‘Vast, unbroken slabs of time’

Neal Stephenson on writing versus correspondence:

Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the “recluse” label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers. These limits most often come into play when people send me letters or e-mail, and also when I am invited to speak publicly. This document is a sort of form letter explaining why I am the way I am. …

Letters or e-mail from readers, and invitations to speak in public, might seem like very different things. In fact they are points on a common continuum; they have more in common than is obvious at first. The e-mail message from the reader, and the invitation to speak at a conference, are both requests (in most cases, polite and absolutely reasonable requests) for the author to interact directly with readers. …

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

That is not such a terrible outcome, but neither is it an especially good outcome.

This reminds me of Don Knuth at Stanford who, years ago, wrote the following:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

Avengers and restoration

Aaron Sibarium writes:

First and foremost, this is a film about restoration. After Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe, the Avengers immediately search for a way to undo the snap—that is, to go back to the way things were. Rather than accept depopulation as an immutable fact beyond their control, earth’s mightiest heroes view it in much the same way some populist conservatives view globalization: as the product of contingent choices made by individual agents, reversible with enough wit and willpower. “I am inevitable,” Thanos declares at two points in the film—once before he is decapitated, then again before he is vaporized. It’s a not-so-subtle “eff you” to deterministic modes of thinking, made all the more pungent by the fact that the Avengers do succeed in bringing back their fallen comrades.

Well, most of them. Those who died before the snap stay dead, and Iron Man and Black Widow both end up sacrificing themselves before the credits roll. Nor do the five years between Infinity Warand Endgame simply go away; they remain an indelible part of history, and, if the new Spider-Man trailer is any indication, of memory too. But all this just underlines the conservatism of Endgame. It shows that restoration need not be utopian or quixotic, that the goal isn’t to rewind so much as to rebuild—and that progress will never mean paradise, at least not in what Augustine of Hippo called “the city of man.”

Thanos, however, disagrees. For him, the city of man can become the city of god right here and now—provided, of course, that one commits genocide. As he explains to Gamora in Infinity War: “Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I was the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.”

The problem, he goes on, is that “this universe is finite, its resources [are] finite…if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.”

Sound familiar? Thanos’s rhetoric, inspired by Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), parallels the anti-natalism of today’s environmental movement, which has begun questioning whether it is ethical to have kids when, according to the World Economic Forum, “our planet is on the brink”—of flood, of famine, and everything in between. It’s not just that people cause problems by depleting vital, life-giving resources; it’s that people as such are problems under conditions of extreme scarcity, because each individual will experience so much pain and hardship that they would be better off not being born at all. “There’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted recently. “And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” For her, as for the Mad Titan, nonexistence can be a blessing.

Of course Thanos has no interest in sterilizing the universe, or in developing some trans-species form of birth control. The poor, the hungry, the diseased already exist, so the merciful thing to do is [checks notes] kill them. In this, Thanos is just one shade darker than Planned Parenthood—another magenta Moloch—whose acolytes justify abortion with strikingly similar logic: If a woman can’t give her child a comfortable life, the thinking goes—comfort as defined by elites—then maybe terminating it in utero is actually a kindness: to the child, which is saved a lifetime of suffering, and to society, which is saved a lifetime of palliative care. Abortion advocates vary in their Thanosianism, to be sure, and by my lights killing millions of fetuses is not quite as bad as killing millions of adults, if only because the latter have attachments and experiences the former lack. But even so, Endgame seems more pro-life than pro-choice, its ethical core more deontic than utilitarian. As Captain America reminds Vision in Infinity War, “We don’t trade lives.”

Restoring the fallen won’t be easy, however, for it turns out Thanos has destroyed the infinity stones; there is no longer any way to bring back Bucky or Black Panther or Spider-Man or Scarlet Witch—at least not at present.

But the stones do still exist in the past, scattered throughout various quadrants of space-time. Hence the Avengers embark on a trans-temporal heist, made possible by nascent leaps in quantum technology, and attempt to retrieve their last hope of a do-over.

It’s telling that the resources for restoration can only be found—literally—in bygone eras (1970–2014), having been expunged by a self-declared agent of progress. Sometimes, Endgame submits, our present order doesn’t have answers; sometimes, the only way through is back. …

Endgame ends on a simple, human note. After returning the stones to their original position, Captain America doesn’t come back, at least not right away. Instead, he travels all the way to the 1940s—before Loki, before Thanos, before the sexual revolution—and marries his long-lost sweetheart Peggy. We last glimpse the two lovers slow-dancing in an American bungalow, jazz playing in the background: a model of bourgeois respectability that has sadly come and gone, but which, Endgame hints, might be resurrected once more.

