Archive for August, 2008

Sunday night cello sonata

August 31, 2008

Maurice Gendron and Christian Ivaldi play the final movement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata.  This recording was made in Paris in 1967 (Duration: 3:40):

The first part of the sonata is also online, but the audio and the video are misaligned by a second or so.  Still, it’s great music.  Here.

Te Augustinum laudamus

August 28, 2008

Thus Augustine, that shining light of wisdom, that bulwark of the truth and rampart of the faith, incomparably surpassed all the doctors of the Church, both in native gifts and in acquired knowledge, excelling by the example of his virtues and the abundance of his teaching.  Hence Saint Remy, commemorating Jerome and several other doctors, concludes as follows: “Augustine outdid them all in genius and knowledge, for, although Jerome admitted that he had read six thousand volumes of Origin, Augustine wrote so many that no one, working day and night, could write his books, nor even succeed in reading them.”  Volusianus, to whom Augustine wrote a letter, says of him: “Anything that Augustine happened not to know is not in the law of God.”

Jerome wrote in a letter to Augustine: “I am not able to respond to your two short works, most learned and brilliant with every splendor of eloquence as they are.  All that genius can say or assume or draw from the fountains of the Scriptures has there been said and treated.  But I beg Your Reverence to allow me to say something in praise of your genius.”  In his book Of the Twelve Doctors, Jerome writes as follows about Augustine: “Augustine the bishop, flying like an eagle over the mountain peaks and not attending to what is at their foot, discoursed in clear language about the broad spaces of the heavens, the length and breadth of the lands, and the circle of the seas.”  And Jerome’s reverence and affection for Augustine appear from the letters he wrote to him, in one of which he says: “To the holy lord and most blessed father Augustine, Jerome sends greetings.  At all times I have venerated Your Beatitude with the honor due you, and have loved the Lord our Savior dwelling in you, buy now, if I may, I add to the sum and bring my veneration to its fullness, lest we let one hour pass without a mention of your name.”  In another letter to the same: “Far be it from me to dare to question anything in Your Beatitude’s books.  I have enough to do to correct my own without criticizing anyone else’s.”

Gregory also, in a letter to Innocent, the prefect of Africa, writes as follows about Augustine’s works: “I am gratified by your interest and your request that I send you my commentary on holy Job; but if you wish to gorge yourself on delicious fare, read the treatises of blessed Augustine, your compatriot, and by comparison with his fine flour you will not ask for my bran.”  In his Register he says: “We read that blessed Augustine would not live in the same house with his sister, saying: ‘The women who are with my sister are not my sisters.’  The caution of that learned man should teach us an important lesson.”

In Ambrose’s Preface we read: “In Augustine’s dying we adore your magnificence, O Lord!  Your power works in all, so that this man, fired by your Spirit, was not led astray by flattering promises, because you had imbued him with every kind of piety, and to you he was altar, sacrifice, priest, and temple.”  Blessed Prosper, in the third book of The Contemplative Life, speaks about him as follows: “Saint Augustine the bishop was keen of mind, suave in his eloquence, thoroughly familiar with secular literature, industrious in his labors for the Church, clear in everyday discussions, well organized in all his activities, acute in solving problems, careful in arguing with heretics, catholic in expounding our faith, cautious in explaining the canonical Scriptures.”   Bernard writes: “Augustine was the mighty hammer of heretics.”

— Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea
(trans. William Granger Ryan)

These three remain

August 28, 2008

Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love (421)
St. Augustine (Regnary, 1996)
191 p.  First reading.

This enchiridion — or “handbook” — was written as a letter to one Laurentius, a Roman who was making inquiries about the Christian faith. Augustine responded by articulating and defending the Apostles Creed.  This approach, good in itself, is somewhat awkwardly structured as an introduction to the three basic Christian virtues — awkward because much the greater part of the text is concerned specifically with Christian doctrine — with faith — and only in the closing pages does he briefly consider hope and love.  This can be justified — faith is the foundation for the other two virtues, and so is in some sense primary — but, still, calling it Enchiridion on Faith would have been closer to the truth.

