Friday, January 23, 2015

Williams transformed into other media?

Eldest son made a joke about a Dr Who actor playing in a movie of a Charles Williams book, and of course that got me wondering what of his work could be made into a movie without loss or major transformation. Some books just can't be "movied" without a lot of fiddling: Perelandra comes to mind. Clothes or lack thereof are a form of communication, and lack thereof doesn't convey Edenic innocence. Anymore. But there was a good dramatization of The Screwtape Letters and I gather of The Great Divorce also, so ...

  • Shadows of Ecstasy: some critical moments (e.g. Roger Ingram trying to make sense of what he has seen in the inner room) are interior experiences that need a little verbalization. A few scenes need really good acting plus a little special effects goosing. The whole "dark continent" component wouldn't go over well; we know the rest of the world too well. I'm iffy about this one; the premise is hard to visualize and I didn't find the premise compelling.
  • Many Dimensions: A few minor special effects for the Stone's properties, but some critical moments in Choe's transformation are interior experiences. I think this could work, but the ending might play as a huge downer--the plot might need tweaking.
  • War in Heaven: With a few special tricks here and there for magical effects, and some explanation of what the Grail was, I think this one could make a good movie. You have to get an excellent John, though.
  • The Place of the Lion: A few special effects, but you'd have to motivate the release of the Forms much more strongly, and be explicit about what Forms meant. ("It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them in these schools") I think it could be done--it might turn out better than the book (not my favorite).
  • The Greater Trumps: It needs lots of special effects. A few critical moments are interior (you get different characters' points of view)--voice overs for Sybil? This could easily be a nice dramatic movie with plenty of action.
  • All Hallows Eve: Straightforward special effects for wizardry and the city of the dead, but there are a lot of different characters' points of view--lots of extra dialog to be added. It would be worth trying. Unfortunately a completely unrelated movie exists by the same name.
  • Descent into Hell: It has internal transformations that I think would be hard to portray, especially Wentworth's deepening rejections and the "bearing of burdens". I think it could be done, but I'd be nervous.

For some of these you'd probably only have Williams fans buying tickets, and the purists would gripe. I think The Greater Trumps would be the most likely to appeal to a broader market. I wonder how much you'd have to trim to make a screenplay of it.

If you are in the USA, where the copyright rules were adjusted by a Disney-rented legislature, you're not supposed to click the above book links.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants by John D. Clark
The book, published in 1972, is out of print and extremely hard to find, and I only learned about it when reading about FOOF (and you should go read now that article now…and the comments).

The book is just what the subtitle says it is. The style is easy and informal, with real world details (such as noting that the discovery that a mixture is hyergolic usually entails somebody losing his eyebrows). The introduction is by Isaac Asimov.

Why was it written? From the Preface:

There are a few texts which describe the propellants currently in use , but nowhere can he learn why these and not something else fuel Saturn V or Titan II or SS-9. In this book I have tried to make that information available.

This book is written not only for the interested layman—and for him I have tried to make things as simple as possible—but also for the professional engineer in the rocket business. For I have discovered that he is frequently abysmally ignorant of the history of his own profession, and, unless forcibly restrained, is almost certain to do something which, as we learned fifteen years ago, is not only stupid but is likely to result in catastrophe…. So I have described not only the brilliantly conceived programs of research and development, but have given equal time to those which, to put it mildly, were not so well advised. And I have told the stories of the triumphs of propellant research; and I have described the numerous blind alleys up which, from time to time, the propellant community unanimously charged, yapping as they went.

