»  National Review Online Diary

  October 2002


Say It Ain't So     I am sorry for the following lapse of taste in contemplating something as horrible as the Beltway sniper killings, but I could not help smiling at the obvious agony of the media lefties when the identity of the arrested couple became clear. You can just imagine the conversations around newsrooms and TV studios. "They've caught the guys? … Hey, that's great! … What? They're black? Oh, no, can't be … Are they really? Oh, my God, this is terrible. And what? One of them's a Muslim, too? This can't be real, this has to be some kind of nightmare. We'll have lynchings, the Klan will be marching, mosques will be torched. They've got the wrong guys — it has to be angry white Christian males. Has to be. This can't be right …"

The great American public is not, of course, as incorrigibly "racist" as our elites think. Nor are they as stupid. Do the media lefties really think people don't see through their games? I was working in Manhattan back in December of 1993, when Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad killer, did his work. My home-bound commuter train was the one behind his. Of course, we were stuck between stations for nearly two hours. This was pre-cellphone, and I had no way to contact my wife, who was watching the coverage of the story on TV, and was, naturally, worried sick. Neighbors came in to rally round and watch the TV coverage with her. Telling me about it afterwards, she remarked: "Everyone kept saying: 'Oh, it must be a black guy. If it was a white guy, they would have told us.'"


Criminalizing an activity without defining it     If I can find a smile in the dreadful sniper murders, I can also get a frown out of the delightful natural-justice spectacle of a Clintonoid lefty in trouble with financial regulators. I would rather remove my own pancreas with the proverbial oyster fork than watch one of Martha Stewart's TV programs, or vote for any of the political types she helps to fund. Still, I have yet to see any evidence that Ms. Stewart did anything wrong in her stock dealings. "Insider trading"? Gimme a break. Can you define the term "insider trading"? If you can, you are a very smart person indeed. The U.S. Congress, aided by battalions of law professors and $200-an-hour financial and economic consultants, has been trying to define "insider trading" since at least 1984, but has yet to do so.

But aren't there laws against "insider trading"? Oh, yes, whole rafts of them, ITSAs and ITSFEAs, laws that not only provide criminal penalties for the offense, but that in addition authorize the SEC to recover civil penalties from offenders. Well, if Congress has passed laws against it, then Congress must have defined the offense, mustn't it? Otherwise the laws would be unconstitutional, wouldn't they?

No, Congress has never defined "insider trading," and yes, the laws against it are thereby, in all probability, unconstitutional. As Daniel Fischel observed in his 1995 book Payback, which is about the Michael Milken scandals:

Criminalizing an activity without defining it runs counter to powerful traditions in American law. Defendants have a constitutional right to fair notice that behavior is criminal … America has no tradition of common-law crimes, where courts can declare conduct criminal on a case-by-case basis. The Supreme Court declared such common-law crimes unconstitutional more than 150 years ago.

The fundamental problem is that on a broad interpretation, practically all trading is "insider trading," while on a narrow interpretation, only a tiny portion is, all of it covered by existing, much clearer, statutes. This is one of those areas where, as Fischel relentlessly documents, every attempt by government to solve the problem ends by making it worse, while further curtailing individual liberties and doing violent harm to our Constitution. It follows, of course, that we can confidently expect to see more, and ever more, legislation against "insider trading."


Like an Owl Exploding     In my piece about New Jersey's Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka, I quoted some lines from his poem on 9/11: "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day … ?" I pointed out how ridiculous it is to believe — as millions of Americans and untold tens of millions of Arabs presumably do believe — that there even were "4,000 Israelis" working at the Twin Towers. That would have been close to 0.1 percent of the entire population of Israel! Supposing proportional numbers in other New York office buildings, and some corresponding figures for other U.S. cities, that would leave Israel seriously under-populated. Of course, it is malicious nonsense.

Even nonsense has sources and transmission routes, though. Where did the number "4,000" come from? A reader in Israel has suggested it was taken from the number of Israelis who called the Israeli consulate in New York to ask for information about friends and loved ones. For that, 4,000 sounds about right. Even the Derb household, which has no connection to the World Trade Center, took in half a dozen calls that day from family and friends in England and China, asking if we were all right. Here is a web site discussing the origin of that "4,000," and here's another.

