»  National Review Online Diary

  July 2011


Premature anti-spenders     From Peggy Noonan's July 30 column:

The Republican establishment … spent the first decade of this century backing things a truly conservative party would not have dreamed of — careless wars, huge spending and, most scandalously, a dreamy and unconservative assumption that it would all work out because life is sweet and the best thing always happens … They were fools …

Yes they were, but their folly did not go unremarked by conservatives — a few conservatives, at any rate. Let us offer a brief nod of acknowledgment to the premature anti-spenders.

Seasoned European leftists of the 1940s were wont to refer to themselves bitterly as "premature anti-fascists." They had (they grumbled) been fighting against fascism when nobody much outside the Left minded it — when, indeed, some very respectable establishment types in Britain and the U.S.A. embraced it. Now that everyone agreed that fascism was the Supreme Evil, weren't they entitled to some credit for their foresight?

Political history is often like that. Some idea, ideology, policy, style, or practice is fine with most everyone but an annoying minority of dissenters … until it isn't. Then suddenly all the wise and good are saying, to each other's hearty approval, what the dissenters had said ten years previously, to general scorn — or, more often, contemptuous silence.

The rewards of accurate prophecy are, I think, pretty well known.

So with the current budget panic. The crisis has been a long time brewing. There have been voices warning for years about extravagant federal spending. Mine, for example, back in 2004:

But don't our leaders worry that unrestrained spending will have deleterious long-term effects on our country, or on their state? All I can say is that if they do indeed harbor such worries, they keep them superbly well hidden. Probably the politicians feel that there is no downside to them, personally, in sending a couple billion more to the Cactus Growers of America or the Natchitoches Disabled Black Lesbians Theater Workshop. Hey, it all brings in votes. Long-term? Well, all sorts of things might happen long-term. The horse might learn to sing. And even long-term, from the point of view of the individual politician, where is the downside? Teddy Kennedy's been sitting comfortably in the Senate since the Creek Wars, voting through every spending bill that came up — grumbling, in fact, that they didn't spend anything like enough! Is he a national pariah? Not exactly.

High up on the honor roll of premature anti-spenders is Bruce Bartlett, whose 2006 book Impostor laid out in well-documented, indisputable detail that whatever kind of conservative George W. Bush may have been, it sure wasn't the fiscal kind.

Bartlett's book — I have it on my desk here — reads pretty well after five years. At the time, however, it was greeted with a chorus of Bronx cheers from establishment Republicanism. Bartlett was actually fired from his job at a GOP suck-up think tank — not as bad as being raped by Ajax Minor then slain by Clytemnestra, but humiliating none the less.

So as we contemplate the current federal fiscal mess — two trillion per annum coming in, four trillion going out — let's bow our heads for a moment in apology to the premature anti-spenders.


Silent Cal redux     I had lunch with an up-and-coming young conservative writer the other day, currently employed on the editorial page of a very important daily business-oriented newspaper, formerly at one of my favorite book review outlets.

He told me he is working on a biography of Calvin Coolidge, then added that he knows of another scholar also working on a Coolidge biography — a different one, of course.

Two new biographies of Silent Cal! Grist for the reviewer's mill, I hope: having made my first mark as a Coolidgean, I'm always willing to offer an opinion on anything written about the 30th President.

If those two projected books are indicative of the level of interest in Coolidge among educated young conservatives in mid-2011, perhaps that is because the incontinent federal spending of the Bush-Obama era is going to bring government frugality back into fashion by reaction. Coolidge, who was the last word (or two) in thin-lipped sleeve-gartered green-eyeshaded Republicanism, can only benefit.

There is no need for Democrats to feel left out here, either. They have their own green-eyeshade hero: Grover Cleveland, whose annualized rate of vetoing legislation was I believe the highest of any president's: average 73 vetoes per annum. Reagan's was 10, Coolidge's 9. George W. Bush's average was one of the lowest: a miserable 1.5 per annum.

Coolidge's advice to his father, in a letter dated September 6, 1910, on the occasion of Coolidge, Sr. having been elected a Vermont State Senator: "It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones."

I would have those words tattooed by law on both palms of every declared presidential candidate and every state or federal legislator.


Trojan asteroid     My passing mention of the Trojan War up there is a good enough excuse to note the discovery, announced in the last week of July, of a Trojan asteroid in Earth's orbit.