Aaron Sibarium’s analysis of Avengers: Endgame as fundamentally a conservative film strikes me as basically correct. And given that it’s presently the second highest-grossing film in history, it suggests that huge numbers of people are open to (even enthusiastic about) conservative projects of cultural restoration, in whatever sense.

Leave this world a better man

Summer is here, and the mild early heat of the season is blanketing Washington today. Here are two vignettes from Roger Scruton’s “Gentle Regrets”:

On 1 August 1985, I had dinner with Alfred Gilbey in the Oxford and Cambridge Club (the kitchens in the Travellers’ being closed for the summer holiday). …

He referred to a recent letter of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to the Pope in Rome, lamenting the decline in their congregations, and calling for a teaching and a practice that would be more ‘relevant’ to the needs of today.

“What an absurd demand — to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it. Relevance is not merely an un-Christian but an anti-Christian ambition.”

It is hard to fault that argument; but also difficult to welcome its corollary, which is the vision of a Church enduring forever, but acknowledged only by a few old priests living in spiritual catacombs of their own devising, celebrating the rituals of a Church so truly universal that it has no living members. But that was another of his sayings, that all the best people are dead. Alfred went on to add that Christian charity is now entirely misunderstood, as a kind of collective effort to improve the world.

“We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.”

And the second:

And she brought home to me, then and subsequently, what is perhaps the most important truth conveyed by religion, and one that Monsignor Gilbey, incidentally, had built onto the foundations of his life — the truth that sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between, and that nothing matters more than customs, ceremonies and rites with which we lift the body above its material need and reshape it as soul.

Bladensburg Cross

Chad Pecknold writes on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bladensburg Cross ruling:

The question of why the Bladensburg Cross should stand is inseparable from the question of whether it violates the Establishment Clause which prohibits the Federal government from establishing an official religion, or from favoring one religion over others. …

Justice Alito remarked in the first section that a Christian symbol can accrue additional symbolic meanings which are not in themselves religious. Alito writes:

“The fact that the cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol should not blind one to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent: a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home, a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for this Nation, and a historical landmark. For many, destroying or defacing the Cross would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.” …

Justice Gorsuch takes the judgment further, joined by Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion. He writes that the “offended observer” theory, which the American Humanist Association based their case on in part — so deeply does the cross offend them as they drive by — “has no basis in law.” It’s not enough to be offended. There has to be injury that is “concrete and particularized,” and no one is injured by seeing a cross. …

“Although the plurality does not say it in as many words, the message of today’s decision for the lower courts must be this: whether a monument, symbol, or practice is old or new, apply Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U. S. 565, not Lemon, because what matters when it comes to assessing a monument, symbol, or practice is not its age but its compliance with ageless principles. Pp. 6–9.” [Emphasis not in original]

Now ageless principles can well be philosophical or theological, and they can be arrived at by reason unaided by the act of faith, or by divine revelation. But what Gorsuch does here strikes me as important because he recognizes a non-positivist standard. I don’t know exactly how Gorsuch would develop this standard, but he is right that law must not become relativistic. The Establishment Clause was made to protect religion — indeed, Christian religion — from excessive government interference. It recognized the substantive good of religion as something which is more than just “history and tradition” but as something which orients us to what is permanently true. In this sense, Gorsuch recognizes that the more modest test should not privilege “secular purpose” but respect transcendent principles.

An important case for religious liberty, and interesting to see both the “history and tradition” and “ageless principles” standards being articulated as a means for restraining the government from destroying public religious symbols.

In Leesburg

We’re in Leesburg, Virginia at Stone Tower Winery today. It’s beautiful:

I’m sharing an excerpt from Tyler Cowen’s book Stubborn Attachments:

Rights rarely conflict with consequences in the simple ways set out by philosophical thought experiments. We can therefore shift the way we think about radical uncertainty and consequences. Rather than let it paralyze us, we can think of radical uncertainty as giving us the freedom to act morally, without the fear that we are engaging in consequentialist destruction. We can also see this radical uncertainty as supporting a new enchantment with human life and choice.

