»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2008

Bill Buckley.     A sad month at National Review, of course. We had an editorial dinner the last Monday of the month at Bill's town house in Manhattan. The idea was that Bill would come in from Stamford, Connecticut for the dinner. At the last minute we heard that he wasn't feeling up to the trip. We went ahead with the dinner anyway, with a couple of distinguished guests, but no Bill.

The usual drill at editorial dinners was always that the event was over when Bill stood up. That was the traditional punctuation mark, after two hours of good food and good talk. On this Monday evening, after dinner, dessert, coffee and brandy had been consumed, the idea occurred to all of us that we ought to call it a night. Trouble was, nobody knew how to do it. At last we just stood up raggedly, a bit awkwardly, and made our way out.

The pattern had been broken. A little more than twenty-four hours later, Bill was no longer with us. We shall never again see him across that dinner table, chuckling mischievously at some indiscretion, pursing his lips to deliver an apothegm, sweeping the table with a silencing glance as he tapped his wineglass before summoning one of us to deliver an opinion.

Condemn'd to hope's delusive mine,
    As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline
    Our social comforts drop away …

The crack tax.     Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, staring at a $4.4 billion state deficit, has come up with a doozy of a revenue-raising idea: he proposes to tax illegal drug transactions.

The idea is for state offices to sell stamps that drug dealers could affix to their stashes of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. Then, if raided by law enforcement, at least John Q. Crackpeddler would be off the hook for tax liability.

The truly astounding thing about this story is not the proposal's own inner lunacy, but the fact that at least 21 other states are currently doing the thing proposed! Nebraska's state-issued drug stamp, for example, depicts a rolled joint crossed with a syringe in front of a skull and what appears to be a headstone, with the label "R.I.P."

A lady from the Federation of Tax Administrators, which oversees these bizarre programs, allows that while people do buy the stamps, "We assume they are all stamp collectors." Perhaps that's the idea — to make money from philatelists. I hope so; that would at least bring these schemes somewhere close to the realm of sanity.

Decline of stuff.     Four years ago I wrote a National Review column with that title, lamenting the increasingly flimsy and disposable nature of just about everything. Well, here's an addition: razors. Yes, they are already disposable, of course. Until recently, though, they did at least give you a decent shave.

No longer. Last fall I bought a pack of disposable razors. Using the first one, I realized with alarm that it wasn't actually removing my stubble, just sliding ineffectually over it. I muttered a few expletives, tossed the pack of razors, and bought a different brand, which worked.

I could swear that second pack, the pack of razors that worked, was Gillette Good News. So when I'd used the last one, the package having been thrown out some days before, I went to the drugstore and bought a pack of Good News (Plus! Value Pack!). They didn't work. I scraped and scraped, but the stubble was still there.

What's going on here? I have light brown north-European hair and a soft beard. After years of executing a policy of just buying the cheapest razors in the store, I never before ended up with razors that didn't work. Is this another area of our life laid waste by obstreperous trial lawyers?

Finding racism.     Where is racism located in the U.S.A.? Plainly not among Democratic primary voters, who are flocking to the banner of Barack Obama. Nor even among general election voters at large, who according to the latest polls prefer Obama to McCain more than they prefer Mrs. Clinton to McCain.

So where should we go looking for racism? Among the mountain militias of Idaho? or the Southern Comfort swamp dwellers of Louisiana? Where?

The answer apparently is: in the most liberal department of the most liberal university in the most liberal city on the East Coast. That, at any rate, is the assertion made by Madonna Constantine, Professor of Racial Resentment at Columbia University Teacher's College.

You may remember that last fall Columbia was scandalized by Prof. Constantine's claim that a noose had mysteriously appeared one day on her office door. The mystery quickly thickened, as Columbia put up strong resistance to requests from the police investigating the case that they be allowed to review surveillance tapes of the area around Prof. Constantine's office. The tapes, or some tapes, were eventually released, and the police investigation is, we are told, "ongoing."

This month it emerged that Prof. Constantine has been sanctioned by Columbia for numerous instances of plagiarism. She used material lifted without attribution from colleagues, and even from students, in papers she published in learned journals. Furthermore, the investigation into these plagiarism charges was well under way — and Prof. Constantine knew it was — at the time of the noose incident. Uh-huh.

It would be interesting to set up a group interview with the police officers who are still, so they say, investigating the noose incident. I imagine such an event might go something like this.

