"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

My buddy G. K. Chesterton recently got a nice write-up from The Atlantic.  This isn’t the first time, either.  That illustrious magazine has commented on the fellow before.  The current article, by James Parker, is a delight to read dribbles out quotes from the man himself, mainly from well-known works but also from a few obscure ones.  It offers an introduction and celebration of the enormous variety of Chesterton’s work, and tries to communicate the unique way that Chesterton pulls our spirits up into the heavens with succinct but magical wordsmithing.

That said, Parker does stumble at one point by describing Chesterton with the phrase “live wire”, and that brings us to today’s quote from St. Thomas Aquinas:

St. Francis was the son of a shopkeeper, or middle class trader; and while his whole life was a revolt against the mercantile life of his father, he retained none the less, something of the quickness and social adaptability which makes the market hum like a hive. In the common phrase, fond as he was of green fields, he did not let the grass grow under his feet. He was what American millionaires and gangsters call a live wire. It is typical of the mechanistic moderns that, even when they try to imagine a live thing, they can only think of a mechanical metaphor from a dead thing. There is such a thing as a live worm; but there is no such thing as a live wire. St. Francis would have heartily agreed that he was a worm; but he was a very live worm. Greatest of all foes to the go-getting ideal, he had certainly abandoned getting, but he was still going.

(No, I did not make a mistake here.  That’s a comment about St. Francis of Assisi from Chesterton’s book about St. Thomas.)

When I first began this blog, oh so many years ago, I wrote two sarcastic posts about two authors that I don’t admire all that much: How Ayn Rand Changed My Life and How George R. R. Martin Did not Change My Life.  Since that time I’ve written about many authors, Chesterton the most prominent among them.  There are authors besides Chesterton who changed my life.  One of them died today.  His name was Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett’s books have sold somewhere around fifty million copies.  His fan following is enormous.  Yet there are many avid readers, especially among the serious set, who have never cracked open a Pratchett book.  What they would find inside is very difficult to explain or describe.  If you haven’t read any Pratchett you should start doing so now, rather than reading my humble attempt at explanation.

Pratchett is most famous for the Discworld books, a series of more than thirty fantasy novels set on a flat world that rests on the back of four elephants which stand on a turtle.  (No word on what the turtle stands on.)  In the earlier Discworld novels, the elephants and the turtles were mentioned a lot, as were magic and dragons and other fantasy elements.  It was a straight-up parody of formulaic writing in the genre.  As time went on, things changed.  The magical elements gradually vanished and the Discworld novels became social satires, poking fun at all kinds of things.  Pratchett trained his satirical sight on government, business, academia, religion, the press, sports, Hollywood, and much more.

He also wrote many other books that aren’t set in/on Discworld; these are much lesser known, even among his fans.  Yet works such as Strata and the Bromeliad Trilogy offer rich rewards to anyone who takes time to buy a copy.

Perhaps you have heard of trigger warnings, the new fads that’s swept parts of the internet over the past couple years and is no emerging into real life.  The idea is that there are certain topics which may provoke, or “trigger”, a particularly strong reaction among certain readers.  In some locales it’s become customary to place a trigger warning at the top of an article if it deals with something such as sexual violence, eating disorders, racism, or so forth.  Not surprisingly, colleges and universities are among the places where this type of thinking spread next.  Schools such as UC Stanta Barbara and Oberlin have announced policies requiring professors to offer warnings when a text may be “triggering”.

As one who is always will to assist in the promotion of great literature and education, I’ve decided to write the trigger warnings for some well-known reads:












An obscure Chesterton gem

I just encountered this little poem for the first time today.

Ballad of the Sun

O well for him that loves the sun
That sees the heaven-race ridden or run,
The splashing seas of sunset won,
And shouts for victory.

God made the sun to crown his head,
And when death’s dart at last is sped,
At least it will not find him dead,
And pass the carrion by.

O ill for him that loves the sun;
Shall the sun stoop for anyone?
Shall the sun weep for hearts undone
Or heavy souls that pray?

Not less for us and everyone
Was that white web of splendor spun;
O well for him who loves the sun
Although the sun should slay.

-G. K. Chesterton

Short and sweet and very meaningful, as Chesterton’s poems always are.  (Well they’re not always short, but they’re always good.)  Chesteron was a lover of nature.  At the same time, he was careful to divide that from worship of nature.  Nature has great beauty and provides many good things for us.  This is because God created nature in order to allow us life and enjoyment, and God has mercy and goodness.  But nature itself does not have moral properties such as mercy and goodness.  In fact, much in nature can be lethal.

