The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Friday, March 28, 2008

Mailbag: Taoism

From a letter I just wrote to a student who was "raised Catholic" but now is more interested in Eastern Religions, espeically Taoism.


Our society doesn't really encourage people to think much about their religion, unfortunately not even in the Church. That's a real passion of mine, to try to change the culture at large and especially the culture in the Church to appreciate the riches of the Catholic heritage of thought in philosophers and theologians like Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, and Aqinas (what I call the A-list). I mean these guys say amazing things. One of Saint Augustine's famous quotes is "O Lord our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." Why isn't our society, in and out of the Church, addressing the sense of restlessness of youth. What's more, this sense of restlessness is limitless, there's nothing on earth that can always satisfy, nothing that offers infinite bliss. So are we doomed either to finite existence/enjoyment or infinite restlessness? Augustine thinks not since exploring the infinite Mind of God offers infinitely many new facets every moment. God's mind has infinitely many limbs with infinitely many branches with infinitely many leaves... In the words of Saint Anselm, who as influenced by Augustine, God is "That than which no greater can be conceived." In one of his prayers he realizes that this being must exist because perfection includes existence. So if that than which no greater can be conceived failed to exist then it wouldn't *be* the greatest conceivable, but that's a contradiction so there must be such a being. Saint Thomas Aquinas then provides the resources for seeing why this must be true because, as he puts it, God's essence includes his existence. For all finite, contingent creatures our essence includes some properties, but not existence: we could be or not be, the would could have gone on even we hadn't existed. But God's essence and existence are one: God cannot not exist. In my survey of Eastern religions I suppose I found certain kinds of Hinduism most plausible from a metaphysical point of view but abhorred its stratified ethics. I found Buddhism most plausible from an ethical standpoint (except inaction), but find its metaphysics implausible (guess what, I *do* exist, there's no denying that as Descartes taught us "Cogito ergo sum"). I do believe in a Tao, but I hold a view called Personalism which puts persons and personhood at the top of the metaphysical ladder (human persons are just one kind of person, I'm talking about any being with will, intellect, choice, rationality, creativity) and so I think the Tao is not an impersonal force but rather an abstraction of the mind of God. God thinks only perfectly harmonious thoughts containing the perfection of all things. When we think in harmony with God we grasp God's thoughts, the Tao. I think a Tao divorced from personhood is unintelligible. On the moral side I find the same flaws in Taoism as in Buddhism: the principle of inaction. Both are essentially Stoic, telling us we should accept things as they are rather than fight to bring the world into conformity with our ideals. I think that's the wrong way to think about the Tao. I think the Tao impels us to action to bring about that ideal to which the Tao stretches. Some Taoist's versions of active inaction come close to this, though I still find it unintelligible as an impersonal force and think it must be grounded in the Mind of a Person. I suppose I'm a Catholic Taoist although it's basic teachings were found in Judaism long before the writing of the Tao Te Ching. The Hebrew Scriptures taught that all humanity should be humble since we are somewhere in the middle of the Great Chain of Being, far from the most advanced creatures in existence. The Hebrew Scriptures taught compassion through all kinds of rules about gleaning and usury and hospitality. The Hebrew Scriptures taught moderation through its dietary constraints. So the "Three Jewels" of Taoist ethics and the Tao itself, the metaphysical centerpiece are already included in an informed understanding of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Trent's Tips: Triathlon


  1. This is the hardest event fore the vast majority of people. So much
    so that lots of people just opt for dualthlon events or do "dry" triathlons
    where they skip the swim. Hopefully with this advice you won't need to
    do that.

  2. Consistency: just get in the pool and do not stop swimming for half an
    hour. Experiment with different things—I can be more specific later—but the
    key is to *not* get in the pool and do quick laps and rest. The key is to once
    a week swim for half an hour with no stopping for anything.

  3. Fluidity: Swimming is a graceful activity. It should look like a
    form of dance, not a form of wrestling. Here are five things you can do.

