»  National Review Online Diary

  October 2011


Moral equivalence.     A young Chinese acquaintance who is hyper-nationalist and doesn't mind the commies (you'll never find any Chinese person who admits to liking the ChiCom leadership, but nationalists of this stripe don't mind them), pulled moral equivalence on me in re the Occupy Wall Street shenanigans.

Thus: "You made such a fuss about the 1989 movement in Peking: going to the Chinese Consulate to demonstrate [well, we went to mingle with the demonstrators for an hour], writing it up for your magazines — heck, you even wrote a sympathetic novel about it! And now, here's the same thing happening in New York and you're calling for fire hoses and SWAT teams."

Where does one start with this? The OWS crowd have everything the protestors in Tiananmen Square wanted: freedom of speech and assembly, freedom to travel, choose a career, publicize grievances, vote out the government … These young OWS punks don't know they're born. If they are well-behaved and hygienic, and the owners of the spaces they're occupying have no objection, I'd leave them alone. Since none of that really applies, I think fire hoses are entirely appropriate. A fire hose isn't a tank, after all, and Wall Street, with all its innumerable faults, isn't the ChiCom Politburo.

The definitive rebuttal to moral equivalence was given by the late Bernard Levin back in Cold War days. Some BBC blowhard — I am pretty sure it was David Dimbleby — had produced a TV "documentary" about Germany, deploring that nation's division into "two militarized blocs," or some such, and noting what a shame it was that the Berlin Wall was dividing Germans from Germans, obliging people to risk their lives to cross it. There was of course nary a mention of the political differences between East and West Germany.

Levin passed some withering commentary on that program, noting inter alia that to the best of his knowledge, all those who had risked their lives to cross the Berlin Wall were headed in the same direction.


Liberty vs. order.     A more thoughtful observation came from a Radio Derb listener who had heard my praise of Oakland police chief Howard Jordan. He: "Are you sure that the protesters really were endangering the public and property? Sounds like a good excuse for the police to do violence upon the people that they are paid to protect."

My listener included a link to this piece from Reason magazine. It seemed overwrought to me. "In fact, the police intervention has echoed around the world." Oh, really? Sure: "Protestors as far away as Tahrir Square in Egypt have expressed their solidarity with the Oakland protestors." Well, isn't that special. Which Tahrir Square protestors are those, I wonder? — the gropers or the Muslim Brotherhood?

Freedom of assembly stops well short of a right to riot. If, as is well reported, some demonstrators were throwing bricks and bottles at police, the police were right to respond in force.

The balance between liberty and order is always a hard one to get right. For anyone with some generalized sympathy for libertarianism (e.g. me, with numerous reservations), support for the police is always guarded. George Orwell — who, in spite of being a socialist, was of this same general temper — said that the policeman is a working man's natural enemy. When Robert Peel established England's first regular police force in London, there was a widespread feeling among ordinary people that this violated ancient liberties. "'Bobbies' or 'Peelers' were not immediately popular. Most citizens viewed constables as an infringement on English social and political life, and people often jeered the police." — Victorian Web.

That returns an echo from the heart of anyone who cherishes liberty. Order is worth something, too, though; and when those challenging order are a rabble of Marxists, antisemites, and (Orwell again) sandal-wearing vegetarian bubble-heads, it's hard for a conservative not to find himself sympathizing with the police.

I wouldn't deny anyone the freedom to assemble and march. Let them apply for a permit; let them organize and behave themselves; let them make their case. If lefties do things properly, I'll concede them some brief control of a city center to add to their already near-total control of the universities, the schools, the media, the churches, the unions, the courts, the federal bureaucracy, and most of the other commanding heights of our society. At the first sign of rowdiness, though, I want fire hoses and SWAT teams.


Lip-reading.     We had some fun on The Corner with BadLipReading.com taking on Mitt Romney.

Good for a chuckle, with no offense to Mitt, who is A VERY FINE CANDIDATE INDEED. It left me wondering, though: How good is lip reading, actually? It's always seemed to me like a handy skill to have. You could know what someone was saying across a crowded, noisy room. You could eavesdrop on private conversations in restaurants, … and so on.