We can accept that most or all of our actions will have consequences we cannot possibly predict. On average, these consequences will be positive, just as average economic growth is positive. But we will always wonder about the future consequences we have set in motion. We will wonder about our strange and almost magical powers in this regard. For all the confusion we might feel about the marginal product of an individual act, this is also an empowering notion, and it relates to the idea that all fruitful societies are based on some notion of faith.

In this case, we can hold on to our faith in doing the right thing, and indeed in doing the right thing for its own sake, without being brutally beaten back by the fear that we are bringing about some sort of consequentialist disaster.

Two patients, or one?

Dr. Darrell Cass recently led a successful pre-birth surgery on a child at 23 weeks:

Cleveland Clinic has successfully performed its first in utero fetal surgery to repair a spina bifida birth defect in a nearly 23-week-old fetus.

A multispecialty team of clinicians performed the surgery in February, and the baby, a girl, was later delivered by caesarean section near full term June 3, making it northern Ohio’s first surgery of its kind. Mother and daughter are doing well. …

Spina bifida is a birth defect that is most often discovered during the routine anatomy scan typically performed when a fetus is around 18 weeks old. The condition affects the lowest part of the spine and occurs when the neural tube does not fully close, causing the backbone that protects the spinal cord not to form as it should. This often results in damage to the spinal cord and nerves and can even lead to brain damage.

Spina bifida can affect a child’s lower leg strength and their ability to walk and run, as well as their ability to go to the bathroom and urinate adequately. According to the CDC, approximately 1,645 babies are born with spina bifida each year in the United States.

During the fetal repair surgery, a caesarean section-like incision is made and the mother’s uterus is exposed. An ultrasound is then used to locate the placenta and fetus. The uterus is opened 4.5 cm and the back of the fetus is exposed, showing the spina bifida lesion. The surgeons then carefully suture several individual layers of tissue (myofascia, dura and skin) in order to cover the defect. After the uterus is closed back up, the fetus remains in the womb for the remainder of the pregnancy and is ultimately born by caesarean section.

“By successfully repairing the defect before birth, we’re allowing this child to have the best possible outcome and significantly improve her quality of life,” said Dr. Cass.

When a member of the human family, like this child, is wanted by her mother, we call this child a patient—and our physicians care for the child as a patient whose worth is equal to mother and father. But when a member of the human family is unwelcome, we call that child a fetus—and sometimes even a parasite—and our physicians do not care for the child as a patient, but instead intentionally kill in order to enforce the demands of the comparatively powerful over the comparatively weak. This describes not a humane or compassionate society, but rather one wherein violence has come to be seen as acceptance and even ethical.

If we only have worth because we are wanted, then none of us possess any inherent value. And if this is true, there is no coherent basis for such a thing as human rights.

There are always two patients in the case of a mother pregnant with her child. What varies is not the reality or unreality of the second patient; what varies is our interest in acting as if human rights were either real, on the one hand, or merely a sometimes convenient fiction, on the other.

Alone and wandering about

Robert Cardinal Sarah spoke last month in Paris at Église Saint François-Xavier as part of his tour for The Day is Far Spent, his latest book:

To refuse God the possibility of entering into all the aspects of human life results in man condemning himself to solitude. He becomes nothing but an isolated individual, without origin or destiny. He is doomed to wander the world like a nomadic barbarian, without knowing that he is the son and heir of a Father who created him in love and calls him to share eternal happiness with him.

Behold modern man: alone, wandering about in a field of ruins. This is what I found yesterday when I visited Notre-Dame in ruins.

The spiritual crisis I describe involves the entire world. But its source is in Europe. Rejection of God was conceived in Western minds. The current spiritual disaster thus has distinctively Western features. In particular, I would like to emphasize the rejection of fatherhood. Our contemporaries are convinced that, in order to be free, one must not depend on anybody. There is a tragic error in this. Western people are convinced that receiving is contrary to the dignity of human persons. But civilized man is fundamentally an heir, he receives a history, a culture, a language, a name, a family. This is what distinguishes him from the barbarian. To refuse to be inscribed within a network of dependence, heritage, and filiation condemns us to go back naked into the jungle of a competitive economy left to its own devices.

This understanding of dependence and transmission was deeply etched into the hearts of those who built Notre-Dame. They worked for decades and centuries, for their descendants, in many cases without seeing the end of their work for themselves. They knew they were heirs and wanted to transmit their heritage.

Because he refuses to acknowledge himself as an heir, man is condemned to the hell of liberal globalization in which individual interests confront one another without any law to govern them besides profit at any price.

