»  National Review Online Diary

  November 2009


The sawbuck economy     Mark Twain, heading westward in 1861:

In the east, in those days, the smallest moneyed denomination was a penny and it represented the smallest purchasable quantity of any commodity. West of Cincinnati the smallest coin in use was the silver five-cent piece and no smaller quantity of an article could be bought than "five cents' worth." In Overland City the lowest coin appeared to be the ten-cent piece; but in Salt Lake there did not seem to be any money in circulation smaller than a quarter, or any smaller quantity purchasable of any commodity than twenty-five cents' worth. We had always been used to half dimes and "five cents' worth" as the minimum of financial negotiations; but in Salt Lake if one wanted a cigar, it was a quarter; if he wanted a chalk pipe, it was a quarter; if he wanted a peach, or a candle, or a newspaper, or a shave, or a little Gentile whiskey to rub on his corns to arrest indigestion and keep him from having the toothache, twenty-five cents was the price, every time.

I'm starting to get the impression that in our time, at any rate in New York City, the smallest unit of currency is a ten dollar bill.

Being an old married guy, and a homebody, and stingy, I don't drink in bars much any more. This month, though, for reasons that don't matter, and are absolutely not life-, marriage-, or career-threatening, I've been spending time in Manhattan watering-holes. A shot of Jack Daniels, I have learnt, is now $10 on Third Avenue. (Though only $9.50 on Second. I'm going to leave the social anthropologists to work out the reason for the difference.)

A pack of cigarettes, I'm told, also goes for $10. "What this country needs," opined Woodrow Wilson's Vice President, "is a really good five-cent cigar." You can't get a decent cigar under two bucks nowadays, to judge from tobacconists' websites. I suspect that for an item of any quality, you're looking at … ten dollars. I don't know what the going price is for a chalk pipe, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to hear that that's ten dollars, too.

W.C. Fields character:  Was I in here last night and did I spend a twenty dollar bill?
Bartender:  Yeah.
Fields character:  Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind! I thought I'd lost it.

Ol' W.C. would only have got two Jack Daniels for his double sawbuck nowadays — barely enough to wake the tastebuds.


A jury of your peers     An interesting story here from America's Newspaper of Record. Headline: Jury duty? Pick me, please!

A flagging job market is good for courts desperate to fill juries, officials said, adding that, for the first time in years, people are actually volunteering to play their required role in the American legal system.

"People are calling up, saying, 'Look, I lost my job; now would be a good time for me to serve,'" said Vincent Homenick, chief clerk of the jury division for Manhattan. "Not that $40 will pay the bills, but it's something."

Homenick said he has gotten about 20 calls since May from folks asking if they could become jurors — far more than normal.

"The jury pool is also more diverse than normal right now," he said. "We're getting a lot of Wall Streeters and other professionals. It's not your typical jury of civil servants."

That confirms a thing most of us have long suspected: Trial by jury in the present-day U.S.A. is really trial by public-sector employees. They are the ones who will be least missed if they take a few weeks away from their "work." They are also the ones with the most boring jobs, which they are glad to get away from — like this juror, a postal worker.


Happy birthday, Noddy!     Yes, the little wooden chap was 60 years old this month. The first of the Noddy books, Noddy Goes to Toyland, appeared in November 1949. I got it as a present for my fifth birthday seven months later, along with a fine rifle which came with a cork attached by a length of string. You jammed the cork in the barrel and pressed the trigger, whereupon the cork flew out with a satisfying POP! Look, there wasn't much going on in 1950 England.

Noddy got into trouble with the Thought Police in the 1980s because the villains in the stories were golliwogs. In one of the books, Noddy is the victim of a night-time mugging and car-jacking by golliwogs. Good grief! The golliwogs were hastily retired, replaced in the villain role by scheming, hook-nosed goblins who looked to me like the old caricatures of Jews in antisemitic literature. The Thought Police seem not to have noticed the resemblance, though, so perhaps it's just my fevered imagination.


United States of Attorneys     There is no use complaining about lawyers, of course. The lawyerization of our society proceeds apace, the president's decision to give civilian trials to foreign terrorists only the latest symptom.

