»  National Review Online Diary

  January 2003

On the road     Did a little traveling in January: two days in Houston, one in DC. Good to get away from the tube and meet some people who have nothing whatever to do with opinion journalism, literary journalism, or politics. In Houston I spoke to the Bayou City Breakfast Club, one of those "little platoons" Edmund Burke urged us to cherish, a free and friendly association of local businessmen, now in its 26th year. A great bunch of people — generous, hospitable and funny in that way that seems to me uniquely American — and altogether a fun trip, except for the flying (see below). DC was more like work — a marketing meeting about my forthcoming book, and yet another run through the manuscript, which I think I can now recite from memory.

Finished with the publishing people, and with two hours to wait for my train, I ambled about aimlessly on the Mall. This got me to thinking about the President's frame of mind. In DC, everything is very close together. The Capitol … the White House … the Supreme Court … the Smithsonian … Library of Congress … the monuments … You can walk them all in a couple of hours. One well-placed nuke, even a small amateur nuke, would put paid to the lot of them.

Now, there are Americans — quite an alarming number of them, to judge from my own circle of acquaintance — who will say: "Good riddance! The nation would be better off without Washington, DC!" You can hardly expect our Chief Executive to share that point of view, though. And on this one, while I certainly agree that the feddle gummint is wildly out of control, I side with the President. I don't want to lose DC, either. The monuments are beautiful, the Smithsonian is fascinating, the Library of Congress is a treasure, the Capitol … well, it has some very nice murals.

See their knees jerk     Speaking of horrid catastrophes, I was enjoying Tom Bissell's article on natural disasters in the February Harper's. Bissell reminds us that stupendous continent-wasting calamities — volcanos popping off, asteroids crashing into the earth — are part of the natural order, and that the last few centuries have been pretty quiet. So far, so good: a well-constructed, well-written article, and my flesh was begin to crawl most agreeably. Then: "Apocalypticism … drags out of humanity all that is small and terrible and mean … It has allowed George W. Bush, arguably the worst president in American history, a surreally nonexistent pretext for world war."

Huh? How did that get in there? What does Mr. Bissell's silly opinion of my President have to do with the issue he's writing about? Couldn't he control the jerk of his knee till he'd finished the piece and filed it? Why are lefties so crass, rude, and arrogant, even when they are good writers? (And, come to think of it, see how the writing slips as the knee jerks: "a surreally nonexistent pretext." The pretext may be bad, deplorable, illogical or false, but it still exists, you blithering leftie moron.) Am I getting a little out of control myself here? I'm sorry. Sometimes I just can't stand lefties.

Riding the rails     Yes, I took the Amtrak train to Washington DC. What a lovely experience! I detest flying now, as does everyone else I know. I mean, I really, really detest it. It's down there with barium enemas and root canal work, far as I'm concerned. It doesn't help that my Wall Street days are over, so I don't get to fly business class, much less first class, any more. (At my firm the rule was: business class as a standard, first class if you had to fly on a weekend. Oh, Death in Life, the days that are no more.) As a self-employed inkstained wretch, it's coach for the rest of my life.

I think I'd feel much the same even in first class, though. Planes are noisy, flimsy, cramped and claustrophobic. The food is awful, the security is a joke, if anything goes wrong you die helplessly, and now the horrid blight of the cell phone has descended on the whole grisly shebang, with idiots yammering their damn fool business deals or shrieking at their damn fool wives or cooing to their damn fool spoiled brat kids all around me while I am trying to read.

Give me the train any time. Plenty of space, scenery to look at, no fussing attendants, food you buy from a counter in the civilized way, and — oh bliss! — Amtrak has a quiet car, where cell phones are not allowed! Evelyn Waugh was right: the art of travel reached its peak in the railroad age, and it's been downhill ever since.

No more white collar jobs     Nice piece in Business Week (2/3/03 issue): "Is Your Job Next?" All about the out-sourcing of white-collar jobs to places like India, China, and Mexico, where they can be done much cheaper, with little loss of control thanks to high-speed data communications.

This isn't drudge work that's fleeing the country, either: the piece talks about architects, chip designers, aerospace engineers and financial analysts. In India you can get a chip designer with a Master's degree and five years' experience for $1,000 a month; his U.S. counterpart wants $7,000. Q.E.D. (as we mathematicians say). With the development of super-duper databases and intelligent search engines, there is no particular reason why, in ten or fifteen years, doctoring and lawyering shouldn't go the same way. Which will leave us Americans doing … what? Well, we could use more plumbers — mine doesn't return phone calls.

