Saturday, July 18, 2015

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park


Opening Passage: The book has both an introduction and a prologue as well as an opening to the story proper, so I go with the first paragraph of the Introduction, bland as it is:

The late twentieth century has witnessed a scientific gold rush of astonishing proportions: the headlong and furious haste to commercialize genetic engineering. This enterprise has proceeded so rapidly--with so little outside commentary--that its dimensions and implications are hardly understood at all. (p. ix)

Summary: Catastrophe consists of the accumulation of errors. One of the things that works well for Jurassic Park as a story is that Crichton does a good job in showing the compounding effect of error, which in itself is something human beings find fascinating. In the course of doing so, he depicts one way in which such a compounding of errors can occur: arrogance, which leads to a refusal to take proper steps to prevent errors and correct them. And, negatively, of course, I suppose that gives us one of the important aspects of humility: it leads you to take your capacity for failure seriously enough to avoid failures that magnify other failures.

The basic story, of course is fairly straightforward: John Hammond is building a park on an island, using genetically reconstructed dinosaurs. There are plenty of indications throughout that something is not right: Dr. Wu mentions in passing that they have to help some dinosaurs out of their eggs; the dinosaurs all have a slight rotten-fish smell to them, despite the fact that the herbivores should not have that kind of smell; there are several "worker accidents"; there is evidence that some dinosaurs are turning up on the Costa Rican mainland. And those are just some of the things that are out in the open. It is the signs of wrongness that people aren't noticing that will turn out to be truly dangerous.

In a lighter, fast-paced novel like this, it is a bit difficult to determine what is just thrown in as a detail and what is supposed to link up to the larger themes. For instance, we learn some things about the family situation of Tim and Lex -- their parents are separated and getting divorced, and while there's not a lot of discussion, it does get quite specific. Is it just something used to help give a sense of the time passed as Grant and the kids try to get back to the compound? It could be. On the other hand, it is hard in context not to see it as another case of accumlation of errors. Likewise, the quasi-chapter headings are mostly descriptive, but it's difficult not to see an irony in the fact that all of the sections occurring in the control room are titled 'Control' and that they start coming thick and fast at the point where it is clear that things are out of control.

To go with this re-reading of the book, I re-watched the famous movie based on it. There are certain things that the book does better than the movie. I remember the movie when it first came out, and remember comparing it to the book at the time; one of the things that struck me then, and still strikes me, is that the book does a much better job at showing the ignorance that laces through everything in the park: there are signs of unknowns that have been disregarded on almost every page once we actually get to the park. On this time around, I saw that the book also does much better at conveying the fact that the problem with the park was not just an illusion of control, although that was part of it. Even the dinosaurs are not the real thing. A good example is in the case of the dilophosaur, which is depicted in both book and movie as spitting venom. This is in fact entirely fictional. The book signals this by the fact that it's explicitly stated to be an unexpected discovery and by stating that the biologists studying the animals had not even been able to figure out how they do it, since they don't seem to do it by any normal methods (from which it logically follows that the behavior could not have been predicted from prior paleontological knowledge, since there is nothing that could have signaled it in the fossil record). It is put in as an imaginative example of just how much prior knowledge could fall short of such an undertaking. The movie does not, leading an entire generation of moviegoers into thinking that dilophosaurs spit venom.

But despite the things that the book does better, I think this is a case where, overall, the movie is better than the book. There are things that are just different and I don't think are necessarily worse; the book, for instance, starts much more slowly and indirectly, and this fits well with its structure, while the movie does a very good job of getting us caught up quickly, which does better for a cinematic structure. But the movie tells a somewhat better story, because it makes it more about the human beings and what they do or fail to do.

It also has much better characters. Most of the characters in the movie are more likable than their book counterparts, but I will note one in particular. The John Hammond of the book and, for that matter, of Crichton's original draft of the movie, is extremely unlikable and arrogant, who seems incapable of human sympathy. That from David Koepp's final draft is much more human, and, of course, Richard Attenborough plays the role for everything it is worth. It was a masterstroke to make Hammond not obviously arrogant but instead an enthusiastic and charming grandfather who actually cares for his grandchildren and wants to bring something exciting and wonderful to the children of the entire world. We get a more powerful lesson on the nature of hubris, a richer character, better interactions with other characters, and a greater sense of how we, ourselves, could fall into the same trap. We don't want him to fail even when we see that he must. And the Hammond we get in the movie is someone who is much more involved in his park, much more aware of what is going on, and thus there is less room to fall into the error of thinking that we ourselves could have avoided the catastrophe. This one change alone makes almost everything better. And the death of Hammond in the book was always one of the least satisfactory things about the story; the death of his dream in the movie is massively more affecting.

