»  National Review Online Diary

  March 2011


Analysis Paralysis on Marriage     We — myself and some colleagues — were discussing the two pieces National Review published recently on homosexual marriage. Jason Lee Steort's "Two Views of Marriage" in our February 7 issue had been written in reaction to a paper posted online by Sherif Girgis and others: then Girgis had responded to Jason with an article titled "Real Marriage" in our March 21 issue.

I had read both pieces with careful attention. Both were literate, humane, and well-argued. Like the poet, however, I came out by the same door as in I went.

The problem with both pieces, I tried to tell my colleagues, was that they were scholastic, in the pejorative sense — angels on pin-heads, the cooking up of elaborate rationalizations for positions you are determined to take anyway. As Bertrand Russell said of Aquinas: "The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading."

Such arguments are persuasive to nobody whose personality, circumstances, and life experience have not already made the conclusion appealing to them, or mandatory. Speaking personally, as an incorrigible empiricist, scholastic rationalism drives me to liquor. Yo guys: Only algebra is algebra.

Another colleague agreed. Some years ago, he said, when the issue was new, he had spotted a piece on it by a highly-respected writer he admired very much. "Aha," he had thought to himself, "When I'm through reading this, I'll be fully armed with waterproof arguments against homosexual marriage!" So he'd read it. Like me with the Steorts/Girgis exchange, he'd come away with nothing.

That, I'm afraid, is where conservatives are stuck. If, to maintain marriage as traditionally understood, we have to resort to angels-on-pinheads scholasticism, then the castle is lost.

As I remarked seven and a half years ago on this site: "There are regions of life, thought and behavior that are beyond reason's scope, and ought to stay there."


Is homophobia adaptive?     On a related theme, I have long thought that from a biological point of view, homophobia is more interesting than homosexuality.

The modern cant is that homophobia is "socially constructed," which means that it is instilled by indoctrination into the sheep-like masses by power elites who find it useful to their self-preservation.

As with "racism," that is all nonsense. Attitudes so widespread, in so many times and places, call for some deeper, more coherent explanation than the sub-Marxist gibberish of crackpot French intellectuals. So what's the explanation for homophobia?

The current intellectual fashion is to look to evolutionary psychology for explanations of common human behaviors. I have some reservations about this, but it's certainly an advance on Jean-Paul Sartre and his vaporing disciples. At least it is respectful of scientific enquiry.

Well, this month has seen a small kerfuffle among biologists on whether or not homophobia is adaptive — that is, on whether persons or groups inclined to homophobia have, net-net, an edge over more tolerant types in reproducing themselves.

Research psychologist Jesse Bering got the ball rolling with a March 9 post on the Scientific American blog, title: "Natural homophobes? Evolutionary psychology and antigay attitudes." Bering was mulling over some research done fifteen years ago by Gordon Gallup, to which another psychologist, John Archer, had reacted:

The Gallup-Archer debate hinges on a multi-study empirical report by Gallup. In it, he aims to test his hypothesis that negative attitudes toward homosexuals is [sic] a function of parents' implicit concerns that their children's sexual orientation is malleable.

Bering doesn't have any results of his own to offer, he's just calling for someone to take up where Gallup left off. "I've revived this fifteen-year-old discussion in the hopes that it might spark new research." (And he is also, of course, trying to plug a book he's written.)

The Left was quick to react. Homosexual biologist Jeremy Yoder, the tenth commenter on Bering's piece, scoffed at the thinness of the evidence — precisely the thing Bering wants rectified. Then Yoder expanded his critique in a full-length posting on his blog.

Bering came back with another column, part of which was an actual interview with George Gallup, the guy who'd done the work back in 1995-6. Far-left science blogger P.Z. Myers took up arms in Yoder's support, and we were off to the races.

The real issue here for the left, as Myers makes all too plain, isn't whether homophobia is or is not adaptive, it's whether anyone who wants to research such a topic, or even just ponder it, is fit to be admitted to polite society.

To put it differently, this is not a matter of scientific inquiry, it's a matter of social status assertion via moral one-upmanship and the outlawing of dissent from ideological dogmas. There's a lot of that about.


Camp of the Saints     Did you see the pictures? The Daily Telegraph had a good slide show, though the Daily Mail report was the one that showed up most often in my email-box, often without comment.

