Navel-Gazing in August

Someone said “write what you know.” It was definitely Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Nathan Englander, or somebody else.

I’ve mostly seen the quote applied to writing fiction.

Apparently some folks assume that it means authors should only write stories about events they’ve experienced. That may help explain why fantasy and science fiction stories aren’t taken seriously in some circles, entirely too seriously in others, and that’s another topic.

Others, including John Briggs, Diablo Cody/Brook Busey-Maurio and Jason Gots, say it means using the author’s emotional memories when telling stories. They’re professional writers, so I figure they know what they’re talking about.

Graveyard Shifts, Ephesians, and Family

I called that picture Desk Duty. If I wrote story to go with it, using that title, knowing how night shifts feel would help.

I’ve never worked in a place like the one in Desk Duty. But some of my jobs were graveyard shifts with nothing but equipment for company.

Around the time our first child was born, I kept a manufacturing company’s mainframe company while most folks were sleeping. I had the building to myself, and little to do besides tend the printers, swap out data tapes, and push a few buttons. It was pretty much the opposite of exciting.

But I knew that the company’s operations, and keeping my job, depended on my actions. That helped me stay focused. So did knowing that my wife and newborn depended on my pay for food and shelter.

The keyboard I used was in a clerical area facing the hospital where they were staying. Both buildings were taller than most, so I could see my family’s temporary residence while at work.

Sometimes I’d stop by the hospital on my way home to see if those two were awake. I was a radio disk jockey the following year, on another graveyard shift.

The jobs were satisfactory. Working alone is, for me, pleasantly serene. More important, doing my tasks helped me fulfill my duties as a husband and father. That doesn’t mean I think the Bible says men should earn money by sitting at desks.

When men and women marry, we both have duties to each other and to our children. I’m not more, or less, important than my wife. (Proverbs 31:1031; Ephesians 5:2125; Colossians 3:1821; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1645, 22212231)

Circadian Rhythms and Coal Gas

Our circadian rhythm takes time to settle into its adult pattern, so I had a chance to chat fairly often after that computer operator job.

Oddly enough, the human circadian rhythm may not be 24 hours long. Not when our bodies use internal ‘clocks’ instead of a day/night cycle to keep track of time.

Research I’ve read suggests that our natural rhythm is generally between 25 and 27 hours, with a statistical peak around 25 hours. There’s also a whole lot of individual differences, which doesn’t surprise me.

The NIGMS/National Institutes of Health has a pretty good Circadian Rhythms Factsheet. I think it’s at least as informative, and a great deal less hysterical, than some ‘street lighting and health’ news I’ve seen.

We’re learning that how much and when we sleep affects our health, and vice versa.

I’ve noticed that falling asleep is generally easier in a dark room, and that my blood sugar went down after I lined up my wake-sleep cycle with daylight.

The latter might be a coincidence, since I started walking a bit more around the same time.

But I don’t think humanity is doomed because we started replacing linkboys with street lights around 1800.

We’ve endured glacial periods, the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and Disco.

I don’t think street lamps even slowed us down. (August 4, 2017; August 4, 2017; June 2, 2017; May 26, 2017)

Folks felts safer with well-lit streets, except right after gas explosions. Maybe that helped justify the cost of installing electric lights like the Yablochkov candle.

Lately we’ve been learning that sodium lamps give the most light per power unit. Our eyes work better with ‘white light,’ so we’ll probably switch to LED lighting next.

I was going somewhere with this. Let me think. “Write what you know,” fantasy, family, circadian rhythms — not cicadas — street lighting. Right.

Eclectic Interests

This post started after I’d replied to a comment on Friday-before-last’s ‘Fukushima‘ post.

Someone wondered if I was an engineer. It was a good question, considering I’d been saying about the Fukushima power plant’s astonishingly poor design.

I’m not an engineer, or a scientist.

By the time I’d finished doing time in academia, I’d picked up undergraduate degrees in history and English. Along the way I did a year of postgraduate library science, plus two years of computer science. General studies requirements and my eclectic interests led me to art history and a grab bag of other topics.

I’m fascinated by science, engineering, architecture, and related fields. But I’m much better at handling language than math, which affected my choices.

My interests are nowhere near narrow enough to encourage a conventional career. I may have glitchy neurochemistry to thank for that, but on the whole it’s been a good ride. I can’t complain. Not reasonably. (March 19, 2017)

Polymaths, folks recognized as experts in several fields, aren’t limited to the Renaissance. We don’t get many Leonardo da Vincis, but polymaths still happen. These days, at least, they seem to focus on one exceptional ability.

John von Neumann worked in many fields, all involving off-the-chart mathematical talents. Rabindranath Tagore used non-mathematical talents.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen Fry are following similarly-varied career paths. They’ve been called polymaths. I figure we’ll have a clearer picture in a century to two.

My assortment of jobs doesn’t make me a polymath. I’m arguably more like an intellectual jack of all trades. And that gets me back to “write what you know,” and my ‘science’ posts.

But first, some of my favorite lines of poetry from Tennyson’s “Ulysses:”

“…To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought….”
(“Ulysses,” Tennyson (1833))

Alaric’s Tomb and Humanity’s Story

I take my family obligations seriously, so I won’t set off on a voyage of discovery.

Happily, I live in an era where a pretty good Internet connection and excellent research skills let me pursue knowledge from my desk.

