»  National Review Online Diary

  April 2003

Devil's dictionary     I was just reading a story about the BBC (that is, British Broadcasting Corporation). They are producing a $7m TV drama series about the "Cambridge spies" — five young men recruited by Soviet intelligence during their undergraduate days at Cambridge University in the 1930s. This "Ring of Five," as the Soviets referred to them, all went on to high positions in the British political and intelligence establishments during the 1940s and 1950s, and passed key information to the USSR through the early Cold War years. Well, apparently the BBC plans to present these vermin as heroic idealists. Explained the head of BBC drama: "Condemning them as 'traitors' would be too simplistic."

Note that word "simplistic." This is now a key word in the vocabulary of modern leftist nihilsm. When I can get round to it, I am going to produce a glossary, like Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, of these cant words that mark the user as being an elite lefty nihilist. The devil's-dictionary definition of "simplistic" will be something like: "Implying a belief that good and evil differ from each other in some way."

"Mean-spirited" is another one I shall list, with a definition along the lines of: "Nursing irreverent or disrespectful feelings towards some Designated Victim Group (blacks, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, etc.) Failing to acknowledge the superior moral status of such a group. See also: hurtful, insensitive-bashing, …"

Actuarial humor     After the posting in my March Diary about actuaries, a reader who really is an actuary sent me the following actuary joke, the first one that I have ever heard. Who knew actuaries had a sense of humor?

Q:  What's the difference between an American actuary and a Sicilian actuary?
A:  The American actuary knows how many people will die in a given year. The Sicilian actuary knows their names.

After trying this out on some other readers, one of them came back with this internet mine of actuarial humor. The jokes aren't terrific, but, as Dr. Johnson said in a different context, actuarial humor "is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not well done, but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Family humor     Still on the March Diary, I wondered what other family in-jokes people had, like the Derbs' flea-market one. Lots of responses on that, a surprising number concerning family car trips. I think my favorite was the reader whose father, when they pass a sign advertising ANTIQUES, invariably says: "What's everyone got against Ques?" Think about it (I had to).

What color is your underwear?     One more from last month's diary. I boasted of having discovered the difference between men and women. No fewer than three different readers e-mailed in with the following. "No, no, Derb, here is the difference between men and women. Go into a room full of people and call out: 'Hands up those who know the color of their underwear.' Only the women will raise their hands." Now, I don't get this. I know the color of my underwear. It's white. All men's underwear is white, isn't it? Who ever heard of men's underwear in any other color? I know I'm behind the curve sometimes and have trouble keeping up. (Why do you think my alternate-issue column in NRODT is titled "The Straggler"?) Is this one of those cases? Is there something I ought to know but don't?

Proud parent     I know, you're sick of hearing about the darn book. This was the month it finally appeared in finished form, though, and I can't resist doing the proud-parent thing just one more time. Then I will shut up, I promise. Well … I'll try.

Because of the mechanics of book production, Prime Obsession won't actually ship to your local bookstore until around May 9th. (Amazon.com, by the way, has been showing "August" as the publication date. This is wrong.) Then the bookstore manager has to unpack boxes and rearrange displays on his own highly individual schedule, so you may not actually see Prime Obsession on the shelves till sometime in the week of May 12th. Remember my outstanding offer to NR and NRO readers: if you mail the book to me care of National Review (the address is right there on the contents page of your subscription copy, or even to my home address if you are internet-fluent enough to find it (not that difficult nowadays), I'll inscribe it with the words of your choice and mail it back to you at my own expense.

You will notice that two other books on the same topic have come out at about the same time. Did the three of us know about each other's efforts? You bet. Was there a bit of a race? Yes there was. In fact my publisher originally signed me up with a 15-months-ahead delivery date for the manuscript. Then they found out about the other two books and renegotiated my contract down to an 8-month delivery date, cutting me a deal on the advance to make up for the rush. Never a dull moment in the writing business.

(I confess I haven't read either of the other two books, for superstitious reasons, and therefore cannot fairly comment on them.)

Internet dropouts    

Many Americans Still Aren't Going Online, Survey Finds

Now that people can log on at work, at home, in coffee shops, in airports and even in public parks, the Internet seems like a pervasive, nearly seamless entity in most American lives. Most, but certainly not all. Forty-two percent of Americans still don't use the Internet and the majority of them do not believe they ever will, according to a study released yesterday.

                    — Washington Post, 4/17/03.

