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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Screaming Children: God's Blessing

Liturgy, it is said, is the life of the Church. The word itself means "work of the people." It originates in pagan Greek practice, where the wealthiest Greek citizens of a city-state would ritually donate warships, plays, public buildings and festivals to honor the city of their birth and give delight to its citizens.

Christians began using, in their own buildings, the adaptations of Jewish Temple ritual that Jesus had taught them. Christians called their ritual "liturgy" to show that it honored the City of God. The rituals that Jesus empowered with the grace of the Crucifixion were performed by Christians in order to deliver the sacraments and the divinizing grace of those sacraments to the people. This makes the people holy and thereby builds up the City of God. Just as with the pagan Greeks, the divine liturgy" was the "work of the people", but unlike the pagan Greeks, Christian liturgy actually carried divine power. In part, the divine liturgy makes up what is lacking in Christ's suffering, for the sake of the Church, just as Colossians 1:24 promised to do. By using the pagan Greek word to describe God's work in their lives, the Christians helped pagans understand the Paschal Mystery and the Body of Christ.

Jesus was both human and divine, so the liturgy is work done by human beings, but carrying divine power. The Mass is about the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, which are the four aspects of the Paschal Mystery. Each of the four aspects of the single act which is the Paschal Mystery is itself inexorably linked to one of the four reasons for Christ's Incarnation (CCC 457-460). God became man to To show us how much He loves us (Passion), To save us from our sins (Death), To give us a model of holiness (Resurrection), To divinize us (Ascension).

Thus, the Mass is always about those four actions and those four reasons.

So, what does a screaming toddler have to do with any of this?
Does the toddler make you suffer?
Ohhh.... poor you.

Does the toddler force you to die to your self-perceived facade of holiness because you suddenly find less than serene thoughts floating through your mind?
Oh... that must be terrible for you.

Does the toddler give you the opportunity to rise above your petty selfishness?

Does the toddler give you the opportunity to again climb the mountain back into the liturgy, this time with a better understanding of your own failings in charity towards others?
Why, this is most excellent!

Were there screaming children watching the condemned men process up the road to Calvary? I bet there were. Did Golgotha have a cry room? Call me a skeptic, but I doubt it.

The Mass is the life of the Church, and my life is my life before God. In both of these lives, there are screaming children, children acting out, children running up and down aisles, playing with toys instead of paying attention, children even trying (succeeding?) in running into the sanctuary during Mass. The difference between children in the life of the Church and the child in MY life, is that the child in MY life is ME.

I scream when God offers me holiness, I ignore His call, I play with toys rather than pay attention, I run up and down my every day life without thought nor care of God. That child acting out in front of me is a visual representation of ME, every day, even AFTER I have had my morning coffee. That's why so many of us hate hearing children at Mass. Those kids are way, way too much like offensive little ole' me. If I don't want my own self-perception pierced, then I damned well can't have children around showing me off to myself.

Get thee to a nunnery!
Or a cry room.

Or anywhere, really, but in front of me. This glass is not darkly enough, I can still see into it. I don't want face-to-face, I want the picture of Dorian Gray in front of me, so I can pretend it is my mirror. Let me have children about me that are fat, Sleek-headed children and such as sleep a-Mass. Yon screaming child has a lean and hungry look. He suffers too much. Such children are dangerous.

This child is ... this child is... this child is a living, breathing, sobbing tableaux of the Crucifixion, and I am really not able to face Christ crucified. Give me the quiet Mass and its quiet illusion of quiet. Take away from me this image of the bloody, snot-streaming Christ. It offends my gentle holiness.

Yes, it does.
And that's a GOOD thing.

Friday, December 15, 2017

What is a Distributed Ledger?

Ask for a description of cryptocurrencies, and the reply will always involve the phrase "it's a distributed ledger..." They say it as if you are supposed to know what it means. Who the heck does? What on earth is a distributed ledger?

The best thumbnail description I've seen is to think of an Excel spreadsheet. Lots of rows and columns, and it's good for adding numbers, right? That's a ledger - it's just a spreadsheet.  Saying it is "distributed" means that copies of the spreadsheet are held on hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of computers at the same time. Any change made to one spreadsheet is automatically replicated to all of the others. Every computer that has a copy of the spreadsheet has to process or "vote" on whether or not to accept the change.

