»  National Review Online Diary

  September 2009

Down the memory hole     My daughter, a high school junior, has a classmate whose parents are attracted to Buddhism. They accordingly went off to some Buddhist countries for their summer vacation. One of those countries was Cambodia. The classmate came back and told Nellie about the trip, then Nellie told me: "She said it was so poor, she couldn't believe it. People begging everywhere …"

Well, I said, in view of what happened there in the 1970s, it's not surprising they're still poor.

"Why?" asked Nellie, puzzled. "What happened there?"

Subsequent enquiries revealed that at no point in her eleven years of public schooling had my daughter been told about the Khmer Rouge dictatorship of Cambodia. All right, it's a small and inconsequential country: but this was one of the great horrors of the past forty years. It doesn't even get a mention? The lowest estimates of deaths in the killing fields are of 20 percent of Cambodia's population being murdered. Some other scholarly estimates go up to 32 percent — one Cambodian in three. This, in the name of a revolutionary peasant socialism not far removed from that preached by current leftist icons like Che Guevara.

And you can graduate from a good-quality public high school without knowing anything about it? Good grief.

Dinner with old students     Had a pleasant dinner in Chinatown with two of my old students from Siping. They were an odd couple: One unemployed and flat broke, the other wealthy and already, in his fifties, retired from a Chinese government job. The difference hardly noticed, though. For all the fussing about "face," the Chinese are natural democrats, as Somerset Maugham noticed in one of his pen-sketches of the country (Chapter XXXVI here):

In the East man is man's equal in a sense you find neither in Europe nor in America. Position and wealth put a man in a relation of superiority to another that is purely adventitious, and they are no bar to sociability.

(The following paragraph makes curious reading, by the way.) My ex-students were both wonderfully knowledgable about the American system, and loaded me down with advice on college applications, student loans, unemployment benefit, Medicare, taxes, property, investments, … It's a national gift they have. Any Chinese person who's spent more than five years in the U.S.A. can negotiate the sytem far better than the average native. I guess five thousand years' experience of bureaucracy will do that for ya.

Their race realism was refreshing, too — a nice gulp of clean fresh air amid all the muggy, suffocating hypocrisy of current American society. Another classmate, not present, had bought a home in Great Neck — for the sake of his kids, my companions told me.  "The school system there is great! Lots of Jews!"  Millions of Americans make the same calculation every day, but it would be a gross faux pas to speak about it out loud, even among friends.

And yet along with all that goes a depressing gullibility to their own government's propaganda. "Mongolia wants to rejoin the Motherland!" one of them told me cheerfully. This is exceedingly improbable. Mongolia was made part of the Manchu Empire that ruled China a.d. 1644-1912, but only after some ferocious fighting and many massacres. My companion's statement is about as plausible as: "Ireland wants to rejoin the U.K."  Apparently some such line is being put about by the communists, though, and the Chinese are merrily swallowing it. Perhaps there is some plan afoot in Beijing to annex Mongolia. I wouldn't put it past them. On the other hand, it's hard to see the lackluster technocrats who currently run China rising to anything so dynamic.

Cop-killer games system     Anyone know what happened to cop-killer Thomas Trantino? He'll be 71 by now, if he's still with us.

I told the story back in 2002:

In the pre-dawn hours of August 26th 1963, two officers on the force of Lodi, NJ responded to a report of a disturbance at the Angel Lounge on Route 46 in that town. The officers were Sergeant Peter Voto, aged 40, and Patrolman Gary Tedesco, 22. Tedesco, a probationer, was unarmed, so Sgt. Voto went into the bar alone. When, after a while, he hadn't come out, Tedesco went in himself. Inside the bar were two career crooks, Thomas Trantino and Frank Falco, celebrating a recent crime spree. They had grabbed and disarmed Voto after he entered the bar; now they held Tedesco, too. The two police officers were forced to strip to their underwear, taunted and pistol-whipped, then shot in the head. The murderers then fled. Among the police officers who later arrived at the crime scene was Chief Andrew Voto, who slipped in a pool of his brother's blood.

Falco was killed a few days later in a shoot-out with police. Trantino gave himself up, was tried and sentenced to death. The state Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence in 1965. However, while the inevitable appeals were dragging their weary length through the system, that same court determined that New Jersey's death penalty was unconstitutional, so Trantino's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Which of course meant that Trantino was out on the streets a few years later. Why, what did you think "life imprisonment" means? Like, imprisonment for life? Ha ha ha ha!

The Trantino thing was actually released in 2002. The last news I can find of him dates from July 2004, when he was released after another spell in jail for beating up his girlfriend. At that time the vermin was heard to whine: "For more than 40 years I did not use any drugs or alcohol, I did not commit any act of violence, and yet I'm still called 'cop killer.'"  Gosh, that is so unfair.

Trantino is a poster boy for the fact that it is now wellnigh impossible for a convicted felon to serve his entire sentence. Even if he wanted to, I doubt it would be allowed. Who's the culprit here? Theory-addled judges? Featherbedding prison-officers' unions? Dimwit politicians? Something of all three, possibly.

Was there really a time when a prison sentence meant what it said? When even a man sentenced to death for the grossest, most horrible crime, could expect the sentence to be carried out within a month or so? Was there really? Perhaps there was, but it must have been long ages ago.