Why do I find this so cheering? I suppose because I am starting to hate the Internet. Familiarity has bred contempt. The intimacy of the thing has been destroyed by intruders — pop-up ads, spam e-mail, and, I see (this is Sunday afternoon) lefty hackers bringing down NRO. "Feature fatigue" has eroded my sense of control — who can be bothered to learn a new trick three or four times a year? (The boy who shouted out "Madonna!" will please go and stand in the corner.) I used to hang out all day at my tube, leaving it powered up all the time. Now I switch the wretched thing off firmly when I've done what I need to do, and go play Chinese Checkers with the kids, or fiddle with DIY chores, or read a book.

I need the Internet for my work. That aside, I'd live happily without it. The novelty and charm have worn off long since. I feel about it the way I feel about my car: a great convenience, to be sure, but not lovable in any way, demanding frequent injections of time and money I am reluctant to spend, and liable to go wrong unpredictably in ways I can't be bothered to understand. I envy that forty-two percent.

Top of the Sumerian pops     In mid-April I did a column about the antiquities looted from the Iraqi National museum, arguing that given the past, present and likely future state of affairs in Iraq, these antiquities were, on the whole, better off looted and dispersed to private collectors in civilized nations, who would probably care for them better than the Iraqis would or could. In the course of this argument I had occasion to mention the Sumerians and their peculiar language, which we know well enough to sing songs in, but which has no known affiliations.

Well, if you would like to hear some songs sung in ancient Sumerian, permit me to introduce you to Dr. Jukka Ammondt of the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Dr. Ammondt spent much of the 1990s translating classic 1950s rock songs into Latin and recording them. Sample tracks: Nunc distrahor (All Shook Up), Quate, crepa, rota (Shake, Rattle and Roll), Non adamare no possum (Can't Help Falling In Love).

Then, reaching even further back into the past for inspiration, Dr. Ammondt came out with his first CD in Sumerian. In his own words (cleaned up a bit — I am not competent to judge the good doctor's Sumerian, but his English needs work): "On 5th July 2001, the first-ever album sung in Sumerian was released at the 47th Recontre International Assyrologique, a conference held at the University of Helsinki. One of the best-known classic rock songs of all time, Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes' will stir listeners' hearts when sung in the world's oldest known language. On the CD you'll also find Unto Mononen's 'Satumaa' (Land of Dreams), known as the national tango of Finland."

You cannot make this stuff up.

Fay ce que voudres     The fuss over Senator Rick Santorum's comments about sodomy laws revealed once again, as if it needed revealing once again, that some large part of the American people, including practically all the elite media, have lost their ability to engage in sane discussions about the public consequences of private sexuality. In fact, they are determined to deny that there are, have ever been, or could ever be any public consequences to private sexuality, or that society, as instantiated in its legislatures, police forces, etc., has any right to regulate private sexual activity at all.

Now this denial is — I shall try to be nice about it — infantile. Every society that has ever existed has regulated private sexuality. A society that did not do so would quickly degenerate into a Hobbesian nightmare, with aggressive men prowling and fighting while women cower in fear and submission. Our present American society regulates private sexuality by promoting monogamous heterosexual marriage and fortifying that institution with legal, financial and testatory privileges. We also regulate private sexuality in other ways, some of them ("sexual harassment" laws, for example) urged upon us by the political Left — the very people who are now in howling pursuit of Rick Santorum for his "intolerance"!

It is easy to think of very large and disastrous social consequences that have followed from private sexual activity. There is, for example, the great explosion of illegitimacy that followed the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and that has wreaked such havoc on our society. There is also the dreadful AIDS epidemic, spread in the USA mainly by private sexual activity, which has killed tens of thousands of people. There is of course a great deal more to be said on both these topics, and room for plenty of opinions about the proper scope and authority of the state in these things. I am only pointing out that the proposition: "Society at large has no legitimate interest in citizens' private sexual activities" is so obviously false as to be, well, infantile. And yet, amazing to say, a lot of grown-up people seem to believe it.

Back in the 18th century there was a clique of aristocratic English libertines who styled themselve the Hellfire Club. To "rid themselves of the day" (Dr. Johnson again, describing the frivolities concocted by the idle rich to fill their time) they conducted sex orgies, black masses and the like, in the seclusion of a large country estate. Their motto was Fay ce que voudres — "do what thou wilt." I sometimes think that when our civilization sinks into the sand at last, this will be its epitaph.

