»  National Review Online Diary

  April 2010


Skies darken over Korea     North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, 69 years old and in poor health, is trying to position his youngest son as successor. He goes into the succession chess game in a weak position, though, having botched an economic reform last year and met stiffening resolve on the part of the U.N., the U.S., and South Korea to the shakedown rackets he thought he'd perfected.

Kim's powerful, pampered military chiefs likely have their own ideas about the succession. They certainly seem to be getting fidgety. By increasing tension in the region via a staged incident or two, they can signal their independence and win concessions both at home and abroad. This is probably the reason for the March 26 sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan. The South's defense minister has declared a torpedo the most likely cause of the sinking.

The South's government, wary of anything that might impinge upon their economy ahead of the G-20 summit in Seoul this November, is treading cautiously, but faces widespread public outrage at the sinking. The Chinese are non-committal, though the incident occurred in key shipping lanes at the north of the Yellow Sea, and they have likely expressed anger in private.

There will be more chess moves yet as the succession struggle approaches endgame, when things will get really fraught. The other day I was talking to a Korea expert — a national-security academic who's made a lifetime study of the Norks. He said the community of Pyongyang-watchers "is more worried than I've ever seen them." Nobody thinks this succession will go well. He said he thought even the Chinese are worried about it, for more than the usual reason. (The usual reason being, they don't want a flood of Nork refugees into their northeastern provinces.)


The Irish of Asia     In the half-hour briefing that New Asia Hands used to get from Old Asia Hands, Koreans were tagged as "the Irish of Asia" — the experience of being a small, poor ethny living in the shadow of a big, rich one having turned them into fighters, drinkers, and prickly nationalists.

This Irish analogy actually underestimates the prickliness. The Koreans are Irish squared, living in the shadow of not just one bigger, richer nation, but two — China and Japan. It makes for a very distinctive national psychology. B.R. Myers captures some of it in this interview.

I don't subscribe to the view that North Korea would never dream of invading South Korea. I think it's crazy enough to try it, and we need to be better prepared for that.

My national-security academic said exactly the same thing.

If you want to look on the bright side (why on earth would anyone want to do that? but let's suppose), Asia specialists were having much the same conversations 20 years ago, when Kim Il-sung was grooming Kim Jong-il for the succession. Would the generals accept Kim Jr.? everyone was asking. In the event, they did. Perhaps the Kims will get lucky again.


Great modern inventions     Cruise control. Tooling down through the Catskills on Route 17 from Binghamton on a bright spring afternoon, alone in my car with some small pleasant thoughts, I entered a mild dream-state of elevated consciousness, just being carried effortlessly along through that marvellous scenery.

Fortunately I remembered to steer. And they say those defensive driving courses are a waste of time!


Space plane     With only three more launches planned, our Space Shuttle program will end this year, leaving NASA with no manned space-flight program in operation. Given the extravagant cost of the Shuttle, both financial ($450m per mission) and human (14 fatalities in 131 missions), for meager scientific returns, I'll be shedding no tears.

The Shuttle, however, as well as being our only manned space vehicle, was also our only reusable one, a matter of some interest to the military, who want to bring things down from orbit as well as send things up.

The Air Force has accordingly been developing an unmanned reusable spacecraft, the X-37B. A fraction the size of the Shuttle — 9½ ft long versus a Shuttle's 122 ft — the X-37B can open its cargo bay, deploy a payload, retrieve a payload, and return to earth.

So why did we ever need a manned Shuttle? Some of us have been asking that for 30 years.

The X-37B went into orbit for the first time on April 22. I wish it many years of successful operation.


Premature technology     Suddenly I'm reading about 3-D movies and 3-D TV. I dunno about the TV, but 3-D movies are old hat. Back when I was a kid there was a 3-D movie I remember everyone talking about: Dial M for Murder.

I guess that was a case of premature technology. We lazily assume that technology proceeds forward at a steady clip, gadgets and techniques improving at a regular pace. Of course this isn't so. Sometimes a technology gets out too far ahead of necessary supporting technologies, or just of the Zeitgeist. Then it goes to sleep for a few decades.

That's probably the context for the coming end of the Space Shuttle program. When we landed on the Moon 40 years ago, everyone assumed that by 2010 we'd be taking package vacations in the Asteroid Belt. Nope: The great man-in-space projects of the 1960s were a premature technology. Pity we had to spend several hundred billion dollars of public money to find that out.


Book of the month     Eric Kaufmann's Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Apparently not yet available from a U.S. publisher, but you can get it from Amazon via some booksellers who fly it in.

It's well worth the trouble. Kaufmann is the author of The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, one of those books that get you thinking hard, even while you're arguing back at it. (And in which the author describes himself thus: "I am a Canadian who does not reside in the United States, and my ethnic background is entirely secular and 'new' immigrant in origin: part postwar Jewish, part Chinese, part Hispanic … [I was] raised by parents who collectively speak ten languages.")

