»  National Review Online Diary

  March 2009

Out like a lamb     The month of March, that is. "In like a lion, out like a lamb." That was the tag given to March in my childhood, along with a dozen others for various months and seasons: "February fill-dyke" (an entreaty, not a description: February is the driest month in England); "Flaming June"; and others I've mislaid.

Well, it has sure worked out that way. This last day of March has been a beauty here on Long Island, bright and warm. My daughter is out on the deck, reading; my son, under a one-week computer ban for some misdemeanor, has (gasp!) gone for a walk. I got a little cabin fever myself, and went to check out the treehouse, to the great indignation of a squirrel who'd taken up residence among a heap of leaves in one corner. Once I'd evicted the squirrel, I tidied up, sweeping the floor and ceiling (the latter, for insect fuzz-balls), checking for tree-growth stresses, tightening bolts, hanging out Old Glory. If the weather holds, I shall have my breakfast up there tomorrow. Spring!

Tax Season     Tax season is extra frustrating this year, after all the stories about high-flying business and political types who just don't bother. Latest poster boy for Why-Bother? is Al Sharpton. America's Newspaper of Record reports that Rev'm Al didn't bother in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, or 2007. So we'll be seeing him in an orange jump-suit doing weed-whacker duty out on the county roads pretty soon, right? Ha ha ha ha ha! Of course not. People like Rev'm Al don't go to jail. Not only has the good minister not gone to jail, in fact, he's been cut a deal, paying only a little more than half of the $1.8m outstanding. Hmm, wonder if I could get a deal like that? Ha ha ha ha ha!

(I note in passing that Rev'm Al "does 'consulting' work for corporations." What do they consult him about, I wonder? I have a momentary vision of one of those news items from North Korea, where the Dear Leader stands deep in thought at some agricultural research station while the scientists all stand around with expressions of eager reverence, waiting for his "guidance" on the proper balance of nitrogen and phosphorus for millet cultivation. But I doubt it's like that. More like this, probably:

XYZ Corp. V.P. for Public Relations — "Rev'm Al? Those ACORN people are threatening a demonstration outside our downtown offices again. Can you help?"

Rev'm Al — "No problem. Did my check go out yet this month?"

V.P. — "I'll call Accounts Payable, don't worry about it.")

The zeitgeist sitcom     Well, after a gap of some years, I've got hooked on another sitcom. The last one I really liked was Married with Children back in the nineties. After that I couldn't find one that appealed, though Malcolm in the Middle had its moments. I just assumed that the age of sitcoms was over, like the age of Westerns.

Then I emerged from my study later than usual one evening, got downstairs in a state of mental exhaustion just as the clock was at eleven, and asked 'Er Indoors to put the TV news on. She refused to do so. (Was there really a patriarchy once? How exactly does one convert to Islam?)

The grounds for her refusal were, that she'd found a sitcom she liked. It was on at eleven and she'd just settled down with a glass of wine and a bag of sunflower seeds to watch it. Why didn't I sit and watch it with her? I groaned inwardly, sure it would be some girly Friends-type show, with clever women outwitting slow, dull men, estrogen dripping out of the screen onto the carpet. To my pleasant surprise, it was actually rather good. After a couple more viewings I got hooked, and have adjusted my bedtime — formerly a pretty regular ten o'clock — to accommodate the thing two or three times a week.

The show is Two and a Half Men. The concept (I think that's the right term) is corny as all get out — basically the old Odd Couple routine, except that the couple are brothers, with a wisecracking kid and a dragon Mom (the brothers', not the kid's) added in. It really shouldn't work at all, but somehow it does.

As well as just being a light, funny show, 2½M fits in with the zeitgeist somehow. I started watching it just about the same time I got addicted to a certain blog. I had better not mention the name of the blog, or Kathryn will pull the whole diary. It's gross, cynical, coarse, and obscene. And conservative! Sample, following a story about a fellow who drove his wife to the crematorium to pay respects to her dead lover, "in the hope of her finding some kind of closure":

What better epitaph to lay at the gravestone of the West than "finding closure"? Have more spineless, craven beta words ever been written?

