Archive for February, 2016

A publishing event

February 29, 2016

I find it hard to imagine any list of great literary figures of the past century that does not include T.S. Eliot at or near the top. Therefore it seems worth noting, and celebrating, the recent publication of a massive annotated edition of his poetry, in two volumes, from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Volume 1 contains the verse for which he is most admired: Prufrock, The Wasteland, Four Quartets, and so on. In this edition we get about 300 pages of poetry, handsomely and spaciously presented, followed by a whopping 1000 pages of notes. Volume 2 is shorter — a mere 700 pages — and mostly contains his less-known poetry, plus his poetry for children.

Because of complications with publication rights and access to Eliot’s private papers, this is the first time that a full scholarly edition has been put together. It’s a major monument to one of our major writers.

I was able to borrow the first volume from our local library. During Lent I have been slowly working my way through Ash-Wednesday, and enjoying myself greatly.

The University Bookman has a nice review.

Unassisted, Canada commits moral suicide

February 26, 2016

Last year the Supreme Court of Canada, in Carter v Canada, struck down legal prohibitions of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, alleging to have discerned a right to such procedures lurking somewhere in the background, unnoticed until now, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court ordered Parliament to draft legislation to regulate these procedures, and gave it a deadline. Today the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying tabled its recommendations to Parliament, and, my friends, the situation is about as bad as it could be.

Two weeks ago, before the recommendations were public, our Prime Minister announced that all members of the ruling Liberal Party would be required to vote in favour of the legislation, whatever it turned out to be. This was the first indication that it was going to be very bad indeed.

As for me and my house, we have been fighting this every step of the way — writing editorials, writing letters, making phone calls, drafting submissions, attending meetings — and I must say that the Committee’s report is profoundly disappointing.

First a word about language. As usual with issues of this sort, euphemisms abound. The Committee adopts the phrase “medical aid in dying” to cover both assisted suicide and euthanasia, preferring it to “physician assisted dying”, which had been used by the Supreme Court. Both are highly objectionable, and for the same reason: they blur the distinction between palliative care, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. In this post I shall use the acronym ASE for assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The report makes 21 recommendations to legislators. Among them are:

  • ASE for minors. “Mature minors,” to be sure. The meaning of this phrase is unclear. It is worth noting that this recommendation is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court ruling, which restricted access to ASE to adults.
  • ASE for non-terminal conditions. Adopting the vagaries of the Supreme Court nearly word for word, the Committee recommends only that patients have a “grievous and irremediable condition”. The Committee actually recommends against Parliament clarifying what that phrase might mean.
  • ASE for psychiatric patients. There has been great concern over how patients suffering from psychiatric disorders might be treated under the incoming law. The Committee recommends both that psychiatric patients have access to ASE, and that psychological suffering be a legitimate criterion for accessing ASE.
  • No required waiting period. The Committee recommends that “guidelines” for “a period of reflection” be “flexible”. This puts at risk patients suffering acutely or terrified by a recent diagnosis.
  • No advance oversight. The Committee recommends against a review process where eligibility under the law could be assessed. This recommendation, if adopted, will make it very difficult to know if the law is being abused.
  • Public funding? This one is unclear. The Committee recommends that only individuals who are insured under Canada’s health care system have access to ASE — in other words, no euthanasia tourism — but it does not directly say that the procedures themselves should be insured.
  • Coercion of conscientious objectors. This is an issue that has been fiercely contested in the past couple of years in Canada, as many physicians have been fighting to carve out a space for themselves to practice medicine without being undermined by this assault on the principles of their profession. There are two targets here: individual physicians, nurses, and pharmacists on one hand, and Catholic hospitals on the other. Last year the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, which regulates the practice of medicine in Ontario (where I live), changed their policies on conscientious objection, henceforth requiring physicians to either provide the objectionable procedure or provide an “effective referral” to someone who would. But those who provide an “effective referral” — meaning a referral to someone who will do the procedure, and a referral for that express purpose — are complicit. Again, many physicians fought that policy change at the time, partly on the very grounds that the Supreme Court was about to rule on ASE, to which the new policy would apply. Those physicians were told they were alarmist and that everything would be fine. Now the Joint Committee has adopted exactly the same language as the Colleges did: “effective referrals” are to be required “at a minimum”. I’ve not seen that last phrase used in this context before, and I really wonder why it was included. It is very troubling. Also troubling is that institutions will not be permitted to abstain from performing ASE. If a patient is worried about being subjected to pressure to consent to ASE, there will be no safe hospital in Canada.

