»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2003

The old man's snoring     Rain! It seems to have been raining for ever out here on Long Island. June broke all records. My office is in a little annex added to the house as an afterthought around 1937. It has a flat roof made of some nonferrous metal. My working life this past few weeks — months? — I am losing track — has been conducted to the steady thrum of rain on my ceiling. The psychological effects have been rather depressing. Did you notice? I feel as if I am trapped in that Somerset Maugham story. (There is actually an even rainier short story, set on Venus, by one of the old sci-fi masters — Ray Bradbury, I think.)

Trying to fish something constructive out of all this endless thrumming and dripping and squelching, I shall begin and end this month's diary with rain-related quiz questions. The closing one will of course, in accordance with immemorial tradition, be a math brain-teaser. Here, to open with, is a tiny literary puzzle.

"We shall die in the dark, and be buried in the rain." That line from Edna St. Vincent Millay has been knocking around in my head for 20 years. Well, I have just been reading Nancy Milford's biography of the poetess, from which I learn that Millay did indeed die in the dark. But was she buried in the rain? The biographer does not tell us. It's absurd to be curious about such an inconsequential thing, but I can't help it. If anyone knows whether or not Edna St. Vincent Millay was buried in the rain, please tell me.

O'Reilly hits a big one     You can say what you like about Bill O'Reilly. And you do: any time I mention him I get e-mails from O'Reilly doubters, O'Reilly scoffers, O'Reilly sneerers and O'Reilly haters. Fair enough, but there is no denying that once in a while O'Reilly hits one out of the park. This happened the other day. O'Reilly was interviewing a Mexican consul (which the Lad from Levittown pronounces "counsel") about illegal immigration. They got to the point where the huge discrepancy in living standards was mentioned. The median family income in the USA is around $40,000; in Mexico it's less than $4,000. O'Reilly: "Yeah, what's that all about? What's wrong with things in your country, that her people don't have a decent living? " Exactly!

(In Holidays in Hell, P.J. O'Rourke gave the most popular Mexican answer to this question: "What is wrong, Señor, is that you Gringos stole the best part of our country from us — the part with all the good roads!")

The fire next time     Jed Babbin writing in NRO:

[O]ur putative allies, such as Saudi Arabia, and … the nations of Old Europe … need to realize that our impatience will boil over if there is another 9/11. Many of them will refuse to believe it, but in many ways we under-reacted to 9/11. If there is another, no American president will have the luxury of a patient investigation about how it happened. The Afghanistan campaign will seem like Sunday school to whomever had harbored or helped the perpetrators. And those nations — again, Saudi Arabia is the best example — who talk peace but pay for terror may not survive.

Steve Sailer in VDARE:

For many Americans, so far as I can judge from listening to country music radio stations, the Iraq Attaq wasn't about democratizing the Middle East. It was about racial revenge. Some Arabs blew up the World Trade Center, so we blew up some Arabs. Mission accomplished.

I've written a couple of pieces wondering aloud whether 9/11 really changed all that much in America. It's still an open question, I think.

There's not much doubt in my mind, though, that a second 9/11 would be a much more definite and dramatic kind of turning point for our national psyche. There would occur what physicists call "a phase transition" — like water turning into ice.

Jed thinks the Democrats are positioning themselves for it, and that it might lead to the impeachment of President Bush. That's an interesting idea. I feel sure though, as Jed does, that whatever happens on the the domestic front, the consequences for our enemies abroad would be very terrible. A really ruthless, Al Qaeda-  or Hamas-style attack — a dirty bomb at Disneyworld, something of that sort — would unleash the furies that woke, but did not take wing, after 9/11. It wouldn't be a matter of mere regime change, but of delenda est Carthago. We would be grimly extinguishing nations and sowing the ruins with salt. Do our enemies, and our "putative allies," know this? To judge by their actions, probably not. Well, they will find out.