Dragon curve animation

The curve above (which are shown in their first twelve steps), which people have often found intriguing, is never named in the book; but it is a fitting one, since it is one of a family of fractals called 'dragon curves' -- this one is called the Harter-Heighway dragon. There's a good explanation of how it is drawn here.

Favorite Passage: This is not really a book in which any particular passage stood out as especially funny, or interesting, or exquisitely crafted. But I thought that this one was a fairly good depiction of a common response to rational argument:

"Malcolm's models tend to have a ledge, or a sharp incline, where the drop of water will speed up greatly. He modestly calls this speeding-up movement the Malcolm Effect. The whole system could suddenly collapse. And that was what he said about Jurassic Park. That it had inherent instability."

"Inherent instability," Gennaro said. "And what did you do when you got his report?"

"We disagreed with it, and ignored it, of course," Arnold said.

"Was that wise?"

"It's self-evident," Arnold said. "We're dealing with living systems, after all. This is life, not computer models." (p. 246)

Recommendation: Recommended; it's definitely worth reading at least once.


Quotations are from Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, Ballantine (New York: 1990).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thursday Vice: Discord

Discord becomes particularly recognizable as a vice opposing the virtue of charity; and like most such vices, discord does not have a long or elaborate historical record of being discussed, although it does have a fairly clear account. The virtue of charity, Aquinas argues, has several faces: love, joy, peace, mercy. Each of these active expressions of charity is opposed by a vice -- love by hatred or odium, for instance, or joy by envy (when concerned with others) and sloth (when concerned with self). Peace, which is well ordered concord, is opposed by discord or dissensions. In particular, Aquinas says (2-2.37), "a man directly disaccords with his neighbor, when he knowingly and intentionally dissents from the Divine good and his neighbor's good, to which he ought to consent." Discord is concerned with the internal -- while it can be externally expressed, it is entirely possible for it never to be so, instead silently poisoning relations in ways others cannot see -- and as such it is distinct from strife and similar vices, which involve various kinds of external opposition.

Human beings easily come to disagreement, and this disagreement can cause a sort of incidental discord. This is not necessarily a moral wrong; indeed, it can sometimes be a good, when there is a concord that is ill ordered and harmful. But discord as a vice arises when one tends to break up the unity created by people coming together to seek divine good and the good of neighbor. What the vice of discord is doing is destroying the possibility of virtuous friendship -- friends do not necessarily share the same opinions, Aristotle noted, but they are united in pursuit of good. The highest friendships are those involving the highest good, those sought by virtues; since charity is by nature a kind of virtuous friendship, it is this kind of virtue-welded union of wills that discord destroys and prevents.

Discord is not a capital vice; that is, to say, it does not have any especially notable tendency to encourage the development of other vices. It is, however, a daughter vice, being the kind of vice that can naturally arise in the wake of a capital vice. We often find it as a vice resulting from other vice. The two vices that make good candidates for being discord's special capital vice are vainglory and envy; it clearly has links to them both. Following Gregory the Great, Aquinas judges that it is more properly associated with vainglory. Discord is an active disunion of wills, and this tends to happen when someone is privileging his own will over that of anyone else's; that is, discord is a way of going one's own way and refusing to go along with others, which is precisely the self-oriented disorder that one would associate with vainglory. The connection with envy lies in the fact that it, like envy, is a sort of revulsion from someone's good; but unlike envy, this revulsion is quite clearly due to an excessive regard for one's own good, which discord shares with vainglory.

Transfigured Stretched the Squalid Street

by Rosamund Marriott Watson

Far from country lanes and leas,
O’er pavements foul with stain and spot,
I hastened, holding—half forgot—
In careless hands, a clustered knot
Of rosy, frail anemones.

The sun shone round them, gold and rose,
And sudden wonder dawned on me,
For that mean by-way seemed to be
More fair than isles of Arcady,
Or splendours of eternal snows.

Transfigured stretched the squalid street,
With all its tawdry shops arow:
I felt the cowslips round me blow,
The cold spring twilights clear and slow,
The dews of dawn about my feet.

O wonder-wealth without alloy,
Breath from the far-off fields divine!
The spring sun sheds his amber wine,
And makes the viewless glories mine,
The earth’s illimitable joy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sacramental Armaments

Today is the Feast of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Doctor of the Church. From his Breviloquium (Part VI, Chapter 3):

Since this army [of the Church] consists of elements that are subject to weakening, in order that the ranks be perfectly and permanently strengthened, it needs sacraments to fortify, relieve, and replenish its members: to fortify the combatants, relieve the wounded and replenish the dying. Now, a fortifying sacrament strengthens either those just entering the combat, and this is Baptism; or those in the midst of the fray, and this is Confirmation; or those who are leaving it, and this is Extreme Unction. A relieving sacrament alleviates either venial sin, and this is the Eucharist; or mortal sin, and this is Penance. Finally, a sacrament that replenishes does so either on the level of spiritual existence, and this is...Orders, which has the function of administering the sacraments; or on the level of natural existence, and this is Matrimony, which replenishes the multitude of humanity in their natural existence, the foundation of everything else....