        Here lies America. She found closure.

I read stories like this one and I want the whole ****ing edifice to burn to the ground. At this late stage in the game, there is no other way to clean out the liars, SWPL losers, SPLC traitors, tankgrrl nerds, betas, fuglies, dregs, deluded fantasists, bores, mediocrities, backstabbers, weasels, sycophants, sophists, degenerates, dullards, eunuchs, trolls, wishful thinkers, excuse mongers, whackjobs, equalist tards, dumb****s, obsequious curs, attention whores, suckups, PC toadies, fembots, lapdogs, ****lickers, pity whores, phony****s, hypocrites, parasites, stool pigeons, sanctimonious multicultists, diversity sluts, and weak-willed ***munching ankle grabbing bitchboy pukes.

Bring the all-consuming flames.

YEE-HAH! And just when I'm getting into Wagner!

I should explain about "beta." The blogger whose name I shall not use on this family website (but whom you can now easily locate with a google on "ankle grabbing bitchboy pukes," should you choose to — which of course Kathryn and I very much hope you will not) has read some studies of primate social behavior and fancies himsef an alpha male, or "alpha" for short. He exercises his alpha-dom through "game" — skillful technique in picking up women at bars. A male who is less successful with women because he has inferior "game," or who drives his wife to the crematorium where his cuckolder's ashes rest, or (gulp) who sits down meekly to watch a TV sitcom at his wife's request when he really wants to watch the TV news, is a beta.

There's the link with 2½M. Charlie is an obvious alpha. Alan, on the other hand, is beta down to his dweeby dress sense, fluffed pickup lines, and gonad-pulverizing ex.

This stuff is in the air, I tell you. It's the zeitgeist. I caught a bit of it flying past in my St. Valentine's day piece here. We're regressing to the Paleolithic.

Slime mold     I've been reading up on slime mold, please don't ask me why. This stuff is fascinating. I wish I'd paid more attention to biology at school. Listen to this, from Arthur Koestler's The Roots of Coincidence:

The slime mould [sic] is an amoeba which lives on bacteria found among the decaying leaves in forests. It multiplies by simple cell division every few hours. This leads to recurrent population explosions accompanied by shortage of food. When threatened by famine, the amoeba [Koestler now quotes extensively from John Bleibtreu's The Parable of the Beast] "commence the enactment of an incredible series of activities …" The amoeba stop beaving as individuals and aggregate into groups, which form clumps, discernible to the naked eye. These clumps then "form straggling streamers of living matter, which … orient themselves towards central collection points … At the hub of each central aggregation point, a mound begins to form as groups of amoeba mount themselves atop other groups … This hub gradually rises first into the shape of a blunt peg, and then into a distinctly phallic erection. When all the incoming streams of amoeba are almost completely incorporated into this erected cartridge-like form. it topples over onto its side, now looking like a slimy sausage. This slug begins now to migrate across the forest floor to a point where, hopefully, more favorable ecological conditions will prevail. Estimations about the size of the population … vary, but generally it is thought that perhaps some half a million amoeba are involved … After migrating for a variable period of time (which can be two minutes or two weeks) in the direction of light and warmth, this slug gradually erects itself once again into its phallic shape until it is standing on its tail … This oval shape gradually assumes the form of a candle flame, bellied at the bottom and coming to a point at the top … The end result is a delicate tapering shaft capped by a spherical mass of spores. When the spores are dispersed … each can split open to liberate a tiny new amoeba."

What a performance! How do the half million amoeba know to do all that? It's even more baffling than the nidification of bees, who at least have teeny little brains so they can figure out what other bees are doing. These are amoeba. They don't even have a nervous system.

I suppose somebody knows the answer. If any reader does, and can explain it in words of two or fewer syllables to a guy who came to biology much too late in life, drop a line to me at the e-address on my website.

