»  National Review Online Diary

  July 2007


Sell Cynicism! Buy Hope!     Good news from Iraq this month. The surge is getting some results: areas pacified are staying pacified (at least, as long as we are around), Mookie went off to sulk in Iran (though now he's back), and key tribal leaders have turned against what we are now all calling "AQI" — Al Qaeda in Iraq.

For cynics and malcontents like me, who just want to get our guys out of there ASAP with as little as possible egg on our national face, and who don't give a fig — or see why we should give one — what happens to the damned Iraqis, the good news engenders mixed feelings. Any patriot is of course glad to see his country's military do well; but if our doing well gives the pro-war politicians leverage to keep us there another two, five, ten years, then the good news may be bad.

Not to worry, though: As well as our troops perform at the tasks they are given to do — and they seem to be performing superbly under Gen. Petraeus — we can be pretty sure the Iraqis will turn all our achievements to dust.

The object of the exercise, let it be remembered, is to stabilize the security situation so that Iraqis can get their act together. What happens if we stabilize the security situation but the Iraqis resolutely refuse to get their act together?

We shall find out, because that is by far the likeliest outcome at present. Here are your tax dollars at work in Iraq:

The conclusions, detailed in a report released Friday by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a federal oversight agency, include the finding that of 2,797 completed projects costing $5.8 billion, Iraq's national government had, by the spring of this year, accepted only 435 projects valued at $501 million. Few transfers to Iraqi national government control have taken place since the current Iraqi government, which is frequently criticized for inaction on matters relating to the American intervention, took office in 2006.

I want us out of there because I am sick of seeing our money and our troops wasted to no good end that I can see, while jihadi terrorism is spreading and growing in places we have no time to give our attention to because we are so preoccupied with the damn fool hopeless Iraqis.

Unless we have the good luck to turn up another Saddam Hussein, Iraq is never going to be any kind of a real nation. The only good thing we are doing there is killing AQIs; and if we weren't there — and if, as we are told, Iraq's own Sunnis have turned against AQI — the Iraqi street gangs and tribal militias would probably be doing a better job of that, under rules of engagement considerably more … relaxed than ours.

I'll wait and hear what Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have to report next month, but unless — which I find hard to imagine — there is some sign of genuine patriotism and constructive will on the part of Iraq's politicians, I'll be hanging up a TROOPS OUT NOW poster sometime shortly after the Petraeus/Crocker report.


Ulster At Peace     Well, here is the ending of a different terrorism-driven conflict:

As the flag of 39 Infantry Brigade is lowered during an understated ceremony in Northern Ireland today, almost four decades of gallant military history will come to a quiet, yet dignified end.

So maybe counterinsurgency warfare can be successful? If the British army could help bring peace to Ulster, might not the U.S. army bring peace to Iraq? We-e-ell:

For a trip down Memory Lane with the British army in Ulster, view some of these clips.


Craft Corner     My daughter Nellie, 14, has taken up knitting. No half measures, either: she has been pestering me to buy knitting books from Amazon, and has been studying the science of the thing. She knows the different stitches, grades of wool, how to match colors … If there are knitting championships, I should enter her for them.

Her current project is a long knitted snake — the one on the cover of this book. The whole family is watching the progress of this creature — currently about four feet long — with interest. There seems to be no set length to the knitted snake, you just keep going till you get tired or run out of colors.

I remarked somewhere that having kids thrusts genetics right in your face. Well, here it is. I can't recall anyone ever giving Nellie a word of encouragement to get her started knitting. My wife does not knit. Nellie just took it up somehow, and likes it. I put it down to inheritance from my own mother, a tireless knitter, sewer, dressmaker, and crocheter. (Mum claimed to know lace-making too, but I never saw her do it. "Too much trouble!") I was in my twenties before I ever bought a sweater from a store, and even then didn't dare tell Mum.

