Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Japan's Christian Masada

As you may know, Across the Nightingale Floor deals a little with the hidden, persecuted Christians of Japan, the kakure kirishitan. (Here's more about them.) I've always wanted to learn more about them, so I went a-Googling and found parts of the story I didn't know.

At Hara Castle, Catholic farmers and samurai made a last stand against the shogunate's religious persecution at the end of the Shimabara Uprising. They were led by teenaged Amakusa Shiro, who was supposed to be a miracle worker. (And by some accounts claimed to be God's other son, which he wasn't somebody Christians should've been following...sorta like the Boxer Rebellion guy.)

Here's a short account of the siege from a military science POV, and here's the battle map, which according to this page was made by ninja of the Koga clan. The shogunate lost huge numbers of fighters in the siege. The main reason the castle finally fell was that it was shelled by a Dutch ship assisting the shogunate's forces.

Nice, eh?

Here are some pictures of the castle ruins, and here's the Japanese Catholic artist who sculpted the Christian samurai statue seen above. More importantly, here's some info about a contemporary Portuguese account by Fr. Duarte Correa of what happened. Less than a year later, the Jesuit and former sea captain would be martyred himself.

As this book review notes, though, the Japanese love their tragic heroes. The martyrdoms at Nagasaki, Hara Castle and countless small villages across Japan were a deep challenge to the Japanese, as peasant, samurai and daimyo were joined together in a faith in one God and the supremacy of individual conscience over the dictates of the opressive shogunate state.

Still, I have to wonder about the influence of Jesuit spirituality and practice here. The Jesuits were at least peripherally involved with Catholic resistance groups in England, for example, and of course St. Ignatius Loyola himself started out as a knight. Did the way they thought and taught encourage revolts like this? I'd like to know.

Adventures in Wordmaking

I suggested on one list that we really needed a word expressing the deja vu feeling of having something happen in real life which previously happened in a book. Jerrie Atkins suggested "deja lu", which is apparently French for 'already read'.

Now (since this just happened at work) I think we need an expression for the smug feeling of having saved one's files just before the power went out. "Bluescreenfreude"? Or is that a Linux user's emotion? Hmm. Maybe "savin'freude" or "paranoidenfreude". Of course, we also need a word for the feeling of horror and frustration when one hasn't saved....

Sense and Sensitivity

It's a shame that corporations have to spell out
common sense and common decency. But my company's
HR department has done such a good job of doing just
that, that I feel I should share. (Especially since
my company's not just saying it. I am
so lucky....)

Periodically, [our company] management is asked to address issues in the workplace which are sensitive for both the company and our employees. With that in mind, I want to take this opportunity to restate the position of the company on the following workplace policies and practices.

[Our company], like the rest of [HugeCorp], practices "inclusion" in the workplace. This simply means we attempt to accept the broad range of differences that exist between our employees and insist that all employees be treated with appropriate decorum, respect and dignity in the workplace. In that regard, the company will not tolerate unlawful harassment in the workplace directed against employees by other employees or customers, based on differences such as race, religion, disability, national origin, gender, and sexual preference. We appreciate and support diversity in the workplace. What counts in the workplace is performance...setting appropriate goals and targets and meeting them as individuals and as a team.

The company does not discuss private matters concerning employees with other employees other than those employees having a legitimate and lawful need to know. The company is similarly not at liberty to discuss medical information it obtains from its employees. Individual employees have the latitude to share information with management and are encouraged to do so to assist in business planning (e.g. pending potential leaves and time off, for planning purposes). Any disclosure of personal information outside the above is at the discretion of the employee, consistent with business decorum and good common sense, and in keeping with all other policies.

Should you have ANY concerns about these policies or any questions with regard to any situations, you are encouraged to contact me in the Human Resource department.


I got an email from a prof who was delighted
that I included a couple jokey comments in the
endnotes to my lousy translation from the Irish of a medieval
ode to St. Catherine of Alexandria. Well, I thought
I was being cute, but not funny enough to elicit an
email! (That centaur thing -- now, that's comedy.)

