»  National Review Online Diary

  January 2002

[Note:  My regular monthly diaries were not yet an established feature. This was posted as a column titled "To Blog, Or Not to Blog" on NRO for January 23, 2002.]


To Blog, Or Not to Blog …     … That is the question. My previous attempts at bloggery drew a highly polarized response. Some readers said: "Sheesh, anyone can do that. Give us a good old-fashioned rant, Derb." Others said: "I love this blogging stuff! Opinion in bite-size chunks — cool!"

I'm in two minds myself, I admit. Sure, I kind of like doing it; but yes, it does seem a bit like cheating. So what I'm going to do is, give over about one column in ten, maybe one a month, to blogging. I'll always let you know, right there in the title, whether I'm blogging or not, so if it's not your thing you can skip it. Fair?


Free speech     I was just having an e-conversation with the incomparable, ineffable and infinitely wise Fred Reed. We discovered that we both get lots of emails that go: "Derb/Fred, I'd love to say out loud the things that you say, but if I did, I'd lose my job." We agreed that these are the saddest, and in a way the scariest, of all the emails we get. It's great that we web hacks have freedom of speech. Would be real nice if the rest of the country could have it, too.


The killer in the TV set     Is Paula Zahn a babe? As the world's leading guide to the zone where female beauty meets politics, I'm getting asked this a lot. The answer is: I can't tell. See, TV is a very deceptive medium. You don't know who's really good-looking and who isn't. I confess Paula doesn't do much for me on the screen — a bit too polished and steely, like a ball bearing; but a friend who was interviewed by her tells me she's a knock-out in person.

I'm ready to believe this. I was interviewed on Fox once, by Linda Vester, a person I had spotted a couple of times when channel-surfing but never given a moment's thought to. Well, while I was sitting in the interview seat having the mike pinned on, I noticed an extremely distracting thing: Linda was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. I don't know how I got through the interview. Watching the tape, I seem to have been staring at her lips most of the time. Back at home I made a point of watching next time Linda was on, and … Nyah. Somehow the TV camera sucked all the magic out of her.

Out of me, too: though of course erudite, witty, well-informed and provocative, I looked like a dead dugong.


In the zone     I've heard it said that when Hollywood stars get together for a party, there comes a point in the proceedings when conversation lags, the room falls silent, they all look at one another for a minute, and then fall down laughing hysterically. As they roll around slapping the floor they shriek out to each other, in between uncontrollable convulsions of mirth: "Can you believe how much we get paid? JUST FOR HAVING FUN! Hoooo hoooo hoooo hoooo!"

Well, good luck to them; I have an inkling of how they feel, because at the present time I'm being paid — though far, far below the Russell Crowe scale — to do something I adore doing. I am writing a book; and, say what you like, there is simply nothing that is as much fun as writing a book.

I get up at six, take breakfast, read the paper, walk the dog, do the necessaries, see the kids off to school, then settle down at the tube. By ten o'clock I'm in the zone. From that point on, the external world has ceased to exist. My own personality has ceased to exist. I am at one with the Cosmic All, consubstantial, co-eternal. I'm reading, I'm writing, I'm surfing the net for references, or I'm tinkering with Mathematica (the book I'm writing is about math).

I'm willing, though only very grudgingly, to pause for food and medical emergencies; otherwise I'm like one of those rats in the well-known experiment, tapping away on a bar for another shot of cocaine while my basement floods, my children go hungry and my wife ogles the UPS man. No, in fact my family is very supportive, and have even got into the spirit of the thing with the right jargon. I hear whispered from the living-room: "Don't disturb Daddy right now, honey. He's in the zone." God bless my family. I've promised them a ski vacation in February, when the first half of the manuscript is supposed to be handed over. It'll be the best ski vacation they ever had, or my name's not … What is my name?


Lost in translation     There is just one part of the job I'm not crazy about. When you write a serious nonfiction book, you have to read stuff in other languages. As a total linguistic dunce, this is more or less pure pain for me.

Yesterday I had to read up on a mathematician named Pafnuty Lvovich Chebyshev. He would, of course, be in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography; but they're not on the web, and my next trip to the library (I work to a schedule) was three days away. The only decent-sized biography of him on the web was all in Russian. I did a Russian course once, but all I can remember is a few random scraps of verse. (Utrom v'rzhanom zakutye, / Gdye zyatsya ragozhy v ryad …  Small prize if you can name the poet & poem, which I have probably garbled atrociously. Clues: suicide, puppies.) On an inspiration, I trawled the web for some free translation software, and turned up a site that promised to turn any web page from Russian into English for me. I fed in my new pal Pafnuty.

Yep, it translated it all right. Sample: "His (its) professorial activity here began, to which P.L. Chebyshev has given many forces and which proceeded before achievement of old age by him (it) when it (he) has left lectures and was gave entirely to the scientific work proceeding literally about last instant of his (its) life." OK, I've got it from Russian into English. Does anybody know any software that will now translate the English into English that makes sense?


Librarian literacy     My library trips are carefully graded. For basic reference, in books like the DSB, I use the excellent town library here in Huntington. For "deeper" stuff, I have access to some research libraries at Stony Brook, Hofstra and C.W. Post. And then, of course, there is the magnificent New York Public Library.