There is in fact something going on with knitting. A store has opened up in the village here, staffed by two cheerful middle-aged women full of knitting enthusiasm. I took Nellie there to buy some wool, and got a mighty wash of nostalgia. I believe the very first outside-the-home experience I can remember, when I could have been little more than two, was being taken along by Mum to the local wool shop. I believe I could still find my way there, between the shoe factories ,now long since defunct, in the terraced back streets of Northampton.

One of the ladies in our wool shop here told me that the New York Times — which, of course, I do not read — recently ran a "lifestyle" piece on the knitting boom. Well, I am glad to hear it. Put me down as pro-knitting. It gives me great pleasure to watch Nellie clicking away, reading a book as she knits. My sweet tricoteuse! We pro-knitters are in the very best of company, too:

Johnson (laughing):  No, Sir; it must be born with a man to be contented to take up with little things. Women have a great advantage that they may take up with little things, without disgracing themselves: a man cannot, except with fiddling. Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else … No, Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small. I once tried knotting. Dempster's sister undertook to teach me; but I could not learn it.
Boswell:  So, Sir; it will be related in pompous narrative, "Once for his amusement he tried knotting; nor did this Hercules disdain the distaff."
Johnson:  Knitting of stockings is a good amusement. As a freeman of Aberdeen I should be a knitter of stockings.
                   — Boswell's Life, April 7, 1778.

[Note added later: A couple of readers wrote in to remind me of the great defensive lineman Rosey Grier's adventures in needlepoint.]


President Ron     No, not Dr. Paul — I have said all I have to say about him, and am still fielding emails. No, this is the other President Ron. I've been reading The Reagan Diaries. Good stuff, and builds up a great cumulative sense of what it's like to be POTUS, day in and day out for two full terms.

The strong impression that comes through of Reagan the man is how very, very American he was — a real Brother Jonathan. The man was the very personification of his country as it stood in the mid-20th century: confident, generous, industrious, forthright. He loved freedom and hated tyranny, just as straightforwardly as that. "D—n those inhuman monsters," he notes of the Soviet rulers, after a meeting with Avital Shcharansky.

Even the refusal to spell out the word "damn" there is characteristically American, or was. To dirty-minded Old World cynics like, well, me, it looks absurdly dainty and prissy; but that daintiness stood the U.S.A. in good stead for 200 years and more. When we Old Worlders are through smirking at it, we should give a thought to the brave American lads of Reagan's generation who, by actions not at all dainty, and often at the sacrifice of their lives, enabled the Old World to stagger on in its smirking cynicism for a few decades more.

Similarly with the very American sentimentality of the man.

March 11, 1981:  … Somehow the Star Spangled Banner when you hear it in another country brings a tear to the eye.

February 6, 1986:  I must have said something effective [to the annual Prayer Breakfast] — Nancy was teary when I sat down.

A cold-hearted Englishman winces at stuff like that, but there is no doubt it was sincerely felt. It was also, so to speak, recreational and ceremonial — it did not affect any of Reagan's decision-making, which was hard-headed and utterly unsentimental everywhere that mattered.

And how uxorious he was! We knew this, of course, but seeing it page after page drives home how closely this man and woman had bonded together.

September 29, 1986:  Didn't sleep at all well last night — I need my roommate.

As diaries go — diaries in general, I mean, not just politicians' diaries — this is a pretty dry book, mostly just a log of meetings and journeys. Still, the man comes through: and what a man he was!


Preteen Goddess     It is not uncommon to hear of a young lady being stripped of some title or other for misbehavior, but the case of Nepal's Ms. Sujani (or Sajani) Shakya is unusual. Ms. Shakya is only ten years old; the cause of her downfall was a mere unauthorized visit to the U.S.A. to publicize a documentary film about herself; and the title of which she was stripped is … Goddess.

Identified in infancy as a Kumari, or living Deity, Ms. Shakya was expected to stay at home giving blessings to passing Hindus and Buddhists, which is what Kumaris do — at least until they hit puberty, after which they are married off. But then away she went to America without priestly permission, and she was a Goddess no more. Temple officials were said to be seeking a replacement.