The report is also notable for what it does not recommend. It does not recommend a mandatory psychiatric assessment for those requesting ASE. It does not recommend that the cause of death (ASE) be put on the death certificate — though it does recommend that statistics on ASE be collected, so perhaps the legislation itself will mandate the former in order to facilitate the latter. It does not recommend that the next of kin of a patient who requests ASE be notified. It does not recommend that patients have access to palliative care before becoming eligible for ASE. All of these safeguards were advanced during the consultation process, but were apparently rejected by the Committee.

One safeguard which the Committee does recommend is that ASE can only be provided if two physicians sign off on it. But it could be any two physicians, not necessarily ones who know the patient well, and not necessarily the first two physicians consulted. In other words, patients can shop for physicians who will sign off.

All in all, an appalling set of recommendations that bodes exceeding ill. If these recommendations are adopted by Parliament — and they almost certainly will be — Canada will have the most radical ASE policies in the world. In particular, the requirement that conscientiously-objecting physicians provide an “effective referral” is not in force in any other jurisdiction, much less “at a minimum”.

We’ve got a bona fide fight on our hands.

The sole bright light is that a small group of four Committee members (including a vice chair) issued a dissenting opinion which is stapled to the back of the Committee’s official report. It is sensible and humane and I recommend that you read it.


If anyone is interested in learning about how Canada got into this mess, I recommend reading “A Right to Voluntary Euthanasia? Confusion in Canada in Carter,” John Keown’s scholarly overview of the court cases, and the principle arguments deployed therein, that eventually led to the Supreme Court’s decision last year. Or, if you prefer, here is a lecture in which he covers much of the same ground.


Books briefly noted

February 23, 2016

A few quick notes on books I’ve read recently. The theme for today is Books With Subtitles:

veryshort-medievalMedieval Literature
A Very Short Introduction
Elaine Treharne
(Oxford, 2015)
144 p.

I acquired this book in the hopes that it would help extend my list of “to read” medieval literature. I was interested in learning about medieval masterworks a little off the beaten trail (viz. not Dante, Chaucer, or Malory). As such, I was fairly disappointed with the book, which makes only brief mention of particular works. Instead, the book takes a wide view of medieval literature, discussing its social context, some principal themes, methods of book production, and so on. It has a rather academic tone (“Literary spaces, literary identities” is the title of one chapter, for instance). This is fine; no doubt it was what the author was going for. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.

veryshort-classicalClassical Literature
A Very Short Introduction
William Allan
(Oxford, 2014)
135 p.

This is more like it. In an effort to organize my Greco-Roman reading lists, I nabbed this brief volume to get a bird’s eye view. I could hardly have done better. Allan gives a brief introduction to the historical and social context for classical literature, and then proceeds by genre — epic, lyric poetry, drama, historiography, oratory, pastoral poetry, satire, and novel — summarizing the principal features of each literary type and highlighting a few of the principal works. I didn’t need him to tell me about Homer or Herodotus, but I’m happy to have a better understanding of where Horace and Juvenal fit into the picture, not to mention Plautus and Petronius. My reading list is now in pretty good shape, I’d say. I faint to think how long it will take to get to all these books, but it is nice that there is always more to look forward to.

kapilow-what-makesWhat Makes It Great?
Short Masterpieces, Great Composers
Rob Kapilow
(Wiley, 2011)
314 p.

