Smoke and Monkeys

Folks in the United Kingdom may be changing their rules for wood and coal fires. Or maybe not. It depends on whether their rules match Europe’s.

Volkswagen paid researchers to mistreat monkeys and people. Or maybe not. We know the research happened. It’s complicated, a bunch of folks are upset, and I’ll get back to that.

Fireplaces, outdoor grills, and coal-burning furnaces aren’t basically bad. Neither is learning how stuff in the air affects animals. And us.

But having smoky fires upwind of our neighbors isn’t a good idea. Neither is mistreating critters. Or people.

News and Options

I’d wax eloquently on the virtues running rampant in my youth, when all was right with the world. Except it’s “wax eloquent,” and I’ve got a pretty good memory.

Like I keep saying, we’ve never had a Golden Age. (November 5, 2017; October 30, 2017; June 18, 2017)

Network television’s nightly news threatened the very foundations of civilization in my salad days. Before that it was the telephone, or the steam engine, or whatever else was new. (February 5, 2017)

Odd — we’ve got “salad days,” but not “soup days.” And that’s another topic.

I don’t hear the ‘kids these days don’t communicate, they spend hours a day on the telephone’ lament these days. Today’s it’s social media that’s a crisis among youth.

If dejection over youthful follies didn’t appeal. we had other options.

A connoisseur of angst might choose among assorted secular apocalyptic prognostications. For those with more traditional preferences, there were the usual ‘End Times prophecies.’ Forward-looking fussers had a wide selection of secular doomsday forecasts.

Details have changed since the 1960s, but I see little difference in the basics. That doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. It’s more a reflection that humans still act like people.

I’ve got options, too.

I can focus on what’s wrong. If I can help make it right, that might make sense. Dwelling on the dreadful doesn’t make a difference, more often than not.

Focusing on what’s right may not make much difference, either. But I’ve found that it feels better. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

TDNN: “Your 24-Hour Source for Angst”

I think there’s hope in the way doomsayers market their services.

The ones I notice often present themselves as purveyors of truth, offering humanity hope for survival. Or at least something that’ll give Noah wannabes something to spend money on.

Seeking truth and wanting to help others seem reasonable. Feeling that every silver cloud has a dark lining, or is some sort of conspiracy? Not so much.

I’d be more concerned if I saw fear and anxiety more openly used as selling points. Maybe there’s a real-world equivalent of TDNN, the Totally Depressing News Network. Marketing strategy included. But I haven’t seen it. And don’t mind.

I’ve known folks who seem convinced that gloominess is next to Godliness. Or involvement. Or whatever. But even they don’t seem willing to openly prefer bad news. Not many, anyway.

Seeing “truth” as mostly bad news isn’t, I think, reasonable. But wanting truth? That makes sense.


The way I see it, truth points toward God. All truth, not just the parts I like. Or what we knew before Abraham’s day. Or the Renaissance, or Darwin’s. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27, 3135, 41, 74, 2500)

Valuing truth isn’t new, or a uniquely Catholic view:

“They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it.”
(“Analects,” Chapter VI, attr. 孔夫子/Kong Fu Zi/Confucius (ca. 400 BC))

“Piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.”
(Aristotle, “Nicomachean_Ethics” (349 BC))

“Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss.
“Truth will spring from the earth; justice will look down from heaven.”
(Psalms 85:1112)

“Never gainsay the truth, and struggle not against the rushing stream.
“Be not ashamed to acknowledge your guilt, but of your ignorance rather be ashamed.”
(Sirach 4:2526)

“The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.”
(St. Augustine of Hippo, “The City of God,” (early 5th century))

“The inclination to seek the truth is safer than the presumption which regards unknown things as known.”
(St. Augustine of Hippo, “De Trinitate,” (417))

Wanting truth is one thing.

Learning to tell what’s fact, opinion, plausible but incorrect explanation, or stuff we though was true before we learned better?

That’s another. Particularly in eras like today. A fair number of things we thought were true a century back, or figured were plausible explanations, aren’t.

I think St. Augustine of Hippo is right. “The inclination to seek truth is safer….” I also think it’s more work than sticking with presumptions or ‘what everybody knows.’

But it’s still a good idea.

