»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2012


Nothing happened     February was one of those months when nothing much happened, and when what did happen was in news zones of zero interest to me.

For a guy whose first daily encounter with the news is the morning delivery of his paper-edition New York Post, the three names dominating the month were Whitney Houston (died), Timothy Dolan (made a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church), and Jeremy Lin (helped his basketball team to an unexpected string of victories).

I've paid no attention to pop music since about 1975, and never paid attention to soul music at all, so Whitney Houston was barely a name. I'm not a Roman Catholic, and in fact still nurse traces of the mildly anti-Catholic sentiments you get, or used to get, with an English upbringing. I'm pretty much a sports black hole even in regard to the sports I grew up among, and basketball wasn't even one of them.

(Girls, and only girls, in 1950s England used to play a game called Netball, but I think it's a different thing. As with the anti-Catholic prejudices, though, it's hard to shake off early impressions, and I still think of games that involve throwing balls through netted hoops as girly.)

Well, jolly good luck to Timothy Dolan in doing whatever it is cardinals do. May Jeremy Lin throw many, many more balls through netted hoops. And proper condolences to those left grieving by Whitney Houston's passing. Now, what the hell am I going to write about?


The over-sung anthem     Here's a thought, off on a tangent from Whitney Houston's passing.

A friend — a conservative friend! — sent me the YouTube of Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem for the 1991 Super Bowl. He: "Tell me you can sit dry-eyed through this!"

I didn't just sit dry-eyed through it, I sat through it with rising irritation. No offense to Whitney's memory: she was just a kid following a trend. It's a trend, though, that I deplore.

The issue here is: How should the National Anthem be sung? For my taste, it should be sung straightforwardly, strictly according to the score, by a well-trained voice. Kate Smith — fine. Robert Merrill — even finer. Sung like that, The Star-Spangled Banner expresses the austere republican gravity appropriate to a nation of free citizens under fair, simple laws. Republicanism is Doric, not Ionian, and definitely not Corinthian.

In recent years, though, a new way of singing the National Anthem has come up, a style that smothers the thing in grace notes, glissandi, rubato, appoggiature, acciaccature, and probably other kinds of musical embellishments the names of which I do not know.

A reader added this one, which I think covers a good portion of what I am grumbling about.

This I deplore. Whitney Houston's 1991 rendering was in that style. Austere republican gravity? It sounded more like rococo Austro-Hungarian frivolity. Give me Kate Smith any time.

Checking with other acquaintances, I seem to have stumbled on one of those issues that cleaves the human race into two distinct and disjoint parts. One section thinks Whitney's rendering was the bee's knees; the other thinks it was a travesty. The difference of opinion doesn't seem to correlate with other attitudes, though since I'm working from extremely small sample sizes, it's hard to be sure.

I say again that I'm not blaming Whitney Houston for the over-sung anthem. She was just following a trend already long established when she showed up. People had been fooling with the anthem for years — Jimi Hendrix, for example, who died when Whitney Houston was seven.

I just don't think the National Anthem should be fooled with. Follow the sheet music, guys.

[Added later]:  At the beginning of the February 22 GOP candidate debate in Mesa, AZ the Arizona State University Symphonic Chorale sang the Star-Spangled Banner the way it should be sung. Great job, kids.


Marilyn Monroe TV movie     Don't ask me for up-to-date showbiz news, but I did notice that a new movie has been made with Marilyn Monroe somewhere in among the dramatis personae.

Here's the thing. I don't watch much TV, and 99 percent of what I do watch, I've forgotten by next day. Very occasional gems linger in the mind, though, reassuring me that the invention of TV was perhaps not a fatal civilizational blunder, merely a major one.

One of those gems was a TV movie — I'm pretty sure it wasn't a real movie — about Marilyn Monroe's early years. It concentrated on her relationship with her agent. The memory is extremely vague; I can't even place the decade — best guess, sometime around 1980. That I remember it at all is remarkable, though. I mean, this is TV we're talking about. It really held my attention: well written, well cast, well acted, well produced. Euripides, Shakespeare, or Chekhov, of course it wasn't; but by TV standards it was fine drama.

Trouble is, I can find no trace of it on IMDb. I know TV shows are transient stuff, but I can't believe something as good as that has vanished without trace. Anyone know the show I'm talking about?

Several readers found it for me. 1980 was exactly right. There was actually another Marilyn TV movie in 1980, but the first one is the one I had in mind.


