»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2005


That was the month that was     Not a bad month, but I'm kind of glad it's over. The first half — family vacation — went well, in spite of my dire forebodings. Heaven knows how much the kids absorbed of all they saw, but at least Rome, Paris, and London are not just places on maps for them, and we have some nice photographs of us all in picturesque settings.

Got back home exhausted of course — aren't vacations supposed to be exhausting? — to confront a problem I'd put off, determined not to spoil our travels by thinking about it. I'd submitted a manuscript to a publisher in June, a book they'd commissioned from me. Late in July they got the manuscript back to me. They had liked it, and so had the professional mathematician they'd had proof it (it's another pop-math book), but they said it was too long at 125,000 words, needed to be under 100,000. So I was faced with the task of reducing my manuscript by twenty percent. This isn't an unusual situation. Publishers have very clear and precise ideas about what length of book will sell in what segment of the book market, and I suppose they know what they are talking about. From a large, general point of view, I am in any case of the opinion that there is no document longer than the Lord's Prayer that wouldn't benefit from some careful pruning. The old joke about "I'm sorry this is such a long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one," is no joke to writers, who know it contains a powerful truth about their art.

So, with the dust of Europe barely shaken from my feet, I buckled down to the job of hacking away twenty percent of my precious manuscript. (Every manuscript is precious to its author.) This was grueling intellectual work — harder than writing — for which I shut myself away from dawn to sundown for a week. It got done, and I'll admit that the book is a better book at the new length — 98,600 words — but of course when I came blinking out into the sunlight, I was a week further behind with everything else in my life. So the last few days of August were given over to catching up.

What a month! Two weeks fun; one week intensely hard work; one week housekeeping. And now, back to normal … if I can remember what "normal" is.


Third Rail     And then I had to go and cap the month off by indulging in an anti-Intelligent Design rant, thus inviting a tsunami of e-mail. Everyone else had had a go at I.D. recently, so I thought I'd throw in my two cents' worth.

I'll admit, the I.D. people get up my nose. I didn't mind the old William Jennings Bryan Creationism half as much, because, however wrong-headed — hey, anybody can be wrong — it was open and honest. I.D., by contrast, is dishonest. It is an attempt by Creationists to make an end run around the courts, which they know will rule against them on church-state grounds if they mention God or the Bible when presenting what they think should be taught in public schools. So they are terrifically careful not to mention those things. Instead, they throw up a smokescreen of "science" and "math," hoping to fox the gullible and get a few court rulings in their favor. Fie on them! If you want to teach from a religious perspective, open a religious school — a thing you can do perfectly legally in every state of the union, and the legality of which I whole-heartedly support. But leave alone people who disagree with your religion. That's fundamental Americanism.


Intelligent Design = Postmodernism     Not only is I.D. dishonest, its "science" bears an uncanny resemblance to Lefty po-mo deconstructionism. Noam Scheiber has a good piece on this in The Australian.


Alaskan Humor     All right, let's lighten up a bit. A friend of mine had the idea to go to the wilds of Alaska for a vacation. Worried about possible encounters with bears, he planned to take a .44 magnum handgun with him to protect against the eventuality. (He is a federally licensed arms dealer, so taking the weapon would not be a legal problem.)

It happens that one of the bait & tackle stores in my friend's neighborhood here on Long Island is run by a fellow who actually comes from Alaska, and has plenty of experience with the wildlife there. My friend decided to check with this fellow, to make sure that his .44 magnum was the right thing to pack in case of confrontations with bears. "Well," said the Alaskan, "I would just recommend that before starting out, you get a good rasp and file off the front sight of your .44 magnum. File it right down so it's flush with the barrel." My friend was puzzled. Why (he asked) would he want to do that? Back came the answer: "So it won't hurt quite so much when that ol' bear rams the .44 magnum up your a**."


Capitalism at work     A different friend, not yet clued in to Netflix, was delighted with Blockbuster's new "no late fee" policy change. He kept a rented DVD for a couple of weeks, then took it back. The store charged him a $3.50 "restocking fee." The continued existence of Blockbuster is more convincing evidence against Natural Selection than anything the I.D. folk put forward.


Incense and Insensibility (cont.)     On August 22, Bishop Andrew Smith of Connecticut (see here and here) was formally charged by 19 priests and lay people of his diocese for conduct unbecoming a clergyman. A Review Committee — that's the Episcopalian equivalent of a grand jury — must now be empaneled within 90 days to investigate the charges. In the fine old tradition of religious proceedings moving at their own pace sub specie aeternitatis, however, it will likely be about two years before this committee either issues an indictment or clears Smith on all charges.