For understanding this incident, note that the card-gap test was a test of how shock-sensitive a compound was. A sample of the compound was put in a heavy tube above a bit of high explosive, separated from it by a number of thin plastic cards. The high explosive was detonated and they checked to see if the compound blew too. The fewer cards that were needed to keep the compound from exploding, the less sensitive the compound was, and the happier the engineers were.
Two people can operate the card-gap apparatus, and three operators is optimum. But when LRPL did this particular job (the feather-bedding at Picatinny was outrageous) there were about seven people on the site—two or three engineers, and any number of rocket mechanics dressed (for no particular reason) in acid-proof safety garments. So there was a large audience for subsequent events. The old destroyer gun turret which housed our card-gap setup had become a bit frayed and tattered from the shrapnel it had contained. (The plating on a destroyer is usually thick enough to keep out the water and the smaller fish.) So we had installed an inner layer of armor plate, standing off about an inch and a half from the original plating. And, as the setup hadn’t been used for several months, a large colony of bats—yes, bats, little Dracula types—had moved into the gap to spend the winter. And when the first shot went off, they all came boiling out with their sonar gear fouled up, shaking their heads and pounding their ears. They chose one rocket mechanic—as it happens, a remarkably goosy character anyway—and decided it was all his fault. And if you, gentle reader, have never seen a nervous rocket mechanic, complete with monkey suit, being buzzed by nine thousand demented bats and trying to beat them off with a shovel, there is something missing from your experience.

You’re heard the phrase “This ain’t rocket science.” This was, and you start to get an appreciation for how tough it really was.

Me? I tried to make my own rocket fuel in high school—a black powder variant with some aluminum powder to overcome the problems caused by the potassium nitrate’s hygroscopic absorption from the tropical atmosphere. A security lapse resulting in too much powder being added to the mix, and I’d never seen a ring-stand rod bent like that before.

Do not attempt to buy this on Amazon. It is a good book, but not worth $3000.

The one of the ten

When Jesus healed the 10 lepers (healed as they went to the temple), one returned to thank him, and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus' answer equates thanks to Him with giving glory to God--something I hadn't noticed before.

But I have a little question about the Samaritan. The 10 were told to "Go and show yourselves to the priests." Would the Samaritan have been allowed to go to a Jewish priest, or been turned back? The Samaritan temple had been destroyed over a century before, and Jerusalem was quite some distance away, so I guess they were heading for local priests. Would they have been headed for the same village, or would the Jews have been headed for a village in Galilee and the Samaritan towards a village in Samaria? (Jesus was going "between" the two, so I guess that would be along the river)

Does anybody happen to know?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Masques of Amen House by Charles Williams

The Masques of Amen House by Charles Williams was recently printed by Mythopoeic Press.

When I was in high school and had lots of time to read, a book arrived at our home comparing Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. I knew the first two, of course, but the third was new to me and his novels sounded wonderfully strange. I mentioned this to Tucker Callaway and he offered to lend me his copies, and said he envied me the joy of first reading them.

Since then I've read his poetry (of which he apparently was the most proud), plays (well, what was available anyway--I got permission to copy a book that is still out of print), theology, and history of witchcraft. Some of the work was only recently collected and printed.

Working at Oxford University Press when he was there must have been interesting. These "masques" were performances done by the staff (playing themselves, by and large), with Williams writing the script and the music written by the music editor. I have never been in a workplace that put on original opera for its own entertainment.

A masque in the sense Williams used the term seems to have been based on entertainments of song, drama, and dance performed by guests for a host--the host in this case being "Caesar", the publisher. The old masques were one-shot events, never repeated.

Williams wasn't being ironic when he called the publisher Caesar.

For Williams, as critics have stated, the supernatural was not a separate realm, but constantly around us. Analogies were not invented by the artist, but... discovered. In The Greater Trumps, William's novel about the Tarot, Nancy Coningsby experiences the correspondences, seeing a local policeman as the Tarot card that embodies authority and order, The Emperor.
Indeed somthing common to Emperor and Khalif, cadi and magitrator ... shone before her in those lights ... it was certainly true that for a moment she saw in that heavy official barring their way the Emperor of Trumps, helmed, in a white cloak, stretching out an arm, as if Charlemagne, or one like him, stretched out his controlling sword over the tribes of Europe... and bade them pause or march as he would.

These works are much more light-hearted than his novels, and much more specific than his usual poetry, since they were about the work of the firm. They are The Masque of the Manuscript, The Masque of Perusal, and The Masque of the Termination of Copyright (never actually performed). (plus some poetry written about the masques at the time)

Thumbnails: A manuscripts comes to the offices, the staff take pity on it and publish it. Someone actually buys it. And, as copyright expires and the fate of the book is uncertain, it is republished and the government needs 5000 copies. The title of the book? "I am called A Short Treatise on Syrian Nouns As used in the Northern and Sub-Northern Towns In Five Hundred B.C., with two maps and three charts: By Walter Lackpenny, poor Master of Arts."