Auntie Zeituni     Speaking of people who laugh at the law, where is Zeituni Onyango? She, you may recall, is Barack Obama's illegal-immigrant aunt from Kenya, who was ordered deported in 2004. An order of deportation means no more than a sentence of "life imprisonment," apparently. Especially not if you are related to someone powerful. "A government of laws, not men"?  Fuhgeddaboutit.

COBOL     Here is music to the ears of this old COBOL mainframe-head:  "The number of lines of COBOL code every year in the world is still increasing, even though the last major COBOL compiler in the world was written in the 1980s or so."  That's Vishal Sikka, Chief Technology Office of business software giant SAP, at 18m49s into this video. Wow! — maybe I'm still employable!

Vishal Sikka was guilty of an untruth. After this was posted, I got an email from an employee of MicroFocus COBOL:  "Mr. Derbyshire — Your quote from Mr. Sikka shows that urban legends live on. There are quite modern COBOL compilers being developed all the time. My company, Micro Focus, has its COBOL compiler business at the core of application modernization, application portfolio management, and testing. Have a visit to this website and you will see how employable you really could be."  Good grief! I actually used to use Micro Focus COBOL. In fact, I still have the manual! — "Copyright © 1985 Micro Focus Incorporated …" Matter of fact, my wife uses MF COBOL too, during a brief internship at Goldman Sachs in London, summer of 1991. I'm told GS satill uses it. That's worth a hundred average customers.

[Later]  In a follow-up email, my correspondent added:"It turns out that Micro Focus offers a recent version of its compiler for personal use. Realizing that your interest may be perceived as 'academic' I found this page on our web site. There you will find a download link. This is a large download, about 129mb. The main limitation is that source files may not exceed 2200 lines.

Hawaiian hangover     Left Hawaii, with much regret, on September 3. A great family vacation. We closed it out with two days in Oahu. Father and son went to see Pearl Harbor, of course. Mom and daughter got in some beach time.

(I noticed, by the way, the scarcity of lifeguards at Hawaiian beaches. That's a plus in my book. I detest any kind of bossiness; and not many things are more bossy than a beach lifeguard, yelling and blowing his damn fool whistle if you splash too much, preventing honest suicides from attaining their goal. Hawaiian motorcyclists don't seem to bother much with crash helmets, either. A little dash of libertarianism in what seems, from other evidence, to be one of the more statist of the states. One of the more PC, too. Even aside from the incomprehensible signs in Hawaiian — "Please Kokua"? You joined the U.S.A., guys, so SPEAK ENGLISH, dammit — am I really supposed to say "Hansen's Disease" for "leprosy"?)

Going through the photographs, we seem to have done as much as you can in two weeks. Sunrise on Haleakala? Check. Luau? Check. Snorkeled Molokai? Check. Hiked across the steaming crater of Kilauea? Check. Communed with Captain Cook? Check. … (And the Hawaiians are still insisting they didn't eat him — a likely story!)

Math Corner     I originally posted the answer to last month's puzzle as 64. It was more subtle than I thought, though, and the correct answer is here.

Having thus embarrassed myself, in lieu of a puzzle this month I shall just offer a quick run-down on some neat pop-math books.

Pop-math authors, having mined out all the accessible topics for straightforwardly explanatory books, are going off in odd, interesting directions, finding new ways to humanize this — let's face it — dry subject.

Steven Strogatz, a math professor at Cornell, has publised The Calculus of Friendship, built around letters he exchanged with his high school calculus teacher across thirty years, 1977-2005. The letters are mostly about math, and the topics are elementary: the Monty Hall problem, pursuit problems, basic calculus. Interwoven with the letters, though, are scraps of information about the lives of the author and his old teacher, giving charm and depth to the narrative.

For something not so much humanized as Humanities-ized, try Michael Huber's Mythematics. The "frame" here is the twelve labors of Hercules. (And I'd like to just pause and thank Prof. Huber for not writing "Herakles" in that fussily pedantic way that is all too common now.) You didn't know there was any math to be squeezed from the twelve labors? There's always some math, if you squeeze hard enough.

Let h(t) be the number of heads on the hydra at time t, measured in minutes. Initially, there are 9 heads, so h(0) = 9 …

No, I didn't quite believe what I was reading, either. Frankly, it's a bit of a stretch; but I found myself smiling a lot at the author's ingenuity, and he does get a lot of elementary math across.

Sports fans might want to check out Mathletics, subtitled "How Gamblers, Managers, and Sports Enthusiasts Use Mathematics in Baseball, Basketball, and Football." As a sports ignoramus (those football seasons working the chain crew for my son's team notwithstanding), most of this was over my head. It does, though, have the great virtue of using the math features of Microsoft Excel, much neglected by professional mathematicians (this author is a professor of operations research) but perfectly adequate for basic manipulations, especially those of a statistical kind.

Finally, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. This is a comic-book account of the great "crisis of foundations" that roiled math from the 1890s to the 1930s. All our favorites are here: Cantor and Frege, Hilbert and Turing, Russell and Wittgenstein, all imaginatively drawn in hundreds of colored frames. The text is by Apostolos Doxiadis, whose 1992 novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture I mentioned in my own Prime Obsession. Apostolos himself gets drawn, too: the narrative has a self-referential "frame" which, while not to my taste, is certainly appropriate to the topic …

(Jim Holt gave Logicomix a notice in the New York Times here.)