»  National Review Online Diary

  December 2007

Interesting Times.    Not! I mean, this was a quiet year in the news, as years have been going lately. That, of course, is good. Past the onset of middle age — perhaps even past 30 — very few of us wish for the times to be interesting.

I certainly haven't found the absurdly premature election campaign very interesting. "On January 2, 1960, Kennedy declared his intent to run for President of the United States," Wikipedia tells me. I believe Kennedy was even then criticized for having started campaigning too early. Such innocent times! The current campaign started up in, when was it? April?

"He did not believe that politics were very important or that people should get excited about them or allow them to penetrate too far into their everyday lives." That's Paul Johnson on Warren Harding. Does the U.S.A. still produce Warren Hardings? If we don't, then so much the worse for us.

Interesting Places.    Speaking of interesting times, or rather uninteresting (in the same sense) places: the U.N. came out with its 2007 Human Development Index at the end of November. The HDI, says Wikipedia, "is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare."

Top ranked nation on this well-being index? Iceland. Not really very surprising. Small; remote; an island (that's what "Iceland" means — nothing to do with ice); mixed Nordic/Celtic stock, monocultural and monoracial; cradle-to-grave welfare state; not a member of the EU … The Icelanders don't even have to worry about oil: geothermal and hydroelectric sources supply all their electricity, and they fill up their cars with hydrogen — home-produced. A little paradise, right?

That depends on what you want from life. Japan is sometimes advertised to me in similar terms. When it is, I recall a very bright and charming woman I knew in England some years ago, and who subsequently married a friend of mine. She was from Japan, and very glad to be out of it. "The conformity," she'd groan. "You can't imagine!"

W.H. Auden made a similar point in his book Letters from Iceland:

If you have no particular intellectual interests or ambitions and are content with the company of your family and friends, then life on Iceland must be very pleasant, because the inhabitants are friendly, tolerant, and sane. They are genuinely proud of their country and its history, but without the least trace of hysterical nationalism. I always found that they welcomed criticism. But I had the feeling, also, that for myself it was already too late. We are all too deeply involved with Europe to be able, or even to wish to escape. Though I am sure you would enjoy a visit as much as I did, I think that, in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me. The truth is, we are both only really happy living among lunatics.

You may say that Auden was full of it, since he left the Europe he was so "deeply involved with" early in 1939 for the U.S.A. His point about Iceland is probably a true one, though. For chronic misfits like him and … other chronic misfits, the smug, eventless, introverted life of a place like that would be suffocating. Contrariwise, though, this would probably be an ideal life for a great many people. I bet most people in the world would live like Icelanders if they could. Good thing for the Icelanders they have no borders with poor, corrupt Third World nations. The entire population — it's less than 300,000 — would be doing Border Patrol duty. (Georgie Anne Geyer makes the argument for Iceland here.)

I note in passing the name of Iceland's right-wing political party: Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn. Say five times quickly.

[Auden's book — it was actually a collaborative effort with Louis MacNiece — is very funny and entertaining. I've been told it is on the web somewhere, but can't find it. Quite a lot of it is in verse, with some memorable couplets:

The tourist sights have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

Auden doesn't — as if he could! — restrict himself to comments on Iceland. This was 1936, after all:

  … our age is highly educated,
There is no lie our children cannot read.

We also get descriptions of Iceland's peculiar cuisine ("sheeps' udders pickled in sour milk … very nice"); pithy Icelandic proverbs ("Pissing in his shoe keeps no man warm for long"); an encounter with Goering's brother, who was visiting the country for some reason; the distinctly peculiar dark lullabies of the place:

Sleep, you black-eyed pig.
Fall into a deep pit full of ghosts …

 … and the longest word in the Icelandic language: Haestarjettarmalaflutunesmanskifstofustulkonutidyralykill — "a latch-key belonging to a girl working in the office of a barrister.]"

[Further note on Iceland: The year-end fun issue of The Economist has a fine piece on the 1783-84 eruption of Laki, which changed weather patterns world-wide. (There were ice floes in the Mississippi at New Orleans.) For Iceland herself, the consequences were appalling. More than half the livestock died, and a quarter of the population starved to death. There's the downside of being an Icelander: you're living on a volcano.]

