»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2003


World Trade Center rebuilding     The decision-makers have delivered themselves of a verdict on which architectural design design gets to replace the World Trade Center. Who are the decision-makers? Some panjandrums (panjandra?) from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority, I think. You think, Derb? As a working journalist, aren't you supposed to know this stuff? Yes, probably I am; but you see, I have a problem with the whole issue, said problem being that try as I might, I just can't bring myself to give a rat's pip-emma about it. When those fancy architectural proposals first appeared in a double-page spread in the New York Post, it took me about two point five seconds to realize, with perfect certainty, that none of them would ever be built.

For one thing, they were all wacky. They just didn't look like real buildings. They looked like something a first-year architecture student would come up with, when he's got the math and the physics and the graphics software down pretty well, but before he has actually had to deal with actual people who actually wanted places they could actually live or work in. For another, they were all high, which means that you would never persuade anyone to move into them. This isn't cowardice, it's just common sense. I don't think I'm a coward, and I would face shot and shell in a noble cause. Hope I would, anyway. But just to get a paycheck? Just to trade someone's financial futures, or process someone's health-insurance claim, or program someone's computers? For stuff like that I'm going to spend my working life sitting in the middle of a bullseye waving cheerily at all the world's lunatics? No way.

And for another thing, this is New York City, and it isn't 1973 any more. Nothing is going to get done on that scale without years — decades, very likely — of litigation. This is a city that can't even figure out how to provide public lavatories for pedestrians. By the time every interest group, every labor union, every posturing politico, every busybody environmental lobby, every weeping, moaning "victim" association, has had its say, it'll be mid-century.

So what would I do with the World Trade Center site? Divide it into 50×150 lots and auction them off, no two to the same developer. Let them build some nice modest ten-storey apartments, stores, or offices. Put a decent plaque on one of the walls to commemorate the dead, and have a city employee go round and polish it bright once a week. Name the streets after people who perished while doing heroic deeds of rescue. And tell the fancy architects to go play their games in some city that has no serious business to attend to.


Song lyrics     I got some fine song lyrics from readers when I asked for "good contemporary" ones. That got me thinking about the opposite: really, really bad song lyrics. I'm not talking filthy, obscene, crude, shoot-a-cop rap lyrics — there are pleny of those, I know. I'm talking about literarily bad, like the Literary Review Bad Sex Prize. That still leaves a crowded field, I know. Some lines that have been sticking in my own poor cluttered brain for more years than I like to think about are from an Eddie Cochran song.

Lonely is the bird, without a tree;
And lonely is the sailor, without the sea.

These lines are so thoroughly, comprehensively bad, you hardly know where to start with a critique of them. Isn't it precisely the existence of seas that causes loneliness in sailors, for example? Ah, well, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. And I am probably the last person in the world that knows who Eddie Cochran was, anyway. No! Google delivers reams of Cochran sites. Even a googlewhack on "eddie cochran" + "schopenhauer" yields five. Ye gods.


Conscience of the young     Manhattanville College is a private 4-year liberal arts college in the leafy outer suburbs of New York City, specializing in gassy, content-free courses like "Organizational Studies" and "Communications." They have a women's basketball team, which stands to attention for the National Anthem and the flag at the beginning of every game. Well, not the whole team: one young lady, name of Toni Smith, finds the flag offensive to her eyes, and refuses to honor it. She stands in line with the other girls, but facing sideways through the ceremony.

Asked to explain herself, Ms. Smith extruded the following: "For some time now, the inequalities that are embedded into the American system have bothered me." Then: "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."

I know, a lot of people are angry about Toni. Me, I can't help but smile in fond recollection. What I am recollecting is myself as a sixth-former (= high-school senior) back in England. In those distant days, it was the custom at all English movie theaters for the National Anthem to be played at the end of every show. You were supposed to stand there reverently while it was played, then make your way out of the theater. A lot of people did just that. Another group finessed the issue by hastening out in a rather unseemly way just before the end of the movie. The youthful Derb and his pals, though, bold fearless rebels all, used to remain ostentatiously seated while the anthem was played. The inequalities that were embedded in the British system bothered us, you see. We looked forward to that great day when our schools would get all the money they needed and the military would have to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. (We really did: that old chestnut has been around almost as long as I have.)

