»  National Review Online Diary

  September 2004

No-Go areas     We've been hearing a lot about no-go areas in Iraq. Well, just to get the matter into perspective, here is some data on no-go areas in France. (I'm obliged to Jerry Pournelle for pointing me to this.)

In Le Figaro daily dated Feb 1st, 2002, Lucienne Bui Trong, a criminologist working for the French government's Renseignements Generaux (General Intelligence — a mix of FBI and secret service), complains that the survey system she had created for accurately denumbering the Muslim no-go zones was dismantled by the government. She wrote: "From 106 hot points in 1991, we went to 818 sensitive areas in 1999. That's for the whole country. These data were not politically correct." Since she comes from a Vietnamese background, Ms. Bui Trong cannot be suspected of racism, of course, otherwise she wouldn't have been able to start this survey in the first place.

The term she uses, "sensitive area," is the PC euphemism for these places where anything representing a Western institution (post office truck, firemen, even mail order delivery firms, and of course cops) is routinely ambushed with Molotov cocktails, and where war weapons imported from the Muslim part of Yugoslavia are routinely found.

The number 818 is from 2002. I'd go out on a limb and venture that it hasn't decreased in two years.

Note the French govt's response to these unpleasant statistics — they stopped collecting the statistics!

Kerry vs. the Norks     How does John Kerry plan to handle the very knotty problem of North Korea? By re-instating "direct US-North Korea talks." This contrasts with the dogged insistence of the Bush administration that China, Russia, Japan and South Korea also be at the table, since these are the nations most affected (and in the case of Japan, most scared) by Kim Jong Il's misbehavior. Kerry, in other words, would prefer to go unilateral. And this, in spite of the obvious and persistent lack of good faith on the part of the Norks, and in spite also of their unbroken track record of cheating or reneging on every agreement they enter into, sometimes before the ink is dry.

If you ask me to state my one biggest reason for voting Republican, here is the answer: "Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, Ed Muskie, Cyrus Vance." Those are the names of the last four Secretaries of State in Democratic administrations. Every one of them was willing — nay, eager! — to permit himself to be hung upside down and shaken till the keys to the store came tumbling out of his pockets, by operators much less ruthless that Kim Jong Il. Secretary Albright, in fact, once distinguished herself by standing at Kim's side laughing and clapping along while a Nork dance troupe performed a number titled something like: "Drown the American Imperialist Pigs in a Sea of Fire!" Heaven preserve us from Democratic foreign policy.

Credentialism     My favorite "little" news story of the month was this one, about a high-flying education bureaucrat in the New York City school system whose paper credentials were all forged.

From humble beginnings as a substitute teacher in the late 1970's, Joan E. Mahon-Powell climbed through the ranks of the New York City school system, becoming a principal, a superintendent in Brooklyn, the superintendent of a citywide district for low-performing schools and then chief of staff to Chancellor Harold O. Levy.

Last year, Mr. Levy's successor, Joel I. Klein, hired Ms. Mahon-Powell as one of 113 local instructional superintendents, a new position in the reorganized administration. But yesterday she was arrested on two felony counts, accused of forging her credentials all along the way. Investigators say she was never even certified as a teacher.

I doubt this will be a surprise to anyone. If you have lived much in the world, you surely know that most paper qualifications are worthless as an indicator of a person's abilities; and that this is nowhere more true than in Ed Biz. Track down the stupidest, slackest, most incompetent teacher in your school district. You will undoubtedly find that his paper qualifications — assuming they are genuine — are impeccable. Heck, he probably graduated from Ed School magna cum laude.

Even fields of professionalism where you would think paper credentials would make a difference turn up similar stories. From time to time we get a news item about a surgeon who has been cutting people open and sewing them back up for years, yet whose credentials turn out to be bogus. (There was one recently here in New York concerning a fake dentist. A dentist!) Nobody ever seems to be harmed by these unqualified practitioners — no more, at any rate, than are harmed by the qualified ones. For sure Ms. Mahon-Powell did all that a New York City Education bureaucrat is supposed to do (whatever that is) well enough to get regular promotions. I am glad to report that no paper qualifications of any kind are required for NRO bloggers.

Marbles? Too dangerous!

