»  National Review Online Diary

  December 2010


Derb-Wehner punch-up     My month started off on a combative note, I and Peter Wehner trading insults over George W. Bush's PEPFAR program to subsidize AIDS drugs for sub-Saharan Africans. If you missed it, here are:

Some friends urged me to respond to Wehner's last. I didn't because I thought enough had been said on both sides for readers to make up their minds for themselves as to who had the better of the argument.

Definition of "enough"? Well, let's see: those links give you 768 words from George W. Bush, 3,721 from Lyman & Wittels, 227 from Kathryn, 2,797 from me, and 2,773 from Peter Wehner. The total is over ten thousand words — longer than Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Does anyone really need more?

In any case I got my disputational training in my high school debating club, and default to the standard structure thereof: Red makes their case, Blue makes the counter-case, Red answers Blue, Blue answers Red, audience questions, closing summaries from Red and Blue, audience votes. I have neither the patience nor the inclination for interminable who-gets-the-last-word nit-pick-a-thons, and can't believe many readers have, either. There is certainly enough material in those 10,000-plus words to let you judge for yourself whether, for example, my description of the Lyman-Wittels paper or Wehner's is closer to the paper itself.

Other readers — and, vide supra, my colleague Kathy — regretted the rancorous tone of the discussion. I don't really see their point. I am of the same kidney as the late Auberon Waugh, who defined opinion journalism as "the vituperative arts." I enjoy the sensation of my boot connecting with the other bloke's groin. Perhaps it's an English thing. If you prefer the genteel murmured sonorities of a David Brooks or a Jonathan Chait, I'm not for you. Neither, clearly, is Peter Wehner.


Don't Ask, Don't Tell the Pathans     Ah, the Pathans! (Nowadays "Pashtuns" or "Pushtuns.") In the days of British India and skirmishes on the Northwest Frontier, these stern mountain men were famous for two things: utter deadly fearlessness in battle, and a certain regrettable romantic tendency.

That latter tendency adds some spin to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I refer you to the excellent MilInt blogger "In From The Cold" for the grisly details.


Fashion stasis     My daughter, who turns 18 January 5, gets a fashion magazine titled Nylon. I've never read the thing. It's all clothes, fashions, hair, styles, glamor, and other such stuff — a zone of the human parade in which my interest is, and always has been, at absolute zero.

She leaves Nylon lying around though so I got a look at the cover of the December/January issue. It features movie actress Mila Kunis in a model-ish pose. "Good grief," I thought, "It's Jean Shrimpton."

For those of you who weren't present, Jean Shrimpton was the super-model of the early 1960s. She brought in the bony, pouty look that has been with us ever since. (Yes, I know, Brigitte Bardot was pouty before Shrimpton. Bony, however, she wasn't.) With only slight changes, you could put that Mila Kunis picture on the cover of a 1963 fashion magazine, take it back in a time machine, and people would think it was the Shrimp.

To see the oddity of this, go back a further 47 years from 1963 to 1916. There were no famous fashion models in those days, but there was fashion, and there were beautiful women to show it off. The pictures (and a very nice video) here give the idea. Imagine one of those gals on the cover of a 1963 Vogue!

The point is that aspects of human civilization change at different rates, and sometimes don't change at all for long stretches. The latter is actually rather common, though we don't realize this because the middle decades of the 20th century were a time of exceptional churning, and that's biased our perceptions.

As with fashion models 1916-1963-2010, so with, for example, commercial passenger planes. The planes of 2010 are very closely similar to those of 1963, which are utterly, radically different from those of 1916 (to the degree that there even were any). Of course planes had a lot more electronics in them in 2010 than in 1963, as did the handbags of Mlles. Kunis and Shrimpton; but electronics is almost the only area in which we've made any progress this past half century.


Stuttering succotash!     I'm curious to see this new movie The King's Speech. For one thing I have a sentimental fondness for George VI. My sister and I came home one lunchtime in my early childhood — I think it was my first year at elementary school — to find our mother weeping by the radio. Mum — a professional hospital nurse who had witnessed every dimension of human suffering a hundred times over — wasn't much of a weeper, so it made an impression on me. My sister asked what was the matter. "The poor dear King is dead," Mum sobbed. I think this was the first large public event to impinge on my consciousness, though I can recall hearing people talk about the Festival of Britain the previous year.