Home Fires

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

Scrutiny over wood and coal fires in UK homes
Roger Harrabin, BBC News (January 30, 2018)

Burning wood and coal in people’s homes will come under scrutiny as part of a government drive to improve air pollution.

“Ministers are calling for evidence to help improve air quality in cities.

“They want people to ensure that wood is dry before burning, and that solid fuels are as clean as possible.

“But the UK is being given a final warning by the European Commission today for breaching laws on NOx emissions.

“The government is being told it will face court action in Europe unless its planned Clean Air Strategy does what it’s supposed to….”

“NOx emissions” sounds — noxious. That’s not quite what it means. NOx is chemist’s shorthand for nitrogen oxides.

Nitrous oxide, laughing gas, didn’t cure tuberculosis. But it’s been a popular upper-crust party drug and anesthetic. It’s also potentially addictive. (July 7, 2017)

We’ve learned a bit since the early 1800s.

I figure that’s one reason we don’t have ‘stamp out laughing gas’ and ‘legalize laughing gas’ societies. Besides, we’ve developed better anesthetics and have different addiction issues.

Our tech and cultures change. What we’re like, basically? I think it’s like Job 5:7 says — “Human beings beget mischief as sparks fly upward.”

That hasn’t changed, and won’t. Not any time soon.

But we’re basically good. (January 8, 2018)


Nitrogen dioxide gets in the news pretty often. NO2 is produced by bacteria, volcanoes, and lightning. It’s is a natural part of Earth’s atmosphere.

Maybe that’s why few if any environmentalists are trying to ban thunderstorms. Or maybe even the wackiest activists realize that everything isn’t humanity’s fault.

We have been pouring more nitrogen dioxide into the air lately. Quite a few industrial processes produce it. That’s why we’re seeing high concentrations in North America, Europe, and east Asia.

I figure most of the stuff doesn’t come from English fireplaces. Or America’s barbecue grills. I’m also no great fan of regulations. Stupid regulations, that is. But I won’t rage against the European Union, or anyone else.

I don’t know how reasonable or loopy the European Commission’s NOx emissions laws are.

I’m pretty sure Europeans need some regional rules for how much stuff gets dumped into the air and water.

The United Kingdom may not be “European” the way France or Germany are. From an American viewpoint, that is. But the islands are just off the northwestern European coast. Their air mixes with the rest pretty easily. European interest in British air makes sense.

Nitrogen oxides are natural, but unhealthy when we produce them faster than they get processed. Folks living in pre-industrial eras didn’t have our tech, so they didn’t need NOx emission rules.

More folks are living closer to each other than the ‘good old days.’ I figure that’s one reason why California state regulations say what sort of outdoor cooking is okay for apartment-dwellers, and what’s not.1

We’ve got rules like that here in central Minnesota too. Not that we’re the penultimate paragons of good sense. Our rules aren’t like the EU’s. Or California’s. That’s partly, probably mostly, because we’re nowhere near as tightly-packed as folks living there.

Lots of folks living close together get problems, and benefits. And need rules that folks living in tiny communities don’t.

Volkswagen Trouble, Again: Monkeys This Time

(From EPA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“German carmakers have already been hit by a damaging scandal over cheating in emissions tests”
(BBC News))

German shock at car exhaust tests on humans and monkeys
BBC News (January 29, 2018)

The German government has denounced experiments funded by German carmakers in which humans and monkeys reportedly inhaled diesel exhaust fumes.

“German media say the health impact research was done by EUGT, a body funded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW.

“Such tests could not be justified, the government said, demanding details. A minister called them ‘abominable’.

“Daimler also condemned them. VW is embroiled in a scandal over software that gave false diesel exhaust data….”

Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW financed a research outfit. The scientists may or may not have followed rules about exposing animals and people to unreasonable risks.

They say they did. Some German politicos say they didn’t. Apparently quite a few Germans assume Volkswagen is guilty. I don’t know enough to have an opinion about that.

I do think that the auto makers were daft if they paid the scientists to get results showing their emissions were fine.

If the idea was to learn whether or not their cars were legal, it’s still daft. Unless they could prove that they were paying for facts, not something lobbyists could use. Even then, I think the decision had bad publicity written all over it.

