»  National Review Online Diary

  October 2010


Election non-fever     This being October of an even year, I'm going to grumble about election fatigue, right? You bet!

It's just fatigue, mind, not a chronic cynicism. The struggle to control what Chinese people call tian xia da shi — "great matters under heaven" — is nothing a grown-up person should ignore or take lightly. I know which side I'm on, and I want it to win. It's just that each of us has his threshold of interest, above which more politics is just too darn much, and I was way over my threshold by about mid-year.

I'm with Leo Strauss (I think it was) in deploring the "un-manly disdain for politics"; but while I agree that disdain is un-manly, or at least un-citizenly in a free republic, I can't help thinking that being too interested in politics is the sign of a disordered digestion.

In any case I think we're drifting into a zone of what in the Margaret Thatcher years we used to call TINA: There Is No Alternative. Our economic situation is going to be so chronically bad, even without unexpected shocks — which there will surely be — that any administration of any stripe will have to carry out much the same policies. That this election will be as consequential as my colleagues tell me, I therefore doubt.

It'll be fun to watch so many liberals being turned out of office, though. As Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, you'd have to have a heart of stone to read about it without laughing.


Destroying the evidence     I waxed indignant about our P.C. military in the October 22 broadcast of Radio Derb. The topic here was the destruction of two videos a soldier took of the Fort Hood massacre. The soldier took the videos with his cell phone, but an NCO ordered him to erase them.

Under cross-examination, Pfc. Lance Aviles told an Article 32 hearing that his non-commissioned officer ordered him to destroy the two videos on Nov. 5, the same day a gunman unleashed a volley of bullets inside a processing center at the Texas Army post.

A military reader objects:

Mr. Derbyshire, … You note that PFC Aviles was told by his NCO to destroy the videos on the day of the shooting. The terminology of "his NCO" instead of "a NCO" indicates that the NCO in question was his squad leader or otherwise first-line supervisor … For a PFC, that position would usually be filled by a Sergeant or Staff Sergeant, though in some cases it could be a Corporal.

Since the shooting occurred in the afternoon, that leaves less than 12 hours for "the Army" to discover the existence of the videos, run that up the chain to the Pentagon, and return a decision to destroy evidence back to the first line supervisor of PFC Aviles. Nothing in garrison ever works that fast. Ever. Actually, nothing on the battlefield ever works that fast either.

Your assumption that "the Army" ordered the videos erased is simply silly. This is clearly a case of an NCO taking matters into his own hands.

<wild-speculation>There are several, valid, reasonable, reasons for that NCO to do such a thing that spring to my former NCO mind.

The first is that on a battlefield, taking pictures of one's fellow soldiers being slain is a total No-Go. Any NCO in todays Army will have at least one (likely more) combat tours in either Iraq or Afghanistan. They would be well trained in keeping their people in line on things like this. A combat vet of either of those two theaters is going to think a guy shooting at them shouting "Allahu Akbar" is a combat situation — they will not think that it is a law-enforcement matter that requires evidence to be preserved.

The second is that PFC Aviles (and his NCO and entire unit) were about to deploy. The NCO might have realized that the video in question would result in PFC Aviles being pulled into all sorts of hearings and Court Martial proceedings. Which would mean that PFC Aviles would not be in Afghanistan doing his job. Maybe the NCO wanted to keep his squad fully staffed. It sucks to think about, but 13 KIAs are a done deal, that NCO needs to think about the coming rotation and how many KIAs that will occur if the unit is short one medic.</wild-speculation>

Some quick Googling shows me that you were just reading verbatim from AP, UPI, et al., but please, in the future, do some fact checking with someone who has an understanding of military terms and structures … just aim before you shoot.

I think this reader has the better of me here. Let's break it down.

There are four possibilities. In descending order (my order) by deplorability:

  1. News went up to some officer level, and the order to destroy came down from that level.
  2. The NCO acted on his own initiative, having been brainwashed by the military's PC ethos.
  3. The NCO acted on his own initiative, out of concern "to keep his squad fully staffed."
  4. The NCO acted on his own initiative, out of respect for dead comrades.

