Scientific consistency and Conservapedia loopiness

One of the drivers of scientific research is the desire to seeking a greater and greater synthesis, to seek to unify the knowledge and theories of many different areas. One of the most severe constraints that scientists face when developing a new theory is the need for consistency with other theories. It is very easy to construct a theory that explains any single phenomenon. It is much, much harder to construct a theory that does not also lead to problems with other well-established results. If a new theory conflicts with existing theories, something has to give in order to eliminate the contradiction.
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Seeing evolution in real time

Evolution opponents tend to try and dismiss the evidence in its favor, as a last resort often resorting to the argument that no one has actually seen evolution occurring and a new species emerging, with all the intermediate stages clearly identified. One reason for this is, of course, that evolutionary change occurs very slowly, not visible in the transition from one generation to another. The emergence of a new species is almost always a retrospective judgment, made long after the fact, of a process that often takes thousands, or tens of thousands, of generations. By that time, most of the intermediate forms have become extinct and left no trace, since fossilization is such a rare event.
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The propaganda machine and climate change

Some time ago, in one of my posts in my series on climate change, I pondered on why there seemed to be such a vehement opposition to the idea that human actions might be causing an irreversible and disastrous change to our planet. After all, this seems like largely a scientific question that, unlike (say) evolution, has no religious or partisan political implications.

But somewhere along the way, the word seems to have spread amongst right-wing political and religious types that the warnings about possible irreversible global warming represent some kind of deep plot being advanced by leftists and scientists and atheists working together, and this has resulted in a union of right-wing think tanks and politicians and Christians to oppose the idea. How did that happen?

Evidence for the organized nature of the opposition to the ideas of global warming coming from a particular ideological perspective is not hard to find. A new study looks at how the so-called ”Conservative Think Tanks’, (CTTs) play an important element in the propaganda machine by underwriting those who are skeptical of the dangers of climate change.

Our analyses of the sceptical literature and CTTs indicate an unambiguous linkage between the two. Over 92 per cent of environmentally sceptical books are linked to conservative think tanks, and 90 per cent of conservative think tanks interested in environmental issues espouse scepticism. Environmental scepticism began in the US, is strongest in the US, and exploded after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of global environmental concern stimulated by the 1992 Earth Summit. Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs, designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement’s efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of ‘junk science’ lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised ‘Davids’ battling the powerful ‘Goliath’ of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.

The movement to undermine the environmental movement is largely underwritten by corporations and their supporters who want to prevent having to comply with environmental regulations that might limit their profits. Some of the CTTs are funded by companies (like ExxonMobil) that have a stake in preventing any regulations that limit their profits, and even have their CEOs on the boards.

But even that still does not answer the question of how this opposition became so widespread and vehement. This is why I found this blog entry very interesting. It is by someone who has pondered this same question and, tracing this phenomenon back in time, finds that there is a family of conspiracy theories that have caused this situation. He has created an entire genealogical tree of the theories.

He said it started during the Cold War in 1962 with the labeling of Rachel Carson as a Communist sympathizer. She is often considered the founder of the modern American environmental movement with her book Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of DDT. That allegation became expanded to suggest that some environmentalists may even be Soviet agents seeking to undermine capitalism, and that they were suppressing the work of enviroskeptics.

Meanwhile, on a different front, those who were unhappy with the scientific opposition to Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense shield plan started accusing scientists of being Soviet stooges.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the story has shifted and the target of opposition has changed. Instead of the environmental movement being merely a tool to advance communism by advocating measures that will increase the costs of business and raise taxes, the environmental movement has now replaced communism as the main foe of capitalism.

Of course, since the religious right has always viewed ‘godless communism’ with alarm, they tend to sign on to anything that seems to oppose or restrict the workings of capitalism in any way, even if means allowing unregulated industries unbridled freedom to pollute and destroy the environment.

Thus emerged the coalition of big industry, conservative think tanks, the religious right, and their political allies, all working to discredit any science that seems to suggest that we are doing irreparable harm to our environment.

Although the article is not a scholarly one and not an authoritative source, it is interesting and thought-provoking.

POST SCRIPTS: Amazing back flips

Cloning god

Thanks to this blog, I keep learning interesting new stuff. You may recall that I expressed bewilderment at the possibility that any adult could possibly believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.