Interviewer: Do you gentlemen have any leads at all as to who might have placed the noose on Professor Constantine's door?

Spokes-cop: Leads? I couldn't really say so, no.

Interviewer: Any suspects at all? Do you think it's someone known to Professor Constantine?

Spokes-cop: Oh yes. Known to her, definitely.

     [At this point there is an odd sound, a sort of stifled snort or snicker, from one of the other officers present.]

Interviewer: Someone close to her, perhaps?

Spokes-cop: Close? Sure. Very close.

     [More of the stifled sounds, this time from three or four of the other cops present.]

Interviewer: So when do you think you'll be making an arrest?

Spokes-cop: Hard to say. Check back in another six months, we may have some noose — er, I mean news — for you.

     [Now all the cops in the room seem to be afflicted with the stifled snorts. They have mostly turned away so their faces can't be seen. Their shoulders are shaking. Some of the noises sound strangely like muffled laughter. The spokes-cop is still just managing to stay deadpan, with only some slight twitching of the facial muscles.]

Eat bugs for peace.     The United Nations wants us to eat bugs. No kidding.

[A]t a United Nations meeting in Thailand … experts are considering the dietary value of bugs and ways to farm the creatures that are delicacies in some countries.

More than 1,400 insect species are eaten by humans worldwide, so they offer promising possibilities both commercially and nutritionally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN said yesterday.

Among the most popular insect munchies are beetles, ants, bees, crickets and moths, the FAO said, noting that they can be nutritious, sometimes offering as much protein as meat and fish.

Two bug-eating stories, while you digest that. First story, which I am pretty sure is in Triste Tropiques. The anthropologist — who, if I have remembered the right book, would have been Claude Lévi-Strauss — was doing field work among hunter-gatherers in Brazil. He had heard that the particular tribe he was studying liked to eat the big fat white worms that can be found in damp rotted wood. However, he could never catch people in the act of eating these worms. The tribesfolk had been visited often enough to know that their worm-eating was disgusting to outsiders, so they did it in secret.

Then by chance the anthropologist walked into a hut just as the inhabitant was lifting a huge wriggling white grub to his mouth. The tribesman was embarrassed to have been caught in the act. To recover the situation, or just in an instinctive gesture of hospitality, he offered the grub to the anthropologist … who, acting on sound anthropological research principles, closed his eyes and ate it. He recorded in his book that: "It was the most delicious thing I ever tasted."

Second story: Dissident Vladimir Bukovsky spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in Soviet labor camps. In his memoir of these experiences, he tells of being in one camp where food was short. The camp inmates grumbled constantly about being hungry.

Then a new prisoner was put into their cell, a Chinese guy who had wandered across the border into the U.S.S.R. somehow and been arrested. He was a survivor of the great famines that racked China in the early 1960s. He didn't know much Russian, but when at last he realized that much of the conversation in the cell was about how hungry everyone was, he laughed and pointed to the flies crawling on the cell window …

Lottery winners.     I don't play any lotteries. I can't really say I have any principled objections to the things. It's just that I'm too forgetful to check the numbers when they're published. I've occasionally bought New York State lottery tickets in the past, but almost always forgot I'd done so, and misplaced the tickets, by the time the drawing came around. My wife is better disciplined, but she is also the only one of the world's 1,300,000,000 Chinese people who isn't interested in gambling.

The enjoyment we take in the lottery is therefore entirely vicarious. It's real enjoyment, though, or at least it was this month, when Robert Harris, a working man from a country town in Georgia, won the $275 million pot in the Mega Millions lottery. Mr. Harris lives in a trailer with his wife, who declared: "We're not gonna change. I'm too country."

Who doesn't smile with pleasure, reading a story like that? You can call it patronizing if you like, and sure, I'd rather it had been me that won $275 million than Mr. Harris … but still, it warms the heart somehow. The Harrises tell us they're going to buy a new truck and have a house built, one big enough to host their six grandchildren. I'd say "Good luck to them," but it seems a bit superfluous.

Health care options.     Oh, health care. The big question about health care is, since it's mostly technology based, why doesn't it keep getting cheaper, like everything else to do with technology? A car, a computer, a TV, takes a smaller bite out of my income today than it did twenty years ago. Why does it seem that my health-care insurance is on the verge of consuming my entire income? Why does it just keep getting more expensive, by leaps and bounds? My premiums went up fourteen percent in January. And that's nothing: in January 2007 they went up eighty percent. Why does health care keep getting more expensive?

