»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2007

Back to School.     Ah, high school! My daughter begins attending the local high school this week. We went along to the parents' orientation session last Thursday. I noticed the thing I always notice at these things: the parents who show up are pretty solidly white-European. In a gathering of over two hundred, there were five visible exceptions—say 3 percent. The school boasts of being 35 percent minority, though GreatSchools.net shows 30 percent.

I was keen to get a look at the principal, Carmela Leonardi, about whom there has been a fuss recently. In very brief: Some parents and school board members recently tried to dislodge Ms. Leonardi, apparently believing that she showed interest in, and concern for, only the Hispanic students. The pot boiled over when Ms. Leonardi began providing translation services into Spanish at parents' meetings. Fighting against dismissal, Ms. Leonardi played the race card, threatening litigation via federal "discrimination" laws. The school board backed down. A big fat federal lawsuit would be a disaster for a small school district like this one, so it looks as though we're stuck with Ms. Leonardi.

For detailed news stories (though mainly biased ones—Long Island Newsday is several ticks to the multiculturalist left of the New York Times), see here, here, here, and google at will. Ms. Leonardi gets stinky reports on RateMyTeachers.com, though since I have only just started using this site, I'm not sure how much weight I should give to that. Around the neighborhood it's hard to find anyone with kids at the high school who thinks Ms. Leonardi is right for her job. Even the love-the-world bleeding hearts, the tree-huggers and whale-savers, and the types with IMPEACH BUSH bumper stickers, grumble about her.

You can't argue with a federal lawsuit, though. Thus federal laws originally passed in a spirit of atonement for slavery and Jim Crow are used as weapons in a conflict that has nothing to do with either issue—a conflict that is, depending on whom you talk to, either a clash of personalities or an arrogant assertion of Hispanic designated-victim group privileges. Thus do our freedoms—freedoms to work out our own problems at the local level, citizen to citizen—disappear into the insatiable maw of federal government power, all under the banner of "fairness," "diversity," and "anti-racism," against which none dares stand.

Oh My God.     As further prep for my daughter's ascent to high school, I have been reading Jeremy Iversen's High School Confidential. Iversen is from a wealthy Manhattan family and missed the high school experience, instead attending a tony boys' boarding school. After graduating college, he decided to do what Cameron Crowe had done 25 years before: go back to high school under cover. At age 24 Iverson found he could still pass for 17. He persuaded a California high school, which he pseudonymizes as "Mirador High," to let him embed as a senior, no-one but the principal knowing.

I'm not going to offer a mini-review of Iversen's book here. It does not have many surprises—certainly not for those of us who believe that California is an irredeemably messed-up place to whose land borders someone should apply a humongous power saw so that the entire wretched state could float off into the Pacific Ocean and cease bothering us.

The strongest impression I got from Iversen's book was of mediocrity. None of the school's students or teachers seems very smart or interesting, and not much teaching or learning gets done. One of the author's footnotes tells the essential tale: "As a Mirador twelfth-grader, I never had to write a paper longer than two pages. I never had to find any source beyond the one assigned book."

This isn't a slum school, mind. The parents of Iversen's classmates were small business and professional people and civil servants, some well above middle-middle-class. It's just that the easy hedonism of life in today's America—especially, I insist on believing, today's California—drains life of any need to struggle or concentrate. Even the students' misdemeanors and extracurricular adventures are insipid and unimaginative by comparison with what I remember of my own.

In these students' minds, odd scraps of awareness—fragments of world or national news, bits and pieces of vaguely-remembered history or science—float on, and quickly dissolve in, a warm balmy ocean of celebrity gossip, fashion, casual sex, status-seeking, and "relationships." It's like being stuck for 400 pages among those people Jay Leno meets in his "walkabout" segments—people who can't place the Civil War in the correct century and can't name the current U.S. Vice President, but can tell you the precise current state of the Paris-Nicole friendship.

This is the next generation of Americans? We are doomed, doomed. Or, as any one of Iversen's female classmates would say—as they all in fact do say, around four times per page: Oh my God. And how I wish I had not learned the meaning of MILF.