Trojan asteroids inhabit two of the Lagrange points that feature in the combined gravitational field when a small object orbits a much larger one. Both points lie on the smaller object's orbital path. One is 60 degrees ahead of the smaller object, one is 60 degrees behind it. Each point is at the bottom of a gravitational "well" — a region of stable equilibrium in which a tiny object can wobble around for ever, like a ball bearing in a wineglass.**

The Sun-Jupiter system satisfies the requirements for Lagrange points, and sure enough tiny asteroids have been found lurking there in Jupiter's orbit like celestial dust bunnies, 60 degrees ahead of and 60 degrees behind the giant planet. When the first ones were found, over a hundred years ago, it was decided to name them after figures from the Trojan War. The adjective "Trojan" is now used for all objects of this type.

I first learned about Trojan asteroids fifty years ago from one of Isaac Asimov's columns in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The column was reprinted in Asimov on Astronomy, one of the innumerable collections of those magazine pieces he published. The title of that column was "The Trojan Hearse."

Doctor Johnson said of Shakespeare that he could never resist a "quibble," which in Johnson's time meant a pun. You can say the same of Asimov. The content of Asimov's pun was, that the Lagrange points would be great places for the dumping of nuclear waste. Lagrange points are in the middle of nowhere — by tens of millions of miles — and no-one has any reason to go to them. Of course, if anyone did venture into one after the nuclear-waste idea had been taken up and implemented, the result would be lethal, and the adventurer would end up in … a Trojan hearse.

** This is wrong. I had forgotten that the whole system is in motion. Though there is a potential well of sorts at L4 and L5, it's not a gravitational one. They are in fact gravitational peaks. They are saved from being un-stable equilibria by the motion of the system. As that University of Montana website explains: "When a satellite parked at L4 or L5 starts to roll off the hill it picks up speed. At this point the Coriolis force comes into play — the same force that causes hurricanes to spin up on the earth — and sends the satellite into a stable orbit around the Lagrange point."


Fireworks: creativity needed     For once we did not go out to see the local July Fourth fireworks show. We contented ourselves with watching the New York City version on TV.

This wasn't from any fading of patriotic zeal. Not to watch July Fourth fireworks at all would be a serious delinquency, like not watching the World Series. We have standards here chez Derb. It's just that the fag of getting the family into the car, driving a mile to the local high school, then walking another mile to the actual fireworks venue because we couldn't find a parking place any closer, then trudging the same weary track in reverse after half an hour's ritual ooh-ing and aah-ing among our fellow-townspeople, seemed like too much.

The fundamental problem here is that the art of firework displays is unprogressive. All right, I'll be blunt: You've seen one, you've seen 'em all. Can't the pyrotechnicians come up with something new to awe and astonish us? Or is this a "finished" art form, the way chemistry is a finished science?


Shutting out dissidents     I reviewed a 2004 novel by Chinese dissident Hu Fayun for the August 1 issue of National Review. (The novel has only just been translated.)

The novel is rather long — 450pp plus endnotes — with many incidents, of which I could only take up a couple with which to illustrate the author's style and themes. Here's an incident not included in my review.

A key character in the novel is Teacher Wei, an old scholar — born 1919 — of great experience and integrity, with many young disciples among the dissidents. He dies during the 2002-03 SARS epidemic.

Teacher Wei's disciples have the idea to organize a conference in his memory. A young dissident named Damo agrees to organize the conference.

Damo put out feelers to a new resort in the hill country more than sixty miles away. Business had not been too great for them and since SARS came they had been positively languishing. So when they heard of an activity being planned for 110 people, they were thrilled.  (p.421)

The resort is a nice place:

"We've got quite a spot here," the staff person said proudly. "It appeals to people with good taste. We've got electricity but prefer not to use a/c. This is a place for drinking spring water, eating wild herbs, burning firewood … Green Tourism! That's what we're about." After coming to an agreement about the cost of room and board, Damo paid a thousand-yuan deposit and considered the matter settled.  (p.437)

All the arrangements are made, invitations issued, presentations prepared. Then:

A mere two days before the conference about Teacher Wei was scheduled to begin, Damo received a call from Purple Rock Mountain Stronghold. They said they'd been notified that they could not host any large gatherings for the duration of the SARS epidemic. They were extremely apologetic about this change, which was beyond their control. If Damo would give them his postal address, they would mail back his thousand-yuan deposit.