Artena, a human-centered place

Marlo Safi writes on Artena, a small town in Italy about 25 miles from Rome:

The beauty of Artena is in its organic simplicity, and its rebellion against the capricious whims of technology that have influenced city planning and development everywhere else. Its streets are narrow, walkable, and not perfectly paved with cement or painted with traffic signs. And, similarly to Rome, it’s inspiring.

Artena is “human-centered,” Stefano Serafini says. Serafini is a director of the International Society of Biourbanism, a group headquartered in Artena that focuses on our urban environments as an organism, and, through research, aims to realize optimal environmental enhancements for cities based on human needs. What that looks like in practice is at the heart of the Biourbanism Summer School, a week-long event I will attend and report on next month. I won’t be the only foreigner in attendance — the school is attracting a diverse group of writers, architects, artists, politicians, economists, and citizens from across the world. Serafini describes the variety of attendees each year as a “unique and different symphony.” …

While communication at the school will primarily be in Italian and English, perhaps the most important language is the unspoken one of the built environment — the one Artena will use to speak with attendees. This theme of language is central to the school, and more generally, architecture, Serafini insists. Post-modernity, with its severe geometry, unnatural dimensions, and alienating scale has stripped us of local vernacular and rootedness…

I expect this summer school to be one that reminds me, as someone who has grown resigned to American cities designed with seemingly little thought to the human desire for identity and attachment, that solutions exist. They exist in places such as Artena, rebuilt in the 15th century, which rebels against the hegemony of the car and its demands on our cities, encouraging those who walk through the streets to unburden themselves of the modern world’s baggage.

“The school wants to open our eyes on what really matters,” Serafini says. “Which in architecture means knowing what is right and what is wrong when designing a place for ourselves, our human fellows, and other creatures, and the common environment.”

The International Society of Biourbanism, and its Biourbanism Summer School, seem like cousins of what Strong Towns is doing domestically.

A place needs to be lovable

Charles Marohn asks, “If we’re not going to maintain what we have, then why bother building anything new?”:

It was Steve Mouzon who first told me that a place needed to be lovable, that we only maintain that which we love. I never learned anything about “lovability” in my undergraduate course on concrete structures, and I know of no engineering manual that references it, yet I’ve found Steve’s insight to be an undeniable truth.

I love my house—and have deep respect for the resources that went into building it, as well as the amount of effort it will take to retire my mortgage—and so I maintain it. I don’t wait for concrete to fall apart before patching it. I don’t wait for the siding to rot before repainting it. I don’t wait for the roof to leak before maintaining it. …

Local governments suffer from a dual set of challenges when it comes to maintenance. The first is that most of what we’ve built is not lovable, at least not broadly lovable. The asphalt cul-de-sac has some functional appeal to the people who live on it, but the broader community is not going to demand it be maintained. The same with those DOT-specified streetlights the city purchased in bulk. The plastic park equipment may be sanitized and safe, but even it is unlikely to endear.

For the most part, the Growth Ponzi Scheme has put our cities on a path of quantity over quality. We build a lot of stuff, all of it to a finished state. That stuff then sits and rots—perhaps with some nominal maintenance from time to time—until it falls apart, at which point we put together a huge project to replace it with something new built to a finished state. …

What this means is that nearly all public investments—infrastructure, buildings, parks and other facilities—have a predictable life cycle. Initially they are shiny and new. Then they start to wear, fray, and show signs of decline. Then they start to fail to various degrees, finally followed by either a complete failure or a major reconstruction project (generally using debt financing).

Throughout this process, the public grows used to decline and decay—almost comes to accept it as normal—while the world around us becomes less and less lovable each day. This is, for example, how the richest cities in North America—New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—suffer with escalators on their transit systems out of service for years. These things are not difficult to fix when maintenance is prioritized, but when it’s not, just wait for the next large maintenance bond and fix it all at once. …

This enables the second challenge local governments face, that of low expectations. …

This is part of what I was trying to speak to when I asked, “Who’s responsible for a place like this?

‘I found delight in the human race’

A few years ago my friend Ben Novak shared his playful theory of Christ’s sacrifice with me, and today’s scripture on the solemnity of the Trinity reminded me of Ben’s “layman’s theory” as to why God had to send his son to earth to become a man to die for us:

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Reading 1 Prv 8:22-31

Thus says the wisdom of God:
“The LORD possessed me, the beginning of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.

“When the Lord established the heavens I was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
when he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;
when he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.”