Now it seems that Ms. Shakya's divinity will be reinstated after all. The de-deification of Ms. Shakya made such a fuss in Nepal, the temple authorities have said they will reinstate her, provided she undergoes a ceremony to cleanse herself of any sins she may have committed in America — an extremely sinful place, as everybody knows.

I'm in two minds about this one. I'm glad that the lass will get back her Goddess's crown, or whatever kind of headgear it is that Nepalese Goddesses wear. On the other hand, there was something satisfying in the knowledge that even a Goddess has to obey rules.


A Legislature at War     From G.M. Trevelyan's A Short History of England:

The great French war — alike in its first phase in the time of Pitt and Nelson, and in its last in the time of Castlereagh and Wellington — was fought by the House of Commons. The comparison of the Roman Senate fighting Hannibal was in the mind of every educated man. The persons whom the House trusted could wield the national power and purse, on condition of explaining their plans to the benches of country gentlemen, and winning their approval. For this reason Parliamentary eloquence was at its zenith.

And for some related reason, I suppose, Congressional eloquence is currently at its nadir.


Math Corner     The topic this month is the humble tetrahedron. A tetrahedron is a triangular pyramid — here you go. It has four triangular faces, meeting three by three at four vertices. It has six straight edges. If all four triangular faces are equilateral triangles — so that all edges are the same length, all twelve face angles 60 degrees — then the tetrahedron is a regular tetrahedron, the simplest of the four "Platonic" solids.

Though very simple, the little tetrahedron — like, come to think of it, its 2-dimensional relative, the humble triangle — has many fascinating properties. Check out kaleidocycles, for instance; or search for "tetrahedron" on the Mathworld site; or look up "tetrahedron" in the index of David Wells's Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry.

Well: Digging in the back yard a couple of years ago, my son turned up a treasure trove of regular tetrahedra — dozens of them. Each one is 1.07 inch on an edge, and they are made from some kind of stone or ceramic. I have no idea where they come from or what they were doing buried in my yard. My son and I incline to the view that they were placed there by space aliens for some unfathomable space-alien purpose, and we had better take good care of them, ready for when the aliens come back to recover them. They have accordingly all been washed and placed in a bowl on my son's bookshelf. (In support of this hypothesis, I think I recall that the "sentinel" in Arthur C. Clarke's story of that name — the story that inspired the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey — was a regular tetrahedron.)

All right, here's a tetrahedron question. Imagine a tetrahedron that is hollow, its surface made of rubber. Pump it full of air: it turns into a sphere, the four vertices and six edges of the tetrahedron just visible as four dots joined by six lines on the surface of the sphere. Take a movie of this process. Now run the movie backwards, the sphere deflating to a tetrahedron. The sphere is "equivalent" to a single tetrahedron.

So far, so good. Now, in all topological enquiries, after you've done with the sphere, you turn your attention to the torus. Obviously (I hope!) a torus is not "equivalent" to a single tetrahedron, the way the sphere was. Is it, though, equivalent to some number of tetrahedra glued together by their faces?

To ask a different way: Is there some pattern of dots and lines I could draw on the surface of a rubber torus so that, on deflating the torus, I end up with some number of tetrahedra — not necessarily regular ones — glued together facewise? If so, what is the smallest number of tetrahedra for which I can do this?

(Note that kaleidocycles aren't allowed here, as they are glued together along edges, not faces. The enclosed air, when you try to pump up a kaleidocycle into a torus, won't be able to get past those glued-together edges.)

[Note added later: A mathematical pal commented: "Not sure your question is clearly enough stated. The torus is 2-dimensional and so is triangulated, tetrahedrons don't enter into it. If you mean the SOLID torus (which you probably do, since you talk about inflating it like a tire) then you've got a simplicial complex of dimension 3, not 2, and need to clarify." The latter, of course. I really just wanted to get readers fiddling with tetrahedra.]