How smart we are! All right, I'll admit it, I do read comment threads on well-managed sites I'm not contributing to. The London Daily Mail, for instance.
On January 29th the Mail ran a story about the Chinese oligarchs — citizens of the People's Republic who have got rich beyond the dreams of avarice by playing the angles in politics, economics, and family connections.
Between them they control the majority of the Chinese economy, where corruption and vested interests are hidden behind a cloak of secrecy.
And with the rest of the world teetering on bankruptcy, these unstoppable bosses are poised to take over a string of Western companies.
It was this entry on the comment thread that caught my eye:
They seem like very nice people. I am glad we Westerners sent millions of jobs to China thus giving them huge profits to come back and buy our companies. Look how much we saved on labor costs. Look how cheap our goods are. We are very smart people here in the West. These people don't realize who they are up against.
— James, Ascot, 29/1/2012 20:11
I'm not surprised. The Mail website is one of the first I visit in my morning news-browse. It strikes just the right balance (for me — and obviously for a lot of other people too) of newsy and lurid. Who can resist stories like, to take a few from just the last few days of January:
The boy who swallowed his twin: Three-year-old has body of parasitic sibling growing inside his stomach
Cameron's climb-down: as I said in December, "Dave's an EU pansy"
Fan handcuffs himself to goalpost during Premier League match "because Ryanair wouldn't give his daughter a job"
Newt Gingrich's big, slobbering mutual love affair with the elite media ("Newt Gingrich loves the media elite and craves their attention …")
Cannibal who ate head of former lover proposes to Satan-worshipping vampire girlfriend behind bars of psychiatric unit
This is the finest tradition of scrappy tabloid journalism — wellnigh dead now in the U.S.A., with nothing here between the smug, soporific elite sonorities of the New York Times and Washington Post, and the absurdities of Weekly World News ("Woman Marries Building!").
Fifty years ago, as I was getting to grips with the social order in the land of my birth, I took in the common perceptions of Britain's wide range of national daily newspapers and the demographics they each appealed to.
• The Times — Movers and shakers, senior civil servants, captains of industry, serious people.
• Daily Telegraph — Retired Indian Army officers, Anglican priests, distressed gentlefolk.
• Guardian (in those days still the Manchester Guardian) — Schoolteachers, leftist academics, Nonconformist priests, people whose job title included words like "administrative" and "liaison" — the then-emerging New Class.
• Daily Mail — Wives of people who read The Times.
• Daily Express — Small business types, ex-NCOs, wives of people who read the Telegraph.
• Daily Mirror — Thoughtful proles.
• Daily Sketch — Dumb proles.
And so on. (There were more; it's been a long time.) Scanning through the British dailies, I see things haven't changed much, though of course there's been a leftward drift. The Express was trumpeting the glories of the British Empire well into the 1960s, when that empire had dwindled down to not much more than Gibraltar and Hong Kong.
The Sketch is one with Nineveh and Tyre, I am sorry to see. Nostalgia moment: There was an old widow lady in my street who used to beckon over us kids as we passed her house and hire us, for a penny, to go to the general store a half-mile away for a Daily Sketch and three or four "loosies" (cigarettes sold singly — a common thing in working-class 1950s England). The poor old thing must be long dead, as dead as the tabloid of her choice. The cigarette of her choice, Park Drive, is still alive, but only just: it's mass-marketed now only in New Zealand. Wonder what she would have made of the Mail online?
What Churchill Ate. The other day I was lunching with a friend at a moderately posh restaurant on New York's upper east side. My friend had a pasta dish; I went for steak. The steak was a poor thing, though, not particularly well cooked. It didn't have much taste. I called the waiter over. Could he give me some steak sauce?
All at once I was in one of those H.M. Bateman "The Man Who …" cartoons, in which someone blithely commits a gross social faux pas to the horror and outrage of bystanders. "No, Sir," snapped the waiter, as if I had asked him to dispose of a half-chewed wad of tobacco.
Fortunately I don't embarrass easy. In any case I had just that morning read Bernard Porter's review of Dinner with Churchill, which concerns the great Englishman's eating habits.
"The Prime Minister doesn't like his chicken 'messed about,'" complained his doctor, Lord Moran, when he was once offered it cut into bits and smothered in sauces. He preferred consommés to creamed soups; when served the latter once in America he asked if they couldn't find some Bovril for him instead.
I bet he liked a nice dash of A1 on his steak, too, and snooty waiters be damned.
VDH on Obama's race politicking. Following Victor Davis Hanson's January 18th piece on "Obama's Racial Politics" I got the usual sprinkling of emails from readers who take me to be the NRO race guy. (Moi?)
Apparently what got these readers' attention was this, from the latter part of VDH's column:
In 2012, unlike 2008, there is less novelty in Barack Obama as our first black president. And George Bush is now four years into the past. For Obama, then, we are left with a demonized "them."
Sometimes "they" are the suspect "1 percent" who enjoy their privileges through ill-gotten gains. Sometimes they are reactionary enemies of big government. And sometimes they are veritable racists — the sorts who stereotype minorities, who are cowards, who turn away voters from the polls, who do not like Americans who look different from them, who object to record debt largely as a way to disguise their own racial bias — and who surely need to be punished.
Were VDH's remarks about "veritable racists" meant sarcastically? my readers wondered to me. Was he drifting towards race realism? (Definition: The belief that the different group outcomes in multiracial societies are due to slight and statistical, but intractable, probably biological, differences between human races.) Was conservatism in general doing so?
Heck, I don't know. If Prof. Hanson feels the urge to clarify his observations, I'm sure he will do so with his usual forthrightness and eloquence.