I was assuming (1) when I made the broadcast. On calm reflection, with my reader's email (and some others) in mind, I'll allow this is not the most probable hypothesis, though I won't allow that it's impossible — not after listening to the diversi-babble of Casey, Roughead, and Bolden. I'm now putting the probabilities for those four explanations at, in order, 20-30-10-40; but I'm receptive to further input from other readers who know the military and its methods, and will record them on The Corner.


Obituaries of the month (1): Norman Wisdom     I got a surprising number of emails from people asking me why I wasn't openly in mourning for Sir Norman Wisdom, who died October 4.

Several reasons, the two foremost being (a) I didn't think anyone in the U.S.A. would know who I was talking about, and (b) I never found Wisdom the least bit funny.

That second reason is the case even though Wisdom's great popularity occurred in 1950s Britain, when I was a kid. At that age your undeveloped infant sensibilities are supposed to yield easily to slapstick humor. Well, mine didn't — not to Wisdom's antics anyway. Even as a preteen I thought he was just trying too hard.

The pathos of the tears-behind-the-clown-face shtik also escaped me, or perhaps just went against the grain of my nascent reductionism: If you're so sad, what are we all supposed to be laughing about? And the idea of this goofy dimwit getting the beautiful girl, as Wisdom did at the end of his movies, seemed to me, even then, to violate the laws of probability. (The laws of biology are what he was actually violating; but I wasn't yet up to speed on biology.)

And no, it wasn't the slapstick: it was him. I loved Abbott and Costello, the little we could see of them in 1950s England. Perhaps it was fore-ordained that I'd become an American. No, that can't be it either: Jerry Lewis left me cold. So, come to think of it, did Charlie Chaplin.

I think I'm seeing a common thread there. The Daily Telegraph obituary says that the appeal of Wisdom's humor "transcended cultural boundaries." He was a huge star in Albania, apparently: "Wisdom was the only Western actor whose films were allowed to be shown in Albania under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha." Jerry Lewis and Charlie Chaplin likewise transcended those nasty, narrow, provincial "cultural boundaries."

Yes, that's where they all lose me. I think cultural boundaries are, on balance, a good thing, not to be lightly transcended.


Obituaries of the month (2): Benoît Mandelbrot     Mandelbrot was much more my cup of tea, though I suppose if you want to nit-pick you could say that math transcends cultural boundaries better than anything. (Me: Yes, but you're not supposed to find it funny.)

Mandelbrot's 1982 book The Fractal Geometry of Nature was that highly peculiar thing, a math best-seller. (Sound of Derb's teeth grinding.) We mathephiles were of course clued into him long before that. He got our attention with a 1967 article titled "How Long Is the Coast of Britain?," which Martin Gardner picked up for his Scientific American column. The answer to the title question, Mandelbrot explained, is: It depends how long your measuring stick is. A coastline is an example of what he later christened a fractal — a figure that is similar to itself at any level of magnification.

Any math geek who could get near a computer in the mid-1970s was generating fractals — in my case on good old green-line stock paper, and on company time (sorry, guys). It was painstaking work, but irresistibly riveting. Nowadays I suppose you can just go on YouTube and bring up the Mandelbrot Set in full color and living motion … yep. Where's the challenge in anything any more?


Freedomnomics     I see they've made a movie out of Freakonomics, the 2005 bestseller in which "a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything." I read the book when it came out and remember being underwhelmed … but then, I think economists are all half-crazy anyway. (Though not the same half in all cases.) The movie opened October 4 on 20 screens, says IMDb.

Fair enough, I suppose, since the public seemed to like the book. But now some conservative film-maker (ha ha ha ha ha!) should riposte with a movie from John Lott's 2007 counter-blast to Freakonomics, Freedomnomics. Yeah, Lott's an economist too, and half-crazy like the rest of them, but my kind of crazy. (He's also an occasional NRO contributor — Hi, John!)


Poetic negativity     Three years ago in this space I boasted of having found the most depressing poet ever to have set pen to tear-stained paper, at least in the English language.