Still, it seems to me that academia nowadays is a
pretty grim place, in an intellectually fluffy yet socially brutal kind of way. People seem much more interested in whether you use the buzzwords and have the PC attitude than whether you do a good job of teaching, use good documentation, have good insight, and attempt to have good ethics. I truly admire those, who like Constant Reader, brave such an atmosphere to educate the young. Not me, buddy. So if I've lightened somebody's mood, I suppose that might be worth an email at that.

I heard last night that Biichan has had some serious misfortune, type unspecified. (The list owner didn't feel it was her place to say what happened, but the tone suggests it was pretty bad.) So if by any chance you're a friend or acquaintance of Biichan, do send her a supportive email or comment. Obviously it's better to be there, but email is considerably better than nothing.

Brown Paper Packages Tied Up with String

Two of Dmitriy Yemets' books arrived in the mail yesterday. Hurray! Now I can find out what happens in book 2, Tanya Grotter and the Disappearing Floor. My mom is a stamp collector, so she very much enjoyed all the Russian stamps. I liked the fact that it really was a brown paper package tied up with string. How often do you see that? Also, I'm heartened to find that Russian airmail, at least from Moscow, is considerably less slow than molasses. This is a Good Sign.

Some Explanation of This Blog

Sometimes I feel like my friend the Constant Reader
and Bill Cork are the only folks reading this blog. I really have no way of knowing, of course. It's been my opinion since 1995 that counters are inaccurate by their very nature. (How many people are visiting from the same computer and address? Are they popping in once a day to see whatever's new, or once every six months to read the entire site?) Webstats are more useful, but tedious to look over. I have no wish to pay for them. As for comment boxes...those that work aren't free, and those that are free don't work. Bah.

In general, a successful website is one which either
provides something nobody else does, or provides it better. Either way, frequent updating is important. I've rather ignored the second part of this for most of my website lately. My blog, too, I'm afraid. I'm well aware that if I were serious about readership, I'd write something every
morning or night. But there's a word for that. It's "work". I don't want to get tips or have an Amazon store, either. That's "work", too.

This is not work, or serious, or anything worldshaking. This is my rant page, carefully kept away from my site. I'm not trying to gain influence or convert anybody (so don't get paranoid, Constant Reader). I'm just writing about what interests me. If it interests you enough to inspire a comment, send me an email.

Centaurs at the University of Tennessee

Via Instapundit, the University of Tennessee's centaur archaeology exhibit and centaur symposia. Heh.

I'm not totally happy to learn they made the centaur from parts of an old anatomy human skeleton. On the other hand, if the guy who donated his body to science in the first place had a sense of humor, I'm sure he'd agree that a lesson on hoaxes and critical thinking is a service to science. I don't see why they couldn't use plastic bones for the job, though.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Moriarty Strikes Again!

You'd think that someone named James Moriarty would be very anxious to avoid any appearance of evildoing. But check this out! Either he's a well-paid consulting evil mastermind, or he's just a cowardly jerk. Either way, this James Moriarty is oscillating like a serpent and clearly overdue to practice martial arts just to the side of a raging Reichenbach Falls. Via Oxblog, the Project for the New American Century reports the following. (Bolding mine.)

First, according to numerous government sources, the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, James Moriarty; and Doug Paal, the de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan; are urging President Bush to declare, privately and perhaps publicly, that the United States opposes Taiwan's independence. This would be a significant change in America's so-called "One-China Policy," a change very much in Beijing's favor.

...If the Bush Administration changes its policy, it will place the United States in opposition to Taiwanese independence even under that scenario. Above all, however, if the administration makes this change, it will strike a severe blow against the vibrant Taiwanese democracy in a kow-tow to Beijing. After the President's recent stirring remarks in favor of democracy worldwide, this move against Taiwan's democracy would be a shameful betrayal of what seemed to be the President's core principle in foreign policy.

