Archive for January, 2013



Here are just two Amusing Pictures that I have lately posted to Instagram (web copy of my Instagram stream here), which are not pictures of food. One leads to a posting on the Secret Second Life Weblog, which I decided would be the right place for lots of pictures from my latest Virtual World adventures…

Those wacky pastors!

Those wacky pastors!

Okay, that one’s just silly :) but all the Cool Kids are Instagramming iThing screenshots these days, and one has to keep up.

(That’s Questionable Content in the background in the browser there; I’m still slowly reading through the entire opus, possibly more slowly than the author’s writing new ones. It’s still good!)

The other one:

The Tower of Somewhat More Than Moderate Height

The Tower of Somewhat More Than Moderate Height

That’s the Tower of Somewhat More Than Moderate Height (as you may have deduced from the caption), from my brand-newish Minecraft (Pocket Edition) world!

Read all about it over here: Dreaming of pixelated rock.



Who’s the wiseacre that thought it would be funny to sprinkle powdered diamond all over the car and driveway during the night? I mean, it’s pretty and all, but it took forever to sweep up. Sometimes felt like I should be using a shovel — hey, wait a minute!

I’m collecting transitive verbs that can be used only reflexively. So far the only one I’ve got is the neologism (well, it’s a neologism for some of us) “bootstrap”. (“Finally, the Internet has bootstrapped itself to sentience.”)

It can also be used intransitively, with the reflexive object implied (“Man, that spent a long time bootstrapping”). I’d expect this is probably true of any verb in this category; given that there’s only one possible object, it’d naturally become optional to spell it out.

Bonus points for a reflexive-only transitive verb that can’t be used intransitively, of course! We are nothing if not generous with points!

In WoW news, either Panda Tanks are way overpowered, or the game is just dead-easy up to at least level 70 these days. Or both.

Probably both.

Can’t spell crazy without R-AZ!

I am reading the webcomic Questionable Content from start to finish (that link points to the first one; don’t worry, the art and typeface both improve pretty rapidly). It’s very good, in a “wow I’m not really into soap operas and all, but this is great” sort of way. All friendly and geeky and snarkily heartwarming and stuff, with the occasional digression into why the advent of human-level AI hasn’t made much of a difference in the world (yet?). Also lots of cute girls in a pulchritudinous but almost entirely SFW way.

And on the other hand I have already read start-to-finish, and am eagerly hoping for more, the never SFW in the slightest webcomic oglaf. Dripping with sex an’ laffs!

Speaking of laffs, you may have heard that there are Amusing Videos on the internet! Here is one that I found!

Is that not amusing? In at least one of his other ones, he makes his cat dance on the video. Couldn’t do that with our cat; she’d rip your face clean off…



Reading the first paragraph of Durrell’s Justine

The sea is high again today,

What do we know, or think, or guess, or assume, from those six words?

The narrator is by the sea. Not necessarily, of course; there could be satellites or telephones involved, or there could be no narrator at all but just an omniscient narrative voice. But the spatial immediacy of “the sea” (rather than “the sea at Brighton” or “the sea outside her window”), and the temporal placedness of “again today”‘ both suggest a particular person by a particular sea, speaking at a certain time.

Justine coverThe sea is high. With wind most likely; high waves and whitecaps rather than high tide. The sea has been high before, we suspect yesterday at least. It is probably daytime now (“today” rather than “tonight”).

Is the height of the sea a good thing, or a bad thing? A joy or a challenge? We don’t know from the first six words, so onward.

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.

Now that is a sentence.

Probably this is not someone clinging to a piece of wreckage in mid-ocean, or hoping for calm seas to launch a tiny fishing boat. This is someone in a position to thrill to the wind.

But notice that it is a flush of wind. “Flush” and “thrill” call to mind the cheek flushed hot with blood from some personal thrill. So here the blown surface of the ocean is the skin, thrilled and flushed by the wind; the wind is the blood of the sea. But the wind also flushes cheeks from the cold. Chill and thrill, wind and blood, skin and sea. And only a dozen words in!

