»  National Review Online Diary

  July 2005


Wanted: An Irresponsible General.     Major General Zhu Chenghu, a dean at the prestigious National Defence University in Beijing, stated on July 21 that China would have to resort to the use of nuclear weapons in a war with the United States over Taiwan. Warming to his theme, Maj. Gen. Zhu Zhu declared that "we Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all cities east of Xi'an. [Which is to say, practically all big Chinese cities.] And the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese, too" in order to prevent the "separation" of Taiwan from China.

So in order to assert a highly theoretical claim to a territory that has been governed from China for just four of the past 110 years, and whose inhabitants would much rather be left alone to govern themselves, this guy is willing to countenance the incineration of several hundred million of his countrymen, and a proportionate number of Americans. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: On the subject of Taiwan, the mainland Chinese are stark gibbering insane.

An administration spokesman said that Maj. Gen. Zhu's remarks were "irresponsible."

Irresponsible they may have been, but they sure got a lot of attention. What I want to know is, why haven't we got any irresponsible generals? Wouldn't it be great if some member of the Joint Chiefs would off-handedly mention, within range of a mike, that we have enough functioning nukes and delivery systems to turn the People's Republic into stained glass? Or recycle the old joke about: "Q — What's big and flat and glows in the dark? A — Tehran, 12 hours after Iran announces they're going to continue with uranium enrichment."

Fat chance. U.S. senior staff officers are all thoroughly career-whipped. Every word out of their mouths has the administration seal of approval stamped all over it. What a flock of parrots. It's a shame. Yeah, sure, I know the proper place of the military in a commercial republic, but we used to have outspoken Chiefs. Talking about this with an NR colleague, he murmured with a wistful sigh: "Bring back Curtis LeMay." Oh, yeah.


Incense and Insensibility.     Back in January I wrote a brief piece about Episcopal Bishop Andrew Smith of Connecticut. Bishop Smith is a liberal, and in particular a supporter of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the church's first openly homosexual bishop. The piece I wrote pointed up one particular incident illustrating, I believe, Smith's approach to church issues.

Some in the Episcopal hierarchy think that Bishop Smith is being a little too aggressive in asserting his position. Six of his parish priests, protesting his recognition of the Robinson elevation, asked if they might report to a different bishop, one with more conservative views. Smith responded by suspending one of the priests, the Rev. Mark Hansen of Bristol. Hansen may no longer minister to his parishioners, and is under threat of being dismissed from the clergy altogether. Smith's pretext for this action — which in Episco-speak is called an "inhibition" — is that Hansen was absent from his duties without permission, a thing Hansen disputes. I don't know the rights and wrongs of this incident, though a clerical friend tells me that at the very worst — assuming Bishop Smith's charges against Hansen are all true — Hansen's offense is at about the level of driving without a seatbelt. The other five dissenting priests in Smith's diocese have also been threatened with inhibition.

Now things are heating up. Nine conservative bishops are taking Smith to ecclesiastical court for having abused his authority over his parish priests in the Hansen case. There is a story here, naming the nine bishops. Good luck to them. Episcopalians, speaking generally, are deferential and tolerant of their bishops, and speak ill of them only under extreme provocation. I have heard enough unkind things about Smith to make me think that he should, at least, be required to explain himself to an ecclesiastical court.

(Reading back through that, I see how very Anglican it is. There is a character in one of Anthony Powell's novels who commits some transgression, and worries that if he is caught he will find himself "in warm water." Not hot, warm. That's what we Anglicans are like. The water never gets hot, just warm.)


Can't we all just get along?     My usual bathroom book (oh, you know what I mean) is the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. I have the whole thing on a shelf in the downstairs study. On my way to the smallest room, I take down a volume at random for a few minutes' browsing. There's always something interesting to read.

My volume this morning was "TON to VES." I got to reading about Tristan da Cunha, the tiny island group in the south Atlantic populated by a hundred or so descendants of American whalers, English soldiers, and "coloured" women shipped over from St. Helena and South Africa as brides. After reading the article, I felt much better about the human race. Listen:

The population in 1897 was only 64; in 1901 it was 74, and in 1909, 95. They manage their own affairs without any written laws, the project once entertained of providing them with a formal constitution being deemed unnecessary. The inhabitants are described as moral, religious, hospitable to strangers, well mannered and industrious, healthy and long lived. They are without intoxicating liquors and are said to commit no crimes. They are daring sailors, and in small canvas boats of their own building voyage to Nightingale and Inaccessible islands…

All right, I know it's not very exciting down there. It's not Lord of the Flies, either, though, is it? Throw a small bunch of disparate people together on a rocky island, with nothing to do but fish and raise sheep, and they'll figure a way to get along with each other. If only this situation were, as the systems analysts say, "scalable."


The transformation of Britain.     For evidence that it isn't, I offer the great news event of this month: the suicide-bomb attack on London. It has thrown the British into a flurry of self-examination, with many articles wondering why the British-born young Muslims who carried out those attacks had not assimilated into a British identity. Several commentators pointed out the most obvious answer: There no longer is any British identity, the multiculturalists and Europhiles having mocked, shamed, and legislated it out of existence.

