It can't be just me, can it? I recently learned from Peter Brimelow the right way to wear a scarf.
For the previous seven decades I had just draped the scarf round my neck with one end hanging longer than the other and then either (a) tossed the long end over my shoulder, or (b) tied a simple over-and-under at the throat.
The right way is: Fold the scarf in two, hang the doubled scarf round your neck, then push the open ends through the center loop. British Prime Minister Theresa May seems to know this.
How come I didn't? How on earth did I get this far along in life without knowing such a simple thing?
Is it usual for an intelligent, well-read, well-traveled adult human being past retirement age to not know something so utterly elementary? Please tell me it is.
Non-nits mis-picked. Don't go into the commentary business if you have a low tolerance for nit-picky readers.
I actually, honestly, appreciate them. I write a lot — way too much, in the opinion of some visitors to these monthly diaries — and inevitably make mistakes now and then. Readers email in to point out the blooper; I post a correction. It all helps keep us bloviators honest.
I now know, for example, and shall never again forget, that weasels are not rodents. I know, all right? I've got it — thank you! Now please stop with the emails!
Even when I think a reader has picked a nit in error — mis-picked a nit; picked a non-nit; whatever — the result is often to clarify my thought, or get me looking up stuff I otherwise wouldn't. So … thanks! Really.
Here are two cases in point from the January email bag.
Celtic confusions First case: A Radio Derb listener challenged my pronunciation of "Celt" with a hard "C," as if it were a "K." He wondered why so many Brits make "Celt" the lone exception to the rule that when an English word begins with "ce-," the "c" is always pronounced as "s," with a tiny handful of borderline exceptions like "cello."
He allowed that there's a case for the hard "c" to be made from etymology: ancient Greeks and Romans pronounced "Celt" with a "K." But then, a Roman of the first century b.c. would have pronounced "Cicero" as Kee-keh-ro. Is that how I pronounce it? No, of course not.
I ran off to check with my dictionaries. Both the British one (full OED, 1949) and the American one (Webster's Third, 1993) allow both soft and hard "C" in "Celt." To be sure, both list the soft "C" first; but I figure I'm in the clear lexicographically none the less.
My reader's strongest point was that "Celt" with a hard "C" smells of the lamp. That is, it is fussily pedantic.
It only became hip to say Keltic about 30-40 years ago when some academics decided it was proper. This is why the Boston Celtics and the Scottish football club use the old pronunciation. Repeating the academic pronunciation seems to be an affirmation or acceptance of their superiority.
My reader's dates are off there, at least where Britain is concerned. I've been hearing "Celt" with a hard "C" for as long as I can remember — about sixty years.
I started school Latin in 1956. We were taught to use the "German" pronunciation (that's what I heard it called, I think because it had been worked out by 19th-century German scholars) when reading Latin texts aloud in class: hard "c," "v" as "w," and so on.
I don't know when that style of teaching Latin was taken up in England. Evelyn Waugh wrote in A Little Learning that he and his schoolfellows were making fun of it circa (or kirka) 1916, so that was probably soon after the changeover from soft-"c" "medieval" pronunciation in Latin teaching.
Sellar and Yeatman, in their spoof history classic 1066 and All That, were still milking the topic for laughs fourteen years later:
Julius Caesar … having defeated the Ancient Britons by unfair means … set the memorable Latin sentence, "Veni, Vidi, Vici," which the Romans, who were all very well educated, construed correctly.
The Britons, however, who of course still used the old pronunciation, understanding him to have called them "Weeny, Weedy, and Weaky," lost heart and gave up the struggle …
Perhaps all those decades of Latin lessons — in England until the 1960s you could not be admitted to a university without an exam pass in Latin — influenced Brits when faced with uncommon words that possessed some classical connotation. "Cicero" and "Caesar" would have to count as not uncommon enough.
Or perhaps something else. The actual Celts are still numerous in the British Isles, and they seem to be the strongest partisans of the hard "C" in "Celt." Perhaps it's been that working its influence on the rest of the Brits.
He had little time for fools. One apocryphal story has an American wittering on to Harris about his own third-generation Irish heritage or some such, but using a soft "c," pronouncing celt "selt": "I'm a celt just like you," says the American. "No sir, you are a sunt," replies Harris.
(Burton version here.)
The soft "C" in the name of the Glasgow soccer team remains to be explained. My guess would be that it's part of the 1,500-year campaign by the Scots to try to make the rest of us forget they are really just Irish colonists with a better class of whiskey (or "whisky" if you're Scottish).
There may be other explanations for all this confusion. If there are, though, I have to ask, as Kee-keh-ro might have: Ubi sunt?