Listening to the web     One thing I know today that I didn't know at the beginning of the month is that blind people are great users of the web. A wee bit of software will parse out the words from HTML code and turn them into spoken sounds, so you can listen to more or less any web site. (The software can be confused by certain eccentric site-building techniques, which I hereby urge all web designers to avoid.) Both NRO and my own web site come through loud and clear, I am told. Who knew?

This reminds me that in all my occasional notes about math, I have never paid tribute to blind mathematicians, of whom there are many.

Strange to say, the field in which blind mathematicians really excel is geometry. The reason seems to be that if you are sighted, the whole world is projected as a basically flat image on each of your retinas, and this makes it difficult for you to "see" in more than two dimensions. Stereoscopic vision helps a bit, of course, but still sighted people are not very good at figuring out what is happening on the far side of complicated three-dimensional objects, or on the inside of very convoluted ones. (And this is not to mention four-, five-, or higher-dimensional objects, perfectly legitimate in higher mathematics. In four dimensions, for example, two infinite flat planes can intersect in a single point, a thing we dwellers in 3-D find wellnigh impossible to visualize.)

The French mathematicians Louis Antoine and the Russian G. Ya. Zuev, for instance, are both blind; yet both have made major contributions to the theory of knots, which demands superb powers of visualization. And the first person to describe how a sphere can be turned inside out was Bernard Morin, who is also blind. If you would like the result of Morin's researches, there is an actual video clip of a sphere being turned inside out here. You really need to buy the full video tape, though. It explains the entire process, and some of the math behind it. The tape is called "Outside In" and is well worth the price ($44). I play it on the TV at home when visitors have overstayed their welcome.

One touch of nature …     Makes the whole world kin, according to Shakespeare. His meaning was that in observing sins, weaknesses and follies very much like our own in people from places distant, strange, or hostile, we become aware of our common humanity. This tag came to mind recently as I was reading Geoffrey Blainey's 1976 book Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia. The societies Blainey describes, the societies of the aborigines, are about as far from our own as any could possibly be. Human nature is all there, though, including the unpleasant bits.

Warfare, for example. The author recounts the experiences of one, er, William Buckley, who escaped from a convict settlement in the early 1800s, fell in with the aborigines, and lived with them for 30 years.

Standing 6 ft. 6 ins. in his large bare feet, physically strong, a veteran of military engagements, [Buckley] should not have been frightened by the warfare which he saw as he moved from place to place with aboriginal bands. And yet one of the strongest impressions of his memoirs is the fighting and bloodshed …

Several gruesome examples are given. Later, Blainey quotes the researches of a 20th-century anthropologist who estimated that aborigine deaths from tribal warfare were comparable to the rate among Germans and Russians during WW2; and he adds that this wasn't a declared war, over and done with in a few years, but a constant state of affairs. So much for the peaceful life of the primitive.

In another place, Blainey records the attitudes of Aborigine women towards abortion, which was common practice among them. "The motivation was often individualist. At Oenpelli several aboriginal women in 1948 privately gave simple reasons for wanting no baby. They said they wanted to play about with men, not babies." One touch of nature …

Hey hey, ho ho …     American schools, of course, are still sticking firmly to the Noble Savage myth. Conversation with Nellie Muriel (age 10) over the dinner table the other night. I was testing her knowledge of dates. 1492 drew a blank.

JD:  "Oh, come on, Nellie. 1492 — Christopher Columbus — remember?"

NM:  "Oh yeah. Columbus — he was a bad guy."

JD:  "Say what? If he was a bad guy, how come we have a public holiday named after him?"

NM:  "Well, that's because he started out good. He discovered America. Fine. But then he got bad. He made people slaves."

JD:  "Honey, up to a couple hundred years ago, everybody had slaves. India, Africa, China, Europe, the Arabs — we all had slaves. It wasn't unusual."

NM:  "Uh-uh. Columbus bad. He shouldn't have come here."

JD:  "But if he hadn't come here, there'd be nobody in America but Indians. And they had slaves. Also human sacrifice, perpetual warfare, famines, diseases and stuff."

NM:  "No. They were peaceful. They had democracy."

JD:  (Speechless.)

This is a kid raised in a conservative household. We watch nothing but Fox TV, I swear.

Psycho Dad     Speaking of which … I assume you are all getting in supplies (men: beer, women: bon-bons) for the Feb 16th 1-hour "Married With Children" reunion special on Fox TV. But wait: is Al Bundy a lefty? A reader reports seeing Ed O'Neill's name on some celebrity anti-war petition. Al, Al, say it ain't so.