And then there's the whole odd business of stuttering. I've met a fair number of stutterers and am surprised at how many of them made it work for them. Some years ago I knew a stutterer who was a terrific ladies' man. Women seemed to find his stutter charming; or perhaps it made them come over maternal, I don't know. I actually suspected him of amping it up a bit for purposes of seduction.

You can even parlay a stutter into a showbiz career: Patrick Campbell had quite a severe stutter, but TV audiences loved him for it. (That clip, by the way, includes some footage of the great Frank Muir, who had an interesting lisp. He was generally known in Brit showbiz circles as "Fwank." Far from being any hindrance to a career in late-20th-century British TV, speech impediments were an advantage.)

In politics — which is, after all, as Jay Leno says, just show business for ugly people — an affected mild stutter can come in handy when you need time to think while fielding an interviewer's questions: Tony Blair was a master of this strategic stutter.

The most memorable stutterer in literature that I know of is George Mulliner in P.G. Wodehouse's short story "The Truth About George." Like King George in the movie, Wodehouse's George was advised that if he couldn't get the words out by speaking, he should sing them. Does this ever work? (It failed disastrously for Wodehouse's George.) It's certainly possible to stutter while singing: ask Roger Daltrey or Randy Bachman. There are even a couple of stuttering parts in the standard opera repertory: Dr. Blind in Die Fledermaus and Don Curzio in The Marriage of Figaro. (Though I've never seen either sung with a convincing stutter.)

Stutterers don't seem to have made much effort to get themselves organized as a Protected Minority, with all the victimological perks therewith. Why aren't they agitating for affirmative action? Perhaps they're having too good a time making their impediments work for them — seducing women, getting on TV, running for office.


Natural waist     One more fashion note. (Making a total of two: an all-time record for me.)

We all know we're supposed to suffer for fashion: actually to suffer, pain or even death. The crinolines worn by women in the mid-19th century got so big the wearer lost track of where massively-inflammable garment ended and living-room — heated, in those days, by an open fire — began. Thousands were incinerated, including Longfellow's wife. Women kept on wearing the fool things regardless. What does a fiery, agonizing death matter, so long as you're keeping up with fashion?

Fashion isn't putting me in quite such dire peril, but I've been having issues with it. This arose from a previous epoch in Mrs. D.'s life when she worked for a department store whose name rhymes with BORED LAND SAILOR. With her employee discount, the frugal Mrs. D. took over the buying of my clothes, including my jeans.

However, the kind of gents' jeans you get at a store like that are for fashion, not for comfort. The waistline of these things is set somewhere around the acetabulum. A guy who grew up wearing pants whose waistline is at the, like, waist, cannot be comfortable in them.

I have been thus uncomfortable for a couple of years. No longer! On a Christmas shopping trip to Sears I happened to notice that they still sell work clothes. Browsing around, I came across a stand of men's jeans advertised as all the things work clothes should be advertised as — "rugged" and so on — but also as "NATURAL WAIST"!

Water in the desert. I bought a pair and they fit wonderfully. I shall buy more. They won't be giving me one of those tickets for showing my underwear.


Passwords     If you have a blog, there's a good chance your blog is owned by Gawker.com, one of the biggest online news and blog hosting firms. You may therefore have been discomfited by the December 12 mass hack attack on Gawker servers. The hackers posted online details of more than a million Gawker accounts.

The most interesting feature of the posting was the passwords Gawker subscribers use. The Wall Street Journal published the top 50. Number one, with more than three thousand users out of 188,279, was "123456." Runner-up: "password." Third place: "12345678." The rest of the top 50 were hardly any more imaginative.

To be fair, the passwords being tallied there are the ones the hackers decrypted. Complex passwords are harder to decrypt, so it's not a fully representative sample. Still, the fact that there are three thousand people using "123456" as a password is remarkable in itself. Do these people understand the point of passwords? Perhaps they just don't care. You'd get a much more sensible collection of passwords from, say, PayPal, I'm sure.

Or perhaps not. I was once friendly with a locksmith who worked on safes and strongboxes. He told me that if you want to open a safe made by Britain's biggest manufacturer of such items, try the combination "102030." That was the manufacturer's default factory setting, and a high proportion of safe owners never bothered to change it.