Moriarty's second proposal is even more worrying. He proposes the United States declare that it will not defend Taiwan if Beijing launches a military attack on the island in response to a "provocation," i.e., some action or statement by Taiwan that Beijing determines moves in the direction of independence. This proposal, if adopted by the administration, could prove disastrous...

...Moriarty recently traveled to Taipei to deliver a stern warning against holding any referendum on any subject. Now he wants the administration to offer assurances to Premier Wen that the United States will indeed oppose referenda in Taiwan. This means, in turn, that the administration will effectively be agreeing with Beijing that such referenda constitute a "provocation." So what happens when Taiwan goes ahead and holds its referendum this spring, as it surely will?

In all seriousness, read the whole article. It's deeply disturbing.

Books and More Books!

I've been listening to library books on CD again today to relieve the tedium of cut and pasting Excel sheets and checking billing. My choice was Father Greeley's 2002 novel The Bishop in the West Wing. I was looking forward to another nice little mystery. Patently it would include both wisdom and a certain amount of misguided opinion about his favorite Democratic Party, liberals, and sports teams from Chicago. However, I am willing to sit through the latter for the former, if the proportions are fair.

So far, I'm not even through the first CD and have already had to roll my eyes so much that I've practically been staring at my optic nerves. I mean, okay, it's nice to know that Greeley isn't headed quite as far left as many another in his party, and he does seem to have grasped that politics is local and populist. What he's forgetting is that the reader is his first responsibility, and not all his readers share his politics. The stupidest line yet? Bishop Blackie says the Republicans "don't understand the Irish".

Um. Well. Gee, Father, then I guess the entire O'Brien family since they immigrated here slightly before the Famine has just been delusional about its ethnic identity and involvement in politics, because my dad's side has been Republican since the first time my bunchagreats-grandfather Connie first got a chance to vote. Great-uncle Connie ended up fire chief of their small town and a pillar of the county GOP, if I understand correctly. And when my Grandpa O'Brien went down to Ocala during WWII to teach army kids how to fly and my grandparents registered to vote, that very night the local Democratic chairman showed up on their tiny new doorstep one night to chat.

"But we're not Democrats," said my grandma.

"I know," said the chairman. "I just wanted to see what a Republican looks like."

I've probably said this before, but I can never get over these delusions that some Democratic folks have that all Republicans are rich. My family was never well-to-do. Well, okay, Grandma's family was pretty well off for the county, but she was held to have married beneath her and she and Grandpa had a tough time making ends meet. (Think her family were the Democrats.) Now, my mother's side of the family were FDR Democrats, but I don't know about their political affiliations before that. Maybe it's a function of the fact that Chicago and New York are not Ohio, but still...if Republicans were ever the party of the rich, that was well before Reagan came along. So why would any intelligent person writing about politics persist in this delusion? Is it comforting or something?

Also, Greeley (through his president character) proposed that the Supreme Court should have some check on its powers. All right, I can see that. However, I see heap big problems with his proposal that all decisions have at least a 4/5 majority to pass, and that justices only serve for 12 years. Even worse, the joke about Scalia and the bottom of Lake Michigan wasn't even vaguely funny.

I'd also like to be enlightened as to when it became permissible for non-Floridians to refer to Floridians as "Crackers". I seem to recall this being a rather touchy sort of nickname, best used by those within the group; though I could be worrying over nothing.

*Sigh.* This is not exactly Greeley at the top of his game. This isn't even solidly mediocre Greeley. It's not bad, but it's definitely not aimed at anyone who's not a liberal and a Democrat. There should have been a sticker on the front: "Warning! Donkey Party only! Not intended for external use!" (I hope the Democrats are listening. This lemming-like rush to become lefter than left is embarrassing.)

With a CD, it's not exactly easy to skim past the stupid parts. I don't know if I'm going to give up on Greeley and start on another CD, or grit my teeth through the background and backchat to get to the actual story. I do want to know something about what the other side is thinking, but I'm not sure it's worth the slog.

