Trace Signals From an Alien Civilization: Not So FAST?

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope, in Guizhou province.
(From STR/AFP/Getty Images, via NPR, used w/o permission.)
(China’s FAST radio telescope, another eye on the universe since 2016.)

Scientists in China’s Guizhou province have been receiving radio signals from interstellar space since 2016.

Three of these signals may have been from folks who aren’t human, but use radio waves the way we do.

Then again, maybe they weren’t.


Defining “Signal”

Artist's impression of extrasolar planets in the pulsar, PSR B1257+12. (2006) From NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC), via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.“Signal,” in this context, is astronomy-speak for radio waves, light, x-rays: anything on the electromagnetic spectrum.

China’s FAST ‘listens’ to the electromagnetic spectrum at wavelengths from 10 centimeters to 4.3 meters. That’s radio communication’s UHF band and not quite half of the VHF band.

At least two sets came from FAST pulsar #1 and #2, or FP1 and FP2. That’s PSR J1859-01 and PSR J1931-02, using a widely-used naming convention. “PSR” stands for Pulsating Source of Radio, the rest gives the pulsar’s location in Earth’s sky.

“PSR” may be an IAU (International Astronomical Unison) pulsar naming convention. But I haven’t confirmed it.

On the one hand, pretty much all pulsars I read about are “PSR-something.” On the other hand, “Pulsating Source of Radio” is a phrase using my native language, English.

Maybe today’s IAU naming convention for pulsars uses my native language for about the same reason that Medieval European scholars wrote their papers in Latin. It’s not an ‘official’ common language, but odds are that a scholar will understand it.

On the other hand, not everybody in the world understands English. So my native tongue is probably a controversial subject. Sometimes, at least.

Which reminds me. FAST is an English-language acronym: Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope.

China’s huge radio telescope’s nickname is Tianyan, 天眼. Google Translate says that’s “eye of the sky.” A Wikipedia page says it’s “Sky’s/Heaven’s Eye.” I’ll call it Sky Eye, mostly because I like the rhyme and rhythm of that nickname.

As of December 16, 2021, Folks at FAST have spotted signals from more than 500 previously-unknown pulsars. According to China’s People’s Daily Online.1 How many of those have been confirmed, that I don’t know.


Narrow-Band Signals From the Stars

China's FAST radio telescope. The 500 meter (1,600 foot) diameter dish is the world's largest filled-aperture radio telescope and the second-largest single-dish aperture, after Russia's RATAN-600. (June 2022)
(From Xinhua/Ou Dongqu, via Live Science, used w/o permission.)

These headlines caught my attention on Wednesday and Friday of last week:

China’s ‘alien’ signal almost certainly came from humans, project researcher says
Ben Turner, Live Science (June 17, 2022)
“Chinese scientists’ claims that their ‘Sky Eye’ telescope could have picked up signals from intelligent aliens have been met with skepticism by an American colleague….”

China says it may have received signals from aliens
Ben Turner, Live Science (June 15, 2022)
“China is claiming that its enormous ‘Sky Eye’ telescope may have picked up trace signals from a distant alien civilization, according to a recently posted and subsequently deleted report by Chinese scientists….”

The “…posted and subsequently deleted…” report may be permanently lost. But I did find something slightly-related on China’s Science and Technology Daily:

  • 搜寻地外文明,’中国天眼’发现可疑信号
    Original 科技日报 科技日报 2022-06-14 02:44
    Posted on 北京
    ◎ 科技日报记者 何星辉
    (Google Translate says this is the citation in English:
    “Searching for extraterrestrial civilization, ‘China Sky Eye’ found suspicious signals”
    Original Science and Technology Daily 2022-06-14 02:44
    Posted on Beijing
    ◎ Science and Technology Daily reporter He Xinghui)

I don’t understand Chinese, so I ran the Science and Technology Daily article through Google Translate. Basically, it says that the “suspicious” signals need more analysis.

There’s more in that article —

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 probe collected samples that contained amino acids. And Beijing Normal University; the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; and the University of California, Berkeley are setting up a research team that’ll be studying the “suspicious” signals.

More to the point, the signals are “suspicious” — I’m guessing that’s not the best possible translation — because they’re narrow-band signals.2

That’s odd, certainly, but not necessarily proof that they’re artificial.

Stuff that Glows, Masers and Jupiter’s Auroras

Black body radiation curve, Astronomy Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.When stuff gets above 977 °F, 525 °C, or so, it starts glowing. Apparently. That’s because our eyes don’t start registering thermal radiation until stuff is that hot.

Scientists call 977 °F, 525 °C, AKA 798 K, the Draper Point. Mainly because John William Draper described it in 1847.

Don’t bother memorizing “798 K” and all that. The point I’m making is that stuff gives off electromagnetic radiation when it’s above absolute zero. And the hotter it is, the more electromagnetic radiation it gives off in higher wavelengths.

Thermal radiation is spread out along the spectrum. It isn’t at just a narrow range of wavelengths. Although stuff that’s hot does have spikes in its emission spectra.

“Maser” stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Researchers at Columbia University built the first one in 1953. A maser emits coherent radio waves. Unless it’s one of the newer ones that make infrared waves.

The key word there is “coherent.” A maser’s electromagnetic waves all have the same frequency and are in phase.

Again, stuff glows because it’s hot, it’s glowing across a wide range of wavelengths. If it’s emitting in a narrow band, it’s artificial. Usually.

Unless it’s Jupiter’s north polar auroras. Or a star that’s forming, a supernova remnant interacting with a molecular cloud, or some other naturally-occurring maser.