Our Truth Is....     High school has of course four stages: freshman, sophomore, junior, senior.

Four is also, as it happens, the number of stages into which the stricter doctrines of Hinduism divide a man's life.

First you are a student, celibate and earnestly devoted to the cultivation of the mind and talents. Then you are the householder, creating and supporting a family. Having fulfilled those responsibilities, you retire into the third stage, leaving the city to live on nuts and berries in the forest, with minimal possessions and only occasional family contacts. Finally, "at or beyond the age of fifty," you become a sannyasi, abandoning the material world altogether, wandering the roads as a beggar, praying and meditating and practicing yoga.

This came to mind while I was reading about Jim McGreevey. This is the ex-governor of New Jersey, the guy who told us: "My truth is that I am a gay American." That was three years ago, when the Love Gov was announcing his resignation, after having striven mightily for the preceding three years to do what no-one would have thought possible: to make the administration of the Garden State even more corrupt and dysfunctional than it was when he arrived.

McGreevey subsequently dumped his wife and daughter for the favors of a wealthy fund manager, Mark O'Donnell. McGreevey and O'Donnell now live together in homo-Celtic bliss at the latter's lavish spread in Plainfield, New Jersey. The ex-governor will begin full-time studies at an Episcopalian seminary this week. (The Episcopal church is short of gay ministers—didn't you know?)

For the sake of my blood pressure, I suppose I should stop reading stories about McGreevey and his antics. That phrase, though—"My truth is that I am a gay American"—has lodged itself in my mind, as somehow emblematic of the degraded state of our society. It draws me in. So here I am, reading about the loathsome McGreevey again. And again, I note how the newspapers—well, my newspaper—refer to O'Donnell as McGreevey's "boyfriend."

Boyfriend? McGreevey is 50 years old. Do 50-year-old guys—or 50-year-old gals, for that matter—have boyfriends? Wikipedia is just as bad: "McGreevey has been dating an Australian-American executive, Mark O'Donnell, since late 2005." Dating? What, do they go and share a pistachio ice cream melt down at the soda fountain? Canoodle at the drive-in? Exchange class rings?

We are trending towards a state of society in which the adult American male, like the devout Hindu, lives life in four stages. None of our four stages has anything to do with celibacy or responsibility, though, let alone renunciation (what's that?) Our four stages are: high school, high school, high school, and high school. That's our truth.

Extraordinary Sighting.     Now, I'm not absolutely sure, but I'm pretty sure about this. It was an amazing thing to see, and sometimes you find it hard to believe your eyes. Your senses reel in astonishment, and before you can regain your mental balance, the phenomenon has passed out of sight. I only wish I could have been carrying a camera. With that qualification, here is what I think I saw.

Walking my dog along a medium-busy suburban street the other morning, I could swear I saw an automobile whose driver was not talking into a cell phone!

Sub-Prime.     I know, I know, I shouldn't count by color. It is wrong, wrong, wrong of me. I was doing it with the audience at the high school orientations session, and I've been doing it again with TV news stories about the "sub-prime" mortgage-lending meltdown. Have you seen a few of those stories? Notice anything about the people in trouble with these loans? If you did—why, then, you are just as sinfully racist as I am!

We are not alone in our wickedness, though. In fact we have very distinguished company: Mike Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City. Said Mike the other day on his WABC radio show, in reference to the mortgage mess: "What happened here is a bunch of people, who really didn't have the wherewithal to get mortgages, got mortgages. If they didn't have access to those mortgages, the elected officials would scream, 'You're discriminating against them.' Some of them lied about their incomes." [My italics.]

Yep. Remember the fuss a few years ago about how banks and thrifts were discriminating against minorities by not granting them loans at the same rate as white people? Someone—I think it was the Wall Street Journal—crunched the numbers and showed that minority borrowers defaulted at just the same rate as others. If minorities were being discriminated against—worthy minority loan recipients being denied because of "discrimination"—their default rate ought to have been lower.