The other day I had the opportunity to ask an actual economist this question — a Nobel-Prize-winning economist, in fact. He gave me a brisk economist's answer: "Because someone else is paying for it." Well, not in my case, obviously — I am, in point of fact, the "someone else" in that sentence — but for most Americans, this is true.

What's to be done? All the proposals coming out of the presidential candidates' campaigns amount to making the "someone else pays" principle more universal, which doesn't seem to me a very promising approach. I mean, it might get me off the hook by turning everyone else into a "someone else"; but when choosing among political options, we should be mindful of what is good for the nation at large, not merely what is good for ourselves.

Is there a way out? Possibly. A friend tells me: "About a year ago my wife had an endoscopy done while we were in China on business. The cost was 150 yuan, less than twenty dollars. Recently in Arizona she had the same procedure. This time the bill came to $3,776.12. The only difference being in China they let her take the picture home with her."

I told this story to my wife over the dinner table. Oh yes, she said, all her Chinese friends save up their dental treatment till they can go to China and have it done. Chinese dentists are excellent (this is a thing I've heard from other sources, too) and w a a y cheaper than American ones. If you have relatives to stay with in China, anything above the basic fill'n'drill work comes out cheaper even after you factor in the air fare! (A return ticket to Peking will run you $600-$700 at the Chinatown discount agents. My dentist wants $3,000 for some bridge work.)

Seems to me there is a terrific arbitrage opportunity here for Chinese doctors, dentists, and hospitals. According to The Economist, they are hungry for patients anyway. The China trip wouldn't be appropriate for all medical situations, of course. If you fall off a ladder and break your leg, hobbling to the airport for a China flight isn't really your preferred option. It does seem surprising, though, that the Third World isn't getting more of our medical business. I'm betting this will change.

Online Diagnostics.     Not medical diagnostics, computer diagnostics. I read about this in the January 2008 issue of PC Magazine. If you think your computer has cooties — you know, spyware, malware, viruses, all that horrible stuff — you just call one of these services and they'll diagnose and correct online, without you having to leave your desk.

Just the ticket: my desktop has been running slow and generally misbehaving. Cooties, for sure. PC Magazine rated several services, with Circuit City's "Firedog" service coming out top. So I called Firedog.

The experience was somewhat mixed. I got a phone appointment with a technician within two hours of buying the service, which only costs thirty dollars. The technician was patient and knowledgeable, taking remote control of my screen and mouse, pointing out problems and things I ought to do — really very helpful. I gave him top marks on the little rating thingy that came up afterwards.

On the other hand, the access side of the Firedog operation definitely needs work. I got through billing OK, and they sent me a confirming email with an order number and instructions on how to proceed. There was a phone number I should call, and I should press 2 on the phone menu, they told me.

I called the number, got a lady on the line. No menu. Did I want to arrange delivery of a TV? she asked. No, I said, I wanted the online diagnostic service I had just got through paying for.

Long silence. Then: "This is Circuit City. I'm not sure how you want me to help you."

Me: "Look, in the email it said to call this number and press option 2 on the phone menu. How come I didn't get a phone menu? Can I press option 2 now?"

She: "I should perhaps put you through to customer service?"

Things pretty much went downhill from there. I ended up with a different lady, on a different phone line, talking me through some procedures to enter my personal details into a computer screen. Those would be the same details I had already given when I placed my order. Grrrr.

I eventually made it, somewhat frayed, to the technician. He was, as I said, first-rate, and my machine is now cootie-free. That front end really needs work though, guys.

Memory Lane.     That was the first issue of PC Magazine I've bought in a while. It was in fact the "Special 25th Anniversary Double Issue." That was what caught my eye, and I bought the thing for old times' sake. I used to be a regular reader of PCM, back in the 1980s.

That was when PCs were fun, and you could make them do stuff. PCM used to offer neat little utilities, printing all the assembler code right there in the magazine. I would copy-type them into my own machine (of course I had a copy of Microsoft Assembler — fact, I had a de-assembler, too, that turned executables back into readable assembler), then make improvements by fiddling with the code. Good times (sigh).

