»  National Review Online Diary

  January 2006


Youth & age     In a column on this site once I passed the opinion that Henri Estienne's apothegm si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait — "If youth only knew, if age only could" — is the saddest true thing ever said. Well, it is sad, sure enough; but two encounters this month left me wondering if it is true after all. I'll take them one by one.


Jeunesse     On the 19th I had breakfast — he was catching a noon bus to another city — with Razib Khan, one of the owners of the Gene Expression website. (Bloggers, by the way, do these face-to-faces every chance we get. If we're passing through each other's cities, we broadcast the fact to each other, and meet up over food or drinks.) Razib is a young guy, around thirty, but boy does he know stuff! He has one of those fizzing intellects that work much faster than human speech, so that ideas just pour out of him. History, religion, linguistics, literature, genetics … we (mostly he, to tell the truth) skipped from one field to another, making connections, throwing out conjectures, displaying an amazing breadth of reading. I didn't know anything like that much when I was thirty. Or forty, or fifty … It's not just book learning, either. Razib has done time in a madrassa, for instance.

Razib's actual work is not on human genetics but on slimy little parasitic worms called nematodes. He waxed eloquent on the beauty and mystery of the nematode and its genome. Nematodes are fundamentally sexual, but in some species both sexes inhabit the same body. A nematode of this type reproduces by having sex with itself. Razib: "Some of these species have been having sex with themselves for millions of years." Hey, that's what my adolescence felt like.


Vieillesse     Then, on the 24th, I sat next to Ed Koch at dinner. Mister Mayor is going strong at eighty-one, full of charm and wit, busy with his radio program, public speaking, books. WFB was at the other end of the table, taking time off from work on his own latest book. Not much problem with pouvait from these guys. Into their eighties, they're getting more accomplished than I am. Mister Mayor — that's what everyone seems to call him — was far more clued-in on city and state political gossip than anyone else present. (WFB's first remark to him was: "Tell us something indiscreet, Mister Mayor.")

Oddly, though, the thing that has most stuck in my mind from our table talk was Hizzoner's brief reminiscence of his time as a congressman in the 1970s. "Washington is a very lonely town," he said. I never thought of that before, but I am sure he's right.

Here's a Koch conundrum. When China was opening up after the death of Mao Tse-tung and the rise of Deng Xiao-ping, Mister Mayor went on a visit there. Like many another before him (see, for instance, Henry Kissinger's gushing remarks to Chou En-lai on their first meeting), Hizzoner was bowled over by Chinese hospitality; so much so, that when someone at some function offered him a cigarette — a friendly courtesy in China at the time — the strictly nonsmoking Mister Mayor took it and smoked it.

I am sure I remember reading about this. I even recall some anticommunist Sinologist (Simon Leys, perhaps) basing some tart comments about the gullibility of China-visiting celebrities on it. Yet when I asked the mayor about it, he said he had no recollection of the incident. Anyone got documentation?

In any case, by month's end, old Henri Estienne is looking pretty bedraggled. I still think his main point is a true one, but I'm glad to know it needs qualification.


Please don't back into the bacon slicer, we're getting behind with our orders     In last month's diary I recorded having sliced an eighth of an inch off the tip of my left index finger with my antique table saw. The finger is much better now, the flesh all healed, though I seem to have lost sensation in the tip. I want to thank the many readers who wrote in to commiserate.

Many of those readers recommended a product called SawStop. Matter of fact, I had a very pleasant email from a chap named Eric Gewiss, who is the marketing manager for SawStop, which operates out of Wilsonville, Oregon (just 15-20 minutes south of Portland). Mr. Gewiss started off by reminding me of a piece I wrote back in June, 2000 with the title "Store of Stores: A hymn to Home Depot." In that piece I said this: "A table saw is, after all, at least as dangerous as a hand gun." Mr. Gewiss insisted that he wasn't looking for any product endorsements (hah!), but just wanted permission to use my sentence in a safety campaign he is running in schools, a key target market for his firm's product.

Never having tried SawStop, I can't give an honest endorsement anyway, but I'll copy what Mr. Gewiss says about the product:

Our company has invented technology that recognizes the difference between human flesh and wood. If a person accidentally touches the blade with his or her finger, the blade stops and drops below the table surface in less than 5 milliseconds. We perform this demonstration with a hot dog and the most we have been able to cut into it (or a finger for that matter) is about 1/16th of an inch.