Human Rights Campaign     The Santorum business brought to the fore an outfit called "The Human Rights Campaign." You would never know from its name that this is a homosexualist lobbying organization. I have no problem with HRC's existence — homosexuals have as much right to organize and lobby as the rest of us — but I do have a problem with that name — viz., it's dishonest. The name of an organization ought to give some clue as to what the organization is for. Why don't they call themselves "The Homosexual Rights Campaign," or "The Campaign for Tolerance of Alternative Sexuality," or something like that? If they want to be a little more in-your-face, they could go for something with a defiant or humorous twist: "The Sodomite Sodality," perhaps. Don't they understand that this straining at bland respectability just makes them look shifty?

Readers, I have decided to launch a movement for the legalization of dog meat as a marketable foodstuff. My movement will be named: "The Campaign for Truth, Justice, Harmony and Peace." Everyone OK with that?

Bring on the goulash     The lead-in here is one of my favorite Solzhenitsyn quotes, from his 1970 Nobel lecture:

Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colours and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.

Case in point: Hungary. I am, as I have probably mentioned before, a mild Hungarophile, mainly because I was exposed to the incomparable Hungarian cuisine at an early age, my London college being within walking distance of two fine (in fact finom, the Hungarian word for "delicious") Hungarian restaurants. It's not just the food, though. If you mix much with Hungarians, or browse their literary productions,*  you get a strong impression of a very distinctive Hungarian way of looking at things. All things — love, business, war, politics, history, science …

History, especially. The old dame has been horribly unkind to the Hungarians, right down to the 20th century. (If you want to see a Hungarian's jaw clench, just say the word "Trianon.") That is one half of Hungarian particularism. The other half is their language, a bizarre oddity whose only relatives are some scattered tribal tongues in Siberia.**  The two things together have given the Hungarians a powerful sense of their own identity and separateness, a proud, defiant patriotism, and a rather bleak style of national humor.

All that is by way of recommending Paul Lendvai's new book The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, which gives a comprehensive portrait of this improbable nation. The book's subtitle was (I'm guessing) inspired by the following quote from Hungarian writer Géza Ottlik, which Lendvai includes at the end of Chapter 8. The battle of Mohács (August 29, 1526) was followed by the loss of much Hungarian territory to the Ottoman Turks.

The 400th anniversary of the battle of Mohács was approaching. It seems a remarkable thing to celebrate a defeat, yet the mighty Ottoman Empire, which could have celebrated its victory, no longer exists. All traces of the Mongols have also vanished, as indeed — almost in front of our very eyes — have those of the tenacious Habsburg Empire. We have therefore got used to celebrating on our own our great lost battles which we survived. Perhaps we also got used to regarding defeat as something exciting, made of more solid material, and more important than victory — at any rate we regard it as our true possession.

Income taxes     Grrr, fume, spit. Well, nobody likes paying income taxes. What staggers me, though, is the complexity of the whole business. My life is about as simple as a life can be in post-industrial society. I write stuff for which people send me checks. My wife works part-time as a sales assistant in a jewelry store. We keep cash in a bank, that posts interest to our account once in a while. We have a sheaf of mutual funds, that occasionally post small gains or losses, and a life insurance policy, and something called a SEP, which I don't understand but which my accountant said is a really neat thing for a chap in my circumstances to have. We buy stuff for ourselves and do home improvements. That's about it. We don't even have a mortgage. We are little people with not much money. Our "total income" in 2002 was apparently (I am reading it off line 22 of IRS form 1040) $37,323.

And yet, just look at the stuff we have to file! As well as the 1040, there are Schedules A, B, C, D, and SE, Form 1116, Form 8812, Form 8829, and supporting statements — a total of 15 pages altogether. And that's just my Federal return … It is easy to imagine a quite ordinary middle-class person filing a hundred pages or more. I have a degree in math, and I don't understand this stuff. How do non-mathematical people cope? I suppose by doing the same thing we do — paying a licensed expert to figure it all out. Our man got us a rebate of $4,727, though he charged us $1,056.25 for his trouble. (That includes a 25 percent surcharge for audit insurance.)

What a waste of human intelligence and effort! Billions of man-hours, billions of dollars — for what? To keep the country going, of course; to fight its wars, guard its coasts, pave its interstate highways, and so on. Yet all that could be accomplished with much simpler systems. Several have been proposed in detail. The one I personally like best is the national sales tax, but there are simple income tax systems worked out, too. None of them has a hope in hell of being adopted, of course. The lefty elites would raise a fuss about "fairness."

Fairness, schmairness: what about privacy? Funny: these same people who are tearing Rick Santorum limb from limb because he thinks the government might, under some circumstances, have the right to invade my sexual privacy, have no problem with that same government demanding to know about the new cesspool I installed last fall ("Statement 2 — Business Use of Home — Depreciation").