It is the case, however that all three co-authors [of a piece at Vox.com] are on the political Left. (And then some, in Dr. Harden's case: In a New York Times op-ed published July 24th 2018 she quoted Lenin with approval!)
In that op-ed, my reader observed, Dr Harden had actually disagreed with Lenin.
Here's the relevant graf from Dr Harden's op-ed:
This has led people who value social justice to argue that, when it comes to issues like education, genetic research should simply not be conducted. For instance, in response to an earlier study on the genetics of education, Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asserted that this type of research "cannot possibly be socially neutral — and in fact will intensify social inequities." She joins a long tradition of left-wing thinkers who considered biological research inimical to the goal of social equality. Lenin himself wrote that "the transfer of biological concepts into the field of the social sciences is a meaningless phrase."
But this is a mistake …
So in that graf the good doctor is setting up her disagreement with some "people who value social justice" — people who Dr Harden, as a self-declared progressive, surely approves of.
Then she states her point of disagreement with these "people who value social justice": She disagrees with them about the value — that is, to the cause of social justice — of conducting certain scientific inquiries.
That's not disapproval, that's disagreement. I have lots of disagreements on particular points with people I approve of. I disagree with Charles Murray's position on immigration, for instance, which strikes me as naive; yet I strongly approve of Murray as an honest inquirer, a meticulous scholar, and an exemplary American gentleman.
For progressive Dr Harden to number Lenin among "people who value social justice" sounds pretty approving to me.
I guess you might nitpick this right down to the metal by observing that Dr Harden did not approve the actual thing she quoted from Lenin. OK, but then you are really fudging the disapprove/disagree distinction, devaluing our language thereby.
It's as plain as eggs that Dr Harden counts Lenin among "people who value social justice."
The secret police squads? The torture chambers? The mass killings of harmless people? The slave labor camps? The censorship and thought control? What Bertrand Russell — a progressive of an earlier, saner type — called Lenin's "Mongolian cruelty and bigotry"?
Oh, but that was all in pursuit of "social justice," wasn't it? Can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, dontcha know?
(Steve Sailer's comment thread has some relevant remarks.)
The villains who are trying to ignite nuclear war between the U.S.A. and Russia are neo-Nazis. They hope that when the two superpowers have annihilated each other they will be able to establish fascism in Europe.
That's funny, I thought. I was sure I recalled that the villains in the book were East German communists in cahoots with Palestinian Arab terrorists. The Arabs wanted to punish us for supporting Israel; the Germans wanted to punish Russia for abandoning Marxism-Leninism. Wasn't that the story? The book's Wikipedia page confirms my recollection.
Acronym of the month. I did a long video interview with Josh Neal on January 7th, one of Josh's "No Apologies" series.
Along the way there — actually starting at 1h18m12s in the video — we got the following question from a viewer: "Do men like women with English accents?"
I replied that I personally don't much like the female English voice when it comes from generations younger than mine. These younger female Brit voices fall a bit harshly on my ears, laden as they are with glottal stops and tortured diphthongs and apparently incapable of either nasal or lateral plosion in final syllables ("Bri-tern" for Britn, "hospi-tool" for hospitl).
As an instance of the unattractive female Brit voice I raised Katie Hopkins. Katie is, as far as I'm concerned, a pretty good egg. I agree with most of what she says about multiculturalism, mass immigration, and our other issues. Her voice, however, is as devoid of charm as Iceland is of snakes.
To soften the blow I added the following: "I actually think she's quite hot for a woman of her age." (Ms Hopkins is 43.)
A friend who watched the video emailed in with enthusiastic agreement — a tad over-enthusiastic, I thought. He suggested I try to float the acronym "PILF." That would be like MILF, but with "P" for "pundit."
I don't think I want to try very hard; but if "PILF" ends up in common usage, you heard it here first.
Totally unjustified and improper smile of the month. In the middle of preparing something to say about the re-defenstration of James Watson I had to go to the local post office.
I stood in line a few minutes until called to a vacant counter. There I was dealt with by a perfectly polite young black man. Transaction done, I thanked him and stepped away. He called up the next in line and began engaging with him …
… just as I realised I needed a receipt, and he hadn't given me one. I stood at one side in the counter area until the black guy had finished with Next-in-Line, then went forward and asked — politely, of course — for my receipt.
He apologized for not having given me a receipt. The manners on display here, on all sides and at all points, were, I emphasize, faultless.
OK, so now the clerk had to print off a receipt for the transaction before last. On the post office counter software this is apparently nontrivial. He dabbed at the screen, at the keyboard, at the screen again, frowning in frustration.