Abominable words     What a month for political incorrectness! First up was Jackie Mason, an example of that rare breed, a showbiz conservative. Doing a standup routine at a New York City club March 12, Jackie referred to President Obama as a schvartze. That's Yiddish for "black." The wretched Hate Speech Outrage Machine got cranked up, and TV hosts engaged in earnest two-hour exegeses of whether or not schvartze is "hurtful," as if black people all over the U.S.A. were weeping in unassuageable anguish, or hurling themselves from high buildings, at this insult to their self-esteem. Then we got the corollary issue, argued at equal length and with equal ponderous intensity, about whether or not Jackie is a "racist" — a term that can only denote what in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was called "crimethink," since nobody supposes that Jackie sneaks out at night to burn crosses on people's lawns. Or do they? It's hard to be sure nowadays.

Jackie, bless him, gave as good as he got:

"Chris Rock has told a lot more jokes about whites than I have against Blacks. What about the demeaning words Blacks say about Jews?" … Mason then alleged that white people are more persecuted when it comes to civil rights. "If it's a racist society, the white people are the ones being persecuted because they have to defend themselves." He then referred to [Al] Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson as "professional racists." [TV station] TMZ caught up with Mason again over the weekend when he continued his no-defense defense strategy, saying he believes "white people have no freedom of speech."

Go get 'em, Jackie. Next came the President himself, on Jay Leno's Tonight Show. He was speaking of the White House bowling alley, which I (and the Big Lebowski) are glad to hear is still in operation. The President disparaged his own bowling skills though, confessing to a paltry 129 score: "like the Special Olympics or something." Citizens were swooning and going into systemic shock from sea to shining sea, and a special consignment of smelling salts had to be shipped in from China to get what's left of the workforce back at their stations again.

Then there was Laura Ingraham's little cat-fight with Meghan McCain, daughter of some seat-warmer or other in the U.S. Senate. Laura called Meghan "plus sized" and mocked her as a "heavy set valley girl." Ms. McCain responded by inviting Laura Ingraham to kiss her fat cooley (though she used a different word). I'm on Laura's side in practically any dispute, for reasons I'll explain another time, so I declare her the clear winner here.

And then, the JournoList flap-ette. This little cabal of lefty journos — precisely the kind of people who can fuss and fret for hours about whether schvartze is "hurtful" — got upset with fellow lefty Marty Peretz ("Marty"! Why didn't his parents go the whole distance and name him "Timmy"?) for saying this thing:

Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict. Then, there is the Mexican diaspora in America, hard-working and patriotic but mired in its untold numbers of illegals, about whom no one can talk with candor.

Did you spot the bit that got the JournoList crowd jumping up on chairs, clutching their skirts and squealing? Yep, it was that "near-tropical work habits." Do Mexicans have near-tropical work habits? I couldn't say, having no experience of Mexicans in the generality. Over on JournoList, though, the gentlemen of the press were going meshuggah (Hi, Jackie!), vying with each other to denounce the loathsome heretic Peretz for his unspeakable crime against the noble inhabitants of Mexico — who no doubt were mobilizing their armed forces to avenge the dreadful insult. And again, as with Jackie Mason, nobody supposes that Marty prowls the street at night looking for Mexicans to beat up, or is gratuitously rude to persons he perceives to be Mexican. No, he just has Bad Thoughts. Which, of course, the JournoList bedwetters do not have — no, never!

What ninnies we have become, what a culture of whimpering, pouting, sissified pantywaists! We can't even have a little fun with each other's distinguishing features? And the race thing — don't get me started. Any time I tune in to one of these little "hurtful"-"racist" kabuki dramas, I find that on looking into the details, my sympathies are much more often than not with the accused. Whether that makes me a racist is something I'll leave to the deep-browed exegetes to work over, but I'm pretty sure it makes me a confirmed, resolute, and defiant anti-anti-racist.

I Saw the World End     Went to a lecture at the Met the day before they opened this year's Ring cycle. Up on the dais were conductor James Levine, director Otto Schenk, some dude from the Juilliard School as moderator, and two of the Rheinmaidens.