Groundhog Day     Is this a wonderful movie, or what? I caught it on TV in my Washington hotel, and was spellbound. This is a real gem, an American classic. The story is absurd, of course, but somehow it works. You really feel the agony and despair of Bill Murray, waking up again and again to the same expletive day, till he gets it right. Everything fits together perfectly in this movie, everything is exactly as it should be. For once I didn't even mind Andie MacDowell's gums. Heck, even Chris Elliott is good. Did this movie get any Oscars? If it didn't, it should have. All of them.

Math meets race     Forgive me another math note. I have just been reading the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Every year the AMS does a Survey of the Mathematical Sciences, looking at who is working in the field, what their salaries are, and so on. (It's the seventh link in the left-hand column on that web page.)

The one that always catches my eye is the table headed "Sex, Race/Ethnicity, and Citizenship of 2001-02 U.S. New Doctoral Recipients" in the mathematical sciences*. You can see the thing for yourself in that link — it's Table 6. In brief: Of the 948 math doctorates awarded last year, 658 went to men and 290 to women. Among male U.S. citizens, the race breakdown was: 258 white, 14 Asian, 6 African American, 6 Hispanic, 7 Other. The equivalent numbers for female U.S. citizens were: 112, 6, 2, 6. You can affirmative-action a horse to the water, but you can't make him (or her) drink. Not from the cup labeled MATH, anyway.

Essence of America     My Hank Williams piece prompted several readers to send in pop lyrics that read well just as sentences. Larry Henry reminds me of this, from Chuck Berry:

I started walkin' toward her when she turned and doubled back,
And I saw her walkin' toward a coffee-colored Cadillac.

Regular readers will know that Jim Croce is a favorite of mine in this line.

She was five foot six an' two fifteen
A big blonde momma with a streak of mean …


I had just got out of the county prison
Doin' ninety days for non-support …

Pretty much everything sent in was at least 20 years old, though. There must be some good pop lyrics being written somewhere. Anyone got a good pop lyric from the 21st century?

Math idiots     Yet another. Sorry: till this darn book is out of the way, I have math on my mind. A few days ago I did a piece on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which I took a passing swipe at the dumb political opinions you find among first-rate mathematicians and other types of mental genius.

Reader William Kaplan wrote in with the following:

Derb:  I have thought much about what you write about today and I have reached a somewhat different conclusion. In general it goes something like this: The more the particular mathematician's discipline involves mathematical absolutes (topological, geometric, and algebraic solutions), the stupider the politics. The more the mathematician's discipline involves non-fixed point solutions (game theory, management theory etc.), the smarter the politics.

As evidence, I introduce the rivalry between arguably the two smartest men of the twentieth century, Einstein and John von Neumann. Einstein worked from premise of the absolute: The absolute speed of light and gravity from any reference point. You noted his politics in your piece.

Von Neumann, on the other hand, worked first in the statistical quandaries of quantum mechanics and later developed game theory and management science. He developed M.A.D. as a result of his calculations and, although he may have been too far to the right in the Cold War, advocating blowing the U.S.S.R. to kingdom come every chance he got, at least he did not suffer from foolish naivete. Teller and Oppenheimer can be opposed in a similar manner.

Math Corner     Last month's puzzle was one of those that start a fist-fight. At the time I set it, I believed the answer was 403/1440. Then I got several e-mails from readers arguing for 1/4, and I was persuaded of that for a while. Then I finally sat down, "cleared my mind of cant," and worked out the true solution, which is 9/32.

I am sure this is right, but nobody else got it, and the few readers I gave it to all wanted to argue about it. There is some wiggle room in that "rational" condition, you see. What is "rational behavior" for the guy on my right? I am sure my solution is correct, though, and I'll wrassle anyone that says different.

This weeks' puzzle comes courtesy of reader David McCune.

A woman is walking down the street and meets her neighbor. The woman says, "I can't remember the ages of your 3 children." The neighbor replies, "The product of their ages is 36." The woman thinks a minute and says, "I still don't know the ages of your 3 children." The neighbor replies, "The sum of their ages is your address." The woman thinks a minute and says, "I still don't know their ages." The neighbor replies, "The oldest has red hair."

What are the ages of the three children?

* "Mathematical sciences" encompasses all of the following: Algebra; Number Theory; Real, Complex and Harmonic Analysis; Geometry and Topology; Discrete Math, Logic, Combinatorics and Computer Science; Probability and Statistics; Applied Math; Numerical Analysis; Linear and Nonlinear Optimization and Control; Differential, Integral and Difference Equations; and Mathematical Education.