»  National Review Online Diary

  March 2005

[Note:  I was never further off the NR/NRO reservation than I was on the Terri Schiavo business. The behavior of the Right-to-Lifers, and of the politicians who lined up with them, seemed to me disgraceful — an ugly case of political hysteria. My NRO editors disagreed, and spiked the Diary — the only time this ever happened (though some non-diary pieces have been spiked.)]

I Am Terri Schiavo     (Apologies to Tom Wolfe.) Yes, I know, you're sick of the whole business. I'm supposed to be doing a month-end round-up, though, and this was undoubtedly the big news story of the month.

For an eccentric reactionary like myself — the Derb family crest bears the proud inscription Solus mortuus piscis secundo flumine natat: "Only a dead fish swims with the current" — it has been a bit disconcerting to find myself voting with the majority for once. Every opinion poll records solid majorities of Americans favoring the withdrawal of Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube. Last week's Time poll even came up with a majority of evangelical Christians taking this position. We don't decide right and wrong by vote, of course — though we do, and should, decide legal and illegal that way, which is why the law supports Mr. Schiavo. But what accounts for this weight of public opinion?

Maggie Gallagher has put her finger on one factor: the Golden Rule. "Do as you would be done by." That is taken by most people as a fundamental guide to morality. Most of us, looking at those video clips — especially when we have learned that they are the very best few seconds that could be extracted from 4½ hours' worth of tape — ask ourselves: "How, in that situation, would I wish to be done by?" The answer comes back loud and clear; and then, as mathematicians say, the result follows. This is an awfully hard case not to personalize.

Underneath that is the fact, which I have tried to air in National Review, that we are entering a period of metaphysical crisis — a period in which there is no longer any general agreement about the fundamentals of existence. Every time I read, or try to write, a sentence about Mrs. Schiavo — "She is in a state of …,"  "Looking at her …,"  "Her brain is …" — I find I do a sort of mental stumble. The grammarian in me squeals: What is the referent? What, in other words, do those pronouns refer to? Is there actually a Mrs. Schiavo to attach verbs and adjectives to? And I think the majority opinion, which is also my opinion — and clearly the opinion of Mr. Schiavo, who should know as well as anyone — is: No, there isn't. Mrs. Schiavo died 15 years ago. All that is left is to dispose respectfully of the remains, and that is rightly the husband's responsibility, which he seems to be taking with the proper seriousness. There, for a great many people, including me, the matter rests. As, I hope, by the time you read this, will Mrs. Schiavo's poor flesh.

Derbyshitler     I think that even a Right-to-Lifer, if he is honest, will have to admit that the RtL movement is not coming well out of the Schiavo case. It is very unfair that presentation and TV news clips count for so much, but they do. Most RtL-ers are honest and thoughtful people with good manners, but the RtL movement, like most others, has a kooky fringe, and that fringe has been all too visible this past couple of weeks — especially in the shenanigans around that hospice, which must have been highly distressing to other occupants and their families.

To the humble blogger who has publicly taken a Right to Die position, the kooks are visible indeed. It's been a while since I've had so much vituperative email. Many emailers — well into double digits — have called me a murderer. This kind of thinking baffles me. Since my opinions on this matter are shared by most Americans, these hate-mailers presumably believe that most of their fellow-citizens are murderers. Do they, actually, in fact, believe that? If I believed that 60 to 70 percent of my fellow Americans were murderers, I would not leave my house without a couple of handguns on my person.

Forty years ago the most hated woman in America was militant atheist Madalyn Murray, who had led the campaign to outlaw prayer and Bible study in public schools. In her Playboy interview, Ms. Murray said she was planning to compile a collection of the hate mail she'd got and publish it as a book (she never did). The book, she said, would be titled Letters From Christians. It would contain such gems as: "You will be killed before too long. Or maybe your pretty little baby boy. The queer-looking b*****d. You are a b***h and your son is a b*****d." Believe me, Ms. Murray wasn't exaggerating.

Saddest to report, I am no longer "Derb" to several faithful readers, but "Mr. Derbyshire." Nobody has yet referred to me as "Derbyshitler," but I suppose it's only a matter of time. What a lot of nasty people there are in the world, and what a depressing number of them think they are pious Christians.

Computers in school     Enough of that. Here is one of those "Well, duh" news stories, from the London Daily Telegraph, March 21.

The electronically challenged will chortle at the news that computers may contribute nothing to pupils' skills in maths and literacy. But in fact the study published today by the Royal Economic Society is more serious than that. It suggests that the vast sums of money spent on equipping state schools with computers — £2.5 billion so far, with £1.5 billion more promised in last week's Budget — are largely a waste of money.

