»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2006


Everest     May 31 marked the official end of the 3-month climbing season in the high Himalayas. The monsoon season starts in early June, bringing dangerous weather to the peaks.

Which are dangerous enough already. Either ten or eleven climbers died on Mount Everest this season, depending on which news source you read. One of them made headlines: British climber David Sharp, who sat dying in the snow near the summit while 40 other climbers passed him, none offering him any help. There has been a big controversy about Sharp's death in mountaineering circles, with one faction deploring the disregard for human life, another faction saying that at that altitude, it's as much as you can do to keep yourself alive, and a rescue would have been impossible. Interestingly, the older mountaineers — including Sir Edmund Hillary, who led the first team ever to the summit back in 1953 — insisting that a rescue could have been tried, or at least some assistance given, while the younger ones take a more callous line.

The thing that struck me, reading these stories, is how busy it is up there at 29,000 feet. I have more solitude walking my dog in the Long Island suburbs than a mountaineer has at the summit of Everest. This poor guy is sitting there dying, while 40 people trudge past. You can see their point of view. This is a kind of tourism, after all. Hey, I paid a ton of money to get up this high. You think I'm going to miss out on the summit, just because some damn fool bit off more than he could chew?

Climbing to the summit of Everest has in fact now become so routine that you need some ancillary distinction if you want to make the news. (Other than by being a victim of Bad Samaritans, I mean.) This year's crop included the first diabetic; the first double amputee; a new age record (Takao Arayama of Japan, aged 70 years, seven months and 13 days — beating the previous age record by three days); and a Nepalese guide named Appa, who broke his own record for most successful summit climbs by making his 16th. I suppose Appa could get to the summit blind by now; but that's been done, too. Has anyone blogged from the summit of Everest yet? If not, I'm up (so to speak) for it. You think the suits might go for that, Kathryn? Just an idea. I could use a vacation, you know.


Plame claims fame     Valerie Plame is famous for … what? I forget. Oh yes, for having been outed as a midlevel CIA employee after her husband wrote an anti-administration Op-Ed for the New York Times. Fame is fame, though; and as insubstantial as Ms. Plame's claims to be interesting may be, they are apparently sufficient to get her a book contract with a $2.5m advance from the publisher Crown, a Random House imprint. The book is billed as a "memoir." In it, we are told, Ms. Plame will finally break her two-year silence.

To tell us what? The color of the drapes in her master bedroom? True, she might have interesting things to say about the CIA. If she has, though, they had better not be too interesting, as employees and ex-employees of the CIA have to clear their typescript with the Agency before publication. To earn her advance, Ms. Plame will have to sell 500,000 hardcover copies in the book's first year. Lots of luck, Ma'am. Or rather, since it's an advance: Lots of luck, Crown. (A friend of mine, with a shelf-full of books to his name, used to boast proudly that not one of them had earned its advance. Then he wrote one that did make its advance, and a lot more, so he's now one boast poorer, but lots of dollars richer.)


Movie of the month     Bend It Like Beckham. We try to rotate the Derb family Saturday-night movie choices so that everyone gets to pick a movie at least once in a while. This one was for my daughter. I came at it with low expectations. For one thing, I hate soccer. For another, the whole thing looked like a bit of multi-culti preaching, which I also detest. And for yet another, the current British style of speaking English sounds coarse and ugly to my ears. "Korean Cockney," I call it. They turn nasal and lateral plosives into glottal stops (they sometimes seem to be trying to turn everything into glottal stops), and end all their sentences with "Yeah?," which makes them sound like Koreans speaking Korean, which has a similar feature. What's wrong with the good old flat Midlands accent spoken by people like, well, me? Even the old-style upper-class honking and braying sounds better than this.

Well, in the event I liked the movie a lot. It's no work of art, and in a month or so I'll have forgotten all about it, but for a couple of hours entertainment, taken with a few glasses of supermarket wine and a jumbo bag of peanuts, it did very nicely. Best of all were the wedding scenes, which are up there with the ones that open The Godfather. Sikh weddings look like a ton of fun.