I'm going to write at length about this newer book in another place. Suffice it to say that Kaufmann casts his net pretty wide, and throws doubt on some of the gloomier prognostications you may have read on NRO (including some by me). His chapter headings are:

  1. The Crisis of Secularism
  2. The Hidden Hand of History: Demography and Society
  3. "A Full Quiver": Fertility and the rise of American Fundamentalism
  4. The Demography of Islamism in the Muslim World
  5. Sacralisation by Stealth: Religion Returns to Europe
  6. "A Scholar Society": The Haredisation of the Jewish World
  7. Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

The thing I want to know is: When the U.S. edition comes out, will they change that British "Shall" in the title to an honest American "Will"?  (At the same time, I mean, as they're turning all the "-isations" into "-izations.") Will they? Or should I say, shall they?

"To use will in these cases [plain future, plain conditional, and a couple of others] is now a mark of Scottish, Irish, provincial, or extra-British idiom," sniffs Henry Bradley in the OED.


The joys of self-employment

Early April phone conversation:

Accountant:  "You had a good year last year, John."
Derb:  "Yes I did."
He:  "Made a lot of money, I see."
Me:  "Yes I did."
He:  "Spent it all, I see."
Me:  "Yes I did."
He:  "Well now it's tax time!"
Me:  [Sound of quiet sobbing]


The Eerie Silence     On Between the Covers the other day, J.J. Miller interviewed Paul Davies, author of The Eeerie Silence. The silence of Paul's title is the one we hear (?? do you hear silence?) when we listen for radio signals from alien intelligences elsewhere in the universe.

The silence is a bit of a mystery. Based on what we currently know about how planets form and how complex creatures evolve from simpler ones, and our best guesses (that's all they are) about how life arises in the first place, our stage of development should have been reached billions of times over on other planets — millions of times just in our own galaxy.

Having gotten to our stage of development, these other beings would presumably have kept going past it. If the chain of events that led to us happened just one percent faster elsewhere, those beings are now 140 million years ahead of us (age of universe — 14 billion years:  one percent of 14 billion — 140 million). That's about the distance between us and the earliest mammals — little rat-like creatures trying not to get stepped on by dinosaurs.

So … where are they? We've been listening for fifty years, and heard squat. There are a number of explanations:

Since our actual knowledge in this area is very scanty, any one of these is as probable as any other. Which one you favor is a function of your own personality. For myself, I like 3b. It just seems the neatest.


Making friends with the family gun     I took the kids out shooting, courtesy of a pal who belongs to a splendid club in New Jersey. We had royal fun. The kids got to shoot skeet, then pistols, then rifles.

A key point was to familiarize them with the family shotgun, my pump-action Mossberg 500. As I explained to them: "When the ax murderer comes calling and Dad's not at home, you'll need to know how to handle this thing."

Handle it they did, Danny and Nellie both. Sure, their form needs work, but for a first time out they weren't bad, and Danny's attempt to shoot his foot off came to naught, thank goodness.

I took the opportunity to explain the phrase "loaded for bear" to the kids. Dad: "See, there's a kind of shotgun shell you can get that instead of having lots of teeny pellets in it, just has one big ol' mean slug, one great big lump of lead. …"

My shooting pal overheard this. He's a major gun nut. He went over to his bag — we were at the rifle range — dug around a bit, and pulled out exactly the kind of shell I was talking about. Of course, the kids wanted to fire it. We warned them about the extra recoil, but they wouldn't listen, so now they have a sore shoulder apiece. Upside: They know how to bring down a bear.


Pop culture ignoramus     Are Jessica Simpson and Sarah Jessica Parker different people, or the same person? Is this a thing I need to know?


Que sais-je?     From the New York Times:

It is hard to believe that a phrase as dry as "epistemic closure" could get anyone excited, but the term has sparked a heated argument among conservatives in recent weeks about their movement's intellectual health.

The fuss wasn't actually much to do with epistemic closure, a technical term in philosophy that borrowed the idea of "closure" from math. "Closure," in the broadest sense, means: "You won't get out anything much different in kind from what you put in." Add two even numbers, you'll get another even number: the even numbers are closed under addition — they possess additive closure. You can't get an odd number, or a fraction, or an irrational number, by adding even numbers. "Epistemic" just marks the discussion as belonging to epistemology, the theory of what we know and how we know it.

What the Times story is all about is the good old hardy liberal perennial: Why aren't conservatives as smart as they used to be? "See, if there were conservatives as brilliant as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn still around, we — we New York Times liberals — could treat conservatism with some respect. As it is, they're not worth our time. Sure, conservatism may have a few good minds, but look! — Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter and those knuckle-dragging Tea Partiers are out in front leading the movement …"

It irks me to concede anything to the Times, but there's a grain of truth in there. I think the people kicking around "closure" as a synonym for "closed-mindedness," while lexically errant, are none the less on to something, though not necessarily the thing they think they're on to. ("On to which …" Whatever.) Fifty years ago the really first-class conservative minds were all in the bright center of the movement. Nowadays a great many of them — not all, nor even most, but too many — are in the penumbra beyond that center, discussing things deemed not quite respectable by mainstream conservatives, including noisy mainstream conservatives like Beck, Coulter, et al.