I guess readers aren't mistaken in taking me for a dissident on these matters, though. It's an unpopular thing to be. As the Standard Social Science Model fights an ever more ferocious rearguard action against the advances of actual science, SSSM-dissidents are taking a lot of casualties.
That's war for you. In any case, dissidents are always unpopular. The herd instinct is very strong in humans. Hans Christian Andersen prettied up that story about the Emperor's new clothes. In the actual event on which the story was based, the kid got lynched by the Emperor's loyal citizens.
The biology of politics. So much for the politics of biology. How about the biology of politics?
Are you left? Are you right? Whatever you are, it's hard-wired, at least in the general tendency, just as W.S. Gilbert told us.
It has, for example, now been experimentally established that conservatives stare more at wounds while liberals stare more at fluffy bunnies.
In a series of experiments, researchers closely monitored physiological reactions and eye movements of study participants when shown combinations of both pleasant and unpleasant images … While liberals' gazes tended to fall upon the pleasant images, such as a beach ball or a bunny rabbit, conservatives clearly focused on the negative images — of an open wound, a crashed car or a dirty toilet, for example.
Two men looked out through prison bars.
One saw mud: the other saw the stars.
The first guy was a conservative, you see? It's not that we prefer mud to stars. It's just that we think it's childish to ignore the mud — out of which, after all, something good might be made. The stars are kind of pretty, but you can't get to them, and in trying to do so you'll waste a lot of resources and wreck a lot of lives.
Conservatism is pessimistic, with a negative tendency — which we mostly resist — towards despair. Liberals are optimists, with a negative tendency, rarely resisted, towards utopianism. Hey, someone should write a book about that!
Offside rule. As an English child, my appreciation of soccer, the national sport, was severely hindered by a chronic inability to understand the offside rule.
In this regard, as in so many others, I was born too early. In preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the Royal Mint has put out a ten-bob (or whatever the hell they call it nowadays) coin with the offside rule explained on it.
I'm surprised nobody's thought along these lines before. How about giving us some useful instruction on our dollar bills, instead of all those cryptic Freemason symbols? The U.S. equivalent of the offside rule would be the infield fly rule in baseball. We don't have to stick with sports, though. The Treasury could provide a useful public service by giving us quick pocket guidance on other common conundrums: how to tie a bow tie, when to draw to two pair, converting metric to imperial, and so on.
This would be handy; and the way our nation's fiscal situation is headed, pretty soon our paper money won't be much use for anything else.
I have a normal brain. I bet you think you do, too; but do you have documentary evidence of it?
Earlier this month the doctor sent me for a CT scan of my head, on account of some fluid lurking in cavities where it has no business being.
[Intermission here for some Long Island humor. I walked into the radiology place, went up to the tired-looking middle-aged lady at the desk, and said: "Good morning! I need to get my head examined."
She: "You and me both, honey."]
Well, the scan duly took place, and in the fullness of time I received a copy of the radiologist's report. "CONCLUSION: Normal brain." See? Where's your proof?
Funny stuff, literature. With the Charles Dickens bicentenary almost upon us, and me struggling to get out a work of fiction in e-book form, one's thoughts naturally turn to literature.
The other day I was browsing in Hockett's Course in Modern Linguistics — an old favorite of mine. The book is probably out of date by now: My edition is dated 1958. Hockett has some memorable passages, though.
He has a whole chapter on literature, one of his best. From which the following.
Let us, in imagination, join a circle of Nootka Indians [Whoa! The book's dating itself right there …] who are resting around the campfire after their day's work. One old man tells a story, which runs as follows in English translation:Kwatyat caught sight of two girls. "Whose daughters are you?" said Kwatyat to the two girls. The girls did not tell him who their father was. Many times did Kwatyat ask them who their father was, but they would not tell. At last the girls got angry. "The one whose children we are," said they, "is Sunbeam." For a long time the girls said this.The individual words and phrases of this story are mostly intelligible, but the narrative as a whole makes little sense to us — we might as well have heard it in the original Nootka. Yet as we look around the fire we note that the speaker is being followed with close attention and interest. The Nootka audience is getting something from the performance that we, as outsiders, cannot get.
And then Kwatyat began to perspire because of the fact that their father was Sunbeam. Kwatyat began to perspire and he died. Now Kwatyat was perspiring and he swelled up like an inflated bladder, and it was because of the girls. Now Kwatyat warmed up and died. He was dead for quite a little while, and then he burst, making a loud noise as he burst. It was while he was dead that he heard how he burst with a noise.
I'll say. I wonder what stories these people tell around their campfire?
This month, just a book recommendation. I have a friend who is a keen magician. Not real magic, of course; there is no such thing. He does conjuring tricks, mainly with cards. Here's how keen the guy is: He took a job teaching high school in inner-city Los Angeles just so he could be near to the Magic Castle. (It helps here to know that he has black belts in half a dozen martial arts.)
Well, over the dinner table once he mentioned a name. "Mentioned" doesn't quite catch the spirit: he spoke the name with awe, as one would of a prophet or a really good stock picker. The name was that of Persi Diaconis, who is both a professional mathematician — at Stanford yet — and a magician of, according to my friend, awesome skill.
The name rang a bell. I get a lot of comped books, especially about math, and don't have time to give them as much attention as I ought. That was the context in which the bell rang: the name Diaconis had been on a book some publisher sent me. When I got home I dug it out. It's this one; there's a good review here; and I leave you to discover its delights for yourself.
The math is quite deep — de Bruijn sequences, Steiner points — and the book includes a very touching memoir of the late Martin Gardner. I think it's fair to say, though, that it's more for magicians than for mathematicians. Great fun, none the less, and some surprising results, all of which defy the space requirements of my Math Corner.