Nobody paid any attention. The hucksters went right on screaming "racism," the Justice Department made throat-clearing noises, and lenders obediently loosened the criteria for minorities... With results so obvious even RINO Mike can't help but notice them.

Pattie Boyd.     There are plain women, there are pretty women, there are attractive women, and there are beautiful women. High above them all, in a realm of their own, there are those women. I think every guy knows what I mean: women who, without necessarily being beautiful in a conventional way, or having any specially iridescent qualities of intelligence or personality, cause our knees to tremble, our eyeballs to lock, and our poor tongues to lose the power of speech.

These heart-breakers don't necessarily come out well in film or photograph, and can't be reconstructed from direct description. Their traces in literature and history can be spotted only by the effect they have on the men around them, as a dark star moving through space must be tracked by the gravitational perturbations it induces in nearby celestial objects. Lucrezia Borgia may have been one such; the Lady of the Camellias—a real person, before Al Dumas novelized her and Joe Verdi opera-fied her—may have been another.

I'm betting that Patti Boyd had that strange power. She had three hit pop songs written in her honor: George Harrison's "Something," and Eric Clapton's "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight." That has to be some kind of record (so to speak). Now Patti has an autobiography out. I especially enjoyed this extract from the New York Post story:

At one point, Clapton, drunk on brandy, arrived at their house, and Harrison decided to have a duel for Boyd's love.

"George handed him a guitar and an amp—as an 18th-century gentleman might have handed his rival a sword—and for two hours, without a word, they dueled."

"At the end, nothing was said but the general feeling was that Eric had won. He hadn't allowed himself to get riled or go in for instrumental gymnastics as George had. Even when he was drunk, his guitar-playing was unbeatable."

More alarming, it seems that Keith Richards is going to give us his own autobiography sometime around 2010. Since we all assume that Keef spent the entire sixties and seventies in a narcotic haze, it'll be interesting to see what he can remember. He's a creative guy, though. I'm sure he'll come up with something.

Why Cigarettes Were So Popular.     Looking back on the Cigarette Age—the middle two quarters of the twentieth century—from this point in time, a lot of young people must wonder: Why did everyone smoke so much? Well, here's a part of the answer.

Pubs are planning to pump air fresheners into their bars to mask the smell of stale beer, sweat and drains that used to be disguised by cigarettes before the smoking ban. ... Oliver Devine, senior marketing manager at the Sizzling Pub Company, part of M&B [a big British brewery company], told the [London] Sunday Times: "Appetising food smells have increased but others are less attractive, such as stale food and beer, damp, sweat and body odour, drains and—how do you put this nicely?—flatulence."

M&B has already tried out fragrances at four pubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow. "We are considering trialling [sic] the smell of leather, which suggests luxury and indulgence, and cut grass, which is clean and domestic," he added.

Before the advent of modern standards of hygiene and ventilation, there were even more nasty smells around than there are today. Tobacco smoke helped block out those smells, and was welcomed on that account, even by nonsmokers. To this day, the Chinese word for "cigarette" is xiangyan—"fragrant smoke."

In novels of the cigarette age—I am reading one at the moment—a smoking character will ask a nonsmoker if it's OK to light up, and the nonsmoker will say: "Go ahead—I don't myself, but I like the smell of the smoke." As opposed to the smell of you, is the unspoken following thought.

Death of a Tory.     Bill Deedes, editor of the London Daily Telegraph 1974-86, died this month. He hired me to write some Op-Eds for the paper in the early 1980s, and I went to his office at the old Telegraph building in Peterborough Court—a building that strove, in its interior decor and maintenance standards, to resemble as closely as possible the minor sort of provincial government office in an impoverished Third World country.

The first words Bill ever said to me, past basic greetings, were: "Want a drink?" He kept a bottle of scotch in the cabinet behind his desk. The relationship proceeded very little further, once contractual details had been sorted out, but I cherish memories of a generous and hospitable man with a staff exceptionally devoted to him, carrying forward the great midcentury Tory traditions of duty, plain speaking, courage, male companionship, reticence, decency, scorn for affectation and pretense, skepticism of government, dislike of intellectuals and religious enthusiasts, love of gossip, and dedication to tobacco and booze, into an age that cherished all the opposite things. R.i.P.

