This living hand

John Keats:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

And Fr. Steve Gunrow:

I think it is time for Catholics to accept the religious liberties that this culture claims to afford them and go public with their own festivals- and to do so dramatically and with a great deal of public fervor. What is holding us back? What are we afraid will happen? The reticence and fear that characterizes Catholics is costing the Church its unique culture and it is allowing the culture of death to flourish. Halloween should not be a day when our churches go dark and Christians retreat into the shadows, but when we fill the darkness with Christ’s light and go out into the culture, inviting everyone to the prepare for the festival of the Saints with all the joy we can muster.

Happy Halloween.

Warm, nameless spaces

As I was walking through Center City last week, past 12th Street toward Broad, this incredible little restaurant with large open alley doors and warm, bright interior stunned me by its sheer unexpectedness. Happening upon places like this, with their little worlds of activity playing out right in front of you and welcoming you to join them, all while on foot and healthy, is one of the greatest values of city life.

I didn’t notice the name of this place. That’s also a sign of healthy community life—the spirit of a place makes more of an impression on you than the brand name.

Warby Parker

I didn’t need glasses until maybe two years ago, when I realized how difficult it had become to make out the details of road signs and other distant things. After visiting an optometrist in, I think, 2013 and the arrival of my first Warby Parkers a week or two later, I was amazed to realize how much of the sharpness and detail of everyday life I had slowly lost.

I still remember walking down the steps of my apartment at 3rd and Market in Old City, onto the wet brick sidewalk of Market Street, wearing my first glasses and seeing a crisp and rainy streetscape in detail that surprised me.

At some point I’ll hope to have LASIK done, but probably not for some time yet. In the meantime, the affordability of Warby Parker is incredible. Yet Philadelphia didn’t have a location until earlier this year, despite the company being founded here. Their Walnut Street location opened in February or so, and I just ordered my latest pair (Hardy) there last week.

It’s a beautiful addition to Walnut Street.

Specialization

Matías Ventura Bausero writes on “the shallowness of specialization,” which is that it can furnish a false sense of comprehension even at the same time that it creates a rigid, self-referential frame of thinking. He’s from Montevideo, in Uruguay, and so there are some words in here that might seem strange. It’s a good reflection on the problem of specialization:

There’s a pervasive belief in the ineluctable triumph of expertise and specialisation. We dissect knowledge into areas, crafts into specialties, nature into labels. At their best, they are a valuable way of reducing reality and making it apprehensible to our minds. At their worst, they hinder understanding by filtering everything through a preconceived structure, forcing things to fall into dogmatic places, naturally excluding what doesn’t fit into its parsing of the world. Our civilisations run the risk of fragmenting themselves and their individuals when it relentlessly pushes towards utilitarian benefits. We seem to stare at a reluctant and blurry distance to Terence, the great latin poet who stated for posterity: “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”

Haven’t we trapped our mind’s inquisitiveness under the guise of utility? Trapped by our own very reluctance to let it push itself. In a way, the structure of our contemporary learning instead of expanding scope and curiosity tends to narrow it. The necessity to foster interdisciplinary and inclusive efforts is often a sign that our spirit has become tragically fragmented. All in the name of a self acquired notion of depth, value, and mercantile utility. Unfortunately, it’s also a false sense of depth—yet a very dangerous one.

It’s not hard to see that we may lack any sort of cohesive view, that we struggle at the gaps our grid of instrumental utility conceals. If the splitting of knowledge into areas was a necessity to allow room for diverse and improved practices, now it may be close to lose the thing that bonded them, and relinquish any sense of inclusiveness. The sciences look down upon philosophy as mere poetic ramblings; all the while philosophy looks down on the sciences as being lost in arbitrary calculations. Both forget that our greatest minds were naturally inclined to pursue both. There’s so many ways in which you can cut an entity until it no longer resembles any entity. Pursuing specialisation for too long will only yield fragmentation of knowledge — something that ails every corner of our understanding. Most often, the hardest problems cannot be deciphered within the confines of just one discipline. Sometimes, they cannot even be formulated at all from their wells.