UPDATE: Well, I managed to get to disk 2. But no. Amusing as it is to set up strawmen in the opposite party for an imaginary candidate to knock down, Greeley's version of a presidential debate just lost me. I was up for the newly planted 'romance in the White House for the widower President' subplot, but I can't subject my ears to the rest of this to get there. On to Across the Nightingale Floor.

Btw, if you're interested in what I'm actually reading-reading, a couple of my Van Gulik books came in yesterday. The Chinese Nail Murders was one of his good ones, with an unexpectedly touching plot. The Willow Pattern has Dee as Lord High Justice in Ch'ang-an, the only authority left in the city in time of plague. Nicely spooky thus far.

I'm looking forward to reading a The Great Wave by Christopher Benfey, a new book on America and Japan's relationship during the Gilded Age, as each affected the other. Not only is the subject interesting in itself and as a prelude to the Boston Worldcon this year. (I am hitting all the sights this time, and the art museums as heavily as the patriotic ones! Mwahaha!) No, I think it will also have something to say about Japan and America's appeal to each other today. (And hey, maybe I can write some post-Rurouni Kenshin fanfic.) This author also sounds good, seeing as he's done books on Degas in New Orleans and Emily Dickinson. (Hey, he lives in Amherst. It's obligatory.)

But first I have to finish my dad's copy of Special Tasks, the memoirs of an old NKVD man and his family. I've only got up to Trotsky's assassination, and there's a lot more to go. Like when he gets out of favor and gets thrown into prison, and his family tries for years to get him out.... Well, like they say, "Garbage in, garbage out!" Of course, the question with such memoirs is always, "How much truth is there going to be in the story told by a professional liar?" In this case...probably most of the really interesting but unsupported claims are faaaaake. But the story's interesting, anyway; you get some kind of idea of what someone like that thinks, or thinks it's plausible to think. It's also a good look at just how small a world the top of the Soviet bureaucracy could be.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Truth Stranger Than Science Fiction, Sadly

Today I read Amy Welborn's post on a woman who aborted a child because it would have a cleft palate.

Years ago, in her masterful Miles Vorkosigan novella "The Mountains of Mourning", Lois McMaster Bujold presented the full horror of Barrayar's backward infanticide practices with the story of a baby killed for having the even now-correctable maladies of "the cat's mouth" -- a harelip -- and a cleft palate. The child was killed by a relative because the mother couldn't get to the hospital fast enough for the child's operation.

Barrayar was a harsh planet finally able to feed all its people. Miles asked himself, "When will they learn they don't have to kill their children anymore?" In a prosperous first world country with free socialized medical care, apparently they never did learn it. He keenly felt the dishonor of his people in the eyes of the civilized galaxy. But an oh-so-civilized English doctor didn't.

God help us all.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Ancient Chinese Secret

One of the best kept secrets in historical mysteries is the Judge Dee mystery series by Robert Van Gulik. I first ran across them in a little illustrated book from Scholastic, which I think came out in the sixties or seventies. (IIRC, it was in the collection of my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Romano. Which is also where I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers through a mystery collection including that Ali Baba story, but I digress.) I believe they'd extracted and/or expurgated the more child-friendly short stories from Van Gulik's collection Judge Dee at Work. For example, one of the stories had Judge Dee investigating a small mystery discovered by one of his sons. It was a good collection. I remembered it for years, my memory jogged every once in a while by a reference to the series in a book on mysteries. But it wasn't until I was out of college that I discovered the University of Chicago Press' reprints of the books, and only then because the inestimable Barry Hughart credited Van Gulik as one of his predecessors.

Robert H. Van Gulik was a diplomat by trade. Like Cordwainer Smith (aka Felix Linebarger), he was more or less born into a fascination with Asia which never left him. He was also a mystery fan, and was delighted to discover that old Chinese popular literature was full of casebooks and stories of various diabolical cases solved by magistrates who were pattern cards of Confucian virtue. (Unlike the ones in martial arts novels/movies, who are always as corrupt as the Sheriff of Nottingham.) He translated one of them, Dee Goong An, as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, and later translated another book of cases called T'ang-yin-pi-shih as Parallel Cases from under the Pear Tree: a 13th century manual of Jurisprudence and Detection. He was hoping to unleash a wave of new Chinese and Japanese mystery novels based on the indigenous tradition, but apparently got no takers. So he decided to write a Judge Dee mystery himself. The first one was apparently published first in Japanese, but the others were in English. He continued to do diplomacy and write little papers every once in a while, but the Judge Dee mystery series made Van Gulik famous. Check out the length of this bibliography.