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter

A specific time now, and a cold one. Is this favoring the cold side of the previous sentence, chill and wind over thrill and blood?

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring.

Balance is restored. The second sentence mirrors the first, calls out the cold and the warm more explicitly, and more abstractly.

Notice that there is now someone in the text, and it is you. He did not write “I can feel”, “He could feel”, or “can be felt”.

Note also that it is not the warmth of Spring, or its coming, its approach, its flavor or texture. The inventions of Spring!

Also it is “winter”, but “Spring”. A subtlety of balance here? The concrete winter by the sea in contrast with the symbolic or idealized Spring that invents? Or just some typesetter’s quirk?

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday,

Now, looking up above the sea, there is the sky; a sky of hot nude pearl. What a phrase! Is it hot as in actual heat, or hot as in glare? Pearl is a color, the texture of color; what is it for pearl to be nude? Bare, simple, unadorned. So my eyes imagine the sky bright and (of course) pearlescent (nacreous!), hotly pale to look at, but not enough to heat the air (my cheeks still flushed with the wind).

And we’ve been aware of the sky in the morning, before midday, and at least up until midday; perhaps all morning, or a good piece of the morning, standing on a headland watching the sea and feeling the wind (and the inventions of Spring).

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places,

Sheltering from the wind, and also from the hot glare of the sky. This is a place with crickets, and also a place with some shelter. Think of sheltered places large enough, small enough, for crickets. No mention of people, of whether there are any people seeking shelter also.

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes,”

Here is the wind again, crossing a sentence and a half to thrill again, and this time to unpack the great planes. What great planes? Is this a pun on the Great Plains? Is the wind blowing into the cargo holds of enormous airplanes, scattering underwear from suitcases and printouts from briefcases out across the runways? Probably not. :)

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…”

Not just unpacking, but actively and violently unpacking, ransacking! The printouts and underwear are scattered far and heedlessly, the wind is looking for something (for what?) in those cargo holds. Or the great planes are (more likely) the planes of the sea, the earth, and sky. The wind violently unpacking the plane of the horizon, flushing the cheek of the sea, bringing both the cold of midwinter and (with the hot nude sky) the inventions of the Spring, as though it were searching for something. For what?

And that’s the entire first paragraph. We aren’t entirely certain we know what the great planes are (spoiler alert: eleven pages later I’m still not entirely certain), but we have had built in our minds a balanced structure of warmth and cold, winter and spring, blood and sea water, topped by hot nude pearl, and underlain by those sheltering crickets. Earth and Air and Water, and we can either allow that heat to stand for Fire, or let that spot stay empty, and be left, after this first paragraph, with (among other things) a missing place for Fire, like a missing tooth, that might (or might not) be resolved in later paragraphs.

Yes, this is a somewhat pretentious reading! :) But when I started reading this book (which regular readers will remember we bought in Boston the other week), I was so struck by the language (not in a Barthelmian or Leynerian way, but in an entirely or mostly entirely other way) that I stopped and read the first few paragraphs over and over, and then the same for the first page, the first two pages. And I decided to write a weblog entry about it!

(A serendipitous and perspicacious airline seat-neighbor suggested that I ought to be reading poetry that way if I like reading that way; I agreed while admitting that I’d never really managed to do that. What poet should I try it on? The burning tyger? The mistress going to bed?)

And that’s all! :) I’m incredibly sleepy at the moment, having gotten home from the airport and Secret Expeditions this morning at about 3am. I am still awake mostly because I am hoping Verizon will call back about whether or not they can actually give us what the salesmen promised to get us to switch to FIOS, and also because I wanted to actually post this (actually to post this) before it went out of my mind. But now I think I will give up on Verizon for the night and go to bed and/or to sleep. And you can post comments! :)



Reviews: “Belief or Nonbelief” and “Pallas”

Two of my reviews have just Gone Live on Amazon, my “email” informs me, so I will stick them here as well so that they are in more places, and my fame can spread more quickly.