After a minute or two of this the clerk at the adjacent counter noticed that her colleague was having difficulties. She came round to help. This lady is a first-generation immigrant from China. She asked what was up. My man told her. She made a few quick dabs at the screen and my receipt rolled out of the printer. I thanked them both and left.
As a former teacher of statistics I know of course that nothing can be deduced from this entirely anecdotal encounter. All sorts of things could be in play here. Possibly the young black guy is a rookie, not used to the systems, while the Chinese lady — she is well into middle age — is a seasoned veteran. The guy may have been suffering from a hangover while the lady was fresh from gym class … Who knows?
Yet I guiltily confess that as a twenty-year follower of, and participant in, debates about human biodiversity, I could not restrain a smile as I walked across the parking lot to my car.
First anecdote: Boris's father was also a physicist, a principal in the Soviet nuclear weapons program. (He was also co-author with Isaak Yaglom of a rather good 1982 math textbook of which there is an English translation currently priced on Amazon at $869.56 for a used copy. Who on earth sets these prices? I will sell you my used copy for $850 plus postage.)
I don't know how much Zeldovich, Sr. spoke about his work across the family dinner table, but Boris had some interesting perspectives on Stalin and his gang.
For example: I recommended the 1991 movie The Inner Circle to him. The movie is a dramatized account of Stalin's private projectionist.
Boris was not impressed. He took particular exception to Bob Hoskins' portrayal of Beria, Stalin's secret-police chief, as a leering boor. I had assumed from my own reading — from Khrushchev's memoirs, for example — that Beria was much worse than that, a monster of cynical cruelty.
Boris said that while Beria undoubtedly committed atrocious crimes against lesser citizens, he was a strong defender of talented scientists like Boris's dad. Stalin would have anyone shot on suspicion of disloyalty or "unreliability" without regard to how important their work was to the nation. Beria (said Boris) was more discriminating where key personnel were concerned, and saved many lives among his dad's acquaintances, to the great advantage of their country.
Second anecdote: Like most educated Russians, Boris felt a passionate, protective attachment to his native language.
In 2012 I recorded one of Pushkin's poems for the "Readings" section of my website. I emailed the link to Boris, asking him for an opinion on my pronunciation of Russian.
Of the several dozen emails I exchanged with Boris over many years, I believe that was the only one he did not reply to.
Normalizing the f-word. My son has introduced me to the sci-fi series Black Mirror, now owned by Netflix but originally shown on Britain's Channel 4 TV network. If you're not familiar with Black Mirror, it's an upgrade for the current decade of The Twilight Zone: stand-alone one-hour stories on sci-fi themes.
Not bad; although to judge from the few episodes I've so far viewed, some of the classic themes of Golden Age science fiction — telepathy, time travel — seem to have been dropped.
A thing that got my attention, though, was the frequent and casual use of the f-word.
The Black Mirror scriptwriters are awfully free with that word. Is British network TV all like that nowadays? I remember the cosmic fuss over there 54 years ago when Kenneth Tynan became the first person to utter the word on TV. (Although that was the BBC, still at that time mocked as "Auntie," and Tynan's primacy has been disputed.) Now it's there in the common flow of drama-series talk.
It seems to me in fact that the f-word is being normalized all over, with Social Justice Warriors in the vanguard. If Twitter is anything to go by, today's SJWs can't compose a sentence without an f-word in it. (Not that National Conservatives are altogether blameless.)
The f-word isn't only used for vituperative purposes, though. Often it's just a mild intensifier with little or no emotional load. I overheard it used that way the other day in a New York subway train. The speakers were two well-dressed professional-looking young women having a not-very-vituperative conversation about work colleagues.
Perhaps we're heading for complete normalization. Perhaps — to bring the theme back round to sci-fi — the next generation of military trainees in boot camp will, like the ones in Joe Haldeman's Forever War, be taught to respond to their drill instructors not with "Sir, yes Sir!" but with a lusty "F— you, Sir!" ("One of the army's less-inspired morale devices," according to Haldeman's narrator.)
My daughter's modest suburban high school held an orientation session for parents of freshmen last fall. There all we parents were in the school auditorium facing a phalanx of school employees up on the stage, not one of them a teacher. Administrators, Directors, Advisors, Psychologists, a Dean, five guidance counselors (under, of course, a Director of Guidance), Administrative Assistants … All this for eleven hundred students. I cornered the Director of Mathematics, a very cordial fellow, to ask if he himself did any, you know, teaching. No, he regretted to say, he didn't. No time!
I then reminisced about my own high school days in England sixty years ago.
