»  National Review Online Diary

  January 2008

Campaign Onomastics.     "New boosts for O" was the New York Post headline (Jan. 13), over a story reporting that Barack Obama had won the endorsement of someone prominent in Nebraska.

Are we passing from an era when presidents were known by their initials — FDR, JFK, LBJ — to one in which they are known by their initial? Is W to be followed by O?

And then, Ron Paul. He will be the only president to be commonly known by a name made up of one syllable followed by one syllable. James K. Polk doesn't count because everybody always says the "K." George Bush the First would have counted if George Bush the Second hadn't come along. Now we have to add syllables to distinguish them somehow. Bill Taft might have qualified, except that hardly anyone ever refers to him that way. So Ron Paul will be the first.

Assuming, that is, he can beat Al Gore …

Sobriquets.     Early in the month I posted to The Corner about the lapsed habit of tagging rulers by their attributes.

What a pity Michael the Drunkard never got a chance to meet Selim the Sot (grandson, by the way, of Selim the Grim).

A pity, in fact, that we have stopped tagging rulers by their attributes. The older generation of English history teachers, just passing from the scene when I went to school, referred very casually and naturally to William Rufus, Henry Beauclerc, John Lackland, Edward Longshanks, and Richard Crookback. Over on the continent there were Charles the Fat, Henry the Fowler, Robert the Strong, Charles the Bald, and many others whose names brought them clearly into the mind's eye.

Reading Joan Acocella's review of David Lewis's book about Islamic Europe in The New Yorker, I was pleased to learn that Charlemagne's mother was Bertha of the Big Foot (his Dad was of course Pippin the Short), and that one of the early Umayyad caliphs rejoiced in the title al-Walid the Inadequate. Curious to know a bit more about him …

Corpse caper.     Who could resist the story of New Yorkers David Daloia and James O'Hare wheeling their friend's corpse into a check-cashing store in hopes of cashing his last welfare check? This kind of thing is inevitably tagged by the newspapers a "caper." This means a criminal act that does no-one any real harm and displays some kind of low-life ingenuity.

The money quote was from Daloia: "I've robbed banks and I didn't get that much coverage!" Daloia is in fact highly quotable. Of the dead pal, who was apparently of a pallid complexion — a pallid pal — Deloia said: "He looked like that every [expletive] morning. Of course I didn't know he was dead."

In our over-educated, over-policed, over-regulated, over-taxed society, it's refreshing to know that low life still goes on — that there are people living by their wits, by petty crime and ingenuity, yet without really hurting anyone. I think we all nurse a sneaking admiration for people like Deloia and O'Hare. In Britain, though oddly not here, there is an entire genre of TV comedy devoted to these folk: The Minder in the 1980s, Only Fools and Horses in the 1990s, and I'm sure others I've forgotten.

Nigel Farndale got to the nub of it, I think, writing about a different "caper" — the one in which 31-year-old trader Jerome Kerviel lost seven billion dollars of his employer's money. Farndale:

But the point is, below our surface indignation, we cannot help but see a certain nobility in risking everything on what the poet called "one turn of pitch-and-toss". What nerves this Kerviel must have had. What agonies of self-doubt he must have overcome. Those of us who play safe in life always feel a little jealous when confronted with a truly audacious risk-taker. They seem manlier than the rest of us. More alive. There seems to be more adrenaline coursing through their veins and more dopamine fizzing through their frontal lobes. All the great tragic heroes were pathological risk-takers: Achilles, Macbeth, Andy Kershaw. What they represent for us is the vicarious thrill of the taboo.

Social Mensuration.     Criminality, as I think I have noted before, is one of those large shapeless features of the individual human personality — like intelligence, or athleticism. or sex appeal — that we can all apprehend instinctively, but that are hard for quantitative science to get to grips with. Hard at the individual level, at least. If you do statistical work on good-sized human populations, you can get true and useful results about these things; at the individual level, the human personality is full of surprises. (It is a curious fact that this is the opposite of what most people believe.)