Damo hardly ever lost his decorum with strangers, but now he yelled: "Why didn't you tell me sooner, asshole! It's not like SARS broke out yesterday."

Chaos ensued …  (p.443)

Imagine going to all the trouble of organizing a conference only to have the hotel — a private business! — cancel on you at the last minute under pressure from political authorities.


Adjectives with no opposite     Small things annoy me. Very small things. Adjectives with no opposites, for example.

While exploring the Turkish language, I mentioned in this space G.L. Lewis's compulsively readable Turkish Grammar, from which the following:

§ 38.  Word-accent.  With the exceptions stated below, Turkish words are oxytone, i.e. accented on the last syllable …

Sure enough, when I go to Dictionary.com and look up "oxytone" I get: "(of a word) having an accent on the final syllable." The root is Greek: "oxy-" meaning "sharp," "acute," "keen," "pointed," or "acid."

So far, so good; but what's the opposite? In Hungarian, most words are stressed on the first syllable. Is there an adjective for that? If there is, I can't find it. Grrrr.


Gold diggers, tiger wives, and Baby Doe     In the July 22 broadcast of Radio Derb I passed some remarks on the turnaround in British public opinion about Wendi Murdoch, wife of Rupert, following her defense of hubby in the pie-throwing incident.

Prior to that, Wendi was regarded as an unscrupulous gold-digger. She was 30 to Rupert's 68 at the time they married; their ages are now 42 and 80. Rupert had dumped a faithful wife of 30-odd years to marry Wendi. The lass, of humble Chinese origins, had previously got herself a Green Card by seducing an American engineer, also married, also several decades her senior.

Then Wendi's fierce and clearly instinctive defense of her husband transformed her into a Tiger Wife and the gold-digger image has been obliterated. She is now invited to all the best parties.

A listener wrote in to tell me of a similar case in the U.S.A. 130 years ago. This was Elizabeth "Baby" Doe, whose origins were as humble as Wendi's. Elizabeth went off to Leadville, Colorado with her loser husband in the Silver Boom of the 1870s. There she caught the eye of mining millionaire Horace "Silver Dollar" Tabor. She divorced; he divorced; they were married in 1883. Because of the divorces, though, and the 24-year age difference, they were not welcome in polite society. Baby Doe was assumed to be a gold digger (silver digger, whatever).

Ten years later Horace's fortune crashed. He was penniless. Baby Doe stood by him loyally till he died six years further on, still penniless, and remained true to his memory thereafter. It's a very touching story: an opera was written about it — "one of the two or three uniquely American operas," says my listener.

Possibly this is all old news to native Americans, but I never knew any of it. Now I want to see the opera.


The extended self

Your body image is surprisingly flexible. Expert skiers, for example, can extend their consciously experienced body image to the tips of their skis. Race-car drivers can expand it to include the boundaries of the car; they do not have to judge visually whether they can squeeze through a narrow opening or avoid an obstacle — they simply feel it.

That's from Chapter Three of Thomas Metzinger's fascinating book The Ego Tunnel, which I've mentioned before. Metzinger's a professional philosopher and a star of the Science of Consciousness movement that has come up this past twenty years.

Metzinger isn't just spinning ideas out of the air. Philosophy of mind nowadays is all tied up with brain studies, and these guys all have neuroimaging or brain-pathology data to (according to them) back up their theorizing.

What Metzinger's saying there makes a lot of sense. It's something that I think, in fact, we all sort of know. It came to my mind with some force in mid-July when I was shooting skeet with some friends.

I'm hopeless at skeet, though I enjoy getting out there, handling the guns, and watching the occasional — too occasional — "bird" fly apart when my shot hits it. One of my friends, though, is an expert who's been shooting most of his life. On this occasion we were joined by another fellow whose level of expertise is even higher. He's been shooting since he was six years old, he told us, and has taken thousands of dollars' worth of instruction from big names in the sport. He told me that his gun — custom-made, of course — had cost more than either of his first two cars.

Watching these two experts, I recalled Metzinger's remark, and saw the truth of it. If you see me shooting skeet, you're seeing a man brandishing a shotgun. (That is, unless you have flung yourself to the ground in terror and buried your face in the grass.) With one of these guys it was more like seeing a single organism, fully conscious of all its parts. Their guns weren't so much objects they were handling as extensions of themselves. Each of their brains had incorporated a gun as part of the body image, in a way that neuroscientists can tell you about in surprising detail.

