Archives for May 2007

Russ Nelson on economics

The difference between an economist and a politician is that the economist is sure that he doesn’t understand economics, and a politician is sure that he does.

Russ Nelson

Clive James on modern poetry

The only thing I have to say against most modern poetry is that so much of it avoids all verse conventions without rising to the level of decent prose.

—Clive James

George F. Will on means and ends

It is infantile to will an end without willing the means to that end.

Astrophysics in Pyrandain

I’ve been catching up on recent developments in science of nights, and have got as far as this peculiar fellow by the name of Galilei, who claims to have proof that the earth revolves round the sun, and that the Pope is an idiot. He couches his proof in the interesting form of a Socratic dialogue, and while the words of the character who stands in for the Pope are obviously idiotic, Signor Galilei makes no serious attempt to attribute them to a primary source. I therefore reluctantly conclude that he made them up himself, and therefore that it is Galilei who is the idiot. Since I see no percentage in reading books written by idiots, I must therefore discount his evidence for the heliocentric hypothesis; which is unfortunate, because it was very interesting in an ivory-tower kind of way.

But I do have, as it happens, another string to my bow. I cannot perhaps get a definitive verdict upon the movements of this earth and this sun; but perhaps I can work by analogy from another. I therefore sent a request to the learned Kelmon Easting, late Astronomer Royal in the old observatory at Wardhall, enclosing a translation of Signor Galilei’s work and asking him to comment. He replied, with the style and capitalization of a courtlier and fussier age:

My dear Mr. Simon,

The point of Contention raised by your Countryman is most interesting, inasmuch as it does not contain a discernable Particle of Sense, and were better fit to be discuss’d by those Gentlemen who provide Physick to Persons deprived of their Wits. I have indeed shewn the Documents to my learned Associates at the Collegium of the Third, who are unanimous and unshakable in the Opinion that your Mr. Galilei ought to be confin’d in a Madhouse to better ensure the Safety of the Publick.

For it is well known, by all Persons of Learning and Discernment, that Motion is not a Property of Bodies in themselves, but an Expression or Character of the Alteration of Distances between two Bodies: as Love is an Expression of the Tendernesse of Affection between two Persons. So it is that one may not say that Bron loveth, except he give Meaning to his Words by telling whom he loves: so that to say that Bron loveth Ara, or that Ara loveth not Bron (two Asseverations, of which the second may well coincide with the first, a Circumstance with which the best of Men may unhappily be acquainted), is a valid Expression, however one might judge of its Veridity in the instant Case. For to love is a Verb Transitive, and requires an Accusative to answer it, as well as a Substantive in the nominative Case to be its Agent; though this may be otherwise in your Tongue, to the grave Detriment of all Philosophy and clear Thought among your People.

In like Fashion is Motion predicated of two Bodies, inasmuch as it were impossible to say of a Ship, that it were making Way, except by Reference to some fixed Point, either upon the Shore or in the Firmament of the fix’d Stars. And to any who would adduce to the Contrary, the Violence of the Motion of a Ship, as Proof in itself that the Ship doth not remain at Rest, I would enjoin him to sleep a Night upon a sea-going Vessel riding out at Anchor, when the Sea roils with the Currents rising vertically from the Deep, and the Ship may ride with very great Violence, without making the least Way, or changing its Position with respect to the Shore; and then, as Recompense for the Loss of a night’s Sleep, to pass the following Day in Idlenesse upon a Barge plying the River of Pyrandain, which may be carried upon the Waters with the most perfect Tranquillity, so that he might look up at one Moment, and again after an Hour, and perceive that the Vessel had cover’d more than a League of Ground, though to his Senses there seem’d to be no Movement at all.

Since Violence fails of its purpose as a Proof of Motion, there remains only the Evidence of altered Positions and Distances. And therefore we conclude that the Sun doth move with respect to the Earth, or the Earth with respect to the Sun, but that there can be no Grounds to chuse, as between the two Expressions, which is the true Account of the Motion so described. Now the Man who sleeps on the Barge moves not with respect to the Deck, but the whole Country moves with respect to himself, yet it is not for him to say that the Country moves and the Barge remains at Rest; for another Man upon the Shore may advance the contrary Proposition, with greater Force of Probability, for all points alike upon the Shore appear stationary to him, but only the small compass of the Vessel to the other. Now we may with sufficient Probability take the fix’d Stars as being at Rest, by Reason of their Multitude and Remoteness, and their apparent Fixity with respect to one another; but so great is the Radius of the Firmament, that all the Motions of the Sun and Earth yield no visible Change in their Aspect, so that we cannot determine by Calculation which of the two Bodies, if either, lies at the Centre of the Sphere. Therefore it is a matter insusceptible of Proof, which Body shall be taken as fix’d and which as movable; and the Controversy proposed by Mr. Galilei falls to the Ground, as insupportable upon its own Premisses.

For myself, in studying to discern the proper Motions of the several Planets, I generally begin from the Axiom that it is the Sun which is fixed at the centre of the Celestial Sphere; but this I do only for Conveniency of Calculation, and not out of any Conviction of Doctrine. For other Purposes, such as Navigation and the simpler Geodesy, the Axiom of the fix’d Earth may be more conveniently propos’d. I therefore decline to take either Part in the Argument of your Philosophers, and advise and entreat you, Sir, to do the same, while ever I may remain

Your most humble, most obedient Servant,


My doubts being thus resolved to my satisfaction, I turned to other business and left the higher Physics for another day.

The Children of Húrin, by J. R. R. Tolkien

This review is included in the essay collection, Writing Down the Dragon.

As Tom Shippey rightly points out, Tolkien has not been well served by his critics. On the one hand you have the literati, the self-appointed Guardians of the Tradition, who have never overcome their collective indignation at the success of The Lord of the Rings, but somehow have never quite died of collective apoplexy either. This contingent is ably represented, this time out, by Marta Salij of the Detroit Free Press and Tom Deveson of the Times. I shall come back to Ms. Salij’s brand of incomprehension later, but here is a fair sample of Mr. Deveson’s hard work in establishing his credentials as one of those who just don’t get it:

Turin is captivated by ‘the Sindarin tongue’, ‘older, and . . . richer in beautiful words’. Tolkien endorses this equation of archaism with beauty, but doesn’t show why it is more desirable to write ‘dwelt’ than ‘lived’, to describe a sword that ‘would cleave all earth-dolven iron’ or to have people say, ‘Await me here until haply I return.’

After reading that, I spent half an hour combing through The Children of Húrin line by line, looking for the sentence that Mr. Deveson found so needless and offensive. It is dialogue, of course, Morwen’s last words to her daughter Niënor before setting out to find her son. That is a perilous quest, and indeed a hopeless one, as Thingol and Melian, her hosts and protectors, have warned her. But as we so often do, she makes a decision in a moment of high emotion and then sticks to it out of stubborn pride, letting no counsel sway her. [Read more…]