Judge Dee still has quite a number of fans, in a quiet way. This is a pretty good explanation why. There is definitely something to be said for good mysteries based in China's complicated and fascinating culture. Even better, the characters are actually allowed to think and act like people of their own time. Van Gulik is also not afraid to include the occasional ghost or supernatural occurrence, without either making it either violate the confines of fantasy-mystery fair play or giving a guarantee of a Scooby Doo ending. Strange things happen in Van Gulik's China, that's all.

This is a good page on Di Renjie, Robert Van Gulik, and Judge Dee. Here's a good paper considering the Judge Dee stories as science fiction. Also, here's a good biography of Van Gulik. There are also a few gamers doing a Judge Dee campaign, as well as another group dealing with a similar but original character. (This one involved James Nicoll, which must have made it both more interesting and prone to dangerous accident.)

Advent Begins

It's the first Sunday of Advent. The apocalyptic readings of the last month or so start to lead into the prophesies of the coming of the Messiah, as we are reminded that we are supposed to be getting ready for the Messiah to come again.

As usual, I am appalled to see what a state my life's gotten into since Easter. I need a better prayer life, a better work life, and just a more productive and honest life in general. I don't even know what I'm getting most of my relatives for Christmas, much less what I can do with my life. Time to put some thought into it.

Why Ritual Is Useful

I was reading my dad's Civil War Times Illustrated the other day. It's an excellent magazine that's been around just about forever, and suits both scholarly and amateur tastes. They usually include excerpts from at least one Civil War diary every issue. In the issue I was reading, they had the journal of a Chicago minister. He seemed like a pretty good guy, but I don't know why he visited other churches. He never liked them. Some were laughably emotional, some were too serious, and the Catholic Church he went to was full of empty ritual and had nothing of God. (Though he was apparently okay with the music, which took hits in most of his church service reviews.)

When you're Catholic, you hear this criticism a lot: we are a church of empty ritual and tradition that keeps people from achieving a one-on-one relationship with God. The problem is that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what's going on. You can literally hear the swoosh as the whole Mass goes right over the outsider's head. To be fair, though, there are a lot of Catholics who miss this too, since it often seems so obvious to teachers and parents that nobody really explains it out loud. Since this assumption often makes the unclued turn into ex-Catholics and prevents non-Catholics from seeing the Church as it is, I really think more needs to be said.

First off, when it comes to worship or any kind of public business, I have to say I'm in favor of as much of that supposedly "empty" ritual as possible. It's annoying when people make up something new every week, because you end up paying attention to the good and bad bits of the framework rather than what's actually going on. Like most kids who went through the boredom of ever-changing liturgy in the name of Vatican II, I appreciate the virtues of finding something that works and sticking to it.

(In my opinion, ritual should be just absorbing enough to draw people in and keep the kids quiet, without being so overwhelming as to demand catharsis every week. I am suspicious of continual catharsis and emotionalism. It suggests that there's no place in religion for brainwork. Moreover, it turns off the half of the audience that doesn't see the world solely through their emotions. (And no, this isn't a male/female thing. There are plenty of emotional guys and intellectual women, thank you.) I am equally suspicious of getting rid of all emotion, since we aren't computers. Whenever people fool around with the liturgy or any normal ritual, they're usually turning up the dials on one while ignoring the other. This is always painfully lame. When I add that new speeches and responses designed to be fresh and free of cliche always are beyond their freshness date by that very intention, you may begin to realize why my opinion of these needless innovations usually is not high.)