In response to my posting on the fuss over a college student taking home a consecrated wafer, a commenter Timothy said that the desecration of the wafer was indeed much worse than murder, genocide, etc, if you believed that the wafer was the body of Jesus-god. As evidence that it was, he provided a link to an event that supposedly occurred in the Italian city of Lanciano around 700 CE. [Read more…]

Natural and unnatural lifestyles

I recently had a discussion with someone whom I had known well growing up in Sri Lanka and who was visiting the US. She asked me my opinion about the recent highly publicized raid by the Texas Child Protective Services on the compound where polygamous Mormon families lived. All the children were separated from their parents by the Texas CPS on the basis of a single anonymous phone call alleging that sexual abuse of a minor had occurred. The decision by the CPS was first upheld in the lower court but an appeals court overthrew the verdict saying that you could not separate children from their parents without finding specific cause in each individual case. The CPS then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court but they lost and were ordered to reunite the children with their parents.

I responded that I agreed with the appeals courts. In my view the child welfare authorities had gone completely overboard and had resorted to such drastic action because the targeted community was a polygamous one and thus was disapproved of by the authorities. They would not have dreamed of entering a village of monogamous, heterosexual couples and separated all the children from their parents on the basis of a single anonymous and unsubstantiated allegation of child abuse. I personally have no problem with the practice of polygamy and think it absurd that we are still trying to regulate by law those things that should be strictly the private concern of individuals.

My visitor from Sri Lanka also asked me my views about gay marriage and the adoption of children by gay people. I said that I had no problems with this practice either and that the kind of prejudice that exists against polygamists was also at play when people argued against the adoption of children by gay couples.

She made the point that the adopted children of gay couples or the children of polygamous families might suffer harm from the stigma associated with their families’ nontraditional lifestyles, and thus such arrangements might not be in the best interests of the children. In addition, she suggested that the lifestyles of these people were not ‘natural’ and that was why it may be appropriate to discourage them by treating them differently.

One hears these arguments all the time, that the norm is that marriage is between one man and one woman and that anything else is deviant behavior, worthy of disapproval, if not outright banning.

To counter this, some people try to argue that such nontraditional lifestyles are ‘natural’ because parallels can be found to occur in nature, that nonhuman animals often practice homosexuality or have multiple partners. In addition, there is currently some evidence that homosexuality is at least partly genetic and thus influenced by biology and is thus not a free choice. Such studies are used by gay rights advocates to support the view that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.

I frankly do not see the point of this argument. Whether some behavior is acceptable or not should not depend on whether it occurs ‘naturally’ (i.e., spontaneously) in nature or whether it is encoded in our genes. After all we, as humans, do any number of things that are not found in nature or are in defiance of our genetic drives. Practically our whole lives involve activities that do not have analogs in the animal kingdom. That is because we have developed language and culture and technology that enable us to be social animals capable of functioning at a highly abstract level and make collective decisions. Furthermore, there are lots of things going on in the animal kingdom (killing, cannibalism, forcible sex, infanticide, among others) that we consider unacceptable behavior. The idea that we should take our moral cues from the nonhuman animal world seems bizarre. We would not accept a defense of murder, for example, that argues that it is ok because animals do it to each other.

It seems to me that the evolved ability to converse and create culture enables us to transcend out biological drives, to be more than our instincts. Because of our ability to converse and arrive at agreed-upon norms of behavior, we can develop general principles as to what is acceptable and what is not that are independent of whether other animals do similar things. The principle of ‘justice as fairness’ advocated by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice seems like the kind of thing we should be seeking to order our lives and society, not borrowing from animal behavior.

So if it turns out that future research shows that there is no genetic basis whatsoever for homosexuality and that it is purely a matter of choice, so what? As long as they are not harming others, why is it of any concern to me if other people choose partners of the same sex or opposite sex? As for the argument that adopted children of gays or the children of polygamous families might suffer from the stigma, the only reason there is a stigma at all is because the rest of us have an intolerant view of such lifestyles. It is we who have a problem and who should change, not them.

Similarly, if a woman decides that she wants to marry three husbands and they all freely consent, why should I care? If for whatever reason, two men and three women decide that they would like to all be married to each other and live together as a single family unit, they won’t get any objection from me.

I think my relative was a little startled by my views. Since I have lived in the US for about three decades, many of the people I grew up with in Sri Lanka have little idea of my thinking on many issues and these often come as a surprise to them. She did ask if my views have changed as I have got older and I had to agree. As I age, I have become more and more accepting of the lifestyle choices made by others. Perhaps it is because I have an increasing sense that life is a precious gift that we each possess for just a short time and thus people should not be denied the harmless pleasures that life affords.