So a newly-discovered narrow-band radio sources in our VHF or UHF bands might be transmissions from an alien civilization.

Or they’re more naturally-occurring masers — which aren’t, by some standards, really masers because they don’t have oscillation cavities.3 And that’s another topic.


First Contact! — Maybe

(Dióscoro Puebla's 'Primer desembarco de Cristóbal Colón en América,' 'First landing of Christopher Columbus in America.' (1862) From Museo del Prado, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(From Museo del Prado, , via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A first contact, 1492.)

In 2020, FAST researchers spotted two narrow-band signals in their data.

Then, in 2022, FAST looked — or should that be listened? — toward known exoplanets. And China’s Sky Eye picked up another narrow-band radio signal.

On and near Earth, narrow-band radio signals are pretty much always artificial.

So that’s a total of three possible ‘first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence’ events.

No wonder Someone at FAST got excited. And apparently jumped the gun, posting a “we found ET” report: far ahead of a thorough analysis.

Which I figure is the reason that Science and Technology Daily article of June 14, 2022’s subheading said “Suspicious signal to be further confirmed and ruled out.”

An individual may have leaped far ahead of the data and analysis, but the FAST team seems to be reasonably methodical.

Dan Werthimer is a co-author of the research project which first spotted FAST’s signals.

He told Live Science that those narrow-band radio signals detected by FAST “are from [human] radio interference, and not from extraterrestrials.”

He’s probably right about that, although I haven’t run across anything saying where the narrow-band signals did come from.4

Then Again, Maybe Not

Dickenson V. Alley's staged multiple-exposure photo of Nikola Tesla in his Colorado laboratory. (ca. 1899)If they turn out to be something other than transmissions from an alien civilization, these FAST narrow-band signals won’t be our first false alarm.

Back in 1899, for example, Nicola Tesla told a reporter that he’d picked up odd signals on this experimental radio receiver. And said that the signals might be from another planet.

The press had a field day with Tesla’s letter. Pretty soon, Nicola Tesla was routinely receiving messages from Mars. According to the news.

We still don’t know what Tesla detected. Guglielmo Marconi had been experimenting with a radio transmitter around the time Tesla noticed his odd signal.

Granted, Tesla was in Colorado and Marconi was in Europe. But Marconi’s signal could have traveled that far. Or maybe someone closer to Colorado had been working on a radio transmitter.5 We don’t know.

Pulsars: Navigation Beacons?

NASA's illustration of a pulsar's planet. (ca. 2018)In 1967, at Cambridge, Jocelym Bell Burnell spotted a powerful, rapid and very regular radio pulse.

CP 1919 (Cambridge Pulsar at RA 19h 19m) had a pulse frequency of 1.3373 seconds and a pulse width of 0.04 seconds.

Pulsars were puzzling.

No known natural phenomenon could pulse that fast and put out that much power. Make that no natural phenomenon known in 1967.

Some scientists said that pulsars might be beacons: navigation aids. We didn’t, and don’t, know of any galaxy-spanning civilization. But, at the time, we we didn’t know how a natural phenomenon that powerful could emit pulses that lasted hundredths of a second.

Speculating that pulsars could be beacons fit the known facts. Particularly when more pulsars were spotted, spread across our galaxy, each pulsing at a different rate.

Then we learned more about pulsars, found some that changed their pulse rate, and realized that they were a particular sort of collapsed star.

With 20-20 hindsight, I could make fun of scientists who said that pulsars might be a galaxy-spanning civilization’s navigation beacons. But I won’t.

At least one pointed out that even if they turned out to be a natural phenomenon, they could be used as beacons.6

That possibility still exists. How probable it is? That’s another question, for another day.

Wow!

Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)'s 'Wow!' signal printout. A scan of a color copy of the original computer printout, taken several years after the August 15, 1977 'Wow!' signal's arrival. Astronomer Jerry R. Ehman noticed the signal several days after its arrival, and wrote the 'Wow!' comment. From Ohio History Connection, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope picked up a strong narrow-band radio signal for 72 seconds on August 15, 1977.

The telescope was pointed toward the constellation Sagittarius, so that’s almost certainly where the signal came from.

Nearly 45 years later, we know of several natural phenomena that might, maybe, have produced the Wow! signal. And at least one that wouldn’t have. But nobody’s demonstrated that one of the ‘could have’ explanations is a ‘very likely was’ solution.

In 2020, Alberto Caballero found a sun-like star in the Gaia archive that might be the Wow! signal’s source. Not the star, probably: but a planet circling the star that we haven’t spotted yet.

The star’s designation is 2MASS 19281982-2640123. It’s in Sagittarius, and about 18,000 light-years out.

If — and it’s a big “if” — the Wow! signal was artificial, it didn’t carry a message. Probably.

At least, it wasn’t modulated. Not in any way we can detect. And, despite at least 50 efforts to detect the same signal, Wow! hasn’t been repeated.7

Alien Megastructure, Lumpy Asteroid Field, or Something Else

JohnPassos: all KIC 8462852 light curve data from December 2009 to May 2013 (scan days 0066 - 1587), Kepler data only. (chart prepare January 30, 2016) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.In September 2015, folks with the Planet Hunters project posted a report about KIC 8462852, Tabby’s Star. It was flickering, irregularly, as if something big and lumpy was in orbit around it.

Or maybe KIC 8462852 was a really weird variable star. That didn’t seem likely, so researchers said maybe Tabby’s star had a lumpy ring of dust orbiting it. Or maybe an lumpy asteroid field.

