»  National Review Online Diary

  October 2005


Plame, Wilson, Libby, Rove     Sounds like the chant to a little girls' skipping game. Far as I'm concerned, it might as well be. I have asked people — I actually asked Andy McCarthy over dinner a few nights ago — why I should give a hoot about any of this stuff. I am told: "Because it speaks directly to the 'Bush lied' issue. If the administration deliberately trashed Wilson because he was telling the truth while they were lying, and they wanted to defend their lies against his truth, then it would be the case that the administration lied us into the war."

Oh. Up to now, I have taken the naïve point of view that the administration went to war on bad intelligence, and was correct to do so. Either they knew the intel was bad, or they didn't. If they knew, then they had no good intelligence, knew they had none, and were obliged to assume the worst about Saddam. If they didn't know, the bad intelligence they were working from, which they didn't know was bad, was quite sufficiently bad to justify war. Ergo, they did the right thing.

Sorry, but that's the kind of game-theoretical approach you get from a math geek. Makes sense to me. I do see the political point here, but I can't engage with it. Doesn't the nation have important business to get on with? I mean, it's not as if, you know, the actual President was caught out lying to a grand jury, or anything …


Mandarin Games     All this inside-the-Beltway stuff makes me think of Matteo Ricci traveling in China around 1600. Ricci knew there was a power struggle going on around the Emperor in Peking. Stopping at an inn on his travels, he tried to get a conversation going about it with some of the guests. They just laughed at him. "That kind of thing is for the Mandarins to fuss about," they told him. "It doesn't concern ordinary folk like us." Just so.

Do I think it's a shame that Washington DC, which was once — within living memory! — a sleepy Southern town, has swollen up into a vast imperial megalopolis populated by self-important Mandarins who occupy their time intriguing against each other? That the federal government, once satisfied to merely guard our coasts and carry our mail, has swollen to the point where it feels entitled — apparently is entitled, via the federal income tax returns — to ask about the expense I incurred in installing a new septic tank in my front yard? Yes, and yes.

That's history for you, though. Is there a road back? I believe and hope so. Just as there must be someone still alive who remembers there being working farms within walking distance of the White House, I think that my children will, in old age, see one-page federal tax returns, a five-digit federal civilian work force, and interest in White House office politics returned to its proper sphere — a sphere about a hundred yards in radius, centered on the Oval Office.


Spring Forward, Fall Back     I've been feeling slow, dull, down, and nostalgic this month. In part this is reaction to the death of a dear old friend, in part the sunk-in realization that I turned sixty in June and will never do so again, in part it's just, you know, October.

Around age 14 I read Ray Bradbury's book The October Country. It's a collection of short stories, most with a fantasy/horror theme. The story that most stuck in my mind was "The Crowd," whose hypothesis is that the crowd that gathers after a traffic accident is seeded with ghosts who decide whether the injured person(s) will live or die. It's a perfect little story of its kind, and ever since reading it I have peered furtively at the crowds of gawkers around accident scenes to see whether the freckled kid and the red-haired woman are present. (I believe a Twilight Zone episode was based on this story.)

The October Country helped form my earliest image of America. Orwell says somewhere that an Englishman's conception of the United States has two sources: one, the whitewashed clapboard schoolhouse and small-town ethos of Tom Sawyer, the other, the spacious frontier lawlessness of cowboy movies. Well, my mental America had a third component, drawn from Bradbury's atmospheric little tales. That component was Gothic and deeply weird, peculiar secrets hidden in old Victorian rooming-houses with stained-glass windows, strange goings-on in root cellars and prairie farmhouses (neither of which we had in the English midlands), carny freak shows and quack medical practitioners. My America wasn't just Clapboard Country and Cowboy Country, it was also the October Country.

The book left me, in fact, with permanently negative feelings about October, a month of changes — all for the worse, of course — of decline and fall, of spooks and dark mysteries, of dead leaves blowing along the streets of forgotten Midwestern towns where nothing much happens, and the things that do happen are things you're better off not knowing about.

I don't think I've looked at The October Country since I read it forty-five years ago. I really don't want to. I fear if I took up Bradbury's stories now, I'd find them corny and dated. I've read a lot else since 1960, a lot else, some of it of much higher literary quality than Bradbury. I've published a couple of million words myself, too. My tastes have improved, I hope. Whether they have or not, I've changed and got older, and the world has changed and got older, and nothing is what it was. I'd prefer to keep those stories as I found them, with all their remembered strangeness and magic.