As long as decisions are being freely made by consenting adults and do not harm others, people should be free to choose whatever lifestyles that suits their needs.

What surprises me is that such a viewpoint is not more universally held.

POST SCRIPT: Solar powered car

See the video of a completely solar-powered car that is on a round-the-world trip without using a single drop of gas. It has already been to 27 countries and the US is the 28th. Quite amazing.

(Thanks for the link to my daughter Dashi who was lucky enough to actually see the car in Berkeley, California and listen to a presentation by its inventor Lewis Palmer, a Swiss schoolteacher.)

Much ado about transubstantiation

In the previous post, I suggested that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood, was a fairly bizarre thing to believe in this day and age and raised the possibility that perhaps even Catholics did not really believe in it but were just humoring the church by going along with a doctrine that came into being a long time ago.
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Why religions expect you to believe preposterous things

On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I visited the mother of an old friend of mine, and the conversation turned to religion. She was a Protestant who had married a Catholic. She had thought about converting to Catholicism but in the end found it impossible to do so. She said that she found she could not accept three things that the Catholic Church required you to believe: transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Pope, and the assumption of Jesus’ mother Mary (i.e., the belief that Mary did not die but was ‘assumed’ directly into heaven).

These things are pretty tough to believe. Transubstantiation alone is enough to give anyone pause. This doctrine asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.

I have often wondered if, in their heart of hearts, Catholics actually believe this. It seems to me that if they did, it would be hard to avoid having the gag reflex that accompanies the thought of engaging in what are essentially cannibalistic practices. Yet millions of Catholics go through this ritual every week with seeming equanimity. Perhaps they don’t really believe but convince themselves that they kinda, sorta do in order to not seem like heretics. Or maybe they just don’t think about it.

But although this is a particularly striking example of the kinds of extraordinary things that religious people are expected to believe, it is not by itself more preposterous than believing that Jesus rose from the dead or that god ordered the sun to stand still during the battle of Jericho or that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammed.

In fact, organized god-based religions sometimes seem to go out of their way to create difficult things to believe in. It seems like if you are a member of any organized god-based religion, you are expected to believe preposterous things. Abandoning reason and logic and evidence and science and accepting preposterous things purely on faith is deemed to be a virtuous act.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that it is easy to believe impossible things. “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” She says her trick to believing in something that is wildly improbable is to simply draw a long breath and shut her eyes. Sounds a lot like praying.

Of course, many people find it hard to abandon reason and believe impossible things, and thus leave religion and become atheists or at least agnostics. Some modernist theologians have tried to counter this problem by stripping as much of the extreme forms of the supernatural as possible from religions to make it more acceptable intellectually. They argue that god is some mysterious essence, some life force that gives ‘meaning’ to our lives, a ‘ground of our being’, and so on, but is not a physical human-like entity that we communicate with or can expect to intervene in our lives. In this approach, it is attempted to free religion from all those difficult beliefs that are hard to accept.

Would such a trend make religion more acceptable to more people, largely freeing them from having to choose between religion and common sense? Superficially, one would think so but some research suggests otherwise. The success of religions seems to depend on having people believe difficult or impossible things. Paradoxically, the more difficult the belief is to accept intellectually and the more rigid rules with which it binds believers, the more successful the religion is in holding onto its adherents. “[T]he most successful religions, in terms of growth and maintenance of membership, are those with absolute, unwavering, strict, and enforced normative standards of behavior.” (Study cited by Peggy Catron, Encountering Faith in the Classroom, Miriam Diamond (Ed.), 2008, p. 70.)

This may be why those religious doctrines that are really hard for a rational person to accept (fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism) don’t seem to be in any danger of going extinct in the face of modern science that undermines their doctrines. They may even be experiencing growth, while it is the more open-minded liberal religious traditions that are in decline. It is as if people want their thinking to be bound and confined and that they fear intellectual freedom. It seems like a form of intellectual masochism.

Why is this? I don’t really know. Perhaps it is because once you have convinced someone to believe an impossible idea as an entry point to membership in an organization, they have crossed a threshold that makes them accepting of all the other impossible ideas that come as part of that religious package. Since people pride themselves on being rational, getting them to accept something bizarre at an early age, like a virgin birth, means that they will then try to construct reasons why such a belief makes sense or suppress any questions and doubts. I find it interesting that believers in a god, instead of frankly saying, “Yes, it is irrational but I believe anyway”, will go to great lengths to try and use reason and logic to convince others that their beliefs are rational when they are manifestly not.