COBOL Memories.    The name Grace Hopper came up in conversation recently. The actual topic of the conversation was whether women had made any contribution to software. Well, Grace gave us the COBOL programming language. You will get an argument from some quarters about whether this was a positive contribution to the development of modern software, or a negative one … but I don't dwell in those quarters. I made a living as a COBOL programmer for some years, and so naturally regard Grace Hopper as a benefactor of mankind.

Having also spent much time managing COBOL programmers, I'll agree that for managers, COBOL had its drawbacks. You had to keep COBOL programmers on a tight rein. I had one — in England, of course — who uses to code his PROCEDURE DIVISION in verse that rhymed and scanned (not as hard as you'd think). Another was the only person, other than perhaps Grace Hopper, who knew that in place of the ELSE in IF … ELSE …  constructions, the IBM compilers allowed you to say OTHERWISE, and of course he insisted on doing so. (When CICS came in, the pre-processor let you mis-spell RECEIVE as RECIEVE, since approx. 90 percent of programmers did anyway.) Yet another coder took it as his mission in life to write code as incomprehensible as possible. He would assign the name SEVEN to a constant whose value was 4, and so on.

And then there were the ALTER wars. There must be Americans alive today who were fired for using an ALTER statement. Ah, good times …

[For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, yet who have perversely read this far into the section anyway, let me explain that the ALTER statement could be used to change your code thread at execution time — not very alarming to us old salts who had come up from Assembler programming, where instructions look pretty much like data anyway, but disconcerting to the less enlightened. For example, a code loop to sequentially process a file with a zillion records, but applying some special code to just the first of those records, might look like this:

label1.
    read a record (with some suitable provision for encountering end-of-file).
label2.
    go to label 3.
label3.
    one-time processing applicable only to the first record in the file.
    alter label2 to go to label4.
label4.
    regular processing, applicable to all records.
    go to label1.

There were places where that code would have got you fired. Not by me, though. I liked clever code, productivity and standards be damned.]

Standards of honesty.    Speaking of standards: There is a huge K-Mart store in our town. My wife went there to get some pajamas for our son. They had a product she liked: three-piece sets, with pajamas top and bottom and jockey shorts. Problem was, she couldn't find a complete set. Every pack had been opened, and one of the three garments removed.

She went to a store supervisor. He: "What can we do? People open the packs, take out what they want, stuff it under their jackets, and walk out with it." He then went into a long lament about the mass dishonesty of store patrons. They had tried an automated self-checkout, he said, but had had to remove it after just a few days: "People would register one or two items, and walk out with a bag full."

If I were to tell you what part of town this store is in, and which language predominates among its customers, people would shout at me and call me rude names, so I am not going to do that. No, Sir. No way. Absolutely not.

Eco-Friendly Banking.    To the bank to make a deposit. I'd run out of deposit slips, so I went looking for some on the bank counter. All I could find was a single-sheet deposit slip. That doesn't work for me. My normal deposit slips come three-fold: a white top slip, a yellow middle one, and a pink lower one. The yellow and the pink of course take their impression from what's written on the white. Now, as a freelancer, I live from check to check, from deposit to deposit. I keep the pink sheets for my records, and just add 'em up at year end for my income total. With no pink copy, I have no record.

I consulted a teller. He: "We've gone to single slips to save paper. It's a green thing."

The awful shadow of Al Gore loomed up in my mind's eye, but I wished it away. Me: "How am I to keep records, then?"

He: "No prob. I'll make a photocopy for you." He did so.

Now, I shall leave it to someone more patient than me to compute the comparative carbon footprints of (a) multifold stationery, and (b) photocopying, but my guess is, I'm looking at sheer gesture environmentalism here. But then, is there really any other kind?

The company of women.    Then to the local unisex salon for a haircut. This was the week before Christmas. We all want to look our best at Christmas, so the place was full, and all the hairdressers were on duty. Every one was female, median age about 35, all I think married.

Eight or ten married women, working together in a small space, free to talk as they work. Eeeeeek! This is Aristophanes territory.