Er shun     At sixty, said Confucius, 耳順, pronounced er shun.  A literal translation would be "ear smooth."**  The glosses explain that this means the channel from the ear to the brain is clear and unobstructed, so that wisdom can flow straight in. "My ears were receptive to truth," is a fair translation.

Well, I don't know about that. I am, though, as receptive as ever to comic writing, especially comic verse. Knowing this, my loving sister, who is two years older, sent me for my birthday a book titled Now We Are Sixty — a spoof on the A.A. Milne classic Now We Are Six. Sample (parodying Milne's "The Morning Walk"):

When Viv and I go to the shops
For milk and bread and cheese and chops,
We look at all the wrinklies there,
Who shuffle round the shelves and stare,
And tell ourselves when we are old
Our hands won't shake, we won't lose hold.
And when we're halfway home, we find
We've left the cheese and chops behind.

I suppose my sister's intention was good — to cheer me up. I was feeling happier with Confucius, though.

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** Yes, the Chinese word for "ear" is pronounced er. If you think that's curious, try this. The English word "swallow" has two utterly different meanings: (1) a type of small bird, (2) the muscular contraction used to take in food. Chinese has words for both those things, of course. The Chinese word in both cases is yan. Even the tones are the same (fourth in both cases).


Horrible Histories     Still on books: While in England this summer, my 10-year-old son got hooked on the "Horrible Histories" series. These books cover various aspects of human history in a way designed to appeal to the pre-teen — or at any rate, pre-teen male — taste for the shocking, disgusting, surprising, and, well, horrible. It's all done with a light touch, except for things like the Holocaust, where no light touch is possible.

I have mixed feelings about my son reading this stuff. On the one hand, I'm caught up in the current notion that it is wonderful to find your kids reading anything with real pleasure, as opposed to gawping at TV or the computer. And there really is a lot of history in these books; I'm surprised at the knowledge my boy has picked up.

On the other hand, the Horrible Histories put across the default modern sensibility about history. War is always bad and wrong. Pretty much anything done by Anglo-Saxons was inspired by greed or cruelty. Christianity is dumb and oppressive … et cetera. The Woeful Second World War spares its readers nothing in the way of Nazi atrocities, but is silent about the Eastern Front. The only thing you learn about Stalin is that he had a funny mustache. I don't think it's nit-picky to complain that this hardly gives readers a fair picture of WW2.

There are occasional redeeming passages, though. The Barmy British Empire, for example, has a long (30 pages) section headed "Nasty Natives," about some of the gruesome customs of the locals in territories the British occupied: thuggee in India, human sacrifice in West Africa, and so on. I suppose the author's desire to make his young readers' flesh creep by showing the human race at its worst was strong enough that he temporarily forgot the first rule of PC, which is, that the human worst is expressed only by white European Christians.

In any case, my son has got so interested in history from reading these books, he now peppers me with historical questions, so I have plenty of opportunities to set him straight where the books have been misleading. On the whole, therefore, I am willing to endorse the Horrible Histories, though with a caution that they do have a PC tendency. You could consider that a sort of PC-13 rating.


Excluding Included Excluders     The one thing to be said in favor of crackpot ideologies is that they throw up some hilarious linguistic absurdities. In this respect, PC, which is the prevailing crackpot ideology of our time, never disappoints.

Consider, for example, the case of Jones College Prep, a public high school in Chicago. That institution has, natch, an African-American Club, and that club has a faculty advisor, name of William McHenry. Mr. McHenry got into a spot of bother this year with an event he helped organize, called "Other Grammys." The idea of the event was to celebrate "society's left behind and overlooked" — racial minorities, women, disabled people, GLBTQ, you know the list. In this spirit, the nomination ballots distributed to all students specified that straight white able-bodied males, whether rich or poor, could not be nominated for awards.

Well, there were parent protests, there was a fuss, and the Chicago public schools' legal department came out with a ruling: the ballot was discriminatory and had to be re-worded.

Mr. McHenry was disgruntled. Quoth he: "I'm not excluding anyone. We're including people who have been excluded."

You see, it's not exclusionary to include only people from formerly excluded groups, and to exclude the formerly included excluders. Got that?


The I.D. trial     The "Intelligent Design" trial — the Scopes Monkey trial of our time — rumbles on in Dover, Pa. Hanna Rosin sat through some testimony, and reported on Slate.com.

