Saturday, February 02, 2019
In one of his letters, Joseph Roth wrote, "There are miracles in my life, poor little miracles, but miracles just the same—only fair for a poor little believer like myself," which sounds like it could be be a prefiguration and a partial summary for the novella. If you're looking for a change of pace (and it does go at a slow pace), I highly recommend taking advantage of the free viewing.
Thursday, January 24, 2019
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
Hardcover, 352 pages
The first two-thirds of the book covers the story of the meteoric growth of the start-up company Theranos and its young and charismatic CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Modeling herself after Steve Jobs, Homes sold a dream of quick, accurate blood tests from only a few drops of blood from the fingertip. She wrapped the dream in moving anecdotes, tapping into the desire to significantly improve health care.
There were many problems with her dream, though. Theranos didn't have any breakthrough technology. They were simply trying to miniaturize existing technology, significantly compromising analyses and results. Skirting normal clinical rigor, Holmes tried to bring the product (such as it existed) to market without proper regulatory oversight. Bringing in the shady and arrogant Sunny Balwani as president and COO of the company was a guarantee for disaster. Bullying anyone inside or outside the company that didn't believe in the smoke and mirrors provided by the company couldn't help, either.
The biggest problem of all was the dysfunctional corporate culture in which it [the product] was being developed. Elizabeth and Sunny regarded anyone who raised a concern or an objection as a cynic and a naysayer. Employees who persisted in doing so were usually marginalized or fired, while sycophants were promoted. (164)
Despite bringing in impressive talent, the company had to engage in deceptive practices at every step in order to give the appearance of progress on their blood-test machines. It was a case of everyone wanting to believe in something so much they became blind to what was actually going on. "Elizabeth told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn't believe, they should leave. Sunny put it more bluntly: anyone not prepared to show complete devotion and unmitigated loyalty to the company should 'get the fuck out.'" (173) Having overpromised on results, Holmes had to cut corners and deceive when it was time to deliver.
The last third of the book details how the cracks in the Theranos story eventually brought in Carreyrou and his arduous task in bringing the deceptions to light. It took enormous courage displayed by a handful of people, at great personal and monetary cost, to reveal the danger of the company's product. If the story was fiction, it would almost read as a clichéd take on personal greed, revenge, evil intent, etc. from a thriller. What provides the force felt when reading the book, though, is knowing this actually happened. Regardless of any good intentions when starting the company, it quickly devolved into a nightmarish tale for many people.
Carreyrou does a good job of describing the problems faced in trying to provide tests from a few drops of blood that Theranos touted their device could provide. No wonder many in the industry doubted the veracity of their claims, but obviously it wasn't enough to deter investors, who were kept as marginalized in the overall picture as were the company's employees. Many notable people who should have known better end up looking worse for their part in corporate misgovernance.
Some of my experiences add to my enthusiasm for the book. One factor is that I work in Silicon Valley, so startup anecdotes are commonplace. It's amazing how small the valley can be at times. Another factor is that I worked in the medical device field for over a decade and experienced a concern for clinical results and regulatory compliance that was blithely ignored by Holmes and Theranos management. Also, having worked for startups in several phases of development, I understand that credulity provides a huge factor in funding and other aspects of these companies, but at some point reality has to be faced. Those people that decided to blow the whistle on a fraud of this magnitude despite the firepower Theranos could line up against them have my respect. It's difficult enough at times to leave employment at a company, whether it crosses ethical lines (sometimes blurred, sometimes clear) or not, but to knowingly set yourself up as a target for people that have the power and the motive to destroy you deserves special credit. Very highly recommended.
Author Q&A at the publisher's site
Q: What does the Theranos saga say about Silicon Valley?
A: It tells us that, while there’s real innovation taking place in Silicon Valley, there’s also a huge amount of hubris and pretending going on there. The staggering amount of money that has poured into the Valley’s startup ecosystem over the past decade has given rise to arrogance, excess and outright fraud. Moreover, these companies are staying private much longer than they used to, which makes it harder to pierce their veils of secrecy and expose their problems. As a capitalistic society, we tend to lionize tech entrepreneurs. This tale is a reminder that the reality is often more complicated and less glossy than the myths we’re fed by Silicon Valley’s PR machine.