Those skills, and a knack for writing, are what carried me through the history degree.

I wasn’t particularly good at the rote memorization needed for tests. Term papers and noticing connections were another matter.

I think it helped that I sympathized with instructors who read the things, and tried to make mine mildly entertaining as well as informative.

That’s not being “humble” in the self-depreciating sense. But creative talents and extreme language skills are part of the kit God gave me. Acknowledging that makes sense. My contribution was deciding to do something with them. (July 31, 2016)

I never quite lost my childhood interests in dinosaurs and space travel. I’ve added more over the decades.

A history professor’s History 101 class introduced me to humanity’s unfolding story. One of his talents was showing that history is more than a tiresome catalog of names and dates.

My favorite memory from his class is an account of Alaric’s burial.

He was the first Visigoth king, and led the Sack of Rome in 410.

The Roman capital was in Ravenna at the time, after a stopover in Mediolanum.

Alaric’s successful raid was politically significant for what was left of the Roman Empire, and an important part of Alaric’s plans for Italy. Those plans didn’t work out.

Odoacer ruled Italy and parts of the eastern Adriatic coast until Theodoric killed him. I’ve talked about those two, natural law, Charlemagne, and why I don’t miss the ‘good old days,’ before. (July 30, 2017; July 21, 2017; July 14, 2017; April 28, 2017)

Alaric died while his forces were still in Italy. That much is known. What’s more debatable is where and how he was buried.

His people’s customs required burial with the best of his treasures. Alaric’s forces didn’t want their leader’s tomb looted, obviously. They couldn’t transport his body home, and staying where they were to guard the site wasn’t an option.

The story is that they diverted the Busento river, buried Alaric in the temporarily-dry riverbed, and then returned the river to its normal course.

Documentation is apparently spotty, but whatever they did was very effective. We still don’t know exactly where Alaric’s tomb is.

Completely accurate or not, it is a good story. And that, for me, is what history is: a continuing story spanning millennia, with new chapters still being written. I very strongly suspect that some of the most interesting parts are still ahead.

I like stories as much as anyone else, and enjoy retelling them. That may not be quite what folks mean by “write what you know,” but I think it’s close.

I also enjoy sharing what I’m learning about the puzzles scientists are solving, and those they discover while finding answers to other questions.

A Sense of Wonder

I don’t have a scientist’s understanding of natural phenomena. That takes math skills I never developed.

But I do occasionally experience a sense of wonder at this amazing universe. I try sharing that, and my enthusiasm for our expanding knowledge.

I see faith as a willing and conscious embrace of “the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

We can find truth in the natural world’s order and beauty. Appreciating this world’s wonders is a good idea. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 341, 2500)

I’m certainly not bothered that the universe is much larger and older than some imagined, a few centuries back. If anything that adds emphasis to these verses:

“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place –
“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:46)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
(Wisdom 11:21)

More posts, introspective and otherwise:

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A Mixed Bag

I picked a mix from ‘science news’ this week: tardigrade genes, fertility fears, and what is probably the world’s oldest living culture.

Folks in Western civilization have known about our neighbors in Australia for about four centuries.

Understanding their beliefs became easier, I think, when some of us realized that respecting them makes sense.

Understanding “Dreamtime”

(From Tourism NT, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

References to “dreamtime” in today’s popular culture may be less common than then they were in the 1970s. Or maybe television series I watched then were more likely than most to have a “dreamtime” episode.

I liked American entertainment media’s greater respect for other cultures. The less-than-accurate portrayals, not so much.

On the ‘up’ side, disconnects between what we’re learning about alcheringa and television-series “dreamtime” may help me understand distortions of Christianity. Paraphrasing something my father said, ‘never ascribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance.’

I haven’t dug into the history of our early mistranslations of alcheringa. Not deeply. Most of what I’ve learned is from a Wikipedia page, and one of its references.1

Apparently Western researchers heard the Arandan word alcheringa and its root, altjira.

When locals explained the concept, the Westerners figured they meant something like our words for dreams, imagination, or fantasy. Given that understanding, “Dreamtime” is a reasonable translation of alcheringa.

Since then, other researchers went back and learned more about alcheringa, the folks who use the word, and how they see the world.

We don’t, quite, have a widely-understood word in English for the ideas mis-translated as “Dreamtime.” It’s not dream or fantasy.

Folks who were living in Australia when Europeans showed up apparently saw alcheringa as “time out of time” or “everywhen.”

I use words like eternity for similar ideas. But they’re quite specific, and refer to how Catholics view realities we can’t see, taste, or touch. Or how we should view these realities. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 202, 325327, 330, 771)

Some of us have a very imperfect knowledge of our faith.

I think it’s quite possible that translating alcheringa as “Dreamtime” happened partly because of what had been going on back in Europe. Acknowledging realities that aren’t strictly material was becoming unfashionable.


We’re not sure exactly when the first Europeans reached Australia.

Binot Paulmier de Gonneville said he landed somewhere “east of the Cape of Good Hope” in 1504. We’ve learned that he landed on the Brazilian coast, northwest of the Cape of Good Hope.

There’s been informed speculation, based on physical evidence, that someone from Portugal got there in the 1520s.

First documented contact with folks in Australia happened during Willem Janszoon’s expedition in 1606. It did not end well.

He was working for the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company. Janszoon’s report of contact with the Keerweer doesn’t match local accounts.2

That doesn’t surprise me.

