»  National Review Online Diary

  March 2006

Out like a lamb     Walking my dog through the woods, which are still very bare and drab, I was stopped dead by the sight of a butterfly crossing our path. I know nothing about butterflies, so I can't tell you what kind it was. I vaguely hope it was a fritillary, just because I like the word "fritillary" so much, but I really have no idea. Anyway, it was a big one, wingspan about the length of my index finger, color a deep burgundy — so deep it looked black at first glance — with about a dozen sky-blue dots near the trailing edge of each wing, and the trailing edge itself a lovely creamy color in a band about an eighth of an inch wide. That was it — just one bright butterfly in the bare brown woods. Spring is here.

Immigration month     The issue of immigration was suddenly all over the news this month. The interesting question here is: why does the federal government find it so difficult to do anything? It would seem to be a pretty elementary thing, and a basic function of government, to secure the nation's borders and monitor who comes in, who goes out. Why can't we do that? You hear all sorts of reasons. Big Agriculture wants fruit pickers and hog gutters; Elite America wants domestic servants; Middle America wants gardeners (sorry "landscapers" — hard to keep up with job-title inflation); the Dems want future voters; the Catholic Church wants souls; and so on.

The real reason we find it so hard to do anything about immigration, or even to talk about it, or even to think straight about it, is that it has a large intersection with the race issue, about which Americans have a humongous collective neurosis. Those huge protests the other day weren't just made up of illegal immigrants — you can't tell me that. What they were was, demonstrations of racial solidarity, a Million Man March of the browns. This is well-nigh unmentionable — for sure nobody in the MSM mentioned it — yet it was perfectly obvious from the crowds and their placards.

This is the wind from the south predicted in Amy Chua's book World on Fire, the wind that blew Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales into office, the wind that may soon bring us a People's Republic of Mexico. But no, that can't be right. There is no such thing as race. Never has been, never will be. A couple more "diversity" workshops, and everything will be fine. No need for further action. Everything will be fine, everything will always be fine.

Office space     My piece A Room of One's Own in the February 27 National Review piqued the curiosity of some readers. Far be it from me to leave you in a state of unassuaged piquitude. I took some pictures of my work space and put them on the web here. Don't let Queen Hatshepsut put you off; the pictures get better as you scroll down.

Climate change     Another hot topic (yeah, yeah) this month. This is a thing I have a nagging worry about — the worry, I mean, that my opinion isn't strong enough or clear enough for a guy who's supposed to know something about science. Every time I look into the matter I come away with the same conclusions:

It is entirely possible, for example, that climate change is caused in part by variations in the Sun's energy output, or by difference in the interstellar environment as the Solar System passes through it (we — the Sun with all the planets in tow — travel on a 200 million year orbit around the center of our galaxy). Major volcanic eruptions have dramatic, though admittedly short-term, effects on climate. There is absolutely and utterly nothing we could do about any of these things, or half a dozen other similar things we haven't even thought of yet.

Does human activity contribute to climate change? I bet it does, but the relationship is unclear, and certainly not a simple linear one, as the Greens tell us. Between 1945 and 1965, for example, as the modern Western consumer society was being created, and the Third World was beginning to industrialize big time, global temperatures actually fell a tick or two. Now they are clearly headed upwards; but if anyone tells you he knows why, he's lying.

The Toymaker's Daughter     Treat of the month: a performance of the ballet Coppélia, by the excellent Huntington Ballet Theater, and featuring that rising young star of the dance world, Nellie Derbyshire.

Well, actually our Nellie was only a villager; but she was in the Dance of the Hours, and we got to see her en pointe for the first time in an actual production. She didn't miss a step. At least, I don't think she did — things were getting a bit misty after a while. If you're a Dad, you'll understand.

HBT is a terrific outfit, putting on superb amateur productions on a shoestring. Professional dancers Anna Laghezza and Ian Thatcher were superb as Swanilda and Franz, and Pascal Benichou put everything together brilliantly as Artistic Director. If you live on Long Island, and give a damn about Western Civ, support Huntington Ballet Theater.

Sudden death     Discussion topic of the month among my son (age 10) and his coevals: If you yawn, cough, sneeze, belch, and fart, all at precisely the same moment, do you drop dead?

There are some doors, son, that man was never meant to open.

Miscreant of the month     Debra Lafave, the 25-year-old Florida schoolteacher who was charged with sexual molestation for having got intimate with a 14-year-old male student.

Now, Miss Lafave did a wrong thing, no doubt, and should be tarred, feathered, and booted out of the teaching profession for good. Still, there was something distinctly odd about the news coverage of the story. What was odd was, the constant implication — I don't recall anyone having the nerve to say it out loud, but it was there in all the coverage, just under the surface — that this was just like a 25-year-old male teacher doing the same thing to a 14-year-old female student.

Well, I'm sorry, but it isn't. Not only is the Lafave case not just like that, it isn't anything like that. Item: Ms. Lafave is a very pretty young woman. I was a 14-year-old boy myself once. It was a while ago, but I can still remember what it felt like. I would have been thrilled to be seduced by Ms. Lafave, and I would have been the envy of my peers. I would go so far as to say that it is the sweetest dream of every red-blooded 14-year-old boy to be seduced by an attractive older woman.

That doesn't make Ms. Lafave's actions right, of course, and I am not apologizing for her. It does, though, at least in my mind, cast deep suspicion on claims by (among others) the boy's parents that he was "traumatized" by the experience. Believe me, gentle reader, there are 14-year-old boys all over America yearning to be so "traumatized."

That we use the same words — "assault,"  "molestation,"  even "rape" — for the advances made by a 25-year-old female on a 14-year-old male, as we would use for similar advances by a 25-year-old male on a 14-year-old female, just shows what a mess we have got ourselves into on the sexual-equality front. Men are not women, and women are not men. That is, of course, a politically incorrect statement. Gaze on it while you can: soon it will be illegal to utter it.

Math Corner     March 14 was π Day — that is, a day for celebrating the mathematical constant π, whose decimal expansion begins 3.14 …

π is known to schoolchildren as the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, but in higher math it is all over the place. Take two whole numbers (the larger the better) at random: what is the probability they will have no factor in common? Answer:  6 / π². Drop a needle at random onto a surface ruled with equidistant parallel lines (or striped like an American flag). The needle's length is L; the distance between lines (or width of stripes) is A, and L is less than A. What is the probability that the needle will lie on a line (or the boundary between two stripes)? Answer:  2L / πA. And so on.

Calculating the decimal expansion of π to umpety-ump digits has been a sport among the numerically-obsessed for as long as we have had decimal notation, which is to say around 500 years.

L. van Ceulen [1540-1610] devoted no inconsiderable part of his life to the subject … His posthumous arithmetic [book] contains the result to 32 places; this was obtained by calculating the perimeter of a polygon, the number of whose sides is 262, i.e. 4,611,686,018,427,387,904.
                   — Mathematical Recreations by W.W. Rouse Ball

The tragic figure in all this is poor William Shanks, who in 1853 published his calculation of π to 707 decimal places, the fruit of many years' labor. David Wells picks up the story.

Augustus de Morgan thought he saw something else in Shanks's labours. The digit 7 appeared suspiciously less often than the other digits, only 44 times … De Morgan calculated the odds against such a low frequency were 45 to 1. De Morgan, or rather William Shanks, was wrong. In 1945, using a desk calculator, Ferguson found that Shanks had made an error; his calculation was incorrect from place 528 onwards. Shanks, fortunately, was long since dead.