»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2011


Man of La Manga.     From a Radio Derb listener in the Big Apple:

Speaking of real candidates: Have you noticed something superb about Perry? (I mean something else — he's our man.) Unlike the other, and fake, men of the people running (this issue doesn't apply to the women), he doesn't roll up his damned sleeves. All the others put on this moronic costume of rolled up shirtsleeves — even worse, often when they're wearing ties — and expect us to think … I don't know what. That they're Men Of The People Ready To Fight For Us? That we will elect them on the basis of their attractive forearms? That they don't know how to operate buttons or cufflinks and should therefore get handicap points for disability?

Bonus: Perry seems to use cufflinks a lot. The last guy I remember keeping his sleeves down and fastened by cufflinks was Reagan, and that wasn't too shabby. Message: I'm an adult, and I think you are too.

[Me]  Personally I'm OK with them rolling up their sleeves; but if they start with the trouser legs, I'm outta here.


Showbiz news.     The immortal Al Bundy, impersonated by actor Ed O'Neill, has been given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame … outside a shoe store.

Richly deserved; but I wish that after that very touching and gentlemanly speech he made, Al had given us a few bars of "Psycho Dad." My kids grew up hearing me sing that; with what long-term psychological consequences, I would not hazard to speculate.


Hurricane Irene.     Irene was a bit of a flop. The forecasts on Saturday showed her passing directly over us here in Huntington. By the time she got here, though, Irene was nothing but a bad storm.

I've been in a real hurricane in the Far East (where it was of course a typhoon) — have stood at my taped-up 13th-floor window watching big sheets of corrugated iron from someone's roof bowling along the street below like scrap paper. Irene wasn't anything like that, just a lot of rain and wind. I've been to GOP fundraisers that were more exciting.

The main effect on our lives was, we lost power for three days, and phone and internet service too.

The kids coped very well. They spent Sunday playing their way through the family stock of board games: Parcheesi, Life, Stratego, Monopoly. All four of us used to play as a family event when they were little; but then they got social lives, homework, and computers, and the weekend family games went by the board (as it were).

We had successfully planted the idea of board games in their silly heads, though, so there they were when I went up to my study on Sunday morning, playing Parcheesi; and there they still were when the dinner bell rang at 6 pm, haggling over rent on a hotel.

There were trees down all over, but our own little homestead came through the tempest nearly unscathed — just some fence damage from falling branches. My treehouse is of course perfectly intact. I build for the ages.


Rediscovering the crossword puzzle.     My usual morning drill is to read the New York Post over breakfast porridge & prunes, then check my email. With no internet service I was therefore at a post-breakfast loss. What to do?

Idly turning the pages of the newspaper, hoping to spot something worth reading in the badlands beyond the editorial page, where I normally never venture (business, fashion, sports, …) I spotted the crosswords. The Post runs two crosswords every day: one of those childish synonym things (33 dn. "River of Hades," four letters), and a real cryptic crossword — actually the one that runs in the London Times, which 30 years ago I did every day, finishing it more often than not.

I got a pen and attacked the thing. After 20 minutes concentrated effort I had got just two clues.

13 dn. A petrol fire put out by snowball. (11)

That's an anagram ("put out") of "A petrol fire," which is the required eleven letters. A little doodling gets PROLIFERATE, a fair synonym for "snowball," the verb. Then:

27 ac. Clear confusion about daughter's birthplace. (6)

Plainly CRADLE, which is loosely used to mean "birthplace" ("cradle of Western civilization …"), and which is an anagram ("confusion") of "clear" wrapped around "d," the usual abbreviation of "daughter" in genealogies and biographical summaries.

That was the best I could do. Checking the solution in Wednesday's paper, I see I totally missed obvious ones like "Slav, heading west, spies Italian city (7)" (BRESCIA), "Heretic from height thrown into river (8)" (WYCLIFFE), and even the three-letter give-aways: "Say, good start in life" (EGG), "Work well together raising support" (GEL), and "When to expect letter from abroad" (ETA). Some I don't understand even after reading the solution: Why is "Edited short article with headline Chap shooting back in Lancaster (4-3, 7)" TAIL-END CHARLIE? I get the WW2 bomber reference, but …

Look, I used to be able to do this thing. What's changed, it or me? Please let the answer be:

Ms. Bow's talent used to be data processing. (2)


Public service announcement.     Walking my dog early on the first day of the power outage, we encountered a neighbor's dog wandering loose in the street.

