»  National Review Online Diary

  November 2004

Dangers of satire & parody     Late in October I posted on NRO a column titled The Stars Speak. My intention was to send up the kind of inane political comments by celebrities that dotted our news pages all through the election campaign. I invented people with names like Yenta Streidant, Hooray Goldfarb, Susan Saranwrap, and — my favorite, I confess — Vadge Endshaver, and put into their mouths the kind of outrageous and preposterous things that stars say when they venture into politics. (Though, let me tell you, it was hard to come up with anything more o. and p. that the things that actual celebrities had actually been saying.)

All through November I have been coping with a persistent dribble of e-mails from readers saying: "How come I never heard of these people? … Did someone really say that? … That's awful! Why didn't I read this anywhere else? …"

I should have known better. Anyone who writes for the public learns early on that it is perilous to attempt satire, parody, or humor. A lot of people are just cloth-eared to anything more subtle than a plain declarative sentence. These are not stupid people, either. This defect spans all ranges of intellect and education — I had a math professor who was of this kidney. It's like being tone deaf.

I mentioned this to Jay Nordlinger. He told me that when The Weekly Standard started doing parody on its inside back page, the editors were besieged with inquiries from readers asking where they could read some background to these "stories." The editors got so fed up with this, they began over-stamping the parody page with a big, unmistakable legend: "PARODY," a precaution they have continued to the present day. Perhaps I should do something similar with my own flights of fancy.

Our trial lawyers at work     I pick my teeth. I am neither proud of it nor ashamed of it; it's just a thing I do, discreetly and inoffensively of course, with the exquisite manners and sensitivity to the feelings of others for which I am so well known.

For the practice of this very minor personal foible, I naturally use toothpicks. The ones I prefer are Johnson & Johnson's Stim-U-Dent brand, which gives you 25 cuneiform wooden picks in a neat flat package you can keep in a pocket.

Lately, though, I've had trouble buying my Stim-U-Dents. My town's main pharmacy, Eckerd Drugs, no longer carries them; neither does my local Value Drugs, nor CVS, nor Walgreen. All have, I am sure, carried Stim-U-Dents in the past. On a trip into Manhattan, I also struck out at Wal-Mart and Duane Reade, though a small private pharmacy in Chinatown had some. I bought their entire display.

I haven't had time to research this, but I am willing to bet that what has happened here is that some imbecile, somewhere in the USA, managed to get a Stim-U-Dent lodged in his windpipe; whereupon some ambulance-chasing lawyer sued the retailer and got a billion-dollar settlement, so that other retailers are dropping the line like that proverbial hot potato.

If this is right, my Chinatown supply might have to last the rest of my life. I am in the position of Elaine in that Seinfeld episode where her favorite contraceptive device was discontinued, and she had to decide whether prospective sex partners were "sponge-worthy" or not. Faced with inter-dental food detritus in future, I shall have to decide whether or not it is pick-worthy in each case.

So I thought until I met country singer Hal Bynum. Hal shares my foible, but instead of Stim-U-Dent he favors a plastic toothpick, the Rota-Point (scroll to the bottom of this page). Hal, who was on the NR post-election cruise with us, was kind enough to give me a batch of Rota-Points. They are terrific; if you keep using one, it even develops a little hook that makes it more effective. Plus, being plastic, a stored supply will last for ever.

Of course, it will only be a matter of time before the trial lawyers destroy Rota-Point, too, on their long march to destroying capitalism completely. I figure I can get a lifetime supply for less than $1,000, though, and am seriously contemplating doing so. The trouble is getting the purchase past my wife, who tells me that her family can send me all the toothpicks I want from China.

Armenicide     At an immigration function early in the month I met Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies Mark is of Armenian ancestry. He told me that Anglican Christians like myself are recognized as co-communicants by the Armenian church, one of the few sects to be thus honored. I thanked him, but added that I didn't feel altogether comfortable accepting hospitality from a church that didn't bother to show up at the Council of Chalcedon … [HUMOR! HUMOR!]

Mark also told me that among Armenian historians, as among the Irish ones, there is a MOPE tendency — a tendency, that is, to enjoy the pleasure of seeing one's ancestors and kin as the Most Oppressed People Ever. In those circles, the horrible massacres of Armenians by Turks in 1915 are referred to as "Armenicide."

What a treasure of a word! I am now waiting for some Irish-American activist to accuse my own ancestors of Hibernicide.