And so Baptism is designed for those just entering the fight, Confirmation for those engaged in combat, the Eucharist for those refreshing their strength, Penance for those rising from their sickbeds, Extreme Unction for those who are departing, Orders for those who break in the new recruits, and Matrimony for those who provide these recruits. And so it is evident that the sacramental remedies and armaments are both sufficient and orderly.

[Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Monti, ed., The Franciscan Institute (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005), pp. 220-221.]

Bonaventure was the second Doctor of the Church (after Aquinas) to be explicitly designated as such by a Pope. (The first eight Doctors of the Church achieved and established the title by a much more piecemeal process of liturgical development; their title was extended to Aquinas and Bonaventure by papal authority.) I've noted before that Bonaventure's real name was Giovanni di Fidanza -- 'Bonaventura' is a nickname that means 'Good Fortune'. We don't know why he was nicknamed Lucky, but Bonaventure himself tells us that as an infant he was cured of an illness by St. Francis of Assisi, and late tradition suggests that he was given the nickname by St. Francis himself.

The Mede Is at His Gate!

Vision of Belshazzar
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

The King was on his throne,
The Satraps throng'd the hall:
A thousand bright lamps shone
O'er that high festival.
A thousand cups of gold,
In Judah deem'd divine --
Jehovah's vessels hold
The godless Heathen's wine!

In that same hour and hall,
The fingers of a hand
Came forth against the wall,
And wrote as if on sand:
The fingers of a man; --
A solitary hand
Along the letters ran,
And traced them like a wand.

The monarch saw, and shook,
And bade no more rejoice;
All bloodless wax'd his look
And tremulous his voice.
'Let the men of lore appear,
The wisest of the earth,
And expound the words of fear,
Which mar our royal mirth.'

Chaldea's seers are good,
But here they have no skill;
And the unknown letters stood
Untold and awful still.
And Babel's men of age
Are wise and deep in lore;
But now they were not sage,
They saw -- but knew no more.

A captive in the land,
A stranger and a youth,
He heard the king's command,
He saw that writing's truth.
The lamps around were bright,
The prophecy in view;
He read it on that night, --
The morrow proved it true.

'Belshazzar's grave is made,
His kingdom pass'd away,
He, in the balance weigh'd,
Is light and worthless clay;
The shroud his robe of state,
His canopy the stone:
The Mede is at his gate!
The Persian on his throne!'

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Mencius, Book I

After Master Kong himself, the most important reference-point for Confucianism is Master Meng, or Mencius, in the latinized form. According to tradition, he was the student of Confucius's grandson, Zisi (son of Boyu, who is mentioned in the Analects). Because a number of his students were feudal lords, he serves as a point at which the influence of Confucius becomes massively amplified. His sayings, which are mostly short discourses, are collected in the Mengzi, one of the four primary books of Confucian thought.

One of the oldest disputes about the Mencius is whether Mengzi himself actually wrote it; over the many centuries, both sides have been argued so extensively by the many Confucian scholars and commentators who have discussed the issue that there is little for modern scholars to add to the debate.

In the Chinese, each book of the Mengzi has a title, but it is purely a convenience for reference rather than anything informative: it comes from the first sentence of the book and is usually the name of the person with whom Mencius happens to be talking at the beginning of the book.

You can read the Mencius online at the Chinese Texts Project, in James Legge's translation. As for myself, I will be using D. C. Lau's translation from Penguin, just because it happens to be the copy I have on my shelves.

Book I.A (Liang Hui Wang I)

Book I is unusual in the context of the rest of the work in that it seems to be arranged in at least a roughly chronological order; as such it is a major source for the life of Mencius himself.

We begin with Mencius interacting with King Hui of Liang (or Wei). King Hui himself gives a historical rundown of his very troubled career at I.A.5; his first comment to Mencius in I.A.1, asking how Mencius can profit his state, should be read in that context. Lau in his introduction gives the key dates for events King Hui mentions:

341 BC -- Defeat by the Kingdom of Qi
This was followed by a period of twenty years in which he suffered repeated defeat by the Kingdom of Qin.
323 BC -- Defeat by the Kingdom of Chu.
319 BC -- Death of King Hui