    (i) I have tried about everything and nothing has made quite a difference as
    the following technique I discovered by accident from hours and hours of
    paying attention in the pool. Literally watch your fingertips go into
    the water. I have a special pair of goggles that I train in that I don't
    race in for this. My training goggles are more like small SCUBA ones.
    You can get them in any good store that serves your local triathletes.
    They are great for training due to the wider vision they provide allowing you
    to actually see what you are doing in the water. So I watch my fingers
    go into the water, making sure that my fingers are closed, my thumbs are
    downward (maybe 45 degrees or more), a little less than shoulder width apart
    (this will vary by swimmer but not a ton). I find that if I get my
    stroke started right, the rest of my body follows suit.

    (ii) Streeeeeaaaach your body out. Really reach forward, don't
    short-shuck it.

    (iii) Rotate. You almost can't over-do this. If you don't feel to
    yourself that you are over rotating, you're not rotating enough. You
    should really feel a noticable rotation almost like you are going into a
    momentary side stroke. This accentuates the reaching motion and ties

    (iv) Slow it down and glide. You might want to quicken your pace later,
    but at first you want to work on your form (this is related to the main point
    above). This also helps you

    (v) You will get out of breath. It is terribly inefficient to stop and
    tread and subprime to do breast stroke. The best thing to do is to take
    your very rotated freestyle stroke and just sail along on it and take an
    extra-large breath on one exaggerated stroke.

  4. Oddity: When you drink and breath, you belch. When you swim, you
    drink and breath. Thus, when you swim, you belch. It can
    really mess up your progress if you have to stop to belch and not doing
    so can cause you to choke, cough, and sputter. I have benefited greatly
    from the ability to belch under water in a controlled way. So here's
    what you do to practice. Chuck a diet Slice and jump in the pool and go.
    Practice belching in little spurts (usually when you are facing the bottom of
    the pool) until you get it all out.

  5. Incomprehensibility: The start of the swim is chaos. Sometimes it's
    run-starts sometimes it's in-the-water starts but the starts are always
    chaotic. If you can possibly find some people to train with in this
    regard get your group together, go down to the beach of a lake stand huddled
    together then have someone yell "go" and race each other into the water.
    You might practice how you are going to enter the water. It is not
    always easy to dive and not break the seal of your goggles. It might be
    hard to get half a dozen people or more to join you in this but perhaps you
    will be able to get four people together to do circle laps in one lane of a
    pool. You might have to explain what you are doing to the lifeguard but
    if they have a clue it's legit. Swimming next to other people in tight
    formation can be freaky. It's a world of difference from having a big
    long open lane to yourself.

  6. Virtuosity: In my first triathlon--The Ontario Down and Dirty--I could not
    swim the full 400 yards without stopping to tread water (indeed, on my first
    training day I couldn't make it to the other end of the 50 meter pool without
    doing so). This past summer I was second in my heat at the Finger Lakes
    Triathlon. I commonly do competitive swims of around a mile and recently
    swam 2.5 miles nonstop. If I can do it, you can do it.


  1. Goggles: For whatever reason the smaller ones stay on better and leak less
    than the bigger ones. There is a nice advantage with the bigger ones in
    being able to see more, which is really nice when you're in the midst of 400
    to 800 other people. However, if they leak this advantage won't kick in.

  2. Bike:

    Tri bikes are not a good choice for the vast majority of recreational
    triathletes. They are made for long, straight rides in windy places
    (Kona). You need something more agile, like a typical road race bike.
    See this previous Trent's Tips on how to select a bike.

  3. Shoes:

    Very difficult, but I like Nike Free slip-ons. Buy shoes from a
    knowledgeable person at a good high-end running shop, not from a huge,
    impersonal place. Schedule two hours to buy the shoes. Try on lots
    of pairs (WITH YOUR ACTUAL RUNNING SOCKS) and leave each pair on for AT LEAST
    five (TIMED) minutes while you walk around and get a feel for them.

    Laces: Kevlar speedlaces. That's key if you're not using slip-ons.

    If you are doing sprint distance I highly recommend not buying special bike
    shoes. Save that for Olympic distance (my main course).

    Socks: Non-cotton obviously. Buy new socks when you buy new shoes and
    make sure they work together.