While on the topic, I note the following fine Gibbonesque sentence from Colin McEvedy's Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, p. 50:

The activities of the Sajid Emir were mostly directed towards depriving the Armenians of their already small store of wealth and happiness; his subtlest approach to the problem was the creation of a rival Armenian kingdom (Vaspurakan, A.D. 908); the bitter rivalry between the new and the original foundations enabled Armenians too to taste the delights of massacring Armenians.

Word watch     Another gem of a word, this one from The Economist's review of Robert McCrum's new book Wodehouse: A Life, which is of course a biography of the English comic writer P.G. Wodehouse:

Just as Wodehouse was evidently asexual, so he was "aworldly," that is, neither worldly nor unworldly, simply uninterested in what was going on around him.

I have known a fair number of people like this — people absorbed in their work and private lives, who, while not particularly dreamy or unrealistic, just don't give a fig about politics or international affairs and never bother to inform themselves about those things. Now I have a word for them: "aworldly." I shall seek opportunities to use it.

Whopper of the month     "China's custom is that we never blame others for our own problem" — A senior official of the People's Bank of China, quoted in the Financial Times

In point of fact, the official Chinese Communist Party line is that all the problems modern China has endured are the fault of foreigners, from the Opium Wars to the great famine of 1959-61. Like the Irish and Armenians, the Chinese are strongly attracted to MOPE theories, and greatly enjoy wallowing in indignation about the episodes of Sinicide and other wrongs they have endured at the hands of foreigners.

While there are true foundations to some of this stuff, it remains the case, as I have pointed out elsewhere, that if there is a prize awarded in Hell for killing Chinese people, the easy winner in the 20th-century division would be Mao Tse-tung, with Chiang Kai-shek a distant runner-up. The Opium Wars were a bagatelle by comparison with the average Mao purge or Kuomintang "bandit suppression" campaign. But don't try telling this to senior officials at the Bank of China.

(The CCP line on the famine, if I recall correctly, is that after Mao split with Khrushchov, the Soviets demanded repayment of their loans a.s.a.p. and Mao felt, as a matter of national honor, that he had to comply. The necessary belt-tightening to repay the loans, plus some bad weather, led to the famine. It's all a total crock, and even the chronology doesn't work, but that's the Party line.)

One more for the sulfur pit     While I'm being mean-spirited: How did I feel about the death of Yasser Arafat? Permit me an indirect reply.

Jean Chiappe was a pre-WW2 French fascist, who made his name as a repressive police chief in Paris during the early 1930s. When France fell to the Nazis, Chiappe went over to the puppet Vichy regime, who appointed him High Commissioner to Syria. While he was on his way to take up this position, Chiappe's plane was shot down by the British.

Hearing of this event, George Orwell noted in his diary (December 1, 1940): "That bastard Chiappe is cold meat. Everyone delighted …"

Math Corner     Last month I noted that the pair of numbers 25 and 27 show a perfect square and a perfect cube separated by just two. I wondered aloud if there are any other instances of this. The answer is no, there are no others. This was hypothesized by Fermat (of Last Theorem fame), but he could not prove it. It has since been proved. It has also been proved that there are no instances of a square and a cube separated by just 1, other than the case of 8 and 9. (All of this applies to positive integers only. If you allow zero and negative integers the answers are slightly different.)

These questions dwell in a part of math called Diophantine analysis — the effort to find whole-number solutions to complicated equations. The more general case revolves around a theorem proved by the Norwegian mathematician Axel Thue back in 1909, and some subsequent investigations by the American number theorist Louis Joel Mordell later in the last century. I'll leave you with those names and Mr. Google to go as deep into the matter as you care to go.

Here is this month's puzzle — a geometrical one, for a change.

ABC and PQR are any two triangles in the plane — arbitrary size, arbitrary orientation, except that none of the six sides is parallel to any of the others.. Draw the three lines AP, BQ, and CR. These three lines form a triangle. (Unless two of them are parallel — suppose this isn't so.) Call the vertices of this triangle A2 (where BQ meets CR), B2 (where CR meets AP), and C2 (where AP meets BQ).

Now, working with that same original pair of triangles, extend the sides BC and QR until they meet. Call this point P2. Extend CA and RP until they meet; call that point Q2. Extend AB and PQ until they meet; call that point R2.

Look: starting with the pair of triangles ABC, PQR, I have generated another pair: the triangle whose vertices are A2, B2, and C2, which I got by joining the original vertices; and the one whose vertices are P2, Q2, and R2, which I got by extending the original sides till they met. Presumably from this second pair, I can generate a third pair by the same process, and so on for ever. What can you say about this sequence of triangle-pairs?