Pretty good, unless I suppose you want to use your table saw for slicing up hot dogs. (I have used mine for only slightly less eccentric purposes.) In any case, I am glad to give Mr. Gewiss permission to use my comment, urge safety-conscious do-it-yourselfers and school principals to check out his firm's product, and indulge myself in a smile of satisfaction and pleasure at learning that ingenuity and manufacturing enterprise — not to mention school shop classes! — are not yet dead in the U.S.A.


Blowing own trumpet     Just as every slapstick comedian nurses a secret desire to play Hamlet, so every hack journalist and blogger thinks he has a novel in him. I am no exception, and would sit here writing novels all day long if I could figure out some way to make a living at it.

The last novel I wrote was too long for any publisher to take on, so I ended up publishing it myself five years ago. That wasn't a tremendous success. The do-it-yourself publisher I chose proved not very competent. They screwed up the production slightly and I couldn't get them to fix it. I made a few hundred dollars profit, so I won't complain. However, once you've realized that noveling (as Nicholson Baker calls it) isn't going to get you the Lexus and the beachfront spread in Malibu, there still remains the desire to be read. I therefore put my book on the internet where people could read it for free, with a PayPal button for those who want to ease their consciences by sending me money. I can't bear the thought that any production of mine would leave people with uneasy consciences.

A surprising number of people have clicked the button, and I look set fair to make more money from the web version than I did from the dumb self-publishing venture. I'm starting to like the internet. I'm even getting reviews, though so far only from bloggers. Here is a guy who demonstrates that even opera-haters can enjoy Fire from the Sun.

Looking over the book after five years, I feel quite pleased with it. There are things I'd change, but it was the book I wanted to write, and came out as I meant it to. I am confident that it is, at any rate, the definitive China-Opera-Wall Street novel.


Chinese New Year     Year of the Dog, as of January 29. We had a group of dear old friends round for dinner: A guy who is as American as he could possibly be — half Irish, half Russian, born and raised on Long Island — with his wife, their teenage son, his much older son from a previous marriage, and that son's Chinese wife. Rosie pulled out all the kitchen stops, and we scarfed down a dozen or so different Chinese dishes. Talk was nonstop, with Chinese and English flying across the table, jokes and stories being told, and political sympathies shared. (Myself, our friend, and his elder son are all strong conservatives, the wives are apolitical, which is to say, mildly liberal.)

The older son has some fascinating work experience. He is a high-school teacher by profession, and spent several years teaching in inner-city Los Angeles, his students mostly poor Hispanics, involved with gangs, and not very receptive to education. Last year he moved to New York State, very briefly took a position at an inner-city school in Syracuse, and is now teaching in one of New York city's outer boroughs. He was shocked at the disrespect shown by students to teachers in New York. "They insult you to your face," he said. (I should note that he is a tough cookie, into martial arts since infancy.) "In class they just sit talking about their social life, paying no attention to you at all. In L.A. the kids didn't learn much, and of course their life outside school time doesn't bear thinking about, but they were always polite and respectful to us teachers." Ah, culture!


Wonders of technology     For Chinese New Year I got the Derb family's first VidCam working, and Rosie had a video chat with some friends in China, courtesy of MSN Messenger. What wonders we live among nowadays! The wife at the other end of the chat is actually Rosie's oldest friend, from her schooldays in Chungking back in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. (I put some of Rosie's recollections into Fire from the Sun.) Now here these people are in our living room, waving at Boris the dog, who got lifted up to the VidCam and had his paw wagged at southwest China.

Which is by way of introducing a bleg. Rosie has steadfastly stayed away from the household computers up to now, but now the VidCam is up and running, I see the gleam of addiction dawning in her eye. I've had it in mind for a while to make our downstairs computer a Chinese interface — to set it up, I mean, just as it would be in China, so we can receive & send emails, IM, and everything else in Chinese. I might even work up a Chinese version of my website. Trouble is, I have no idea how to set up a "Chinese machine" like this. I shall probably end up hiring some 14-year-old immigrant-Chinese computer whiz to do it for me, but before I embark on that route, I just want to try out the possibility that it might all be something I could do myself, easier than I am supposing. Anyone know?


FAQ: Brit History     Readers often email in to ask for book recommendations. One thing they ask for a lot is a good manageable book on British history.