When I started needing passwords much I wrote a wee script to print off ten thousand random strings. I bound up the printed pages in a report folder, which I still keep handy for occasional one-off use. When I seriously need a password, though, I use RoboForm, which in the twinkling of an eye gives you passwords like "VpA6s68#z!6MvjtM."

Here's my pet peeve with passwords. When a site asks me to enter a password, it hardly ever gives me any parameters. How long can my password be? Does it have to include both numbers and letters? Is it case sensitive? They rarely tell you.

The reason for this is that setting up the basic log-on page (userid, email, password) is the dumbest chore in web programming, and so is given to the 14-year-old intern to do.

That's a shame. A bit of worldiness comes in handy even for the lowest-level tasks. If a decent developer was assigned to setting up the log-in page he might even put in a filter so that when the user offered "123456" as a password he'd get a rejection message saying: "ARE YOU KIDDING?" There's no craft in programming nowadays.


The programmer's art     Speaking of craft in programming, a reader passed this on:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Itemize your tax deductions? Itching for a refund? You're going to have to wait.

The IRS said that it needs until mid- to late-February to reprogram its processing systems because Congress acted so late this year cleaning up the tax code. The bill, which includes deductions for state and local sales taxes, college tuition and teacher expenses, wasn't signed into law until Dec. 17.

All I can say to that is, I just hope they're using honest COBOL, not one of these new-fangled too-clever-by-half coding languages.


World's biggest army     Here's another blogger who doesn't get as much traffic as he ought: the brilliant TigerHawk.

The state of Wisconsin has gone an entire deer hunting season without someone getting killed. That's great. There were over 600,000 hunters.

Allow me to restate that number. Over the last two months, the eighth largest army in the world — more men under arms than Iran; more than France and Germany combined — deployed to the woods of a single American state to help keep the deer menace at bay.

But that pales in comparison to the 750,000 who are in the woods of Pennsylvania this week. Michigan's 700,000 hunters have now returned home. Toss in a quarter million hunters in West Virginia, and it is literally the case that the hunters of those four states alone would comprise the largest army in the world.

The infallibly sapient Steve Sailer pointed out a few months ago that both halves of our paleolithic "hunter-gatherer" lifestyle are alive and well, at least in the Upper Midwest:

In western Michigan, many men take off from work the first week of deer-hunting season each year. Many of their wives have, in turn, made it traditional to stay in hotels that week on Chicago's Magnificent Mile and hit the department stores and Oak Street boutiques.


Environmental Determinism     The ruling dogma of our culture, so far as discussion of the human sciences is concerned, is the one Steven Pinker called "See no genes, hear no genes, speak no genes." Our elites live in cringing, gibbering terror of the idea that any human characteristic at all might be biologically inherited.

Their core position is "environmental determinism." According to this doctrine, absolutely every human trait is entirely a product of environment. You stutter? It must be the fault of your parents, your siblings, your peer group, your schoolteachers, evil capitalist manipulators, racism.

The actual science of the matter is, as I pointed out in Chapter Seven of that tremendous best-seller We Are Doomed, that of all the things we individually are, around half are genetically pre-determined, the other half shaped by environment. "Genes load the gun: environment pulls the trigger." This truth is about as firmly settled as the orbits of the planets, but environmental determinists are putting up a fierce rearguard fight none the less.

We got a specimen of this from the blog of science journalist Mary Carmichael on December 22, taking to task a disgraceful Twitter by food'n'agriculture blogger Michael Pollan, who linked to a silly essay arguing that genes don't matter a bit. Ms. Carmichael:

A number of people outside the genetics community … must have seen the essay [i.e. the one Pollan linked to]. Maybe some of them read it and thought, "Huh. My kid looks just like me, but these people are saying genotype has little to no effect on phenotype. Do they really think my kid has my distinctive Roman nose because he grew up in my house?"

Yes, that's what leftist Environmental Determinists really think. They struggle to present a more sensible façade, but their ideology keeps breaking through, as in the essay Pollan linked to.

Mary's post includes a link to a fine sensible talk she posted to YouTube, giving it to the Environmental Determinists with both barrels. Well worth watching.