It is hard to write anything about I.D. without noting the fundamental dishonesty of the I.D. project. (Rosin doesn't even try.) The object of the exercise, from the I.D.-ers point of view, is to get religion into public school science classes. They know, however, that if they say this out loud, or do anything to give away the secret, their arguments will be tossed out of court on church-state grounds. So their presentations perforce resemble that "Fawlty Towers" sketch where Basil, having taken a party of Germans into his hotel, keeps telling his employees: "Whatever you do, don't mention the war!" Here, it is religious Creationism that the I.D. people have to avoid mentioning. This is really tricky for them, since religious Creationism is precisely the thing they want to promote.

There is another dishonesty, too. The whole I.D. project depends on telling people, people who don't work in science, or understand the way science is done, that there is a raging "controversy" in biology, with Darwinism on one side and I.D. on the other. "Teach both sides of the controversy!" they plead. You are supposed to have the mental image of rooms full of biologists breaking furniture over each other's heads while screaming: "Irreducible complexity!" "Exaptation!" etc. at each other.

That's preposterous. The furniture of the nation's biology faculties is in no danger. To be sure, you can come up with working biologists willing to give the time of day to I.D. The Discovery Institute has even produced a list of names in this context, though the list does not bear very close scrutiny. Similarly, you could probably come up with a fringe few astronomers — around half of one percent (which is about what the I.D.-ers claim for biologists sympathetic to their notions) willing to give the time of day to Steady State cosmology. It does not follow that there is a "controversy" in astronomy about Steady State vs. Big Bang. There isn't, and hasn't been for forty years. Nor is there any controversy in biology about Darwinism. When the I.D. folk say there is, they are saying something untrue. Zero point five percent versus 99.5 percent is not a controversy. If you tell unscientific people that it is, you are practicing deception. Deception is what the I.D.-ers are practicing.

As for Michael Behe's implication in testimony that he is the Georges Lemaître of modern biology, John Farrell deconstructs that very crisply here. The I.D. people just l—o—v—e the fact that a key figure in modern cosmology, who was right on a point about which Albert Einstein was wrong, was a Roman Catholic priest. What they are not so keen to have you know is that Lemaître kept his physics and his religion very strictly separate, declaring loud and often that his religious beliefs did not motivate his cosmology. Quote: "Hundreds of professional and amateur scientists actually believe the Bible pretends to teach science. This is a good deal like assuming there must be authentic religious dogma in the binomial theorem." If Behe were really a new Lemaître, he would be a wiser man, and a better scientist.

Similarly with Isaac Newton, whose dabbling in scriptural interpretation also fills the I.D.-ers with glee. "Don't you know that Newton was a keen student of the Bible?" they say, as if they were the first ones to find this out. To which the obvious reply is: "Yes, he was. But he didn't put any of that into the Principia!"

(Newton's religious beliefs were in any case so eccentric that I advise sensible Christians to keep them at arm's length. He believed, for example, that God had several sons, not just the one. He probably believed that he himself was one of those extra sons — a belief inspired by the fact that Newton was, according to the calendar of his time, born on Christmas Day …)

Science is science, religion is religion, and it is no insult to either to keep the two firmly and clearly apart. Abbé Lemaître and Sir Isaac both understood that; the I.D.-ers don't.

[Note added when archiving:  A reader pulled me up here, noting that in the General Scholium at the end of Principia, Sir Isaac Newton actually does go on at some length about God. Sample: "And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy." You could even argue that Newton posits a broad form of Intelligent Design, though I'd argue back. I concede the point, with qualifications.

(1) Pro forma acknowledgments of the Hand of the Deity were common in scientific, or proto-scientific texts of the time.

(2) None of Newton's science depends on his ideas about the Deity even if he thought they did. You can be a perfectly good Newtonian while maintaining utter atheism, and many thousands have done exactly that. By contrast, even Michael Behe has admitted that for an atheist to believe in Intelligent Design would be a mighty stretch.

(3) None of Newton's extremely weird notions about religion are here. He kept them strictly to himself. By Newtonian standards, these theological remarks are very bland.]
[Another note added when archiving:  As usual when I venture into the borderlands between science and pseudoscience, I got several emails from readers patiently instructing me that Thomas Kuhn, forty years ago, exposed scientific orthodoxy for the dogmatic fraud it is.

I may as well take the opportunity here to lay down a marker on Kuhn for future reference.

Thomas Kuhn, if you're not up on this stuff, was a physicist-turned-historian who in 1962 published a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The book ignited a huge debate about what science is and how it's done.

Some people took Kuhn to have shown that science is "socially constructed" — that there is no such thing as science, only eurocentric science, capitalist science, patriarchal science, heteronormative science, Jewish science, … Philosopher Imre Lakatos went so far as to accuse Kuhn of having reduced science to "mob psychology." To be fair to Kuhn, he denied being an epistemological relativist, though not everyone found the denials convincing.