In fact, Sikhism itself is one of the more (to me) appealing religions. I know next to nothing about its theological tenets, though I have the vague idea that cows play a big part somehow. It does, though, seem to be one of those faiths that gives you a fairly wide latitude so far as lifestyle choices are concerned. Sikhs have no objection to liquor, for example, and are in fact great drinkers. The men are encouraged to be manly — they have to carry a ritual knife, I think — and the women womanly, though not degradingly submissive. Is there any item of clothing more elegantly feminine than a sari? I don't suppose Sikhs accept converts, though, and in any case I'd have to learn Gujarati.

There's a distinctive Sikh sense of humor, too. I blogged about Sikhs on The Corner a year or so ago. I mentioned that I'd known some Sikhs in London, and that one of them had told me about a very handy phrase in Gujarati, a three- or four-syllable polite brush-off with the meaning: "I know the answer to the question you just asked, but I choose not to tell you." Unfortunately I'd forgotten the actual Gujarati words, and asked if any reader could supply them. Of course, I got about a hundred emails saying: "I know the answer to the question you just asked, but …"


Kronicul uv hiya edukayshun     So there I was, absorbed in reading an interesting article about neurobiology. This was in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for which you need a subscription. Then suddenly — CLANG! — they dropped an anvil on my foot.

Many traditional forms of brain imaging require a subject to lay down in a claustrophobia-inducing tube inside an extremely loud scanner, a situation not conducive to meditation or prayer, says Dr. Newberg.

Well, yes, I suppose it must be hard to meditate while laying down in a tube. I mean, you have to concentrate on getting the down laid nice and evenly, and as far up the sides of the tube as it'll go. But what kind of down are we talking about here? Goose down? Swan's down?

This is probably a lost cause. I suppose newer dictionaries have yielded to the popular confusion between the transitive verb "to lay" (carpet, plans, eggs) and the intransitive verb "to lie" (which takes no object, though it is generally modified by an adverb) … Though checking on dictionary.com I see that they still at least have the decency to call the mis-usage "nonstandard." In any case, I'm still shocked to see this in a journal that boasts itself as being "of higher education."


5-1-6     The Chinese have a neat way of tagging the great events in their recent history by just the digits of the date — a bit like our "9/11," though the Chinese would do it as "9-1-1." Well, we had a memorable set of digits this month: 5-1-6, the 40th anniversary of the Central Committee edict that launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution on May 16, 1966. The entire edict is here if you can read Chinese, or here if you can't. (That first site also has a fine period-piece picture of the Chairman.) The key bit, the bit every Chinese person of a certain age knows, is a page or so down in paragraph 3 of "main errors." It's a quote from Mao Tse-tung: "All erroneous ideas, all poisonous weeds, all ghosts and monsters, must be subjected to criticism; in no circumstance should they be allowed to spread unchecked." (Fanshi cuowude sixiang, fanshi ducao, fanshi niugui-sheshen, dou yinggai jinxing piping, jue bu neng rang tamen ziyou fanlan.)

The next few years were a horrible disaster, with mass killings, appalling cultural destruction, total disruption of the educational system, the economy, China's diplomacy, even the military. Middle-class people of the generation older than my wife (who was born in 1962) had their lives comprehensively wrecked. There were innumerable private calamities. To take just one at random: One of my wife's aunts went into labor just as the local hospital was being "rectified." The hospital's nurses and doctors were found to have been concentrating too much on acquiring expertise in their jobs, not enough on cultivating true revolutionary spirit. So they were all sent off to "learn from the peasants" by digging ditches and shoveling manure. Their replacements were workers, peasants, and soldiers who had proper revolutionary credentials, and some rudimentary First Aid training. Unfortunately they didn't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies, so when Aunt started to hemorrhage, no-one knew what to do, and the poor woman bled to death.