Yes, yes, I know Toni Smith is kind of deplorable. Let's remember, however, that she is also a silly, smug, vain, ignorant kid, who has a lot of growing up to do. As we all were once.


Crime story of the month     Definitely this one, from the February 11 New York Post. (So I quote the Post a lot. So what? It's my newspaper. You don't expect me to read the Times, do you?) Retired federal marshal Amalio Santos, 47, lives with his family in a house in Queens borough of New York City. Around 10 a.m. one morning he heard two burglars breaking in through his basement door. Mr. Santos went downstairs with a licensed handgun and confronted them. They fled and he followed them outside. At this point: "One of the burglars turned around and allegedly pointed his gun at Santos." Mr. Santos thereupon fired a single shot to the head, killing the burglar. The burglar's accomplice jumped into a car and drove off.

Here is the punch line. "The burglar's gun was not recovered at the scene, and police speculated that the man who got away ran off with it."

I am reminded of those stories you hear about a homeowner who shoots a burglar dead, calls 911, and then, while he's waiting for the police to arrive, gets a call from the station house.

Station House:  You sure the intruder is dead?
Homeowner:  Yes. He's just lying there quite still.
Station House:  Where is his weapon?
Homeowner:  I don't know. Tell the truth, I'm not sure he has one. It was dark, I just shot him … Didn't think …
Station House:  There's always a weapon. Take a good look.
Homeowner:  Can't see one. No, I'm afraid he was unarmed …
Station House:  There is always a weapon. Probably he took a kitchen knife from your drawer, or something. Probably the knife is right there in his hand. Probably the kitchen drawer is still open.
Homeowner:  No, I can't …
Station House:  Look again. I'm. Sure. You'll. Find. Something. Make sure you find it before the officers arrive …


Underperformin' Norman …     … may also be Misinformin' Norman. Peter Wood's excellent new book Diversity, which I have just reviewed for The New Criterion, contains this quote from an October 2001 newspaper interview given by our Transportation Secretary and twofer token (Democrat, Asian-American) Norman Mineta, who is of Japanese ancestry:

In 1942, 120,000 of us were rounded up and put in these camps simply because of our race. We were behind barbed wire, with military guard towers every 200 or 300 feet, spotlights and machine guns. Even as an 11-year-old kid, I looked up at those towers and thought, "If we're in here for our own protection, why are the machine guns pointed in at us — and not out?"

Now, I am not an expert on the WW2 relocation camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry, so I am going to phrase the following as questions, and hope that someone more knowledgeable will answer them for me. Who knows? — perhaps our Secretary of Transportation himself might read this piece, and supply the answers. I would welcome that. So in a spirit of earnestly seeking enlightenment, I ask the following.

I am only asking.


For openers     Jay Nordlinger recently ran a reader contest for the best first line in a novel. Someone asked me what my favorite first line is among my own stuff. Well, setting aside my Coolidge novel (first line: "Come look at the moon!"), for which I nurse a paternal, and entirely un-objective, affection, I think I would vote for this one: "Germany, let's face it, did not have a good century." That's from a book review I did in 2000, also for The New Criterion. Of these web pieces, I admit to being quietly pleased with this one.


Aftermath of a tragedy     Why are Jesica Santillan's parents still in the U.S.? It's terrible what happened to their daughter, but it happened, and there is nothing to be done about it now. They are illegal immigrants and should be deported. Why has the I.N.S. not acted? I don't blame the Santillans a bit for doing what they did. I would have done the same in their circumstances. A nation has laws, though, and the laws should be enforced, within the grounds of reasonable humanity. If people scoff openly at the laws, with however understandable a reason, and nothing happens to them, then things fall apart.