The Keerweer remember a shipload of Europeans who asked permission to build a city. They agreed, and let the newcomers dig a well and build huts.

The newcomers seemed friendly. The Kerweer accepted tobacco, but not flour or soap. Then the outsiders attacked, killing many Kerweer.

Janszoon reported “savage, cruel black barbarians who slew some of our sailors.”

I don’t think folks on either side were lying. Not in the sense of deliberating saying something that’s not true.

My guess is that we’re looking at how each side perceived the events.

The lesson, I think, is not that Europeans are killers and shouldn’t be trusted. Or that Kerweer are cruel. Not more so than folks anywhere.

I think learning how folks from other cultures live and think, and how they perceive our actions, is a really good idea. Preferably before someone makes a lethal mistake.

Back to “Dreamtime.” The Janszoon fiasco happened in 1606.

Baldwin Spencer Gillen mentioned the Alcheringa in 1896.

In 1899 he published “Native Tribes of Central Australia.” He described the Alcheringa as a time in the distant past. Five years later Europeans were calling it “the dream times.”

As I said earlier, I haven’t dug deeply into why Baldwin Spencer Gillen translated Alcheringa as “a time in the distant past.” I also don’t know how or why that morphed into “the dream times.”

I think Western civilization’s changing view of — and attitudes toward — spiritual realities was an important factor.

The Enlightenment began more than centuries earlier. Europeans were re-thinking old assumptions about authority and belief. I think that was, and is, a good idea. Some Enlightenment ideas were, I think, less than prudent. (June 2, 2017; November 6, 2016)

My guess is that by the mid-19th century, quite a few educated Europeans simply didn’t realize, or want to admit, that non-physical realities are possible.

And that spiritual realities aren’t a sort of fantasy. I’ll admit that of some today’s notions about ‘being spiritual’ are quite silly, and that’s another topic.

I see the Enlightenment as a response to decades of destruction, disease, and death.

Propaganda and Perceptions

The Thirty Years’ War ran from 1618 to 1648. There was probably some religious motivation, at least in the earlier conflicts.

I see it mainly as a turf war between northern and southern European leaders.

Northern bosses wanted a bigger piece of global trade.

Southern bosses, understandably, liked the status quo: where much of the trade went through their ports.

All sides took advantage of religious sentiments and the Reformation in their propaganda. Europe’s leaders finally ran out of cannon fodder and useful targets around 1648. Those reasons for calling a halt to Europe’s self-destruction is my admittedly-biased view of their decisions and actions.

Upwards of 7,500,000 folks were dead by then. Some were killed in the fighting; many others in famines, disease, and witch hunts sparked by the war.

After decades of ‘God is on our side’ propaganda, it’s no wonder that some survivors assumed that religion had caused the war.

Some also felt that it was time to stop believing leaders, and start thinking. Louis XIV’s later spin on the divine right of kings didn’t help.

I don’t think any one thing caused the Enlightenment. But I think propaganda from the Thirty Years’ War helped many see religion as harmful and unreasonable. (July 14, 2017)

I don’t see religion as a threat. That’s partly because I’m a Christian, and partly because I learned the difference between propaganda and facts. Folks who seem convinced that God belongs to their social club or political party? They can be trouble.

I don’t miss the rabid mix of jingoism and cultural preferences on ‘Christian radio’ in the 1960s. Looking at the lasting popularity of John Lennon’s “Imagine, I’m guessing that others felt the same way. And still do. (July 4, 2017; November 15, 2016)

1. Tiny Tough Tardigrades

(From SPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Secrets of the world’s toughest creatures revealed
Sarah Gabbott, BBC News (July 28, 2017)

Genetic analyses of tardigrades has revealed some of the secrets of their incredible survival abilities.

“These tiny creatures, sometimes called water bears, can survive radiation, freezing, extreme dehydration and even the vacuum of space.

“Researchers have now decoded the DNA of two species of tardigrade and uncovered the genes that allow them to be revived after desiccation….”

As Sarah Gabbott’s lead paragraph said, scientists found some previously-unknown explanations tardigrade durability. There’s a whole lot about these tiny animals we still don’t understand.

We’re also closer to learning how closely they’re related to insects. My guess is that the question isn’t settled yet. If anything, what scientists are finding seems more likely to heat up the debate. For now.

But I’m reasonably sure that new data will I let us find answers. And new questions.

Despite their appearance, they’re more like nematodes than insects or spiders, genetically. Tardigrades, that is, not the scientists.

One clue in where tardigrades fit into our classifications of critters is in their hox genes. Those genes control how a critter develops along its head-to-tail axis. Even animals without heads or tails in their adult form, like starfish, have them.3

Hox genes don’t change much as critters evolve. All insects, for example, have eight hox genes. Most animals have somewhere around ten.

Nematodes have five, and so do tardigrades. That strongly suggests that tardigrades are more like nematodes than insects. If that’s so, tardigrades are still protostomes: critters like arthropods, molluscs, and rotifera.

Humans are deutersomes; along with other vertebrates and similar critters, echinoderms, and hemichordes. Acorn worms are hemichordes, too, and none of this makes much difference unless you’re a scientist or science geek.4

It’s in the Genes

Tardigrades will survive in a vacuum or pressures upwards of 1,000 time Earth’s sea-level air pressure, high or low temperatures, radiation that’d kill another animal, and dehydration.

