»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2011


That was the month that was     May was a comparatively busy month for news. It opened with the Osama bin Laden killing and proceeded through the Royal Wedding, the DSK scandal, then the terrible tornadoes in the South and Midwest. The month petered out at last with Sarah Palin doing something, or not doing something, I forget exactly.

With no offense to SEAL Team Six, Wills and Kate, the violated maid, those afflicted by the tornado destruction, or the formidable Mrs. Palin, I think the big political news of the month was the Democrats' victory in New York's 26th Congressional District.

After I indulged in some I-told-you-so commentary about the upset on Radio Derb, three different listeners emailed in to set me straight. The district should have gone Republican, they said, but that evil Democrat Jack Davis masquerading as a Tea Party candidate stole key votes away from our gal.

Fiddlesticks. The Democrat got 47 percent of the vote, the Republican 43 percent. The Tea Party Democrat got nine percent. If the Republican had won seven of that nine percent — that is, better than three-quarters of Davis's vote — she would have won. Since polling showed only a third of Davis supporters to be Republicans, his previous affiliations being well known in the district, there was no chance of this happening.

The issue hammered hardest by the Democrat was Medicare. The result showed what we kind of knew anyway: that not many people want Medicare reformed, and enough Republicans are angrily hostile to reform to keep them home on polling day, or to get them out voting for a Democrat.

But of course Medicare must be reformed, if it's not eventually to consume the entire national budget. The only people likely to reform it in a sensible way are Republicans … Yet Republicans can't get elected if they talk about reforming Medicare.

I'm reminded somehow of those coffee mugs you can get, one side of which says THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS MUG IS TRUE, while the other side says THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS MUG IS FALSE. (I got mine here, but they seem to have discontinued that line.)

No, I don't have a solution. I don't think there is one. Not every problem has a solution, not in politics anyway. We have bumped up against the limits of democracy here. There's nothing for it but to wait for the crash.


K-K-K-Katy     To entertain us in the meantime, here come the Windsors with another royal wedding.

I didn't pay much attention to the thing itself, but I took in sufficient images of the bride to know her when I see her.

Now I see her all over. At a gathering the other day I saw a dead ringer for Kate — same hair, same pointy features, same style of clothes with lots of limb display. This was odder than it should have been, as the sighting was in Turkey.

I've seen her in the streets of Manhattan, too, sometimes two of her in the space of a city block. No sightings yet here in the burbs, but time moves slowly out here.

It was the same in the lead-up to Charles-Diana. Suddenly every young woman had that Diana hairstyle and that Diana simper. I understand of course how the hair works, but how did they all learn to simper? Was someone giving classes? Same with the Kate lookalikes. Dress and hair, sure, but how do they get those pointy, somewhat mannish features? Cosmetic surgery? In this zone — fashion, celebrity-olatry — nothing would surprise me.


Please don't back into the bacon slicer, we're getting behind with our orders     The very second sentence of my February Diary began with: "Back of that is the deeper question …"

A reader emailed in to say: "Now at last you're getting Americanized! An Englishman would have said 'Behind that …'"

I guess so. It wasn't self-conscious, so far as I can recall; any more than my just saying "I guess so," which in Britlish would have been: "I suppose so."

I think I may even have used "gotten" a couple of times recently, though whether correctly or not I can't be sure …


Gadget of the month     I'm way behind (or back of) the curve gadget-wise, so what I'm about to tell you is probably something you already knew.

My faithful laptop gave up the ghost after six years, so off I went to the local electronics store for a replacement. Telling the salesman what features I wanted, I included a request for a TV tuner. I like to be able to watch TV on my PC.

He looked at me pityingly, as the villagers must have looked at Rip Van Winkle. Nobody has TV tuners any more, he explained. What you do is get a Slingbox.

This is a gadget that sits between your cable box and your router. It basically tells the cable box (for which, of course, you are paying the cable company a monthly rental — there's nothing illegal going on here) to send the TV programs not to your TV set, but to a site on the Internet. You set up a sign-on and password for that site, and then you can watch TV anywhere there's a computer with an internet connection.

This is so cool! I can watch TV in my treehouse. Or in Turkey. Not Turkish TV, but precisely the TV I get in Long Island, with the familiar channel numbers. In Turkey. Amazing.

OK, now you can go ahead and laugh about how far behind the curve I am. I don't care. I hereby nominate Slingbox my Gadget of the Month.


Forms of address     During this month I spent a few hours in hospital undergoing a surgical procedure. The procedure itself was nothing much, but under the hyper-legalized, super-bureaucratized regime of the medical-insurance complex, "nothing much" still manages to be a great deal.

Among the preliminaries was an interview with a hospital administrator who talked me through a lengthy questionnaire about my lifestyle, my medical history, my parents' and siblings' medical histories, and much else.

One question that took me by surprise was: "While you're in the hospital, how would you like the staff to address you?"

Me:  "I didn't know I had a choice."

She:  "It's a courtesy we provide to patients."

Me (after a moment's thought):  "Can I get 'Your Royal Highness'?"

She (laughing):  "I'm afraid that's already taken."


Golden oldie     It's true, everything's on the internet now.

Walking my dog, I stopped to chat with a neighbor. She talked about her cat, whom she adores, but who is extremely old and not long for this world.