The characters are themselves but also their roles and their "forms"--the principle of which the role is an instance.

Although they'd almost stand without the introduction and background material, it helps a lot to know in advance who is the publicity man and who the music editor. I'd not have realized that the changes in portrayal of Phyllis reflected a breakup--but I doubt that I needed to know that in any case.

If you're a Williams fan, I think you'll enjoy it. The poetry is much less dense than (say) Taliessin through Logres. Like this query about an editor's bete noir:

PHILLIDA [making the sign of the magical pentagram] Art though purged as by fire and by water made clean?
THE MANUSCRIPT I mean what I say and I say what I mean.

I wish we had a team like theirs at work.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Smart shoes vs TSA

Researchers have again found a way of generating electricity from walking (I've heard of this before). This won't quite power current cellphones, but might manage other things for you.

Try to describe to the nice man in the uniform at the airport why your shoes have funny electronics in them and your pants have wires.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Natural song lengths?

It seems that most songs on the radio wind up being about 3 minutes long in practice. The link says this was driven by the precedents set by old technology, but a lot of churches select verses from a longer set to keep hymns in that 3-5 minute range.

There are plenty of exceptions, there's really a distribution of times. How much does that distribution vary from one culture to another?

For example, I've been in churches where hymns are sung at half the speed they are in most white American churches, and heard singers go on for an hour (at least--I fell asleep).

I suppose with the appropriate use of keywords you might be able to use Youtube to get a distribution of the lengths of raga songs, but the numbers won't be quite clean (multiple covers, people yacking about songs, etc).

Has anybody looked at that? Is there some natural length for songs, or is it entirely cultural?

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Battle cries

I don't think "Je suis Charlie" will be quite as inspiring as Roland's "Paiens ont tort!"

Monday, January 05, 2015


I'm fond of The Last Unicorn, and one line comes to mind a lot these days:
"Ah, love may be strong, but a habit is stronger"

That seems true enough in the spiritual disciplines (it is a bit presumptuous of me to be leading the study), and in (as the poem) looking for the one and only, and even in trying to master some art. The habits of games or facebook or what have you drain away the time which is life from what what somebody really wanted to do.

I remember a short essay from a year or so ago of a child going with Grandma to pick out a vase, and finding it surprisingly hard to do. There were many fine vases, but that one didn't match the curtains, and the other would look strange on the end table, and the third didn't match the cabinet: Grandma's home was full of so many things which constrained the possibilities that almost nothing would fit. The essay likened this to trying to find a spouse after living alone for years, but the problem is more general--to add anything to an already full life requires cutting stuff out.

What are the best lenses to wear to see what is a tradition, what is faithfulness, and what is a habit?

Thursday, January 01, 2015


The Roman Catholic Church has a dislike for capital punishment, an attitude with roots that go back to the early Church (which was in some ways more radical). Pope Francis said a few months ago that solitary confinement was cruel--and no doubt it is.

A state that accepts both rules quickly finds itself in an untenable position. Its first duty is to protect its citizens, even (at some level) its imprisoned citizens, and there are always some people who will viciously prey upon others--even in prison. If you aren't allowed to execute them, and you aren't allowed to isolate them, and you aren't allowed to exile them (nobody else wants them either), and you must protect everyone else from them--there's no solution.

So to do what it is appointed to do, a state has to do the presumptuous work of pronouncing judgment and using force against people in ways that are not obviously loving. Naturally this attracts undesireable applicants, and the power readily corrupts even the well-intentioned. So we have to try to keep an eye on the state (hence democracy), but even the mechanisms for doing that are corruptible.

But what do you do when the machinery of the state appears to start to take the injunctions against cruelty and violence too seriously, and begins to fail to protect its citizens? (I say "appears" because it usually looks as though cui bono finds a simple tribal answer--but God protect us from well-intentioned bureaucrats.)

It isn't exactly my ideal to have to say "Please get on the stick and start killing those people who are attacking us!" Yet that is the duty of the state's machinery, and often the way to minimize deaths. It isn't obviously charitable to say "Either cut benefits or cut immigration--the numbers do not work." But honesty demands these kinds of claims.