Rob Kapilow takes about twenty short pieces of music, mostly excerpted from larger works, and examines each of them in detail, highlighting the compositional techniques and describing the musical structure. The pieces are presented chronologically, beginning with the early eighteenth century (“Spring”, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) and finishing with the early twentieth century (“…Des Pas sur le Neige”, from Debussy’s Preludes). They range in length from about one minute (the ‘Trepak’ movement from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite) to ten minutes (Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde), with the median being around 3-4 minutes. The book is written at a level appropriate for a general reader with some musical education: each piece is illustrated with numerous excerpts from the score, so he assumes a competence with musical notation, and he uses some, but not too much, technical language to describe what the composer is doing. This is just the sort of mini-listening project that I relish, and it was enjoyable for me to see the musical logic of the various pieces unveiled. For instance, the piece by Debussy is one that I’ve heard numerous times, but I’d never stopped to appreciate the fact that it is based on such a simple musical idea, suitably varied and lavishly harmonized. Likewise, I’d not discerned the musical reasoning informing a little piece like Schumann’s Traumerei, or the way in which Bach’s Prelude in C grows from a tiny musical seed. The book is full of little insights into the craft of musical composition, and I found it very enjoyable.

physics-on-your-feetPhysics On Your Feet
Berkeley Graduate Exam Questions
Dmitry Budker & Alexander O. Sushkov
(Oxford, 2015)
216 p.

This was great fun. I did not have to take many oral exams during my graduate studies, but this book gives a flavour (minus the stress) of what I might have encountered. The authors have selected about sixty oral exam questions given to Berkeley grad students over the years, providing both the questions and, on the flip side, the solutions. The questions are drawn from across the spectrum: mechanics, fluids, electromagnetism, squalid state, nuclear & particle, astrophysics, optics, and molecular physics. Because of the oral exam context, none of the questions can call for lengthy calculations; more often they lean on physical intuition, approximations, and a basic (but wide) knowledge of principles. Which is not to say that they are easy! Admittedly, I have been out of the game for a decade now, and I am getting rusty, but these questions are meant to be challenging, and they succeed. Still, I enjoyed trying my hand at one question each day. I’d like to find another such book and continue the practice.

Messiaen and the celestial city

February 19, 2016

Alex Ross has a nice short essay in The New Yorker on Messiaen (Hat-tip: The Music Salon). Ross writes mostly about Des Canyons aux Étoiles…, the orchestral work Messiaen wrote about the Grand Canyon:

“Zion Park and the Celestial City,” the final movement of “From the Canyons to the Stars . . .” (1971-74), dwells for a short eternity on a hyper-luminous chord of A major. What makes it unlike any A-major chord in history is the noise that wells up within it: clanging bells, bellowing gongs, an upward-glissandoing horn, the sandy rattle of a geophone (a drum filled with lead pellets). This supreme consonance seems less to banish dissonance than to subsume it.

Ross writes that the continuing interest in Messiaen’s music “suggests that the composer is destined to be the next Mahler — a cult figure who becomes a repertory staple.” I hope so! A few years ago I missed hearing a live performance of his Turangalîla Symphony, and I’m still kicking myself.

Here is “Zion Park and the Celestial City”, featuring that wonderful A-major chord:

St André Bessette

February 15, 2016

I wrote a short piece on St André Bessette for the 52 Saints project at The Three Prayers. Janet posted it yesterday.

If you’ve come here having read Janet’s remarks at the bottom of that post and are looking for my Antarctica project, you’ll find it here, broken links and all.

Gravitational waves

February 11, 2016

There’s a very exciting announcement today from the LIGO experiment: they are reporting the first ever direct observation of gravitational waves. Read all about it.

The existence of gravitational waves — which are “ripples” in spacetime produced by catastrophic astrophysical events like black hole collisions or supernovae — are one of the most important predictions of general relativity. Today’s discovery will go into every future textbook on the subject, and the scientists involved go straight to the Nobel shortlist.