Their radiation resistance is probably due to DNA that’s unusually good at self-repair.

These scientists say their resistance to dehydration is genetic, too.

When a tardigrade loses enough water, its genes start producing proteins that replace the missing water in its cells. The proteins won’t do what water does in the cells, but they will keep the cells and the tardigrade alive for a long time.

A dormant but living tardigrade can’t eat or drink. But that won’t keep water from seeping into it. When the tardigrade gets sufficiently soggy, the proteins dissolve and the critter will be more obviously ‘alive’ again.

2. Sperm Count Decline

(From Juergen Berger/Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Sperm count drop ‘could make humans extinct’
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (July 25, 2017)

Humans could become extinct if sperm counts in men continue to fall at current rates, a doctor has warned.

“Researchers assessing the results of nearly 200 studies say sperm counts among men from North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, seem to have halved in less than 40 years….”

In a way, this research is a bit like the work of historians. Instead of performing their own experiments or observing phenomena, this team used statistical analysis to sift through the results research done by other scientists.

The new and improved word for research like this is meta-analysis. It was coined recently by statistician Gene V. Glass — or maybe someone else. I eventually stopped trying to dig back to the term’s origin. I learned a few things along the way, though.

Meta-analysis is a new term, but the idea goes back at least to 17th century. That’s when Blaise Pascal’s recently-developed statistical math gave scientists a tool to sift through data and analysis by other scientists.

Pascal’s statistics had started in correspondence with some friends, who developed a way to predict how games of chance would end.

It’s anyone’s guess what Pascal would have done for mathematics if he hadn’t had a religious conversion around 1654. He pretty well gave up on math after that. But not entirely. He became a Jansenist.

That’s a sort of Catholic splinter group that started in the mid-1600s. Their beliefs sound a lot like Calvinism. Jansenism was a big hit for a while.

I gather that they were very into guilt and humanity’s alleged total depravity.5 Focusing on sin and humanity’s ickyness still appeals to some folks. I’m not sure why.

We Can Deal With This

I take this research, and infertility, seriously. I’m also interested in an issue that apparently affects the area I live in: North America.

I’d be more concerned if humanity was an endangered species found only in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America. We’re not.

For one thing, humans don’t have the giant panda’s limited range, diet, or 36-hours-per-year reproductive window.

We’re opportunistic omnivores living on very continent except Antarctica.6

That’s our current range. We’ve recently built year-round research bases in Antarctica, and one in low Earth orbit. We’re developing tech for settlements on Mars. (June 9, 2017)

I suspect we’re more like scorpions and cockroaches than Tasmanian devils in terms of our prospects for long-term survival. (February 17, 2017; September 30, 2016)

Individuals and families can have problems, though. So do a significant fraction of men in Western Civilization. Maybe.

These researchers say they took factors like selection bias into account. Pallab Ghosh apparently found other scientists who’d read the paper, and thought differently.

My guess is that researchers would have to be very thorough indeed to figure out average fertility, based on research that often focused on folks seeking help with infertility.

On the other hand, maybe more folks in the English-speaking world aren’t able to have kids these days. If so, it’s an issue we can probably deal with. We’ve been learning a great deal about how the human body is supposed to work, and how we can improve health.

Getting healthier won’t be easy, I think. Americans have gotten used to living like kings: particularly England’s Henry VIII.

“The King’s Great Matter”

Henry VIII went through several wives and mistresses. He eventually had at least one illegitimate son and a male heir.

The King’s great matter” didn’t always end with an execution and remarriage.

Henry VIII annulled his marriages to Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves.

Anne Boleyn, wife #2, was convicted of adultery and incest. Possibly to make room for #3. Either way, she lost her head.

Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, died of an infection, about 10 days after giving birth to England’s next king.

Childbirth in civilized countries got a great deal less dangerous after doctors started washing their hands. And that’s yet another topic. (October 30, 2016)

Maybe Henry didn’t realize that Edward would survive. Or didn’t want to take the risk.

Whatever his motives, he remarried. Catherine Howard was convicted and executed for adultery. He didn’t like Anne of Cleves, who kept her head. Catherine Parr outlived him.

Charges against Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard may or may not have been true.

Henry’s own behavior wasn’t exactly monogamous. But he was king and this was England, so that wasn’t an issue. Not legally. Not at the time.

He did acknowledge that Elizabeth Blount’s son Henry FitzRoy was his. How many other children he had that weren’t on the official record may eventually be traced through genetic analysis. Or not.

Henry VIII’s obesity and fevers almost certainly killed him when he was 55. What other diseases, genetic and acquired, he may have had is an ongoing debate.

Logical Consequences

Quite a few diseases and genetic disorders can leave folks with fertility issues.

Sometimes, in about 20% of cases where American couples start getting medical help, we simply don’t know why they can’t have children.

An old-school explanation might have been that they’d offended one of the spirits.

A more recent notion, that a vengeful God is smiting them for something they or an ancestor had done, isn’t much of an improvement.

I see it as the old ‘offending a fairy’ explanation with a Christian paint job.

Some sexually transmitted diseases hurt a person’s chances of having kids. But so do other infections, diabetes, genetic glitches, and some toxins.