Thus King Hui is at the end of a disastrous career, in the last few years of his life, and is attempting to get himself out of a terrible situation. Master Meng points firmly to what he sees as the problem: it is precisely this thinking in terms of profit rather than in terms of humanity (ren) and rightness (yi). If everyone thinks of profit alone, nobody is ever satisfied, and nobody actually works with anybody else for the good of parents or rulers. In I.A.2, King Hui is in the midst of his wealth and asks if it can be enjoyed by worthy people; Mencius replies that it is only worthy people who actually enjoy them, because delight is something shared with others. King Hui insists in I.A.3 that he has done well and has just had bad luck, but Mencius is not impressed: his misfortune is actually the effect of his own actions. Perhaps he has done better than other kings, but that's not a high standard. A true king regulates things so that his people have plenty to eat, and that everyone has a little something to contribute to that plenty, and that they are well educated so as to fulfill their responsibilities; if that were the case, he would not have problems:

When people die, you simply say, "It is none of my doing. It is the fault of the harvest." In what way is that different from killing a man by running him through, while saying all the time, "It is none of my doing. It is the fault of the weapon."

When King Hui asks in I.A.5 how he can wipe away the shame of his many defeats, Mencius insists again on the importance of benevolence. This is not an abstract ideal. Other kings go around harassing their people, destroying their ability to survive, miseducating them. A king who actually makes sure his people can eat and do their work properly and who teaches people to uphold their responsibilities to their families, creates a wealthy and tightly-knit people who will be able to accomplish things that could not otherwise be accomplished.

After King Hui's death, he was succeeded by King Xiang, and Mencius seems to have been so thoroughly unimpressed by him (I.A.6) that he left for another state. The next conversation (I.A.7) is with King Xuan of Qi, who had just recently ascended the throne. The discussion is quite long because King Xuan seems to be extraordinarily reasonable and willing to discuss his own mistakes and failings. Mencius encourages him to recognize the fact that his ambition to make his state and reign great are not achieved by tumultuous wars against foreign enemies but by actually working to make the state of Qi the best place in China to live. If it is the best place for scholars, scholars will come. If it is the best place for farmers, farmers will come to farm. If it is the best place for people to care for their families, they will go to it in order to care for their families.

Book I.B (Liang Hui Wang II)

The work continues with the promising King Xuan. Mengzi hears that King Xuan deeply enjoys music, and takes this as a sign that good can be done in Qi. But when he talks to King Xuan about it, the king, embarrassed, is forced to admit that he doesn't actually like the kind of traditional music people like Mencius are always talking about -- he likes the new, popular tunes. But Mencius says that this doesn't make much difference: a king who enjoys music is a king who can understand that his delights must be shared with others, because music is a communal thing: the delight of it is not something that is kept to oneself. And that is the key to good kingship: when the king's furthering of himself is at the same time a furthering of the people.

The point is raised again in I.B.2, when King Xuan and Mencius discuss why the people think his private park is too big when other kings have had private parks that people did not think too big -- perhaps even thought too small to be worthy of their king. And Mencius insists that it is because all the rules concerning are rules to keep people out of it, and they are so harsh that the people could hardly avoid seeing it as anything other than an immense trap in the middle of their kingdom.

I.B.10 and I.B.11 are concerned with the war between Qi and Yan, in which Qi is victorious; we learn later in the book that Mencius had only intended to stay a very short time in Qi, but found himself stuck when the war broke out. The rest of the sections are, according to Lau, the likely itinerary of Mencius when he left after the hostilities: that is, he stopped briefly in the states of Zou and Teng on his way to Lu.

to be continued

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Fly Under the Lens

As for what you say in your esteemed letter concerning temptations against the Faith, pay no attention to them. They are not real temptations. Your faith is immovable and secure in the depths of your soul: it was infused in your Baptism and has been fortified by other Sacraments. This does not prevent these fears and a certain trepidation from arising on the surface of the soul, as also doubts that are not real but apparent: things that God allows as trials to the souls most dear to Him, so that they may be more active and vigilant in His love and may purify themselves by means of tribulation. I do not consider them in the least dangerous or to be made account of. On the contrary, the more you despise them and treat them as movements of the imagination and sensitive nature (as they really are), the more easily they disappear of their own accord or become weakened. If you take these things seriously, and give them an importance they do not possess, it is easy to become disturbed and fearful: and fear and sadness have the effect of a lens that enlarges a fly until it appears an elephant. Nay they do more, for a soul filled with vain fear sees what does not exist.

Bl. Antonio Rosmini, Letters, on Chiefly Religious Subjects, p. 639.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fortnightly Book, July 12

Having driven through a third of the Arabian Nights, I am very much in need of something that can be handled easily with a light stroll: something lighter, quicker, and, of course, shorter. A re-read rather than a new read would not be amiss, either. So the next fortnightly book is Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, the book that touched off Crichton's juggernaut decade in the 1990s.

There's a chance that this might actually be a one-week 'fortnight', which, if so, would actually be helpful in terms of scheduling, as I enter the busier last half of summer; but given that I have several things to do this next week, I make no promises.