I was looking forward to hearing Levine, who I'd been told is a witty speaker. So he is; but Otto Schenk stole the show. He's a lovely old geezer, with that wry central-European style of wit I find very appealing — the kind of person who makes me realise I haven't spent half as much time in Vienna and Budapest as I wish I had. His best line, delivered in a Viennese accent so thick I suspect he puts it on for effect (as the late Luciano Pavarotti was said to do with his off-the-boat guinea accent) came in response to Levine's quip that opera conductors think opera directors are deaf, while the directors think the conductors are blind. Schenk: "In all too many prodooc-tsions nowadayss I am getting ze sense zat ze condooctor iss deaf und ze dee-rector iss blind."

Another good joke (well, good by opera-lecture standards — whaddya want, Robin Williams?):  Asked to say something about the production from their point of view, one of the Rheinbabes — when did female opera singers get so gorgeous? — thanked the designer, through Schenk, for their costumes, adding: "We were so relieved to know we would actually be wearing costumes." (That's an allusion to the fad for avant-garde productions in which the Rheincuties are nekkid. Gotta catch one of those.)

Simplify! Simplify!     In a really idle moment, I found myself reading Anna Quindlen in the March 30 issue of Newsweek. Sorry! Sorry! But I have to admit, the lady was making some kind of sense. There was in fact a modest overlap with one of my old pieces from a previous tax season, where I said that:

I have just spent three days doing my income taxes. My financial affairs — the affairs of a modest working family — occupy an entire drawer in a set of filing cabinets. (Filing cabinets! In my house!) Never mind a generation: just in the past eight years I have gone from having one telephone bill to having five: one for a wireless service and two for fixed lines — each of which, for reasons I cannot be bothered to understand, is served by both Verizon and AT&T. With the help of the Internet I read, or at least skim through, about twenty newspapers or news-websites every morning, ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Taipei Times. My house contains four working computers. My kids' bedrooms are silted up with toys, to which they pay little attention. When we take them to Macdonalds, their place-mats are decked out with puzzles, mazes and word games. A stimulating environment? You could say so.

The issue here is complexity, the dwindling portion of everyday events that we actually understand, and the correspondingly increasing amount of trust we hand off to people who convince us they do understand. Ms. Quindlen:

  millions of people clearly signed mortgage documents without understanding them … thousands gladly handed off their money to Bernie Madoff without ever hearing a clear explanation of his investment strategy … Americans have given up understanding much of what passes for daily life …

Too true. Fifty years ago people went to work in factories that made things. The factory owners got rich on profits from selling the things. They financed the enterprise by issuing stock and bonds. The workers were paid in cash every Thursday. The managers were paid by check twice monthly. Some people bought stock. Others bought a rental property, or opened a business of their own, or just saved money in a bank account.

Now nobody makes anything. People get rich running hedge funds, a thing not one citizen in a hundred could explain to you. Credit Default Swaps — wha? We hand our money over to fund managers to do … what? with it. We don't know, and don't bother to ask because we're sure we wouldn't understand the answers. We are babes in the wood. Me, too. There's a bloke down in the village who manages my portfolio. He seems like an honest and decent sort, and everyone speaks well of him, but then I suppose they spoke well of Bernie Madoff, too. What do I know? Perhaps he'll run off to Brazil with his clients' life savings tomorrow. Perhaps he has a staff of clueless munchkins churning out fake confirms and statements, as Bernie had. How would I know?

The late, great Bernard Levin used to scoff at all money-making schemes. He refused to invest in the markets or in property, and would not even enter into theater ventures, though his knowledge of the theater was wide and deep. He kept his money in a bank savings account. He was of course quite right; but that was back before Western Civ took leave of its senses.

Math Corner     I think I saw this guy off happy, though since he didn't get back to me, I can't be certain. This was his email:

Mr. Derbyshire — I've come to a probability question that has so far proved to be beyond my abilities and I was hoping that you might provide some guidance as to how to proceed.

I am trying to determine the probability of a random selection. There are a set of 8 items and I am making 10 random selections with replacement. I have not been able to determine a formula to assess the probability of selecting a given number of items (say 5) without selecting the rest.

A nice little exercise in what my own high-school class called "Perms and Coms" (that is, permutations and combinations).