The promise of specialisation operates on the assumption that a sort of collective geist should arise to achieve what its individuals sacrificed. But who speaks for it? The landscape of our knowledge seems like a field of separate holes where we dig in isolation. The irony is that nobody can tell how close those holes are anymore with regard to each other, or even whether they are close at all, so absorbed we are in their verticality. Could there be a distinct fear that they may forever be isolated islands? What are we to do with this cognitive scenery of moon-like craters? Who is there to dig horizontally so that those holes can reach each other? …

Great individuals have shown to have maybe one thing in common — they never deprived their curiosity of its natural state to move in all directions.

Specialization can yield great rewards, but there’s no reason you can’t primarily be a generalist who specializes in a few thing. Specialization, exclusively, is for insects.

Center City rain showers

Earlier this week I was in our office at the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, whose windows look out over Logan Circle in Center City Philadelphia, when one of those massive, heavy rain showers swept from the west across the city. It felt more like a summer rain shower than an autumn one, but in any event, the sky’s change during and after the storm was remarkable. I was able to capture that change:

Charlie Brown and consistency

I read Peanuts growing up, along with the slew of other cartoons that appeared each day in the print edition of The Intelligencer, the local newspaper for Warminster, Bucks County, Pennsylvania where I grew up. But Peanuts always stood apart for me in terms of its thoughtfulness in both its depth and art. Fr. James V. Schall writes on Charlie Brown and “consistency” in an illuminating way:

peanuts-1.png

Lucy is consistent. She tormented Charlie with the same scene year after year. We love to watch this struggle between promise of change and the enduring presence of no-change. The scene is a brief summary of Aristotle’s tract on virtue, on good and bad habits. Our character is revealed in our acts.

Charlie is ever trusting, too trusting, naïve, while Lucy is impervious to Charlie’s plight. She cannot resist pulling the ball away even when she assures him that she will change this year. In the last scene, she simply implies: “Look, Charlie, wake up! I am not going to change.”

Thus, consistency, like sincerity, mercy, and compassion, can lead to opposite conclusions. The habits of vice lead us consistently to do the wrong things. We can have sympathy for those who do wrong. We can sincerely embrace evil or praise it.

This ambiguous capacity is in line with the freedom in which we are created and given being. If we have a life or a society filled with people who do vicious things, it is not enough to say that they are consistent. For that is precisely what they are. Virtue means rather to be consistent about the right things. We cannot, in other words, avoid the question of the end to which our consistency points.

A virtuous person remains free to do an evil thing, just as a vicious person can, occasionally, do a good thing. In other words, we can be surprised by either case. We deplore the one and praise the other, provided there is an objective standard by which we measure or estimate the difference between what is good and what is not.

In many ways, however, the most interesting thing about the Charlie Brown sequence was the citing of the passage from Isaiah. God’s decrees will last “until cities lie waste without inhabitants.” When Lucy comes to expand on this unchanging aspect of the divine consistency, she notices that Isaiah may, in fact, be protesting. He did not want to accept “the finality of the Lord’s judgment.” In the last scene, Lucy actually takes this judgment to herself: “All your life, Charlie Brown.”

The “finality” of the Lord’s judgment is consistent with what He is. Mercy, sincerity, compassion, and charity are not tools whereby what is wrong becomes what is right. What measures our actions is not going to change. We can surprise ourselves and others by changing for the better or for the worse. What we cannot do is to surprise the Lord by making what He established as good to be bad, or what is bad to be good. It is on his truth that we are finally and consistently to be judged.

 

Applying quantum theory

Tim Johnson reports on latest developments in quantum computing, which seems likely to reshape how we think of technology generally and computing in particular in this century:

“We don’t know exactly where the United States is. I fervently hope that a lot of this work is taking place in a classified setting,” said R. Paul Stimers, a lawyer at K&L Gates, a Washington law firm, who specializes in emerging technologies. “It is a race.”

Pure quantum computers remain largely theoretical although simple prototypes exist. Many designs call for them to operate in super cold conditions, bordering on absolute zero, or around minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than outer space, without any noise or micro movements that can cause malfunction.