Voices from above     Metal theft is big news. The price of nonferrous metals is going through the roof. That's causing a lot of trouble for roofs, especially the roofs of England's churches, which tend to include a lot of lead and copper.

From a February 23 report in the London Daily Telegraph.

Special movement sensors are to be hidden in spires and finials triggering a booming voice to take intruders by surprise warning that they have been detected and that security guards are on their way.

The initiative, backed by the Church of England, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office, comes after the rate of metal thefts reached "catastrophic" proportions in some dioceses with an average of seven churches targeted every day.

That booming voice is a nice touch. It reminds me of a story going around my home town in England a few years ago.

The town has a lot of old row houses. The owner of one of these houses was doing some work in his attic. Often, however, these attics run together without separating walls. Our homeowner suddenly realized that in stumbling around the attic, he had wandered into the attic of the next-door property, which was inhabited by a bedridden old fellow who everyone expected was not long for this world.

Worried that the old boy might have been alarmed by the noises in his attic, the homeowner thought he'd better reassure him; so he called down through the attic floorboards: "Are you there, George? Can you hear me?"

There was a long pause. Then a trembling old voice came up from below: "Yes, Lord."


Bilingualism in Wales     So I went to CPAC to address this panel on multiculturalism. Of the other three speakers, two concentrated their fire on bilingualism.

Here's a favorite story of mine on those lines. It's one the late Kingsley Amis liked to tell.

Amis had taught at the University of Wales in Swansea and was much annoyed by the demands, then just starting up, for all public signs in Wales to be shown in both Welsh and English, or better yet just in Welsh.

The point of absurdity was finally reached when taxi cabs were required to have their TAXI signs changed to Welsh. The signs were duly changed, and Amis noted with the disgusted glee that was something of an Amis specialty that the taxis in Wales now all bore the Welsh word for "taxi," which is … TACSI.

Presumably some unknown number of Welsh people who formerly had had trouble identifying taxis were now relieved of their difficulty.


Prince Philip     I'm enjoying Philip Eade's biography of the Duke of Edinburgh. No, really; it's more interesting than you'd think. Also, Eade has a nice dry touch. Sample, from page 193, where Philip is being "built up" for the British public preparatory to his marrying then-Princess Elizabeth:

Little was made of his disrupted family life or the fact that his brothers-in-law had all fought on the wrong side in the war. What references there were tended to be misinformed: in March [of 1947], when Philip's naturalization had been announced, the News Chronicle told its readers that his brother-in-law, Christoph of Hesse, was "unlikely to be invited as a guest to any British wedding." Indeed, he was an unlikely invitee, if only because he had died three years earlier.


Ghost towns     I was only ever once in a ghost town (this one), but the experience may be a lot commoner for our descendants.

This came to mind when I was reading the tragic story of two-year-old Liam Keogh. The toddler, of Athlone in central Ireland, drowned in a pool of water while exploring one of Ireland's many "ghost estates" — housing developments built in the pre-2008 boom years that now stand empty.

Michael Lewis gave a vivid description of these Irish ghost estates in Chapter Three of Boomerang: "There aren't enough people in Ireland to fill the new houses; there were never enough people in Ireland to fill the new houses …"

More famous are the ghost cities of China. Goodness only knows how many there are. Construction of these places has been going on since the 1990s: I drove through one north of Chongqing back in 2001.

Japan has ghost towns too (for maximum creep-out, be sure to follow the "Spike Japan Tour of Kiyosato" link in the third paragraph there); so does Germany, though the Hindu Business Line's correspondent gets somewhat carried away by his impressions:

The situation is compounded by the fact that Germany's population as a whole is shrinking. Just stroll through any German town, you will notice that four out of five people are above 70.

The CIA World Factbook gives the over-65 population of Germany as 20.6 percent, so our correspondent's estimate of eighty percent over-70s in "any German town" is a bit of a stretch. Still, it may be that some German towns are getting there, especially in the east. (For the importance of testing one's impressions against actual numbers, see this month's Math Corner, Item 2.)

As the demographic slide of the advanced world proceeds, ghost towns will become a common feature of the landscape. I'm trespassing here on Mark Steyn's turf, though, so I'll pass right along …


Bilingualism: the conservative case      … except that, having mentioned Boomerang there, and having included a segment on bilingualism up above, I just want to add another item on bilingualism in the British Isles.