If my reader is correct, we have a modest insight here into the narrow, dark mentality of subliterate spreaders of antisemitic poison — people like Baraka. Scanning news items on 9/11, he sees one with the words "4,000 Israelis … World Trade Center …" Not bothering to read the whole thing, or reading it but being too stupid to understand it, or possibly just in a spirit of malicious invention, Baraka cooks up: "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers …?" The dismal, depressing, but undoubtedly true thing, is that this nasty little piece of gibberish will now become an article of faith to millions of antisemites in the U.S. and abroad. To fly a plane into an office building is one kind of evil; to sow seeds of madness like this — to pour gasoline on the smouldering fires of unreason — is another, hardly lesser, kind.


What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind     [NB: I wrote the following before reading Theodore Dalrymple's review of The Blank Slate in the current NRODT. The good doctor says many of the same things I have said, and we have even quoted the same philosopher, though Dalrymple knew the philosopher's name and I didn't. I thought I'd just leave what I wrote as it is, though: first, as evidence that great minds really do think alike, and second, so that I can tell you that Dalrymple's review ranges far deeper and wider than these offhand remarks of mine, and is better written, so if you want the real goods on topics like this, it's high time you took out a subscription to the magazine.]

I've been reading Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate, in which he offers his views on human nature, centering those views on the refutation of three myths (as he calls them): "the blank slate," "the noble savage," and "the ghost in the machine."

I suppose that the outer world, the world of material objects, seems more real to most people in our age than the inner world of mental and spiritual experiences, because of the wonderful efficacy of modern technology. In other times and places, though, people have felt differently. Are human beings just tangles of matter, organized in such a way as to generate mental events as a kind of by-product of chemical and electrical flows, those events themselves then generating the illusion of self-hood, of individual autonomy? ("The brain secretes consciousness as the liver secretes bile," said a materialist philosopher.) Or are we fundamentally spiritual beings, who have the misfortune to be temporarily trapped in an illusory shadow-world of material vessels? Even in this age, millions of people would tick the second box as being closer to, or at least as close to, the truth.

Neither point of view can be refuted by logic or evidence in any case, and science has nothing to say one way or the other. It is absurd to claim, as Pinker does by implication, that the topic is pretty much closed. Not the least of the problems with naive materialism is that we have no clue as to what matter actually is. I can say this with fair confidence, having recently spent several weeks with my head buried in books on quantum mechanics, field theory, string theory, and cosmology. An electron has been defined as "a negative twist of nothingness." Got that? Fill you with confidence in the sufficiency of materialist explanations, does it? And an electron is one of the tamer, more familiar inmates of the subatomic zoo. Check out string theory — oh my God. Even basic quantum mechanics can only be made to work by postulating an "observer," concerning whose actual nature, the theory has nothing to say. The fundamental building blocks of the universe seem to be mathematical theorems — which are, of course, mental constructs.

This is not to trash Pinker's book, which is full of interesting facts and thought-provoking arguments, and well worth reading. I do get a little weary, though, of the lazy, slightly mocking way that cognitive-elite types come on with their naive-materialist metaphysics and utilitarian ethics. Isn't it obvious? they seem to be asking, with a barely-suppressed sneer. No, not to me, it isn't.

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* As Pinker notes, all modern theories of education are based on some form of the "blank slate" principle. He does not add that as PC has made its triumphant march through our institutions, the particular forms of the "blank slate" principle used to support educational practice and legislation have become more and more extreme. The educational reforms and testing regimes of the past few years are all premised on the idea that every child is just as capable of mastering the differential calculus, the chemistry of photosynthesis, and the causes of the Seven Years War, as every other child, so that if a child fails to master these things, it must be the teacher's fault, or the parents', or "society's," or somebody's. Difference in average intelligence between racial groups is supposed to be a "third rail" in discussions of human ability. In fact, PC has gone far, far beyond that. The "third rail" among educational theorists and legislators nowadays is the idea that there are any differences in intelligence between individual people at all. I predict that when the inevitable consequences of this crackpot egalitarianism meet the entrenched power of the teachers' unions, a major explosion will result.


