»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2009

Is capitalism finished?     I know, I bang on too much about the desirability of getting a government job. A lot of people get it, though. In fact, some nations are way ahead of us in getting it. Morocco, for example. From the BBC News website:

Morocco has an unusual problem — the more educated you are, the harder it seems to be to get a job. The overall unemployment rate is officially less than 10 percent — but the rate for graduates soars above this, and has sometimes been double. Every day frustrated and highly educated young people gather outside parliament in the capital Rabat to shout out their frustration.

Money quote:

Many of the unemployed graduates marching up and down outside parliament have turned down work in the private sector. They want the security of a state job.

Morocco today, the U.S.A. tomorrow.

Wild apostrophes     I spotted another one of those wild apostrophes the other day, reading reports of the Presidents not-SOTU speech. The occasion may not have been a State of the Union, but it had all the trappings … including some Lenny Skutniks. Among them was Ty'Sheoma Bethea, a winsome 14-year-old from Dillon, SC. I wish no offense at all to young Ty'Sheoma, but much offense to her damn fool parents, who saddled her with that absurd name. Making up a gibberish name and burdening your child with it is heinous enough. Sticking unnecessary apostrophes in there is beyond heinous. There should be fines, at the very least, for these parents.

Ty'Sheoma's school     The occasion of Ty'Sheoma's being Lenny Skutniked was, she had written a letter to the U.S. Congress, which her school principal had mailed to all the members of South Carolina's congressional delegation. The letter pleaded for federal funds to help renovate Ty'Sheoma's school. Here was the President's reference in his speech:

I think about Ty'Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina — a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She had been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this chamber. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters." That's what she said. We are not quitters. (Applause.)

I have a great many nits to pick with that. For example: Aren't any of Ty'Sheoma's classmates trying to become engineers, entrepreneurs, software developers, business analysts, pharmacologists, airline pilots, mechanics, electricians, sales reps …?  Or are they all obediently following the advice of Mrs. Obama to stay the heck out of the private sector?

And if, as Ty'Sheoma says, her classmates are trying to be lawyers, etc., they can't be trying very hard, to judge from the school's test results. (Scroll down to Grade 7 and Grade 8.) What's that you say? You can't expect good results from a school with low-grade facilities? Not true: the connection between school-facility quality and student performance was debunked 40 years ago in the Coleman Report. And even if that were true, the students could make up for the poor quality of their schooling by attending after-hours crammers. Sorry, what's that you say again? The parents in Dillon can't afford to pay for a crammer? No problem! The No Child Left behind Act permits low-performing schools to spend a portion of their federal grants on outside tutoring. The Dillon kids can attend crammers for free! Why do I suspect that the problem here is not one of supply, but one of demand?

Then there is Obama's little tale about the locomotive "barreling by" the school and rattling classroom windows. OK, let's see. Ty'Sheoma's school is at 301 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Dillon. If you map that on Google, then switch to satellite view, you can pick out the school based on published pictures (here's one). The railroad makes its closest approach to the school at Mary Blue Avenue and West Cleveland Street. I make the distance 240 yards. Mr. President: At 240 yards distance, the train isn't "barreling by" a classroom.

And then: "the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls." Well, Dillon has 17 percent unemployment, so there are a lot of guys sitting around all day there with nothing to do. Why don't they form a crew and go fix up their neighborhood school? They could beg materials from local contractors, or set up a website to ask for donations. Anyone can wield a paintbrush. Roofing work isn't that difficult, either. You can learn the essentials from one of those books they sell at Home Depot. Heck, I've done a bit of it myself. What's the matter with these people?

De Tocqueville says somewhere that the great difference between Europe and America is, that when something needs doing, Europeans sit around waiting for the local Baron or the Government to do it, while Americans just band together and do it themselves. That, I guess, was then, and this is now.

Tibet lock-down     March 10 is the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation. The ChiComs are well aware of this, and have instituted a strict lock-down of the entire Tibetan area (which is much larger than the rump "Tibet Autonomous Region" shown on ChiCom maps). Human Rights Watch has a report here.

I get a surprising amount of mockery from friends and colleagues — yes, including conservatives — when I raise the issue of Tibet. In part this is because the Tibet issue has been taken up by leftiy New Age types. If you want to see FREE TIBET bumper stickers in profusion, go to Berkeley, Boulder, or Burlington, Vermont. In part it's because people, even conservative people, have to some degree absorbed the ChiCom claim that "Tibet has always been a part of China," which is considerably less true than, for example, "Finland has always been a part of Russia," and far less true than "Ireland has always been a part of Britain."