Can the skill actually rise to a level where you can get unambiguous meaning from a person's lip movements, though? The Wikipedia article suggests not, but there's a lot of junk in Wikipedia. Anybody know?

[Added later : A helpful reader does know. He prefers to remain anonymous, but this is what he told me:

"John,

"I am pretty badly hearing impaired — virtually no useful hearing in one ear, and poor hearing in the other. I've been hearing-impaired at least since I was a teenager, but almost certainly earlier than that, since I think it's due to ear infections in childhood, although I also have an undiagnosed nerve(?) disorder of some kind — body-wide. A doctor (or whatever she was) that examined me some years ago (less than 10 years) said, 'It's hard to see how you can function socially. You must be a natural lip reader.' My hearing has gotten worse since then. I'm 67 years old.

"Yes, I must be a natural lip reader. I can be listening to someone, but if they turn away while they continue speaking, it instantly become gibberish. Which, by the way, makes it more ominous that the vision in my left eye is partially blacked out from glaucoma.

"I have almost no technical knowledge of lip reading, but I have read that even the best lip readers are not very good; the very best may capture 60 percent of what is said. So I think the Wikipedia article is reasonable, for whatever that's worth.

"I'm not sure whether people with normal hearing have the experience of almost knowing what a person on TV is saying when there's no audio, or almost knowing what someone behind a glass barrier is saying. It's a lot like having something on the tip of your tongue, something that you can't quite remember.

"I'm pretty good at understanding most males, if they have good diction. In fact, with some people, in some circumstances, no one would know that I was deaf (easier to type than 'hearing-impaired'). With women, it's much worse. I can hear some women OK, but with many of them it's hopeless. And it's pretty hopeless with some males. BTW, that's a good reason to have black friends.

"Regarding getting along socially, I told that doctor, 'I don't, or, um, rather, I pick out the people I can hear.'

"A few stories: "I speak a little Spanish but don't understand most of it, at least partly due to my hearing, and the fact that Spanish is spoken farther back in the mouth than English. There's less lip movement. About 15 years ago, I happened to have a conversation with a man from Spain. I told him I was sordo (deaf). He said, 'No, no, that's too crude. You're duro de oido (hard of hearing). Where did you learn sordo, from Mexicans?' Yes, in fact — my wife. I told him, 'I don't think sordo is far off the mark.'

"German uses even more lip movement than English. I took three years of German in high school and college, and of course I understand it even less than I understand Spanish, but I've had that same 'almost knowing' on the few occasions when I've watched someone on TV speaking German with no audio. In fact, I actually got a very few words here and there — a very few.

"Back in the 1970s, I used to go to one of the very few computer stores that existed in those days. The guy who owned or ran the place was really deaf — legally so, if there is such a thing as that. He told me that most deaf people have only 4th- or 5th-grade literacy, owing to the difficulty of learning to read when you can't hear. I was surprised, but obviously it makes a lot of sense.

"One day in the 1980s, I went to a lunch with a deaf female coworker. I don't know sign language, but we communicated with a combination of speaking, writing on napkins, and gesturing. She had been deaf since birth. She told me that she couldn't 'see how hearing people put up with it.' She could feel voice and other vibrations and thought it would be stressful to hear it. She somewhat liked some music from feeling the vibrations, but she wasn't sure what to make of it, having no idea of what it would be like to hear it.

"Cordially,

"[Name]"

Fascinating. Thank you, Sir. I'm now curious about the business of lip-reading being harder in some languages than others. My wife, a native speaker of Chinese, tells me she never heard of lip-reading in China. That's not dispositive; but certainly the fact of Chinese being a tonal language adds an extra layer of difficulty.]


Chungking Mansions.     Good grief: Someone's written a book about Chungking Mansions.

Chungking Mansions is a huge residential complex in the center of Hong Kong. In the 1970s, when I frequented the place — I actually lived there, on and off, for an aggregate two years — it was the heart of expatriate bohemia in the city, filled with every kind of non-Chinese oddity, and a few Chinese ones too.

