»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2010


Getting carded     I seem to have this conversation around twice a week:

Store assistant:  That'll be $6.95. Do you have our Rewards Card?
JD:  No.
SA:  Would you like to have one?
JD:  No thanks.
SA:  You sure? Ten percent off selected items.
JD:  I'd rather have my pancreas removed with a pair of pinking shears.

Well, no, I haven't actually said that last sentence yet, but I'm getting close.

Look. pal: If you want to reduce prices ten percent, just reduce them for crying out loud. Since you're willing to give your damn fool card to absolutely anyone, what difference does it make?

I guess the answer to that is, that the purpose of these cards is to rope us in to some data-mining exercise. Well, the hell with that. You're not going to mine my data. Here's your stinking $6.95, cash.


Yuppie demography on the uptick?     Defying that famous intro to the movie Idiocracy, yuppie demography may be showing hopeful signs, though my evidence here is just sketchily anecdotal.

Early in the month we visited some friends in Battery Park City, way downtown at the southwestern tip of Manhattan. How much more urban can you get? The stretch our friends live in is all new high-rise apartment blocks built on land reclaimed from the Hudson River with landfill from the original excavations for the World Trade Center.

To our astonishment, the whole area is teeming with kids. There are playgrounds, basketball courts, jungle gyms, and bike paths. The pleasant little park spaces are full of nannies pushing strollers. (If you have the low-minded, mean-spirited observational habits that I have, you can't help noticing a certain outstanding statistical fact about the relative demographics of nannies and kids … but fortunately most of you do not share my debased mentality.) The window display in the local chain drugstore, which anywhere else in Manhattan would offer Spandex jogging suits, surgical appliances, vegan cookbooks, and Fix-O-Dent, featured board games, crib mobiles, Elmo dolls, and breast pumps. Right under our friends' apartment building a big new elementary school is nearing completion. "It's fully booked already," they told us.

What's going on? We thought it was a law of nature that you lived in the city only when young, carefree, and childless. (There's a pleonasm in there comewhere …) Then when you decide to have kids, you sell your city apartment and move to the 'burbs. Who do these yuppies think they are, bucking the laws of nature?

Is the return to the cities, and the corresponding decline of the suburbs, at last under way? Well, among yuppies it is. This is a high-upper percentile even of the yuppie population, though. A two-bedroom condo in Battery Park City won't leave you much change out of a million bucks.


Full circle     Our friends' apartment looks out over the harbor — Lady Liberty and Ellis Island. The husband, a sixty-something retired academic remarked as we enjoyed the view: "My grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Poland in 1904. He didn't have two nickels to rub together. Here am I, a hundred years and less than a mile away." America, America.


A celebration of heritage?     Six dead bodies were found in a cave near Cancun, Mexico. All had been murdered. Three, in a gruesome (though, I'll allow, not necessarily intentional) tribute to ancient Mexican religious practice, had had their hearts cut out.

Evidence strongly suggests that the victims were casualties in Mexico's drug wars. A few days earlier the mayor of Cancun had been arrested by federal police on drug trafficking charges. That followed the arrest last year of Francisco Velasco, Cancun's police chief; and that followed the February 2009 murder of Mauro Enrique Tello, one of the country's highest-ranking military officers, recruited by the Cancun mayor to head up an anti-drug SWAT team.

His recent insults to our nation notwithstanding, I'm willing to believe that President Calderón is doing his honest best against the drug barons, but he has taken on a very formidable, very ruthless opponent.


I'll have what she's having     Did you read about this female viagra drug? It opens up for discussion the whole fraught business of how much sexual desire women have, and to what degree this is a culture-specific variable.

Many societies, for quite long periods, have claimed that the answer to the first of those questions is "none." The Victorian British are only the best-known example. Bill Bryson gives the topic an airing in Chapter 15 of his latest book.

What did these people think was motivating Messalina, Catherine the Great, Lola Montez, and the other great nymphomaniacs of history? I suppose the idea was that they were in the grip of some pathology.

The zero option was at any rate widely accepted as true among the Victorians. My maternal grandmother, born in 1875, had 13 children, but she made sure to tell her daughters, as soon as they were old enough to comprehend, that "We never did it for pleasure." A mere two generations later we're fretting about "female hypoactive sexual-desire disorder," i.e. low sex drive. Well, they've got a pill for it now.


General reflections     Excursion of the month, on the month's very last evening, was to the annual Mess Night held by the New York City Marine Corps Council. I posted a brief dispatch on The Corner.

General Gray was a real star turn, though I imagine working for him must have been … interesting.

I can never see a General without thinking of Siegfried Sassoon's sour little WW1 poem titled "The General":

"Good-morning; good-morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Nobody much feels like that nowadays. It's not the generals and their staff who bother us — no, not even Stanley McChrystal and his staff. The generals of my extremely limited acquaintance seem to be, like Gen. Gray, savvy, competent, and energetic. What bothers us is the civilian leadership.