Here then is my take on Kuhn, for what it's worth.

Science belongs to that class of human activities with a "front" and a "back," as described by social psychologist Erving Goffman. A restaurant illustrates the idea. At the "front," where patrons are served, dapper waiters glide around bearing exquisitely-arranged dishes and speaking in deferential murmurs. In the "back" — the kitchen — all is noise, sweat, rancor, yelling, breakages, and blunders.

Pre-Kuhn, philosophical accounts of science were all of the "front": of published scientific results presented with polished logic, natty graphs, and punctilious bibliographies. Possibly mid-20th-century philosophers of science were too much impressed by the advances in purely rational inquiries that had preceded them.

Kuhn got everyone thinking about the "back" of science: the "kitchen" where plodding researchers uncritically apply knowledge learned by rote in their schools and colleges to problems framed by current understandings (that is, by the "paradigm," a word Kuhn made famous).

That, I think, was a good and necessary corrective. Kuhn reminded us, when we needed reminding, that science is a human and social endeavor. He also tried to explain — though not all of us buy the explanation — how those uncritical drudges in the "kitchen" took us from chewing on raw meat hacked off animal corpses to cœur de filet de bœuf rôti.

However, the relativistic extrapolations of his system, whether or not Kuhn intended them, are dog poop. There is a real world; we can discover true facts about it. To believe otherwise is lunacy.]


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

Here's one for this month. Thanks to Steven and Dean Jens for suggesting it.

Consider all the one-digit prime numbers. Here they are: 2, 3, 5, 7.  Write them out as English words: two, three, five, seven. Sort these words into alphabetic order: five, seven, three, two. Now write them with digits again, in this new order:

5, 7, 3, 2.

The first of the alphabetized one-digit primes is 5, the last is 2. Fascinating, huh? OK, now do this same exercise with all the prime numbers having two digits or less. After going through the alphabetization exercise, they look like this:

89, 83, 11, 59, 53, 5, 41, 47, 43, 19, 97, 7, 17, 79, 71, 73, 61, 67, 13, 31, 37, 3, 29, 23, 2.

The first of the alphabetized two-digits-or-less primes is 89, the last is 2.

If you were to try this with primes having three digits or less, your alphabetized list would look like this:

881, 887, 883, 811, 859, 857, 809, …, …, 233, 229, 227, 223.

(I have left out the middle 157 primes there. And note that as you get into bigger numbers, there is a bit of lawyering to do. No commas, no "and" — i.e. "two hundred nine," not "two hundred and nine" — and no cheating by saying "a" for "one"; so "one hundred thirteen," not "a hundred thirteen." For humongous numbers, stick to the thou-mil-bil-tril system, saying "thousand trillion trillion," not "octillion.")

The first terms of these three alphabetized sequences are themselves the beginning of a sequence: 5, 89, 881, … The last terms likewise: 2, 2, 223, … How far can you extend these two sequences? I mean, before the boss spots your aimless, obsessive doodling and you get fired?

You can easily think up other questions about these sequences. For example: Does either sequence ever "settle" — I mean, so that for some number N, all terms from the N-th on are identical? If so, then there would be some number that is indisputedly "the first alphabetized prime" (or "the last …") Is there such a number? If not, does the ratio last-to-first (i.e. 2/5, 2/89, 223/881, …) at least have a limit? Can anything nontrivial be said about the middle number(s) in those alphabetized sequences? Etc., etc.

This is all language-dependent, of course. In German, where you say the units before the tens ("four and twenty" instead of "twenty-four"), the alphabetized primes of two or less digits sort quite differently:

3, 83, 53, 73, 43, 23, 13, 31, 61, 71, 41, 11, 5, 89, 59, 79, 29, 19, 7, 37, 97, 67, 47, 17, 2

In Hungarian you get this:

31, 37, 3, 61, 67, 7, 71, 73, 79, 23, 29, 2, 97, 41, 43, 47, 83, 89, 5, 53, 59, 11, 13, 17, 19

In Chinese (using standard pinyin spelling):

89, 83, 2, 29, 23, 97, 67, 61, 7, 79, 73, 71, 3, 37, 31, 19, 17, 13, 11, 47, 43, 41, 5, 59, 53

I'm going to leave Boris Zeldovich to tell me what the Russian comes out to. You might try to figure out what language was used to alphabetize thus:

2, 97, 83, 47, 43, 41, 53, 5, 7, 17, 73, 71, 67, 61, 13, 3, 37, 31, 11, 89, 79, 59, 29, 19, 23

(Hint: the nines give it away.)