The surprising thing about Chungking Mansions is that it hasn't generated more novels. All human life is there. In my own brief residence, without trying hard, I encountered at close quarters: an old lady — actually the proprietress of my guest house — with bound feet, surely one of the last such; the hippie son of a famous Hollywood star; an exquisitely beautiful Korean poetess, famous in her own country but unknown outside it; a full-blood Maori night-club singer; an old fellow who had been a senior staff officer in Chiang Kai-shek's army during the Chinese civil war (1946-49); a player of classical Spanish flamenco guitar (doing the Hong Kong nightclub circuit, like the Maori); the casting director for Bruce Lee's movies; Filipino pole dancers; deserters from the U.S. Navy, Brits cashiered from the Hong Kong civil service (usually for sex offenses with Chinese boys); Vietnam vets who could not face going home to the U.S.A. for one reason or another; failed businessmen of every conceivable entrepreneurial niche (the acronym for the British contingent was FILTH — "Failed In London, Try Hongkong," though in fact it seemed to me that Indians and Australians dominated this demographic); and every other kind of riff-raff you can imagine. Chungking Mansions was, and I hope still is, a human menagerie.

Good times. It's getting late and I'm sinking into nostalgia. Next item.


Mervyn Peake.     This year is the centenary of the English writer and artist Mervyn Peake. He seems to be completely unknown on this side of the pond: one of those writers, like Rupert Brooke or Barbara Pym, that appeal only to the native English.

Peake is best known for the Gormenghast trilogy of novels. "Everyone seems to discover Gormenghast at the age of nineteen," says Fergus Fleming to a British readership in the July Literary Review. I was actually about five years older than that, but the memory is still bright.

The Gormenghast books are, as Fleming says, unclassifiable: fantasy without anything supernatural, gothic yet ahistorical, grotesque yet shot through with beauty. Fleming tries to convey the flavor, the strangeness of Peake:

Here you have a white mare and her foal swimming in a pool on top of a tower. There you have Titus's wet nurse throwing herself off a precipice, her fall illuminated simultaneously by the setting sun and the rising moon. Hundreds of feet above ground a dead tree protrudes from a room that was once filled with earth. A naked fireman hoses down a mule and a camel as they pursue their ancient feud. And a deckchair attendant patrols a cliff as people take their seats to watch the sunset. It's a trip.

It surely is: very seventies, though written in the forties and fifties.

Perhaps there's no point in trying to propagandize for Peake over here. I've long since given up on getting American friends to appreciate Brooke, or Walter De La Mare. They, returning the favor, have given up on getting me to see the point of Walt Whitman or Flannery O'Connor.


Hurricane Higgins, RIP.     Here's another thing that does not compute stateside: snooker.

Well, to some degree it does. I know snooker is played here. Pool is the main American table game, though, while snooker is very much a niche sport.

Snooker lost one of its most colorful characters this month: Hurricane Higgins. The Daily Telegraph obituary is here. Samples:

He turned professional, and immediately triumphed in the world championship of 1972 … He celebrated this achievement by travelling to Australia, where he was thrown out of a club for insulting a senior player, and out of a hotel for demolishing his room. On the way back he ran into trouble in India after getting drunk, stripping off and putting his hand up an old man's dhoti.

… … …

In 1990, however, Higgins was in worse trouble than ever, after representing Northern Ireland with Dennis Taylor in a match against Canada which they lost. "I come from [Protestant] Shankhill [Road] and you come from Coalisland," he told the Catholic Taylor, "and the next time you are in Northern Ireland I will have you shot."

All right, Hurricane Higgins was a tad rough around the edges; but you can't help thinking a little color went out of our sissified, feminized world with his demise.

He was, by the way, a terrific snooker player, a joy to watch.

[Added later : I must have nodded off while browsing the Daily Telegraph obituaries, and not noticed the date on this one. Hurricane Higgins died in July 2010.]


Singing despots.     On Radio Derb I kid around a lot about President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan, for no strong reason other than I have a weakness for silly-sounding foreign names. Turkmens, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Azeris, Balochs, Buryats, and all other Central Asians are welcome to make sport with "Derbyshire."