I have been using their new Science and Business branch, in the old B. Altman building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The place is well laid out, easy on the eye, and the staff, who are mainly very young, are efficient and helpful. So far they've only slipped up once: When I filled out a ticket asking for Volume II of the collected works of Gauss, they sent down Volume Eleven.

Look, I knew Latin had gone down the tubes, but I thought we still had Roman numerals. Perhaps this new education bill the president just signed will fix the problem. Ha ha ha! Just kidding! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!


Reading matter     In a previous blog I listed the periodicals that were waiting at home for me when I returned from six weeks abroad. One of them was American Renaissance, the monthly "race-realist" newsletter put out by Jared Taylor. Some readers, including a long-faithful black reader, took me to task over that, saying I should not be dirtying my hands with such racist filth.

Now I happen to be slightly acquainted with Jared — well, I bought him dinner once — and I can report that he is a sane, thoughtful, erudite and humorous person, with the flawless manners of a true American gentleman; and that, in the course of an evening of intimate and free-wheeling talk, he said nothing outrageous at all. Here is a pretty fair sample of his views. When I asked him: "Jared, what do you want? Do you want black people to go away? Do you want Bantustans for them? What do you want? " He replied: "John, if there was a full 1925-style moratorium on immigration, and if, in addition, all federal anti-discrimination laws were repealed, then I would shut up shop, considering my work was done."

Now, you may not agree with that, but it isn't exactly Mein Kampf. I read AR because it's a useful corrective to the distortions, evasions and downright lies of the mainstream media on matters of race — for example, to the media-imposed blanket of silence about the atrocious Wichita race killings of December 2000.

Does Jared sometimes print stuff that I think is out of bounds? Yes, he does. So what? I'm supposed to read only periodicals that I agree with absolutely every word of? Well, that would reduce my subscription expenses.

Look, I read The Nation — have even written NRO columns based on their articles. And again: Nobody who's read my NRO contributions is in much doubt how I feel about homosexuality; yet in my daily trawl through news and opinion sites, I frequently stop off at The Advocate, which has some good interesting pieces, and a high standard of writing and editing, if you just let your eye skip over the don't-care-to-know stuff. (They ran some of the very best eye-witness reporting of 9-11 — that unforgettable piece about the guy trapped in the elevator, for example.)

It's a cliché but, like most clichés, it's true: you have to keep an open mind, and listen with some attention to people you disagree with. Otherwise you become just another boring monomaniac; and, God knows, the human race is well enough supplied with those already.


Self-defense     My personal Man of the Month is 28-year-old Hongdong Xie, who owns the Wing Shing Chinese Kitchen on Manhattan's Second Avenue. (And whose last name is pronounced "Sheah," to rhyme with "Yeah.")

Last Thursday night, Xie got a call to deliver take-out food to a building on East 108th Street, round the corner from his shop. Three teenage hoodlums followed him from the shop, waited till he'd dropped off the order, then attacked him. Xie pulled out a handgun and shot one of them. The others ran away.

There is an expression in American English that meets this situation: it goes something like "YEEEEE- HAH! "  The piece of garbage who stopped the bullet is in "serious condition" in a local hospital — good. Xie may face criminal charges, since the gun permit he has is valid only for protecting his place of business.

On the first of those items, the naive Xie broke the principal rule of armed self-defense in a lawyer-infested society, which is: Shoot to kill. Having just wounded his attacker in the hip, Xie may end up paying the vermin's medical bills for the next 60 years. If he'd killed him, there'd only be the funeral expenses. As Stalin used to say: "No man — no problem."

On the second point: Does the New York Police Department really have nothing better to do than "investigate" a hard-working guy who defended himself in a responsible and measured (probably too measured — see previous point) way while going about his lawful business? Xie has a permit for his gun. He called the cops right away and told them truthfully what had happened. What's to "investigate"?

Manhattan readers, please show support for a brave and honest man: go up to Harlem and buy a meal at the Wing Shing Chinese Kitchen, and leave a huge tip. NYPD and Manhattan DA's office: go find something useful to do with your time. There are probably a dozen or so fanatical suicide bombers hanging out in your jurisdiction. Try finding them, and leave honest people alone.


Math Corner     Is math good for you? I haven't done a statistical analysis, but it seems to me the mathematicians I'm reading about average pretty long lives, more often than not productive to the end. Gauss lived to be 77, working to the last. Euler was hard at work at 76, and died in an instant, with a grandchild on his knee. And that was in an age when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were roaming around untethered; of Euler's 13 children, only five made it to adulthood, and only three outlived him.

The two men who proved the Prime Number Theorem — the great white whale of 19th-century number theory — lived to be almost 96 and very nearly 98 respectively. Then there is Plato, a sort of honorary mathematician because of the inscription over the door of his Academy: "Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter." He died at either 82 (Oxford Classical Dictionary) or 87 (Kitto), while writing a book (The Laws).

There are counter-examples, of course, like Bernhard Riemann and poor Évariste Galois, but on the whole it looks as though math does you good.

I note from A Beautiful Mind, the book (just recently made into a movie) about mathematician John Nash, that Nash restored himself from madness back to sanity by concentrating on some light mathematical work.

Forget the diets, the shrinks and the work-outs: take up algebra instead.