Once you have got people to suspend their rational thinking in at least one part of their life, all the other seemingly small, but equally preposterous, beliefs that are required don’t seem so hard to swallow. This may be why religious organizations carry out induction ceremonies for new members mostly when they are children, before their skepticism is fully developed and when the desire of children to join the organization of their parents is still strong.

It is also perhaps similar to how brutal hazing is sometimes used to bond people to a fraternities or secret societies. Once you have overcome that kind of hurdle, it is emotionally harder to back out, to admit that one must have been crazy to ever do or believe such a thing.

Note: I wrote this post some time ago but never got around to posting it since there seemed to be no urgency. To my amazement, transubstantiation, of all things, suddenly burst into the news late last week down in Florida. I will write about that tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: The propaganda machine at work

In my series on the propaganda machine, I spoke about how publishing houses like Regnery seem to exist largely for the purpose of subsidizing and promoting authors who promote their specific agenda, irrespective of the quality of the work or even that of the author. Here is another example.

Knowing when to say uncle

One of the advantages of living in more than one country is that one notices interesting differences. One of the differences with Sri Lanka that struck me is that in the US there is no standard system to deal with the question of how one should address elders in the category that can be described as ‘friends once removed’. By this I mean the people who are the friends of one’s parents or the parents of one’s friends.

Take for example, the question of how young Billy should address John Smith, the good friend of his parents. In some households, Billy’s parents encourage him to call him ‘John’ while in other families he is referred to as ‘Mr. Smith’. Some adults find the familiarity of being called by their first name by a child to be acceptable or even welcome, while others find it uncomfortable and may even resent it. But given that there is no system in place to address this point of social etiquette, one simply has to deal with the idiosyncratic choices people make..

In Sri Lanka, there is a system to deal with this. Any male who is of the same generation as one’s parents is called generically ‘uncle’ while females are called ‘aunty’. The use of this honorary title is meant to signify respect for one’s elders, while at the same time acknowledging that the person is not a stranger. This generic term also overcomes the awkwardness of meeting one’s parents’ friends that one has met before but whose name one has forgotten (which happens to me all the time in highly sociable societies like Sri Lanka). One simply refers to them as uncle or aunty and everything’s fine.

If John and Jane are really close friends of the family, then they may be referred to more specifically as ‘uncle John’ or ‘aunty Jane’. Such titles remain the same throughout one’s life, never becoming more familiar, however old you and your ‘uncle’ gets. Even now, I refer to my friends’ parents or my parents’ friends as uncle and aunty although I have known some of them for nearly a half-century, am really close to them, and converse with them as equals. It would never occur to me to call them by their first name alone. Retaining the title is more than mere habit, it is a sign of the respect that I have for them as elders.

In such a system, how does one distinguish between one’s biological uncles and aunts and the honorary ones? Usually the English terms uncle and aunty are reserved for the honorary relatives while the real ones are called by their vernacular equivalents. In Tamil, the term for uncle is ‘mama’ (rhymes with ‘drama’) while for aunt is ‘mamy’ (the same first syllable but the second pronounced as ‘me’.) So ‘Reggie mama’ was how I referred to my father’s brother while ‘Uncle Amaradasa’ was my friend’s father.

It is also the case that within families in the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, relatives are often referred to not by their names but by a title that specifies their relationship to the speaker. For example, a father’s younger brother would usually not be called merely uncle but the equivalent of ‘small father’ while the father’s older brother would be called ‘big father.’ If your father had two older brothers, the eldest would be called ‘big big father’ while the other would be called ‘small big father.’ If he had two younger brothers, they would be ‘big small father’ and ‘small small father’, and so on. For grandparents, there were different titles for your father’s father that distinguished him from your mother’s father.

Similarly one’s siblings would also be referred to by their titles ‘older brother,’ ‘younger sister’ and so on. If there are a lot of siblings, they would have their names prefaced by these titles. This would extend to cousins as well. Even now, I am called the equivalent of ‘older brother Mano’ by some cousins who are just a few years younger than me. A parallel system exists for female relatives.

Although all this may sound strange and complicated to someone not used to it, it is a very logical system that children easily learn. I am not sure how or why this system arose. It may be the benign byproduct of more class and caste conscious societies where it was important that everyone know their relative position in society.

