»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2007


Judy, Judi, Judee     Are Giuliani's people reading The Corner? Three weeks ago I passed some remarks on The Corner about Mrs. G's twee, sixties-ish spelling of her forename as "Judi." She now seems to have stopped doing it. At any rate, every news story I read now spells her as "Judith," presumably following some press advisory from Rudy's people.

Well, I'm happy. Names should have some roots, and "Judith" has deep ones. As Silas Marner said (when someone objected to "Hephzibah"): "It's a Bible name." Far as I'm concerned, if it's not in the Bible, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Tennyson, and was not the name of any English king or queen, or of any Greek or Roman deity, it's not a name.


The North Korea agreement     This has been pretty well kicked around elsewhere on the site. It is of course a disgrace, bolstering the weird cargo cult that has come up this past few years in the Third World: viz., if you set about building the infrastructure for nuclear weapons production, then America and other big, rich countries will give you stuff you want, in return for your promise to do things you have no intention of doing. When it becomes blindingly obvious that you're not going to keep your promises, the big, rich countries will offer you yet more stuff in return for more promises … and so ad infinitum. North Korea today, Iran tomorrow — who will be next?

I think I have figured out, at any rate, why God put Kim Jong Il into the world. It was so that we'd have periodic reminders of what contemptible pussies we in the modern West are.


Sullivan-Harris exchanges     Have you been reading the exchanges between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris? If not, I don't blame you — a little of this stuff goes a long way with most of us. I've been reading them with some interest myself because I once reviewed Sam Harris's book The End of Faith, back when I was still clinging on to my own faith by my fingernails.

Reading these exchanges, I found myself, somewhat to my surprise, pretty much equidistant from both points of view. Harris's blank-slate meliorism is at odds with humanity as it appears to me, and his occasional flashes of ill nature here, as in his book, left me thinking he has a small bee in his bonnet. Sullivan's eloquent expression of his own faith is more appealing; though how Andrew squares his energetic promotion of homosexuality with adherence to the Roman Catholic church is as much a mystery to me — even after reading The Conservative Soul  — as, to judge from conversations I have, it seems to be to everyone else.

Andrew's account of human nature is closer to my own view, though. Listen:

The place you are seeking — this "contingency-free" place where no specifics exist but pure truth and a clean glass — is something we people of faith call heaven. Your search for it is a religious search, even if you are unaware of it. We religious people have known about heaven for ever; but only the truly foolish among us have ever mistaken it for earth, or human life. And when those truly foolish people have attempted to replicate this heaven on earth, they have been responsible for the worst atrocities religion has produced, which is why I fear similar darkness from the world-view you are, with impeccable intentions, enthusiastically proposing. But the glass you and I drink from, Sam, is never clean; it has been drunk from since before our human history; it has passed from lip to lip through vistas of history and pre-history. It has been filled and emptied and filled again, its contents traced in stories and myths and parables and histories and DNA. It is contingent in the way that everything human is contingent.

Can I imagine a world without such human contingency? Yes, I can. I can imagine all sorts of things — flying spaghetti monsters, to use one vivid term now beloved of today's atheists. I can imagine Lucy in the sky with diamonds. I can imagine all the people living life in peace.

But it is important to note that such a world has never, ever existed, and never, ever will. No human society has ever functioned without the large faith that underpins all the little faiths: religion. No society has ever existed without the mature human acceptance of what we do not know and what is greater than we are. No civilization has ever been atheist at its core. No polity has ever been constructed in the absence of faith, or in the absence of a tradition of faith that makes belief in the present possible at all. Earth to Sam: Does this not tell you something? Or is it plausible that human beings tomorrow will become something that in all of human history and pre-history they have never, ever been?

That sounds right to me. Human beings are religious — though of course to varying degrees among individuals, from the utterly tone-deaf through to Johann Sebastian Bach. No large scheme of society that fails to take that into account is going anywhere, except to hell. And the notion that after a good smack upside the head, the generality of people are going to see the light, drop all that silly religious stuff, and start seeing things Sam's way, is sheer fantasy.

On the other hand, Sam makes some good points, mainly about the relation of religious doctrines to actual facts about the world, and to historical facts, and the way religious apologists misuse the words "truth" and "reason." The great Abrahamic religions all say different things — different "true" things! — about Jesus of Nazareth, for instance. He was the Son of God (Christianity), the Ignoramus of Galilee (Judaism), or a non-divine minor prophet (Islam). Well, which was he? They can't all be right. They might, however, all be wrong.