Belief or Nonbelief, by Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (non-ebook version)Belief or Nonbelief
Two out of Five Stars

This is billed as a spirited exchange between a believer and a non-believer, but really it’s much less than that. Eco is a barely-lapsed Catholic intellectual, and as he says himself the basic structure of his thinking is still very much based in Catholicism.

Except for the final brief pair of chapters, the book consists of Eco asking Martini to talk about the Church’s answer to something, and Martini answering with the Catholic party line.

And because this is the Father of Semiotics and a Catholic Cardinal, the language is full of fifty-thousand-dollar words and content-free metaphors. Here is Eco, for instance, perhaps imitating one of those online Random Postmodern Text Generators:

“Christianity invented History, and it is in fact a modern incarnation of the Antichrist that denounces History as a disease. It’s possible that secular historicism has understood history as infinitely perfectible — so that tomorrow we improve upon today, always and without reservation, and so that in the course of the same history God reconstitutes himself and in a manner of speaking educates and enriches himself. But the entire secular world is not of the ideological view that through history we understand how to look at the regression and folly of history itself.”

Say what? Secular historicism has understood that God educates himself? You don’t say!

And when Eco asks how the Church knows when human life begins, Martini’s answer is that it’s at the moment of conception, because that is when there is a new being with a face. Which must be a metaphor for something (since a fertilized egg is way to small to have a face), but we’re left to guess for ourselves exactly what it’s supposed to be a metaphor for.

In the final exchange, Martini finally asks a question of Eco rather than vice-versa. The question itself is nothing impressive, just the usual “how do atheists justify their morality without an invisible friend in the sky to do it for them?”; but Eco’s answer is solid and almost clearly stated. There’s nothing all that special, he points out, about basing your morality on a deity (believers are just as prone to immorality as anyone else), and our own desire to be treated well and our natural tendency to empathy make a fine alternative.

So anyway. Most of the book is throwaway concepts couched in needlessly elaborate prose, but at least it’s short. The last chapter is worth a read.

Pallas, by L. Neil SmithPallas
Three out of Five Stars

This is a good solid yarn; strong and smart good guys you can root for, nasty evil bad guys to boo, interesting SF ideas, rockets and personal helicopters, a hooker with a heart of gold, old ladies packing heat, and all sorts of fun stuff.

Like so many stories with political intent, it completely cheats on the political message. No one in the socialist polity is good, no one in the capitalist one is bad. The capitalist society doesn’t need to tax anyone because it doesn’t need police or real courts, because everyone in the society is basically an angel (for some reason the society doesn’t even need fire stations; this is noted in passing but never explained).

Showing that your favorite politico-economic system would work for a society of angels is not a very big challenge!

The one nod that Smith makes toward reality is that when the entire world (asteroid) is threatened by a natural phenomenon, the “freeloader problem” arises, and it’s not clear how the rather expensive solution is going to get paid for without something icky like taxes. But the solution is just that Our Hero pays for the whole thing himself, and the problem is solved.

This isn’t realistic, though; if Our Hero had any actual competitors, the resulting extra costs he bears would put him at a disadvantage to them, and he would go out of business. Fortunately for the story, he has no actual competitors, because he is the only person to realize that in a society where everyone wants to be armed and guns are expensive to import, it might make sense to open a (wait for it) gun factory. Ooooh!

(The real Freeloader Problem here, which Smith ignores entirely as far as I can tell, is the environment envelope around the asteroid, which requires constant maintenance by guys with rockets and space-suits. Who pays for all that, exactly?)

Definitely a fun read. Just don’t try to use it as a guide to public policy in the real world.


The morning’s news

I went to The Gym this morning for the first time in ages, so I was exposed to and can report on the Morning News Programs.