Nation Wreckers.     A lot of readers must have seen this report from the Beeb, about record numbers of British people emigrating. Favorite bolt-holes: Australia, Spain, France, New Zealand, U.S.A., Canada. One of my readers had an interesting take on this.

I've gotten to know an early-40s English chap who lives in Western MA. He is a small independent construction contractor who improves the houses of wealthy people in the Berkshires. He is very successful. He has a working-class English accent (not sure where he's from). He strides into people's houses and tells them confidently what they need, doing operational and financial calculations in his head and telling the customer what it will cost and how long it will take. He's a highly skilled carpenter himself. For his projects he employs lots of independent contractors, who are usually younger locals and less skilled and savvy than he. He has a bright shiny extra-large pickup truck with tool box, and a boat on a trailer that he takes to lakes on summer weekends.

He's also strongly left-liberal and strongly pro-Democrat. When he was in the UK, he was strongly pro-Labour and voted that way. He left the UK ˜5 years ago to come here because he was unhappy with living conditions. Regulations made it hard for him to work and do his job and employ people. It was too expensive and crowded. Public services were falling apart. Crime was too high, the government wasn't protecting him, and he was powerless to do anything about it. He was surrounded by unassimilated foreigners who made him feel like an outcast in his own country. He couldn't see himself getting ahead in the UK or wanting to raise children there.

Now he and a class of people who fouled their nest in the UK (and Holland, and Germany and Denmark, and France...) are finding the conditions they helped to create in their countries of birth to be unbearable and they are fleeing to freedom and safety in America, Canada, New Zealand and other places ... However, they are bringing with them their unreformed social-democratic left-liberalism, which paralyzed their aboriginal societies and sabotaged their immune systems. Once in their new host country, they embrace the same nation-wrecking policies that they insisted on in their old nation.

What are we to make of this? In the Victorian era, the families of Britain and the empire sent out young men who were patriotic nation builders with a strict moral code and missionary desire to build great nations. Now a new class of people has figured out a formula for wrecking nations and they are pouring out of the nations they wrecked, intent on wrecking the next nation... What are your thoughts on the left-liberal nation wreckers? Should we turn back their refugee ships at our harbors?

Well, there's food for thought. It's the same problem with any kind of mass immigration, though. How do you filter out the Vito Corleones from the Enzo the Bakers? The Mohammed Attas from the Wafa Sultans? I think the question is actually a bit academic. Right now the U.S.A. has all the people it needs, and then some. Let's have another moratorium on all immigration, as in 1924-65. Keep 'em all out—especially those pesky nation-wrecking Brits.

Wine in a Box.     The Derbs are great consumers of wine-in-a-box. We get through two or three boxes a month. There's always a box of white in the fridge, and one of red in the basement. The boxes come with a wee plastic spigot, so helping yourself to an impromptu glassful is even a bit too easy. We drink a glass or two each with dinner, except in winter, when we tend to drink more Chinese liquor—Fenjiu, Luzhou, Wu-liang-ye, and of course Maotai.

I sometimes catch visitors looking askance at this. Drinking wine out of a box is, they seem to think, a bit white trash (or in Mrs. Derb's case, I guess, yellow trash). I don't see this. If we were true white trash, we'd be chugging down six-packs of beer, wouldn't we? Whatever. We're happy with the habits we've settled into, and wine from a box is one we cherish.

Now here comes validation from no less a source than the French firm Cordier Mestrezat Grand Crus, a maker of fine Bordeaux wines. (I really wanted to write the plural of "Bordeaux" there, but couldn't figure out what it is.) Apparently the French vintners are having trouble moving their product, especially to young people—something to do, perhaps, with the fact that a high and swelling proportion of their young people adhere to a certain religion that proscribes alcoholic drinks.