There have of course always been out-of-the-mainstream thinkers attached in some way to conservatism. Fifty years ago, though, they were mostly cranks and fantasists of various kinds, railing about fluoridation or the War of Northern Aggression. Bill Buckley did the nation a great service by pitching them off the boat.

The United States is still well supplied with conservative cranks and fantasists, but they are no longer the only action on the un-respectable Right. (Though it is mighty useful for liberals to pretend they are.) I get my mainstream conservatism from National Review, which supplies all I need. For the rest, I have a Google Reader roll full of commentators who are smart and sane, who despise left-liberalism as much as I do, who are conservative by any definition you can come up with, but who are out of the mainstream in one way or another. There is not the faintest chance any of them will be hired as a New York Times conservative columnist.

I think mainstream conservatism, if it wishes to be anything more than a PR office for the Republican Party (which I'm not sure it does), should make more of an effort to accommodate some of these folk. Throwing monomaniacal cranks off the boat is one thing; throwing off thoughtful, literate people who are knowledgeably steeped in the human and social sciences, is absurd, and in the long run will be counterproductive. Opposing educational romanticism is not like opposing fluoridation; mocking the stupid "diversity" cult is not like mocking Freedom Riders; thinking that the U.S.A. should preserve a European ethnic core is not like thinking that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist; immigration restrictionism is not like state-enforced eugenics; belief in global warming is not like belief in a Masonic conspiracy.

There are too many good ideas and too many smart people outside the walls. Why is this so? I don't have a complete answer, but a big part of it is conservative hostility to science. In the present age, said a fine conservative writer (quoted in a very fine conservative book), "science is a court from which there is no appeal." Tom didn't get it exactly right. There is in fact an appeal: the appeal to liberal elite status markers. ("I don't care whether what you said is true or not: it's just not the kind of thing people like us say.") Conservatives should not be the ones making that appeal, though.

My favorite use of the adjective "epistemic" is in the phrase "epistemic thickness," a topic in philosophy of science: Why does science deliver knowledge of such nutritious goodness and usefulness, such epistemic thickness? I don't know the answer to the question as posed, and I have no more to say about the epistemic closure issue. I do believe, though, that there is some epistemic thickness out there waiting to be picked up and used by the conservative movement, if only they weren't so terrified the New York Times would vilify them for it.


Sinogynephile corner     I've been afflicted with a tiny but annoying warty growth on the bridge of my nose, and this month decided to get it dealt with. I made a call — my first ever — to the local dermatology practice, and got an appointment scheduled with a doctor possessing a common East Asian name.

I assumed I'd be dealing with some wizened old Confucian scholar wearing coke-bottle spectacles. In fact my dermatologist turned out to be a stunning young woman with very classical Chinese features, and of course sensationally perfect skin. It didn't help that the consultation required her to place her face very close to mine and stare at the bridge of my nose for … well, I couldn't tell you how long it was. Time just stopped.

When the clocks had eventually got going again, the good doctor zapped my wart with some kind of very cold vapor and assured me that it would now turn black and fall off after a few days. Then she asked if there was anything else troubling me that she might be able to offer professional advice on.

Me: "Matter of fact there is, Doctor. You see, I suffer rather badly from yellow fever. In fact I think I'm having an attack right now."

No, of course I didn't really say it. You need to be several degrees more alpha than I am (and also, I had better add, several degrees less married) to pull off a line like that.

(Why do people go into dermatology? Imagine dealing with other people's warts and pimples all day long. The question actually comes up in one of Richard Gordon's "Doctor …" books. Some medical students are sitting around discussing which specialty they will take up after getting their M.D.s. One of them opts for dermatology. His explanation: "No night calls.")


Math Corner     Here's one for all you high rollers, from a reader:

Mr. Derb,

A friend of mine thinks he has a sure fire winning strategy for roulette. He's not a gambler and has only tried his method once over a couple of hours and won. I can't escape the thought that the casinos can't possibly be this dumb, but I need some math to back me up.

His method:
1. Place a small bet on either black or red then stick with that color throughout.
2. If won, place that same minimum bet again.
3. If lost, double that bet.
4. If won, go back to step 2.
5. If lost, go back to step 3.

My friend maintains that using this method he'll eventually win as long as he's able to double his bet when he loses. Intuitively it seems that the best he could bank on would be a break even. But, if I'm not mistaken, there is a "00" spot on the wheel on which neither black nor red wins, and that would tip the odds to the casino. [In the U.S.A. it's actually worse than that — JD]

How would one go about proving, mathematically, my friend's folly?