The TV most directly in front of me, tuned to that peacock network, had a long in-depth story about how beautiful Miss Alabama 2012, who is also the girlfriend of some football player or something, is, and how some sports reporter thought she was beautiful; it featured extensive footage of her being beautiful and an exclusive interview with her about how beautiful she is.

This was followed by breaking YouTube footage of a fat guy falling down alot trying to do yoga.

To the left of that TV was one tuned to that Eye of Sauron network, with a hard-hitting report about how cute and cuddly giant pandas are.

And over to the right, beyond a few TVs with just people talking and car commercials, on a network whose totem I didn’t catch, was a supermodel explaining that one should not “sweat the number on the scale”, but should apply argan oil directly to the hair, face, and body.

(Presumably it’s also good, for this purpose, to be in a job where one can spend upwards of forty hours a week on making oneself look hawt.)

But that is just TV.

The real news is that, in the back of the Lego store, past all of the boxed Lego sets designed to let you build something that someone else thought of, there is a big wall of bins where you can make your own Lego set a la carte, in a little plastic tub!


A mere US$7.99; a bargain at half the price! (The larger tub, not shown here, is like US$14.99 or something.)

Here are the parts I chose:


Yes, a bit vehicle-oriented, but sometimes one must choose.

And the first experimental result:


I have them at work now, for when my brain needs to flow in different channels for awhile… :)

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Dumplings, Dastards, and Drivel

(Before I decided that the dumplings really belonged in here, I was considering titles like “Douchebags and Bullshit”, which is somewhat coarse, or “Rotters and Rubbish”, which wasn’t bad.)

So this year we made 203 New Year’s Dumplings. The little daughter having come home special for the ceremonies, and the little boy being home from school between terms, we were four healthy adults, and the leftovers of that 203 didn’t even last through the end of January Second.

(See prior New Year’s post for prior history of dumplings.)

Here is my New Year card over on the Secret Second Life weblog. The sentiments apply to all Real Life friends too also. :)

On dastards (cads, bounders, douchenozzles, arseholes), see quite a few of the comments to this Asher Wolf posting on why she left the CryptoParty movement that she founded or co-founded, and how the hacker community contains too much, and too much tolerance of, sexism and misogyny and general nastiness.

Many of the comments are supportive, but many are also just facepalmingly awful. (I posted what I thought was a satire of that kind of comment, and despite my having tried to make it obviously absurd, it was enough like the run of actual negative comments that I had to put in a followup saying that it was intended as satire, because people were responding to it as though it, well, wasn’t.) And the evil-density in the twitter comments was even higher (if harder to link to).

I understand why people come in and carefully and condescendingly explain how she is all wrong, and bad things happen to everyone, and it’s not misogyny, and rape hardly every happens, and things like that; they are just blind to their various degrees of privilege, and are shoring up the bulwarks of the protective walls they have up around their egos.

Pretty standard human stuff.

I less understand why people come in and say that someone “needs to shave her pits”, or says that some particular person attacking her is “way hotter” than someone else is. I mean, wut? How is that even remotely relevant to anything?

Either (1) this is actually the way that they think, (2) they are just rather nastily trolling, or (3) talking about the way they “think” is a bit of an overstatement, and they are basically being Eliza machines in this instance.

Also pretty standard human stuff, I suppose, as are the strings of obscenities and the attacks on her website; I just don’t understand it as much, and it makes me (even) sadder.

And on drivel (or rubbish, or bullshit), I am reading Belief or Nonbelief, and while I’m not done with it (despite how short it is), I cannot keep myself from fulminating, or at least weblogging, about it. It’s a series of public letters between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who is a Cardinal (a Hat Cardinal, not a Wings Cardinal, obviously).

Eco is sort of The Semiotics Guy, so he is all into signs and how and what they signify (if at all), and so on, so it’s not too surprising that he can wander up big ethereal staircases of language until he gets so far above the concrete that his words not only fail to signify anything material, but fail to signify even any identifiable concepts. And of course Martini is an intelligent person in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and spending most of his thought-time in environments as far from real life as possible is probably one of the few ways it’s possible to be one of those for very long and stay sane.