I can't see anything inhumane about sending the Santillans back to Mexico. To the contrary, at a time like this, I am sure they want to be among familiar faces, speaking their own language, not among strangers whom they can't understand. It would, of course, be callous, churlish, and — what's that expression? oh yes — mean-spirited of me to suggest that the Santillans' next project is to get rich from their daughter's death, so of course I am not going to suggest it.** I do think, though, that they should be gently, firmly, and sympathetically escorted back to their own country, where they can grieve privately in familiar surroundings, away from the cruel glare of publicity.


PC Indexing     I have written before about the PC proclivities of publishers and their minions. Here is another instance. As faithful readers know, I have written a nonfiction book. Like all nonfiction books, this one of course needs an index. Now, indexing books is a specialized skill. You don't do it yourself, you send it off to a professional indexer to do it. So when my book's manuscript arrived at the point where the page numbers were definite, my publisher sent it off to an indexer.

The principal person in my book is the 19th-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann. He married a lady named Elise Koch, who thereby became Frau Riemann, and who would never have thought of herself in any other way — who would, in fact, have considered it a gross offense against propriety if someone had addressed her as "Fraulein Koch" after her wedding day. In my book, I mention her maiden name once, and thereafter refer to her as "Elise Riemann." I was therefore surprised to find that when the index came back to us, there was no index entry for "Riemann, Elise." Every single reference to this person was indexed under "Koch." I thought my precious manuscript had fallen into the hands of some grim crop-haired man-hating feminazi. However, making careful inquiries, I learned that the indexer is "a conservative Catholic lady." So it's not a personal-quirk thing, it's standard indexing procedure. Why does this sort of thing make me so furious?


Time travel     The extended Derb family is going through what seems to me like a small miracle, a time of wonder and discovery. The story is much too long to tell in a place like this, but here are the outlines.

I have a half-brother, Roy Noel Derbyshire, who is much older than me. He was born in January 1930, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The circumstances of his birth have always been very mysterious. Those were the Wanderjahre of my father's youth. Dad had washed up in New Zealand somehow, got involved with a woman, and produced a child. Four months after Roy Noel's birth, pressing family business took Dad back to England. He arrived with the infant, who was then raised by Dad's mother and sister. Much later, during WW2, Dad met and married my mother, and in the fullness of time (flourish of trumpets), I was born.

Of Roy Noel's mother, we knew next to nothing. Dad was close-mouthed about it, letting slip only an occasional remark. Roy Noel himself declared no interest in the matter: "If they didn't want to know me, I don't want to know them." He grew up to be a fine man and a solid citizen. He joined the British army, rose to the rank of Sergeant, and served 22 years in uniform — the maximum for enlisted men. After that, he worked as a traffic warden in a small English town, through to retirement age. Then, with time on his hands, he got to thinking about his mysterious mother. He knew, from a copy of his birth certificate the Army had required, that she was a married woman, maiden name Goddard. On a trip home in December 1998 I showed him how to look up White Pages on the Internet, and we found several Goddards in Christchurch. Somehow this worked on his mind, until a few months ago he started writing letters at random to New Zealand Goddards.

One of them — who turned out to be a first cousin — replied, and my brother is now learning about his New Zealand relatives. He has discovered, for example, that he has a sister alive out there. Imagine learning, at age 73, that you have a sister! (Technically a half-sister, but hey.) In fact my brother has struck gold, for the Goddards turn out to be one of those families that are keenly interested in their own genealogies. There is actually a Goddard Association, with chapters all round the world. The Goddards are even more fascinated to have discovered my brother than he has been to discover them — they had no idea he existed! There is surely a trip to New Zealand in Roy Noel's future.

Meanwhile they have got me going through Dad's stuff, which I acquired after he died, computerizing and sending off faded old photographs from his New Zealand days, to see if the Goddards can recognize anyone. It's a very odd feeling, looking at these pictures from 70-odd years ago — groups of young men horsing around, girls playing tennis in long skirts, a picnic group on a lawn. They all seem suffused with summer sunlight, though I suppose that is just an artefact of their aging, and of the primitive cameras used. Everyone is laughing, happy, youthful. Now they are dead, or very decrepit. (Roy Noel has learned that his mother, whom he never knew, died just two years ago at age 90.) The past is definitely another country, and they don't issue too many visas.


Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is here.

This month's appeared some time ago in an actuaries' trade journal. I got it from reader Darin Zimmerman. Here you go.

A lighthouse has a circular floor plan, 20 feet in diameter. On the outside wall of the lighthouse is fixed a hook. A leash is tied to the hook, with a dog at the other end. The leash is 10π feet (that is to say, a tad more than 31.4159265358 9793238462 6433832795 0288419716 9399375105 8209749445 9230781640 6286208998 6280348253 4211706798 2148086513 2823066470 9384460955 0582231725 3594081284 8111745028 4102701938 5211055596 4462294895 4930381964 4288109756 6593344612 8475648233 7867831652 7120190914 5648566923 4603486104 5432664821 3393607260 2491412737 2458700660 6315588174 8815209209 6282925409 1715364367 8925903600 1133053054 8820466521 3841469519 4151160943 3057270365 7595919530 9218611738 1932611793 1051185480 7446237996 2749567351 8857527248 9122793818 3011949129 8336733624 4065664308 6021394946 3952247371 9070217986 0943702770 5392171762 9317675238 4674818467 6694051320 0056812714 5263560827 7857713427 5778960917 3637178721 4684409012 2495343014 6549585371 0507922796 8925892354 2019956112 1290219608 6403441815 9813629774 7713099605 1870721134 9999998372 9780499510 5973173281 6096318595 0244594553 4690830264 2522308253 3446850352 6193118817 1010003137 8387528865 8753320838 1420617177 6691473035 9825349042 8755468731 1595628638 8235378759 3751957781 8577805321 7122680661 3001927876 6111959092 1642019893 8095257201 0654858632 7886593615 3381827968 2303019520 3530185296 8995773622 5994138912 4972177528 3479131515 5748572424 5415069595 0829533116 8617278558 8907509838 1754637464 9393192550 6040092770 1671139009 8488240128 5836160356 3707660104 7101819429 5559619894 6767837449 4482553797 7472684710 4047534646 2080466842 5906949129 3313677028 9891521047 5216205696 6024058038 1501935112 5338243003 5587640247 4964732639 1419927260 4269922796 7823547816 3600934172 1641219924 5863150302 8618297455 5706749838 5054945885 8692699569 0927210797 5093029553 2116534498 7202755960 2364806654 9911988183 4797753566 3698074265 4252786255 1818417574 6728909777 7279380008 1647060016 1452491921 7321721477 2350141441 9735685481 6136115735 2552133475 7418494684 3852332390 7394143334 5477624168 6251898356 9485562099 2192221842 7255025425 6887671790 4946016534 6680498862 7232791786 0857843838 2796797668 1454100953 8837863609 5068006422 5125205117 3929848960 8412848862 6945604241 9652850222 1066118630 6744278622 0391949450 4712371378 6960956364 3719172874 6776465757 3962413890 8658326459 9581339047 8027590099 4657640789 5126946839 8352595709 8258226205 2248940772 6719478268 4826014769 9090264013 6394437455 3050682034 9625245174 9399651431 4298091906 5925093722 1696461515 7098583874 1059788595 9772975498 9301617539 2846813826 8683868942 7741559918 5592524595 3959431049 9725246808 4598727364 4695848653 8367362226 2609912460 8051243884 3904512441 3654976278 0797715691 4359977001 2961608944 1694868555 8484063534 2207222582 8488648158 4560285060 1684273945 2267467678 8952521385 2254995466 6727823986 4565961163 5488623057 7456498035 5936345681 7432411251 feet) long. Assuming the dog cannot enter the lighthouse, and the surface he can travel is flat and unobstructed, what area can he cover?

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** Connoisseurs of classical rhetoric will recognize the figure called praeteritio. Arthur Quinn:  "If I were to declare any figure inherently disreputable (which, of course, I will not), this would be the one."