Laurentius must have been an educated man, for Augustine does not hesitate to raise a number of philosophical issues in the course of his discussion.  The doctrine of Creation is accompanied by an extended analysis of what it means to say that the world is “good”, and so of the metaphysical status of good and evil.  This is supplemented by a slight digression on lying and truth-telling.  When presenting the doctrines pertaining to Christ, he takes up a number of thorny issues concerning the interrelationships of the Trinitarian persons, and the sense in which Jesus can be called “son” of God.  Other topics include sin and forgiveness, baptism and original sin, the Church, grace and judgment.

It is always interesting to revisit old texts, just to see the extent to which the Church remains in continuity with herself over time.  A modern Christian feels very much at home in Augustine’s company.

[Doctrine distilled]
Moreover, when the mind has been imbued with the first elements of that faith which worketh by love, it endeavors by purity of life to attain unto sight, where the pure and perfect in heart know that unspeakable beauty, the full vision of which is supreme happiness.  Here surely is an answer to your question as to what is the starting-point, and what the goal: we begin in faith, and are made perfect by sight.  This also is the sum of the whole body of doctrine.

[Abuses of language]
Now it is evident that speech was given to man, not that men might therewith deceive one another, but that one man might make known his thoughts to another.  To use speech, then, for the purpose of deception, and not for its appointed end, is a sin.

[Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also]
And now as to love, which the apostle declares to be greater than the other two graces, that is, than faith and hope, the greater the measure in which it dwells in a man, the better is the man in whom it dwells.  For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves.  For the man who loves aright no doubt believes and hopes aright; whereas the man who has not love believes in vain, even though his beliefs are true; and hopes in vain, even though the objects of his hope are a real part of true happiness; unless, indeed, he believes and hopes for this: that he may obtain by prayer the blessing of love.

Word of the day: canoodle

August 27, 2008

According to the OED:

canoodle, v. intr. To indulge in caresses and fondling endearments. Also formerly trans., to persuade by endearments or deception.

The earliest usage given is from 1859, but my favourite is from 1864:  “He will ‘canoodle’ the ladies … into the acquisition of whole packages of gimcrack merchandise.” [my italics]

The American Heritage Dictionary thinks the word is more explicit, defining it as “To engage in caressing, petting, or lovemaking.”

Before today, I did not know that this was the meaning of the word.  Before today, I thought it was a nonsense word.  In my ignorance, I have for several years been using “canoodle” as an affectionate, and perhaps sometimes gently mocking, synonym for “Canada”: “I am from Canoodlia”, “I’m a Canoodlian”, and so forth. I think I may have even used the word in that sense on this web log.

Well, this is all a little embarrassing.

Vaughan Williams Day

August 26, 2008

Today is a special day in music history: the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).  Vaughan Williams is generally considered one of the greatest English composers — a designation not intended to damn with faint praise — and he is certainly one of my personal favourites.  He had a wonderful melodic gift, and his music is sturdy and unpretentious.  He was deeply in love with the folk music of England, and that shines through clearly in his own writing.  Peter Ackroyd has said:

If … Englishness in music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be: ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.

and that is as good a description of Vaughan Williams’ music as one is likely to find.

I am going to be marking this day by listening to several of my favourite pieces — the Three Shakespeare Songs, his Symphony No.2 (the “London” symphony), the Phantasy Quintet, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. If it were not the middle of the summer I would listen to his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (Vaughan Williams wrote some great Christmas music).

I would love to share this music with you, and usually that means linking in YouTube videos. Regrettably, YouTube’s coverage of his music is poor.  I have linked before to his wonderful orchestral piece The Lark Ascending, and his lovely setting of “Silent Noon”, and those are certainly worth hearing again.

I did find a recording of Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus, another of his best pieces.  The tune here is better known as the hymn melody KINGSFOLD (used, for instance, in the hymn “I Feel the Winds of God Today”).  This is only a portion of the piece, but a substantial one (Duration: 8:40):

My closest personal encounter with Vaughan Williams’ music came when a choir of which I was a member sang his Mass in G minor.  It’s a beautiful piece for a cappella chorus, and it was lovely to sing.  Here is a performance of the Kyrie (Duration: 4:43; the volume level is a bit low):

[Hat-tip to Whistling for the Ackroyd quote.]