I have a shelf-full of books on various aspects of the subject, but the one I always recommend for first-rate, clear, basic coverage is the 1975 Heritage of Britain: Great Moments in the Story of an Island Race, published by the Reader's Digest Association. In 400 or so pages it covers absolutely everything, from Stonehenge to the Beatles. It is filled with excellent color illustrations — average four or five to a page (the book is folio size, the pages 9 iches by 12) — but is by no means a dumbed-down picture book: the text is literate and informative, written during those last years of judicious common sense in pop-historical writing, before Political Correctness fixed the subject in its clammy grip.

I would say the book is absolutely ideal for a mid- to late-teen of good intelligence, but I don't mind admitting that I still pull it down and read a page or two now and again. My wife, knowing nothing about British history when she married me but bent on educating herself, read it right through with pleasure, and can now tell you all about Boudicca, the Glorious Revolution, and the Pre-Raphaelites.

There is no author listed (this is not the same book as A.L. Rowse's Heritage of Britain), but if you go to a good second-hand book website like Abebooks.com, and do an advanced search using title and publisher, you will see many copies available, starting at $5. If you want to clue up on British history, it will be $5 very well spent.


The Blogger's Life     If you blog a lot about a single topic you get lots of emails from readers making the same point over and over. It gets wearying to keep giving the same reply, so you end up just directing them to your favorite site where the proper response can be found, if your correspondent really wants it, which as often as not they actually don't.

That is, of course, apropos Intelligent Design, where it applies in spades. People who email in to take issue with me on I.D. deploy around half a dozen arguments, all of which are very stale — I mean they have been around for decades, or in the case of the "argument from design," centuries.

To the first three or four emails you get telling you that (for example) evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you patiently point out that it doesn't, explaining why it doesn't. The next half dozen you just ignore, having wearied of repeating yourself. Then, reminding yourself of your duty to your readers, you pull yourself together, and from then on you direct them to the TalkOrigins website. I have never seen a pro-I.D. argument that isn't rebutted on TalkOrigins, usually at great length and from several angles. So please, creationists, go there and mull over what they have to say before you email me … since unless you can come up with some point more original than any I have yet seen, I'm just going to direct you there anyway.


You say zay-duh, I say zee-ta     Americans and Brits don't just speak English differently, they speak other languages differently too. This was brought home to me by a reader commenting on my rendering of the Riemann Zeta Function Song. He:

My thirteen-year-old daughter Mary has been able to sing it in flawless British English for years (e.g. "zee-tah"), no doubt inspired by my quiet comment that if she didn't master the song, I'd tell that Bogie Man on the screen and he'd make certain, probably in the dead of the night, that she got it right.

Thank you, Sir … I guess. I confess, though, that after all these years I still can't get used to the way native Americans say "zay-duh" and "bay-duh" instead of "zee-ta" and "bee-ta." How did the ancient Greeks pronounce the sixth letter in their alphabet? I asked a classicist friend. She came out with something like "dzeh-tah." So I guess Americans and Brits are both as wrong as each other.

That American "bay-duh," as in the "bay-duh" version of some software product, foxed me for a long time. I actually didn't realize people were talking about bee-ta. I vaguely supposed some information-sciences guru and/or marketing wizard had figured out a way to get people using a product while it was still full of defects, and the trick was named after that person. (Possibly this misconception derives from childhood recollections of Douglas Bader, a great British WW2 hero, about whom a hit movie was made in the fifties.) But hark! — what is that fluttering of tiny wings I hear? Why, it's the Muse.

There was a young lady named Zeta
Who found out her guy was a cheater.
Of his faults she complained;
He replied: "Don't be pained —
This version is only a beta."

Or, for all you natives:

There was a young lady named Zeta
Whose guy was a corporate raider.
When she said: "You're a jerk,
Putting folks out of work,"
He replied: "No, I'm just a free-trader."


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

There are practical math problems, theoretical math problems, and senseless math problems. From the point of view of giving your brain a workout, any of the three types is as good as any other, so here is a senseless problem.

This one was going round the country back in 1880. At that time, Benjamin Franklin Finkel (1865-1947), who went on to found the American Mathematical Monthly in 1894, was just fifteen years old, attending a small country school in Ohio. It was this problem that, Finkel later said, first aroused his interest in math. He claimed to have solved it without using any geometry, but I don't know the details, and don't actually see how it could be solved without geometry.

There is a ball 12 feet in diameter on top of a pole 60 feet high. On the ball stands a man whose eye is 6 ft above the ball. How much ground beneath the ball is invisible to him?