In this context, it's interesting to recall the recent remarks by Justice Antonin Scalia, recorded in the Nov. 2 issue of National Review.

In a C-SPAN interview, Justice Antonin Scalia expressed his disappointment that "so many of the best minds in the country" are devoted to lawyering. He will see an attorney "from Podunk," a woman who is "really brilliant." And he'll wonder, "Why isn't she out inventing the automobile or, you know, doing something productive for this society? I mean, lawyers, after all, don't produce anything. They enable other people to produce and to go on with their lives efficiently and in an atmosphere of freedom. That's important" — but so are inventions and businesses and other things to lawyer about …

One evening recently I found myself taking dinner with a group of gentlemen in Washington D.C. Most of them were lawyers. The table talk was of the highest standard, with much wit, clever turns of phrase, and deep literary, historical, and political erudition on display. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, of course, and am grateful to the gents for inviting me. That National Review paragraph, though, had been aired at an editorial meeting a few days earlier, and under the circumstances I could not put it out of my mind.

Here was a sample from our high cognitive elites — our smartest, best-educated, best-read, best-of-breed (as they say at dog shows). And they are lawyers. Chacun à son goût I guess, and no offense to anyone — certainly not to the Washingtonians who stood me such a memorable dinner — but I can't imagine anything more boring, or less satisfying, than being a lawyer. Why on earth do people want to do this kind of work?

A few lawyers get rich, of course, but that's true in any profession. I am reliably informed that if you didn't graduate from one of the top dozen or so law schools, your chances of making more than a middling middle-class living are small. Job security? Ng-uh:

As of November 15, 2009, over 14,094 people have been laid off by major law firms (5,511 lawyers / 8,583 staff) since January 1, 2008.

12,102 people (4,581 / 7,521) have been laid off from law firms in calendar 2009.

149 (46 / 103) have been laid off in November.

Yet applicants for the LSAT test are at record levels.

It seems to me particularly ominous for the future of the Republic that our nation's capital is so lawyer-infested, and that lawyers seem to do so particularly well there. The Washington Post recently ran a special advertising supplement, a glossy 40-page magazine-sized thing titled Washington DC's Best Lawyers. Here they all are, firm by firm, smiling out lawyerly from the pages: The Lewis Firm ("Almost every day we seem to win results someone once dismissed as unattainable"), Jack H. Olender & Associates ("Won the first multi-million dollar obstetric malpractice verdict in the country … At the forefront of efforts to protect the civil justice system from destructive legislation" [translation: Tort Reform? Over our dead bodies! — JD] ), Regan Zambri & Long ("DC's top personal injury boutique"), Salsbury, Clements, Bekman, Marder & Adkins ("Victims of tragic events deserve nothing short of the level of talent …"), Elliot & Maycock ("Has regularly taught deportation defense strategies to immigration lawyers for many years"), Karp, Frosh, Lapidus, Wigodsky & Norwind ("United by the common desire to help exact retribution for the victims of catastrophic personal injuries and affronts to their rights"), Zwerling, Leibig & Moseley ("One needs an ingrained desire to confront authority, and to champion the underdog"), Katz, Marshall & Banks ("Specializes in the representation of corporate and environmental whistleblowers, plaintiffs in sexual harassment lawsuits, and other employees"), Janet, Jenner & Suggs ("record-breaking results in birth injury litigation"), …

There's no doubt we need some of this kind of work, but do we really need so much? Don't all these expensively-tailored, suited'n'tied retribution-exacters and authority-confronters and underdog-championers in their tastefully paneled and book-lined offices, don't they represent a colossal drag on the productive portion of the national economy, even in addition to the effect of their having chosen to remove themselves from that portion? If, as our politicians tell us, we are living in a competitive world, aren't these smug suits subtracting massively from our competitiveness?

Er, thanks for the dinner, guys. No, really.