Turkmenistan is actually a nasty little authoritarian police state: not quite as bad as North Korea, but easily down at the Burma level. The country is resource-rich, though, with huge natural gas reserves, so a lot of big international players — Radio Derb, for example — turn a blind eye to the abuses.

And for all his crimes, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is not without non-political talents. Here he is performing his own composition "Sana menin ak gullerim" (To You My White Roses).

Now if we could just get President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to team up with Vladimir Putin for a duet …


Buboes.     Having had some issues with buboes on my own account, I am naturally drawn to stories in this zone.

Here's one.

Scientists have cracked the genetic code of the Black Death, one of history's worst plagues, and found that its modern day bacterial descendants haven't changed much over 600 years. Luckily, we have.

The Black Death is terrible to read about. It was bubonic: the lymph nodes swelled up as buboes — that's what gets my attention.

The dreadful thing is still with us, too:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control report that on average, 10 to 15 Americans get the disease each year, mainly in rural areas.

I'm glad those scientists have cracked the genetic code, but I hope they keep it to themselves.


Who's afraid of Herman Cain?     Well, the lefties are, obviously, to judge by the quantity of vituperation they've been unloading on him. I haven't yet seen "lawn jockey" or "house [n-word]" deployed, but it can only be a matter of time.

All of which goes to show a thing we already knew: the political left is the Race Party. Race means everything to the lefties. Out here on the right, it means next to nothing, as witness the popularity of Cain among conservatives.

I get into trouble sometimes for taking a realist position on race: I.e. that it exists, it's a feature of human life on earth, and it sometimes needs to be taken into account when talking policy — in education, for example, or law enforcement, or immigration. Failure to take it into account yields up preposterosities like No Child Left Behind, federal judges running city fire departments, the delegitimizing of rational police work, and a preference for creating new assimilation problems over solving, or at least coping with, existing ones.

I take individual human beings as I find them, though, and strive, so far as is humanly possible, not to let race get in the way of personal relations. To do otherwise would be bad manners. Given the huge racial overlaps in distribution of every conceivable human trait, it also wouldn't make much sense.

Policy makers have to deal with people in quantity, and that's when the law of averages kicks in, and the statistical differences between big old inbred human populations become relevant. In our personal exchanges, though, or in one-on-one adventures like choosing a President, we can be individualists. We ought to be; we should be; we on the Right mostly are; they on the Left mostly aren't.


It's that hymn again.     Cindy Adams on Herman Cain in America's Newspaper of Record. Herm tells Cindy he sings gospel songs. Then:

This man in rimless glasses, expensive tie, custom blue suit in the Plaza's Palm Court then sang "Amazing Grace" to me.

Look, I know I'm a bore about this, but for crying out loud, you American Christians: Don't you know any other hymns? "Amazing Grace" is nice enough in its way, but there is a whole glorious treasury of hymns in English, many of them much better musically, lyrically, and theologically than AG. I'm an unbeliever, yet I can sing twenty or thirty lovely hymns, sight unseen. Can't you faithful branch out a little?


Useful work.     I occasionally look at comment threads, including those attached to pieces I have written. I apologize here to sensible, thoughtful commentators, whose opinions are precisely the reason I look. Thoughtful critics are a writer's mirror, his Wei Zheng. Unfortunately they are a minority on comment threads, most of which are dominated by axe-grinders, boors, and lunatics.

Also by people with petty minds. Several times I have spotted people scoffing at me and my opinions because I once worked as a mainframe computer programmer. One such turned up this month, though I forgot to bookmark it.

Programming mainframe computers is deeply unfashionable work, even in the computer business nowadays, which has long since moved on. But yes, I was thus employed for several years. It enabled me to marry and support a family. It helped several companies (and even [gulp!] a government department or two) to operate more efficiently, to the general good.

I'm supposed to be ashamed of this? Feugh! I don't know that I was ever a model employee — too easily distracted — but I always did my best for the people who employed me, and I take pride in having done useful work for fair wages. If someone wants to scoff at that, let them tell me what they have done to help the humdrum world keep going round.