This isn’t a good for time for Volkswagen employees or folks selling Volkswagens.

Perks and Problems

Doing your job well doesn’t help much if the employer stops using your skills. Or goes out of business.

I figure Volkswagen owners aren’t having a good time either.

Paying for Volkswagen’s good performance and “safe” emissions made sense.

Until owners learned that the Volkswagen engineering responsible was in a “defeat device.” And now Volkswagen’s test data may be bogus? Not good news.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal didn’t affect me directly. Apart from needing to dial back the anger I felt.

I don’t like deliberate attempts to break reasonable rules. I like them less when they’re so obviously going to fail. Incompetence annoys me. A lot. I don’t see my attitude as a problem, unless I let it grow into unreasonable anger. And that’s yet another topic.

That said, I don’t envy executives. Or managers. It’s no virtue.

The nice office, high income, and social status might be nice. But not, for me, nice enough to warrant the stress and responsibilities.

Higher-ups who do their jobs earn those perks. Those who don’t? They make it hard for everyone. Including folks like me, who think authority is a good idea.

Thinking About Authority

My attitude toward authority is pretty much what it was in the 1960s. How I see my attitude changed when my wife told me that I have no problem with authority.

Legitimate authority.

Folks with power, position, and delusions of competent authority are something else. (October 30, 2016)

My attitude toward authority changed from a preference to an obligation when I became a Catholic.

But it didn’t change all that much, aside from some fine-tuning.

I see authority as necessary for any society.

Real authority, not ‘I’m bigger so you do what I say.’ Or ‘we’ve always done it this way’ or any other imitation. I must respect and obey legitimate authority. But ‘I was following orders’ isn’t an excuse. Not a valid one. (Catechism, 18971951, 2155, 22422243, 2267)

Rational respect for authority is a good idea. But thinking takes work. And saying ‘no’ to a ruler can have lethal results. Thomas More and John Fisher come to mind. (July 28, 2017)

Outlooks and Origins

I don’t know why so many folks seem so upset over the latest Volkswagen news.

Maybe it’s leftover anger from the “defeat device.” Or rooted in feelings about animal testing. Or human testing.

My guess is that it’s all of the above, boosted by Germany’s recent history.

Folks in Europe had their hands full after World War I, rebuilding pretty much everything in some places.

Germany had the same challenges, plus debatably-reasonable punishments for losing. (November 10, 2017)

Germans had a new road network in the 1930s, but not many affordable cars. The country’s new leader said that Germany needed a people’s car, a “Volkswagen.” He told engineers it should be cheap, simple and mass-produced.

They developed the Volkswagen Type 1.

It met the requirements, and became the world’s most-manufactured sort of car.

It also looked — funny. Germans called it Käfer, beetle.

So do Americans, but we speak English so here it’s the Volkswagen Beetle.2

Germany, and Volkswagen, survived World War II. Adolph Hitler didn’t.

He did, however, earn lasting fame as one the 20th century’s outstandingly regrettable leaders. Considering the competition, it’s quite an accomplishment.

One of these days I’ll talk about the Armenian genocide, but not today.

Volkswagen marketing, understandably, didn’t stress their product’s connection to the regime that made Dachau and Auschwitz famous. Or infamous. And gave Germany a very unpleasant reputation.

The comic-relief German who kept shouting “I am not a Nazi” was still a stock character in my early years. Sadly, quite a few folks apparently had trouble understanding that not all Germans were Nazis. And still do, likely enough.

That’s anything but funny. I think it helps explain why so many Germans are so eager to show that they aren’t like the folks who ran Hitler’s regime.


German scientists weren’t the only ones using people for dangerous and sometimes lethal experiments.

“It’s for science” doesn’t make bad behavior okay. And scientists behaving badly don’t make science wrong.

Learning how reality works and using that knowledge are part of being human. Science and technology, like anything else, are fine. If we remember that ethics matter. (Catechism, 22922296)

Science, art, and family are good things. But putting them where God should be in my heart would be a very bad idea. (Catechism, 21122114)

About science, I don’t see a problem with interest in God’s creation and taking God seriously. (Catechism, 282289, 293294, 1723, 2294)

I do see problems when researchers mistreat test subjects.