Tuesday, January 22, 2019
On the centenary of the end of First World War, Academy Award-winner Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) presents the World Premiere of an extraordinary new work showing the Great War as you have never seen it. This unique film brings into high definition the human face of the First World War as part of a special London Film Festival presentation alongside a live Q&A with director Peter Jackson hosted by Mark Kermode.I went to see this movie last night wondering if it would live up to the hype it has received, and for the most part I'd have to say it did. There is a wealth of information and reviews about the movie available online so I won't go into great detail here, but if you're interested check out some of the links in this post. A quick online search will turn up much more.
Using state of the art technology to restore original archival footage which is more than a 100-years old, Jackson brings to life the people who can best tell this story: the men who were there. Driven by a personal interest in the First World War, Jackson set out to bring to life the day-to-day experience of its soldiers. After months immersed in the BBC and Imperial War Museums’ archives, narratives and strategies on how to tell this story began to emerge for Jackson. Using the voices of the men involved, the film explores the reality of war on the front line; their attitudes to the conflict; how they ate; slept and formed friendships, as well what their lives were like away from the trenches during their periods of downtime.
Jackson and his team have used cutting edge techniques to make the images of a hundred years ago appear as if they were shot yesterday. The transformation from black and white footage to colourised footage can be seen throughout the film revealing never before seen details. Reaching into the mists of time, Jackson aims to give these men voices, investigate the hopes and fears of the veterans, the humility and humanity that represented a generation changed forever by a global war.
(Synopsis from the official movie website)
The half-hour documentary that follows the movie provides information on the task that Jackson faced and details the challenges his team had to address. They had 100 hours of film footage from the time of the war, much of it copies instead of original shots, and 600 hours of audio interviews with World War I veterans from the 1960s and '70s. Clips from these interviews "narrate" the movie, and it's interesting to hear the participants' perspectives of what we're seeing on the screen.
Jackson lays out his thoughts on the approach he chose. While noting the importance of the participation of British subjects and other countries as well as women on the homefront and the war theater, he wanted a specific concentration: “I didn’t want to do a little bit of everything. I just wanted to focus on one topic and do it properly: the experience of an average soldier infantryman on the Western Front.” This narrowed focus makes for an effective storyline. We see and hear about enlistment and training in Britain, arrival on the continent, life in the trenches, experiences on leave, what it was like to go "over the top," engagement with German POWs, and the bittersweet return home. It leaves you wanting more, but that is exactly Jackson's goal—for us to find out more about those who experienced the war, especially participants in our own families.
Since most of the family and acquaintances I knew that had been in a war would rarely (if ever) talk about it, I'm always interested to hear other participants' experiences, not just what happened but also how they tell it. In the early parts of the movie, the men relay lively tales of signing up and training. As the movie progresses, the tone changes. It's not exactly somber, but more matter-of-fact. The most moving moment for me was a veteran recalling shooting an ally to put him out of his misery after he had an arm and leg blown off. As the veteran's voice cracks, it's easy to imagine him living with that moment in the years since the war.
There were a few more things I'll note, but these are more of a personal taste. Or lack thereof. I'm not a fan of the 3D feature. While it adds some nice touches, it seems to me that the quality suffers from it. I guess I'm reminded too much of my old ViewMaster discs. I would have loved to have seen more of the corrected and enhanced black-and-white footage as well. Colorization techniques have improved, but I wouldn't honestly say it appeared "as if they were shot yesterday." What it did, though, was give an additional appreciation for what it was like beyond any realistic recent movie recreation.
If you get a chance to see the movie, I highly recommend it. For now you'll have to be on the lookout for additional screenings and check the Fathom Events site for locations. Hopefully this will soon be released for home viewing, but it is definitely a great experience on a big screen.
