»  National Review Online Diary

  April 2007

Verpfuscht     I'm going to start this month's diary with a math note. Yes, I know this is unorthodox, but, as Tony Manero says in that movie, "I got my reasons."

To get in the right key, let me tell you what happened the other morning. I was walking my dog around these quiet suburban streets. At one point, a middle-aged guy — unknown to me, but obviously (it turned out) a local homeowner — was walking towards me on the other side.

He:  "You can't walk your dog here."
Me:  "Can so. It's a public street."
He:  "There's a town ordinance."
Me:  "The town ordinances only require me to keep my dog leashed, which I do, and to scoop after him, which I always do."

To demonstrate my citizenly virtue, I reached into the back pocket of my jeans, where I keep the plastic bags I use to scoop. Guess what: This was the one day in the year I forgot to pack them. The one day I meet an obstreperous dog-hating homeowner is the one day I forget to pack poop bags!

Fortunately, I got out of there alive. Boris, as often happens with the very old, is considerably verstopft (i.e. constipated — I'm having a fire sale on German words this month).

Things have been going that way all month, though. April was totally verpfuscht. And I know why. And I'm going to tell you.

Primzahlfrei     It's to do with an actual prime obsession that I actually have. This is kind of personal, and a bit embarrassing, but harmless — by comparison, I mean, with other obsessions I might have.

Here's the thing: My days are numbered.

I have a wee text file I keep for checking historical data, with all the dates Anno Domini up into the middle of this century tallied by Gregorian date, astronomer's Julian, day of the week, and a couple of others. I generated the thing myself with VBASIC code.

One of those others is my own day number — I mean, counting my date of birth as day one. The first and last days of April were my personal days 22,583 and 22,612, respectively.

Now guess what: There is not a single prime number in that range. April was a prime-free month for me, personally (or anyone else born on my birth date). It was, to use the proper mathematical term of art, primzahlfrei.

This doesn't happen often — just three times in the past ten years: March 1999, June 2002, and July 2006. It won't happen again until August 2014. It's happening more often now than it used to, though, as the numbers get bigger and the primes thin out according to well-known mathematical laws.

Back in my salad days, when the primes were dense, it never used to happen at all. I was 26 years old the first time it did. Same with prime birthdays — I haven't had one for 30 years (though there's one coming up in 2011, I see).

So … No wonder I've been feeling under the weather. Not to worry, though. May is a prime-rich (primzahlreich) month — May Day itself a prime, followed by five others.

Whaddya mean, I'm a bit weird? We're all a bit weird. This is harmless weird.

The power of the primes     So now I'm going to tell you my misfortunes this primzahlfrei April. Don't worry, I have a sense of proportion — this is petty stuff, compared with real misfortune. It does illustrate the mystic power of the prime numbers, though.

Lawn Guy     Here on Lawn Guy Land, the sun came out at last, the birds commenced singing ("the birds all singing their fool heads off, and the ground all mucked up with arbutus," was Dorothy Parker's ode to spring, if memory serves) and the grass leapt up. Time for this suburban homeowner to bring out his lawn mower.

I dragged the old beast out from under six months' accumulated debris at the back of the garage, filled it with gas, and pulled the starter cord … and pulled, and pulled. Do you think the darn thing would start?

I consulted with a neighbor who is wise in these things. He: "Pour a little gasoline on the air filter." I did this, and sure enough, the engine started. Then, after a few seconds, died. Repeat five times. Re-consult with wise neighbor. "You probably need a new plug." That figures. I haven't changed the plug since I bought the machine eight years ago.

Off to Sears. The plug was only $1.99, but while I was there I bought a new $15 blade and a pack of air filters — I'd noticed how dirty the air filter was — and a quart of oil. That, I thought, should make my little friend happy and eager to serve me for another year.

Not so. With new plug, blade, and air filter, the wretched thing still wouldn't run for more than a few seconds. Another consultation with neighbor. "It's messed up," he said (except that he didn't exactly say "messed up," nor even "verpfuscht," but something pithier). "Get a new one. They're only a couple hundred dollars." So they are; but I had laid out thirty for blade, plug, filters, and oil.

My mother-in-law, a very sweet lady who now rests at peace in the arms of Lord Buddha, had a phrase she used to describe the experience of shopping in the deeply consumer-unfriendly China of the 1980s: Hua qian mai qi — "You spend money to buy aggravation."

How to lose friends and embarrass people     A couple of days later I was to go to an evening book event in Manhattan. Off I duly went — on an empty stomach, having been busy with householder chores all day and skipped lunch. The only food at the event was hors d'oeuvres the size of dust motes, so in lieu of food I knocked back a couple of glasses of wine. Very bad move. Never mix alcohol with malnutrition.

Across the room I spotted a fellow I know quite well, an elderly gentleman of quality and distinction. Let's call him Mr. X. I went over and greeted him. He introduced me to his wife. Even at this point, he was looking at me a bit oddly. Was my fly undone? I checked — no. Oh, well. We engaged in some conversation, then his wife pulled him away with an alarmed expression, as if she thought he was in danger. Only then did I realize that he wasn't Mr. X at all, but Mr. Y. I had been addressing him as the wrong person.

Fickle Finger of Fate     Onward and downward. Another event the following day, this one a gathering of poets, also in Manhattan. Not normally my thing, but I had vaguely promised Rich Lowry I'd do a piece for NR on the condition of modern poetry, so I thought the event would be helpful. I don't think I've ever actually been in a room full of poets.