And then there's the historical flimsiness of it all. Sam would say — and I would agree — that you should only believe really astounding things, really really hard-to-believe things, if the evidence weighs a billion tons. The historical evidence for the parting of the Red Sea, or Christ's miracles, or Mohammed's ascending to heaven on a golden cloud, is feather-light. Religious belief simply can't be squared with the ordinary rules of evidence, as we apply them in science and the law. As Andrew makes clear, religious people couldn't care less; but it needs pointing out anyway.

All in all, I call the Sullivan-Harris fixture a tie so far (they are not through yet)


Pro-Choice Catholics     Following on from that, I thought this was pretty interesting. (And the web site it's on, GetReligion.org, is one of the better sources for religious news and gossip.) Frances Kissling, the subject of the story, is a sort of Andrew Sullivan, though on a different topic. A former nun, she left the convent to run an abortion clinic — yet she insists she is a devout Catholic!

These cases, Kissling and Sullivan, confirm my long-held impression that Roman Catholicism is considerably more than just a church. Being Roman Catholic goes bone-deep somehow. It's not so much like having a religion as like having blue eyes, or a club foot, or perfect pitch — possibly (well, in the case of perfect pitch, anyway) something acquired, but might as well be innately biological. You can sincerely consider yourself a good Catholic, all square with your church, while holding some utterly un-Catholic beliefs. The question that baffles an outsider, observing this phenomenon, is: Why would you want to? Clearly they do want to, though — badly want to; and that badly-wanting-to is part of the package. Perhaps I should re-read The Conservative Soul.


Chinese New Year …     Came and went. We are now in the Year of the Pig. It's my son's year — he'll be 12 in July — so he gets to wear a red belt.

My kids are just American kids, I am glad to say. Only with difficulty can they be made to think about their "roots," and I'm mostly happy with that. Oddly, though, Danny seems to have taken to his red belt, and is wearing it all the time. I doubt it'll survive the whole year — this kid could lose a jumbo jet — but knowing your Chinese birth year, and that you get to wear a special belt, is just about the level of "roots"-awareness I'm comfortable with.


Above my pay grade     Two months into the year, and so far I have had two solutions to the Riemann Hypothesis emailed to me. One a month — that's about par.

I never know what to do with these things. What is the probability that any of these emailers actually has cracked a problem that has vexed the greatest mathematical minds for 148 years? Not quite zero, I suppose, but pretty darn close to it.

A hundred or so years ago a German math professor named Paul Wolfskehl left a prize of 100,000 Marks in his will for the first complete proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. When Edmund Landau was responsible for handling the mail that came in to Göttingen University on this, he had postcards printed up, reading:

Dear __________ ,

Thank you for your manuscript on the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.

The first mistake is on: Page _____ Line _____ This invalidates the proof.

Professor E. M. Landau

and passed them to his graduate students as exercises. Alas, I don't have any graduate students.


The Onomastic Cringe (cont.)     It gets worse and worse. No sooner have we got used to one familiar spelling of some foreign place name being mucked up by PC cartographers, than another one comes along.

The latest to offend my eye is "Kolkata" for "Calcutta." I delivered a blast against this horrid phenomenon a while ago in another conservative magazine (see link above). What is it about the modern age that makes people want to do this? And makes so many other people ovinely accept it? Give us back our Calcutta, Bombay, Burma, Peking! I'm spitting into the wind, of course. Oh, Kolkota!


A musical revelation     This year's Petroushka Ball went off swimmingly, to the benefit of the Russian Children's Welfare Society, who do great work with destitute kids in Russia. Pitching it to me beforehand, the organizers listed the performing attractions: "…oh, and we have the world's greatest balalaika player coming."

I was underwhelmed. I mean, the balalaika? It's like being told you're going to see the world's greatest kazoo player. So when the guy came on I was ready to be bored for half an hour.

Oh boy. This guy — his name is Alexey Arkhipovsky — was a revelation. He played nonstop for, yes, about half an hour, and if it had been twice as long, we would have enjoyed it twice as much. I never imagined you could get so much music out of a balalaika. He was just hammering the thing continuously, not playing set numbers, and the musical modes and references went flying by so fast you barely had time to identify them: classical, folk, blues (no kidding — blues balalaika!), traditional of course, jazz, something baroque, a snatch of Mozart, a Beatles tune, … And while all that was going on, he was doing stunts — playing the durn thing with one hand, holding it behind his head, I don't know what else.

It was sensational. If you want a really original act for your next function, book Alexey. The bad news is, you'll have to fly him in from Russia, and get yourself an interpreter — he hasn't a word of English. It'd be worth it, though, and you'll never feel the same about the balalaika.