- The New York Times weekend feature by Mekado Murphy: How Peter Jackson Made WWI Footage Seem Astonishingly New With They Shall Not Grow Old
- YouTube video from the Daily Mail: Director Peter Jackson on his new WW1 documentary film
- YouTube video from Kermode Uncut on the making of the movie
- Images at Fathom Events
Saturday, January 19, 2019
Big Sur, California
Highway 1, just north of Garrapata Creek Bridge: 12 January 2019
So that when later I heard people say “Oh Big Sur must be beautiful!” I gulp to wonder why it has the reputation of being beautiful above and beyond its fearfulness, its Blakean groaning roughrock Creation throes, those vistas when you drive the coast highway on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing.Big Sur is one of my favorite getaways. I got the chance for a solo trip last weekend and the toll taken by the elements on the area over the past couple of years limited what I had hoped to do. I drove down early Saturday morning before the crowds of tourists wind their way down Highway 1 and was able to hike some of the few open trails in the area. Many were closed from a combination of the Soberanes Fire of a couple of years ago and rain from last spring and this winter, a combination of a timeless, elemental flux.
Jack Kerouac—Big Sur (1962)
Since so many of the trails and beaches I wanted to visit were closed, I decided to stop at a pullout in Garrapatas State Park and walk out to one of the vista points. I noticed on the way south earlier that morning that the state had improved many of the coastal access points and I wanted to take advantage of the development. As I walked across the highway and down the narrow trail toward the cliffs, a guy came running up to me and said, "My friend has just fallen. If you see anything in the water, please let us know." I didn't have time to respond before he was off, so I continued heading out toward the coast. The surf is captured in the above video, 12-15 foot waves with an occasional 20-footer. While there (for about 45 minutes), many rangers, firemen, lifeguards, and other rescue people showed up on the scene and positioned themselves to locate the fallen friend. Seeing the personnel go through the rescue drills was just as dispiriting as the individual event, realizing they had done this dozens of times before and had a protocol they instinctively followed in order to spot a body in the water. There are many articles online about the event, but I'll just link this one.
There are a few literary works that capture the area for me, my favorite being some of Robinson Jeffers' poems. Last week's encounter, however, reminded me more of Jack Kerouac in Big Sur. I've never really connected with Kerouac, but if I had to pick one work I liked the best it would be this short novel. If you haven't read it, Big Sur follows Kerouac a few years after On the Road had been published (and fourteen years after the events in the book) as he's trying to handle the fame of his book as well as his inability to control himself, especially with alcohol. Kerouac's mental deterioration coincides with his visits to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in Big Sur. His isolation, exacerbated by the insignificance he feels in comparison to nature's power brings on a mental and physical breakdown. The poem he wrote while in Big Sur, "Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur," does little for me except for the parts echoing the parts of the novel comparing man's transience to nature's permanence, part of the many tensions in the book such as image vs. reality and beauty vs. hazard.
There are parts of the novel that I have recalled when visiting the area, though, and last Saturday was one of those moments. The simultaneously exhibited beauty and fearfulness of the area had never been on clearer display.
Just south of Bixby Creek Bridge
Thursday, January 03, 2019
I've been slowly working my way through The Elements by Euclid and recreating the propositions. What a strange, nerdy thing to do, right? I'm not completely sure why I decided to do this, but I'm thoroughly enjoying it. At the rate I'm going, it will take until the middle of the year to work through the book, but that's fine with me.
A summary of Euclid's contribution to mathematics from the Ancient History Encyclopedia:
Euclid did not originate most of the ideas in The Elements. His contribution was fourfold:St. Andrew University's page on Euclid of Alexandria adds "The book was a compilation of knowledge that became the centre of mathematical teaching for 2000 years. Probably no results in The Elements were first proved by Euclid but the organisation of the material and its exposition are certainly due to him. In fact there is ample evidence that Euclid is using earlier textbooks as he writes The Elements since he introduces quite a number of definitions which are never used such as that of an oblong, a rhombus, and a rhomboid." (Their site also has a lot of links and additional material on Euclid.)