Around mid-April each year I find myself thinking that I wouldn't much mind having Suffolk County police officers break down my bedroom door now and then to make sure that I conduct my sex life from the approved firing position, if only the bureaucrats in Washington and Albany would get their noses out of my financial affairs. Possibly this is a middle-aged point of view.

Math Corner     I don't have a math problem for you this month, but you won't get away math-free. There is a mathematical theme in what follows.

First, however, let me tell you what the guy in the store was buying last month: Numbers for the front door of his house. Readers who said he was buying beer in six-packs, please e-mail me at once to let me know where I can get six cans of beer for a dollar fifty.

Now, then. I did a column a few days ago about a Doonesbury comic strip that insulted George W. Bush. That quickly got picked up by readers interested in the Creationist vs. Evolution controversy, even though that was not the main point of my column. Several hundred readers e-mailed me with opinions on Creationism, or Evolution, or both — trying, without much success, to get me interested in the fine details of the issue.

As always when you get a lot of responses to some topic, the Creationist e-mails (they were, by the way, almost uniformly courteous and thoughtful — which reinforces the point I was making in my article) could be gathered under four or five headings. I posted blanket responses to some of those headings in The Corner, but here is one more.

Lots of people wanted to tell me that the sort of super-complex molecules found in living things could not possibly have arisen by random chance in a universe a mere 13.7 billion years old, as the probabilities concerned are so immense — 1040,000, according to one reader.

There are several things wrong with this line of reasoning. In the first place, it is based ultimately on a common statistical fallacy — one so common that it has a name: "the fallacy of numerators without denominators." (The numerator is the top number in a fraction; the denominator is the bottom one.) Consider, for example, the New York State lottery. I believe the probability of any one ticket winning the lottery is around one in twelve million. And yet, most weeks, someone wins it. How? The answer, of course, is that twelve million is merely the numerator here. The denominator is the several million people who buy lottery tickets every week. Divide the numerator by the denominator, and you have a reasonable-sized number: 1, or 30, or 0.5, or something similar.

The probability of any particular thing happening is microscopically small. The probability that I flicked my eyes away from the screen to glance out of my study window just then, rather than a millisecond sooner or a millisecond later, is very tiny. However, in a busy universe, something must happen. In fact, untold trillions of things are happening all the time — that's the denominator. The physical universe is a far, far bigger assemblage than the population of New York State (it may in fact, for all we can prove to the contrary, be infinite!) so that extremely, extremely, extremely unlikely things are happening all the time.

A second problem arises from the term "random chance." In fact, even the most materialist of scientists does not believe that the universe is governed by random chance. There are organizing principles everywhere: subatomic particles organize themselves into atoms and molecules, interstellar gas organizes itself into stars and planets, and so on. Science consists of the search to understand how these organizing principles do their work. Why they are present is a very interesting question, but outside the scope of science. However, no thoughtful scientist, not even the most materialist atheist, thinks that the universe is the result of purely random processes.

A third problem is the one raised by the so-called "anthropic principle." However improbable you may think it was that human intelligence arose from inanimate matter, if it hadn't happened, we wouldn't be here to discuss it! Possibly the Big Bang happened 1040,000 times before we showed up. Now that we have shown up, we can sit around and discuss the whole business. The other (1040,000 − 1) occurrences of the universe were — as an atheist friend of mine likes to say about the Afterlife — very quiet.

* Timothy Garton Ash's "Central European Classics" project has translated a number of them, and is altogether a wonderful and admirable venture in literary entrepreneurialism that is well worth the support of anyone who cares about literature. For Hungarian writers, do Google or Amazon searches on names like Dezsö Kostolányi, Gyula Krúdy, László Krasznahorkai and Péter Esterházy. For Hungary's national poet, see here. (Note that the poet's name is written Hungarian-style on this website, last name first — "Sándor" means "Alexander.")

** There is a much remoter connection with Finnish and Estonian (which are closely related to each other), but it is visible only in a scattering of archaic words concerned with fishing and hunting, and in some points of grammar. Quote from a Hungarian friend: "Yes, Hungarian and Finnish are related. As are English and Farsi." Which is true.

An Estonian linguist has come up with the following sentences, which he claims are as close as Finnish-Estonian and Hungarian get to mutual comprehensibility. They all mean:  "The living fish swims in water."

Elav kala ujub vee all.  [Estonian]

Elävä kala ui veden alla.  [Finnish]

Eleven hal úszkál a víz alatt.  [Hungarian]