For one thing, these qualities have too much structure, too many dimensions. In athleticism there is hand-eye co-ordination, lung capacity, speed of reflex, agility, stamina, and so on; and a particular person we think of without doubt as "athletic" may measure no better on some of these dimensions than a couch potato like me. Likewise with intelligence, which has verbal, mathematical, musical, spatio-visual, and many other components. Yet still we can see, and be indubitably sure, that so-and-so is "very intelligent," while whats-his-name is "really athletic."

Criminality is another such quality. Some people have a lot of it; some people none. We all grasp this instinctively. I used to have a friend back in England who was way over in the left-hand tail of the criminality bell curve. He used to give me a lift to work every day. Driving, he kept his hands at precisely ten and two o'clock on the steering wheel, like a student driver, though he was well into his thirties. "That's how you're supposed to hold the wheel," he said indignantly when I poked fun at him. I often wondered what would happen if he came to a malfunctioning traffic light stuck at red. I couldn't imagine him going through the light. "That would be wrong." He'd probably still be sitting there now.

Over at the right-hand end of the criminality bell curve are the chronic offenders who populate our prisons. But criminality, too, has structure, dimensions, components: impulsiveness, present-centeredness, selfishness, callousness, scorn for the saps who work for a living, … (The title of that TV show Only Fools and Horses is a reference to the low-life axiom that those are the only two species of creatures that work.) The kind of people — "rogues," of course — who do those "capers" that amuse us so much are long on ingenuity and impulsiveness, but short on the unsavory things like callousness, the things that turn us off.

As I said, the trouble with all these big, shapeless, gross features of the human personality is that they are awfully hard to quantify scientifically, as seen in the endless tedious debates about IQ. Well, I have a suggestion.

Training to be a math teacher, I was taught the "social" method of mensuration, as a conversation piece to use if you got through the class material early.

What you do is, draw a clear straight line on the chalkboard, then ask all the class to privately write down what they think is its length in inches. Then you collect the results and average them. That should give you the length of your line.

This "social mensuration" is actually a lousy way to find the length of a line segment. A ruler or a measuring tape will do a much better job. It seems to me, though, that it might be just the ticket for measuring these gross features of the individual human personality. Here the best measuring stick is another human being! We have a good idea, once we have got to know a person, "how much" intelligence (athleticism, criminality, sex appeal, funny-ness**, etc.) that person has. It's the quantitative scientists who have trouble getting a number out of it. There are no good rulers, no measuring tapes.

So just expose your test subject at length to a room full of other human beings, and average the scores.

It's a bit labor-intensive, I agree, but I bet the results would be pretty good.

** Funny-ness is definitely one of these gross attributes. We all know people who are just naturally funny. (I mean, of course, funny-haha, not funny-peculiar … though we all know plenty of those, too.) Dudley Moore, paying tribute to his comedy partner Peter Cook after Cook's death, said something like: "He was funny all the time, naturally funny. Peter was funny the way beautiful people are beautiful." I think we all know what he meant.

Conan Doyle.     This month's reading included the new collection of Conan Doyle's letters. I didn't know that Doyle had volunteered for military service when WW1 broke out in 1914. Say the editors:

Conan Doyle himself was far beyond military age but felt he knew something about the business, and that he had valuable experience through the civilian rifle clubs he had helped create after the Boer War.  … He did apply for service, saying, "Though I am 55 years old, I am very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances which is useful at drill." The Army turned him down.

Well, I call that a true patriot.

Dry thunder, no rain.     Though the Iraq War has plainly developed into a minor disaster for the U.S.A., and I favor a brisk withdrawal with as much of a face-saving arrangement as we can cobble together, I have never felt any particular shame or guilt at having supported the 2003 attack. A January 27 editorial in the New York Post reminded me why.

Saddam never really expected a full-scale U.S. attack: If Washington thought Iraq was hiding WMDs, he figured, the worst it might do is launch something like the four-day pinprick bombing President Bill Clinton OK'd under similar circumstances in '98. Saddam could live with that.

