Wednesday, October 25, 2006

(Two) Million-Dollar Comma....

I just have to save a copy of this for use in classes.


Million-Dollar Comma May Aid Canadian Company

Listen to this story...

All Things Considered, October 25, 2006 · A contract dispute in Canada centers on what's being called a million-dollar comma. Canada's telecommunications regulator has decided that a misplaced comma in a contract concerning telephone poles will allow a company to save an estimated 2 million dollars (Canadian).

The current exchange rate is around .88 cents (U.S.) on the Canadian dollar.

The contract between cable company Rogers Communications and telephone company Bell Aliant allowed Rogers to use Bell Aliant's telephone polls. Bell Aliant sought to get out of the deal.

Canada's telecommunications regulator said the case hinged on the placement of the second comma in this clause:

"This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party."

Rogers had insisted the contract was good for at least five years; Aliant said the comma denotes that the deal can be terminated at five years -- or before, as long as one year's notice is given.

The ruling commission said that the comma should have been omitted if the contract was meant to last five years in its shortest term.

The case is now being appealed; Rogers claims that in its French version, the contract has a different statement clarifying the point.

Robert Siegel talks with Robert Janda, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal about the case.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Another use for blogs

Aside from just giving me and identity to use when leaving comments on other people’s blogs, I’ve discovered the usefulness of blogs as a filing cabinet. Things I’ve sent to several people in recent months I can post here. This will save me from searching my e-mail for whatever I’m looking for.

So while I still don’t really have anything new to say, I might occasionally stick some stuff up here from the days when I did have something to say.

But I’d still prefer it if you just came over and shared a beverage.