Peripheral to this discussion, though not completely irrelevant to it, I note the following article from National Geographic that appeared this month, but which, given the NG's production cycle, must have gone to press before the attacks. The long and short of it is, that if you exclude the immigrants of the past 50 years and their descendants, the genetic makeup of the British people has changed very little since the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago.

[David] Miles, research fellow at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, England, says recent genetic and archaeological evidence puts a new perspective on the history of the British people. 'There's been a lot of arguing over the last ten years, but it's now more or less agreed that about 80 percent of Britons' genes come from hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice Age,' Miles said. These nomadic tribespeople followed herds of reindeer and wild horses northward to Britain as the climate warmed. 'Numbers were probably quite small — just a few thousand people,' Miles added. These earliest settlers were later cut off as rising sea levels isolated Britain from mainland Europe.

All the later arrivals that my school history books made such a fuss about — Celts and Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans — were just thin layers smeared on to that basic Ice Age stock. Notes another archeologist in this article: "It is actually quite common to observe important cultural change, including adoption of wholly new identities, with little or no biological change to a population."

In other words, the British are, genetically speaking, as peculiar and distinct as the Japanese, or the Andaman Islanders. To appreciate the irony here, you need to have observed the progress of multiculturalism in Britain. One of its chief supporting arguments has been that the British are, and always have been, a hodge-podge of different peoples mixed together, so that the notion of a British identity has no actual physical foundation. Apparently this argument is no longer operational.


Our days are numbered.     The London suicide-bomb attacks are now tagged in news stories as "7/7." This of course follows the popularization of "9/11" as a shorthand way to describe the 2001 attacks on the USA. (Since British people write their dates as day/month/year, instead of month/day/year, like the rest of the world, it's handy that the attacks happened on July 7. If they had taken place the following day, the Brits would have referred to them as "8/7," and the rest of us would have had to mentally translate that into "7/8" every time we saw it.)

This numerical tagging of events is new in the English language. The day of the Pearl Harbor attacks was "a date that will live in infamy," but I have never heard anyone refer to it as "12/7." The Chinese, however, have been doing this for decades. Every Chinese child knows that "9-1-8" (September 18, 1931) is the day the Japanese Imperial forces began their annexation of northeast China. The next milestone in the Chinese calendar of resentment is in fact "7-7" — July 7, 1937, the date of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, when all-out war broke out between China and Japan. The country's National Day is either "10-1" or "double-10" (that is, October 10), depending on whether you are a communist or a nationalist. The suppression of the Tiananmen Square student movement on June 4, 1989, is of course "6-4."

The people of Taiwan, meanwhile, want to tell you about "2-2-8," the incident of February 28, 1947, when local Taiwanese attempted to demonstrate against the brutality and corruption of Chiang Kai-shek's incoming regime (they had been a Japanese colony until 1945, and hoped for independence after the defeat of Japan in WW2), and were massacred for their trouble.

I don't know if our newspapers were influenced by the Chinese in this, or if it's just a handy thing to do that we in the West never bothered to do before. As the father of two kids, though, anything that makes historical events easier for them to remember is fine, so far as I am concerned.

And if this actually works for history teachers, there's no reason why we shouldn't go back and tag some other great events in this way. I doubt anyone will get us saying "7/4" for our Independence Day, but why not "4/9" for the surrender at Appomattox, "8/15" for V-J Day, "11/22" for the Kennedy assassination? I had to google the first two of those to get them right, which sort of makes the point.

Trying this idea out on a friend who teaches high school, though, I just got a hollow laugh and this: "If we could get them remembering the right year, that would be a breakthrough…"


Judge Roberts.     The other great event of the month was the selection of John Roberts as the President's choice to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the US Supreme Court. Roberts is photogenic (a friend of mine calls him "Dudley Do-Right"), hard-working, able, and plainly a model citizen. Why can't I summon up no enthusiasm for him? I think it's because of my suspicion that he's nice.

Nothing wrong with being nice, in most walks of life. Nice is, well, nice. Very American, too: Florence King used to refer to this nation of ours as "the Republic of Nice." Nice doesn't cut it in the culture wars, though. Nice people are just too easy for the Left to sway. Most lefty arguments, after all, are phrased as appeals to niceness. This approach has been so successful for the Left that huge numbers of Americans now believe that liberals are Nice, while conservatives are Not Nice. Niceness — and therefore the Nasty-in-Nice-clothing that is current liberalism — has a terrific gravitational pull on the psyches of present-day Americans.

I know this because, being a fundamentally nice person myself (ask anyone) I am very susceptible to it. Put me in a room for a couple of hours with a Lefty of the smoother kind and I'll come out of there murmuring: "Why, yes, he made a pretty good case …" Then the kids will rile me up, or I'll get a tax demand, or read Ted Kennedy's latest speech, and my dark side will reassert itself, and I'll wake up to the fact that my Lefty friend was spinning the same old stupid yarn.