Or, some suggested, maybe somebody had built a very big orbital structure there. Something, maybe, along the lines of the ISS: but on a bigger-than-planetary scale.

Or maybe an exomoon had gotten loose in Tabby’s Star’s planetary system and then got knocked to pieces.8

The last I heard, there still isn’t a consensus on just what’s happening around, on or in Tabby’s Star. But the odds are that whatever it is, it’s a natural phenomenon. We think.


Coming Soon(ish): SETI and Technosignatures that Weren’t

Percival Lowell's Martian 'canals.' (before 1914)
(From Percival Lowell, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Lowell’s Martian “canals;” from “Distant Worlds,” Yakov Perelman (1914))

Astronomers have spotted many more phenomena that might have been evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. But weren’t.

The gold standard for false alarms is, arguably, Powell’s Martian canals.

I’d planned on talking about Lowell’s canals, the 2019 BLC1 signal which may or may not have come from Proxima Centauri’s planetary system, perytons from an observatory’s break room, and FRBs: Fast Radio Bursts.

By the time I’d gotten to “Stuff that Glows, Masers and Jupiter’s Auroras,” I realized that breaking this post into less massive chunks might be a good idea.

Then household and family stuff happened, and there’s no more time this week. So I’ve made and saved notes, and figure I’ll make this a ‘to be continued’ post.

I’ve got more to discuss than false alarms. For one thing, someone’s written a paper about the odds that space aliens will be hostile.

A quick glance told me that his speculation was less bleak than I’d expected, and that’s yet another topic for — as I said before, another time.

But maybe not next week. It’s been a month since I’ve added to my Golden Ages series.

Finally, here’s the usual collection of links:


1 China’s Sky Eye and signals from the stars:

2 An asteroid, a spaceship and amino acids:

3 More than you need, or maybe want, to know about:

4 Signals, yes; artificial, maybe not:

5 Radio, and a colorful character:

6 Pulsars:

7 Decades later, still intriguing:

8 Observation and speculation:

Posted in Exoplanets and Aliens, Series | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wagner, Servant of Faustus: What’s He Doing in the Play?

John Norden's map of London, from 'Speculum Britanniae. The first parte. An historicall and chronographicall description of Middlesex.' (1593) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

I’d like to say that my ‘Marlowe’s Faustus’ series follows some grand scheme, marching down a well-organized path toward a profound conclusion. But it doesn’t, so I won’t.

I started re-reading Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,” a little bit at a time, a year and a half ago. My idea was to polish and re-post a “Faustus” series I’d done back in 2012.

George Vertue's Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England with the Knights of the Garter. (ca. 1601) from Sotheby's, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.That’s not what happened.

Instead, I’ve been talking about Elizabethan politics and demons, folklore and myth. And, briefly, both Renaissance magic and Renaissance science.

Renaissance science and magic were a tad jumbled, at least from a 21st-century viewpoint. And that’s another topic.1

This week, I’ll glance at the role Wagner, Doctor Faustus’ servant, fills in Marlowe’s play.

After putting Marlowe’s England and Germany’s ‘Faust’ folklore in perspective.


Bankside: Elizabethan Era Entertainment District

John Norden's map of London, from 'Speculum Britanniae....' Detail, Bankside. (1593) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

The Rose Theater in Bankside is famous for being at first in at least two categories.

It apparently was the first purpose-built theater featuring one of Shakespeare’s plays. And the first playhouse (“The play howse” on that 1593 map) in Bankside.

Bankside’s name goes back to 1554, when “the Banke syde” meant “street along the bank.” Which makes sense, since it’s a divot of land on the Thames near Southwark Bridge.

The Rose was on the northwest corner of Southwark Bridge Road and Park Streets. That’s what they’re called these days, at any rate. Southwark Bridge wouldn’t be built until 1819.

The Rose theater opened for business in 1587. Maybe Marlowe’s “Faustus” was staged there the same year, or maybe not.

In May of 1591, some of Richard Burbage’s acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, formed another company, The Lord Admiral’s Men. Why, I don’t know. The earliest documented run of “Faustus” — probably at the Rose — started on September 30, 1594.

Then, in 1599, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men built the Globe theater on the southeast corner of today’s Southwark Bridge Road and Park Streets.

A few years passed. Economic pressure, politics, Puritans and England’s Privy Council put the Rose out of business; sometime around 1600.

The Globe burned in 1613, was rebuilt in 1614 and finally closed by the Long Parliament in 1642. Because stage plays were immoral.

According to the Long Parliament.2

The Bear Howse, Casinos and the “Immorality of English Stage”

Jeremy Collier's 'Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage' antitheatrical pamphlet. (1698)In 1698, five and a half decades after the Long Parliament’s 1642 London theatre closure, theater critic, non-juror bishop and theologian Jeremy Collier was trying to save England from Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

He almost had a point.

Back in the 1580s and ’90s, Bankside was what we’d call an entertainment district.

A venue called “The Bear Howse” on that 1593 map was near The Rose, and a building on the Rose property may have been sublet as a brothel. If so, it wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood.

“The Bear howse” was a place for bear-baiting. It was both legal and popular back then.3

So were “gaming dens:” We call them casinos these days. I’m not sure what the Elizabethan term was.

But were “the Bear howse,” casinos, brothels, and theaters really dens of iniquity?

I don’t know where prostitution fits on today’s propriety spectrum.