As the pizza delivery man learned. The ladies had called in pizza for lunch from one of the local parlors. There's a big Italian-American population here in Huntington, and the pizza is correspondingly good. Well, the guy who came to deliver the pizza was very It-Am. You know what I mean: not very tall but well-built, darkish skin and deep steady eyes, shiny black hair well styled. His name — I swear I am not making this up — was actually Tony! He was sharply dressed, gold chain and pendant over a black T-shirt, under a fur-lined leather jacket. He had that walk — the one John Travolta has in the opening shots of Saturday Night Fever.

The ladies went nuts. I tell you, that place was fogged up from the estrogen being emitted. I can't even repeat the things they were saying, or rather hooting. Most of them were speculations on Tony's assets and abilities. Poor Tony didn't know whether to sneeze or wind his watch. He smiled nervously, made a few wise-guy ripostes, then got out of there as fast as he could, glad to escape all in one piece, I think.

Now, if we could only find some way to harness all that excess female sexual energy, we might not need to import so much oil.

Harvesting Wasted Time.    My man of the month is computer scientist Luis von Ahn. Check him out here. Von Ahn has figured out a way to make use of wasted time. The time we spend playing computer solitaire, for example, or the time we spend solving "captchas". Von Ahn estimates that humanity world-wide spends hundreds of thousands of hours every day solving captchas. Why not put all that time to some productive use? He has found a way. It would take longer to explain his ideas than it would for you to just view the video, which I urge you to do. (And when doing so, see if you agree with me that there is some major sexual chemistry going on there between Von Ahn and the interviewer.)

What a concept! I wonder if this guy can make anything useful out of the several hours I spend every week staring idly out of my window?

That Was the Year That Was.    Yep, it's over. What does the ledger show for my account this year? The Big Ledger, I mean. You know … that one. Less than I'd wish, for sure.

"If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman." Thus the great Dr. Johnson. My duties are plain — the two primary ones are yelling at each other in the kitchen as I write, over who ate the last piece of Mom's cranberry pie. Reference to futurity I am increasingly vague about, but on the whole I would rather have futurity think well of me, than not. Without the duties and the reference, I would probably spend my life doing jigsaw puzzles; but there they are, and there it is (will be, I mean), and what have I done for them this past year?

Well, I am still married to the same patient woman. Our kids have been bullied and bribed through another year of school and acceptable social life. That's not nothing. I got a new book contract, too, so I can feed these people for a few months.

What else do I have to show? Any original thoughts? Well, I don't really have original thoughts. I mostly pick up other people's and try to elaborate on them in some way. The nearest I got this year was my concept of an Arctic Alliance, which I have never seen mooted anywhere else. Doesn't seem it will catch on, though. I passed it to a couple of people I thought might be keen, but they both gave me an "Oh, Derb!" sigh, or the e-equivalent.

I did pick up a couple of Wikipedia tags, which is nice. Their article on Saturday Night Fever now links to my NRO commemorative piece; and their page for Doug Hofstadter's new book links to my Wall Street Journal review. For a freelancer, these are all little self-esteem boosters.

Oh, I struggled out at last from under the decaying corpse of the Microsoft Front Page monster. Partially, at any rate. My new website is up and running, but my efforts to get the pages of my old website ported over there, via Visual Basic programs I have written for the purpose, is making only slow progress. I now have some VB routines that do a lot of the job, but there is still "hand finishing" needed — a lot, in some cases. The other day I ported over my 2001 China travel diaries, which a lot of readers have enjoyed. Hand finishing took two hours. Re-think needed here.

On the whole, though, not a bad year for accomplishments. Onwards to 2008! Excelsior!

Math Corner.    That leads us to the traditional year-end Math Corner. 2008 does not appear in David Wells's Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers. My 1997 edition, in fact (I haven't seen the latest one) lists no numbers between 1980 and 2025. That means nothing, though. Wells actually misses an interesting factlet about 1980 that I noted in Unknown Quantity: if you were born in 1980, you will be 45 in 2025, and 2025 = 452.

So the challenge is to out-Wells Wells — see if you can find something curious or interesting about the number 2008. Happy New Year!