Dear moron     Every writer (or blogger) gets a certain amount of hate mail (or e-mail). We all have our own way of dealing with it. I myself can't be bothered. I'd be happy if I could just keep up with all the people who send me pleasant, friendly e-mails. I'm certainly not going to waste a second of my time on morons, bores, and monomaniacs. Well, here is historian Andrew Roberts in the London Spectator for 6/21/03:

What is the etiquette for dealing with hate mail? I like to reply to every communication I receive, but to Mr John Bull (surely not his real name) of East Ham all I could say was: "Dear Mr Bull, Thank you for your letter. It was so foully abusive and ignorant that I was cheered that I am on the opposite side of the argument from you. Yours sincerely, Andrew Roberts."

Father's Day tribute     My son Daniel Oliver, 8 years old next month, was asked by his teacher to write an account of his Dad. Here is what he wrote. Nothing has been added, omitted, altered or corrected. And yes, he really can spell "edible" — I checked.

My dad's name is John. People call him Derb. Sometimes he is nice but most of the time he is very grouchy. He eats almost everything that's edible. He is kind of strong but he never works out. He always buys me gum to keep me away from hard sticky candy. He took me to chess. He takes me to piano lessons. Sometimes we play a game of catch.

He comes from England. His sister lives there. He used to go to the hospital a lot when he was a boy because his ear got infected. His dad was very strict. His teacher was very mean. He got detention because he skipped a lecture.

The thing I like best about my dad is he always takes me to the ice cream store in the village. He always buys me gum in blockbuster video.

If anybody bothers to write my obituary, I hope it is no worse than that.

So you want to write a book     Continuing the thread I started in May, about my own case of having gone from a well-paid Wall Street job to a meager living doing journalism and e-journalism: Friedrich on the "2Blowhards" blog has a good piece about the widely-shared fantasy of getting rich and famous by writing books.

Millions of people are working on books, or believe that they could write a book, or are planning to write a book. And I'll bet that for many of them a part of that fantasy is the making - a - living - as - a - freelancer - doing - something - interesting - rather - than - working - as - a - flunky - in - a - boring - job element. But how many people in the country actually manage to make a living writing books? A couple of hundred. Millions would like to do it. A couple of hundred actually manage it. In other words, your chances of making a living writing books are perhaps better than are your chances of ever playing in the NBA. But not all that much better.

I don't think it's actually that bad, Friedrich. You can make a pretty fair living writing nonfiction books of a useful or improving kind — books about cooking, or home repair, or travel. You have to keep at it, and turn out a new book every couple of years, but you'll do as well as the average office worker bee. (Of course, if you choose to write books about obscure special-interest topics like, oh, unsolved math problems, that's your own fool affair.)

Fiction is another matter, but with fiction there is always the chance — it is quite a good chance, actually, I think around one in five — that some movie studio will "option" your book for a few hundred thousand. This even happens with nonfiction as a matter of fact. At a book bash once, I met Jonathan Harr, the fellow who wrote the book from which that John Travolta movie A Civil Action was made. He cleaned up very nicely on the deal. There is even a way to make a living out of poetry, if you are dogged about it. You get known at the half-dozen significant magazines, cultivate some racial or sexual shtick, get yourself a writer-in-residence position at some college, do a bit of radio and some public readings, play the angles, and pretty soon you're in clover, or at any rate in the middle class.

The main thing about the writing life, though, is that it's an adventure. You lose security, stability, and probably a ton of money, but you gain possibility. All kinds of things can happen. Here is a quote from one of my own books:

Pierre Loti's 1887 novel Madame Chrysanthème has a lot to answer for: an opera of its own (by Messager, 1893), a short story (by Long, 1898), a play (by Belasco, 1900), a war (Russia vs. Japan, 1904 — the Francophile Russian officer class, knowing nothing of Japan but Loti's disparaging, semi-comic portrait, fatally underestimated their enemy), and Puccini's opera (also 1904). The opera created its own spin-offs: a silent movie (Mary Pickford and Marshall Nielan, 1915), at least one pop song ("Poor Butterfly," words by John Golden to music by Raymond Hubbell, 1916) and the ineffably silly play M. Butterfly (by Hwang, 1988), from which an even sillier movie was made. Write a novel, see what you get.