This neighbor I know to be a responsible dog owner. In fact he's installed one of those "invisible fence" things round his front yard to keep the dog in. There was the problem, though: the invisible fence runs on e-l-e-c-t-r-i-c-i-t-y.

I know there are a lot of things to think about when preparing for a storm, but come on. How obvious is this?


Introduction to Academe.     My princess daughter Nellie started college in New York City at the end of August.

Back home (she's commuting) from the first day, she reported that the very first words spoken to her by a classmate (male, South Asian) were: "Hi! Say, you're mixed, aren't you?"

Back when I was starting college 48 years ago, we all assumed that matters of race and ethnicity would melt away as the world opened up and we all got to know each other. How naïve we were!


English riots: a suggestion.     The first week of August ended with a race riot in London which quickly metastasized into general looting and mayhem. Underclass whites joined in the fun, and some middle-class types too.

Most of what can be said about the riots has been said. I'd just like to add one point relevant to the younger rioters. It's a bit of a hobby horse of mine, but let me just ride it briefly one time here.

The first week of August is (or was, when I was in English schools) well into summer vacation time. Slum kids are bored. Any kind of excitement is welcome.

For the year 1968-69 I taught at a school in the slums of Liverpool. It wasn't just a slum school, it was a remedial slum school: the boys — it was boys-only — had all been flagged "ESN" (educationally subnormal). Under the English system of public education at that time, everyone got IQ-tested at age 11. The lowest scorers — I think the cutoff was 85 — were deemed ESN. Well, these were boys incapable of learning much, and with such an array of behavioral problems it was hard to teach them anything anyway.

Yet truancy rates were low, and lateness wasn't a problem. Indeed, when I got to work in the morning, there was always a good complement of boys who'd showed up early. They'd be lounging around in the street waiting for school to open. On one public holiday, when the school was closed, I happened to drive past in mid-morning. There were twenty or so boys in the street outside the school. They hadn't got the message, or they'd forgotten about the holiday, or they just couldn't think of anything to do but go to school.

You can be a slum kid with zero interest in education, who goes to school mainly to horse around; but at least school is something when there isn't much else going on.

The long summer vacation should be scrapped. We don't need the kids to help bring in the harvest any more. Teachers should work fifty weeks a year, like the rest of us. Whether or not any real education was taking place, the boredom level in the slums would be much reduced.


Hitler's sex life.     I don't think I'll be reading this new book about Eva Braun, but I enjoyed Richard Evans' review in The National Interest.

I'm not sure that Evans has a firm grasp on PC protocols, though.

There can be little doubt that the [Adolf-Eva] relationship was a normal expression of heterosexuality on both sides. Görtemaker does not even bother to mention … the barroom gossip purveyed by the lounge lizard Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, an intimate of Hitler in the 1920s … according to which Hitler engaged in sexual perversions of various kinds. Difficult though it may be to accept, it seems overwhelmingly probable that Hitler had a sex life that was conventional in every respect except that he kept it secret. Not everything about this most evil of men was necessarily twisted or perverted.

I'm OK with that myself, but … is the concept "sexual perversion" still current? Is there anything an adult male and an adult female might do with each other that can be called "twisted or perverted" without raising howls of outrage from some lifestyle lobby or other?


First thoughts are best thoughts.     A recurring theme in the news out of the cognitive sciences (and a key theme in David Brooks' recent book) is that the unconscious mind, far from being the dumb, brutish Mister Hyde of folk psychology, is an extraordinarily smart and sophisticated piece of equipment.

It is, for example, pretty good at making decisions.

Go on your gut feeling when setting goals — because more often than not it'll be right, researchers have revealed. According to a study by Canada's University of Alberta, when it comes to working out where the future lies your unconscious mind is both smarter than you think and can be a great motivator.

Forty years ago I spent a lot of time marking test papers, most of them having multiple-choice questions. I soon noticed, as I suppose others must have done, that when a student circled B, then had second thoughts, scribbled out the circle, and circled D instead, B was almost invariably the correct answer. On multiple-choice tests at least, first thoughts are best thoughts. Let your unconscious do the thinking.


A multiculturalism too far.     More Muslim issues.

(1) New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has caused a minor fuss by banning clergy from the upcoming ten-year commemoration ceremony for 9/11. It's not terrifically hard to figure out why the Mayor took this decision. If clergy are to be part of the ceremony, Muslim clergy will clamor for representation. Many people — including me — would think it absurd and disgraceful to have Imams on the dais at a 9/11 commemoration. Best, therefore, to just exclude all clergy.