What comment is needed? Here is smug, rich, high-welfare-low-TFR Europe. There, a not-very-formidable sea journey away, is teeming Africa.

Jean Raspail got the continent wrong, but not much else.

(Hey Kevin: See what "Customers Who Bought This Item [i.e. Raspail's book] Also Bought," according to Amazon.)


New York Times profiles Secular Right     Out of the blue came this phone call from a New York Times reporter asking about Secular Right, the blog for godless conservatives that Razib Khan started up a couple of years ago, to which I am a contributor.

I fielded the bloke's questions as best I could, though apparently not well enough to get more than a couple of passing mentions in the published article. Feugh!

And because conservatives are Anglophiles, there are two Englishmen: John Derbyshire, the popular mathematics writer and opponent of liberal immigration policy, and Andrew Stuttaford.

Are conservatives really Anglophiles? I can't say that I've noticed. There seems to be a fair amount of Anglophilia among Americans in general, which is a bit odd when you recall the origins of this country. At least, I think this is so: Americans in general are polite to all foreigners, so it's not easy to separate out Anglophilia.

Do I mind the Times referring to me as an Englishman, a friend asked? After all, I've been a U.S. citizen for nine years. No, I can't say I mind. However much the first-generation immigrant commits to his new homeland — and I'm totally committed, no nonsense about "dual citizenship," which is a stupid and dishonest concept — he remains a hybrid beast. My kids are thoroughly American, but in a lot of ways I'll always be English: accent, manners, sense of humor, some attitudes.

There's the Secular Right thing, for example, which probably comes more easily to foreigners than to native Americans. Of the five of us at Secular Right, only two are American-born to American-born parents.

How many Americans are secular conservatives? Audacious Epigone went to the General Social Survey to find out.

The constituency constitutes a whopping 0.67 percent, or 1 in 150 people, or two million people in a country of 310 million.

Well, some theological authorities give the number of the Elect as a mere 144. By comparison with that, two million is a mighty host.


Tiger Mom chez Derb?     From a reader:

Greetings Mr. Derbyshire,

I have a minor request which I hope doesn't cross the line of good manners. After reading you weigh-in on tiger mothering on a societal level, I was somewhat hoping for a passing mention in the February diary of where your own family resolved on the matter. As we are about a week left of March, might I ask you to, without getting too personal on the details, consider sharing your own family's style in the March diary?

Glad to oblige. First off, the number of people who are sure they have got parenting right is damn small; and that small number of people are all so damn smug about their achievement, the rest of us hate them anyway.

So I'm not speaking with any confidence here. That said, the pattern in the Derb household is a sort of lower-key version of the Chuas: Mom does the tiger business, nagging and harassing the kids to do homework, music practice, chores, etc., while Dad flaps around vaguely in the background murmuring: "Perhaps we should let them go out and play now, honey …"

Mrs D has the Chua tendency, but in nothing like so concentrated a form as Amy Chua herself. There are no tooth-marks on our piano. The music lessons — daughter violin and dance, son piano and school band — were all her doing. It's she who pounces on the school reports and demands to know why this semester's grade in Social Science is three points lower than last. (How does she remember?)

Dad is more laissez-faire, sees himself in fact as somewhat like the God of the Deists, who kick-starts the Universe then lets it run with just an occasional nudge in the right direction. If what I see on the school reports agrees tolerably well with my own estimation of my kids' abilities — which is, in both cases, modestly above average — I'm content. Music lessons? Sure: but when my son reached the age at which bitter rebellion set in, I argued his case with the Mrs while secretly admiring his spirit.

You can in fact lead a horse to water and make him drink, but only up to a certain age. After that, reason, diplomacy, forbearance, and some fatalism are far more appropriate than Chua-style bullying, certainly for American kids. My own Tom Sawyer and Calamity Jane are now aged 15 and 18, and I have no illusions about my ability to do much moulding from here on out, other than perhaps by example and persuasion.

I am in any case, by conviction, quite a strong genetic determinist. I know myself; I know my brother; I knew my father; and when I look at my son, I know what I'm looking at. Not that I'm necessarily a hundred percent happy about it; but I believe I have done my best, and at this point can do very little more.


Pimsleur: New business plan needed     OK, I've finished my Turkish course, 16 half-hour lessons on eight CDs from Pimsleur. Now I discover that Pimsleur has the worst marketing model in the history of commerce.