It remains the case that these people, who had been minding their own business up there on the Himalayan plateau since a brief burst of national vigor in the seventh century, had their nation invaded, raped, and looted by a neighboring power, for nakedly imperialistic reasons. I should not protest about this? I shall continue to do so every chance I get. George Orwell said, referring to an obnoxiously Stalinist Member of Parliament: "Some things are true even though Comrade Zilliacus says they are true." Well, some things are true even though the Birkenstock, muesli, and mountain bike crowd say they are true. One of those things is, that China's occupation of Tibet is a monstrous crime, that should be stuck in the ChiComs' faces to shame them at every possible opportunity.

Facebook     People keep telling me I should get a Facebook page. OK, I got one. It seemed simple enough. But what do I do with it? I have no clue. So far as promoting myself is concerned, I have a very nice little website that I weed and hoe when I can find the time, complete with pictures, sound clips, videos, RSS feeds — all the heart could desire. What's Facebook going to do for me? "It's great for networking," friends tell me. Really? But I'm not at all sure that's a thing I want to do. I can't keep up with my email as it is. I am perfectly sure I don't need more people, however well-meaning, sending me messages asying: "Hi, Derb! How's it going?" I'm afraid the whole thing puts me in mind of the antisocial Sir Isaac Newton, who explained his habit of publishing anonymously thus:

[P]ublic esteem, were I able to acquire and maintain it … would perhaps increase my acquaintance, the thing which I chiefly study to decline.

Still, my Facebook page is out there, and if anybody can tell me of a use for it that will not result in increasing my acquaintance, "the thing which I chiefly study to decline," I am receptive.

What's in a name?     I know, I know, it's dumb, rude, and sophomoric to make fun of people's names. I know; and I'm sure there are lots of people who think "Derbyshire" is hilarious. I know. Sometimes I just can't resist.

Although I fell into irreligion some years ago, I still get The Dominion newspaper, "News of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island." For reasons I am at a loss to explain, I always read the whole thing … religiously, you might say. I even read the classified ads at the back. Here is one of them from the March 2009 issue of The Dominion, classified under Employment Opportunities.

Alta, WY

St. Francis of the Tetons Episcopal Church seeks energetic part-time vicar to serve as spiritual and theological leader for small historic church located in the foothills of the Grand Teton Mountains in Alta, Wyoming. Ideal priest will help grow children's program and cultivate the inclusivity of different beliefs and spiritual practices within the welcoming tradition of the Episcopal liturgy. A gift of the vicar would be to feed, enlighten and strengthen the congregation in outreach and pastoral care services as well as stewardship of God's creation. Contact: The Rev. Rand Fagg, Diocese of Idaho Deployment Officer at [email address]

How on earth did he survive high school?

I must say, though, having visited the Grand Tetons, that sounds like one heck of a sweet job. I'd almost be ready to return to the fold and take Holy Orders, if I could get a pastoral position like that, part-time or not. I bet I could even train myself to keep a straight face when dealing with the Rev. Fagg.

Holder's "Nation of cowards"     Attorney General Eric Holder caused a small stir by telling us we are a nation of cowards, afraid to talk about race. You could almost hear the collective groan rise from Americans of all kinds. Who on earth wants to talk about race? Well, college-educated black intellectuals like Holder do. It sometimes seems, in fact, that college-educated black intellectuals want to talk about little else. The rest of us would rather just get on with life.

If we are afraid to talk about race, it's with good reason. For white people, at least, talking openly about race is a sure way to get yourself in trouble. The only white people who are willing to speak frankly on this topic are those who are old enough and/or financially secure enough not to give a damn — Pat Buchanan, for instance. For an ordinary white middle-class Joe, with a family to feed and a job to hold on to, by far the wisest strategy is just to keep his mouth shut, parrot a few multi-culti catch-phrases if the topic comes up, rent a couple of good action movies to see him through the Martin Luther King holiday, and take a crossword puzzle along to keep himself awake through those Diversity Awareness seminars his company makes him attend once a year in hopes of insulating the firm against nuisance "discrimination" lawsuits. The rest of the time, leave the race stuff to those who care about it, which most Americans don't.

My private suspicion, in fact, is that Holder was trying to pull off a "Hundred Flowers" strategy.

In 1956 Mao Tse-tung launched a movement under the slogan "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." The idea was to encourage intellectuals and ordinary people to offer criticisms of state policy and the Communist Party — to have a conversation, you might say.