Tolle Lege: Winter’s Tale

This is an introduction to Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale that I wrote some time back. It was written to go with copies of the book that I gave to a couple of people, including my then headmaster. At the point where I tell the recipients to turn to a particular page, you can jump down to the previous post, where I’ve pasted in that whole chapter (it’s a page long) and a quotation from an Image interview with Helprin. My apologies for the awkwardness of jumping back and forth. Enjoy anyway.


~~~Begin Quotation~~~
Churchmen... burn themselves up in seeking, and they find nothing. If your faith is genuine, then you will meet your responsibilities, fulfill your obligations, and wait until you are found. It will come. If not to you, then to your children, and if not to them, then to their children.
-- from Mark Helprin’s A Winters Tale (italics mine)

X and Y,

I got suckered into Classics and into teaching in large part through my love of reading. Every now and again I come across a book that reminds me why I do what I do.

You are holding in your hands one of the most luminous novels I've ever read. When people ask why I teach, I want to hand them this book and say, “because books like this exist.” I even once used a chapter as part of devotions here at Trinity. It was the short chapter entitled “Nothing is Random” that stands at the beginning of section three. It’s about a page long and starts on p. 359. Go ahead and turn to it now and give it a read.

[cf. previous post]


All done? Is it not a fine attempt at reconciling free will and predestination? And that final line, “...justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.”

Now, you will have noticed that I underlined a few words in your copy of that chapter. My one complaint about this book as an object is that the editor and publisher really should have sprung for italics in a few places where the emphasis makes the reading clear on a first pass. Be that as it may, while I was reading this novel for the first time, I never put my pencil down, but marked passages left and right and kept running indices of particular themes and great quotations. Be warned and keep a pencil handy.

Why do I like this novel so much? Normally, I need good characters to hook me into a story. But here, I didn't really care about the characters and yet I read on avidly. I think perhaps it was the story itself that carried me along.

If that’s the case, if this is a plot-driven novel with (what seem to me to be) broadly drawn characters without a lot of depth, in fact a sort of sideshow of stock characters and off-stock characters who’ve been languishing on a shelf waiting for a story they could actually work in... If that’s the way this novel is put together, it may be that my background makes me a bit more receptive to it than most people are. I spend a fair bit of time in ancient literature, where it is the plot and the language that carry things along, rather than the psychology of the characters.

I suppose that what I’m trying to avoid saying is that I found this to be an ancient epic of a story.

One of the main things I love about this novel is its sense of language. The prose is quite nice, and at times nearly breathtaking. Take the sections where the winter scenes are evoked with such beauty that you can almost see the cheesy Currier & Ives (or even Norman Rockwell) illustrations trying to capture the stark beauty of a time gone by. Into the midst of at least two of those scenes, the story tosses in a simile that breaks the illusion, makes me remember that the setting is not from some Capra film, but from the post-atomic age.

For example, on p. 542, in a long description of the spontaneous street fairs that arise on the ice, you can almost see the skaters trailing their scarves, stopping at the stands for quaint snacks, behaving like a pre-television community. Listen:

The nine-year-old boys seemed to be the fastest and the most daring. They were as skinny as elastic bands, knew no danger, and stopped only long enough to shovel fruit pastries into their mouths. Then they were off at a hundred miles an hour, dodging, darting, and continually raving in squeaky voices for everyone to move out of their way.

Can’t you see them? Can’t you hear them? And what are they dressed in when you see them? Lots of wool; no nylon or synthetics in bright colors, just natural fabrics and earth-tones. Even they velocity is evoked with a the rather old-fashioned hyperbole a hundred miles an hour. But this illusion is shattered with the very next sentence:

“As speedy as pions, muons, and charmed quarks, they were all places at once, the possessors of pure boundless energy.”

And we are jerked forward into our turn-of-the-millennium era. But I can’t help but notice that those bygone boys who zip ahead so post-atomically aren’t simply like quarks; they're like charmed quarks. And what sort better.

And of course, in a novel so propelled by language, there are the characters who are tied up in language. There’s Craig Binky, editor of the Ghost, and his riotous malapropisms. There is Hugh Close, a virtual throwaway, but still a man far overqualified to be a rewrite editor: “Words were all he knew; they possessed and overwhelmed him, as if they were a thousand white cats with whom he shared a one-room apartment. (In fact, he did not like cats, because the could not talk and would not listen.)” (229-30).

And there is Mrs. Gamely, my favorite -- an illiterate with an extraordinarily fine command of precise usage, a woman who welcomes foreigners so she can soak up their words and who requires a team of lexicographers to keep up with her vocabulary. Read pp. 201-204, right down to the hysterically incongruous and jarring “Who knows? The point is, he thought he was a cat.”

Another thing I really liked about this novel is its sense of humor. There are the ironic touches like those above, the screwball touches like the telegrams fired back and forth on pp. 141-2 (cf. Mrs. Gamely's advice on finding someone in NY, p. 288). There’s even the profoundly stupid, like world’s worst outdoor guide, Jesse, who seems to be whittling himself to death -- “But he never thought that he would die in a bark suit, strapped to a shock pancake, next to an incompetent midget.” (267).

And the humor and language combine in some brilliant descriptions. In the ice scene I refer to above, with the squeaky nine-year-old pions, is a description I will probably always remember, especially since I’m so fond of hard-boiled eggs. -- “Above innumerable fireboxes, caldrons steamed and boiled, lobsters tumbled, and many grosses of eggs jigged in the hysterical dances of the legless bald.” (542)

For the language and the humor alone, I would love this novel. But I think there’s some meat to chew on as well. For example, most of those notes that I scribbled were on such themes as bridges, justice, balance, loss, and rebirth. But rather than give you a run through one or the other of the themes of Winter’s Tale, I’ll give you a quick taste of the meat of it through those stock characters. This will also allow me to give you a question to mull over as you read.

One way to discover whether a person has understood what they’ve read is via a diagnostic question. I was delighted to discover that Walker Percy held this same view, and that he had a diagnostic question for the readers of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, a book for which I, too, have a question. If you’ve read CfL, then perhaps you’ll recognize the value of these two questions.

Percy’s: Who or what is Rachel? (the second head on the woman at the end of the book)

Mine: Is this book fundamentally optimistic or fundamentally pessimistic?

My diagnostic question for WT is more like Percy’s character question for CfL:

Who or what is Peter Lake?

It will give away nothing to warn you about another character, Jackson Mead. Who is Jackson Mead? It becomes clear that he’s trying to bridge heaven and earth, trying to make heaven accessible on earth, and this is nearly always assumed within the novel to be a laudable goal. Yet in the epilogue, I read “But Jackson Mead was convinced, as always, that the next time, a new means at his disposal would allow him to return from the high place from which he had been cast.” Cast from a high place, trying to get back, plenty of time to bide... Now who could this be? And if my suspicion is supportable, what does this do to the notion of the bridge and Mead’s stated goals, always presented in a favorable light within the novel?

So as you read, pencil in hand, ask yourself: Who or what is Peter Lake?

Pax Christi vobiscum vestrisque,

Mark Helprin on Predestination and Free Will

Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distribution of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of an electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one can be certain.

And yet there is a wonderful anarchy, in that the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will. How can this be? If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer is simple. Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it happened all at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given -- so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece. Time, however, can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is -- and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

“Nothing is Random,” the first chapter in the 3rd section of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale


I see no contradiction between free will and predestination. Why is this? It is because I believe that time is an illusion, that, given our mortal limitations, it is the artifice by which we struggle to perceive a reality that has no time. In other words, it all happened and is happening, at once. Take, for example, the sequential progress of a movie. It seems to be rooted in linear time. Frame after frame passes in forward motion. And yet, before and after the show, the film is in the can, absolutely still, all in one place and position, immobile. If it is true that time is a function of the speed of light, and if it is also true that a point, as in Euclidean geometry, is illusory, then light on a course from the earth outward, when apprehended from far enough away--from infinite distance, from God's perspective--would not possess the attributes of motion. And therefore there would be no time. In the absence of time, there need not be a contradiction between that which is predestined and that which is chosen. And, by the way, this would also explain the close connection between time and death. Perhaps death is the condition when the illusion if time loses its grip on us. In life, people frequently report not only deja vu but sensations of time slowing, or even stopping. Please do not misinterpret me or draw the wrong conclusions about my seriousness when I remind you that I do not wear a watch.

--from an interview with Mark Helprin published in Image #17

Sunday, October 01, 2006

God Squashed; NBC Steams VeggieTales fans

If I were the sort who blogged, this is the sort of thing I might blog about.

AP via CNN

(also featured at

I can see the re-worked first episode now:


with that great song:


It's just sad.