Here's the page for the Pimsleur Turkish course. There are 30 half-hour lessons altogether. You can buy all 30 for list price $265 (though there always seems to be a discount deal — currently $149.95). That's the package called "Turkish 1."

Or you can buy just a starter course, first 10 lessons only, for $29.95. That's "Basic Turkish."

Or you can split the difference and buy the first 16 lessons. That's "Conversational Turkish" for $39.95. (Well, that's what I paid.)

OK, so having done those first 16 lessons, I'd like to continue. How do I do this? "Take your skills to the next level with Pimsleur Turkish 1," says the website. I am reliably informed, however, that the 30 lessons in Turkish 1 include the 16 I've already mastered. So they're asking me to pay $149.95 for (a) duplicate disks for the 16 lessons I've already paid $39.95 for and studied, plus (b) another 14 lessons.

Why can't I just buy those extra 14 lessons as an extender? I checked the FAQ. Apparently this Q has never been A-ed before. I emailed them with the question. They have not replied.

Guys, I really liked your course, but … get yourself someone who has a clue about marketing.


The joy of grammar     My explorations of Turkish have at least introduced me to a real gem of a book: G.L. Lewis's Turkish Grammar, my edition 1967 from Oxford University Press. I mentioned the book in last month's diary, but I had only just picked it up at that time. I hereby declare it Book of the Month for March.

For one thing there's the interest of the language itself, which is unlike any other I have studied, and full of oddities. There is, for example, no verb "to be" in Turkish. To say "I am X" you just stick an -im (or an -üm, or an -ım, or an -um, or a -yim, or a -yüm, or a -yım, or a -yum — that's a whole other story) on the end of X: evde = "at home," so evdeyim = "I am at home."

Nor is there a verb "to have." Instead there are these two words var and yok, which mean "exists" and "doesn't exist." To say "I have a house" you say evim var, "my house exists." Should someone tell you that imparatorun elbisesi yok, he's saying that the emperor has no clothes — literally "emperor's his-clothes don't-exist."

These two omissions aside, the Turkish verb is a marvel, with moods within aspects within tenses. Lewis has whole pages on things like the inferential conditional ("if I am said to have come") and the subjunctive past (which "expresses unfulfillable past wishes" — that one, it seems to me, should come with a Surgeon General's warning).

Then there's the author, who died just three years ago, aged 87. The London Times obituary is here. "He was a remarkably good teacher in whom a thorough grasp of his subject, ease of manner, and a fine sense of humour made a happy combination," says the obituarist, and on the evidence of Turkish Grammar he was not mistaken. Would that I had met Lewis — subjunctive past! — when he was still alive.

His illustrative sentences often have interesting color: karım benden hoşlanmıyası imiş, for example — "my wife is alleged not to like me." Or how about this Strindbergian snippet: hakikaten bedbaht olunabilir mi? — "is it possible to be truly unhappy?" The spirit of Camus is hovering, too: insan ıztırabı karşısında aydın ne diyor? — "confronted with human affliction, what does the intellectual say?"

I can't resist quoting Lewis at more length. Try this, from his section on the wonderfully versatile aorist tense:

An instructive example of the difference between the aorist and the present is seen in this cynical remark on traffic hazards in Turkey: başka memleketlerde kazara ölürler; biz kazara yaşıyoruz "in other countries they die by accident; we live by accident." The force of the aorist ölürler is "I cannot say confidently that anyone abroad is in fact dying at this precise instant, but I am aware that people abroad are liable to die — kazara — as the result of accident." The present yaşıyoruz means "we are in fact living at this moment but — kazara — it's more by luck than judgement."

I have got quite carried away here, I'll admit. Heck, I'm only going to be in the country five days; and that, at a tourist hotel in a town (Bodrum) which I'm told is so cosmopolitan even the dogs in the street speak English. It's highly unlikely I'll get the chance to deploy an inferential conditional.

I am, though, going to look out keenly for an opportunity to utter this phrase from page 101 of Lewis's masterpiece: ben gerici imişim — "I am said to be reactionary."


Back to Grub Street     Hit Show 'Mad Men' to Cut Costs by Cutting Characters said the headline in America's Newspaper of Record, March 20.

I've never seen an episode of "Mad Men," but I had to read the story anyway. Apparently it's a successful show, some kind of office dramedy set in the 1960s. The creator of the thing is asking for a big salary raise but the cable network that runs the show is fighting back, demanding cast cuts to finance the raise.