Old-Fashioned Values

Carl Hassmann's 'The Almightier' illustration for Puck. (May 15, 1907)Back in my day, serious folks insisted that prostitution should be legal: because it’s a good way for women to make money.

I know, but that was a popular argument in some circles. Decades back now.

My oldest daughter says she still runs into the ‘but it makes money’ argument.

So it looks like American opinion is still split on whether human or dollar values matter more.

“…Creature comfort goals,
they only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see…”
(“Pleasant Valley Sunday” The Monkees (1967))

“I’ll lie, cheat, steal for this company … but I will not give up my integrity.
I feel that a man is of value to the organization as long as he….”
Brigadoon” (1954) (via springfieldspringfield.co.uk))

I realize that money matters. Particularly when I’m running short.

But when I was young, I didn’t see a point in buying stuff I don’t need with money I don’t have to impress folks I don’t like. I still don’t. And that’s yet another topic.

Animals, Gambling and Human Dignity

William Hogarth's 'The Second Stage of Cruelty, detail. (1751)My view of bear-baiting and all that?

I’m a Catholic. I figure that cruelty to animals, bear-baiting included, is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2415-2418)

Gambling isn’t a problem. As long as it’s not a problem. What’s called gambling addiction? That’s a problem. (Catechism, 2413)

Prostitution, along with pornography, is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. Human beings are people, even when we’re treated as if we were objects. And treating a person as if he or she is an object is an offense against human dignity. (Catechism, 2354-2355)

Stage plays? Yeah. I’ll grant that some stage plays, and movies, don’t show respect for human dignity.

But I’ve yet to find either on an official Catholic ‘don’t do this’ list. Individual Catholics can be as crackers as anyone else, and that’s yet again another topic.


Faust! Featured in Folklore, Film and Video Games!

Theatrical poster for a performance of Goethe's play: 'Lewis Morrison as 'Mephistopheles' in Faust! (1887)
(Mephistopheles conjuring spooks in Goethe’s “Faust.” (1887))

Germany’s ‘Faust’ folklore and legend, based loosely on Johann Georg Faust’s posthumous reputation, got traction with chapbooks in the 1580s.

Frontispiece of 'Historia von D. Johan Fausten,' published by Johann Spies. (1587)Since then, it’s inspired Wagner’s “Faust Overture” and four films that I’ve found, probably more.

It’s been the libretto for at least three operas, and the plot for plays by Marlowe and Goethe.

I’ve read that Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” mirrors “mainstream Christianity,” which might explain the English-speaking world’s fascination with Faust.

“Dr. Faustus: Movement into the Renaissance”
Harlie; First-Year Preceptorial — Forbidden Knowledge; Union College, Professor Watkins (October 15, 2013)
“Dr. Faustus was written in the Renaissance and therefore represents how to be a good Christian. As a character, Dr. Faustus is not a good Christian. But he teaches readers of the time what they shouldn’t do. Faustus is showing the way not to die; if you live life as a good Christian and avoid the devil and temptation then you will go to heaven….”

“Teaching Doctor Faustus Through the Ars Moriendi Tradition”
Matthew Fike, The CEA Forum (Winter/Spring 2008)
“The rough edges in Christopher Marlowe’s intellectual life serve as a foil to the mainstream Christianity in Doctor Faustus: the playwright had a reputation for atheism or at least for unorthodox opinions; papers allegedly found in a writing room that he shared with Thomas Kyd….”

But that may not explain multiple Fausts popping up in anime, video games and comics.4

My guess is that the Faust legend has been so lastingly popular because it’s a rousing tale, one which lets actors and authors chew the scenery without seeming overeager.

As for the Marlowe “Faustus” presenting mainstream Christianity — I’d say that depends on which mainstream is in play, and that’s still another topic.


Wagner, Scholars, and a Stock Character

John Tenniel's 'Whenever the horse stopped (which it did very often), he fell off in front...' illstration for 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (1871) via Wikisource and Wikimedia commons, used w/o permission.I’ve gathered that literary critics have occasionally deplored comedy relief in serious thespian productions.

Part of the problem, I suspect, was that the groundlings enjoyed a break from grimly philosophical ruminations.

I see the critics’ point, particularly if they think of themselves as scholars.

Take this bit from Marlowe’s “Faustus,” for example. It’s Wagner’s second appearance, and the first time he gets more than a few lines.

“…SECOND SCHOLAR. That shall we presently know; here comes his boy.

Enter WAGNER.

FIRST SCHOLAR. How now, sirrah! where’s thy master?

WAGNER. God in heaven knows.

SECOND SCHOLAR. Why, dost not thou know, then?

WAGNER. Yes, I know; but that follows not.

FIRST SCHOLAR. Go to, sirrah! leave your jesting, and tell us where he is.

WAGNER. That follows not by force of argument, which you, being licentiates, should stand upon: therefore acknowledge your error, and be attentive.

SECOND SCHOLAR. Then you will not tell us?

WAGNER. You are deceived, for I will tell you: yet, if you were not dunces, you would never ask me such a question….”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604, From The Quarto Of 1616) Edited by The Rev. Alexander Dyce (1870))

I’ve seen this dialog called “Wagner’s mock disputation with the scholars….”

Mock it may have been, but I think Wagner made a valid point.

Either or both scholars should have noticed that Wagner’s “God in heaven knows” — although often taken to mean ‘I do not know’ — does not say, when the words are taken in their non-colloquial sense, whether or not the speaker knows whatever is being asked.

But they didn’t, and I am not going to fall down a rabbit hole of logic and semantics, metalanguage, the White Knight and Alice.5 Not today, at any rate.