On the Internet, nobody can hear you scream     You don't get away with anything on this medium. In my October 16 column I said the following: "The Finnish language adores double letters. The geometrical term of art 'inscribed circle' translates into Finnish as 'ympyrä sisäänpiirretty'." Barely were the words up on screen before a reader in Finland wrote in to observe that while my words were correct, their order was wrong. Should be: "sisäänpiirretty ympyrä." Well, of course it should! This reader also noted that the Finnish verb for "decide" is "päättää," not to be confused with the verb for "escort," which is "saattaa."

OK, let's see how far afield my column really travels. The following is an actual sentence in an actual human language, a language spoken by millions, and possessing a rich literature going back around fifteen centuries. Any native speakers, in the language's native country, care to give a translation? Here goes: Baq'aq'i mq'aq'e c'q'alši q'iq'inebs.


None dare call it treason     I am deep into Michelle Malkin's book about illegal immigration. This woman deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor. In practice, of course, she will be lucky if she avoids prosecution for "hate speech." Malkin has been getting the cold shoulder from Congress, the Administration and (with a few honorable exceptions, notably Fox News Channel) the media.

Her book makes it perfectly plain, for anyone to whom it was not plain already, that there is a vast and deadly conspiracy of vote-hungry politicians, butt-covering bureaucrats, business and higher-education lobbies, bleeding-heart churchmen, and lefty agitators, with the aim of establishing de facto open borders for this country. Many of us nursed the hope that this conspiracy was an artefact of the Clinton administration, and would be swiftly dismantled when Janet Reno, Bill Lann Lee, and the rest of that sorry crowd departed from the scene. Not so: the line-jumpers, law-breakers and terrorists have never had a better friend than current Attorney General John Ashcroft, who shows not the slightest inclination to do what needs to be done in the agencies under his control. "Treason doth never prosper: what is the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason." Treason is prospering mightily in America today, and here is one small, frail woman shouting into the wind, shouting: "For shame! For shame!" Buy her book.


The B-word     There is a faction of us here at National Review nursing a reactionary fondness for strong old English words to describe the human condition in all its variations and subtleties. We have, for example, a marked tendency to say "bastardy" instead of "illegitimacy," and "buggery" for the thing that male homosexuals like to do with each other.

I have recently heard in conversation — I have not been able to find any printed or pixelated confirmation — that there is a move afoot among homosexual activists to bring down the word "buggery" the way civil-rights activists brought down the n-word. It is, these people are claiming, offensive. I am baffled to know why it should be any more offensive than any other term for the same thing, and doubly baffled to know why this should be the case in the USA where, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the b-word is hardly used and little understood. (A lady living about 100 yards from me owns a blue Volkswagen beetle with the vanity license plate BUGGER.)

The real problem with this ban-the-b-word movement, though, lies in the palm-fringed islands of Papua New Guinea, in the western Pacific. The geography of PNG has led to numerous tribes developing in isolation from each other, and so there are scores of different languages spoken in a very small area. To get any modern social organization going, the PNG-ers needed a lingua franca. Well, they got one. It is called "Tok Pisin," and is a pidgin language with a vocabulary drawn from mangled Australian English. Now, rather a common term among Australians is the verb phrase "to bugger up," meaning "to make a mess of." This has been taken into Tok Pisin as a normal verb with that meaning. A PNG handbook on road safety, for example, contains the instruction: "If you have an accident, get the other driver's number." This is printed up in Tok Pisin as: "Sapos you kisim bagarup kisim namba bilong narapela draiva."

The folks at organizations like GLAAD may be able to drive the b-word out of respectable society in England and America, but down there in Port Moresby they'll have a fight on their hands.

Incidentally, here's a b-word story from my newspaper days back in England. I did a piece about Tibet, in which I remarked that Chinese policies had reduced the poor Tibetans to beggary. I got a call from the sub-editor, an old Fleet Street hand. Chuckling, he told me that "beggary" is a word to be avoided in newspaper copy. Sub-editors and compositors are only human, he pointed out, and the temptation to introduce a deliberate "literal" (that is, a typo) can sometimes be irresistible.