At any rate, the vintners are resorting to desperate measures. Cordier is going to start selling wine in boxes à l'Americaine. Actually, not quite so: these are to be not the 5-liter spigoted boxes belovéd of the Derbs, but little one-portion sippy boxes, like the ones we pack for kids' school lunches. They will even come with a straw. Now that's white trash!

This is your brain on neuroscience.     It's now eleven years since Tom Wolfe declared neuroscience to be "the hottest field in the academic world." Tom was ahead of the curve, but not by much. How hot is neuroscience today, as a field that super-smart young people want to get into? Listen.

Young George Hotz of Glen Rock, NJ—he is 17—had one of those Apple iPhone gizmos. The iPhone is set up to connect only to AT&T's wireless network, and this vexed George. He accordingly pried open the case—guitar picks, he says, are the tools of choice here—and spent a couple of hours doing ultra-fine work on the circuit board (with soldering tools) and software. Now his iPhone connects to T-Mobile.

George has generously posted his methods on the internet. Feathers are flying in various locations: Apple is not pleased, neither is AT&T, and eBay is being uncooperative in George's attempts to sell the modified phone. No matter: 100,000 teenage hackers are at this very moment duplicating George's stunt, and Apple's business model for the iPhone has a nasty big hole below the waterline, thanks to a high-school geek and his guitar picks. Count one for the little guy.

What are his future plans, this teenage genius? "Hotz is beginning his freshman year of college this semester at Rochester Institue of Technology. He plans to major in neuroscience." What else?

Prediction.     Speaking of neuroscience: I made the following prediction in a Letter to the Editor of The American Spectator early in August. Whether they'll print the letter or not I don't know, so for insurance I'll make the prediction again here.

The Intelligent Design People will soon move camp. The anti-evolution seam is pretty much worked out, and the rapid increase in our understanding of genetics, especially paleogenetics, is causing them serious problems.

My prediction is that they will dump all the stuff about fossils and "irreducible complexity," rewrite their placards and banners, and go camp outside the neuroscience department with their bullhorns and noisemakers. Consciousness Studies is a big thing now, and getting bigger fast. The problems it has to solve are particularly knotty, and should keep the scientists busy for several decades at least. Those problems relate rather obviously to issues of the soul, and of human exceptionalism—rich picking for the Discovery Institute types. You heard it here first.

Idiocy Watch.

Mrs. Derb: "Where's your car?"

Me: "Parked outside as usual."

She: "No, it's not there."

Me: "What?" [Looks] "Darn, it's been stolen."

She: "Better call the police."

[I do so, giving them all relevant details. They tell me an officer will be round shortly to make a written report.]

[5 minutes later]

Mrs. D.: "When did you last drive it? Did you drive it yesterday at all?"

Me: "No. Home all day yesterday fixing up Nellie's room."

She: "So ... you haven't driven it since Tuesday?"

Me: "No."

She: "But Tuesday night a limo brought you home."

[I'd been to a dinner in the city Tuesday evening, and the organizers laid on a car to take me home.]

Me: "Hmm. That's right. So ... I drove to the railroad station, rode the train into town, and came back from the city by limo."

She: "So your car is..."

[Both, in unison]: "...still parked at the railroad station!"

Moral of story: Consult memory before jumping to conclusions.

Reader Love.     I was feeling down the other day. Down, low, depressed, for several reasons—though none of them, I am glad to say, life- or family-threatening. So there I was, in the throes of angst, of weltschmerz, of taedium vitae, of fin-de-siècle ennui (a bit late, but that's what it felt like).

I hadn't even the energy to drag myself up to my attic study. Slouched on the living-room sofa, I summoned up enough interest in life to reach for my laptop and open it up. I'd left my email unattended-to for two or three days on account of the angst, weltschmerz, etc. I thought I'd better check it. Why not? Nothing else to do—nothing requiring less energy, anyway. There wasn't really much point—but then, there wasn't much point in anything, was there? Might as well kill some time doing something other than just breathe in and out, which was beginning to be a bit of a chore.