Of course, far worse things than that happened — massacres, gang rapes, cannibalism. It was a nightmare, and it lasted eleven years. Yet in the Chinese media of today, it is all passed over in silence. Well over a million died, yet they have no official memorial. The ChiComs made a partial, grudging apology to "their" citizens in 1981, but have uttered not a word since. Historical dramas on TV and in the movies are very plentiful; but there is a great silent gap in their coverage from 1966 to 1976. The whole period has been pushed firmly down the memory hole. And of course, official Chinese media made no mention whatever of this month's anniversary.


Clueless     I'm starting to get embarrassed about my utter cluelessness in re contemporary pop culture. Case in point: American Idol. Everyone's been talking about it this month. I mean everyone — including all the deep-browed thinkers and writers of heavyweight books at NR. The show has come to some kind of climax, apparently. Even Condoleezza Rice has been tuned in. Yet I've never seen it.

I've never sat through an episode of The Simpsons, either, though Jonah's been gushing over if for years, and now here's this bloke on the BBC website telling me that it's "the most insightful and philosophical cultural product of our time," a real seminar in ontology, epistemology, ethics, and theology. Now, that ought to be right up my street. I have a philosophy-proof head so far as books are concerned; I just can't read the stuff. At the urging of several readers, I bought a second-hand copy of Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life, but I couldn't get the hang of it at all. I should be just the right customer for philosophy presented as a comic strip. Surely even I could digest it that way. Yet I couldn't even tell you what channel The Simpsons is on.

It's not just TV, either. I can't connect with popular books, either. I still haven't read The Da Vinci Code, and there doesn't seem much point now, since I know the whole plot by osmosis. This is bad, since books are my natural home. Am I getting too serious-minded, I wonder? Should I make an effort to lighten up? I do have a stack of books here I'm reading my way through, but it's mostly nonfiction, and pretty taxing stuff — politics, science, math, history. Maybe I should read a couple of good thrillers. A few years ago, back when I spent two hours commuting every day, I read the entire oeuvre of Elmore Leonard, one book after the other, and greatly enjoyed the experience. Some time before that, I did the same with Patrick O'Brian's sea stories, all 16 of them (as it then stood), one after another. The pattern goes right back to my childhood, when I read all of Richmal Crompton's William books seriatim. That impulse seems to have left me, though. I no longer feel any urge to read for pleasure. I don't think I have the time, anyway. Perhaps I should just yield to the inevitable, and have another go at Unamuno.


Omnipotence     I did do a spot of re-reading this month, though only a short story. This was Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life." I first read it ages ago, in Ted Carnell's Science Fantasy magazine, I think. It's about little Anthony Fremont, aged three, who is omnipotent. He can do anything, just by thinking about it. The results are not good. A Twilight Zone episode was made out of the idea, and so was one segment of the TZ movie. I read the story again this month, and it was as good as ever. A true classic.

Omnipotence is, I should think, a pretty common human fantasy. H.G. Wells wrote a light-hearted story about it, from which a movie was made. The much more recent Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty works the same theme, though the hero's powers are limited in critical ways. There are surely other literary expressions of the omnipotence wish. The Carrey movie quickly sinks into sentimental pap, but the H.G. Wells story ends in a disaster, though not as bad a one as little Anthony's.

Sentimental pap aside, I think it would be hard to write an omnipotence story with a happy ending. That tells you something about the human race. Beauty-pageant winners are sometimes asked what they'd do if given the power to make three wishes come true. They come up with stuff like world peace, a cure for AIDS, an end to global warming, and so on. Yeah, right. I'm with Wells and Bixby. If actual omnipotence was granted to the average human being, the results would be absolutely awful. Either stupidity or malice would ensure that, and Homo sap. is way over-supplied with both.


ChiComs do Wiki     That last one was, if I've counted right, my sixth link to Wikipedia in this diary. I find I'm using the thing more and more. It's now pretty much the first place I go when I want to look stuff up. Yes, I know about the issues with the thing, but when I go there to brush up on something I already know a lot about, the data is pretty good.