The LIGO experiment (LIGO = Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), if you haven’t heard of it, is one of the most amazing physics experiments ever conceived. Gravitational waves travelling through the detector change its size by a small amount, and so the experiment consists of making continual, very precise measurements of distance. The sensitivity is exquisite: they can detect a change in length of a fraction of the radius of a proton.

The particular observation reported today is of a collision of two black holes at an estimated distance of 1.3 billion light years. Here is the technical paper describing the discovery.

What a great day!

Dickens: Dombey and Son

February 4, 2016

Dombey and Son
Charles Dickens
(Oxford, 1988) [1848]
960 p.

I came to Dombey and Son knowing nothing about it, but with the reasonable presumption that it would be about Dombey and his son — and this was wrong. Since I’d heard very little about it I assumed that it was probably not all that good and might be a chore to get through — and this was wrong too. It was for me a story full of surprises. I am happy to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

In the introductory notes he wrote for the novel, Chesterton points out that Dombey and Son occupies an important place in Dickens’ authorship. It was preceded by Martin Chuzzlewit and succeeded by David Copperfield, two very different books. In his early books, of which Pickwick is the immortal exemplar, Dickens was really an episodist and caricaturist, not a novelist; his ‘story’ was a long string of mostly disconnected stories, tied together by amusing and endearing characters. In Nicholas Nickleby he took some steps in the direction of novel-writing, though there too the story was mostly episodic, and he continued largely in this vein up through Martin Chuzzlewit. Yet David Copperfield is unquestionably a novel in the full sense, so we might expect Dombey and Son to be a transitional work between the early, episodic Dickens and the late, novelistic Dickens. And we would be right.

In fact, it’s a good deal closer to Copperfield than Chuzzlewit. There are character arcs — especially for young Florence Dombey, whom I would defend as one of Dickens’ greatest and most affecting heroines — and, to a lesser degree, for Edith and for Mr Dombey himself, though his ‘arc’ is a rather abrupt one. The story as a whole has clearly been carefully planned on the large scale, and it holds together nicely, even if the most important of the long-range developments were rather obvious and, in a sense, necessary.

But Dickens the novelist is still Dickens, and Dombey and Son has its fair share of delightful Dickensian comic characters, the sorts of figures for whom one would happily clear the deck to let them hold forth for chapter after chapter. (Chesterton: “One good character by Dickens requires all eternity to stretch its legs in.”) Of these my favourites were Captain Cuttle, whose good heart and penchant for speaking in impenetrable naval metaphors endeared him greatly to me, and Mr Toots, whom Chesterton praises in lavish terms that are worth quoting:

Lastly, there is the admirable study of Toots, who may be considered as being in some ways the masterpiece of Dickens. Nowhere else did Dickens express with such astonishing insight and truth his main contention, which is that to be good and idiotic is not a poor fate, but, on the contrary, an experience of primeval innocence, which wonders at all things. Dickens did not know, anymore than any great man ever knows, what was the particular thing that he had to preach. He did not know it; he only preached it. But the particular thing that he had to preach was this: That humility is the only possible basis of enjoyment; that if one has no other way of being humble except being poor, then it is better to be poor, and to enjoy; that if one has no other way of being humble except being imbecile, then it is better to be imbecile, and to enjoy. That is the deep unconscious truth in the character of Toots — that all his externals are flashy and false; all his internals unconscious, obscure, and true. He wears loud clothes, and he is silent inside them. His shirts and waistcoats are covered with bright spots of pink and purple, while his soul is always covered with the sacred shame. He always gets all the outside things of life wrong, and all the inside things right. He always admires the right Christian people, and gives them the wrong Christian names… He forgets who they are, but he remembers what they are. With the clear eyes of humility he perceives the whole world as it is.

Surely any book of which such things can be said of even a minor character must be very much worth reading, and that is certainly true of Dombey and Son, a book that surpassed my expectations in virtually every respect.