Who can change the cells of the spreadsheet? Well, that's where "coins" come in. Think of each cell as a separate "coin". Access to the cell is granted only to the person who holds the cryptographic keys to that cell. In this analogy, the "blockchain" would just be the map of all the spreadsheet cells.

Just as a spreadsheet can hold numbers or text, and the numbers can be currency or dates or anything else, so the "coins" in the spreadsheet can hold data. Most people simply buy access to the coins, as one would buy empty real estate. You don't necessarily intend to ever build anything there, but when you buy a coin, you are expressing the bet that someone else will one day want to build something in that spreadsheet cell. So, some people build on their coins - put data or programs into the coins (cells) they hold - but most people buy coins for the same reason you buy real estate. You're betting this blockchain is going to become a bustling city, and everyone will want to build there. So, you buy some empty cells ("coins", "land," whatever you want to call it), and wait for the property values to go up.

The person who holds the cryptographic keys to a coin is the one who can stuff data or programs or whatever inside of that coin (land parcel). If you lose your keys, or your keys are stolen, then access to that particular coin is permanently lost.

You prove that you have rights to make changes to the "coin" by supplying your password. You can sell your coin to someone else without ever telling them your password. When you sell, the blockchain recognizes the transfer of ownership - you get the cash, someone else now owns the access to that spreadsheet cell or "coin" in that spreadsheet (blockchain).

Every time you want to make a change to the cell, either by putting data into it or transferring ownership, you have to pay a processing fee to all the computers that update their copy of the ledger for you. The computers that acknowledge and update their copy of the ledger are called "miners." The fee is generally magnitudes cheaper than you would pay a bank. Once enough miners agree to update their ledger, all the others than auto-update their copies as well. Generally, a transaction requires multiple "confirmations", three or six or nine or whatever, to initiate the auto-update on all the other thousands of copies.

Every change to the "coin" or cell is permanently written to the cell and visible to everyone. So, every transfer of ownership, every content addition or change, all of it is permanently recorded in the cell, impossible to erase. Everyone can see the whole history of everything that happened in that cell and to that cell, right down to the last niggling little detail. Forever.

So, if you want permanent records and don't mind them being publicly visible to everyone with access to a computer, this is a great feature. Every public record could be permanently recorded into a blockchain. Medical records could be put in a blockchain, instantly accessible by medical personnel anywhere. You might think "Good heavens! I don't want everyone to know I had my gallbladder out!" Not a problem - encrypt the data before you stuff it into the cell. Now everyone can see the encrypted data in the blockchain, but only you have the key. When you show up at the hospital, the doctors check the blockchain with the key you supply for that record, and they can see the relevant details about your gallbladder. Without the key, no one else can read the cell contents. Win-win, the record can be updated by the doctors with your permission and the payment of the very nominal processing fee to update the blockchain. These are a couple of use cases. There are many more.

Some blockchains have no upper limit to the number of cells in their spreadsheet, so new "coins aka "land" aka "spreadsheet cells" are continually created. Other blockchains have a hard upper limit - only so many coins will ever be created and that's it. Some blockchains generate new "coins" at a steady rate, a certain percentage a minute/hour/day. Other blockchains generate new "coins" according to other methods.  Some blockchains come with all the coins they will ever have already in existence when they first publish their Initial Coin Offering (ICO).

As I pointed out before, each blockchain has its own unique characteristics. How, and how many of, the new coins are generated (and how new coins are generated) affects the value of the coin. Just as there is no single agreed upon "best set" of qualities, there is no single agreed upon "best method" for coin generation. People are still figuring out what works best for which applications. All of these unknowns are why values fluctuate so steeply.

Is cryptocurrency overvalued, in a bubble? It really is impossible to tell. It should be obvious that this is a pretty new technology, a new way of thinking about how to deal with information. How useful is it? Well, that's what the market is trying to figure out. The more people think about it, the more useful it seems to be, which is why the "coins" or the "real estate value" of the various distributed ledgers are steadily increasing. Is a lot of it pure mis-calculation? Could it be that this thing is really a lot less useful than it appears? Sure.

It's a penny stock, land speculation, stock market gambling, all wrapped up in a portable package that transcends both national boundaries and national currencies. It allows anyone with a cell phone to become his own personal uninsured bank and banker. Is it safe? Probably not, but maybe it will be once we figure out what it is and how to cage it. Is it fun? Yes.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Discussion of Cryptocurrencies

A friend asked me to weigh in on the various crypto-currencies. There are now over 1000 of them, and I can't claim to know much about more than a handful. That said, here is my take.