Instead, I’ll glance at Wagner’s role in Marlowe’s play.

Labeling Wagner

A. Wallis Mills' illustration for 'Jeeves in the Springtime,' P. G. Wodehouse, in The Strand magazine. (1921) from Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Depending on which student guide you’re reading, Wagner is “the inferior student of the masterful doctor,” someone who “banters foolishly with the Scholars about philosophy” or is “wily, cunning, and more than a little devious.”

All of which are arguably accurate, particularly if one of them is your professor’s pet idea.

But I suspect that Wagner — along with Palaestrio in “Miles Gloriosus,” Jeeves and Haroud Hazi Bin of the Disney Aladdin series — is another version of Roman theater’s servus callidus: the clever/tricky slave.

The servus callidus, who’s sometimes a dolosus servus (deceitful servant), has been used by writers from Plautus to Wodehouse: and Plautus had been using the ancient Greek theater’s playbook.

Slavery, by the way, is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. The problem, again, is personal dignity. (Catechism, 2414)

So I’ll say “clever servant,” not servus callidus.

The clever servant’s socioeconomic position is below that of his or her master/boss, but the boss — consciously or not — depends on the servant’s brains. Or gets manipulated by the anything-but-inferior underling.6

After reading that “if you were not dunces” dialog, or should it be trialog? Never mind, and moving along.

Anyway, after reading that bit, I think Wagner might be a cunning servant in Marlowe’s “Faustus.” But I’m not sure.

I haven’t read through the play for years, and don’t remember Wagner’s subplot. So I’ll have to keep an eye on Wagner to see just how smart he is. And whether or not his actions support my notion that he’s the play’s clever servant.

Then there’s the question of how wise either Wagner or Faustus are. I’d say ‘not very,’ but that’s — you guessed it — another topic for another time.

More, and maybe less, related posts:

Footnotes, of course. HR here

1 Natural philosophy, before it was science:

2 Renaissance, mostly:

3 Tudor England and troubled times:

4 Faust: chapbooks, plays, films and more:

John Tenniel's illustration, frontispiece for Lewis Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass:' White Knight and Alice. (1871)5 Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass; and a little serious scholarship:

6 A stock character with deep roots:

Posted in Marlowe's Faustus, Series | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Taking People, Pride and Dignity Seriously: June 2022

Luisa Madrid's photo of Queens Pride Parade in Queens, New York City. (June 3, 2018) via the La Guardia and Wagner Archives.
(From Luisa Madrid, La Guardia and Wagner Archives; used w/o permission.)
(Queens Pride Parade; Queens, New York City (2018))

My news feed tells me it’s Pride Month. Or LGBTQ+ Pride Month. Wikipedia’s page implies that the correct term is LGBT pride.

Decades of experience, spanning McCarthyism’s dying gasps and the efflorescence of political correctness, suggest that I’ll offend someone: no matter what I say or how I say it.

So I’ll start by saying why I don’t think my native language, English, is perfect.

If it was, “pride” would arguably have single, specific meaning.

On the other hand, I could argue that English is wonderfully flexible; affording its users an abundance of nuanced denotations and connotations. And a metaphorical mine field of muddled meanings.

Take “pride,” for example.

  • Pride (Merriam-Webster)
    • inordinate self-esteem
    • a reasonable or justifiable self-respect
    • delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship
    • proud or disdainful behavior or treatment
    • a company of lions

And that’s just a selection from one dictionary.

Since I’m a Catholic, I think pride is a bad idea. And, since “pride” has a whole mess of meanings, I’d better explain what I mean.


Dignity, Good Intentions and Bad Ideas

Rocky Kolberg's view of the Mount St. Helens mushroom cloud, taken 35 miles from the eruption. (May 18, 1980)
(From Rocky Kolberg, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Putting “little less than a god” in perspective. Mount St. Helens eruption. (May 18, 1980))

For starters, self-respect can be reasonable.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls that sort of self-respect “dignity.” (Catechism, 357, 1700, 1701-1709, 2261, 2331-2336)

I can think about “pride” in the Catholic sense of “dignity” without pretending that humans and humanity are garbage.

“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness….”
(Genesis 1:26)

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?
“Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor.
“You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet….”
(Psalms 8:57)

As I’ve said before, we’re pretty hot stuff. We really are “little less than a god:” with all the power, authority and responsibility that goes along with our nature.

But “little less than a god” isn’t God. Not even close. And that gets me back to pride.

Pride as a Capital Sin: Dignity on Steroids

Studio Foglio's Mr. Squibbs, used w/o permission.Pride tops the list of seven capital sins: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia.

They’re “capital” because they generally lead to more bad attitudes and behavior. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1866)

“Lust,” by the way, in this context, isn’t the same as experiencing human sexuality. (Catechism, 2331-2379)

It’s a “…disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure….” (Catechism, 2351)

And “pride,” again in this context, is a disordered attitude:

PRIDE: One of the seven capital sins. Pride is undue self-esteem or self-love, which seeks attention and honor and sets oneself in competition with God. (1866)
(Catechism, Glossary)

This sort of pride is hubris: dignity on steroids, self-confidence above and beyond the call of reason. I’ve talked about that, mad scientists, and using our brains, before. Often.

A key word here, I think, is “disordered.”

Love, Respect and Making Sense

Detail of photo, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City. (2015) via Pontifical Council for the Promotion of New Evangelization, Vatican State, used w/o permission.
(From the Holy See, used w/o permission.)
(St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City. (2015))

Wanting respect is reasonable. I think folks who support Gay/LGBT Pride Month for that reason have a point.