What has made them the Holy Grail for nations and private industry is that quantum computers, in theory, are magnitudes better at sifting huge amounts of data than the binary processors that power mainframes, desktops and even smart phones today. They also can process algorithms that break all widely used encryption.

Rather than doing a series of millions of computations, based on binary options of ones and zeros, quantum computers employ particles that exist in an infinite number of “superpositions” of the two states simultaneously, a condition that towering physicist Albert Einstein once labeled as “spooky.”

A quantum computer “can feel all the possibilities at once,” said Warner A. Miller, a physicist at Florida Atlantic University, who, like the others, spoke last week at a forum on quantum computing at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington.

China splashed into the news in June when it announced that a satellite and a ground station had communicated through “entangled” quantum particles. Entangled particles, even if separated by thousands of miles, act in unison. Any change in one particle will induce a change in the other, almost as if a single particle existed in multiple places at once.

Such long-distance quantum communication smashed records, occurring over 745 miles, far beyond the mile or so scientists had tested previously, and signaled Chinese mastery over a form of communication deemed ultra-secure and unhackable.

A few years ago I read Quantum Enigma, which deals with quantum physics broadly and the strange and still mysterious things—like “entanglement”—that it suggests about the natural universe.

Justice as moral habit

Rep. Henry Hyde’s remarks upon chairing the House Judiciary Committee:

In our American system, justice is not an abstraction. Like all the virtues, justice is a moral habit; we become a just society by acting justly. The duty to “promote justice,” which we lay upon ourselves when we pledge to defend the Constitution, is a duty we exercise through the instrument of the law. [For] the “rule of law” distinguishes civilized societies from barbarism.

That simple phrase—“the rule of law”—should lift our hearts. To be sure, it has little of the evocative power of Lincoln’s call to rebuild a national community with “malice toward none” and “charity for all”; to celebrate the “rule of law” may stir our souls less than MacArthur’s moving call to “Duty, Honor, Country.” But if that phrase lacks the eloquence of Lincoln and MacArthur, it nonetheless calls us to a noble way of life.

Legislators—makers of laws in a democratic republic—are involved in a vital task. Ours is not just a job; public service in the Congress is not just a career. What we do here we ought to do as a matter of vocation: as a matter of giving flesh and blood to our convictions about justice—our moral duty to give everyone his due. I have been in public life long enough to know that not every moment in politics is filled with nobility. But I have also been in public life long enough to know that those who surrender to cynicism and deny any nobility to the making of the laws end up doing grave damage to the rule of law—and to justice. If we don’t believe that what we are doing here can rise above the brokering of raw interests—if we do not believe that politics and the making of the law can contribute to the ennobling of American democracy—then we have no moral claim to a seat in the Congress of the United States.

A remarkable human being.

Eastern Standard Time

I was passing through 30th Street Station in Philadelphia last Thursday, on my way back from Washington, and took a photo of one of my favorite details about the place: the early 20th century Art Deco-style clocks bearing “Eastern Standard Time” lettering. (You can just see Spirit of Transportation in the far lower background.)

What a beautiful little reminder of what a bigger continent North America used to be, and what a larger nation America felt like, before the time of consumer air travel, when we relied on the railroads to link together the far flung states of our ambitious republic.

I wonder, genuinely wonder, how many passersby see that “Eastern Standard Time” lettering and wonder about it from a standpoint of real curiosity or confusion about why such a thing would even need to be stated at a train station.

Penn State v. Michigan

Watching Penn State beat Michigan last night was just downright fun, from Saquon Barkley’s opening touchdown 42 seconds into the game, to the seconds that the clock ticked to zero with #2 Penn State over #19 Michigan 42-13.

These sorts of seasons come so infrequently, you just have to relax and enjoy the magic of the season. Penn State hasn’t been this highly ranked since 1999. Penn State hasn’t seen attendance in Beaver Stadium like last night in its history: 110,823 set the all-time record for turnout. And Coach James Franklin hasn’t had a 7-0 start before in his career.

To top it all, ESPN’s College Game Day visited State College, and broadcast from Old Main’s lawn. I took a few photos while watching Coach Franklin’s interview on TV earlier in the day.

Enjoying this for as long as it lasts.