The reduction in outdoor education is part of the wider trend of limiting risk that has led to the banning of "dangerous" playground games, such as marbles and skipping [=jump rope], and the curtailing of sports such as rugby.
                    — Daily Telegraph, 9/28/04)

Ye Gods! Marbles? Skipping? Too dangerous? What games are British kids allowed to play?

I was a sedentary, bookish, unsporting kind of child. Still, somehow, my school years (I mean, up to age 18) managed to include the following things: boxing, horse riding, rugby every week through the winter months, cross-country running, rifle shooting, "arduous training" with the school cadet force (this mainly involved running up and down Scottish mountains in the pouring rain and pitching tents in mud), rock climbing, cutter sailing (eight men to a boat, and generally more rowing than sailing), canoeing, and various kinds of assault courses (generally including a 12-foot wall to be got over, and a high rope bridge to be walked). Souls more adventurous than me did air-sea rescue courses (being lowered from a helicopter by rope), took flying lessons (we had an Air Force cadet contingent too — you could get a pilot's license at age 17), or went on the school's Easter ski trip to Switzerland. In our leisure hours we climbed trees, skated on frozen ponds, dived into canals, rode bikes for miles out into the countryside, and on Guy Fawkes Night lit huge bonfires we'd been assembling for weeks, and stood around throwing firecrackers at each other.

How did we survive? Well, not all of us did. I lost a playmate at elementary school (drowned in a canal) and another in secondary school (poor Jeremy Freeman, keeled over and fell dead after a cross-country run — they put up a plaque to him in the school hall). The Outward Bound school I attended — it was the sea school at Aberdovey — had lost a boy the previous year in a horse-riding accident, and as a consequence had instituted a strict hard-hat rule. Those were the only fatalities I recall. Broken bones were pretty routine, though. Rugby is tough on collar bones for some reason; and one of my classmates managed to stave in several ribs playing rugby. Those ski trips — wooden skis, old-fashioned bindings — generally sent a couple of lads home in plaster casts. Everybody fell out of a tree sooner or later — collar bones again, or arm or wrist bones. My first competitive boxing match, I bopped Johnny Hopewell hard on the nose, causing a sensational exsanguination (but no real harm).

This was only 40-some years ago, but it sounds like the Middle Ages when I see it written down. What a feast lawyers would have nowadays! Which, of course, is the point.

A neighbor of mine, in a conversation along these lines, declared that she hoped her kids would never be out of sight of adult supervision. Until what age? I asked incredulously. "Well, until they're old enough to leave home." I wonder how they will ever find the courage to leave home.

Delicately put     I've been reading David Gilmour's biography of Lord Curzon, the British diplomat and statesman, floruit 1890-1920. Curzon was a workaholic, dealing with government papers every day till the small hours of the morning. His second wife was a society beauty eighteen years younger than Curzon and, in Gilmour's words, "unencumbered by intellectual interests." That's worth a smile by itself, but the phrase that really caught my eye is one Gilmour quotes from Curzon's acquaintance Lord D'Abernon. Speaking of the effect Curzon's long working hours had on his marriage, D'Abernon notes that his work regime compelled the noble Lord "to relegate to the morning hour the lighter amenities of conjugal life." Ah, those lighter amenities.

Curzon, by the way, a very pure specimen of the born-to-rule Imperial-British aristocrat, was, at age no more than twenty, the subject of the following ditty:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon
I am a most superior person,
My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek
I dine at Blenheim once a week.

(Blenheim was, and is, one of the grander English country houses, seat of the Dukes of Marlborough.)

A fine artist     I have recently become acquainted with the work of Chinese painter Shi Mo. (He has a website here, but it loads very slowly.) He works in the Chinese tradition, mostly with inks on paper, but has developed some interesting techniques.

The two themes he returns to again and again are (1) lotus flowers, and (2) monks. Both of these have a spiritual dimension: the lotus, a beautiful flower that comes up from out of mud, has long been taken by Chinese poets, painters, and thinkers — most notably the 11th-century philosopher Zhou Dunyi, who wrote a famous essay on this topic — as symbolic of the emergence of an enlightened being from the dirt, chaos and illusion of the human world. The paintings of monks show a more directly human aspect of Shi Mo's spiritual interests. There is one I especially like, the 1994 "Portrait of Da Mo." (Da Mo was a famous Buddhist Monk in the 6th century.) The monk is shown in meditation, his face and figure sketched with a minimum of brush strokes, most of the surface left empty. Looking at the picture, you feel that if there were any less to it, the monk would disappear altogether into the nothingness he seeks; yet still the picture manages to be full of character.