I hadn't cast my net wide enough. The October 25 issue of The New Yorker (yeah, apologies to the lady who emails in every time I mention that magazine, complaining that I should not be sullying my pure conservative soul with such a filthy leftist production: I only buy it for the cartoons, Ma'am!) has an article in the Books section on the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). A new translation of Leopardi's verses has just been published, and Adam Kirsch is reviewing it.

Leopardi is the supreme poet of passive, helpless suffering — a writer who constantly reiterated … his conviction that in human life "there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done."

Yesss! Where has this guy been all my life?

In Leopardi's "Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia" … death is simply the last act in the pageant of pointless misery that is our existence … To find Leopardi's equal in nihilism, one would have to turn to philosophers like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, both of whom admired his work.

Or Derbyshire, who already admires it just after reading Kirsch's review!

Dante … wrote that the worst suffering is to recall happy times when you are miserable. To Leopardi, remembering the miserable times is its own kind of happiness.

Uh …

In his last poem, "Broom," he offers his grandest statement on human fate, comparing mankind to the tenacious shrub, la ginestra, that springs up in the volcanic ash around Mt. Vesuvius.

That's his grandest statement, note. But what was the source of all this unhappiness? Well, he was a hunchback and "suffered from poor eyesight and mysterious nervous maladies." Poor guy. Any love life? Nope, "except for the few unrequited loves recorded in his poems, and he probably died a virgin." (At age 38.)

Rough childhood? Looks like: "His father … was authoritarian and overprotective to a degree that now seems almost unbelievable … His mother, Adelaide, was more dreadful still, thanks to her religious fanaticism …" And yet: "What makes the torment of adult life complete is the contrast it offers to the happiness of childhood." Go figure.


Down Memory Lane (by bus)     We're getting blasé about public debt. You can open any page of any newspaper nowadays and find a story about some state, city, or public authority suddenly discovering (really? you can't spot a thing this size coming at you from a mile away?) a tsunami of red ink. Here's a random one from the October 21 New York Post: MTA crippled by $28B debt. That's the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs all the buses and trains in and around New York City. The Manhattan Institute's Nicole Gelinas, one of the best investigative reporters walking the earth today, has some background here.

This kind of thing makes me want to go back to bed and hide under the covers. What an unholy mess we've made for our kids to sweep up!

For a just-barely-more socially acceptable alternative to hiding under the bed covers, there is always the option of wallowing in nostalgia. As everyone of a certain age can tell you, Western Civ. peaked in the early 1960s. It's been pretty much downhill since then. Philip Larkin nailed it as only a poet can: "Life was never better than / In nineteen sixty-three." That was the year I left home and went to college in London.

One year earlier than that, in 1962, London Transport — the MTA of that time and place — produced the best promotional movie ever made by a transit authority. (Not, I'll admit, a crowded field.) LT have put it on their website, where you can watch it. The movie's name is All That Mighty Heart — a line from a Wordsworth sonnet, as anyone with a grade-school education in 1962 England could have told you. The movie closes 23 minutes later with an even more atmospheric sonnet: Thomas Hood's "Midnight." In between you get a day in the life of the city, with a gentle emphasis on the work of the transit authority.

Nostalgia? Oh boy. Here is London as I recall my first acquaintance with it, a mere twenty years on from Orwell's observation of "crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners." The teeth are actually pretty good; but this is a promotional movie, and anyone showing much tooth display is an actor. The young women are slight and pretty in their big skirts and cardies, just as I remember them. (When did everybody get so fat?) The middle-aged women still wear hats, as do the older men. Hats — I'm talking real hats, not baseball caps — were well on the way out, a social change usually blamed on John F. Kennedy, but with causes probably deeper.

Even more evocative than the sights are the sounds: the fruity tones of John Slater introducing Housewive's Choice, a music request program for housewives — which is to say, heteronormatively married females brutally excluded from the workforce by the oppressive patriarchal conspiracy. (The first caller, name of Elsie — when did we stop naming our daughters Elsie? — requests "a gay tune." John gives her Johann Strauss's "Tritsch Tratsch Polka." Why not Tchaikovsky or Benjamin Britten?) We also get the even fruitier tones of Jack de Manio announcing something or other; then the fine old rustic buzz of cricket commentator John Arlott.