People who took up the call, making open criticisms, ended up in slave-labor camps, or dead. It is widely believed (though the case is still argued) that the entire movement was intended from the start to flush out "enemies of the people" so that they could be hustled away to the camps. Whether that was the starting intention or not, that's what happened.

Stories leaked out from Mao's inner circle that he afterwards boasted of having pulled of a yang-mou. That's a play on words. Yin and yang are the contrasting principles in Chinese philosophy, yin standing for darkness and shadow (among other things), yang for brightness, openness, and so on. The usual word for a plot is yin-mou, "shadowy scheme." Mao was boasting of having pulled off a wide-open scheme, like a robbery in broad daylight.

Holder was trying for a yang-mou — to flush out those racists so that Holder's DoJ can sue their rear ends. All Americans know that talking frankly about race will get you nothing but trouble, with the Department of Justice an enthusiastic participant in the trouble-making.

Although, if I am being too cynical (moi?) and Holder really wants us all to talk about race a lot, here is a modest suggestion. Anyone who wants to offer public opinions in this zone should first do a couple of Implicit Association Tests and publish the results on the internet, as I have done here and here. That suggestion comes with a warning, though. I was neither shaken nor stirred by the results of my tests, but some people have been.

Math Corner     Comment on last month's puzzle here.

No puzzle this month, just the following very touching story from a lady in Texas.

Dear Mr. Derbyshire:

I must share with you a recent experience I had with my six-year old girl. She is in first grade at a Christian school in [name of city]. She spent kindergarten in one of the best public schools in the country, and it almost destroyed her ability to read. In a mad panic, with homeschooling as my only other option, I found this private school late in the school year. She was waitlisted, but got in.

The reading curriculum in this school is only acceptable (I still need to help her unlearn some really bad habits, but at least she is not developing more bad habits), but she is now on track for reading. The real story, though, is the math. The school uses a University of Chicago curriculum called "Everyday Math." It is fine, but something else is required there — the children must learn to add and subtract in their heads. They must memorize all the math facts up to the sum of 18 — and this is tested every week by their having to complete 30 facts in two minutes. (They call it "Mad Minute").

My daughter's efforts at memorizing the math facts have resulted in her having insight that I could only wish I had at that age. We were discussing sums like 5 + 5, 6 + 6, etc. and how easy it was to memorize those types of sums. All of a sudden she said "hey, what two numbers make 13?" I stared to explain, but she interrupted me and said: "Oh, that's another way to say a number is not even!" She was so excited to have understood "odd" and "even" from the "other side," as she has already been working with the concept by dividing groups of objects into two equal (or not) groups.

Another insight she had last night, while memorizing the facts for 13, was that the facts worked for the negative numbers, too. (They have not taught negative numbers yet, but we have a number line with negative numbers, about which she was curious. About six weeks ago I briefly demonstrated how to arrive at a negative number.) But last night, while memorizing 6 + 7 = 13, she decided to try 7 - 13 for fun. To her delight it resulted in -6. She cannot wait to tell her teacher about her discovery!

This interest and insight is a direct result of laboring long and hard over the sums (the dreaded "rote" learning) and then discerning patterns arising from them. You made a point in one of your columns about "the only way to learn math is to do lots of it." That was so encouraging, as I was a math undergrad and had to work very hard to get good grades in things like vector calculus and probability theory. I have passed on your wisdom in that regard to her! And it is paying off! [I am blushing — J.D.]

Her experience with math has helped her develop confidence in her learing abilities generally (she is not one of these "gifted" types). She is not intimidated by anything, and now knows that she can learn as long as she puts in the time and effort. For instance, in her science class the kids actually get to do experiments and write up their observations and measurements. She is excelling in that, I believe, in large part because she has developed a certain exactitude through learning her sums by rote.

She enjoys learning the sums, she enjoys getting good at them, she enjoys beating the calculator (!) and she derives great satisfaction from the little "ah ha" moments that arise while she is learning her sums.

We have lost so much depth in our educational system; our kids are so deprived of the deep joy and satisfaction that comes with attempting something difficult and finally achieving a measure of success in accomplishing it.

The tragedy is that it would be dead easy to give it back to today's students. You don't need fancy textbooks, or cutting edge curriculum development, or Ed.Ds to do it, though, so I guess it is a lost cause. You only need a teacher who knows the deep joy of learning with a desire to pass that joy along.

I guess it is too much to ask.

[Me]  I guess so, Ma'am. But how nice to get an email like that, after all those others I get from parents wailing that their kids are victims of some dippy new "child-centered" math-teaching fad.