Clones     I keep seeing Paris Hilton clones. I mean, this is a look that many young women strive for. The fact that Ms. Hilton is a talentless, parasitic slut seems not to deter them. Everywhere I go I see the Paris Hilton eyes, lips, hair.

How do women settle on a look like this, from all the looks available? Previous cases I can recall are: The Princess Di look in the late 80s, the Saturday Night Fever look in the late 70s — every young woman you met suddenly looked like the Donna Pescow character in that John Travolta movie. (Astoundingly, I can't find a picture of her.) How does this work?


Look for me …      …in the lumber aisle at Home Depot, wearing an orange apron. This thought was inspired by the first paragraph in the February Literary Review, the monthly arrival from London of which is always an excuse to drop everything and forget about "work" for a couple of hours. Here's the paragraph.

Cyril Connolly was always fascinated by the ways in which writers scraped a living. Shortly after the end of the war he sent a questionnaire to various eminent authors asking them what jobs or means of earning money were most compatible with the literary life, and published their answers in Horizon. Connolly himself recommended a rich wife: a common ideal among his less worldly contributors was a job, preferably manual, that wasn't too exhausting, left the mind free, and didn't compete with the business of writing. Wood-turning and vegetable-growing were among those mentioned, I seem to remember. None suggested a job in publishing, so confirming Connolly's own belief that the enemy of promise was not so much the pram in the hall as work in what he termed "cultural diffusion" — publishing, journalism, broadcasting, the British Council and other agreeable, convivial and literate activities which brought one into contact with writers and could all too easily become a substitute for writing itself.

I must say, I like Connolly's own recommendation the best. Wish I'd thought of it sooner.


Frankie Laine     This month we lost Frankie Laine, whose voice rang through my childhood. Laine was, as the Daily Telegraph obituary points out, one of those American singers who was more popular in Britain than in the USA. (Another from the same era was Jim Reeves, a favorite of my Dad's.) From that same obit.:

Laine's soulful, masculine style and highly emotional delivery dealt a blow to the gentler crooning styles of the day and paved the way for later blues and rock and roll artists such as Johnnie Ray and Elvis Presley. Naturally gifted with a powerful voice (his nicknames included "Old Leather Lungs"), Laine was known for his dramatic vocal battles with massed choirs and pulsating strings, and he ranged into such varied genres as novelty pop, gospel, folk, country and western and rock and roll.

Nice to see someone come right out and say "masculine style." We all know what's meant, even though we don't (well, I don't) believe that a person's voice tells us anything about the person's actual masculinity or femininity.

I've argued on The Corner, more than once I think, that Newt Gingrich cannot possibly be elected president because his voice is too high-pitched. This is of course very unfair, like observing that a seriously ugly person could not be elected president. Both things are true, though.


Math Corner     Solution to last month's pinyin matchup quiz:  1-l, 2-dd, 3-bb, 4-y, 5-i, 6-w, 7-m, 8-aa, 9-o, 10-d, 11-b, 12-cc, 13-g, 14-j, 15-n, 16-v, 17-f, 18-t, 19-k, 20-e, 21-q, 22-s, 23-c, 24-a, 25-z, 26-r, 27-h, 28-u, 29-p, 30-x.

And several readers have grumbled that I posted none of the responses to my December puzzle, which was, to find something interesting to say about the number 2007. I actually thought I had sent something to The Corner, but perhaps I forgot. Anyway, the sum total of impressions from reader responses was that this is a very dull number. I came up with the following, and its strained quality, together with the fact that it is as least as good as anything any readers came up with, tells you how nondescript 2007 is. Where is Srinivasa Ramanujan when we need him?

The number 2007 is 223×3×3. That's two twos and three threes. You can list all possible asterisk placements in the string "22333." Since there are four places to insert an asterisk, or not, there are 16 possibilities:

2×2×3×3×3 = 108
2×2×33×3 = 396
2×2×3×33 = 396
2×23×3×3 = 414
22×3×3×3 = 594
2×2×333 = 1,332
2×233×3 = 1,398
2×23×33 = 1,518
223×3×3 = 2,007
22×33×3 = 2,178
22×3×33 = 2,178
2×2333 = 4,666
2233×3 = 6,699
22×333 = 7,326
223×33 = 7,359
22333 = 22,333

If you add all those up you get 60,902, which leaves remainder 692 on division by 2007.

Plainly there is something going on there!

In lieu of an actual puzzle this week, I am just going to alert you to this website, which has some seriously cool math sculpture you can buy.