First, what is cryptocurrency? Cryptocurrencies are open-inspection distributed ledger systems. The value of crypto lies in the fact that these ledger systems put every transaction out in the open, essentially impossible to fake. Because the ledger is distributed across millions of computers, it is generally very difficult to corrupt or take down the system. If you need an accounting system with those characteristics, cryptocurrency does it better than any other accounting system. That is its value.

Those characteristics are worth money. No one is sure exactly how much, but as time goes on, more and more people are coming up with things where this crypto-currency distributed ledger system might be useful. Tracking mortgage transactions and title to land is one area. Tracking stock market transactions is another (e.g., Australia is moving to a crypto-currency ledger system for its stock market).  Every day, more use cases are being created, thus every day, crypto becomes more valuable.

While those are the general qualities of all cryptos, it is also the case that each of the thousand different ledger systems out there, i.e., each of the crypto-currencies, have slightly different characteristics. Some might be easier to program with, others may have faster transaction times, still others provide more guarantees of anonymity in every transaction. Thus different coins have different monetary values, based on whether the people investing think the characteristics of that particular coin are valuable.

Bitcoin is the most well-known and hyped, but is the least likely to win any long-term races for a variety of reasons. Its problems include the fact that it has relatively long confirmation times for trades and low transaction speeds. It is extremely difficult to program (Bitcoin code looks a lot like assembler, if you know what that means), so it is difficult to build applications on it. It is literally first generation architecture, the very first attempt at creating an open-inspection distributed ledger. On the plus side, because it is first, it gets all the hype. In addition, if you want to buy other cryptos, you generally have to buy some Bitcoin first. You trade dollars for Bitcoin, and Bitcoin for the currency you REALLY want. This means Bitcoin prices aren't going to go down until that changes. That won't change until a whole lot of cryptocurrency trading platforms allow for easier direct conversion of US dollars to cryptos beside Bitcoin. This is already changing, but there's a lot of room for improvement here. Improving this aspect of crypto trade won't take forever... a year or two at most. If you invest in Bitcoin, be prepared to switch to a different currency within the next few months/years.

What should you switch to?

Ethereum is a good platform, widely adopted, much better suited for general use. It is much easier to code, much easier to build applications on, and currently has faster, cheaper transaction times. A lot of big-name companies are building on Ethereum. There is little question Ethereum's value will outlast Bitcoin. It is definitely a more intermediate investment that will hold value for, hopefully, the next several years.

Monero's claim to fame is its privacy protections. It is very strong in that regard and those privacy protections are what drives the major value in this coin offering. Bitcoin claims to provide anonymous transactions, and that is kind of true, but not entirely true. While it is hard to do, it is possible to track a person's Bitcoin transactions. Monero takes "hard to do" and tries to turn it into "damned-near impossible." If you don't like having people all up in your business, then Monero is an appealing coin.

There are a few other cryptos I have looked at, but none of the others are really worth mentioning here, except for one. Of all the cryptos I know about, my favorite up-and-coming coin is Cardano. First, it is still extremely inexpensive.  Second, it has GREAT modular design. Third, it was created using the Haskell programming language, which theoretically reduces the likelihood of bugs. It's programming interfaces are very modern and allow the use of several of the most popular programming languages. In fact, it is, to my knowledge, the most modular coin on the market.

What does "modular" mean? It means various characteristics of the coin can be taken out and replaced without disturbing the coin's basic ledger system. Even the coin's base cryptography can theoretically be changed out at a moment's notice.

I mention this particularly because of something called quantum computing. Nearly all of the crypto-currencies out there are built on a cryptographic system called "asymmetric key algorithms." This kind of cryptography is gold-standard for regular computers, because it is essentially impossible to crack. It is used for nearly every kind of cryptographic transaction you can think of: banks, credit cards, spy stuff, even your Amazon purchases all use asymmetric key.

Sadly, asymmetric key is theoretically breakable with quantum computers. If quantum computing ever becomes a thing, not only are all of your Amazon purchase now at risk, anyone holding asymmetric-based crypto coins can have all of those coins stolen in just a few minutes. That may be the least of your worries: if quantum computing becomes a thing, every bank account in the world can be broken into in just minutes as well. The whole world depends on asymmetric key crypto, and quantum will break all of it.