Not many books send out that many ripples of course, but almost any book might. Any book might be a best-seller, if it happens to catch the Zeitgeist hurrying by. In moments of despondency I like to remember Jonathan Livingston Seagull. If that thing can be a best-seller (and still in print after thirty-three years!!), what can't?

Work Americans just won't do     In my "Great Syllogism" piece earlier this month, I included this:

At any point in time … the United States economy needs … a certain number of garden-service workers, lumberjacks, auto mechanics, plumbers, steel-fixers, cops, soldiers, and child-minders.

I went on to argue that the principle underlying the "No Child Left Behind" policy is that no American-born person should have to do low-status work. The logical consequence is that we need vast numbers of Third World immigrants to do that work.

Note the inclusion of soldiering in my list. I don't personally regard soldiering as low-status work, but there is no doubt that large numbers of Americans do so regard it. Round up a thousand or so elite Americans — high-priced lawyers, movie stars, Congressmen, major-league athletes, cardiologists, CEOs and so on. Count how many of them have children in the armed forces. See?

So possibly soldiering is indeed, or will soon become, one of those jobs "Americans just won't do," like slaughterhouse work and lawn maintenance. Three per cent of the armed forces are already non-citizens. At the moment, illegal immigrants can't enlist. How long will that last? Let us remember the fate of great empires of the past: the Romans, who ceased to be willing to do their own fighting and began hiring Germans to do it for them. The Arabs, who paid Turks to man their armies …

I am not a fan of conscription. What I would much prefer is to see a strong, universal and socially-sanctioned ethic of manliness, courage, duty, sacrifice, and patriotism, that led young men from elite families to voluntarily set an example to the rest of us by serving in the armed forces, at least for a few years. The problem is, of course, that such an ethic would buck all present social trends towards hedonism, materialism, careerism and selfishness.

Oh, did I say "manliness" and "men"? Tsk, tsk. The fact that you noticed that has nothing to do with the problem, does it? Of course not.

That Winston Smith feeling     Nellie Derbyshire (4th grade) plays in her school orchestra. This month they had a concert. As well as the orchestra, the concert included the school band and the school choir. The first piece the band played was that old jazz classic "When the Saints Go Marching In"… except that they had changed the title. It was printed on the program, and announced by the music director, as: "When the Band Goes Marching In." I guess saints are just too intolerably elitist to be mentioned in polite company nowadays.

I am sufficiently self-aware to know when my emotions are dragging me off the sweet paths of reason, and I know that the uncontrollable fury I feel when confronted with these petty adjustments of the familiar — these tamperings with the past — is out of all proportion to the gravity of the offense. Probably some mild-mannered schoolmistress, a plump, sweet-natured mother of three, made that change without giving it more than a moment's thought. Why is it that I should be glad to see that person burned at the stake, after having first been dragged through the streets of Huntington behind a tumbril while the populace pelted her with rotten fruit?

JFK's headaches     In one of his National Review columns, Bill Buckley retails the old gossip about JFK having told British prime minister Harold Macmillan that he had to have sex once a day or he'd get a headache. I am skeptical. Leaving aside the fact that Harold Macmillan was about the last person in the world that anyone would share such a confidence with — he was British "reserve" incarnate, and a failure in love, or at any rate a cuckold — I wonder if Kennedy really said this.

If he did, I doubt he originated it. More likely it was just going around, they way things like that do. I recall a contemporary movie with Dean Martin and Kim Novak, in which Dino says precisely the same thing. Was Dino quoting JFK, or vice versa, or were they both just plucking a common joke out of the early-1960s American air? There is probably no way to find out at this distance in time.

Romance, English style     The other day, for some reason I can't recall, I got to thinking of the little acronyms that young English people, in my salad days, used to write on the envelopes enclosing their love letters. BURMA was a favorite; it stood for "Be Undressed And Ready, My Angel." Another one was BATH — "Bedsprings Always Twang Harmoniously." (They all seemed to be place names.) Now here's the thing. There was one acronym I remember clearly as being commonly used in this context, but I can no longer remember what it stood for. It was LEEDS. Anybody got a clue?