Busy all day again, I was too late for the train, so I drove into Manhattan. I parked in a midtown parking garage, went to the address I'd been given, a huge apartment building. Neither of the doormen knew anything about the event. I'd forgotten the name of the host.

I hung around vaguely in the lobby, hoping someone I recognized would come in; but I was half an hour late, and no-one did. Back to parking garage (through a rainstorm, no umbrella, got soaked), retrieve car, pay whopping fee to the parking garage, drive home cursing.

Later that evening I checked my email for the first time since midday. The lady who gave me the address for the poetry event had given me the wrong address. She hoped this reached me in time.

Cruellest month     So, gentle reader, the moral of the story is, if you have a primzahlfrei month coming up, plan ahead, scheduling nothing important. If possible, stay in bed the entire month.

What, Me Worry?     This month I did something I haven't done in years: Purchased and read a copy of Mad magazine. It was an impulse buy. I was never a regular reader of Mad, though I must have browsed a couple of dozen copies opportunistically over the years, mainly for the movie parodies.

Mad seems to have been around for ever. Since 1952, says Wikipedia. It's one of those permanent features of the landscape, like Pez or Tony Bennett. It's world-wide, now, too; there is, for example, a Hungarian edition, titled Kretén.

All right, Mad is juvenile stuff. They don't take anything seriously. It's all good-natured fun, though, and hardly ever gross or obscene. That's not a negligible achievement nowadays, when you are poking fun at so many different targets.

Does Mad have any political "tendency"? None that I can detect, though I am not a regular reader. They're running a "Meet the '08 Presidential Candidates" feature, which in this issue covers John McCain: "He still dictates letters to his secretary the old-fashioned way, by tapping out morse code through his office wall with a spoon …"

There is a double-page spread on "How Global Warming is Affecting Various People":

•  Hillary Clinton:  "Huddling with key advisers deciding how best to straddle the issue."

•  O.J. Simpson:  "Almost finished writing new book, If I Did Cause Global Warming, Here's How I Would Have Done It."

•  Wack-Job Astronaut Lisa Nowak:  "Currently suffering the worst case of diaper rash/prickly heat in NASA history."

Etc., etc. Most of the magazine is just jokes about topics that interest young adolescents: school, celebrities, sports, boy scouts. ("Boy Scout Merit Badges for the 21st Century" include one for "teacher-student abstinence," with a picture of a young male highschooler fending off the advances of a female teacher.)

The nearest we get to the War on Terror is four pages of comic-strips-without-words about airport security, and a quite edgy 12-panel strip about two soldiers on patrol in Iraq.

Well, I guess it'll be a few years more before I buy another Mad, but I'm glad to know it's there. It fits into what George Orwell, in one of his best essays, called the Sancho Panza outlook, "the attitude to life that Miss Rebecca West once summed up as 'extracting as much fun as possible from smacking behinds in basement kitchens'."

It is simply a lie to say that [Sancho Panza] is not part of you, just as it is a lie to say that Don Quixote is not part of you either, though most of what is said and written consists of one lie or the other, usually the first. But though in varying forms he is one of the stock figures of literature, in real life, especially in the way society is ordered, his point of view never gets a fair hearing. There is a constant world-wide conspiracy to pretend that he is not there, or at least that he doesn't matter. Codes of law and morals, or religious systems, never have much room in them for a humorous view of life.

America the Dream     We have two Chinese friends, a husband-wife couple who came out of China in the late 1980s and have done pretty well, working at unspectacular jobs but salting away savings in that Chinese way. Now they are in their early sixties and looking at retirement. Since both are now U.S. citizens, they can draw Social Security wherever they live. With that, and their savings, they could go back to China and live pretty well.

However, they have two daughters in China. Both married well, to entrepreneurs who have got rich in the new China. They live in gated communities, their kids are in pricey private schools, and they have two cars per family — still pretty sensational in China. But guess what: They want to come out.

Our friends are in a quandary. The only chances their daughters (and their husbands) have to come out are if our friends sponsor them as close relatives, which they can. To carry through the process, our friends will have to stay here, scotching their plans to go and spend a prosperous retirement in China.

But why do these two successful, wealthy young couples want to come to the U.S.A., where they'd have to start over at some drudge jobs, with the handicap of not speaking much English? Have our friends explained the situation to them? "Of course. A hundred times!" So why do they want to come out? [Sigh] "Everybody wants to come to America!"

Math Corner     Not a puzzle this month, just an observation.

Mathematicians are unworldly, absent-minded people, right? They live in an ethereal universe of strange abstractions, paying little attention to the grubby realities of life. Right?

Wrong! Meet James H. Simons, founder of a hedge fund called Renaissance Technology Corp. Simons, who is 69, got his B.Sc. in math from MIT and a doctorate, also in math, from Berkeley. He taught math at Harvard, and won a prestigious math prize for work in differential geometry (which is what you get when you cross geometry with calculus). While at Harvard, he started dabbling in commodity trading, using his math to develop innovative strategies. In 1982 he founded his hedge fund. Last year he took home $1.7 billion, topping the list of highest-paid hedge fund managers for the second year in a row.

When I was a math undergraduate we were told that we had basically three career options after graduating. A handful of us would go one to become research mathematicians. The rest had a choice between becoming math teachers or actuaries. All decent, respectable, middle-class employments with modest, respectable, middle-class salaries. Nobody mentioned running a hedge fund for $1.7 billion per annum.

(The nearest I ever got to this scenario was having the hero of my novel Fire from the Sun pull off something similar to what James Simons did. Easy to imagine, not so easy to do.)