So it's a good thing I'm not over in mainland China, where the government has blocked access to Wikipedia. As a replacement, they have offered a user-generated encyclopedia of their own named Baidupedia. (Baidu is Chinese for "100 degrees"… which will be the temperature in the 8′×8′ jail cell you will share with 15 other prisoners if the ChiComs catch you trying to access Wikipedia.)

Baidupedia doesn't quite have the libertarian spirit of the original, though. Entries will pass through a censorship process before being posted, and there is a long list of guidelines writers must follow. Forbidden are "any malicious evaluation of the current national system, any attack on government institutions, or any promotion of a dispirited or negative view of life."

It is nice to see that the fine old communist insistence that everyone pretend to be happy in the Workers' Paradise still has some life in it. Some things never change. In the dear departed U.S.S.R., the ballet Swan Lake was always staged with the happy ending, Odette and Siegfried floating off into the sunrise across the lake, even though this is at odds with the music, which is tragic. With the plot too: as choreographer John Cranko said: "Odette and Siegfried are not the sort of lovers who can live happily ever after." But of course the whole point of communism is that everybody will live happily ever after, once Enemies of the People have all been dealt with.

The ChiComs have also ordered that content that might "make other people feel upset or unhappy" is banned from Baidupedia, so perhaps the modern Western determination that nobody ever have his feelings hurt has also taken hold, as well as the traditional commie insistence on happy endings. Or perhaps the two things are really one …


Math Corner     Last month I mentioned "Freud's number" 2,467. (I couldn't remember the actual number, but several readers found it for me). It shows up in a passage in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, where Freud writes:

In a letter to a friend I informed him that I had finished reading the proof-sheets of The Interpretation of Dreams, and that I did not intend to make any further changes in it, "even if it contained 2,467 mistakes." I immediately attempted to explain to myself the number …

Freud felt obliged to explain the number because, according to his theories, nothing entirely random emerges from the mind. The number must have some meaning. He proceeds to give a rather far-fetched explanation of why the number 2,467 floated into his head. I asked readers to offer similar explanations of the number 19,766, which I had used in the same way on The Corner, to indicate some arbitrary large quantity.

Reader explanations were wild and woolly, though I didn't find any one really satisfactory in its entirety. The dominance of 19 was much noted, with unflattering references to Louis Farrakhan, who has played absolutely no part in my life. (The number 19,766 begins with 19; the next two digits are the quadruple of 19; the last three digits add up to 19; and if you add the sum of the first two digits to the first four digits, giving 1986, and then divide by that final digit 6, you get 331, which is the 67th prime — and 67 is the 19th prime!)

More plausibly, a fan in Minneapolis noted that at the time I was writing, there had been some talk (including a column by my boss) about GWB being the new Jimmy Carter, so 1976 would naturally be hovering around the front of my mind. Then: "To say that such-and-so reader was the 1976th person to raise something interjects a kind of symbolism where you didn't mean it. So you punch the last digit again." Not bad.

A couple of readers mentioned that I was 31 years old in 1976, but none made the obvious connection. You need to scroll down to where I am replying to Frank's — yes!! — 19th question.

For this month, I commend to you the puzzles of Bob Pease, who does the "Pease Porridge" column in the magazine Electronic Design. A pal in Ohio introduced me to Bob's puzzles. Sample:

Little Egbert bought a mountain. Its shape was a perfect hemisphere with a 5270-ft radius, set on a flat plain. He decided to build a railroad to transport him to the top. It was a monorail, which made it very easy to plan, with minimum width, and only one rail. The rail was offset 10 ft away from the surface of the mountain, to avoid digging, so the radius was exactly 5280 ft. The train could only ascend a 4% grade. The basestation was at the very bottom of the mountain, so the train could not get a running start up the hill. How much track did Little Egbert have to buy?  (a) 25.00 miles (b) 25.020 (c) 25.040 (d) 25.40.

There are more of Bob's puzzles here. For solutions, see here