Ontario physicians and human rights

August 21, 2008

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has circulated a draft statement called “Physicians and the Ontario Human Rights Code”. It has attracted some critical attention from the mainstream press, and from members of the College itself. In this post I propose to review the situation and attempt to think through the implications of the document.

The controversy

Criticism of the document has focused on a section entitled “Moral or Religious Beliefs” which reads, in part:

“Personal beliefs and values and cultural and religious practices are central to the lives of physicians and their patients. However, as a physician’s responsibility is to place the needs of the patient first, there will be times when it may be necessary for physicians to set aside their personal beliefs in order to ensure that patients or potential patients are provided with the medical treatment and services they require.

Physicians should be aware that decisions to restrict medical services offered, to accept individuals as patients or to end physician-patient relationships that are based on moral or religious belief may contravene the Code, and/or constitute professional misconduct.”

Despite some possible ambiguities (what, exactly, are “required” services?), the plainest reading of this passage is that physicians who have moral or religious objections to participation in a medical procedure, and who on the basis of those objections restrict services or terminate their relationship with the patient, risk punitive consequences.

The College asked recipients of the draft to submit comments by August 15, but in response to criticism that the policy was being pushed through without fair debate, the deadline has been extended to September 12.

Why now?

It is worth asking why this document is being drawn up at this time. The reason is alluded to in the document’s title: the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), which prosecutes violations of the Ontario Human Rights Code, underwent a major expansion in June of this year. They expect to move from roughly 150 cases/year to 3000 cases/year. This is the same Human Rights Commission that has been so roundly criticized (especially in connection to the well-publicized complaint against Maclean’s magazine) for its apparent indifference to due process — or, as our Premier puts it, its “less formal” legal framework.

To review: party A may file a human rights complaint against party B; the subsequent legal expenses for A are paid by the state, but B must pay his or her own; nothing prevents party A from filing simultaneous complaints against B with multiple provincial and federal Human Rights Commissions; even if A’s complaint is judged spurious, A faces no penalty, and B receives no compensation. I am not a lawyer, but the system seems practically designed to encourage reckless accusations.

At the present time, Ontario physicians are permitted to be conscientious objectors; they may refuse to involve themselves in actions they judge to be wrong. Given the expansion in the capacity of the OHRC, my suspicion is that the College is concerned that complaints will be brought against such doctors. Since the Commission is something of a legal loose cannon, the draft document warns the members of CPSO that “the College is unable to advise physicians how the Courts will decide cases”, and counsels them to “proceed cautiously”. Subsequent sections of the draft outline the procedure doctors should follow should they refuse to participate in certain procedures because of moral or religious objections. (The procedure includes reporting the circumstances in full to the College.)

The College’s position?

The most charitable interpretation of the draft is that the College foresees a threat from the expanded OHRC and is simply, and prudently, advising its members to be cautious. Yet there are some grounds for doubt as to whether the College wishes to protect the conscientious objectors among its ranks.

First, notice that, according to the excerpt above, even if the physician’s actions are found to not contravene the Human Rights Code, he or she may nevertheless face professional misconduct charges from the College.

Second, some members of the College have in the past advocated exactly this sort of policy. In June 2006 the Canadian Medical Association Journal — the flagship medical journal in Canada — ran an editorial arguing that physicians who refuse to participate in abortions on moral grounds should face professional misconduct charges. That editorial drew a firestorm of criticism, but it did indicate that at least some members of the College favour punitive action against those who refuse participation in actions they judge morally repugnant.

Finally, nowhere in the draft document does one find any reassurances that the College is committed to defending the dignity and moral integrity of its members. The impression one gets is that if a physician does run afoul of the Commission, the College will stand passively by.

On the ground

What circumstances could result in a human rights complaint against a physician? The Ontario Human Rights Code states that:

Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability.

My understanding is this: if a physician’s refusing a procedure or terminating a doctor-patient relationship could be construed as discrimination on any of the grounds listed, then they could be judged guilty of a human rights violation.