It is much more comfortable when the state is doing its job and we can deprecate the evils that flow from even the best government, and hold up high ideals for individuals. Maybe that's even the way it is supposed to work, given the fallen world we live in: prophets denouncing the evils and the state not-quite ignoring the prophets, and the rest of us at least trying to minimize the evils and keep an eagle eye on the state.


When our Eldest Son participated in a Pinewood Derby race, we went out together to buy the kit. I showed him how to clamp the block down, and started the saw cut for him. His enthusiasm waned as he rasped and sanded and painted. I insisted that the axle positions were critical, and showed him he could try to make sure they went in straight.

In the end, he seemed happy with it--after all, he'd done the work himself, albeit with some impatience. It didn't win, but it was well above most of the pack in speed--seemed to slow down a bit with time (Were the axle positions twisting? I never knew.). It was not a thing of beauty, nor lightning fast, but it was clearly made by the boy and not the father, and it was something any boy could make who could afford the $4.50 for the kit and had a few ordinary tools in the house.

I was browsing while waiting in Hobby Lobby last month, and happened upon the Pinewood Derby shelf. The kit itself is the least of it now: you can even buy a special jig to make sure the axle goes in at the right position and angle. Entry level seems to have gone up to about $50.

The playing field was never perfectly equal in the derby: setting aside the parents who did the work for the boy, those who didn't have a saw or rasp or hammer at home were never going to turn out a fast racer, and those who didn't take the instruction's advice and try to arrange their own axle jigs wouldn't either. And there's nothing one can reasonably do to take out the income advantage, unless everybody is making theirs in the same project room with the same gear. Still it seems like an unhappy additional bias.

Plus, of course, the kids don't get the experience of making their own tools.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What if: painting

On the way back from the Milwaukee Museum exhibit of Glasgow's Italian paintings we improved the shining hour with a what-if.

If you had a time machine (and an interpreter) and a supply of gold and silver, which ancient or modern painter would you commission, and what would you have him (or her) create?

Proposed answers:

  • Titian, to paint some ordinary people that struck his eye (instead of the models and the rich patrons).
  • Bosch, to paint Times Square (who else could do it justice?).
  • Somebody like Zampieri Domenico (we couldn't remember the name of the one we really wanted) to do the Grand Canyon: give him a really wild landscape to paint.

The better ideas come when you're not on the spot, of course: how about one of the Lascaux cave painters painting the village and people in it? Dunno if they'd care for gold...

Or Bruegel painting a legislature? Or Titian to redo the woman taken in adultery without anachronisms. (Notice the prominent codpiece on her captor; a nice touch illustrating hypocrisy...)

I'm not skilled enough to appreciate the finer points distinguishing painters of the same genre and era, nor so fond of my own features as to be interested in a portrait of myself. But maybe you have other ideas?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Wouldn't it have been so much easier if Jesus had said "Take up your empty tomb every day and follow Me"? The "name it and claim it" crowd?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Firing at the enemy

Remember that statistic that only 15-25% of the soldiers in WWII fired at the enemy? Seems to be garbage. Funny, because the Army seemed to believe it, and that sort of question is the sort of life-or-death question they're supposed to try to get right. Supposed to, anyway.

The summary is that Marshall seems to have made up the statistics about the Malkin Island fight: he didn't have time to do the number of interviews he claimed, soldiers had to be told to hold their fire when they were blazing away at enemies that weren't there (rumor), and it isn't clear if he drew any distinction between soldiers in reserve and those at the point. It took delving into archives and a number of interviews to find this out--not the sort of thing an armchair analyst can take on.

What's really annoying is to find out that he'd been known to be full of it since 1989! But the numbers still circulate. I suppose that's nothing new for made-up numbers, but usually those keep zombie-ing around because somebody has a political agenda or iron rice bowl they need to protect.

Grossman relied on Marshall's numbers, but tried to supplement them with other estimates, so I'm not sure his conclusions are seriously undercut, such as "It is a lot easier to kill a fleeing enemy." Hat tip to West Hunter