I don’t know why so many folks get so upset about seeing humans as animals.

I suspect it’s partly a distaste for physical realities. Maybe that seems “spiritual.” But it doesn’t make sense. (January 14, 2018)

Disapproving of God’s creation is possible. It doesn’t strike me as particularly useful. Or prudent. Acting like I think God goofed would seem impolite. At best.

Not that I think God will smite me for being daft. More like seeing no percentage in rejecting reality.

Even the wildest flights of fantasy arguably recognize some facet of truth. And that’s yet again another topic.

As it is, I like what I see. It’s just as well, since my preferences won’t change reality. Except on a very local and limited scale. And that gets me to what I am. I’m a human.

Like every other human, I’m an animal: made from the stuff of this world. I’m also filled with God’s ‘breath.’ Each of us is matter and spirit, body and soul. I’m a person. Someone, not something. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 355, 357, 362368, 1951)

Each of us is made “in the divine image.” We are rational animals who can control our actions. (Genesis 1:2627; Catechism, 355361, 1730, 1951)

We’re animals, but not ‘just animals.’ Like it or not, we’ve got dominion over this world. There’s wisdom in remembering our job, and responsibilities. (January 21, 2018)


“The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” probably won’t be remembered the way Oedipus Rex is. Or as long.

But they dramatize the same flaw:

Dr. James Xavier: “I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.”

Dr. Sam Brant: “My dear friend, only the gods see everything.”

Dr. James Xavier: “My dear doctor, I’m closing in on the gods.”
(“X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” (1963), via

Hubris, self-esteem run amok, was a problem when Babylonian astrologers and Greek philosophers studied this universe. It’s inspired dramatists from Sophocles to Robert Dillon and Ray Russell. It’s a problem today.

And I’m quite sure we’ll be dealing with it when most folks see Aristotle, Einstein, and famous folks of the fifth millennium as roughly contemporary.

But like I said, science is okay. Ignoring ethics isn’t. Neither is forgetting who we are, and who God is:

“Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.”
(Genesis 1:3)

“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 8:56)

“Our God is in heaven and does whatever he wills.”
(Psalms 115:3)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
(Wisdom 11:22)

We’re pretty hot stuff: “little less than a god.” but God’s God, we’re not.

Human Dignity

We learned quite a bit during the 20th century. Including why the Hippocratic Oath was a good idea.

Medial ethics sometimes sounds like an oxymoron, but I think efforts like the Nurmeburg code are hopeful.3

Scientific experiments, including those with human test subjects, aren’t always bad.

Trouble starts when we forget human dignity, or expose subjects to unreasonable risk. That’s a bad idea even if the folks volunteer. If they don’t know they’re being used like lab rats, it’s worse. (Catechism, 2295)

I don’t think lab rats have “rights” the way people do. But they’re God’s creatures and warrant humane treatment. Loving animals is fine. Treating them as if they’re people isn’t. (Catechism, 24152418)

And all that is still another topic. One that will wait for another day.

A seriously light look at the reality we’re in:

How I see science, animals, and being human:

1 Science and barbecues:

2 The Beetle and beyond:

3 Rules and why we have them:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Smoke and Monkeys

  1. It’s not that in the olden days we did not have bad news. Of course we did. But bad news travelled slower. Not like today with 24/7 TV, social media and so on.

    In them days people sent their news by pigeon. By the time the pigeon arrived the news was history. One would not lament the fact that aunt Agatha died seven months ago as much as if they had received the news by instant e-mail. Sometimes the pigeon got lost, or delivered the message to the wrong house and got eaten by the occupants. Now we had two deaths on our hands; aunt Agatha and the pigeon. And neither made the six o’clock news!

    These days pigeons are not interested. They prefer to hang around in parks and town centres and hope to be fed by tourists. Our pigeon got so fat it could not take off in flight. We trained the dog to deliver messages. Alas, it could not fly either.

    God bless.

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Period instead of comma: “follies didn’t appeal. we had other options.”

    Missing word: “NO2 produced by bacteria, volcanoes, and lightning.”

    Another missing word: “I don’t know enough have an opinion about that.”

    Wrong word form: “Each of us is make “in the divine image.””

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!