Here Chesterton illustrates this with the example of the sun.  The first two verses celebrates what’s good about the sun.  Verse three points out that the sun is not a deity, as many of the ancients would have it.  Praying to the sun, or expecting it to care about any person or thing, is pointless.  Verse four ties it all together.

Bitten by a turtle lately?

Have you been crushed by a crocodile lately?  Well don’t worry–your doctor has a code for that.  Injured by an exploding non-powered glider?  There’s a code for that too.  Pecked by a turkey?  It’s covered.

Yes, the federal government is requiring that all doctors, hospitals, and health care providers use codes from the newly issued DCM-10 when reporting injuries and illnesses.  So when you tell your doctor that you were pecked by a turkey, they’ll enter put the code W61.43XA on all forms related to insurance claims, medical reports and so forth.  Assuming that this is the first time your report it, that is.  For subsequent turkey-pecking injuries, the code is W61.43XD, so don’t get confused.  Likewise, W58.13XA would be code for your first instance of being crushed by a crocodile, not to be confused with W58.03XA, which is “crushed by alligator, initial encounter”.  And “Glider (nonpowered) explosion injuring occupant” is code V96.25XA, while while V96.15XA is “Hang-glider explosion injuring occupant.”

The codes don’t apply exclusively to the type of injuries.  Doctors must also report the location of the injury.  So if you’re injured in a chicken coop, your doctor will need code Y92.72, while Y92.311 indicates that you were injured on a squash court.  Y92.152 informs us that you got hurt in the bathroom of a reform school, which is distinct from the bathroom of an orphanage (that would be Y92.111).  If you strain your vocal cords at the opera house, that would be Y92.253, while if the aforementioned crocodile crush occurred at the zoo, then it’s time to break out code Y92.834.

All kidding aside, this is serious business.  The total cost of implementing the new reporting system will be in the tens of thousands of dollars for all medical practices, and in the millions for some.  83 large organizations representing most of America’s doctors recently sent a letter to the government, requesting that the DCM-10 be canceled.  The government ignored it, naturally.  And the name of the federal rule which requires doctors to use this system?  “Administrative simplification“.

My cheesiest post yet

This morning I clicked on over to the Atlantic Monthly’s homepage and what did I find but an article about the history of big blocks of cheese in the White House.  It turns out that two Presidents have been the recipients of enormous cheeses.  Thomas Jefferson received a wheel of cheddar from a Baptist preacher in 1802; it weighed 1,234 pounds and was engraved with the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  (If better words were ever put on cheese, I’m unaware of it.)  A generation later, a dairy farmer named Thomas Meachem offered Andrew Jackson an even bigger cheddar: 1,400 pounds.  It left the White House stinking of cheese until the Van Buren Administration.

Such an article naturally left me with an obvious question: did Chesterton have anything to say about the intersection of politics and smelly cheese?  Well, Chesterton had something to say about everything.  This comes from A Miscellany of Men:

After a few sentences exchanged at long intervals in the manner of rustic courtesy, I inquired casually what was the name of the town. The old lady answered that its name was Stilton, and composedly continued her needlework. But I had paused with my mug in air, and was gazing at her with a suddenly arrested concern. “I suppose,” I said, “that it has nothing to do with the cheese of that name.” “Oh, yes,” she answered, with a staggering indifference, “they used to make it here.”

I put down my mug with a gravity far greater than her own. “But this place is a Shrine!” I said. “Pilgrims should be pouring into it from wherever the English legend has endured alive. There ought to be a colossal statue in the market-place of the man who invented Stilton cheese. There ought to be another colossal statue of the first cow who provided the foundations of it. There should be a burnished tablet let into the ground on the spot where some courageous man first ate Stilton cheese, and survived. On the top of a neighbouring hill (if there are any neighbouring hills) there should be a huge model of a Stilton cheese, made of some rich green marble and engraven with some haughty motto: I suggest something like ‘Ver non semper viret; sed Stiltonia semper virescit.'” The old lady said, “Yes, sir,” and continued her domestic occupations.

After a strained and emotional silence, I said, “If I take a meal here tonight can you give me any Stilton?”

“No, sir; I’m afraid we haven’t got any Stilton,” said the immovable one, speaking as if it were something thousands of miles away.