- He collected important mathematical and geometric knowledge in one book. The Elements is a textbook rather than a reference book, so it does not cover everything that was known.
- He gave definitions, postulates, and axioms. He called axioms "common notions."
- He presented geometry as an axiomatic system: Every statement was either an axiom, a postulate, or was proven by clear logical steps from axioms and postulates.
- He gave some of his own original discoveries, such as the first known proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers.
I've been using the Green Lion Press edition (Euclid's Elements) and a couple of online resources to help me through the book. The Green Lion Press edition comes highly recommended and I agree with all the positive things people have said about it. It includes the "complete unabridged text of all thirteen books of Euclid's Elements in T. L. Heath's translation with minor corrections to text and translation, along with introductions, terminology and biographical notes, bibliography, index and glossary." It's a wonderful edition that I highly recommend.
There are many online sites and tools for working through The Elements, so I'll only list the two I've been using. The first is at Furman University's site and compiled by John T. Poole. What I love about this tool is that it walks you through the propositions, giving visual aids to help you understand the text step by step. (Walk through Book One's Proposition Nine as an example and you'll see what I mean.) Everything is clear and since the T. L. Heath translation is used, it is consistent with the text I'm using. I find his statement that "Every interested person, ninth grade student to ninety year old retiree, should be able to read most, if not all, of the material" to be true in my case.
The second site I use is at Clark University and compiled by David E. Joyce. There is additional information and techniques shown that help me understand the propositions better. Weaknesses in Euclid's logic are provided as well as help in construction of the propositions. See his page on Book One Proposition Nine for comparison with the Furman site. I find both sites extremely helpful when used in tandem.
You can understand the propositions fine by following along in the book or the sites, but I wanted to get the most out of it and recreate the steps. If you decide to work through them yourself, you can get by with a simple geometry set (such as this one by Mr. Pen) for everything I've come to so far. I'm awful with a compass, though, so I also ordered a bow compass (this one by Mr. Pen, also, does fine).
In The Gargoyle Hunters, the author John Freeman Gill talks about meeting artists across time when you contemplate their work, which I find perfectly describes how I feel when working through the beauty and logic in the proofs of these propositions. I'm sure not everyone will enjoy it to the same extent as I am. Regardless, I would give The Elements one my highest recommendations.
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
And in 1790, he [Radishchev] wrote, anonymously, one of the immortal works of Russian literature: Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Nationalistic, insightful, mindful of the human condition, and understanding of the forces of human history, Radishchev envisioned a better world: His book was both a document and a pamphlet, the narrative of a simple pilgrim’s fantastic journey and wondrous musings about it. It was also a deeply subtle and learned work, and, at bottom, an ardent tirade against the evils of serfdom and corruption in Russia. It paid homage to religious orthodoxy, yet it assailed the superstitions of the clergy; it professed obedience to the monarchy, yet it justified popular rebellion against rulers who ran roughshod over the law, whether “a tsar, shah, khan, king, bey [or] nabob.” It described the dismemberment of families by conscription, and the abuse of serfs by masters…. He did not advocate revolution, but he asked for a merciful understanding of its advocates. … His language was poetic: “Let yourselves be softened, you hardhearted ones; break the fetters of your brethren, open the dungeons of slavery.”
He [Radishchev] has come to be regarded by the radical intelligentsia as its first spokesman and martyr. The sincerity of his book has been questioned both by his early advocates and by his later detractors. It would seem that he wrote it merely out of literary ambition and that it is no more than a rhetorical exercise on a subject suggested and familiarized by Raynal. However this may be, the book is devoid of literary merit.
More coming on this work soon, but I love the comparison of comments. Not that they are mutually exclusive or fully contradict each other, as I'm finding out.
I seem to be suffering from literary ADHD, following leads of interest while postponing what I want to finish. I'll get to things mentioned yet, I promise (to myself), but wanted to post on these comments I found the other day.