I don’t agree with much of what’s said on the gay/LGBT pride issue.

But I won’t rant and rave, partly because I think that’d make no sense. And partly because of something I’ll get back to.

Basically, I should love God, love my neighbor, and see everybody as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537; Catechism, 1789)

That’s everybody. No exceptions.

Loving and hating my neighbor isn’t possible. Not at the same time.

If I was a perfect person, living in a perfect world, loving each of my neighbors would be easy. I’m not, and this isn’t, so it’s not. Easy, that is.

But I have to try, anyway.

Like I said, love matters. That includes caring about other folks.

For much of my life, happily, I’ve known folks who care about my health and well-being.

Sometimes their love meant telling me that something I do is a bad idea. I didn’t enjoy the experience. Not at the time.

Good Intentions

An anonymous artist's rendering of the Book of Sirach, first chapter, German translation. (1654) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Loving someone by ‘being nice’ won’t turn a bad idea into a good idea. A few things are bad ideas, no matter what.

Murder, killing an innocent person, is one of them. It’s a bad idea and I shouldn’t do it. (Genesis 4:10; Catechism, 2268-2279)

My gluttony, a disordered interest in food, doesn’t define my personal identity. But it’s an issue I deal with. It’s also a bad idea.

My wife knows that I like food ‘way too much. She’s told me that it’s a bad idea. A doctor said pretty much the same thing.

I didn’t like hearing that, but I agree.

My wife is a wise woman, so she has been working with me to change my eating and exercise habits. I haven’t consistently cooperated, but I’m learning.

But let’s say that she didn’t want to make me feel bad, and kept quiet. Or, worse yet, encouraged me to keep eating. That might have felt good, for a while.

I’d still have the weight and health issues that my behavior caused. Lying to me would have been a bad idea.

So, I think, would labeling me a wretched glutton, and saying that God hates me.

I don’t think that’d a reasonable response to anyone’s undesirable behavior. Besides, I’d be concerned about anyone who’d enjoy that sort of treatment.1

Bottom line? Although I’m responsible for what happens after I act, or don’t act; that responsibility may be reduced or nullified, due to “…ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors….” (Catechism, 1731-1735, 1789)

On the other hand, ‘I meant well’ won’t turn a bad idea into a good idea. (Catechism, 1789)

Gluttony and Social Stigma

Human Genome wall for SC99's photo: A fat mouse and a normal mouse.I talked about respect and dignity earlier. Basically, I’m obliged to show respect for the dignity of each person.

That seems reasonable.

Gluttony isn’t generally considered a good idea in today’s America, but my appearance doesn’t make me a pariah.

That’s a bit odd, or maybe not so much.

My weight isn’t what’s odd. It’s simple cause-and-effect. I’ve eaten too much, and not exercised enough. My obesity probably isn’t just caused by gluttony, by the way. It’s complicated, and that’s another topic.

What’s odd is not being shunned, or worse, because of my weight. I’m pretty sure that fitness fiends wouldn’t use me as a role model, not a positive one. But they’re easy to avoid or ignore.

The point is that I haven’t spent a lifetime dealing with folks who seemed determined to fill me with guilt and shame. I’ll grant that some health fanatics can be a tad overbearing.

That’s what’s odd, since obesity hasn’t been a status symbol since the Renaissance. Current American culture views gluttony, an obvious cause of obesity, as a bad idea. The attitude isn’t entirely wrong.

But I don’t remember running into anyone who attacked fat folks for ‘religious’ reasons. Not with the hatred I’ve seen expressed against folks with unusual sexual desires. Why that is, I don’t know.

Seven Sins

Stradanus' illustration for Dante's Inferno, Canto 6: gluttony. (1587)Gluttony is one of the seven capital sins. I mentioned them before. So is “sloth,” which isn’t laziness.

Not in this context, at any rate.

The ‘seven capital sins’ sloth is acedia, a lack of spiritual effort, refusing to ‘work out my salvation.’2 (Philippians 2:12, 3:20; Catechism, 1949, 2094, 2733)

“Pride” again, is self-esteem above and beyond the call of reason.

Humility, acknowledging reality, is pride’s antidote.3

One reality I must acknowledge is that letting my desires and impulses control what I eat is a bad idea.4 No amount of positive self-talk will change that.

Neither would throwing myself into the fat acceptance movement’s silly side. I’ll admit that I might enjoy organizing a ‘fat pride day’ protest. For the wrong reasons. There’s a sardonic streak in me that’s not good. And that’s yet another topic.

Acting Like Love Matters: A Good Idea

Etching by B. Picart, after C. Le Brun: 'A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. (1713)Condemning someone whose impulses aren’t like mine seems silly.

Self-righteous indignation at the actions of other sinners seems imprudent, at best. My own track record is far from spotless.

I think homosexual acts are bad idea.5 I emphatically also must think that everyone deserves respect and reasoned compassion; not unjust discrimination. (Catechism, 2357-2359)

Imprudent over-corrections of past injustices are, I think, understandable. But as I’ve said, good intentions won’t turn bad ideas into good ones.

Nothing I say or do can solve every problem we face. I am equally powerless to undo injustices like murders at the Pulse nightclub in 2016.6

But I can suggest that love is a good idea. So is acting like love matters.