Our politicians are very well served by our military, who do what is asked of them with skill and vigor. Whether our military is equally well served by the politicians — I mean, whether the things the politicians ask them to do are worth soldiers dying for, or even relevant in any way to the security of our nation — is another matter.

In a recent column I expressed vague hopes that my son (age 14) might take up a military career. That brought in several emails urging me to reconsider. None of the emailers denied that military service is useful and honorable. What bothered them was the possibility that my son might lose his life to no purpose in some fool war dreamed up by some crack-brained politician. A couple pointed me to one of Fred Reed's classic pieces, though Fred, with his usual generous cynicism, includes career military men on the list of the accused.

Point taken. Like anyone else who pays attention, plan-of-attack-wise I'd trust the average general and his staff — yes, even General George "Diversity trumps soldiers' lives" Casey — way more than I'd trust any of the last three Commanders-in-Chief and their staff. "War is too important to be left to the generals"? After the last few years' fiascos, leaving war to the generals looks to me like the better option.


Grandad's war     Danny Derbyshire, on my having mentioned my Dad's military service: "The other kids in my class, their grandads fought in Vietnam. My grandad fought in World War One." [Sigh.]

[Me] Them's the breaks, kid. We Derbs marry late, that's all. It's the smart move. You'll find out.


Uruguay with no assets, aren't you?     I've blogged before about Uruguay and my suspicion that it's probably one of those happy-in-obscurity nations, like New Zealand or Slovenia.

One downside of the place at present, from a conservative's point of view, is that it has a left-wing government and a president who was a communist guerilla and admirer of Fidel Castro. I say "was" because President Mujica, now 75 years old, seems to have mellowed considerably.

And grant the guy this at least: He's not one of those loathsome suit-and-tie radicals the U.S.A. seems to produce in such unholy numbers. Mujica paid a heavy price for his revolutionary activities. He was shot several times by the police and spent at least 14 years in jail — including two years confinement at the bottom of a well, according to the BBC. His lifestyle is frugal: he drives a 1987 VW beetle and has no other assets, not even a bank account.

If there must be leftists in the world, as history suggests there must, I much prefer the Mujica type to the over-educated, soft-handed, celebrity-hugging, jet-setter, high-maintenance, smirking hypocrite lefties the U.S.A. seems to engender. I'm not going to name any names; use your imagination.


People we're not supposed to like     Those thoughts were inspired in part by an emailed question from a reader: Are there any people I like that I really shouldn't like?

I guess I gave the answer away already. I have a soft spot for gritty old leftists. Don't get me wrong: I'm fully aware of the horrors their beliefs and activities brought upon the world. It's just that when I've met them in person, I've always found them likeable, even simpatico. Being right about politics is one thing; having personal qualities like integrity, honor, and courage, is another. These are, as we math geeks say, orthogonal variables. You can be dramatically wrong yet filled with admirable personal qualities. Contrariwise, you can be right (which is to say, Right) in your opinions while none the less being a repulsive creep.

I'll certainly agree that in the present age, repulsive creepery seems to be much more common on the political left. This wasn't always the case, though. I used to be acquainted with an elderly couple named Ruzicka, principals in the postwar Austrian Communist Party. That was a pretty unpopular thing to be: half of Austria was occupied by the U.S.S.R. until 1956, remember, and the Ruzickas lived in the other half. They'd done Party work in the 1930s and 1940s, too, when it was seriously hazardous to your health. As wrong as it's possible to be? Check. To some degree complicit in inhuman atrocities? Check. Courageous, dutiful, principled, selfless, indifferent to scorn and ostracism? Check.

Same with my late father-in-law, a life-long member of the Chinese Communist Party and Korean War vet (on the other side, of course). He was a thoughtful, well-read man, strong in his opinions but always willing to listen to the other guy's. I liked and admired him. If I had to be stuck in a fox-hole with someone, I'd far rather it was him than, say, Keith Olbermann, or even some of Olbermann's conservative equivalents.


Bloody Sunday report     I note that in London, the Saville Inquiry on the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" shootings in Northern Ireland has at last delivered its report. Not everybody liked it.

I turned for commentary to Lord Tebbit, who knows a thing or two about terrorism. He was in a hotel blown up by the IRA in 1984, an event that left his wife permanently crippled. You can read Tebbit's scathing commentary here. As an ex-Brit U.S. citizen, I especially got a chuckle out of this passage:

I share [blogger] alhamilton's thought that the American revolution was a struggle between English gentleman and the German mercenaries of a German King. I have always thought that the great British mistake of that era was not to have created a United Kingdom Of Great Britain and America with its capital in New York. That could have changed the world!


Female curmudgeons     My "Five Curmudgeons" piece in the Wall Street Journal generated some email. One correspondent said it was a shame I hadn't included any females.