The purpose of ritual of any kind is to give people a script, draw them together into a common framework, and thus free their minds from outside distractions. Wipe your shoes off at the front door, take said shoes off, hug the relatives inside, and you are home. The rest of the world is outside the ritual; you need only pay attention to what's inside it. Do you really care that the hugs are much the same as all the hugs you've given those relatives before? No, of course not. If you want, you can make minor variations -- squeezing harder, kissing cheeks, telling kids how much they've grown. But the basic script is the same. It will be slightly different in every family on the block -- maybe a lot different in families with a different ethnic background from mine. But within each family, it will be the more or less the same from year to year. Over long spans of time - say, fifty or a hundred years -- the tiny cumulative changes may cause large differences. But everybody involved will still know the script. The only time things become really original is when the family is joined by members with very different family customs (in which case they usually try their best to follow others' lead), or when the family suffers a feud or breakdown so harsh that the normal script is ignored. Even then, most people feel that they can at least follow the script at the beginning. It may seem hypocritical, but not following the script is often seen as a worse and more deliberate offense than whatever has folks torqued off in the first place. People need that continuity of family identity encapsulated in the script, especially when grief or anger is tearing the family apart. To reject the script is to reject the family itself.

So tampering with any ritual too violently is pretty much bound to torque many people off, and even more so when it comes to religious rituals. There are a zillion versions of the Rosary and all Catholics have free choice to pray one or not. It's just one way to pray privately. But when the Pope announced his support of a fourth set of Rosary mysteries (events in the lives of Jesus, Mary and the Church upon which one meditates while saying the Rosary prayers), I was just one of the many who became upset. It wasn't a bad idea to have more overtly Christ-centered mysteries; a lot of folks had proposed similar things, and the "Luminous Mysteries" the Pope instituted had been tried and tested for many years. But it was tampering with a dozen other things. I can remember when I was tiny that my mother showed me the sets of rosary beads that would belong to my brothers and I when we were old enough, as she talked wistfully of Sister Mary Herman who'd made them -- the dead great-aunt I'd never met. I remember kneeling in childhood at my bedside, and staying up all night as a teenager in frantic pleas to escape the suicidal darkness in my soul. The instinctive response when someone suggests a change to something already working fine for you, with a hundred good associations for you, is that you feel the person's saying all of those memories and prayers and help from God weren't good enough. It wasn't what the Pope was saying, of course, and his well-known love of the Rosary was the impetus for the change. So people dealt with it, and some folks are getting very attached to the Luminous Mysteries. But nobody can get attached to something that changes all the time.

So what was I doing when I prayed the Rosary, anyway? If you were watching me, maybe you'd think I was just mouthing and mumbling empty strings of Hail Marys, with an occasional Our Father and Glory Be thrown in to escape the tedium. But what I was really doing was using those strings of prayers known by heart and repeated over and over to stop my thoughts from rattling along their normal rut. With my body bent in prayer, my fingers occupied with beads, and my lips moving in a task not requiring much conscious direction, I could finally pay attention to God.

But there are always times when you can't concentrate on prayer. When that happens, I can use ritual as a crutch until I'm in a better frame of mind. If I can't think of my own words, at least I've got the old familiar ones to fall back on. If all I accomplish while saying the Rosary is to say so many Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glory Bes...well, at least I've done that. It shows willing, as they say.

So if a Catholic can get so much out of a little popular devotion like the Rosary, imagine the riches to be found in the Jesus-instituted ritual of the Mass! There are small changes for each liturgical season and for certain other occasions, and a different set of readings for every day in the year -- three years' worth, in fact. There is a different homily, of course, and different hymns too. But these variations are designed simply to point up the inexhaustible wealth of meaning and grace in the Eucharist itself. The massgoer who is paying attention finds God speaking in painfully personal ways through the impersonal words of ritual. Common gestures, responses and body movements invite individual meditation. Common gestures, responses and body movements invite individual meditation on God's Word and one's own life. Then each person individually is called to the foot of the altar, not just to see God face to face but to take Him in!

If this is empty ritual, how can mere humans bear what is full?