Nostalgia, Tradition and Traditions

Unknown artist's illustration of Chickenman, Dick Orkin's fictional not-so-superhero; who opposed 'crime and/or evil' on radio in the 1960s.Even if I could, I wouldn’t take America back to the ‘good old days’ before 1965, 1954, 1933, 1848,7 or some other imagined ‘Golden Age.’

Today’s America is far from perfect, too.

That leaves one direction: forward.

Not yearning for a bygone era may seem odd, coming from a Catholic.

I’ve been asked why I think my beliefs matter in today’s world.

The question makes sense, given all-too-common attitudes.

Some Christians act as if nostalgia and faith were synonyms.

Sometimes I run into a Catholic who says Vatican II ruined everything. Some of these folks formed their very own little churches, convinced that they’re the only Catholics left.

I wasn’t a Catholic before Vatican II, so my childhood memories include pleasant experiences in a Protestant church.

Even if I was a ‘cradle Catholic,’ I hope I’d have the good sense to see a difference between Tradition and tradition.

Tradition with a capital “T” is the living message of the Gospel, maintained and passed along through the millennia. It doesn’t change. (Catechism, 75-83)

Some of our traditions, lower-case-“t,” are important, too. But they’re not set in stone. Sometimes they stop being useful. Then it’s time to change or drop them. This is okay. (Catechism, 83)

Moving Forward

Screenshot from a 20th Century Fox trailer for 'Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes.' Marilyn Monroe and men in formal suits and vests. (1953) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
America in the 1950s was a ‘Golden Age’ for some folks.

I remember the trailing edge of their ‘good old days,’ and my memory’s pretty good.

I remember when someone had to look more-or-less like me to get a decent job, and when “she’s smart as a man” was supposed to be a compliment.

The ‘good old days’ — weren’t. And I thank God they aren’t coming back.

Many long-overdue reforms which began in my youth haven’t turned out as I had hoped. But on the whole, I like living in today’s America. It’s not perfect. But that’s true of every society, today or in the past.

I must do what I can to help make tomorrow’s America, and world, better. (Catechism, 1913-1916, 2239)

There isn’t much I can do to change my nation, much less the world. But I can do something about myself.

Not Easy, But a Good Idea

NASA's image of Earth, from the Rosetta spacecraft's narrow-angle camera from a distance of 633 000 kilometers (393,300 miles). (November 12, 2009)Changing the world starts inside me, with an ongoing “inner conversion.” (Catechism, 1886-1889)

Unless I act as if I think people matter, I can hardly expect folks to take me seriously.

Not when I talk about love, justice, charity, and respect for “the transcendent dignity of man.” (Catechism, 1928-1942, 2419-2442)

And I certainly shouldn’t imagine that I’m one of the “righteous” few. Life isn’t that simple. Neither are issues we’re dealing with.

“…Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity….

“…A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners….”
(“Visit to the Joint Session of the United States Congress,” Pope Francis8 (September24, 2015))


I’m Not Normal

Brian H. Gill. (March 17, 2021)Earlier, under the Love, Respect and Making Sense heading, I said that “I won’t rant and rave” about gay/LGBT pride issues “partly because of something I’ll get back to.”

Here’s where I get back to that.

As I said a couple months back, I don’t do “conventional.” Small wonder, considering what’s shown up in my medical records:

  • ADHD: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, inattentive type
  • ASD: Autism spectrum disorder
  • Cluster A personality disorder
  • GAD: Generalized anxiety disorder
  • PDD: Persistent depressive disorder
  • PTSD: Post traumatic stress disorder

I’m not even conventionally unconventional. Take Cluster A personality disorder and me, for example.

Almost Fitting Into a Cluster, But Not Quite

An image from Brian H. Gill's brain scans in 2018.Mayo Clinic says Cluster A personality disorder comes in three flavors:9

  • Paranoid personality disorder
  • Schizoid personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder

I come under the schizotypal type, characterized by:

  • Peculiar dress, thinking, beliefs, speech or behavior
  • Odd perceptual experiences, such as hearing a voice whisper your name
  • Flat emotions or inappropriate emotional responses
  • Social anxiety and a lack of or discomfort with close relationships
  • Indifferent, inappropriate or suspicious response to others
  • “Magical thinking” — believing you can influence people and events with your thoughts
  • Belief that certain casual incidents or events have hidden messages meant only for you

I can see it.

“Peculiar dress,” not so much. Unless you count my beard and hair.

Beliefs? I’m an American who was raised as a Protestant and became a Catholic: so, yeah. That’s a bit peculiar. Plus, I talk like a college professor. Sometimes like a ’60s or ’70s stereotype interior decorator.

“Odd perceptual experiences?” Not the hallucinatory sort. Except back when I was recovering from losing one of our kids. I kept hearing my computer’s hard drive rattling, when it wasn’t; and that’s yet again another topic.

“Flat emotions?” Oh, boy, no: anything but. Inappropriate, maybe.

Social anxiety and all that? My life might have been less interesting if I had been plagued by social anxiety. More topics.

The rest: indifferent or otherwise odd responses to others?

Maybe I’ve exhibited an indifferent response, somewhere in the last seven decades. But not, I think, often. My emotional responses tend to be on a scale from ‘intense’ to ‘extreme.’

Odd, maybe. I have had to learn, for example, that many folks take politics and politicians very seriously — even when I see a darkly humorous side.

“Magical thinking” and imagining that I’m getting secret messages? No. Not happening.

Fitting a Profile

Illustration of 'icepick' lobotomy, from Dr. Walter Freenan II's 'Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders and Intractable Pain.' (1950)We’ve learned a great deal about psychiatric and personality disorders since my childhood and youth.