  1. Don't eat much the night before. Have a nice late pasta lunch, then
    a salad for dinner.

  2. Get up butt-ass early in the morning and arrive at the race site two-hours
    ahead of time. Parking, transition-set up, and bathroom lines can all be

  3. Don't eat a solid breakfast. Toast at the most. Have an energy
    shake or something. It is key not to irritate your bowl, you will thank
    me for this when you see the bathroom lines and when you feel what your
    stomach will feel like in the hour before the race (and I am so not nervous
    it's not even funny, I love each race and always perform well, this is not
    about "nerves" in any pejorative sense).

  4. Be in a reasonable spot in the starting group. Look for the fittest
    looking guy over 65, that's about where you belong on your first time.
    Don't get me wrong, he will smoke you. But he'll be lined up in about
    the right spot for you. Don't line up at the back because it's your
    first one. There are people who have no business being there and won't
    even finish the swim.

  5. Do not sprint into the water or run through shallow water. Just walk
    on down at a brisk but measured pace and get in the water and start swimming
    as soon as you can (just below crotch deep).

  6. Your spouse must be in a 100% or they need to stay at home. Message
    to your spouse (have them read this): this is a time to serve, so get ready
    for it: no bitching! You park, you walk, you carry, you run back to get
    what's forgotten, you cheer, and you massage. Next time, your turn.


  1. Swim: My standard swim is 2 miles and I *routinely* feel like I am going
    to drown in the first 200 meters of a race. Just can't seem to beat it.
    I've been a certified lifeguard for, well, longer than I want to say on this
    blog. Doesn't matter. It can be intense. Try *really* hard
    not to stop and tread, that is a real pace-stopper. Just do the breast
    stroke for three good breaths and then get back to the crawl. Do this as
    often as you need to but don't breast stroke for more than three strokes (if
    you don't have the rule you'll do it more than you really need).

    There will be people in kayaks watching for those truly in need, if you try to
    save someone you'll most likely just endanger them an you more. The most
    you should ever do is tread near them and wave for the kayak people. If
    there is a kayak coming, just move on to get out of the way.

  2. Bike: Flat tire? No problem, think of it as a routine pitstop.
    Practice changing or patching your tire a time or two the weekend before the
    race. It's not going to make a significant difference in your time so
    just change the damn thing and get back on the course.

    I once had a friend who forgot to take her big bike lock off! So don't
    forget that!

  3. Run: If you gotta walk for a bit then walk, but you probably don't.
    If you really really do, set a definite limit. Look about 50 meters
    ahead and pick a spot where you'll start running again. 30 seconds
    should always be a long enough walk.

    Ah, but walk thru the water station. It's very easy to work up a
    coughing storm if you try to drink a glass of water while running.
    Remember to get one in each hand, one to drink one to dash on your head.

    The race is not worth a really bad blister. I lost a toenail in a hilly
    half-marathon once. It was worth it. I missed an important race
    the next wekend as a result. It just wasn't worth it. Look, don't
    get a blister OK. I have some athletic tape stuck to the back of my shoe
    so I can put it over a hotspot if I find one. However, the key is to put
    it on *before* the blister actually forms. So pay attention to hotspots.
    If you train properly this should never be an issue. (I switched shoe
    choice on raceday! (No, no, no!)

  • Never ever ever try anything new on race day. Ever.

  • You will get passed by an old man.

  • You will get passed by a fat man.

  • You will get passed by a fat old man.

  • If you are a man, get ready because, yes, you will get passed by an old
    lady. Bank on it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ben Stein on Questioning Darwin


Things should get interesting when the movie comes out.

Happy Pi Day!

Almost didn't get this up in time. Regular readers will remember this:

According to the sequence 314 doesn't occur in the decimal expansion 2,120 places in.

My birthday in standard numerical sequence begins after the first 416,957 places in the decimal expansion of pi.

The string 2008 occurs at position 11,651 counting from the first digit after the decimal point.

Here's how far I have pi memorized. 3.1415926535897932384626.

Some dude supposedly memorized to over 67,000 digits. I have a hard time believing it, but these people seem to take the competition very seriously.

We no about 1.7 trillion digits of pi, when last I checked.

The definition of pi is the ration of the circumfrence of a circle to it's diameter.