Those Isles have several indigenous languages, taking "indigenous" to mean "spoken by native British populations before the 20th century." I can tick off eight without thinking very hard: English, Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Cornish, Manx, Romany, and Channel Islands Patois. In the present age of identity politics, no doubt they are all making claims on some degree of bilingualism.

Certainly the Irish are. From that same chapter in Michael Lewis's Boomerang:

The first thing you notice when you watch the Irish parliament at work is that the politicians say everything twice, once in English and once in Gaelic. As there is no one in Ireland who does not speak English, and a vast majority who do not speak Gaelic, this comes across as a forced gesture that wastes a great deal of time.

Irish people wasting time? Can't be.

(The Irish comedian Dermot Kelly was once asked on a British TV talk show if the Irish language contained any idiom equivalent in procrastinatory power to the Spanish mañana. "Sure we do have an expression of that kind," replied Kelly, "but it doesn't carry quite the same sense of desperate urgency.")

My understanding in fact is that Irish parliamentarians generally start off their addresses with a few token words of Irish, then switch to English. I can't find anything in the Irish Constitution mandating that everything be said twice, though parliamentary procedures are not always spelled out anywhere, and I'll take correction if anyone knows better.

As a political conservative, believing that most of what governments do is unnecessary, and much of the rest wicked, I'd rather favor something like this that slowed the legislators down. The more time they spend talking, the less time they have for messing up the country.

There you go: a conservative case for bilingualism.


Medical paperwork madness     Working as a systems developer back in the mid-1970s, I was sent off on a course to learn about the imminent coming of the paperless office.

I don't know how that worked out for business offices in general, but the medical profession sure weren't paying attention. Case in point: A third of a century on from that course, I recently needed to consult an ear guy about some unwanted fluid in my ear. Our family doctor recommended one. I called, made an appointment. They emailed me some paperwork: a "Welcome Packet." Total nine pages.

They haven't even made any attempt at data normalization: Leaving signatures aside, I have to write my name nine times, my full street address three times, the name and address of my family physician also three times.

All this for a blocked ear. Perhaps I should just have 'Er Indoors whack me across the head with a two by four, which I'm sure she'll be willing to do. Perhaps that will clear it, and spare me all the damn paperwork.

Managing and storing all this medical paperwork must now be one of our leading national industries. Perhaps there's a use here for those proliferating ghost towns. We could set them aside as depositories for the storage of these boxcar-loads of paperwork we have to fill out every time we have fluid in an ear.


America's space program, 50 years on     In the February 24 broadcast of Radio Derb I rhapsodized about John Glenn's orbiting of the earth fifty years ago this month, then tried to resolve the paradox of a conservative hostile to big unnecessary government expenditures none the less being a fan of the 1960s space program.

(Not for the first time: "Apollo was an extravagance, a folly. But what a glorious, soul-stirring folly!")

A Radio Derb listener forwarded this link to me. I think it helps, indirectly, to resolve the paradox; but it is in any case beautifully done, and a must-see for anyone who'd be thrilled without qualification to see men exploring space not at government expense. Thank you, Sir. (And Bill Whittle, the presenter of the video, has posted on NRO in the past.)


Math Corner.     Just two random items for your amusement and instruction.

Item 1:  A little gem from YouTube: Paul Erdős telling a joke.

"It sounds better in Hungarian," says Erdős. Speaking as a long-time Hungarophile, I nurse the private opinion that everything sounds better in Hungarian. Talpra Magyar!

Item 2:  Steve Sailer ponders the Romney-Obama matchup, wondering if it will come down to numeracy vs. literacy. Steve: "With politicians and the electorate, I would bet on power of words over numbers."

I hope that's a bad bet. Here is one of the most literate men that ever lived, sitting "on one of the stone seats at his garden door," chatting with his friend after they had returned from church on Good Friday, 1783.

Boswell: Sir Alexander Dick tells me, that he remembers having a thousand people in a year to dine at his house: that is, reckoning each person as one, each time that he dined there.
Johnson: That, Sir, is about three a day.
Boswell: How your statement lessens the idea.
Johnson: That, Sir, is the good of counting. It brings every thing to a certainty, which before floated in the mind indefinitely.

The sage was right. A careful attention to actual numbers, supplemented with some simple arithmetic and very basic statistics, vanquishes 99 percent of the commonest errors one hears.

I'll take Mr Numeracy over Mr Literacy any day. I wish I was sure the general public feels the same way.