There are 18 actual charges, listed here. They fall into three groups: theological — that Bishop Smith has acted at variance with Church doctrine; venal — that he has engaged in a repeated pattern of personal misconduct unbecoming a clerk in holy orders; and financial — that he broke Connecticut and Church fiduciary laws. The opinion of my clued-in Anglican Guy is: "The theological charges won't stick and I assume they will be dropped. The abuse of fiduciary duty charges will convict, and the venal charges will hang him … It will cost Smith approximately $250,000 in legal fees, and he may very well be defrocked by the time this is all over. At the least he will be publicly shamed in front of his peers."

It's a sad business, and I can't imagine any Episcopalian is taking any pleasure in it. I am certainly not. Rather than see Bishop Smith humiliated, impoverished, and defrocked, I'd much prefer he step down quietly and go off to meditate in a retreat somewhere, then take up mundane good works. His past record suggests that he is not the kind of person to relinquish his crosier so meekly, but I hope someone of power and influence is urging this course on him none the less.


Iraq's Constitution     A lot of readers e-mail me to say something like: "Why don't you write more about Iraq? As the anti-war conservative at NRO, you should speak up more."

Well, perhaps I should. It doesn't seem altogether right, though. Look, I have the lowest possible expectations of Iraq's constitution, elections, parliament, and the rest. My strong suspicion is that none of them will last a week after the last U.S. soldier has left. (Which can't be soon enough for me.) I could be wrong, though — I have been known to be wrong about Iraq. If I am wrong, and Iraq ends up with a halfway rational government, that will be a great advance for sanity in the world.

It's fun to speak your mind, of course, and have people read what you say; but there are plenty of folk pooh-poohing our Iraq effort, so adding my voice to the chorus isn't going to increase the volume perceptibly. The administration isn't going to change its policy because of anything I say, in any case. Since I prefer this administration, on general grounds, to all available alternatives, it seems to me the wisest course is to shut up and hope for the best, against (according to me) very long odds.

I am not, in any case, "anti-war." I supported the 2003 assault on Iraq because (a) I thought they had it coming, and (b) I thought it might do some good, as a psychic shock to the entireMuslim Middle East, which might perhaps jolt them out of their current psychosis. I still think they had it coming, and I still think it might have done some good, if conducted as a straightforward punitive expedition, with masses of destruction and no apologies. I suppose it was naïve of me to think that kind, gentle, PC, multicultural America could act with the forthright brutality that (according to me) the situation required, but there you are. And here I am, doing my best to hope for the best.


The butcher's bill     "But then," someone will no doubt say, "if you don't believe in this thing, by not speaking out, you are condemning U.S. soldiers to die in a pointless exercise." Fiddlesticks. I have no power to condemn anyone to anything. I am in any case cold-blooded about the matter of soldiers dying. (Perhaps I should just say here that my father served in combat, my brother and my father-in-law were both lifetime career soldiers, and I did some brief part-time soldiering myself.) Under any U.S. foreign policy at all, some U.S. soldiers will die somewhere. Since it is too much to ask that none of our nation's policies will ever be wrong ones, it is simply a fact of life that soldiers will die on behalf of wrong policies now and again. It's not a thing anyone should be happy about, but it's still a fact of life. Sensible soldiers know this, grouse about it pro forma, and get on with their jobs. Which jobs, in the case of our troops, they have volunteered for with open eyes, and which are under the direction of elected officials subject to public scrutiny and audit. But I see I have strayed into Vic Davis Hanson's territory …


Math Corner     I was hoping someone would have a neat geometrical solution to last month's parabola problem, but no-one had. I myself did it by breaking rocks: Find equation of normal at (v 2 / 4, v), figure out where it intersects the parabola again, compute length, differentiate w.r.t. v, find zero of derivative.  Solution: The chord from (2, 2√2) and (8, −4√2) for a chord length of 6√3.

August was a busy math month, even aside from the book. Boris Zeldovich has sent in a couple of nice puzzles, which I shall save for a future diary. Mike Westmoreland and Ben Schumacher have sent me a preprint copy of a very interesting new approach they have worked out to the Unexpected Exam paradox. (A/k/a the Unexpected Egg or the Unexpected Hanging.) I'm still trying to find a flaw in their reasoning. The paper will appear in the November 2006 issue of Math Horizons, mathematicians being even more insouciant about the mere passage of time than theologians.

This month's puzzle has an unusual source: NPR's "Car Talk" feature. Since I know that you are all honest conservatives who wouldn't be caught dead listening to NPR, I can offer it in the assurance that it will be new to you. (And I hasten to add that I don't listen to NPR either; I took this from a mention in Focus, the newsletter of the Mathematical Association of America.)

A famous fast-food restaurant sells chicken nuggets in boxes of various sizes. You can buy a box of 6, a box of 9, or a box of 20. You are not allowed to buy the chicken nuggets in any other quantities, however.

Using these order sizes you can order, for example, 32 chicken nuggets. You'd order a box of 20 and two boxes of 6. However, you couldn't order 37 chicken nuggets. There is no way to make 37 from combinations of 20, 9, and 6. Try it and you'll see.

What is the largest number of chicken pieces that you can't order?