There was a big tranche—fifty or sixty—emails from readers. A handful were nagging, preachy, or obnoxious, but the great majority were appreciative and friendly. One just said, in lower case: "we love to read your articles. thank you." Several expressed similar sentiments at greater length.

After twenty minutes of this, I looked up, across the living room to the glass patio door, and through that to the deck and the garden beyond (which is on the south side of my house). The sun had come out. The lawn was all dappled with light under the fruit trees my sweet wife has planted. My lovely daughter was sitting on the deck under a sun umbrella, knitting. The wind chimes were tinkling in a slight breeze. Everything was pervaded with light, love, contentment, and opportunity. What on earth had I been feeling so miserable about? I couldn't even remember.

I'm not good about email. I read it all, but don't respond to half as much as I should. This is just a huge, heartfelt, generic THANK YOU to everyone who's liked something I've written and taken the trouble to email in and say so. If there was a way to do it with web postings, I'd call my daughter in to decorate that THANK YOU with her trademark pastel flowers, birds, and smiley faces, to give it more warmth. It'll have to do as it is, I'm afraid, but it's from the heart.

Faster Than Light.     There was a news story passed around in August that some German scientists had broken the ultimate speed barrier, and persuaded some subatomic particles to travel faster than light.

It turned out to be a misunderstanding. It's worth noticing, though, that there is in fact no prohibition in the laws of physics against traveling faster than light. Scientists have in fact been making particles go faster than the speed of light for decades.

What the laws of physics prohibit is traveling faster than c, the speed of light in a perfect vacuum. Since there is, in our current understanding of nature, no such thing as a perfect vacuum, this is a highly theoretical quantity!

In any actual medium—including "empty" space, which is never really empty—light travels at a speed less than c, so if you can accelerate your particles to some speed greater than that less-than-c speed, bingo! the particles are going faster than the speed of light in that medium. The speed of light in water, for example, is around 0.75c. Accelerate a particle to 0.8c, and it's going faster than the speed of light in water. No physical laws have been violated and everything is tickety-boo.

When you pull off this stunt—getting particles to go faster than the speed of light in some medium—you observe a characteristic kind of radiation called "Cerenkov radiation." That bluish glow you get from radioactive material immersed in water is caused by Cerenkov radiation.

It's the same for any medium, though of course, the thinner the medium, the closer you need to get to c to make that Cerenkov radiation shine. In interstellar space, which is a very thin medium indeed, you'd need to be moving at something like 0.9999995c. If some advanced civilization could do that, and could send starships whizzing round the galaxy at such speeds, we would be able to spot them by their Cerenkov radiation. There must have been sci-fi stories on this theme, though I can't recall any. I'll give up the rest of this morning to re-watching my Firefly DVDs to see if it comes up...

Math Corner.     The answer to last month's conundrum is: Nine. There is a worked solution here.

Instead of a brainteaser this week, I'd just like to remind readers of the existence of mathematical verse, a genre I have been known to dabble in myself very occasionally.

The specimen that brought this topic to mind in August was a brilliant one sent me by a reader, a formula involving an integral that could be read out loud as a limerick. Unfortunately the darn thing got lost in the email ocean and I can't find it now.

If that reader, or any other who knows the formula I mean, could send it to me, I'd be much obliged. Meanwhile, for your reading pleasure, here is a compendium of math verse from the master, Martin Gardner. My personal favorite:

[Gardner] "A classic instance of accidental word play is provided by the first (1819) edition of William Whewell's Elementary Treatise on Mechanics. On page 44 the text can be arranged in the following form:

     There is no force, however great,
     Can stretch a cord, however fine,
     Into a horizontal line,
     Which is accurately straight.

"The buried poem was discovered by Adam Sedgwick, a Cambridge geologist, who recited it in an after-dinner speech. Whewell was not amused. He removed the poem by altering the lines in the book's next printing. Whewell actually published two books of serious poetry, but this unintended doggerel is the only 'poem' by him that anyone now remembers."

The paths to immortality are strange and winding indeed.