Walking on, I suddenly recalled a ditty we used to sing in my childhood, an English kids' street song that I had not thought about for well over half a century. The song is called "Has Anybody seen Our Cat?" As much of the lyrics as I can recall goes like this:

We never thought 'e'd leave 'is 'appy 'ome.
Though after the girls he often used to roam.
We've got Scotland Yard 'ot on 'is track —
We'll do anythin' we can to get 'im back.
We've put new carpets on the parlor floor
An' nailed up a kipper to the door,
With written underneath: WELCOME 'OME —
WE PROMISE NOT TO KICK YER ANY MORE.

[Chorus]  'As anybody seen our cat?
'As anybody seen our cat?
'E's got a bit of black on the end of 'is tail
And the fur's all gone where 'e's been fightin'.
Last Sunday mornin' we missed 'im on the mat.
Puss puss puss puss! Meat meat meat!
'As anybody seen our cat?

In an idle moment at the computer I did a YouTube search for the title. Sure enough (though with words slightly different from those I remember). Amazing.


Partying with libertarians     Off to Turkey at month end for Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Property and Freedom Society annual conference in Bodrum.

The PFS folk are libertarians. I have my reservations about libertarianism; but they were kind enough to invite me, so I went and gave an address, had a marvelous time, and made some new friends.

It was the first time I'd ever been to Turkey; and Bodrum, which is a bit of a tourist trap, probably isn't very representative. I came away with nothing but good impressions, though.

I was brought up with the vague impression that Johnny Turk is a pretty good fellow — a legacy of the Gallipoli disaster, I suppose. The British always respond with grudging respect for anyone who defeats them in battle fairly joined. (British philoturkism seems to have been only slightly dented by Midnight Express.)

Even after doing my best to discount these irrational prejudices, I must say I found the Turks uniformly amiable and hospitable. Wandering around the convoluted topography of Bodrum, I got lost several times. People were eager to help, sketching maps or walking along with me, and they showed great patience with my fragmentary Turkish.

Turkish Airlines is pretty good, too. They serve full meals in coach, which I didn't think airlines did any more. Even the wine is free. A cynical friend tells me that an airline can only afford to do this nowadays if they are flying the national flag and are subsidized by the national taxpayer. I guess this is right; but as with Medicare, I find it hard to mind socialism as much as a good conservative should when I'm at the tax-eating end of it.


My postilion has been struck by lightning     Is a foreign language a social minefield, or what? I have transcribed the following verbatim from the Lonely Planet Turkish Phrasebook, 2008 edition, p.38:

ums & ahs

In those dreaded moments when your Turkish won't flow freely, try not to say "um" to fill the gap. In Turkish you're actually saying am (a vulgar term for "vagina") — if your audience has a good sense of humour, they could be hiding a smirk, but you could also be causing serious offence. Use the more neutral "ah" instead.

Of the two Turkish-language phrasebooks I've brought with me, by the way — what the hell kind of dilettante goes to a foreign country with only one phrasebook? — I find I'm using the Lonely Planet one more. The other, from Berlitz, though good as a back-up, just doesn't have so much in it (224 pages vs. 260, and larger print).

Both publications give thorough coverage of the dating scene, by the way, and some handy phrases for the aprés-date scene, too; though here again Lonely Planet is more comprehensive. The Turkish for "Easy, tiger!", should you ever be in need of it, is Yavaş ol!


Pioneers of P.C.?     Could it be that the Turks invented Political Correctness, or at least were alert to it way before the rest of us? Here's a suggestive entry from The Concise Oxford Turkish Dictionary, my edition dated 1959. The word-heading here is boya, which means "dye, paint, colour."

birbirinin gözünü boyamak, (of two parties) to pretend to believe something when each knows the other does not believe it.
[Added later :   I should also have given the literal translation:  "to dye each other's eyes."]


The news from Turkey     To get a handle on how Turkey sees the world, it helps to check off the nations that border it. Here they are, counter-clockwise from the west:  Bulgaria, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan (just a ten-mile sliver), Armenia, Georgia. Some neighborhood.

Right now it's Syria that the Turks are most bothered about. They most especially do not want a flood of refugees coming in from Syria's disorders. Note from that story, by the way (sixth paragraph), that most of Turkey's 550-mile border with Syria is "heavily mined."

We news commentators might as well set up the phrase "do not want a flood of refugees" as a one-stroke keyboard macro, especially when writing about the Muslim world.


What Russian tourists do     There were a surprising number of Russian tourists in Bodrum.

What do Russians do on vacation? What do you think? They're Russian.


Math Corner     Having let you off lightly last month, here's a brainteaser from a formidably mathematical source, the current (June-July 2011) issue of The American Mathematical Monthly.

Define strings S1, S2, S3, … as follows:

S1 = the string consisting just of "a"

S2 = the string consisting just of "b"

Sk = the string you get by concatenating Sk−1 with Sk−2

If you just apply that definition you get a sequence of strings like this:

S3 = "ba"

S4 = "bab"

S5 = "babba"

S6 = "babbabab"

S7 = "babbababbabba"

S8 = "babbababbabbababbabab"

  … … …

Sn = "babbababbabbababbababbabbababbabba …"

Since, by definition, every string Sn begins with the string Sn−1, it's possible to imagine the string S, which the author of the AMM article calls "the golden string."

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to find an expression for the position in S at which the n-th "b" occurs. The answer is of course some function of n, but what function?