Stiff competition     I am sorry, I seem to have wandered off into some zone of salacity. Once you do that, it's very hard to get back on the straight and narrow … so I may as well continue in this regrettable vein.

David Frum has a nice piece in the 6/30/03 National Review about traditional, modern, post-modern and post-post-modern styles of naming companies. Well, there is one U.S. corporation whose name is known to every English male adolescent. They used to (and for all I know still may) put out calendars for which there was a brisk secondary market over there, just on account of the company's name. I am speaking, of course, of the Ridgid Tool Company. If you don't get the joke, I am sorry; I am certainly not going to try to explain it on a family website. (I am sure I remember, by the way, that the firm … sorry, the company, used to spell its name without that first "d"… but this may be a false memory.)

One more on Muggeridge     Wrenching myself away from this theme before things get totally out of control: Roger Kimball, in his memorial piece on Malcolm Muggeridge, wonders if Mugg's writing will survive. I'd like to think that the autobiographical writings will, at least, but the world is very ruthless with dead writers, and after 20 years or so old Mugg may have vanished without trace.

In an effort not to believe this, I have been trying to think of some Muggeridge quote or quip that is worth preserving. The one he is most often credited with (and which I believe he himself laid claim to) was the line about the Ten Commandments being like an examination paper: six only to be attempted. However, that was in fact coined by Bertrand Russell. The only other thing that comes to mind is: "Only dead fish swim with the current." It's possible he stole that from someone, too; I don't know. How hard it is to leave anything behind when you go! I suppose that's why we have kids.

What is truth?      … asked jesting Pilate. I am kind of wondering myself recently. How are things in Iraq, for example? The London DailyTelegraph:

America's rebuilding of Iraq is in chaos.

Thomas Friedman in The New York Times:

It's too soon to tell … In a fluid situation like Iraq, there are 10 things happening every day. All you want is that 6 out of the 10 be positive and moving upward … Right now, talking to U.S. officials, I'd say the score in Iraq is about 5 to 5.


We are making amazing progress.

Or consider those Euro-weenies. It is an article of faith with me, as with most conservatives, that mobile, dynamic, religious, hard-working America will always out-perform the laid-back, unionized, socialized, agnostic European nations with their dirigiste economies. A steady stream of analysis and commentary confirms this. The Economist, for instance:

The plain truth, which even the most ardent of Europe's welfare-state enthusiasts can no longer deny, is that Europe's economies have been trailing woefully behind America's. The reasons: a sclerotic labour market, forests of red tape and over-regulation, vast welfare and non-wage labour costs (especially in Germany), restrictive hiring and firing practices, and a failure … to defruse a pensions time-bomb caused by greying populations and too-early retirement on extravagant terms.
                    — (Issue of 6/7/03 — you need a subscription to read it online.)

So far, so good. Now along comes Philippe Legrain in The New Republic with a fine contrarian piece arguing that The U.S. is falling behind Europe and will continue to do so!

While living standards in the United States have risen by a healthy 16.1 percent over the past eight years, they are up 18.3 percent in the European Union … Not only does the European Union as a whole outpace the United States [in labor productivity, 1990-2002], so do ten of the 14 individual EU member states for which statistics are available.

Holy triumphalism, Batman! Could it be that my entire worldview is just totally wrong?

A friend of mine back in England, an actual working poet (see above), was fond of saying that: "Nobody has a clue what's going on. Some people fake it better than others, that's all." Perhaps he was right.

Amor mortis conturbat me     Arnold Beichman writes on NRO about the Islamic cult of death worship. This touches on a topic which is deeply distasteful to Americans. We are a cheerful, optimistic people, on the whole, and do not care to think too much about the dark side of human nature. It's there, though; and at its heart is a longing for death. Who has not felt that longing at one time or another? Poetry is riddled with it, Keats's "half in love with easeful death" being only the best-known instance.