Friday, November 23, 2018
The cause of great power war is a perennial issue for the student of politics. Some 2,400 years ago, in his monumental History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that it was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that this power inspired in Sparta which rendered the Peloponnesian War somehow necessary, inevitable, or compulsory.
In this new political psychological study of Thucydides' first book, S.N. Jaffe shows how the History's account of the outbreak of the war ultimately points toward the opposing characters of the Athenian and Spartan regimes, disclosing a Thucydidean preoccupation with the interplay between nature and convention. Jaffe explores how the character of the contest between Athens and Sparta, or how the outbreak of a particular war, can reveal Thucydides' account of the recurring human causes of war and peace. The political thought of Thucydides proves bound up with his distinctive understanding of the interrelationship of particular events and more universal themes.
The article at War on the Rocks provides an overview of the History and provides a nice summary of why it's wrong to accept Thucydides at face value when he states “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm (or fear) which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable … or necessary or compulsory.” The whole article is worth a read and I sincerely hope to read Jaffe's book for more on his interpretation. For now, here's part of the article's summary on that inevitability:
I maintain that Thucydides does not mean inevitability as efficient causation, or in any sense that suggests that the forces involved are fully external to the actors. Instead, I argue that the objective inevitability of a Peloponnesian War is in fact the product the subjective views of the actors themselves, rooted in the deeply opposing characters of Athens and Sparta, or in the ways that the cities differently privilege security, honor, and profit. To abridge a complicated story, what Thucydides means by necessity is perhaps best understood as the imperatives of the national interest, as the actor in question understands those interests, while these interests are themselves conditioned by overarching world views or disparate cultural outlooks.
To draw these threads together, a Peloponnesian war became “necessary” when the actors themselves came to see no alternative to it. This does not mean that they were correct to arrive at that decision, or that there were no alternatives to war. Instead, Thucydides illuminates the interactive chain of events by which the protagonists themselves became locked into path dependencies, firmly convinced of the reasonableness of their actions or policies, which, in fatal combination with one another, led to a mutually destructive war.
As Jaffe points out, there is "vigorous disagreement" on the study of Thucydides...what the author meant and how to apply his lessons. Whether or not you agree with Jaffe's remarks on Thucydides, his framing information should be of use to anyone wanting to read the History.
Monday, November 19, 2018
Passage through the Red Sea by Zofia Romanowicz
Originally published in Polish as Przejscie Przez Morze Czerwone
See the post at The Neglected Books Page for more information on this book, which included a review on an out-of-print book that described it as odd, repellent, and powerful. As the NBP editor noted, such descriptions are the call of one neglected book fanatic to another. Yes, I read it. And yes, it is odd. Repellent. And powerful. More on that soon.
The Disinherited by Benito Pérez Galdós
Originally published in Spanish as La desheredada
This is the novel where Galdós hit his stride. Starting with The Disinherited, Galdós published 22 novels in a decade, what are now called the Novelas españolas contemporáneas. It's clear in this book that Galdós was now on a higher plateau in writing, although he still had a little way to go to reach the level of Fortunata and Jacinta. Still, it's a pleasure to find writing of this quality.
The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr by Leanda de Lisle
See the publisher's page for the Author’s Note and the opening of the Preface. From the Author's Note:
This new portrait, informed by previously unseen royal correspondence, depicts a brave and principled king who inspired great loyalty but who was also a man of flesh and blood. Charles the Martyr and Charles the Murderer, lauded by friends and condemned by enemies, is largely forgotten, but in popular memory something just as extreme remains. Charles has been pinned to the pages of history as a failed king, executed at the hands of his own subjects, and now preserved like some exotic but desiccated insect. In may accounts it seems that Charles was doomed to fail almost from birth, his character immutable.
Lastly, a couple of books read last year on the American Revolutionary War. First is a work of fiction: Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, which looks at the war from the perspective of a Loyalist. The second is Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth by Holger Hoock. Hoock focuses on the violence carried out by both sides so a reader can better understand what really happened during those years.