It's all so heart-breakingly English. The transit workers, who greet each other by name when changing shifts, are Bill, Bob, Tom, and Ted. Strangers are addressed as "chum" or "love," depending on sex … sorry, "gender." The advertisements are so diffident you wonder why anyone bothered to buy anything: "More and More People Prefer Senior Service" (a brand of cigarette). It's still Orwell-land, more or less: a nation with plenty of squabbles, tensions, and injustices, but long familiar with itself, at ease in its own skin. A nation, not just a place, which is all England is today.

Now I will go and hide under the bedclothes.

(Footnote:  Those two transit workers in the canteen at 11m10s: If they're not engaged in adultery, they're doing a darn good imitation of it.)


Spotting a Carrington Event     No, nothing to do with Lytton Strachey's gal pal. A Carrington event happens when the Sun ejects a huge cloud of electrically-charged gas that then hits the Earth's magnetic field, causing it to wobble and pulse. A moving magnetic field of course induces electric currents in any conducting material — a handy thing to know if you want to generate electricity in a cable you've set up, but not so good when it's happening to all the conducting material on Earth, including earth.

The Carrington event was in September 1859. It was observed by British solar astronomer Richard Carrington: hence the name.

Skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.

Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire.

Back in 1859 we weren't much invested in electricity, and electronics hadn't even been thought of. The occasional fire in a telegraph office was just a nuisance. Nowadays a Carrington event on the 1859 scale would bring down civilization. What are the odds of one? Nobody knows.

NASA has a project called Solar Shield that might at least give us a few hours' warning that the blob is on its way. I'd go so far as to say that this project alone might justify NASA's existence. Though of course it doesn't compare in importance to NASA's primary mission: to make Muslims feel good.

[Hat tip to FuturePundit there.]


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

For this month, here's a news story from the London Sunday Times October 31 edition:

Burma's military dictators have turned to soothsayers, astrologers and numerologists to help secure victory in national elections next Sunday [i.e. November 7]. Citizens were bewildered when a new national flag was hoisted on Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. — a highly auspicious moment as the digits of the day, the time and the year all add up to three, and together equal the lucky number nine.

Digits of the day (2+1 = 3), the time (3 = 3), and the year (2+0+1+0 = 3) … yep, it all works out.

I'm not going to get into why nine is lucky in Burma. Perhaps there's an echo of it in the traditional Chinese kowtow, where you kneel down three times, knocking your head on the floor three times at each kneeling. In China, though, the lucky number in popular superstition is eight, not nine. You should have seen New York's Chinatown on August 8, 1988: everybody launched a new business that day — you couldn't see Mott Street for bunting.

In Haitian voodoo I believe two is the lucky number: the late Papa Doc Duvalier's limousines all had number plates with nothing but twos on them. I bet he partied like crazy on February 2. Or perhaps not; Papa Doc didn't look like much of a party animal. Perhaps he just had 22 political prisoners garotted for his dinner-time entertainment.

In the Anglosphere the lucky number is seven, I forget why. The three times three business does have some purchase in the West, though: think of the wind chords that interrupt the allegro in the overture to The Magic Flute. (They're at 3m18s in this clip, and recur later in the opera, presumably part of the Masonic symbolism the whole thing is loaded with.)

OK, OK, here's the puzzle.

What's the probability that the particular hour passing over us satisfies the "Burmese condition"?

Let me be more explicit. We'll consider only years in the range from a.d. 2001 to a.d. 3000. That's 1,000 years even. Multiply by 365, that's 365,000 days. Add 250 for the years divisible by four (2004, 2008, 2012, … 3000), it's 365,250 days. Subtract for the 8 century years when you don't get a leap day on the Gregorian calendar (bypassing 2400 and 2800, when you do), and I think the final total is 365,242 days. Multiply by 24 and you have 8,765,808 hours.

How many of those hours — and then, what proportion — satisfy the Burmese condition? Use a 12-hour clock, since that seems to be the one favored by the Burmese junta.