Hilarity ensues.

The first bit is about hope and life and ideas of the end of the world and stuff; it was written somewhere in the late 90’s. Eco, referring to the last book of the New Testament, writes

Revelation can be read as a promise, but also an announcement of an end, and thus gets rewritten at every step, even by those who never read it, as we await 2000.

Say what? People who have never read the book are constantly rewriting it? Squinting at the whole paragraph really hard, what he means is something like “people are always thinking about how the world might end, and Revelation talks about trumpets and hailstorms and stuff, but nowadays we think more in terms of acid rain, nuclear waste, global warming, and stuff”.

It does sound cooler and less obvious if you talk about the constant rewriting of a book by people who have never read it, but that way of talking has the disadvantage of being incoherent and/or wrong.

Here’s another great passage:

In this way, each one of us flirts with the specter of the apocalypse, exorcising it; the more one unconsciously fears it the more one exorcises, projecting it onto the screen in the form of bloody spectacle, hoping in this way to render it unreal. But the power of specter lies precisely in its unreality.

Yowza! We unconsciously fear the end of the world, so we flirt with it by projecting it (“hey baby, ever been… projected?”) onto the screen (does that mean “we imagine”? or “we make movies about” or…?) in the form of bloody spectacle (we imagine global warming as bloody spectacle? could well be true of the movie version, I spose) in order to (unconsciously, still?) render it unreal (because things on the screen are unreal I guess), but in vain because (as our unconscious is apparently not clever enough to recognize) making it unreal just makes it more powerful.

And the sentence just before it is about “irresponsible consumerism”, which is somehow linked to all that other stuff.

There’s probably some unpacking of this that is actually making a coherent truth-claim that might perhaps be falsifiable, but in essence I think it’s more like poetry; a bunch of words piled on each other not to make some coherent truth-claim, but for some more diaphanous aesthetic reason.

The very next paragraph deserves copying down here also (perhaps only because I’m getting more into the spirit of the thing):

I’d be willing to bet that the notion of the end of time is more common today in the secular world than in the Christian. The Christian world makes it the object of meditation, but acts as if it may be projected into a dimension not measured by calendars. The secular world pretends to ignore the end of time, but is fundamentally obsessed by it. This is not a paradox, but a repetition of what transpired in the first thousand years of history.

Leaving aside the absurdity of referring (as I think he is doing here, but really who can tell) to the years 1-1000 CE as “the first thousand years of history”, it’s hard to say what most of these words might plausibly mean.

Just how common is “the notion of the end of time” in “the secular world”? He has presumably said “the end of time” rather than “the end of the world” for some reason, but I don’t know what it could be. “The end of time” is a notion that barely makes any sense at all in “the secular world” (since time is not something that can end, absent something really weird and non-secular happening), much less being extremely common. The dimension that is “measured by calendars” is time; I’m not sure what it means to say that the Christian world acts as if the end of time occurs in (or “may be projected into”) something besides time. Is he saying that most Christians think of the Apocalypse is a metaphor for something moral or aesthetic, rather than something that will actually take place at some point? That is most likely true, but as far as I know the Official Story of the “Christian world” is that it’s going to happen (for some value of “it”) at some actual time, perhaps any day now.

Maybe he’s just saying “your typical actual Christian person doesn’t actually believe that the world is going to end, or at least doesn’t act that way, whereas your typical secular person worries alot about global warming”. But he sure says it funny if so.