(I'll say this for comment threads, though: They have taken over from hate email. Ten years ago, when I started writing for the internet, I used to get a lot of hate email. There was one guy who hate-emailed me three or four times a year, always with precisely the same message: "You look like a child molestor [sic]." Haven't heard from him for ages. Now I get almost no hate email. The bile all goes into comment threads, which I don't have to read. I'm fine with this.)


Pretentious ad of the month.     I was strap-hanging on a crowded Long Island Railroad train, with nothing much to do but think idle thoughts, when my eye was caught by an advertisement on one of the walls. (Wall? Bulkhead? I dunno what they're called in trains.)

The ad was for a product of the Amstel breweries. "Our light bier is more bier than light … The bier drinker's delight," it proclaimed.

I'm sure it's lovely stuff, but … what's this with "bier"? I'm aware of course that bier is the German word for "beer," but if that's what they intend, why don't they write it properly, in italics? And why would they use a German word anyway, when there's a perfectly serviceable English word to cover the substance: "beer." That the English word "bier" already has an old and respectable meaning ("a platform or stand on which a corpse or a coffin containing a corpse rests before burial") just compounds the offense.

Webster's Third, to be sure, gives "bier" as a variant for "beer," but who ever used it so? Who ever saw any necessity so to use it? But then, what necessity was there to turn buying a cup of coffee into a menu-scrutinizing exercise? I guess I'm just behind the times, as usual.


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

For this month, an easy one. You can do this in your coffee break (espresso macchiato break, whatever) with just high school algebra, not even Algebra II. So at least I am assured by the reader who sent it in. I don't always tackle these problems before posting them …

Your $6 scientific calculator has two functions for converting between angles expressed in fractional degrees and angles expressed in degrees:minutes:seconds. For example, key in 5.3497 (this many degrees), then hit 2nd, → D.MS and this number will be converted to 5.205892, meaning that 5.3497 degrees = 5 degrees 20 minutes 58.92 seconds.

To reverse this, hit the key → DEG. This interprets the number being displayed as D:MM:SS.SS and converts it to number of degrees. So 5.205892 is converted to 5+20/60+58.92/60², which is 5.3497 degrees.

(And of course, degrees:minutes:seconds can be interpreted as hours:minutes:seconds.)

This raises the question: For what number of degrees (or hours) do these functions produce the same number? That is, we want to find a fractional part .ABCDEFGH where n.ABCDEFGH degrees = n degrees AB minutes CD.EFGH seconds.

I'll just add a footnote to that. Our degrees-minutes-seconds (or hours-minutes-seconds) system is a mixed one. The minutes and seconds are written hexagesimally (base 60), the rest — degrees, and parts of seconds — are written decimally (base 10). This is messy. We should go either all decimal or all hexagesimal.

The all-hexagesimal system was favored by the ancient Babylonians. It continued in use through to the late Middle Ages. I note in my book Unknown Quantity that the great 13th-century mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, a/k/a/ Fibonacci, recorded the solution of a certain cubic equation in hexagesimal form as 1° 22′ 7″ 42″′ 33iv 4v 40vi, which works out to a decimal value of 1.3688081078532235 …

Oh, and a second footnote; nothing to do with the brainteaser problem, just something I spotted in a math magazine. The Chinese run an international math competition just for girls — female high school students, that is. Our lasses did well!

Gold medals were awarded to both Danielle Wang, 14, from Campbell, California, a freshman entering Westmont High School this fall, and Victoria Xia, 15, from Vienna, Virginia, a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. A silver medal was won by Julia Huang, 15, from Saratoga, CA, a sophomore at Lynbrook High School. Bronze medals were awarded to Rebecca Burks, 16, from Los Altos, CA, a junior at Danaidae Learning Studio; Christina Chen, 16, from Newton, Massachusetts, who is a junior at Newton North High School; Sarah Herrmann, 15, from La Jolla, CA, a junior at La Jolla High School; Elaine Hou, 15, from Seffner, Florida, a sophomore at C. Leon King High School; and Haotian (Tiffany) Wu, 16, from Sugar Land, Texas, a junior at Clements High School.

Congratulations to all involved! You see: girls can so do math!