Browsing in one of my old commonplace books the other day, I came across an item I had copied from a British newspaper several years ago. It was a news story about a healthy and successful man who had shot dead his mother, wife and daughter before killing himself. The thing that had struck me was the suicide note read at his inquest. It was strikingly lucid, not at all the product of a deranged mind. It began with the sentence: "For some years now I have wished to die."

The ultimate political expression of the death-wish is totalitarian despotism. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, who understood the spiritual roots of human society better than most writers, gives us a clue as to who Big Brother actually was:

In Oceania the prevailing philosophy is called Ingsoc, in Eurasia it is called Neo-Bolshevism, and in Eastasia it is called Death-Worship … Actually the three philosophies are barely distinguishable.

(My italics.) Orwell was dying when he wrote the book. Like his protagonist, he had probably come to some sort of resigned acceptance of Big Brother … Though a very perceptive observer noted of Orwell in his last days that: "I think that quite often before he would have been glad enough to die; now he passionately wanted to live."

The death-wish is an ineradicable part of us, and, as Beichman shows, any political movement that can tap into it has a very potent weapon indeed.

Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferioque     I shall lead gently into the math corner this month with a little logic. Having studied classical logic myself in a previous life, I started off that "Great Syllogism" piece by inoculating myself against complaints from logicians that I was mis-using the word "syllogism." Hopeless, of course — they complained anyway.

Well, here is my revenge: Archbishop Whateley's example of the figure known as a "destructive dilemma." I have taken it from his Elements of Logic (1826). Ready? Here goes.

If this man were wise, he would not speak irreverently of Scripture in jest; and if he were good, he would not do so in earnest; but he does it, either in jest, or earnest; therefore he is either not wise, or not good.

Got that?

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

I find that I am now regarded as an authority on pop-math books. Do I have any recommendations, people want to know? Well, yes, dozens. If you are venturing into this field for the first time, I think the most fun books to browse in are David Wells's Curious and Interesting … collections. I have three of these on my shelf: The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry, and The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Mathematics. They are all very good. At a more advanced level, John Conway and Richard Guy's The Book of Numbers is beautifully done, and full of fascinating things.

An interesting sub-genre of pop-math books is biographies of numbers. I have quite a collection of these: Peter Beckmann's History of Pi, Eli Maor's  eThe Story of a Number, Paul Nahin's An Imaginary Tale (which is about i, the square root of minus one), and two different biographies of zero: Charles Seife's and Robert Kaplan's.

Well, this month I have acquired an addition to this peculiar little collection: Julian Havil's Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant. Euler's constant, which makes a very brief appearance in my own book, has a decimal expansion that starts off 0.577215664901532860606512 …  It is probably irrational, though no-one has been able to prove this. The most we know in this regard is, that if gamma is a fraction, the denominator must be a number of at least 242,081 digits.

(For readers who are not sure what I am talking about:  There are whole numbers, there are fractions, and there are numbers that are neither. These latter numbers are called "irrational," and were discovered 2,600 years ago by Pythagoras, or one of his associates. The simplest irrational number is the square root of 2, whose decimal expansion begins 1.4142135623730950488 …  This is obviously not a whole number, and it is easy to prove that it isn't a fraction either — there is a proof in my aforelinked book, Endnote 11. So far as the naked eye is concerned, the main difference between fractions and irrationals is, that if you write out any fraction as a decimal, the decimal digits sooner or later repeat themselves, or else stop altogether. The digits of an irrational number never repeat and never stop.)

In any case, gamma is terrifically important in higher math for all sorts of reasons I can't explain here. Well, here is a little gamma-related (and rain-related) puzzle I have adapted from Havil's biography of this fascinating number.

In any given year, the weather station in New York City's Central Park observes a certain total rainfall. Assume that one year's total rainfall is unrelated to any other year's — in mathematical jargon, that total annual rainfall is "an independent random variable." Define a "record year" to be a year in which the rainfall exceeds that of any preceding year for which measurements were kept. Given that the Central Park measurements began in 1835, by which date would you expect to have clocked up 20 record years? (Clue: over the 160-year period up to 1994, there were six record years.)