Here’s another character-string, that I don’t think I’ll even try to tease a meaning out of (although the first few words seem like a real screamer, in the “obviously false unless it means something different than it seems to” sense):

Christianity invented History, and it is in fact a modern incarnation of the Antichrist that denounces History as a disease. It’s possible that secular historicism has understood history as infinitely perfectible — so that tomorrow we improve upon today, always and without reservation, and so that in the course of the same history God reconstitutes himself and in a manner of speaking educates and enriches himself. But the entire secular world is not of the ideological view that through history we understand how to look at the regression and folly of history itself. There is, nonetheless, an originally Christian vision of history wherever the signpost of Hope on this road is followed.

On rereading, I’m suspecting more and more that Eco, that wag, is using some prose generator here. (Secular historicism has understood that God reconstitutes himself? Orly?)

Cardinal Martini’s response to this first burst of words isn’t quite up to this standard, but he does use a huge number of words to basically say “oh, well, Christians don’t really have to worry about the end of the world because God is going to take care of them, after all, so naturally the secular types are the ones who obsess about it”.

He does, though, note that

History has always been seen most clearly as a journey toward something beyond itself and not immanent… this vision does not extenuate but solidifies the meaning of contingent events into an ethical locus in which the metahistorical future of the human adventure is determined.

which is getting there.

(And which, once one spends a few minutes picking it apart, turns out to box up considerable volumes of likely-false assumptions inside words and passive-voice constructs like “always” and “most clearly”, “been seen” and “is determined”, which are just the post-graduate version of sprinkling one’s Internet postings with “clearly”, “obviously”, and “certainly”.)

(And for that matter uses a quaintly archaic sense of “extenuate”. Hm, is this a translation, or is the English the original?)

In the next exchange (and the only other one I’ve finished reading), Eco turns the discussion toward the meaning and beginning of life, and the question of abortion, not so much as to get closer to real concrete questions as to show that even on a subject like this he can mostly avoid them.

Here is Eco:

When the banner of Life is waved, it can’t but move the spirit — especially of nonbelievers, however “pietistic” their atheism, because for those who do not believe in anything supernatural the idea of Life, the feeling of Life, provides the only value, the only source of a possible ethical system.

which is bullshit in both common senses: it’s false, and it’s not clear that it’s actually concerned at all with true and false, but just wants to sound good.

(The quotes around “pietistic” in reference to atheism are rather bizarre, as it suggests that “pietistic atheism” is a term that someone else has used, and that Eco himself is using referentially, although he has shame-quote-level reservations about it. But in fact the term “pietistic atheism” is actually pretty rare, so… I dunno.)

And of course just “waving the banner of Life” doesn’t necessarily move the spirit; some people’s spirits are (quite healthily) resistant to being moved by the waving of any banners, and there are all sorts of sources of possible ethical systems besides “the idea of Life, the feeling of Life”.

And so on and so on.

Eco then makes the very good point that a key question is exactly when a human life begins, that we don’t have a really good answer to it, and that it seems like a question that we may never have a really good answer to, even though it’s so important. (I like him saying this, because in my own analysis of the whole abortion issue, these facts are at the core of why it’s so hard.)

The Cardinal responds by subtly taking issue with Eco’s emphasis on “Life”, saying of course that it’s really all about God, and “the life of a person called upon to participate in the life of God himself.”

“Participate” is a great word there, like when the news says that a person is “linked to” some terrorist group. The postmodern “informed by” is another one. They all let you sort of draw a narrative line between two things without actually making any truth-claim that might turn out to be wrong. I have no idea what it actually means to “participate in the life of God himself” for Cardinal Martini, and I’m not convinced that he really does, either. At the high cloudy levels that he’s talking, “participate” is all that’s needed.

Moving on to just when there starts to be “a concrete life that I can label human”, Martini uses some more “obviously” words:

But we all know that we have … a clearer sense of genetic determination starting from a point that, at least in theory, can be identified. From conception, in fact, a new being is born.

There ya go! “We all know” that “in fact” a new being is born at conception.

Here “new” means as distinct from the two elements that united to form it.