The problem is simple: quantum computing will be able to solve entire classes of problems very quickly, so many big organizations, including IBM, Intel, Google and most national governments, are working to create big quantum computers. When they do, all asymmetric algorithms suddenly become much, much more vulnerable. It will be a freaking nightmare for security experts. 

But, while quantum (when it is more fully developed) can take out asymmetric crypto, it can't do anything to symmetric crypto. That's still safe. So, all existing asymmetric applications, including cryptocurrencies will, at some point (probably within the next 10 years), have to switch over to symmetric cryptography for their basic security. There are technical reasons why this has not been done yet (for instance, the key-size for symmetric crypto is not small), but everyone can see that it is coming. We've got maybe a decade, and then the deluge.

Because it is hard to code, Bitcoin is very badly positioned for such a switch. Ethereum is better off. Cardano is, from what I can see, as close to optimal for such a switch as we are likely to get in the near future. For this reason, I consider Cardano a definite long-term buy and hold. As more people become more educated about crypto-currencies in general, I expect non-Bitcoin crypto-currencies to increase. Cardano should, if my assessment is correct, go up by a factor of at least 100.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What Is Natural Law?

Contrary to popular opinion, natural law has nothing to do with "nature red in tooth and claw". Darwin's theory, whether true or not, has absolutely no bearing on natural law theory.
Natural law speaks to morality, the nature of sin and virtue. Darwin's theory says absolutely nothing about morality, sin or virtue. In fact, Darwin's theory does not even allow for value judgements. You cannot say something is "more evolved" or "less evolved", you cannot call one adaptation "better" or another "worse." You can only speak of whether or not an organism's chances of survival are greater or less, given the circumstances. That's it.
Apart from using the generic concept of a thing having a "nature", natural law theory also has nothing to do with pagan Greek thought. Natural law is a purely Christian concept that supports the purely Christian concept which is personhood.
For an example of how natural law works, let us assume two couples. Each couple gives birth to a sickly child. The first couple takes the child out to the forest and abandons it among the trees, where insects, birds, coyotes and other animals eventually eat the child (either eat the child alive, or eat its corpse, because the child died from exposure).
The second couple take their child to the NICU, where a team of doctors and nurses spend days hooking the child to machines, artificial pumps, artificial temperature control, etc., in order to assure the child's survival.
Which couple acted according to the natural law?
Since God is love, and God is life, and we are made in God's image and likeness, the SECOND couple acted according to the natural law. They acted as God acts, assisting the little one in need. Meanwhile, the first couple acted contrary to the natural law by abandoning their child to certain death.
That's natural law. Natural law is not about the laws of nature. Natural law is about how men are meant to image, in their own bodies and their own actions, the very life of the Three Persons of the Trinity, the God Who Is Love and Life. Darwin simply isn't relevant. 

Natural law theory rests on our grace-empowered ability to image God's life of love. If God sends the grace (and He does), then we can live natural law - we can live according to our nature. If He does not, then we cannot. Our rational minds need grace to choose the good, our bodies need grace to do the good. Without grace, as St. Paul said, I know what is good, but I do not choose it, rather, I choose that which I know is not good. Natural law does not work without grace.
Liturgical Christians know that the Fall marred human nature, but did not totally destroy it. In order to believe in the concept of "inherent human rights", America's Founding Fathers had to implicitly repudiate Luther and accept liturgical Christian understanding of human nature: marred, but not destroyed. Thus, if the Founders were correct about inviolable human rights, it is only because they implicitly refuse to accept total depravity. It is only because they embraced the Catholic understanding of human nature.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

On Roy Moore

1917 Code of Canon Law - legal age of marriage for women is 12.
1983 Code of Canon Law - legal age of marriage for women is 14.
Even if the allegations are true, Catholics cannot really entertain a brief against Roy Moore.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Advent Play List