“This is awful,” I said: for it seemed to me a strange allegory of England as she is now; this little town that had lost its glory; and forgotten, so to speak, the meaning of its own name. And I thought it yet more symbolic because from all that old and full and virile life, the great cheese was gone; and only the beer remained. And even that will be stolen by the Liberals or adulterated by the Conservatives. Politely disengaging myself, I made my way as quickly as possible to the nearest large, noisy, and nasty town in that neighbourhood, where I sought out the nearest vulgar, tawdry, and avaricious restaurant.

There (after trifling with beef, mutton, puddings, pies, and so on) I got a Stilton cheese.

I’ve written a fair amount about my lack of interest in movies.  To rehash, I rarely watch movies today and I don’t care about any of them.  Earlier in my life, I did care about them.  I don’t know why I cared about movies so much in the past.  I don’t know why so many people care about them today.

Yet it’s fairly obvious that many people do care about movies, including adults of at least moderate intelligence.  Today the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced, and big headlines arrived declaring the fact at virtually every publication in the country.  Apparently the movies with the most nominees are Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I don’t know when the Academy Awards actually will take place, but I do know that they will be a typical celebration of hubris and empty nonsense.  Vast amounts of money will be spent on preparations.  Vast amounts of talking will focus on how women at the ceremony are dressed, and somewhat smaller amounts will focus on the movies and the awards.  Most paid commentators will be content to pour out streams of utterly predictable pablum, which could probably be produced by a computer at much lower cost.  Others will bend over backwards to put their own personal spin on why the Oscars matter a lot.

As an example of the later, try reading this article: Why It Matters that Wild Wasn’t Nominated for Best Picture.  Slate’s Dan Kois laments, at considerable length, the fact that while Reese Witherspoon was nominated for her role in the movie Wild, the movie itself wasn’t nominated for best picture.  And he asserts, without even a sliver of evidence, that this is because the Oscars snub movies focused on women: “there among the Best Actress nominees is Reese Witherspoon, one of this year’s crop of great actresses giving performances good enough to be nominated for Best Actress, but not telling stories important enough, as far as the academy is concerned, to be nominated for Best Picture”.

Now some people might have thought that the Academy gives out nominations based on artistic merit, rather than the importance of the stories.  Indeed, some might think that that’s the whole point of the spiel.  Mr. Kois obviously doesn’t think so.  To him, it goes without saying that if the Academy doesn’t give his preferred movie a best picture nomination, it must be because of sexism.

This sort of thing has happened before.  In 2006, for instance, Brokeback Mountain was nominated for Best Picture but narrowly lost out to Crash.  Brokeback was about gay cowboys, while the main selling point for Crash was that it contained the word “f*ck” 99 times.  Many people believed that Brokeback was the favorite going into the ceremony.  When Crash crashed the party, some proclaimed directly that only homophobia could explain why anyone would fail to vote for Brokeback.  Roger Ebert wrote this excellent article on the topic.

Such explosions of hatred are perfect demonstrations of how many in the liberal media think.  The claims are flatly untrue; there is no reason to believe that anyone voted against Wild because of sexism or Brokeback because of homophobia.  They are nasty, imputing bad motives to people who have done nothing wrong.  They are narcissistic, assuming that just because the writer views everything through a lens of gender and sex, everything else must do.  They toss out any consideration of artistic merit.  They are, in short, Hollywood at its most normal.

When I was younger, I slogged through quite a lot of mediocre fantasy novels.  Like many young folks, I had somehow picked up the idea that I should always finish a book once I’d started it.  Except for a few of the most truly atrocious ones, I reached the end of every single book.

The First Betrayal, by Patricia Bray, is the quintessence of mediocrity.  We have two main characters.  Josan is a monk who’s assigned to keep a lighthouse on a lonely island.  Ysobel is a diplomat assigned to ferment a rebellion against the Empress in the city of Karystos.  The two meet briefly at the start of the book and then separate.  Josan remains at his lighthouse.  He has a mysterious past and only fragmentary memories from childhood.  Then an assassin shows up and Josan is forced to flee for his life.  Meanwhile, Ysobel manages the intrigues of life among rebellious nobles.

Everything in the book follows a predictable, paint-by-numbers scheme.  Characters, plot, and world-building all proceed along a dull, monotonous path towards a destination that’s just not worth caring about.  The high point, or perhaps low point, is around the two thirds mark of the book, where we finally learn the secret of Josan’s mysterious past.  The only problem is, any intelligent reader will have guessed the secret hundreds of pages earlier, making the whole thing anti-climactic.