This may be a nice definition of “new”, but the more important term is “being”. When someone ingests a couple pieces of food and they start to dissolve in the stomach, there may be some point at which they squish together and there is a “new” food-glob which is distinct from either the hotdog or the bun, but there’s no “new being” here to worry about, unless and until the relevant molecules make their way into a developing fetus which is (say) eventually born.

So he’s doing an end-run to try to slip “identity begins at the moment of conception” (something that the Church has believed for only a small fraction of its history, as Eco mentions and Martini ignores) into the discussion as though it was something we now know as a fact.

Okay, that’s par for the course. :)

Here is some more novel and amorphous stuff, on the topic of why the product of conception matters, and why we should protect it:

Beyond these scientific and philosophical matters lies the fact that whatsoever is open to so great a destiny — being called by name by God himself — is worthy of enormous respect from the beginning.

Why is that? Is there anything that God himself can’t call by name? Does God have names for people in a way that he doesn’t have names for animals, or fruit, or dust-motes? This is a piece of Catholic doctrine, or something, that I wasn’t aware of. Why would being called by name by God, as opposed to any other aspect of a putative relationship to God, be the thing in particular that makes a person “worthy of enormous respect from the beginning”?

If it turned out that God also had names for individual rocks, would we be morally obliged to make sure that any rock that begins to split off the side of a mountain does in fact split off, and to have “enormous respect” for it from that point on? Why or why not?

And yes, the question seems absurd. But it’s directly implied by the Cardinal’s words, so I will refer him to you on that issue.

We are talking about real responsibility toward that which is produced by a great and personal love, responsibility toward “someone”. Being called upon and loved, this someone already has a face, and is the object of affection and attention.

I think we are still talking about a just-fertilized egg here. The great and personal love must be God’s (since, sadly, not every instance of conception involves great or personal human love), as must be the affection and attention (since, this early in the game, no human is aware that anything exists to lavish affection and attention on).

But the someone already has a face? What could that mean? A fertilized egg most definitely does not have a face; it is too small. Is this a metaphor for something? If so, it’s not clear for what. Does he mean that he thinks the look of the face of the eventual person (if any) resulting from the fertilization is already determined, by the genetics of the sperm and egg? That’s probably not true, certainly not before the gametes are all done fusing (when exactly is “the moment of conception” at this level of detail, anyway?). And why “face” rather than “form” or for that matter foot-size? Are those less important, or is it all just some metaphor and “face” sounds better?

The next sentence is:

Every violation of this need of affection and attention can only result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

How did we get from the fertilized egg’s being the object of affection and attention (from God), to a need for affection and attention? In fact the fertilized egg, at this point, doesn’t have any need for affection and attention, unless there’s some religious claim here that it needs it from God. But presumably nothing could violate God’s affection and attention. (I’m not sure what if anything it means to “violate” a “need”.)

The claim being made here seems to be that from the moment of conception there is a new being that as a need for affection and attention, and any failure to provide for that need will result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

But that’s false. Something like half of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise spontaneously aborted very early (and so presumably their needs aren’t being provided for?), and no one who isn’t God ever knows they existed. No conflict, no profound suffering, no painful rending.

The obvious counter here is that the good Cardinal didn’t mean that. And that’s likely true, but then we’re just left wondering exactly what he did mean.

The end of this letter doesn’t help much, except to suggest that it’s all about faces again.

There is a splendid metaphor that reveals in lay terms something common to both Catholics and laymen, that of the “face”. Levinas spoke of it movingly as an irrefutable instance. I would rather cite the words, almost a testament, of Italo Mancini in one of his last books, Tornino i volti [Back to the Faces]: “Living in, loving, and sanctifying our world wasn’t granted us by some impersonal theory of being, or by the facts of history, or by natural phenomena, but by the existence of those uncanny centers of otherness — the faces, faces to look at, to honor, to cherish.”

Which, I think, is nice, even profound, as poetry, but as any sort of discussion of a subject falls rather flatly short of, well, of meaning anything.

Living in our world was granted us by the existence of faces? You don’t say!