The extended mind: it's beautiful to watch.


Tragic truth or feelgood falsehood?     Metzinger is calmly reasonable about the cold purposelessness of existence, and the great improvement in quality of life gained by self-deceptive strategies — pretty lies — for denying the dark. He thinks that when we build "Ego Machines" — that is, artificial consciousnesses — we should include powers of self-deception among their capabilities.

According to the naturalistic worldview, there are no ends. Strictly speaking, there are not even means — evolution just happened …  If this is true, the logic of psychological evolution mandates concealment of the fact from the Ego Machine caught on the hedonic treadmill. It would be an advantage if insights into the structure of its own mind … were not reflected in its conscious self-model too strongly. From a traditional evolutionary perspective, pessimism is a maladaptation. (The Ego Tunnel, p.200)

He goes on to point out the ancient conundrum here. We want ourselves, and our thinking machines when we build them, to engage with true facts. True facts are not often happy facts, though.

Metzinger tries for a recovery: "Truth may be at least as valuable as happiness …" It may indeed, but no large portion of humanity has ever really thought so — or at least, to be sure, has never behaved as if it thought so. Perhaps those Ego Machines, when they show up, will do better.


Pop neuroscience     There is certainly a bumper crop of pop neuroscience books right now. I just spotted another one in the July 31 New York Times Book Review.

If you try to read all these books you get a lot of the same information over again, but differently presented. Metzinger works the border territory between philosophy and neuroscience better than any other I've seen, but I've just started Alva Noë's Out of Our Heads and this could be a strong contender.

I'd heard good things about V.S. Ramachandran's The Tell-Tale Brain, but found it unsatisfying. He managed to turn me off right there in the front matter, in the Acknowledgments in fact. (Whaddya mean, nobody reads a book's Acknowledgments? I read them.)

I turn now to thank friends and colleagues with whom I have had productive conversations over the years. I list them in alphabetical order: [Long list of A's, B's, C's, D's, E's, F's, and two G's. Then …]  Al Gore (the "real" president), …

For crying out loud, man: If you want to write a book promoting leftist politics, write one. If you're writing neuroscience, leave that stuff out. I've written two books about mathematics: there isn't a lick of my political opinions in either of them. Read and learn, pal.


Blind; not blind; metaphor blind     A fun thing about reading a lot of pop-neuroscience is the extremely strange neurological conditions you learn about.

I already knew about anosognosia, in which you can (for example) be blind without knowing that you are blind. There is also an opposite phenomenon: "blindsight," in which you think you're blind when you're not. (You think you're blind; the researcher shines a spot of light on a screen and asks you to reach out and touch it; you protest that you can't see it; he says to try anyway; you try, and precisely touch the spot … repeatedly, in trial after trial. You can see it, but don't know that you can.)

There's weird and wonderful stuff here. In Capgras Syndrome you think your loved ones are impostors; in Cotard Syndrome you believe yourself to be dead; in apotemnophilia "an otherwise mentally competent person desires to have a healthy limb amputated in order to 'feel whole.'"

Then there's metaphor blindness, where you can't "get" metaphors.

Doctor:  "What does it mean, 'a stitch in time saves nine'?"
Patient:  "Well, it means if you have a rip in your clothes, you should put a stitch in it right away, else later you'll need to make nine stitches."
Doctor:  "Anything else?"
Patient:  "Uh … no. What else could there be?"

I think I could live with metaphor blindness, though it would obviously kill off one's career as a writer, but Cotard Syndrome? I'd rather be dead. No, wait …


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

As you can see from the length of my solution, that was some doozy. Bertrand Russell claimed that after finishing Principia Mathematica he was never again capable of such sustained intellectual effort. I feel somewhat the same, so for this month I'm going to hand you off to a guest puzzler, Jonathan Campbell. His puzzle is here.

Jonathan's puzzle comes with prizes!

I will buy, for the first person who can solve this puzzle (i.e. give an answer and prove it), 2 beers at a bar.

I'm betting there's a catch there; the bar is in Koyukuk, Alaska, or some such. That's between you and Jonathan, though. NRO is positively not responsible for any promises made on linked websites.