Much of the criticism of the proposed policy has circled around abortion, so let’s take that as a test case. Personally, I do not see how refusing involvement in an abortion could be interpreted as contravening the Code on any of the stated grounds. I suppose one could argue that if a doctor is unwilling to provide an abortion to an expectant mother, but would be willing to provide one to someone who is not pregnant, then it could be discrimination on grounds of “family status”, but that seems an absurd argument. Then again, never underestimate the perverse ingenuity of lawyers.

Or consider the morally controversial procedure of euthanasia. (It is not presently legal in Canada, but that may change.) Once again I do not see how refusing to consent to involvement in euthanasia could be contrued as contravening the Code. A doctor may refuse a lethal dose of morphine to someone with a severe disability, but then they would presumably refuse the same dose to someone without a disability, so it doesn’t constitute grounds of discrimination on the basis of “disability”.

Cases that could be construed as contravening the Code: A doctor who refuses to refer for a sex-change operation? A doctor who will not prescribe the anovulent pill? A surgeon who refuses to do an elective sterilization surgery? A doctor who refuses to help a lesbian conceive a child? I am guessing here.

When trying to assess the possible grounds for conviction, we must remember that in the world of the OHRC whether one can be prosecuted successfully hardly matters. It is enough for a physician’s refusal of involvement to “offend” a patient. If one is accused, one needs a lawyer, so even a spurious accusation (pertaining, if my reasoning is valid, to abortion for instance) levies a burdensome, and perhaps crippling, financial obligation on the accused.

Neither should we forget that the College has left open the question of whether it might compel its own members to participate in procedures, quite apart from the judgements of the OHRC.

The humane science?

What is most troubling about this affair is that no-one seems willing to stand up and defend the consciences of our physicians. This is actually surprising to me; despite the often cacophonous state of our moral discourse, I know of no-one who defends the proposition that “It is good to act against one’s conscience”.

The duty of each person to honour their conscience is a common moral insight.  My own tradition, Catholicism, teaches unequivocally that “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.” [CCC, 1782] So solemn is this duty of obedience that it applies even when one’s conscience makes judgments that differ from Church teachings. [CCC, 1790]  All Protestant traditions of which I am aware teach a similar duty of obedience to conscience, which is viewed as the voice of God in the human soul.  Nor is the principle unique to Christianity: Socrates had a daemon that warned him against committing evil acts, and he took such warnings as normative for himself.  I am less familiar with the status of conscience in other religious traditions, but I would be very surprised if they differed substantially from those already mentioned.  Even moral relativists affirm the proposition (“Everyone should do what is right for them.”).

To compel someone to commit an act they deem wrong, therefore, is clean contrary to our religious and philosophical traditions and to common moral insight.  It is bad enough to see it permitted in any context, but it is especially dispiriting to see it threatening in medical practice.  Medicine has the honour of being the humane science, the science in which the physician puts art, science, compassion, encouragement, and moral judgment at the service of his or her patient.  Indeed, medicine is inherently moral, since it aims at the healing, and not at the destruction, of the body.  (Note that many of the controversial practices, such as abortion and euthanasia, are those which do not aim at health.  They are, in other words, not medicine.) It is in this moral character that much of the dignity of the profession consists.

The vision of medicine implicit in this draft document is a betrayal of this tradition, for it essentially proposes that physicians should be reduced to the role of technicians, who implement the state’s rules or the patient’s demands without asking questions.  That a government agency, and even the medical College itself, should wish or permit such a declension is a terrible insult to a noble profession.

Final thoughts

Most of this discussion has focused on the draft document from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, but it is not the root of the problem.  I strongly suspect that this document is mostly an attempt by the College to warn its members (and protect itself) against the unpredictability of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.  This is a political problem that is larger than the CPSO.  Yet the CPSO is a powerful group, with prestige and influence, and if they would publicly and vigorously defend the freedoms of their members it would carry weight.  That it has so far shown no signs of doing so is disappointing.