The price of understanding     I enjoyed a supercilious snigger when reading Steven Pinker's review of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book. Apparently Gladwell, talking to some expert in some technical field he's reporting on, heard the expert use the word "eigenvalue." This is a routine term in modern algebra: see, for example, page 273 of Prime Obsession. It's one of a string of numbers that encapsulate certain key properties of a linear transformation. Gladwell, however, seems to have little math. He heard the word as "igon value," and reproduced it thus in his book. As Pinker says:

In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer's education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

Well, that was good for a laugh at a writer who, in my totally unbiased opinion, has made far too much money from writing books full of shallow, silly or wrong-headed ideas about important topics.

On reflection, though, I stifled my mirth. The phrase "there but for the grace of God …" came to mind. I have committed blunders just as bad as Gladwell's when writing on topics I'm not very familiar with. So, probably, has any opinion writer who casts his net wide. We do our best, and the world would be a dull place indeed if the only people who could write about complicated topics were accredited experts. The accredited expert who can write clear and interesting prose about his specialty for a non-expert is in fact a rare bird. The price of widespread understanding is occasional error.


Homeless scam     New Yorkers are supposed to be gimlet-eyed and street-smart, but sometimes you have to wonder.

One feature of the street scene in Manhattan these past few years has been the table set up on the sidewalk with an empty five-gallon water jug on it, and a guy standing there urging you to contribute to the homeless by dropping some money in the jug. Well, well:

State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed suit yesterday, charging the United Homeless Organization is a scam run by con artists who pocket most of the change they collect — hundreds of thousands of dollars a year … [United Homeless Organization] founder Stephen Riley and director Myra Walker take a big cut of the money to fund personal shopping sprees … The organization, run out of Walker's Bronx apartment, did not return a call for comment.

So it's a scam. What did anyone ever think it was? Aside from a handful of long-established, familiar and customary outfits like the Salvation Army, who take care to identify themselves properly and unmistakably, any stranger asking you for money is running a scam. Certainly in New York City, which runs a vast social-welfare system catering for every kind of misfortune or deprivation from public funds, nobody should be giving money to an organization claiming to duplicate city services.

Homeless in New York? Check out this guy.

Homeless and unemployed, Kenneth Wecker, 62, moved back from Florida to his native city to take advantage of New York's social services — but he refuses to live in any of the apartments the city has offered him. "They want me to live in Harlem or East New York," griped the disabled retiree, who grew up in Brooklyn and suffers from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. "I'm not living there."


Invitation to a hanging     Browsing in the Civil War short stories of Ambrose Bierce, I recalled that in my student days, back in the Lower Carboniferous Era, I had seen a very atmospheric movie of Bierce's short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. I went looking on IMDb, and sure enough there it was. I switched to Netflix and rented it for our Saturday night family viewing.

The movie was every bit as good as I remembered, but with two problems. One, the print must have been kept in a waterlogged basement for 30 years before they dredged it out and transferred it to DVD — the quality is terrible. (To be fair, there is an apology for this up front when you play the thing.) Two, they give away the punchline of the story right there in the introductory still.

Fortunately the two faults cancel out, or at least they did for my not-very-attentive family, busy cracking peanuts and petting the dog as Dad, the only family member who knew the story, hastily hit the PLAY button.


One great big thing     Some of the things a writer writes stick in people's minds for years afterwards. In April '07, when Iran had taken some British sailors hostage, I posted this on The Corner. Halfway down there is an anecdote about my old Mum:

My Mum, Esther Alice Knowles (1912-98), eleventh child of a pick'n'shovel coal miner, in one of the last conversations I had with her, said: "I know I'm dying, but I don't mind. At least I knew England when she was England."

Now any time there is Brit-declinist news or comment, my readers pass it on to me. I've had this Daily Mail piece from several readers. It's about the generation of Brits who fought WW2, now in their 80s and 90s.

The feelings of … this most selfless generation about the modern world have been recorded by a Tyneside writer, 33-year-old Nicholas Pringle.

Curious about his grandmother's generation and what they did in the war, he decided three years ago to send letters to local newspapers across the country asking for those who lived through the war to write to him with their experiences …

What is extraordinary about the 150 replies he received, which he has now published as a book, is their vehement insistence that those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war would now be turning in their graves.

