love Thee, Jesus, my love, with my whole heart. I repent of having offended Thee. Never permit me to offend Thee again. Grant that I may love Thee always, and the do with me what Thou wilt."

Friday, May 1, 2009

Science and Religion

I could get long-winded really easily on this topic, but I'll spare us all.

In short, there is no real conflict between real science and real religion. Science tells us how the heavens go, religion tells us how to go to heaven. (I didn't make that up; I'm stealing from, and paraphrasing, one of the prelates involved with the Galileo affair.)

While I was working as an engineering technician, I had the equivalent of four university-level courses in statistics. (I got good enough -- or arrogant enough -- that I argued with management about the best tools for predicting traffic growth.)

Take ten coins, and flip them all at once. Now the chance of any one coin coming down heads or tails is exactly 50-50 (assuming the coin doesn't land on its edge or hang in the air). So you would maybe expect to get five heads and five tails tossing ten coins. But in fact your chance of getting exactly that is a bit less than 1 in 4, that is, it's 252 out of 1024; because there are 1024 different ways ten coins can fall when you flip them all at once.

The reason for this is that a coin has two faces, you have ten of them, and the number of ways they can fall is 2^10, 2 to the 10th power, 2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2, 1024.

One more example. Say you get into a crap game. Each die has six faces, you have two of them, and the number of ways they can fall is 6^2, 6 squared, 6x6, 36. If you analyze the 36 combinations, you will find that you can throw a seven only 6 ways, so your chances of getting a win, "take all the money," on your first toss is only 6 out of 36, or 1 in 6. Some places, an 11 on the first throw is a winner, and the chance of a win on the first toss is then 8 out of 36 or a bit less than 1 in 4, but the principle is the same, and the point is your chances of getting exactly what you want are not in your favor. Moral: don't get into crap games.

The basic point is that the toss of one coin or ten, or the toss of one die or two, is a random event, but when you start collecting and recording a large number of them, you will see a pattern.

Behind what looks like chaos there is order.

And the order was put there by God. It didn't happen by itself, because nothing can come from nothing.