Just a routine power play then between a company and a star performer. But why did I feel I had to read the thing? The Grub Street factor, that's why.

Back in the 18th century the lives of writers (among which journalists were not yet a distinct category), poets, dramatists, and musical composers — "content providers," as we should nowadays say — were very precarious. The systems of royalty and copyright were still being worked out in the courts. If you wrote a book, you hawked it around the booksellers until someone gave you ten guineas for it. Then you went back to your rented room in the poor quarter — "Grub Street" — and started another book, stopping at a pie shop on the way to eat your first square meal in six months. Doctor Johnson gave the canonical description of a writer's life, which he knew all too well:

Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
There mark what Ills the Scholar's Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail.

(After his wranglings with Lord Chesterfield, Johnson changed the word "Garret" to "Patron" in later editions of the poem. For a grimly unsparing account of the 18th-century writer's life, see Richard Holmes' fine book Dr Johnson & Mr Savage.)

The life of a content provider improved immensely through the 19th and 20th centuries. Now it looks as though we're headed back to Grub Street.

For example: I have an acquaintance whose life ambition was to be a musician and producer of music. (Pop music, that is.) He labored away at it, at one point having his own studio and equipment. He had to give up at last. "Nobody wants to pay for music any more," is his explanation. Now he's a computer programmer.

Writing is headed the same way. So are movies and TV shows — that was what drew me to that headline.

Rob Long nailed it in his article on Charlie Sheen in the April 4 issue of National Review.

That's what unlimited bandwidth … is doing to the old Hollywood business model. We are all moments away from cheap, knock-off stardom. Click around YouTube and you'll be astonished at the number of people who regularly post videos of themselves. There are people you and I have never heard of, and yet there they are, talking into the camera, for millions of subscribers.

When labor gets this cheap … you start to get nervous. Charlie Sheen's awful, repellent descent is a nasty glimpse into the future of the entertainment business, where some of us are busily Tweeting and webcasting and Facebook-updating ourselves, and some of us are sitting on the sofa trying to find something — anything — actually worth watching.

(Did I violate your copyright there, Rob? Sorry, pal.)

"Nobody wants to pay for music any more." And pretty soon nobody will want to pay for TV shows, or movies, or journalism, and the content provider business will be like professional sports: a handful of superstars making megabucks, the rest of us sleeping on ash heaps for the warmth.

I question Rob's "millions" there, though. I think Steve Sailer is more likely correct:

Andy Warhol is still famous for saying 43 years ago that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. It's more likely that in the future everyone will be famous to 15 people.

As the Turks say:  İt ürür kervan geçer — "the dogs howl, the caravan moves on."


Learning neuroscience     If you share my interest in the problem of consciousness, you will enjoy this ill-tempered review of two books on the topic. The reviewer, Raymond Tallis, is a retired neurosurgeon. There's a good spirited comment thread.

Meanwhile I am near the end of my latest purchase from the Teaching Company: "The Neuroscience of Everyday Life." Mrs Derb has been watching it with me: it's good general-interest stuff.

That being the case, if you have a long-standing curiosity about this subject, you won't learn a whole lot from the Teaching Company course that you didn't already know, if only at a superficial level.

The course was still worthwhile, though, for occasional insights. Prof. Wang is a better-than-average lecturer, with that diffident catch-it-as-it-flies-by Chinese sense of humor that I like. He's structured the course well, and touched almost all the bases I'd wanted touched.

(One exception: Nothing so far — I've done 33 of the 36 lectures — on the very weird business of hydrocephalic normals. These are people whose head, instead of being full of brain, is mostly full of water. The brain is just a sort of thin rind lining the skull. Yet incredibly some of these people are quite normal — better than average, I believe, at mathematics. I'd love to have heard Prof. Wang's take on this.)

On those topics that verge on political correctness, Prof. Wang cleaves strictly to the party line. And then some: the Marxist propagandist Stephen Jay Gould gets two mentions, with pictures — more than any other person not a neuroscientist. On nature-nurture in relation to IQ, Prof. Wang offers us the dear old Eyferth study, which is such a favorite with nurturists that none of them, in the fifty years since, has tried to replicate its results. A promise at the beginning of Lecture 25 ("Intelligence, Genes, and Environment") to give us some facts about group differences delivers nothing but some bland remarks on males and females … and so on.