In more westernized families in Sri Lanka, the awarding of titles to siblings and cousins has disappeared, especially for those younger than you. But the terms uncle and aunty for older adults remain. It is a sign of respect for age and I think it serves a useful role.

POST SCRIPT: Matching product to taste

Ira Glass, host of NPR’s excellent program This American Life, offers some excellent advice to those who do any kind of creative work.

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”

Those words were supposedly spoken by the actor Sir Donald Wolfit on his deathbed.

When it comes to acting, comedy is far harder to pull off well than tragedy. With tragedy, earnestness will take you a long way. Not so with humor. The elements of comedy are so ephemeral that it is hard to script. We all have had the experience of having laughed uproariously at something and then tried to tell the story to someone else and been confronted with bafflement or a polite smile and been reduced to weakly explaining “You had to be there.” We all know people who can tell a marginally funny story in such a way that it evokes great laughs while others manage to make unfunny even the best comedic material.

This is true with writers too. Anyone who has tried to write anything humorous will immediately sympathize with Wolfit’s sentiment. I suspect that most people who see themselves as writers eventually succumb to the temptation to try their hand at humor, usually with disastrous results. The worst culprits are those newspaper columnists who write on serious topics and once in a while try to write inject some humor. What they usually resort to is satire or parody because, being derivative, such forms require the least originality.

A favorite device of political columnists is to describe some fictional conversation between well-known figures on the topic of the day. The result, unfortunately, is usually cringe-inducing because it is usually so heavy-handed. Even satire and parody require a deft and light touch to pull off but most writers tend towards hamhandedness and overkill. The central humorous conceit that triggered the idea of writing a funny piece usually can be told in just a few lines but it takes a lot of skill to stretch it out over a whole essay, let along a book, and very few writers can do that. Because I love reading humorous writing, I too have succumbed to the temptation to try my hand at it and the results have appeared occasionally on this blog (though some readers might have not have realized the humorous intent!)

It is tempting to want to write humor because the experts make it look so deceptively easy. But the words that seem to have been just tossed off casually hide a lot of hard work. In the case of Wodehouse, he would rewrite repeatedly, trying to get just the right word or phrase, carefully setting up and rearranging scenes, and worrying about the pacing of the plot. If he was dissatisfied with the way a novel was developing, he would sometimes ruthlessly throw everything out and start over. That requires real toughness because it is easy to get attached to one’s words and be loath to throw away weeks or months of hard work.

Good writing of any kind requires repeated rewriting and this is what makes humor so hard. When you are writing a serious piece, it is easy to go back and polish and re-polish, trying to make the point clearer and more effectively, trying to find the correct words and images to convey the central idea.

The reason it is so hard to do this with humor is that an important element of humor is surprise, the sudden appearance of the unexpected. Once the basic joke has been written, it is hard for the writer to go back to revise it and still think of it as funny. And the more one rewrites, the unfunnier it seems to get. This leads to the temptation to overwrite, to adorn the writing with flourishes that makes the humor seem forced.

Just as it takes hard work by a chef with great skill to get the lightness and airiness of a soufflé, the difficulty with comedy is keep it light. I suspect that good humorists have the ability to keep their focus on the central joke and to still see it as funny even after they have rewritten it many times. They are able to keep it light while sharpening it and making it more pointed, while those less skilled tend to weigh it down.

I cannot think of any contemporary novelists who I find to be in the same league of funniness as a Wodehouse. One of the funniest non-novelist writers currently is Dave Barry. His weekly columns in the Miami Herald are consistently good and his many books are a laugh riot. His humor is broader (and coarser) than that of a Wodehouse, funny is a very different way. His quick romp through American history in Dave Barry Slept Here and his travel book on Japan Dave Barry Does Japan are well worth reading. (For a brief excerpt of the latter, see here.)

POST SCRIPT: McCain=Bush in more ways than one

George Bush was notorious for being so insecure that his team would keep out of the audience anyone who looked like they might be even mildly critical of him, even if it was simply on a t-shirt. It looks like McCain is very much like Bush in this regard. At a recent public event, a librarian was threatened with arrest for having a sign that said simply ‘McCain=Bush’.

It is interesting that being identified with the sitting president of your own party is seen as such a threat by the candidate.

The humor of P. G. Wodehouse

There is something very alluring about comedy and humor. Laughter is wonderful. It puts everyone in a good mood, at ease and lowers their defenses. To be able to make other people laugh and be happy is a wonderful talent and people like people who can make them laugh. It is no accident that public speakers often begin with a joke.