It turned out otherwise, but who's to blame him for thinking so, given the US record — not just in Iraq, but in other places where Washington's response has been heavily tempered?  … America needs to heed the underlying message: Dictators won't respond to threats they don't take seriously. Had the US record reflected greater toughness, the war itself might have been averted.

Exactly. We had hesitated and consulted, hemmed and hawed, pinpricked and "practiced restraint" for years. It was heartening to see the nation take ferocious, resolute action against a nuisance regime. As the Post said, if we'd built up a reputation for that, we would have been spared a lot of problems, including the Saddam problem.

That doesn't excuse the silly fantasies about "nation-building" and "bringing freedom to the Iraqis" (who don't want freedom, and wouldn't recognize it if they had it) that then followed and vitiated the Iraq attack, to the degree, I think, of canceling out all the good it did for our reputation. It does, though, tell us that swift, fierce action against nations that vex us, will ensure that we get vexed much less.

Be nice to think that the lesson has been learned. It hasn't, of course. The future will be full of more pinpricks and nation-building and blustering diplomacy — gan lei bu xia yu, as the Chinese say: "Dry thunder but no rain." Proverbs 26.xi.

The dog up and died.     Speaking of dogs … Poor old Boris. Many, many thanks once again to all the kind readers who emailed in with condolences. People — friends and neighbors, as well as readers — have been wonderful. I believe I replied to everyone who emailed me. If I somehow missed you, my apologies. I did my honest best. If you didn't catch the Boris Memorial Web Page when I posted it to the Corner, it's here.

I'm surprised at how affected I have been by losing our dear old mutt. It is a reminder that everything that is really real to us is modest in size and close at hand. I can't truthfully say I shed a tear for 9/11, for example. Too colossal, too distant.

And too unfamiliar, of course. I never had a dog before Boris, but I've had other pets — at least two cats, when I first started living away from home. And of course, as several commiserating readers observed, these little losses prepare and train us for the bigger ones.

When I was a kid we had a budgie named Mickey. He lived to an extraordinary age, well over a decade — died while I was away at college. I can't say I bonded much with Mickey, but my Dad, normally an antisocial and uncommunicative type, sure did. He used to stop at Mickey's cage and engage the bird in long conversations before going to bed at night. "You talk more to that damn bird than you do to me," my mother used to grumble, which was quite possibly true. Despite not having bonded with the bird, I missed him when he was gone.

When Captain Cook sailed his great ship into Botany Bay, there were natives gathering shellfish on the shore. They paid no attention to the ship, only glanced up at it, then went on with what they were doing. However, when the ship lowered boats and rowers made for the shore, the natives fled in fear. Men in canoes — that was something they knew about!

It's the same with all our emotions. A major horror like 9/11 just overloads the circuits; the death of a pet is easier to apprehend, easier to feel.

Math Corner.     Last month's Math Corner asked you to find something to say about the number 2008.

Here's what I got.

OK, I have a really tough one this month, from reader John Inman. He tells me: "This was given by a fairly well-known professor (at least at UCLA) to his graduate algebra class as a homework problem. No one solved it." I couldn't either.

Here is the question: How many ways are there to associate n symbols?

For example, if you are given three symbols, there are obviously two ways to associate them: (ab)c, and a(bc). Says John:

One might naïvely think that the problem admits a simple induction proof; when considering n + 1 symbols, you can replace two adjacent symbols (say, a and b) with a composite symbol (ab) and reduce the problem to the 'n-symbol' case. Since there are n such pairs, there are n different reductions. This would yield the simple result, "n + 1 symbols can be associated n-factorial ways".

This would be wrong, as consideration of even the n = 4 case reveals:

Considering ab as a composite symbol yields ((ab)c)d and (ab)(cd).
Considering bc as a composite symbol yields (a(bc))d and a((bc)d).
Considering cd as a composite symbol yields (ab)(cd) and a(b(cd)).

One can't help but notice that (ab)(cd) has been counted twice. There are actually only 5 ways to associate 4 symbols.

So, what is the closed-form solution to the problem?

I don't guarantee a Fields Medal if you crack this, but … I can get you a free Ron Paul button.