Thursday, November 15, 2018
The stop I wanted to highlight was my visit at the Andersonville National Historical Sight, near Andersonville, Georgia. Formerly known as Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp during the American Civil War, it operated for just over a year near the end of the war (1864-65). Approximately 45,000 Union soldiers were housed there during that period, with over 13,000 dying. The grounds have been left mostly undeveloped, with several memorials and recreations of one of the gates and corners of the compound, which I found...well, "refreshing" isn't quite the right word. But it did allow you to picture what this area would have looked like just over 150 years ago. National Park Services maps of the camp, cemetery, and surrounding area can be found here. From the park website:
Andersonville National Historic Site began as a stockade built about 18 months before the end of the U.S. Civil War to hold Union Army prisoners captured by Confederate soldiers. Located deep behind Confederate lines, the 26.5-acre Camp Sumter (named for the south Georgia county it occupied) was designed for a maximum of 10,000 prisoners. At its most crowded, it held more than 32,000 men, many of them wounded and starving, in horrific conditions with rampant disease, contaminated water, and only minimal shelter from the blazing sun and the chilling winter rain. In the prison's 14 months of existence, some 45,000 Union prisoners arrived here;of those, 12,920 died and were buried in a cemetery created just outside the prison walls.
In addition to the military prison area and the cemetery is the National Prisoner of War Museum memorial, another extremely moving exhibit. My visit there was too quick to give more than just an impression, but on my cursory walk-through I felt it well done and something necessary about an angle of war too often ignored. I'm sure it's difficult to please everyone with such an all-encompassing museum, but as I said I thought it well done. Hopefully it proves enlightening to those not growing up and hearing often about American POWs on the nightly news.
I wanted to highlight the sight since its location might be just enough out of the way of travelers). It's obviously not an uplifting place to visit, but one I think is important, which is why I'm publishing this post. I didn't take too many pictures, thinking I would rely on pictures posted online, but I didn't find that many I wanted to share. Here's one I took of the Providence Spring memorial, a shelter erected by Union veteran groups to commemorate a spring erupting from the ground, a godsend for parched prisoners. More on the spring and memorial with some additional pictures can be found here.
Right above the spring is a reconstruction of the North Gate (or rather one of the two North Gates), the entrance through which most of the prisoners would have passed through. I chose this picture to highlight the slope down to the creek that flowed through the camp. From the top of the hills on either side of the creek you have an encompassing view of the area.
The waist-high information sign on the right side gives you an idea of the scale of these imposing timbers. In the background to the left is the Ohio monument, one of several in the memorial area to the northwest of the prison site.
I loved the backroads I drove getting to the park and then heading to Atlanta. I know some of that was nostalgia, since I have lived in areas like these throughout the south. The overcast weather seemed to amplify the somberness I felt while there.
There are plenty of histories and webpages on Andersonville that are easily accessible, so I'll only link this one at History.com..
Monday, November 05, 2018
The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing stands alone in man's experience, and has no parallel upon earth. It outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them. Sometimes it leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug; sometimes it lays a regular siege and creeps upon their citadel during a score of years. And when the business is done, there is sore havoc made in other people's lives, and a pin knocked out by which many subsidiary friendships hung together. There are empty chairs, solitary walks, and single beds at night. Again in taking away our friends, death does not take them away utterly, but leaves behind a mocking, tragical, and soon intolerable residue, which must be hurriedly concealed. Hence a whole chapter of sights and customs striking to the mind, from the pyramids of Egypt to the gibbets and dule trees of mediaeval Europe. The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door. All this, and much more of the same sort, accompanied by the eloquence of poets, has gone a great way to put humanity in error; nay, in many philosophies the error has been embodied and laid down with every circumstance of logic; although in real life the bustle and swiftness, in leaving people little time to think, have not left them time enough to go dangerously wrong in practice.