Some of my health problems are self-inflicted, but God isn’t smiting me. I’m experiencing logical consequences of illogical acts. They’re “temporal punishments,” and helpful if I use good sense. (Catechism, 1472, 1863, 1964)

I commit a sin when I do something stupid, and know that it’s stupid when I do it. Sin is an offense against reason and truth: and God. (Catechism, 18491851)

My obesity and, most likely, diabetes, are the logical consequences of illogical acts. I don’t know why Henry VIII got so fat.

In my case, obesity is a pretty obvious result of my gluttony. I finally admitted that, and am working at reversing consequences of my disordered behavior. (June 18, 2017)

Don’t Panic

(From Albert duce, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(What’s left of the Packard factory in Detroit. (2009))

If what’s happening today doesn’t change, parts of America will be depopulated.

But don’t panic. Change happens. That’s not just my opinion.

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus ( c. 535 BC-475 BC))

“The universe is transformation: life is opinion.”
(“Meditations,” Book IV, Marcus Aurelius (c. 161-180 AD))

“There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1 (c. 5th-2nd century BC))

Population of the Great Plains, for example, started dropping around 1900. That’s just west of where I live.

Folks in North America’s vast prairies and grasslands aren’t facing extinction.

We’re human, and have been doing what humans often do: moving somewhere else.

Families and individuals had different reasons for moving: crop failures during the Dust Bowl, not enough customers to keep the gas station open, better jobs elsewhere.

Pretty much the same thing has been happening in some American cities over the last half-century, particularly in the Rust Belt.

I figure that’ll change too, even if Fernando Palazuelo’s plans don’t work out. He’s the Peruvian developer who bought a ruins that had been the Packard factory. The last I heard, cleanup will start there in August of this year.

I trust that whoever rebuilds America’s partially-depopulated cities will successfully decontaminate the sites. Places like the Packard plant were in operation for a long time before we started getting smart about environmental damage.

I’m pretty sure toxins in the soil, water, and air aren’t our only problem.

The typical American diet and lifestyle isn’t particularly healthy.7 Many folks here have picked up Henry VIII’s habits.

His disinclination to eat enough fruits and vegetables probably wasn’t the only cause of his heath issues, but it wouldn’t have helped. And that’s yet again another topic. Topics.

3. Australia’s First Settlers

(From Dominic O Brien/Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The discovery was made in a rock shelter in the Northern Territory”
(BBC News))

Australia human history ‘rewritten by rock find’
BBC News (July 20, 2017)

Archaeologists have found the first evidence to suggest that Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 65,000 years.

“The discovery indicates their arrival on the continent was up to 18,000 years earlier than previously thought.

“It was made after sophisticated artefacts were excavated from a rock shelter in the Northern Territory.

“Researchers unearthed what they say are the world’s oldest stone axes and ochre crayons, thought to be used for art….”

One sentence in this article speaks volumes about a very long-overdue change in Western civilization’s view of folks whose ancestors weren’t living in Europe:

“…Australian Aborigines are believed to be the world’s oldest continuous civilisation….”
(“BBC News)

I’m not, however, sure that “civilization,” is quite the right word for the culture of folks like the Anangu, Awabakal and Yamatji.

As far as I know, our neighbors in Australia never got around to building cities. Not on the scale of what we’ve done in Africa, western and eastern Eurasia, and the Americas.

“Civilization” is my language’s word for a culture with urban development, symbolic communication, some control over the environment, and different levels of status.

Since urban development is part of our definition of civilization, I’m not sure that’s quite the right word to describe what they have.

But respect for cultures that aren’t European or rooted in European traditions is a nice change of pace.


We got “civilization” — the word, not being civilized — from 16th-century French civilisé, “civilized.”

That’s from Latin civilis. It’s related to civis, “citizen;” and civitas, “city.”

My language doesn’t seem to have a commonly-understood word meaning “having a rich cultural heritage but not urban development.”

Maybe we’ll expand “civilization’s” definition. I think the term could be refined a bit.

Some “civilized” traits, like control over the environment and social strata, seem like part of being human.

In a way, it’s what folks at different levels wear and use that make social strata “civilized.” I’ve read that ceremonial scepters and maces started out as practical weapons.

Maces were among the most powerful general-purpose weapons, and one of the few effective against armor.8

In the ‘good old days,’ when folks were rebuilding after Roman times, holding a mace would be a good way of reminding folks who was boss. Also, I suspect, sometimes useful for restoring order to an unruly meeting.

If we have to rebuild again, rulers of a following era might hold something recognizable as a decorative and impractical machine gun.

On the whole, I think developing an alternative to the old empire-collapse-rebuild cycle is a better option. (May 28, 2017)

Being Human

I have trouble imagining a group where everyone has the same role and status. Not unless we organized ourselves that way.

Good grief, we’ve been learning that chimps and other primates have hierarchies. So do other social animals.

Social animals? I’d better explain that.

I’m a human, a primate, and an animal. I have more in common, physically, with a chimp or orangutan — or a fish — than a fungus.

Because I’m human, I could reject that knowledge. But being offended by God’s work doesn’t make sense. Not to me. Neither does ignoring reality. (July 23, 2017; May 19, 2017; September 23, 2016)

Strictly-accurate or not, calling folks with a very different heritage “civilized” seems a whole lot better than some older attitudes. (August 26, 2016)

My branch of humanity’s huge family is famous, or notorious, for developing new technology and learning how to handle it safely later.