I would mention one other problem.  Bray’s prose isn’t terrible.  It’s pretty much the definition of ‘workmanlike’.  But it’s boring for a clear reason: there’s no humor.  None.  I don’t expect every book to be comedy gold, but has there ever been a decent book that didn’t include at least a little bit of humor?


While I was in grad school, before I became a Christian, I read Julian May’s novel Magnificat.  While I liked the novel, I didn’t have the slightest idea what the title meant.  This is a perfect demonstration of my intellectual situation during that period of my life.  I had already received one degree from a top-rated academic institution and was on my way to earning another.  On paper, by secular standards, my education looked excellent.  At the same time, I knew virtually nothing about most of the major texts that had shaped the civilization in which I lived, or about theology, philosophy, or numerous other topics of supreme importance.  This is what our educational system does to young minds.

But onwards to the topic of the post.  The Magnificat is a poem from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  It is the words attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary after she visits hers kinswoman Elizabeth:

The Magnificat in English

While there are those like my grad school self who have never heard of it, there are also many people who may have the opposite problem.  Any text that one reads and hears too many times can become too familiar, until one loses sight of its meaning and power.  After we’ve encountered this particular prayer hundreds of times, we may lose sight of its revolutionary character.

Let us try to put ourselves back into the time and place where this passage originated.  Mary was peasant woman in a small village in an insignificant province at the fringes of the Roman Empire.  Neither she nor any of her family or friends had any power.  They were constantly pushed around.  A whim of the Emperor, such as a desire to take a census, could uproot them and force them to travel great distances at considerable inconvenience.

Faced with this situation, Mary was neither despairing, nor angry, for bitter.  Instead she made a triumphant statement of confidence.  God is watching over each of us, God knows our sufferings and needs, God will protect us always.  Chesterton once said that it is not meek to say that the meek shall inherit the earth.  Similarly it is not humble to insist that kings will be toppled from their thrones and the humble will be exalted.

In our day and age, when questions of power structures and authority swirl around us in countless forms, we need the simple and powerful faith expressed in the Magnificat more than ever.


Robby Soave, the first prominent journalist to suggest that the entire Rolling Stone story was a hoax, has an update at Hit & Run.  There are more details from the three friends: Ryan Duffin, Alex Stock, and Kathryn Hendley.  Recall that in the original story, Jackie aggressively slandered these three, saying that after she showed up injured and bleeding and told them about being gang raped, they refused to contact the police and were only concerned about guarding their reputation and being loyal to their own frats.  The truth turned out to be the exact opposite.  When Jackie claimed that she had been forced to perform oral sex on a group of five men, the friends wanted to take her to the hospital and report it to the police; it was Jackie herself who refused to do so.

Anyhoo, the latest revelation is this: we now know the name that Jackie gave for the junior chem major boyfriend who supposedly lead the gang rape: Haven Monahan.  The Washington Post has confirmed that no such person ever existed, either at UVA or anywhere else.  Investigation of the text messages and emails that ‘Monahan’ supposedly sent to the three friends show that they come from fake phone numbers.  Jackie used a readily available website that allowed her to send messages from non-existent phone accounts.  So that would seem to wrap things up for the bogus claim that any sexual assault at all occurred on the night of September 28th, 2012.  The entire account was entirely fictional.

Meanwhile, over at Poynter, the Rolling Stone story has won the award for “Error of the Year”.  That’s just one of many awards that they give.  I highly recommend clicking the link and reading about all of them.  The funniest ones are the candidates for ‘Correction of the Year’.  Some samples:

In yesterday’s “Chillin’ Wit” column, a fond farewell to former Daily News editor Zack Stallberg as he heads west to New Mexico, stall berg was misquoted as using the term “horse manure.” He responded: “I demand a correction. Does anyone really think I would use the word ‘manure’?” No. Stall berg actually said, “horse s—.” And that’s no bull manure.

In a leader last month (Of bongs and bureaucrats, January 11th) we said that The Economist first proposed legalising drugs in 1993. In fact we argued for it in a cover story in 1988. Who says drug use doesn’t damage long-term memory?

An earlier version of this story erroneously said that Joaquín Guzmán was found in bed with his secretary. He was found with his wife. This version has been corrected.

An earlier version of this article described bald eagles and ospreys incorrectly. They eat fish, and their poop is white; they do not eat berries and excrete purple feces. (Other birds, like American robins, Eurasian starlings and cedar waxwings, do.)

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