What kind of people are least susceptible to this political Stockholm Syndrome? Eccentric, cranky, ornery people, that's who. That's my problem with Roberts. Couldn't the President have found someone crankier … stranger … less nice?


Hilbert's Hotel.     I had just got my Aleph-Null mug from mathematicianspictures.com and I was explaining to my wife about Hilbert's Hotel.

Aleph-Null is the name of the first transfinite cardinal number. (A cardinal number tells you how many things there are in a set. The cardinal number of the set {Larry, Curly, Moe} is 3.) It is the number of all whole numbers, the number of this set: {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, …}, where the three dots indicate that the set keeps going for ever.

The story of Hilbert's hotel goes like this. The point of it is to illustrate the key difference between finite cardinal numbers and transfinite ones, viz., that a set may have the same number as a subset of itself, if its number is transfinite.

A traveler comes to a hotel late at night. Goes to the desk clerk. Asks: "How many rooms in this hotel?" The clerk says: "47, and every one is occupied." The traveler says: "Can you give me a room?" The clerk says: "No, sorry. Every room is occupied. I already told you."

The traveler drives a few more miles, then comes to Hilbert's hotel. [David Hilbert was a great German mathematician.] Goes to the desk clerk. Asks: "How may rooms in this hotel?" The clerk says: "Aleph-Null, and every one is occupied." The traveler says: "Can you give me a room?" The clerk says: "Certainly."

The traveler says: "How is that possible, since every room is occupied?" The clerk explains: "No problem! I move the occupant of room number 1 to room number 2. I move the occupant of room number 2 to room number 3. I move the occupant of room number 3 to room number 4. I move the occupant of room number 4 to room number 5. I move the occupant of room number 5 to room number 6. I move the occupant of room number 6 to room number 7. I move the occupant of room number 7 to room number 8. I move the occupant of room number 8 to room number 9. I move the occupant of room number 9 to room number 10. I move the occupant of room number 10 to room number 11. I move the occupant of room number 11 to room number 12. I move the occupant of room number 12 to room number 13. I move the occupant of room number 13 to room number 14. I move the occupant of room number 14 to room number 15. I move the occupant of room number 15 to room number 16. I move the occupant of room number 16 to room number 17. I move the occupant of room number 17 to room number 18. I move the occupant of room number 18 to room number 19. I move the occupant of room number 19 to room number 20. I move the occupant of room number 20 to room number 21. I move …"

"I get the idea," says the traveler hastily. "And when you've got through doing that, everyone has a room, and room number 1 is empty."  "Precisely," says the clerk. "It just takes a while. But everybody ends up with a room!"

A little later that night, the desk clerk at Hilbert's hotel is greeted by some more arrivals — a bus party. This party is riding a very large bus — an infinitely large one, in fact, with Aleph-Null passengers. The director of this party goes to the desk clerk. Asks: "How many rooms in this hotel?" The clerk says: "Aleph-Null, and every one is occupied." The director says: "Can you give rooms to all the Aleph-Null people in my party?" The clerk says: "Certainly."

The director says: "How is that possible, since every room is occupied?" The clerk explains: "No problem! I move the occupant of room number 1 to room number 2. I move the occupant of room number 2 to room number 4. I move the occupant of room number 3 to room number 6. I move the occupant of room number 4 to room number 8. I move the occupant of room number 5 to room number 10. I move the occupant of room number 6 to room number 12. I move the occupant of room number 7 to room number 14. I move the occupant of room number 8 to room number 16. I move the occupant of room number 9 to room number 18. I move the occupant of room number 10 to room number 20. I move the occupant of room number 11 to room number 22. I move the occupant of room number 12 to room number 24. I move …"

"I get the idea," says the tour director hastily. "And when you've got through doing that, everyone has a room, and all the odd-numbered rooms are empty." "Precisely," says the clerk. "And as you know, there is an infinity of odd numbers. In fact, there are Aleph-Null of them!"

Well, I was trying to explain this to my long-suffering wife, whose brain, though very capable in many areas, is, as she says, "math-proof."

Then my daughter Nellie chirped up. Nellie is 12, and smart. "Oh, Dad, that's so neat!" she said. "I get it!" Me: "You wanna try explaining it to Mom?" She tried, with no success.

So this is a parental gush in light disguise. My Nellie understands transfinite numbers!


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

Here is this month's puzzle, for which you will need some very light high school calculus.

Consider a unit parabola, which is to say, one having focus at (1,0) and directrix x + 1 = 0. The equation of this parabola is of course y 2 = 4x.

At every point of this parabola there is a tangent, and a normal through the point at right-angles to the tangent.

A quick sketch will convince you of the following true fact: The normal at any point of the parabola, except the point (0,0), meets the curve again at a second point.

Another way to say that is: Every normal (except one) is a chord of the parabola.

Question: For which points of the parabola does this chord have minimum length?