The Government believes that computers are the key to "personalised learning" and should be "embedded" in the teaching of every subject. The study, by contrast, concludes that the less pupils use them at home and school, the better they do in international maths and literacy tests. Moreover, familiarity with them at work has no more effect on employability or earning power than being able to use a telephone or a pencil.

Every time I walk around my kids' school and see the tens of thousands of dollars worth of rapidly-depreciating electronic equipment my property taxes have paid for, I feel a spasm of outrage. Teach my kids to read, write, figure, and interact, for heaven's sake, and leave their gadget education to me, would you please? But of course, if you say this out loud at a meeting, you just get funny looks.

Superstitious? Not me — touch wood     Psychologists Jerry M. Burger and Amy L. Lynn of Santa Clara University have done a study of the superstitions current among major league baseball players, reported here. They interviewed 50 ball players from the U.S.A. and 27 from Japan. One guy re-tied his shoelaces before every sixth inning; another chewed three sticks of gum before the start of each game — not one stick, or two, or four; it had to be three. Another took care to always shower in the same stall.

What could be more human? Is there anyone — some Professor of Mathematical Logic somewhere, perhaps? — who doesn't have a little bit of superstition in his life? I walk my dog every morning, and there's a tree we pass that I have to pat. With the palm of my right hand. On both the outward and homeward trips. (This involves crossing a road I wouldn't otherwise have to cross, by the way. It's a quiet country lane; but I suppose there is some nonzero probability that crossing it to pat my "lucky" tree will be the death of me one day.)

And then, of course, there is saying "White rabbits!" first thing after waking up on the first day of each month. I have got my whole family doing this now. Look, you don't want us to have bad luck all month, do you?

The Ould Cause     Saint Patrick's day came and went, with terrorist gang leader Gerry Adams banned from the traditional White House party, very fairly, along with other Northern Ireland figures, very unfairly. When I said this on The Corner, it riled up defenders of the Ould Cause, and I got the usual 8,000-word emails patiently instructing me about the Saxon yoke, Oliver Cromwell, the Coffin Ships, and all the rest.

I found these responses oddly comforting. I think we are now past the point where the "useful idiots" of the Irish-American fringe can actually do any harm, and so I am ready to be indulgent towards them. After all, to go on being mad about something that happened 800 years ago is, in a way, truly conservative. It is strangely reassuring to know these folk are still around, banging that old drum, hating the evil Brits as much as ever.

Contra my warm indulgence, though, there is the point of view expressed by P.J. O'Rourke in one of his books. From memory: "Anyone that brings these old-world rancors over to America with him, isn't doing America any favors."

Math Corner     Last month's function has a derivative with both an infimum and a supremum in the closed interval [−1,1], but the derivative never manages to attain either! (I think the inf and sup are −24 and 24, respectively.)

I'll go easy on you this month. This puzzle is nothing but arithmetic and a bit of logic.

The following grid is a 3×3 array of 3×3 arrays, a sort of tic-tac-toe-tac-tic. So every horizontal row, every vertical column, and every one of the nine "little" arrays contains nine slots. Only some of the slots are populated. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to populate all the others.

Rules:  You may only populate a slot with one of the digits from 1 to 9; and none of the nine horizontal rows of nine slots, and none of the nine vertical columns of nine slots, and none of the nine 3×3 "little" arrays of nine slots, may contain any repeats!

7 - - | - 2 - | - - 6
- - 6 | - - - | 9 - -
- 3 2 | 6 - 1 | 5 7 -
- - 5 | - 8 - | 3 - -
3 - - | - 6 - | - - 9
- - 8 | - 7 - | 1 - -
- 8 3 | 2 - 5 | 6 9 -
- - 7 | - - - | 8 - -
1 - - | - 3 - | - - 5

To start you off: Note that the third-to-last column contains all nine digits except 2, 4, and 7. The digit at the top of this column could not be 2, because then the top row would contain two 2s; nor could it be 7, because then the upper-right "little" square would contain two 7s (and the top row would contain two 7s). So the only choice for the first digit in the third-last column is 4.

This puzzle was passed to me by reader Mark Spahn, who got it from the 3/3/05 issue of the US Japanese-language magazine Frontline. Mark adds the following notes:

To which I will add the following: That grid, looked at another way, is a 4-dimensional hypercube, three slots on a side. Can every straight line of three adjacent slots, orthogonal or diagonal, be populated without duplication in the line? How many such lines are there, anyway? (There are 8 in the 2-dimensional tic-tac-toe square, six orthogonal and two diagonal. I count 48 in the 3-D equivalent, but I don't feel sure of it.)