The title, if you're not familiar with it (and I certainly wasn't) is explained in the notes: The title, AEs Triplex, is taken from Horace, aes triplex circa pectus, "breast enclosed by triple brass," "aes" used by Horace as a "symbol of indomitable courage."—Lewis's Latin Dictionary.
After addressing the great divide and separation death causes and how reverential we talk about it, Stevenson looks at how little we allow it to influence our "conduct under healthy circumstances." He mentions South American citizens living on the side of volcanos ("fiery mountains") who act as if they are "delving gardens in the greenest corner of England," not impressed by the "mortal conditions" where they live. And then as he thinks about it, Stevenson claims this example "forms only a very pale figure for the state of ordinary mankind" if we consider the many possibilities of wholesale catastrophes that could happen.
As Stevenson contemplates how old people act (for the most part), he uses a beauty and ruthlessness in his imagery, in passages such as
For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we see our contemporaries going through. By the time a man gets well into the seventies, his continued existence is a mere miracle; and when he lays his old bones in bed for the night, there is an overwhelming probability that he will never see the day. Do the old men mind it, as a matter of fact? Why, no. They were never merrier; they have their grog at night, and tell the raciest stories; they hear of the death of people about their own age, or even younger, not as if it was a grisly warning, but with a simple childlike pleasure at having outlived someone else; and when a draught might puff them out like a fluttering candle, or a bit of a stumble shatter them like so much glass, their old hearts keep sound and unaffrighted, and they go on, bubbling with laughter, through years of man's age compared to which the valley at Balaclava was as safe and peaceful as a village cricket-green on Sunday.
Death may be knocking at the door, like the Commander's statue; we have something else in hand, thank God, and let him knock. Passing bells are ringing all the world over. All the world over, and every hour, someone is parting company with all his aches and ecstasies. For us also the trap is laid. But we are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.
Indeed, it is a memorable subject for consideration, with what unconcern and gaiety mankind pricks on along the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Stevenson looks at some examples that literature uses to try and explain the human condition after he declares, "We confound ourselves with metaphysical phrases, which we import into daily talk with noble inappropriateness. We have no idea of what death is, apart from its circumstances and some of its consequences to others; and although we have some experience of living, there is not a man on earth who has flown so high into abstraction as to have any practical guess at the meaning of the Word life." Stevenson mocks philosophers if the best definition they can come up with is John Stuart Mill's "Permanent Possibility of Sensation." After all the word tricks that people play, "[O]ne fact remains true throughout—that we do not love life, in the sense that we are greatly preoccupied about its conservation; that we do not, properly speaking, love life at all, but living." OK, that seems like he's using a little word trick himself, but he uses that distinction to come to his point about the necessity of courage (back to the aes triplex). With courage, we can do more than just stay alive, but truly live:
To be deeply interested in the accidents of our existence, to enjoy keenly the mixed texture of human experience, rather leads a man to disregard precautions, and risk his neck against a straw. For surely the love of living is stronger in an Alpine climber roping over a peril, or a hunter riding merrily at a stiff fence, than in a creature who lives upon a diet and walks a measured distance in the interest of his constitution.
Just because we know we're mortal doesn't mean we should abandon intelligence, though. "As courage and intelligence are the two qualities best worth a good man's cultivation, so it is the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before the fact. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps the man who is well armoured for this world."
Last month I decided to read some of Robert Louis Stevenson's essays (available at Project Gutenberg), skipping around to different ones depending on how much time I had to read that day. Little did I know that a couple of days after reading "Aes Triplex" my mother would pass away. She was 97 years old and lived a full life. Her health had been in serious decline the past year, so while it wasn't unexpected, her passing still fit many of the descriptions of Stevenson's opening paragraph. I can attest that she lived fully with a triple brass shield of courage.
Despite my liberal use of quotes from the essay, there is much more in this short piece. Do make the time (in the "hot-fit of life") to have a look at the essay. And if you like what you read, be sure to check out the others. There's a lot of enjoyable writing in these pieces.