I have always enjoyed humor. My earliest childhood influences were the books by Richmal Crompton (author of the William series) and Frank W. Richards (creator of Billy Bunter). As I got older I started reading P. G. Wodehouse, S. J. Perelman, and Stephen Leacock and any other writer I could find in the library who was described as a comic or humorous writer. The comedy writers who appeal to me are those who edge on the absurd and who use the nature of the English language itself as a source for much of their humor.

Of them all, Wodehouse was, and remains, my favorite writer to this day. I have read the classic Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings Castle series many times over. He is the perfect choice for those days when one is feeling blah and nothing appeals to you to do.

Wodehouse’s craftsmanship was so meticulous and his use of language so sublime that his readers did not care that the stock plots were contrived and the characters stereotypical, and that you knew that there would be a happy endings all around in which even the villains were let off lightly. With Wodehouse, the pleasure lay on two levels, the surface one in which one is just carried along by the smoothness of the writing and the frantic pace of events, and below the surface by the appreciation of observing a language master at work.

Take for example, the classic The Code of the Woosters. Bertie Wooster, the rich, idle, none-too-bright narrator once again, through a series of misunderstandings, finds himself in the situation in which Madeline Bassett, a woman whose personality he finds revolting, is convinced that Bertie is madly in love with her. Wodehouse, via Wooster, paints a portrait of this ‘ghastly girl’.

I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl. The Woosters are chivalrous, but they can speak their mind. A droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and daisy chains. I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that the stars were God’s daisy chain. Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort.

With those few deft lines, the reader is immediately made aware of what kind of person Madeline is and what the problem is. She is someone who oozes ‘soul’ from every pore, while Bertie has none.

The sappy Madeline, however, loves the equally sappy newt-fancier (and Bertie’s friend) Gussie Fink-Nottle, and they become engaged, leaving Bertie relieved that he is off the hook. But she has told Bertie that if it should ever turn out that her marriage to Gussie should not take place and she can’t have the happiness she desires with Gussie, she will sacrifice herself and at least make Bertie happy by marrying him. This is a prospect he finds alarming to the utmost but he is too chivalrous to tell her that the thought of marrying her gives him the heebie-jeebies. He has his code of behavior and it does not allow him to dump a girl. Many of the Jeeves/Wooster stories center around Jeeves’ strategies to get the girl to dump Bertie.

When Gussie sends Bertie a telegram from Madeline’s country estate saying that the two of them have had a tiff and their engagement is off, an alarmed Bertie quickly rushes to his friend’s aid to try and patch things up. This has happened before in previous books and Bertie’s earlier desperate attempts to reconcile Madeline with Gussie have been seen by her as noble self-sacrificial efforts on Bertie’s part, to put his friend Gussie’s interests above his own, and have only increased Bertie’s esteem in her eyes.

On arrival, Bertie immediately runs into Madeline, who is surprised by his appearance at her home, leading to this priceless bit of dialogue.

“Why did you come? Oh, I know what you are going to say. You felt that, cost what it might, you had to see me again, just once. You could not resist the urge to take away with you one last memory, which you could cherish down the lonely years. Oh, Bertie, you remind me of Rudel.”

The name was new to me.


“The Seigneur Geoffrey Rudel, Prince of Blaye-en-Saintonge.”

I shook my head.

“Never met him, I’m afraid. Pal of yours?”

“He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli.”

I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

“For years he loved her, and at last he could resist no longer. He took ship to Tripoli, and his servants carried him ashore.”

“Not feeling so good?” I said groping. “Rough crossing?”

“He was dying. Of love.”

“Oh, ah.”

“They bore him into the Lady Melisande’s presence on a litter and he had just strength enough to reach out and touch her hand. Then he died.”

She paused, and heaved a sigh that seemed to come straight up from the cami-knickers. A silence ensured.

“Terrific,” I said, feeling I had to say something, though personally I didn’t think the story a patch on the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. Different, of course, if one had known the chap.

I must have read this book at least half-a-dozen times and this passage never fails to make me laugh.

Of course, humor is highly idiosyncratic and what brings one person to tears of laughter can leave another mystified. But if you like humor and have never read any Wodehouse, you owe it to yourself to try him. I suggest starting with The Code of the Woosters and Leave it to Psmith, two of my all-time favorites.

POST SCRIPT: Right wing outrage, part MMCMLXVI

What is it about popular culture that has the right wing in a state of perpetual outrage? The latest target? The Pixar animated film Wall*E.