(I'll just add here that commemorating 9/11 seems to me a stupid idea in itself. A nation should commemorate its achievements, its moments of glory. Low points like 9/11 should be passed over in grim silence, or marked by launching a few well-aimed barrages of cruise missiles.)

(2) Dick Morris claims, all too plausibly, that the movers of the "Ground Zero Mosque" project have asked for federal funds to help them build the thing. The request seems to me a non-starter just on church-state grounds; but where pandering to Muslims is concerned, nothing would surprise me. If the GZM builders do get their federal grant, there will be an almighty ruckus.

(3) The Playland amusement park in Rye, New York, where I spent many happy hours in the early 1970s, saw an ugly fight between Muslim patrons and park rangers the other day.

Muslim women in a tour group at Rye Playland in Westchester County were reportedly denied access to several rides because they were wearing hijabs — their traditional headscarves.

(Does anyone know just how "traditional" the headscarf is? I remember seeing Pakistani-Muslim women in the streets of England back in the 1960s, when they started being noticeable. What was mainly noticeable was the pajama-style pants they wore, though. I don't remember any headscarves. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if this "tradition" is all of twenty years old.)

I'm fine with Islam, as I have expressed many times, am happy for it to flourish and prosper in the 57 nations where it is well established, and of course wish no harm to anyone: but can someone please tell me how the U.S.A. has benefited from allowing mass immigration of Muslims?


Concert notes.     I dunno, I think I'm getting testy as I get older. I mind things that I used not to mind. For example:

I went to one of the Mostly Mozart concerts at Lincoln Center. It was a two-part program: one of Stravinsky's late symphonies, then Beethoven's 4th piano concerto with Nelson Freire at the keyboard. The Stravinsky was a bit of a snoozer but Freire was superb.

OK, here's the first thing I mind. Some people applaud after each movement of a symphony. Most don't, but there's always some in the hall that do. As best I can remember, that's the way it has always been. (I vaguely recall someone telling me it's a national thing: so if you have, I don't know, Koreans or something in the audience, they'll do it.) I can't see that it matters: the conductor and orchestra aren't doing anything in between movements.

But now there's this whole tribe of concert-goers who act outraged that others are applauding. "Disgraceful!" brayed some woman a few rows behind me. A fellow in front of me was ruder: "SHUT UP!" he bellowed at the clappers.

Here's a modest suggestion to the managers of concert halls. Ask the conductor if he minds inter-movement applause. If he does, send some flunky out before the show to politely request the audience to hold their applause till the end. Then we'll not only be spared the applause, we'll also be spared the uncouth snobs who assert their superior sensibilities by shrieking abuse at the applauders.

Here's the second thing I mind. Freire did three encore pieces, but didn't tell us what they were. One was a Chopin favorite but the others were unknown to me. To a lot of other people, too: on the way out, I overheard several people wondering aloud what they were.

You did a great job there, Nelson, but would it have hurt you to tell us what those encore pieces were?


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

In lieu of a puzzle this month, a book recommendation.

There is now a third volume in the "Mathematical People" series: Fascinating Mathematical People, editors Donald Albers and Gerald Alexanderson. The book is a set of sixteen interviews, done at various dates from 1988 to 2009, with significant mathematicians, some of them no longer with us. (The previous volumes were Mathematical People (1985) and More Mathematical People (1990).)

Sample, from a 1999 interview with the great Norwegian-born number theorist Atle Selberg (1917-2007).

The interviewer asks the question: "I have heard people say that number theory is just too hard now. The big problems have been around so long and have been looked at by so many good people, what remains is just too hard."

Selberg's reply, in part:

One reason mathematics may seem very hard today is that, in a sense, too much is appearing all the time. It's hard to keep up with it. I think it's very essential to know what you should not read. It's almost more important than knowing what you should read. It's very difficult to say whether the old problems are the hardest. Actually, the oldest problem in number theory is the problem of the existence of odd perfect numbers, which has not attracted much attention. No really notable mathematicians have spent very much time on that. It may be partly because they consider the problem an unnatural one …

So actually there is a puzzle this month: Find an odd perfect number. But please note: All numbers up to one trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion have already been checked.

I note the interviewer's tact in not bringing up the Selberg-Erdős controversy. I was less tactful when I met Selberg in 2002, as related here.