I'm a mere beginner in my explorations of modern Chinese painting, but here is an artist I find really striking. Shi Mo spends some of his time in the USA; if you see an exhibition of his work advertised, I recommend you take a look.

Stuff we always knew     Back when anesthesia was a new thing, William James decided to explore the new realms of consciousness it revealed. He had himself put under with nitrous oxide gas, and while in the semi-conscious state the secret of the universe was revealed to him. He had sufficient control of himself to actually write it down. Before passing out. When the effects of the gas had worn off, he read what he had written:

Higamus, hogamus —
Woman is monogamous.
Hogamus, higamus —
Man is polygamous.

Well, he got that right, as some researchers at the University of Arizona have demonstrated by compiling a genetic record of humanity's reproductive history.

The scientists report that men appear to have traveled widely to mate. They also say that men and women differed in their participation in reproduction, while it was previously thought that men and women both played an equal role in mating. And the researchers have found that more men than women get squeezed out of the mating game, while twice as many women as men pass their genes to the next generation.
"It is a pattern that's built up over time," says Jason Wilder, lead author of the study. "The norm through human evolution is for more women to have children than men. There are men around who aren't able to have children, because they are being outcompeted by more successful males."

Like we didn't know that already. It's a matter of common observation that any woman can get a man to sleep with her, while some men have a heck of a time persuading women to do them the corresponding favor. One of the great arguments in favor of monogamous marriage, in fact, is that a society organized along these lines gives non-alpha males a shot at, well, "the lighter amenities of conjugal life" … Pity our poor male ancestors (or rather, I suppose, in these precise cases, non-ancestors), who had to stand around glumly while the local chief corralled all the nubile women for himself. Let's hear it for Western Civ!

Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is here. I'd still like to see a closed form for the "polygon-inscribing constant."

Let your eye linger a while on that elegant diagram. It cost me half an hour of tinkering with Mathematica to produce that.

Here is this month's puzzle, which I owe to François Charton, over there in … a certain large and ancient European country whose national anthem goes: Dada da-DA, da-DAA, da-DAAA-dada …

Consider the powers of two: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, … Their right-most digits follow a simple repetitive pattern: 2, 4, 8, 6, 2, 4, 8, 6, 2, 4, 8, 6, … What about their left-most digits, though? Here are the first few dozen. (Read right to left, line by line. I've just jammed the digits together, leaving out the courtesy commas, to save space.)

125124813612512481361251248137 ……

There is a pattern there, but it keeps breaking down. When you get up into really big powers of 2, in fact, it breaks down altogether. For the ten powers of 2 from the 30th to the 39th, for instance, we have lead digits 1, 2, 4, 8, 1, 3, 6, 1, 2, 5. For the ten powers from the billionth to the 1,000,000,009th, by contrast, we have lead digits 4, 9, 1, 3, 7, 1, 2, 5, 1, 2. Every digit (except, of course, zero) shows up, though.

I am going to refer to this infinite sequence of digits as "the sequence." Now I am going to ask the following two questions: In the first N digits of the sequence, how many occurrences of 3 shall I find? And how many occurrences of 4?

Call the first number U(N), the second V(N). The first few values of U(N) and V(N), for N from 1 to 15, look like this, as you can easily verify:

U(N) = 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, …

V(N) = 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, …

Show that for sufficiently large N, U(N) will always be bigger than V(N). Find the limit of the ratio U(N) to V(N) as N tends to infinity.

François adds the following: "This question was asked a few years ago at the 'grand oral' for admission to the École Polytechnique. To secure a good grade in that situation, one would get about 10-15 minutes for the question. (The two orals are 40 minutes long, and you are expected to solve three or four of those each time to get admitted.) See whether you could have been in school with Hermite, Cauchy, Liouville, Poincaré or Mandelbrot (the obvious drawback being that you would also need to be French …)"