I'm not unsympathetic, as that '07 Corner post illustrates. There's a lot of discounting to be done there, though, as some of the remarks in the comment thread point out. The British are great grumblers, and of course old people grumble more than most. Mr. Pringle's methodology was bound to draw a high proportion of malcontents. If much has been lost from British life since 1945, much has been gained, in health, amenity, and fairness.

What the oldsters are right about, and my Mum too, is that one great big thing has been lost, a precious thing that they remember with affection, and that can't be replaced. That one big thing is the sense of nationhood, of belonging to a huge extended family, united by long familiarity, common understandings, and common history. England was England sixty years ago — a country, not a mere place, inhabited by a people, not a mere population. (Nobody ever said "the United Kingdom," by the way, and the expression still sounds bogus to me. Everybody always said "England," as my Mum did. Sending out Christmas cards to relatives over there, I still write ENGLAND on the envelopes.)

Something similar is true of the U.S.A., though to a lesser degree, as this is a newer nation. The sense of nationhood here was not perhaps as strong, but it has been just as comprehensively lost.

Does that loss matter? Younger people don't seem to mind it. Perhaps what's been gained weighs more than what's been lost. It sure was nice to be part of a single people, with a single consciousness, and a single history everyone was proud of. (The four years of history classes in my own secondary education covered nothing but English history. My own two high-schoolers, in their "Social Studies" lessons, take in the Byzantine Empire, World Religions, and the Slave Trade.)

That's me speaking, though, and my Mum, and Mr. Pringle's oldsters. Perhaps twenty- and thirty-somethings have a different great big thing that feels just as good as pride of nationhood felt to the oldsters. Perhaps the nation-state is slipping away into history, as the polyglot empire did, and the city-state before it. Perhaps globalization will work out for the best.

No, I don't really believe it either. Just whistling in the dark here.


The graphic "Origin"     The big scientific anniversary this month came up on the November 24, the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. You can read the whole thing here.

Alternatively, you can now read a graphic version, done by Michael Keller (text) and Nicolle Rager Fuller (pictures). The quality of the drawings has come in for some criticism, but I think this is largely a matter of taste. I read the book before seeing any of the criticism, and didn't find myself minding the drawings.

Keller seems to have used the sixth edition (1872), while retaining the "on" of the first five. (The sixth was just titled The Origin of Species.) All 15 chapters are reproduced in graphic form, though chapters six and seven are collapsed into one, and so are chapters twelve and 13. The first 30 pages give some biographical background; the last 20 bring the reader up to date, to our own age of gene sequencing and evolutionary game theory.

This would be a great Christmas gift for an intelligent youngster of the same kidney as myself and the New Scientist editor in Richard Dawkins' anecdote.


Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is here.

Speaking of anniversaries: In place of a puzzle this month, I pause to honor Martin Gardner, whose 95th birthday fell on October 21. (Which was of course last month. I posted a tribute to the Corner on the actual birth date, omitted to mention it in last month's Diary.)

My own personal way of celebrating the great man's birthday was to buy and read his autobiographical novel The Flight of Peter Fromm. It's a curious book; nothing to do with mathematics, in fact all about religion. As Gardner himself says in The Night is Large:

In grade school I considered myself an atheist. In high school I became a convert to Protestant fundamentalism of the most primitive sort, a delusion that lasted through my first two years of college. The University of Chicago quickly demolished these beliefs. For a few years I tried vainly, like John Updike, to preserve Christian faith by way of Karl Barth. I even flirted with G.K. Chesterton's Catholic orthodoxy. Finally I decided that although I could accept the basic theology of what Jesus may have actually taught, as distinct from the bizarre mythology that sprang up around him, it was a dishonest use of language to call myself a Christian.

This agonizing evolution of faith roughly parallels the evolution of the protagonist in my crazy novel The Flight of Peter Fromm. My present views are in the fideist tradition of Pierre Bayle, Immanuel Kant, Charles Peirce, William James, and above all Miguel de Unamuno …

After reading Peter Fromm I posted some remarks to the Secular Right blog.