We’ve also tried quite a few different forms of government while Japan kept the same imperial dynasty. (July 24, 2016)

Whether we’re seen as innovative or unstable depends, I think, on a person’s attitudes toward change. I see change as occasionally uncomfortable, and a whole lot of fun. Technophilia runs in the family, which may affect my outlook.

Either way, I won’t say that our culture makes us better or worse than other folks. It’s not just my ’60s roots showing.

Seeing humanity as a huge and diverse family is part of being Catholic. Or should be. So is reasoned respect for everyone. (Genesis 10:132; Catechism, 19291933, 22842301; “Gaudium et spes,” Blessed Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

I take the Bible seriously, and think acting as if love matters makes sense. But I don’t think an American wrote Genesis. (July 23, 2017; May 7, 2017; February 1, 2017)


(From Chris Clarkson, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Ground-edge stone axes were unearthed during the excavation”
(BBC News))

We’ve been making and using stone tools for at least 2,600,000 years. I strongly suspect that some current kitchen utensils, like the mezzaluna, are the latest version of Oldowan choppers; the most recent of a long succession of upgrades. (June 16, 2017; May 19, 2017; May 5, 2017)

Clarifying the BBC News article’s mention of “…the world’s oldest stone axes and ochre crayons, thought to be used for art….” — “oldest” refers to the ochre crayons.9

The stone tools are comparatively recent models. Folks in Australia likely enough learned about the tech through trade with other cultures. (June 16, 2017)

The paper talks about “…elaborate lithic technology, ochre ‘crayons’ and other pigments—including one of the oldest known examples in the world of the use of reflective (micaceous) pigment….”

Ancestors of today’s older Australian families may have learned about ochre pigments through trade. Or we may learn that the rest of us learned about that creative tech from them. Either way, there’s a great deal left to learn about these folks. And all of us.

Our Changing Home

(From Ray, N. and J. M. Adams/Internet Archaeology 11; via Wikimedia Commons)

Earth was not always as we know it today. Some changes, minor ones, have happened during my life.

A habit of enjoying wherever I am at the moment let me notice progressive changes in what was a lake during my youth. (July 2, 2017)

The lake is in Minnesota, on a route I’ve traveled at intervals over the last half-century. It’s now a pond or two in a meadow. The meadow could be a marsh. We have an abundance of both in Minnesota. Sometimes a meadow will be waterlogged one year, dry the next.

My schedule, customs, and a fence, kept me about a quarter-mile from the pond that had been a lake. I am quite sure that the lake has been filling in: which is not a crisis. That’s what happens to lakes.

We had droughts in North America during the 1980s. That was almost a crisis: a temporary one. Minnesota is not becoming a desert. We’ve also had years with a regrettable overabundance of rain.

Oddly enough, my language doesn’t have a common word for periods when fields stay wet. The idea is often expressed with phrases including “water” or “flood.” Minnesota’s weather is not boring, and that’s still another topic.

Or maybe not. I grew up in Moorhead, across the river from Fargo, North Dakota. That town, now a small city, is on remarkably flat land. The area was at the bottom of Lake Agassiz several millennia back. Its farmland these days.

Lake Agassiz was gone by the time my ancestors arrived. Today’s lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba will most likely disappear, too. Eventually.

Lake Agassiz formed during the current ice age’s most recent glacial period.

I don’t remember reading any claims that our remote ancestors are to blame for the Quaternary glaciation.

That’s almost surprising, since we passed a developmental milestone around that point.10

Humanity’s current model showed up more recently. We probably started moving out of our homeland about 200,000 years back.

My ancestors, most of them, headed generally north and west. Other folks moved east, eventually reaching Australia.

Australia’s interior wasn’t particularly hospitable at the time. But these folks found tropical grasslands where the Arafura Sea and Gulf of Carpentaria are now. Like I said, Earth was not always as we know it today.

Settlement and Seasickness

Genetic analysis is a new tool letting us trace humanity’s family history. It’s giving scientists a better picture of how folks settled Australia.

The first explorers and settlers moved along Australia’s coastal lands quite quickly.

Some of them apparently liked parts of the newly-found land a lot, and settled in.

Their descendants, for the most part, stayed close to the originally settled areas. Their love of the land is apparently a long tradition.

My guess is that there’s a great deal more to learn about the Australian branch of our family tree. And ours. There’s already an interesting debate about exactly how old the recently-discovered stone tools are.

My recorded family history runs back a few centuries, and is nowhere near as stable.

Each ancestral root made one long trip across the Atlantic, followed by several intermediate stops before settling for the last several decades in central North America.

Access to contemporary transportation tech made the transatlantic jump practical. Economic hardship, religious suppression, and — in one case — helping a friend were obvious motives.