Thoughts at Holy Communion     Why do I dislike the Peace so much? For those readers who do not attend an Episcopalian church, let me explain. The Peace is an episode in the Holy Eucharist service, the service whose climax is Communion. In the lead-up to Communion, we recite the Nicene Creed, then confess our sins. The minister asks for forgiveness on our behalf. Then he says: "The peace of the Lord be always with you," and we respond: "And also with you." Everybody has been standing for this. Then, still standing, we are supposed to shake hands with the people around us and say something like: "Peace be with you," smiling benignly as we do so.

I'm sorry, but this makes me squirm. If I want to interact socially with my fellow congregants (and I confess that I mostly don't), my church offers numerous ways for me to do so. In a Communion service, though, I prefer to concentrate on the observances. I am glad to be in a crowd of a couple of hundred other people at this time — people who have taken time out from busy lives to perform an activity that has nothing whatever to do with the acquisition of money, sex or power** — but I don't particularly want to exchange pleasantries with them in mid-service, and can't see why I should be obliged to do so. My minister's a sensible man, not a Kumbaya type, and I can't understand why he tolerates this embarrassing and unnecessary excrescence on the solemnity of the Communion service. Does anybody else feel the same way?

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** Shuffling out of church one day, I met someone I knew slightly. "Hello," I said, caught off guard and not really thinking, "What are you doing here?" He replied: "Worshiping God." I don't see how this answer could be improved on.


Telephone solicitors     Some of us, some of the time, have an overwhelming, and very unfair, advantage in dealing with life's lesser problems. There was, for example, the famous De Gaulle method of quitting smoking. You put out a press release declaring that you will never smoke again. This method is infallible. Unfortunately, it only works if you are the president of a large country.

I have a similarly unfair advantage in dealing with telephone solicitors. Phone rings — generally in the middle of dinner, of course. I pick it up and say: "Hello?" The voice on the other end says: "Is this Mr. Dreebu … Darriby … Dribushee …?" By which point I have hung up. A person who needs three shots at pronouncing my name, is a person I have no need to speak with. (It's "DAH-bi-shuh," for the record.)


Writing and talking     My "My Documents" folder has a "Text files" subfolder, which has a "Boilerplates" subsubfolder, which contains the following piece of text. I send it to readers who ask to meet me so that they can partake of my sparkling wit face to face.

A transition from an author's book to his conversation is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur, and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.
                     — Samuel Johnson: Rambler #14 (May 5, 1750)


Math Corner     My "Monkey's Mother" puzzle back in the August Diary caused a perceptible dip in the productivity of office workers nationwide, I am told. The answer was 5 feet. I am still getting requests for worked solutions, so I have put one here.

Reader Ben Ibach took revenge on behalf of the national economy by sending me this one, which wasted most of my morning.

Three teams compete in a hockey tournament. Team A beats team B, team B beats team C, and team C beats team A. Fewer than 40 goals were scored in the tournament. Team A says they should win the tournament because they scored the most goals. Team B says they should win the tournament because they had the best goal differential (goals-for minus goals-against). Team C says they should win because they had the best goal ratio (goals-for divided by goals-against). While the judges are deciding who to give the trophy to, determine the score of each game.

There is only one possible solution. (Note for nit-pickers: The score of a hockey game, as usually played, may not include any negative, fractional, or complex numbers. Nor, for that matter, may it include any quaternions, octonions, hyper-real or p-adic numbers.)

I had better confess I have absolutely no idea how to do this. I got the solution, but only by writing a Visual Basic program to run through all umpteen thousand possibilities, testing to see which possibilities matched the conditions. This, of course, does not really count as a solution. Half the 11-year-olds in America can write a VB program. What we need is a good logical solution. If anybody has one, please share it with me.

One more math note. In my September diary I had a note on the Chebyshev bias. I closed by saying: "Michael Rubinstein and Peter Sarnak proved in 1994 that the violations have nonzero density, a fascinating and counter-intuitive result …" Several readers felt this was a cliff-hanger. What does "nonzero density" mean? they wanted to know. So I've written up an explanation:  see here.