Well, I went for the big names. In curmudgeonry as in chess, the biggest names are male. That's just a fact, it's no use getting upset about it.

There certainly have been great female curmudgeons, though. If I'd been forced to include one, who would it have been? Probably Ivy Compton-Burnett.

I don't know whether Compton-Burnett's novels are much read over here (or even in the Mother Country any longer), but my private opinion is that everyone should tackle at least one of them. "Tackle" is the right word: you need to concentrate to follow the plots. Compton-Burnett employed an unusual style, almost all dialogue. Her books are more like play scripts than novels. Here's Evelyn Waugh reviewing one of them in 1957:

Miss Compton-Burnett austerely restricts herself to the minimum of bare stage directions. She is the least sensuous of writers. There is no flavour of food or wine, no scene-painting of landscape or architecture, no costume, no visual image even of the characters; ages are stated; height, bulk, strength or infirmity gently suggested; sometimes a moustache or a beard is mentioned, but there is never anything approaching a portrait …

Compton-Burnett's life was, as she kept telling people, eventless, but Hilary Spurling managed to make a very readable biography from it.

Ivy Compton-Burnett never married. She shared her London flat for thirty-odd years with longtime companion Margaret Jourdain. No quotation marks are required there: The idea that any irregular intimacy was involved does not survive a reading of the biography. As I recall (can't find my copy), when Ms. Jourdain died and the matter of clearing out her room came up, Compton-Burnett was asked whether there was anything particular in there she wanted as a memento. "How would I know?" she replied. "I have never been inside Margaret's room."


L.U.G.     Following on from that, very approximately, I had lunch with a lady friend whose 20-year-old daughter is studying at a good university. My friend introduced me to the expression "L.U.G." It was new to me; but I am chronically hopeless at spotting the Zeitgeist as it zips past, so perhaps this is one of those things everyone else already knows.

"L.U.G." stands for "Lesbian Until Graduation." In many big college faculties nowadays, female students outnumber males. Furthermore heterosexual dating has become something of a chore, hedged around with with more rules, protocols, and prohibitions than service at the medieval Japanese court, and more opportunities for bankrupting litigation and career self-destruction than a high-profile position in the federal executive branch.

Further-more, with the ever-intensifying competitiveness of the job market seeping backwards into college life, a wise student minimizes distractions. And further-yet-more, the milieu of well-educated young adults is well along the road described in that joke about the old guy saying: "In my grandfather's time, homosexuality was a capital offense. When I was a young man you could get jail time for it. Now it's accepted. I hope I die before they make it compulsory."

The response of smart young women to all that is to go gay for the duration — Lesbian Until Graduation. That college girls are taking this option while college guys — as far as I can tell, and very much hope — aren't ("G.U.G"?), just goes to show that male sexual orientation is much more "fixed" than the female equivalent. Which I think we all kind of knew anyway.


Hearing what you want to hear     Public mockery of black Americans by white Americans has now been so thoroughly shamed out of existence that those determined to find it have to go to extraordinary lengths to uncover instances.

Here, for example, is the NAACP finding racism in a graduation card from Hallmark. The offending card has a narrative built around the notion that the recipient graduate has the power to take on the entire universe, including even black holes — celestial objects possessed of such stupendous gravitational force that not even light can escape from them.

This narrative is both printed on the card and carried on one of those tinny sound chips that speak up when the card is opened. Leon Jenkins of the Los Angeles NAACP claims that he heard "black holes" as something slightly different, something "demeaning to African American women."

To imagine that a major U.S. corporation would commit such a gross offense against racial etiquette bespeaks a breathtaking detachment from current realities.

Still, given the poor quality of sound recording on those things, you can hear what you want to hear. Mr. Jenkins heard what he wanted — was in fact determined — to hear. What would be the point of his job otherwise?

Hallmark pulled the card, of course.


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

This month's puzzle is from the May 24 issue of New Scientist:

Gary Foshee, a collector and designer of puzzles from Issaquah near Seattle walked to the lectern to present his talk. It consisted of the following three sentences: "I have two children. One is a boy born on a Tuesday. What is the probability I have two boys?"

The event was the Gathering for Gardner earlier this year, a convention held every two years in Atlanta, Georgia, uniting mathematicians, magicians and puzzle enthusiasts. The audience was silent as they pondered the question.

As might you be, gentle reader. It doesn't help that the New Scientist site is subscription-only. Not to worry: science/math/philosophy/hot-babes/infotech/awesomely-bodacious-weapons-systems blogger Andy Ross picked it up and chewed over it. (Scroll down to June 14; and yo, Andy, tag your darn posts so we don't have to scroll.) So, more rigorously, did Decision Science News.

By all means ignore those links and tackle the puzzle yourself. The reams of commentary on this just go to show how even mathematically sophisticated types fall over their feet when confronted with questions about probability.