We may eventually learn that different parts of humanity’s family have different degrees of wanderlust. Serious studies of such things must most likely wait until my civilization gets over the ersatz science of a recent era.11

I have seasickness to thank for my existence. Someone in my father’s family didn’t plan on staying in the new country. She’d come over to keep someone company, got violently seasick, and wouldn’t risk a return trip. And that’s — another topic

More, mostly how I see life, love, and being human:

1 Dreamtime and Australia’s oldest families:

2 How not to open diplomatic relations:

3 More than you probably need to know about:

4 Even more superfluous information:

5 Pascal, meta-analysis, and being human:

6 Research and why I’m not in a panic:

7 Packard’s fate is not humanity’s:

8 Regalia and blunt instruments:

9 Interesting, if you like this sort of thing:

  • Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago
    Chris Clarkson, Zenobia Jacobs, Ben Marwick, Richard Fullagar, Lynley Wallis, Mike Smith, Richard G. Roberts, Elspeth Hayes, Kelsey Lowe, Xavier Carah, S. Anna Florin, Jessica McNeil, Delyth Cox, Lee J. Arnold, Quan Hua, Jillian Huntley, Helen E. A. Brand, Tiina Manne, Andrew Fairbairn, James Shulmeister, Lindsey Lyle, Makiah Salinas, Mara Page, Kate Connell, Gayoung Park, Kasih Norman, Tessa Murphy, Colin Pardoe; Nature (July 20, 2017)

10 Tools, a brain gene and an ice age:

11 Science, bogus and otherwise; bulldogs, and a little family history:

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Dealing With Cystic Fibrosis

A “Benefit for Teri (Sanden) Starkey” notice was on the Our Lady of Angels bulletin board this Sunday.

The event was Saturday, July 29, and in Litchfield; a town south and a bit east of here, about an hour and half away.

I saw the notice a day late to do anything by Saturday, but figure I could pass along what I learned.

She has cystic fibrosis, and needs new lungs. The clinic in her area wouldn’t or couldn’t do the procedure.

The good news is that an outfit in North Carolina will. However, getting a chance to keep her alive means raising money to move her, her two kids, and husband, to North Carolina. That’s something like a thousand miles away.

My guess is that the family has above-average medical expenses, too.

That’s pretty much all I know. A little additional information clipped to the notice helped me find these links:

I didn’t know about the Lungs4Life Foundation before today, and haven’t learned anything more than what’s on part of their website. It looks like a good idea, though. No pressure.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis doesn’t kill folks, not exactly. Folks affected by it often die from infections or other trouble in their lungs.

It’s a genetic glitch that probably showed up about five millennia back.

Scientists started noticing connections between not-obviously-related disorders and deaths in the 19th century.

Dorothy Hasine Anderson put the pieces together and described it in 1938.

We can’t cure cystic fibrosis yet. There’s some promising gene therapy research in progress, but that won’t help folks who need new lungs now.1 Happily, we’ve been getting better at organ transplants. It’s not ‘just routine,’ though.

“Risky Double Lung Transplant” in the News

(From AlexiusHoratius, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Delano, Minnesota.)

Minnesota woman moving to North Carolina for risky double lung transplant
Paul Blume, KMSP/Fox9 News (July 4, 2017)

“A Delano, Minnesota woman with cystic fibrosis is fighting for her life. And with options running out, she’s set to move her family more than 1,000 miles.

“Teri Starkey needs a double lung transplant, and if that’s not risky enough, she has a condition that could attack the new organs.

“‘It’s like when you have the flu,’ Teri said. ‘You are knocked out for a week, and you think you are dying. That’s a good portion of my life.’…”

Transplanted lungs or other organs will be affected by biochemical effects of the defective gene in other parts of the body.

But a transplant can give folks with cystic fibrosis, like Teri, a few more years of life.

I see that as a good idea. (July 21, 2017; March 31, 2017; February 24, 2017)

Life and health are both gifts from God. Taking good care of them is a good idea, within reason. Making either my highest goal would not. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2288, 2289)

Organ transplants are ‘within reason,’ if expected benefits outweigh the risks. We’re told that donating organs after death “…is a noble and meritorious act…” We’re also told that killing someone and breaking them down for parts is a bad idea, and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism, 2296)

That makes sense to me.

Other ‘health’ posts:

1 More:

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The “most disturbing image” gag in Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur comic depends on a fairly common misunderstanding of Catholic belief. The important word in that sentence is misunderstanding. Papal infallibility doesn’t mean that.

I’m none too pleased that Catholic beliefs are misunderstood by non-Catholics: and by some Catholics. But I can’t fault a cartoonist for poking fun at cultural quirks I see as silly. Not reasonably.

Besides, strips featuring the Church of Danae’s “so-called holy scriptures” have given me pretty good illustrations of what I don’t believe. (March 31, 2017)

The Magisterium

A few of the world’s Catholics may believe that a pope is infallible about everything: that popes can’t ever make mistakes.

Like I said, some of us don’t know or remember what we’ve been taught.

Infallibility isn’t limited to popes. It’s a characteristic of the Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 889)

I could stop right there, but that’d be a bad idea.

We’re also told that not everything the Magisterium does is infallible. (Catechism, 892)

“Magisterium” isn’t a fancy word for “Pope.” It’s the position of authority held by the Church. The Magisterium’s job is explaining the Bible and Tradition — capital “T.” (Catechism, 85, 890, 2033)

I take Tradition very seriously. I must, if I’m going to be a Catholic. That’s not even close to trying to live as if 1954 never happened. (June 18, 2017; June 4, 2017)

Where was I? Comics, infallibility, the Magisterium. Right.

Terms and Conditions

Infallibility is strictly limited to a particular sort of formal declaration.

It applies when the Pope, acting as the Pope, officially declares a doctrine of faith or morals “by definitive act.” (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §1)

“Morals” in this case isn’t limited to the zipper issues you see in tabloids. It’s pretty much the same as “ethics.”

The College of Bishops can do the same sort of thing, with similar requirements.