Folks with issues like mine often get spotted early and treated these days.

Sometimes successfully.

I wasn’t. Not until I was into middle age.

Which may be just as well, since lobotomies were still somewhat fashionable in my ‘good old days,’10 which is another reason I don’t miss them, and that’s still another topic.

Then there’s what a career counselor asked me, back in the ’70s.

I’d been having my usual frustrating experience, being one of the 99-plus out of a hundred or so job applicants who didn’t get hired. I’ve since learned that my affect or affect display isn’t squarely on the 50th percentile, which didn’t help.

“Affect display” is psychobabble for verbal and non-verbal displays of emotion.11 I’m a very emotional man, and — well, apparently I don’t consistently act normal.

Anyway, back to frustrations, me and a career counselor. We’d been discussing incentives I might offer a potential employer, including government funding.

He asked me if I was homosexual. Turns out, the question made sense: during the ’70s in the Upper Midwest, at any rate. For one thing, bias against homosexuals made — I think it was still called affirmative action — an option.

For another, I fit the profile.

I’m creative, articulate and not obsessed with sports. I can’t swear, some four decades later, to “articulate” being in the mix. But I’m pretty sure that talking like I was at least a little smart was part of the reason I fit the homosexual profile.

But, despite fitting the profile, I’m not homosexual. Which is no great virtue. I’ve got issues, lots of issues: but not that particular one.

Learning that nice, normal folks might perceive me as homosexual, however, explained a few otherwise puzzling interactions I’d had.

Odd Urges and Malignant Virtue

'I'd force peace right down their bloodthirsty throats.' Deacon Mushrat in Walk Kelly's Pogo. (1952)And it’s helped me both appreciate the experiences of folks who do deal with odd urges, and sympathize with those who’ve tangled with the malignant virtue of self-appointed guardians of society.

“Malignant virtue” is a phrase I first ran across in a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, although it’s been around at least since the 1860s.

“There are times, Charles, when even the unimaginative decency of my brother and the malignant virtue of his wife appear to me admirable.”
(Lord Peter Wimsey, in “Murder Must Advertise,” Dorothy L. Sayers (1933))

“…counting every thing which the most malignant virtue could shrink from, I have culled eighty lines. Eighty lines out of nine thousand!…”
(“The Good Gray Poet. A Vindication,” William Douglas O’Connor (1866))

And that’s — you guessed it — even more topics.

Maybe most Americans, by now, realize that a man can be smart, creative, not experience withdrawal if deprived of daily sports news highlights — and have heterosexual orientation despite all that.

Then again, maybe not. I’ve gotten the impression that sincerely-held beliefs don’t fade easily, no matter how wacky they are.

So I won’t hope to change anyone’s mind about good guys and bad guys, neo-Nazis and pinko scum, or whatever.

“Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” — Makes Sense to Me

New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer C. M. Stieglitz's photo:Robert Thompson and Benjamin J. Davis: accused of improper political views. (1949)But I will suggest that maybe, just maybe, folks who deal with disorders are still folks: real people, not monsters or cardboard-cutout bogeymen.

Even if my background and personality didn’t make the idea seem reasonable, accepting folks who aren’t perfect comes with being a Catholic.

“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
(Catechism, 2358)

I’m about as sure as I can be about anything, that relabeling a disorder as ‘normal’ won’t make everything better.

Then there’s the matter of conflating ‘normal,’ ‘good,’ and ‘acceptable.’ And that’s a can of worms I’ll leave for another time. Can of worms? Make it a barrel.

I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, and probably will again:

1 Disorders my culture recognizes:

2 Acedia and other issues:

3 Humility, in the Catholic sense, is acknowledging reality and giving God due credit; I’ve talked about that before:

4 Experiencing desires and emotions is part of being human; so is thinking, or should be:

5 Insights from:

6 As song said, “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong:”

7 Assorted recent milestones — or — the end of civilization as they knew it:

8 About freedom:

9 Clusters A through C, mostly B:

10 It slices! It dices! It wins a Nobel Prize!

11 Acting weird:

Posted in Being, Catholic, Discursive Detours | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning Something New: WordPress Blocks

I’ve known for some time that WordPress, the content management software this blog uses, has been encouraging folks like me to stop using its “classic” user interface and start using blocks.

Blocks, it seems, are the best thing since sliced bread. They’re the bee’s knees and the snail’s eyebrows.

Blocks make creating rich content easy as falling off a log. They’ll inspire me to create new pages in a flash.

Although apparently I don’t need Adobe Flash to make blocks work.

Which is just as well, since I wasn’t planning on using Flash media.

At any rate, I kept putting off using WordPress blocks. Previous experiences suggested that anything that wonderful and stupendous, that easy-to-use and likely to make my life so much easier — would be far more trouble than it was worth.

So I kept putting off what I suspected would be a steep, as in near-vertical, learning curve.


Then I realized that WordPress had been warning folks like me that their classic user interface would be supported until 2022. And that it was high time for me to start climbing that curve.

So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. And have found a pretty good how-2 tutorial page.

I’ve also learned that the Block Editor, the way I’m using it at any rate, won’t show rich content that I’ve created: if the rich content isn’t quite what the Block Editor expected.

There are less anthropomorphic ways of saying that, but I figure you know what I mean.

For me, so far, this week has been good news. And will almost certainly give me more opportunities for practicing patience.

Looking back, I’ve been paying more attention to the technical side of blogging this year. And that’s another topic.

Posted in Journal | Tagged , , | Leave a comment