The main thing one wants to know about a human-science controversy like this is, what does Razib think? Here's what he thinks.

After reading [the genes-don't-matter essay] I don't think they're dumb, I think they're being lawyerly. Much of the piece is a rhetorical tour de force in leveraging the prejudices and biases of the intended readership. This is the Intelligent Design version of Left-wing "Blank Slate" Creationism. They smoothly manipulate real findings in a deceptive shell game intended to convince the public, and shape public policy. Their success is evident in Pollan's response. "X paradigm appears to be collapsing."  "Why aren't we hearing about this?" Does this sound familiar? … I think some of the criticisms within the piece are valid. Despite not being hostile to the maxim "better living through chemistry," I do think that there has been an excessive trend toward pharmaceutical or surgical "cures" in relation to diseases of lifestyle (anti-depressants, gastric bypass, etc.). But we go down a very dangerous path when we make recourse to shoddy means toward ostensibly admirable ends. This sort of discourse is not sustainable! (just used a buzzword intended to appeal right there!)

Big point here: The "Intelligent Design" faction of Biblical creationists have set the gold standard for twisting science into pseudoscience for mass appeal to a politico-religio-ideological base. Now the radical Left have learned the creationists' tricks and are applying them to their own ends. Science will survive, but people like Mary Carmichael who write about science for a living have to waste a lot of time rebutting these luddites and Lysenkoists.

Science is hard. Follow all those links in Mary Carmichael's post and get down into the weeds on heritability, gene-environment covariance, twin studies, and GWAS. You'll need to set aside a couple of hours and do some thinking. Which is exactly what the Left see-no-genes crowd, like their clones at the Discovery Institute, depend on you not doing.

There's an old baseball adage: "You can b***s*** the fans, but you can't b***s*** the players." Science works the same way.


A gap in the language     My wife one day had occasion to utter the Chinese saw  yi dong junzi, li dong xiaoren (義動君子, 利動小人). John Rohsenow's invaluable Dictionary of Chinese Proverbs translates this as: "A gentleman is moved by humanity and justice, [while] a petty person is motivated only by self-interest."

Having uttered it, Mrs. D. observed that: "You don't really have a word in English for xiaoren, do you?" I did my best to stand up for the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Joe Biden, but at last I had to admit she was right.

We can express the notion, of course, as Rohsenow does with "petty person," but we don't have a single word for it. Which is odd because (a) the phenomenon is common enough to need a word of its own, and (b) we used to have a word for it: "caitiff."

Caitiff … Expressing contempt, and often involving strong moral disapprobation: A base, mean, despicable 'wretch', a villain. (Oxford English Dictionary)
caitiff … a base despicable person: a mean and wicked man. (Webster's Third)

William Drummond deploys the word "caitiff" very effectively in his poem "Madrigal." He was writing 400 years ago, though. I'm sure I've never heard anyone use this word in normal speech.

Why do languages have gaps in them like this? Boswell raised the general issue with Dr. Johnson, who in his dictionary had declared that the word "transpire," in its secondary meaning of "to escape from secrecy to notice," was unnecessary. What word would do for it, if it was unnecessary?

Johnson. "Why, Sir, get abroad." Boswell. "That, Sir, is using two words." Johnson. "Sir, there is no end of this. You may as well insist to have a word for old age." Boswell. "Well, Sir, Senectus." Johnson. "Nay, Sir, to insist always that there should be one word to express a thing in English, because there is one in another language, is to change the language."

Far be it from me to try conclusions with the Great Cham of English literature; but I can't help thinking that a revival of "caitiff" would be worth while.


Light on politics     Scanning back over this diary, I see it's light on politics. Oh well: with 2012 already visible on the horizon, you'll be getting all the politics you want real soon.

Who cares about politics anyway? Some years ago George Will observed that he had written three books about politics and one about baseball, and his publisher's statements told him where America's heart lies.

I can second that. Nothing I write or say about politics ever generates one-tenth as much email, or inspires one-tenth the number of people to cross a room to shake my hand, as do my treehouse and Boris pages. Those are my long-term star items. Politics? Fuhgeddaboutit. Perhaps I should write a book about baseball.


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

This month's brainteaser is the traditional one for New Year: Find something curious or interesting to say about the number 2011.