I am not a student of political theory, but the concept of “human rights” being deployed by the Commission seems suspicious.  Even if one has a right, in some sense, to receive a particular medical service, I cannot see how it follows that one has a right to receive it from any and every doctor, especially when the provision of such a right involves such a direct and serious offense to the rights of the physician to freedom of conscience and religion.  The patient seems disproportionately favoured.  It is surely possible to protect both access to services and the right of doctors to conscientiously object.  (If you really cannot find anyone to do a procedure, that is probably a good sign that you ought not to be seeking or providing it.)  It is true that in some remote parts of Ontario where doctors are scarce it might be costly to provide controversial services to those seeking them if their local physician refuses; it is also costly to have doctors leaving the province for more liberal jurisdictions.

I do plan to write to the President of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, and to the Premier, about this issue.  At the present time I am not entirely certain what I will say, but thinking these matters through has been helpful.  If anyone takes an interest in this issue, I welcome constructive comments.

Exploding whale

August 19, 2008

Speaking of explosions:

In the past week I have set sail through the pages of Moby-Dick, and have developed a (possibly short-lived) interest in sperm whales.  I discovered, for instance, that Melville’s story was inspired, in part, by a sperm whale that attacked and sank the whaleship Essex in 1820.  Anyway, the trail of sperm-whale trivia eventually led me to this bizarre incident:

It would be pointless to add anything to that.

The Boo Two

August 19, 2008

Our National Broadcaster, the CBC, will announce today that Radio 2 will be “re-branded” as “The New Two”.  And what, you ask, is so new about it?

The CBC will announce a radical revamp of its Radio Two network today with the introduction of more popular and cross cultural music and a de-emphasizing of classical content.

They won’t drop classical music entirely — not yet, anyway — but it will be carefully caged between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., when few people listen to the CBC.  This means, presumably, that excellent programs like Music and Company and Canada Live will be canned.  If they extend the policy to the weekend, it will mean the end of In Tune and the longstanding program Choral Concert.

Classical music programming on the CBC has been eroding for a while, so this is not entirely unexpected.  And the decision is not wholly irrational either: even the CBC needs an audience, and the changes are an attempt to attract “younger listeners”, whom they believe, probably rightly, do not listen to classical music.

The cause for lament, therefore, is not so much that the CBC is changing its programming, but that the cultural memory of my peers continues to fade, the years before 1960 falling into an ever deeper forgetfulness.

Local business explodes

August 19, 2008

Literally.  I am about a week late with this news, but I’ve been waiting for photographs and video footage to appear online.  Last Sunday morning, in the wee hours, the Sunrise Propane company in Toronto went off like the Fourth of July, as container after container of propane converted themselves into spectacular fireballs.  Police are apparently still searching for the cause.

Several people that I know were awoken during the night by the sounds, but ascribed them to a summer thunderstorm.  (This at a distance of several kilometers.)  Others, including a few work colleagues, who were nearer to the site had their homes badly damaged.  About 12 000 people were evacuated from their homes, and some have still not been able to return.  Sadly, two people — one employee of the company and one city firefighter — died on the scene.  It was more than a harmless spectacle.

But it was spectacular, all the same.  Here is some footage taken from a fairly distant apartment building.  From this distance it looks like a big, serious fire, with occasional bursts of flame.  Then (at around the 1:50 mark in this clip) a huge blast, complete with mushroom cloud, fills the sky.  This is staggering to behold:

Here is another clip that shows what I believe is the same enormous blast, but from much closer.  Watch carefully: you can actually see the shockwave propagating from the blast center:

(Apologies for the bad language in this clip.)

In the end, the site of the Sunrise Propane company was laid waste.  There’s really nothing left of it.  Here, courtesy Google Maps, is the site before the incident:

Sunrise Propane - before

Sunrise Propane - before

And here is an aerial photo taken afterward:

Sunrise Propane - after

Sunrise Propane - after

Incredible. All of this took place about 2 km from where I work.


August 14, 2008

My friend Daniel Bader, whose excellent blog The Lyceum has fallen dormant of late, has recently launched a new blog dedicated to a long-standing passion of his: comic books.  He calls it Miscontinuity, and he posts comic book reviews regularly.  I know him to be an astute judge and a fine writer, so if you’ve an interest in such things I encourage you to take a look.  I’ve added a link from my blogroll.