One of those PCM utilities, I remember, was a handy little text editor that compiled up at about 2K — "TED" it was called, for "tiny editor." The equivalent thing in Microsoft XP is Notepad, which shows at 68K, but of course plugs into Windows resources like font management and so is "really" bigger. I dunno, Notepad doesn't seem 34 times as good as TED.

And neither, of course, is half as good as KEDIT (whose main executable is 880K).

For heaven's sake.     The Pew Center survey on our religious beliefs and habits came out at the end of February. Content aside, I must say, the thing is beautifully done — state-of-the-art internet data presentation. There are lots of curiosities to get you wondering. Did you know that very nearly half (actually 48 percent) of the Hindus in America have post-graduate degrees? (And who are that one percent of black Hindus?)

The thing I really want to know from these religious surveys is, did 9/11 and subsequent events change the national religious profile? From the religious point of view, 9/11 confronted American Christians, most of whom never thought much about other religions, with the spectacle of people doing something sensationally evil in the name of a faith. The thought must surely have occurred to a lot of people: Wow, they must really believe in their revelation! Just as intensely as I believe in mine! I'm right and they're wrong, of course … but then, they think just the converse thing … How could either of us convince a third party?

So did 9/11 lead to a rise in relativistic thinking about religion, with the consequent (it seems to me) weakening of faith? Well, if it did, the Pew study wasn't designed to show it. It's a snapshot of a moment in time, not a survey of trends. There are plenty of those — here's one, for instance — and they all show the same things: flight from the big old established Christian churches, steady increases in the proportion of unbelievers, increasing interest in vague mysticisms and fringe religions ("Wiccans are doubling in numbers about every 30 months") … you probably know the story.

I still don't know the thing I want to know, though: Was there a sharp turn or bump on any of the graphs after 9/11? So far I have not seen one.

This was also the month, as it happens, that I finally got around to reading Richard Dawkins' 2006 atheist tract The God Delusion. I'll report in detail some other time. Here I just want to say that, content aside again, Dawkins is a simply brilliant writer — funny, erudite, and stylish. If he's wrong about God, all I can say is, it's another case of the Devil having the best tunes.

Dem bones.     Spare a thought — it doesn't have to be a very charitable one — this month for Sir Hugh Despenser. Here's the story.

Edward the Second, who ruled England from 1307 to 1327, was one of that nation's differently-oriented monarchs. He lavished the royal favor on handsome young fellows like Piers Gaveston and Sir Hugh Despenser.

It all ended in tears, with Edward the victim of a gruesomely homophobic murder involving, according to Thomas More, a heavy mattress and a red-hot poker. (In Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II the king is crushed with a table. Modern productions, however, generally manage to include the poker, leading one waggish critic to promise that the action "will keep you glued to your seat.")

Gaveston was dispatched in secret while a captive of the king's enemies. Despenser, after a long career of greed, cruelty, and corruption, was subjected to a public execution that was horrific even by medieval standards.

Now some human remains found in the 1970s on Despenser's brother-in-law's estate in Staffordshire have been identified as being probably Sir Hugh's. Presumably they will be interred with other fragments of that gentleman's corpse long kept at the family's main estate a few miles away. Whether the site will become a place of pilgrimage for gay-rights advocates, I shall not venture to predict.

Math Corner.     Last month's Math Corner asked: How many ways are there to associate n symbols? The answer is: the Catalan numbers, as many, many — somewhere between C6 and C7 — readers instructed me. (As a math buff, I ought to be able to say "reminded me," but I can't recall ever having known this.)

There is, by the way, an electoral angle to the Catalan numbers. From David Wells' Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers:

In how many ways can n votes be cast between two candidates, so that one chosen candidate is never behind in the counting? The answer [is] the sequence of Catalan numbers …

Speaking of electoral math, there is a good body of work on the different kinds of voting systems. I read it all up once, many years ago, and came away with the conclusion that no way of picking candidates is completely satisfactory, but that our first-past-the-post method is at least the easiest to understand …

If you'd like to explore the issue for yourself, the various math associations are getting together, as they do every year, to present a Math Awareness Month. The month will actually be April, but they have a website up and running, with a nice interactive feature illustrating the different voting systems. I urge you to try it out, if only because the winner so far, in all three systems used on the site, is far-leftist Barack Obama, a very deplorable result. We need some NRO readers in there redressing the balance, so get to it!