Courtesy of Jeff Miller

+ Adjuvabit eam
+ Alma Redemptoris Mater
+ Angelus Ad Virginem

+ A Maiden Most Gentle
+ Benedixisti Domine
+ Christ Whose Glory Fills The Skies
+ Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing (18th Century)
+ Come, thou long-expected Jesus
+ Come Thou Redeemer Of The Earth
+ Comfort Ye My People (Messiah)
+ Conditor alme siderum
+ Creator Alme Siderum
+ Creator of the Stars of Night
+ Dies Irae - Tuba Mirum (Messa Da Requiem)
+ Every Valley Shall Be Exalted (Messiah)
+ Gabriel's Message
+ Hail to the Lord's Anointed
+ Hark The Glad Sound!
+ Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding
+ High O'er The Lonely Hills
+ Holy is His Name
+ I Sing of a Maiden
+ I Wonder as I Wander
In The Bleak Midwinter
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent
Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates
Like The Dawning
Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending (Hymn)
Long ago, prophets knew
Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge
Maria Walks Amid The Thorn
Novissima hora est (The Dream of Gerontius)
O Come, Divine Messiah
O come, O come, Emmanuel
O Heavenly Word Eternal Light
O Magnum Magisterium
O Quickly Come, Dread Judge of All
O Radix Jesse
O Word That Goest Forth On High, Plainsong 7th Century Latin
On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
People Look East
Praeparate Corda Vestra
Prepare the Way
Regnantem Sempiterna
Rejoice All Ye Believers
Rorate Caeli
Savior Of The Nations, Come
Sleepers, Wake! (Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns Die Stimme )
The Angel Gabriel
The Cherry Tree Carol
The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns
The Lord Will Come And Not Be Slow
There is no rose of such virtue
Thy Kingdom Come O God
Thy Kingdom Come On Bended Knee
Veni Redemptor gentium
Veni Veni Emmanuel (Latin version)
Vox clara ecce intonat
Wake, Awake for Night is Flying
Watchman (Watchman, Tell Us of the Night)
Zion hört die Wächter singen - Choral: "Zion hört die Wächter singen" J.S. Bach: Choral

Thursday, November 30, 2017

In The Country of the Blind

Many people, including myself, have called Humanae Vitae a prophetic document. But, as I think about events, I suspect we are all wrong. It is not a prophetic document at all. Let me explain.

Everyone talks about the terrible social lapses caused by contraception. What most people don't realize is that the eugenics movement and its daughter, the contraception movement, were merely steps in an already existing problem. The problem was the demographic transition. The cause, as near as anyone can tell, was the Industrial Revolution and the improvements in housing and medical care that revolution made possible.

The demographic transition, that is, the loss in fertility rate below replacement levels, actually began in the early 1800s. Dropping fertility rates spread from France and England throughout the world, country by country, for the next two centuries right up to the present day. The current baby-bust is not the aberration, the post-war Baby Boom was the aberration.

But, because we all grew up in the post-Baby Boom years, we all think this is a post-1960s problem. It isn't. And, while the Church has never changed her teaching, while the Church has always taught that we should not exploit workers or women, Rerum Novarum, Casti Conubii and Humanae Vitae, were documents that were playing catch-up.  The Church was late in recognizing the nature of the problem in the sense that She was late getting a firm grasp of the cultural shift.

The Luddites understood that the machines were going to create a problem. They misunderstood exactly how. They thought machines would take everyone's jobs and make everyone poor. Instead, the machines took most people's jobs, but made everyone rich. They knew there was a problem, but they didn't understand the problem.

Marx saw it as well - he was wrong in an entirely different way than the Luddites. He thought the machines would allow a small group of people to exploit the workers. It never occurred to him that it would allow that small group of people to simply ignore the workers. Again, he knew there would be a problem, but he didn't accurately predict what the problem would be or how it should be resolved. Indeed, he thought the destruction of the family would be a good thing. He absolutely did not understand that the industrialized destruction of the family was the problem.  The worker-employer relationship was just a symptom. The central problem completely eluded his grasp.

The Church has always taught that people are subjects, not objects, and the larger Christian society had largely understood this, for over a millennia at least, by 1800. What the episcopate took too long figuring out, in re both workers rights' and contraception, was that Christian cultural attitudes towards those two issues were undergoing such a major and rapid shift that encyclicals were required.

Culture had already gone 70 years down that road before we saw Rerum Novarum, 100 years down it for Castii Connubi and 150 for HV. THAT is the sense in which the Church was late to the table.

Not that anyone else was much earlier - we would be hard-pressed to identify someone who pronounced earlier AND correctly, about what was coming. Lots of people pronounced earlier, but they all got something important wrong. Others got the essentials right, but largely by mimicking what the Church had already said.

The problem is precisely in the fact that, by the time the Church had articulated the problem correctly, in a way the culture was likely to understand, the culture had changed to the point that the Church was largely ignored.

In that sense, Rerum Novarum, Castii Conubii and HV were actually not prophetic at all.  They were all three simply descriptive. After all, what those documents described was already well underway - it was just that the Church was the only one who saw it, because She was the only one who was still able to see.