I suppose the Teaching Company has guidelines they impose, but the Prof. could still have been bolder. And two pictures of that con artist Gould? Really!


Math Corner     In last month's Math Corner I passed some remarks of a general kind on Benford's Law, which says that in almost any big list of numbers, around 30.1 percent will start with digit 1, around 17.6 percent with digit 2, and so on. For digit n the proportion is  log10(n+1) − log10n  (so the percentage of course 100 times that).

Those remarks referred to real-world illustrations of the law. Benford's Law has a pure-mathematical side, too, however. Fibonacci's numbers, for example:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, …

(each number being the sum of the two to its immediate left) follow Benford's Law. So do powers of 2, or powers of any number not itself a power of ten. So do factorials.

Contrariwise, some important sequences do not follow Benford's Law, notably the primes. Just checking the first 5.8 million primes, I get the following counts for leading digits 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9:  724593, 664277, 651085, 641594, 633932, 628206, 622882, 618610, and 614821. Instead of Benfordian percentages 30-18-12-10-8-7-6-5-4 I've got more like 13-12-11-11-11-11-11-10-10. An interesting slight decline, but definitely not Benford-compliant. (Because the log-type thinning-out of primes cancels out most of the log-type front-loading of a Benford-compliant sequence.)

There are innumerable fascinating questions here. I'll just offer a glimpse of one.

Think of a number, not necessarily a whole number. (And if it's negative, that's fine, though there is not much point.) Square it (see?), then add 1. Take your answer, square it, and add 1. Take the answer to that, square it, and add 1. Continue for ever.

A bit more formally:  Think of a number u0. Form the new number u1 = u0² + 1. Then u2 = u1² + 1, and so on.

Still more formally:  Consider the sequence generated recursively by the rule  un+1 := un² + 1, for some given initial u0. In what follows I'll refer to this rule as Q.

However formally it's posed, the process gives you an infinite sequence of numbers  u0, u1, u2, u3, u4, u5, u6, …, each one of which is bigger by 1 than the square of the previous one. The question is: Do the leading digits of the u's follow Benford's Law?

The answer depends on your initial choice of u0. Taking the set R of all possible real numbers as our domain of interest for u0, it divides into two subsets: one — call it BQ — of all the u0 that generate Benford-compliant sequences under the rule Q, and another — call it B′Q — of all the u0 that don't. Any given real number is in either BQ or B′Q.

It can be proved that both BQ and B′Q are uncountably infinite, but that B′Q has Lebesgue measure zero. That is to say, though both sets are uncountably infinite, BQ is way more uncountably infinite than B′Q. (If you don't follow this, I'm afraid there is nothing for it but to go and read up on the theory of Lebesgue measure.)

The loose way mathematicians use to describe a situation like this is: Almost all real numbers are in BQ. An alternative, even looser way: Though B′Q contains an uncountable infinity of numbers, the probability of any given number being in B′Q is zero.

If you have a decent math/stats package, or are serving a long prison sentence, you might want to try that out for some particular real number.

π is an obvious candidate. Then u0 is 3.141592… Square and add one: that gives u1 = 10.869604… Squaring that and adding one, u2 = 119.148299… Proceeding, you get u3 = 14197.317353…, u4 = 201563821.046002…, u5 = 40627973954664757.854260…, and so on. Leading digits are 3, 1, 1, 1, 2, 4, … Hey, it looks Benford-compliant already! (It is.)

That's all well and good, you may say, but how do I know, without experimentation, whether some particular value of u0 will generate a Benford-compliant sequence under the rule Q? (With, or course, an infinity of corresponding questions for an infinity of other rules you might think up.)

So far as I know there is no general method for determining this, though you can of course always take the experimental-math approach: Generate the sequence out to ubazillion or so and run the stats on its leading digits, as I just did for the primes. With u0 = 0 for example you get a sequence that sure looks Benford-compliant, but whose compliance no-one has been able to prove.

It is possible to figure out particular numbers that don't generate Benford-compliant sequences — numbers, that is to say, that are members of the set B′Q, even though the chance of any given number being in B′Q are infinitely small. If, for example, you use the real number

u0 = 9.94962308959395941218332124109326 …

as your starting value for the rule Q, then every single number in the sequence has leading digit 9. How noncompliant is that!

Can you figure out why? Or find a closed form for this number?