When they declare a “doctrine of faith or morals is to be held definitively,” it’s infallible. (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §2)

That happens when they exercise the Magisterium in an ecumenical council, working with the Pope. After that, the doctrine applies to everyone in the Church. All those conditions must be obviously met. (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §2, 749 §3)

The idea of papal infallibility is old, even by Catholic standards. As a dogma it’s a fairly recent development. The First Vatican Council defined it in “Pastor Aeternus,” issued July 18, 1870. Predictably, some folks didn’t like it.1

I had an interesting discussion with a Catholic who seemed convinced that the Church hadn’t been really “Catholic” since the Council of Trent.

He had a firm grasp of some historical details. That, I appreciate. His assumption that we went wrong around the time Elizabeth Tudor got sprung from the Tower of London? I am quite sure he was mistaken.

My guess is that a few Catholics will have similar attitudes about post-1870 developments during the mid-25th century.

I get the impression that ‘the Pope isn’t Catholic’ folks are also upset each time they hear that Canon Law has changed.

I’m not, but that’s no great virtue.

Long before I became a Catholic, I knew that ad hoc rules aren’t the same as unchanging ethical principles.

I don’t expect rules that worked in the 1st or 11th centuries to be practical in the 21st or 41st. (July 14, 2017; February 5, 2017; June 4, 2017)

Judging from the nitpicking I occasionally see, some folks won’t think the conditions for infallibility are met unless the Pope starts agreeing with them.

“Divine Assistance”

Rules like the Code of Canon Law are important, and serve to define how the Catholic Church works.

But I don’t think any set of rules could keep humans from mismanaging an organization into oblivion, given time.

We’ve had two millennia, and ample opportunities, to do just that.

But the Church has endured major social, political, and economic upheavals — including the Roman Empire’s dissolution and Renaissance.

Human institutions don’t do that.

After two millennia of wildly improbable survival, I’m inclined to believe what the Church says about what keeps us going.

We’ve had help. (June 4, 2017)

“Divine assistance” is what holds up the Church. It’s also what makes papal infallibility work. (Catechism, 888892)

That’s an extreme claim. But it explains how the Church survived Popes like Benedict IX. I’ll get back to him.

The terms we use describe this assistance have changed over the millennia. But we’ve known we wouldn’t be on our own ever since our Lord left. Before, actually. (Matthew 28:1820; John 14:1518)

Reasoned Obedience

The notion that we blindly do whatever the Pope says may be a root of papaphobia. It’s a real word.

I probably wouldn’t have become a Catholic if it meant unthinking conformity. Happily, that’s not required: or recommended.

Obedience to legitimate authority, including the Pope’s, is part of my faith.

Turning my brain off isn’t. (Catechism, 1778, 1951, 2217)

Faith and reason should get along. (Catechism, 35, 154159)

The Catholic version of faith is a willing and reasoned obedience to God’s will. (Catechism, 143152)

Our number one role model for this obedience is Mary. (Catechism, 148149)

She was obedient, and asked a reasonable question. Zachariah, not so much. And that’s yet another topic. (December 18, 2016)

I’ll grant that much of the Catechism’s discussion of obedience and using our brains deals with everyday examples: like children and parents, citizens and secular authorities.

My guess is that for most Catholics, those are generally the situations where we have to think about whether rules make sense.

Between living in an era that’s far from serene, and growing up as a non-Catholic in a very non-Catholic culture, I’ve had to think about what Popes say pretty often.

But when I hear or read that the Pope said something that doesn’t make obvious sense, my first impulse is not to assume I’m right and the Pope must be wrong.

Instead, I start learning what the Pope actually said and how it relates to faith and my life. And that’s yet again another topic.

Perfect Popes? No Such Thing

Some Popes are recognized Saints, including two in the 20th century. Some were pretty much the opposite.

My favorite ‘poster child’ for appalling Papal role models is Benedict IX.

Nothing wrong with the name “Benedict,” by the way. The first Pope Benedict lived about a half-millennium before number nine. We’re up to Benedict XVI now.

We don’t know much about Benedict I. Being Pope after Theodoric’s successors lost the Gothic War may explain that.

The Goths and their Ostrogothic Kingdom been maintaining a semblance of order in Italy and lands east of the Adriatic. Italy was a mess after the war. The other side didn’t exactly win, either. Those were interesting times. (April 28, 2017)

Anyway, Benedict IX was pope three times between October 1032 and July 1048. He was kicked out twice, and sold the papacy once. Maybe.

The sale isn’t well-documented, for obvious reasons. Even during the worst of our rough patches, and we’ve had some doozies, I don’t think anybody would want a receipt for that.

About 28 years and a half-dozen Popes after Benedict IX, we got Pope Gregory VII and the Gregorian Reform.2

My guess is that the Gregorian Reform upset some folks as much as Vatican II did. Does.

Living in an era of good and occasionally-Saintly popes helped me take the Church seriously. But I didn’t join because I liked the good popes.

Oddly enough, it was the monumentally bad Popes who helped convince me that our “divine assistance” was real. That wasn’t my only reason for conversion.

I decided to become a Catholic, grudgingly, after finding the Church’s logic impeccable: and learning who held the authority our Lord gave Peter. At that point, I had a choice: but only on viable option.

It’s like Simon Peter said in John 6:68: “to whom shall we go?”

Part of my take on authority, obedience, and building a civilization of love:

1 Councils, rules, and a few documents:

2 A few successors to Peter, and a little history:

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