I got a first-class education at a good boy's day school in England. We had about a thousand students. There was a Headmaster, who did not teach. He was helped by a Second Master, who taught modern languages to juniors. The Headmaster also had a secretary to do his typing and filing. There was a mysterious fellow called the Bursar, occasionally glimpsed scurrying from his own tiny office to the Headmaster's. A groundsman looked after the playing fields. "Dinner ladies" came in part-time to serve the cafeteria lunches, and there was a caretaker with a couple of cleaners, also part-time. The other forty-odd adults on the premises were all full-time teachers. The place seemed to work very well.
This came to mind a couple of weeks ago when, out of the blue, I got an email from someone in England trying to put names to faces. The faces belonged to staff and students of my school, laid out for display in the 1961 school photograph; my correspondent is trying to put names to the staff members' faces.
There we all are. I seem to have under-estimated staff numbers: my correspondent lists sixty-four. The headmaster is at number 39; "Pop" Payne at 38 is the Second Master. That lone female at position 3 is the headmaster's secretary; the fellow next to her at number 2 is the Bursar.
Everyone else in the picture, I'm pretty sure, is either a student or a teacher. (I am scowling away in the sixth rank above number 12.) The senior boys with braid on their jackets are prefects, charged with minor disciplinary powers.
In fairness to administrators everywhere I should note that some of the paperwork tasks done in a present-day American public school were carried out at the Local Education Authority offices in the town. Those offices were not spacious, though — a single two-storey building the size of a large house, is my recollection — and they served all the schools in the town. Northampton's population at that time was a hundred thousand.
And yes, every single person in the picture is a white European, the great majority native English of native English stock. I think the darkest complexion there belongs to German teacher "Siggy" Buchwalter (number 45), an Austrian Jew. We didn't have even a single Dean of Diversity and Inclusion — can you believe it?
This was before the great demographic catastrophe of the late 20th century — Britain's strange, inexplicable, unforgivable act of national suicide by uncontrolled mass immigration.
(Those lo-o-o-ong school photographs were made by a special camera mounted on a mechanism. We all had to keep dead still while the camera panned slowly left to right through 120 degrees. Folklore had it that one year a naughty boy stood at the leftmost end of the crowd as the camera started its pan, then ran round the back to be at the right-hand end before the camera got there, thus putting himself in the picture twice. I suppose this might have happened, but I've never seen any evidence of it.)
My first movie. Someone on the Internet was asking people what was the first movie they were taken to see.
Mine was The Red Shoes, a huge hit in late-1948 Britain. I only retained the foggiest memory of the thing: a lot of dancing, something unpleasant in a railway station.
Curious, I ordered the DVD from Netflix. The Mrs and I watched it last Saturday evening.
Well, tastes change. There was some good vigorous acting, but I thought the plot didn't make much sense. My wife, however, liked it very much, so perhaps I was too critical.
It must have been rated as suitable for kids, but I'm baffled to know why I was taken along. It's not at all a kid's movie, certainly not a three-year-old kid's. Perhaps my mother thought the Hans Christian Andersen theme might hold my attention; more likely, she just couldn't get a babysitter.
Math Corner. Just a couple.
(1) A friend gifted me a Triazzle — a jigsaw puzzle with sixteen triangular pieces.
As a hardened veteran of months-long campaigns with 9,000-piece puzzles, my first reaction was: "Sixteen pieces — are you kidding me?"
Then I tried to tackle the thing. After a couple of hours trying I had to be physically restrained from pounding it into papier-mâché with my fists.
I'm trying to work out a strictly mathematical approach via Group Theory. Trying … trying …
(2) "Let's face it: 2019 is nondescript," I wrote in last month's Diary. I should have known better. From a reader:
Mr Derbyshire: I'm afraid I have to demur on the number 2019. I think it's really quite descript.
For starters, the sum of its proper factors is 676, which, in addition to being a perfect square, is also a palindrome.
If that's not enough, the sum of the prime factors of 676, two 2's and two 13's, is 30; and 2030 is the next year in which 2019's calendar can be reused.
Now how often does that happen?
Me: Uh …
Furthermore 2019 = [2 × 22 + 2/2)²] − 2 − 2 − 2
and 2019 = [1 + (1 + 1)11] − [(11 − 1) × (1 + 1 +1)]
and much more here.
That reader also blessed me with a morsel of math humor.
A microbiologist, a statistician, and a mathematician were observing a house. After a while one person entered the house. Several hours later two people left.
The microbiologist commented that there must have been cell division.
The statistician said no, that there had to be an error in the data.
The mathematician countered that the only thing we really know is that if another person goes in, the house will be empty.
Thank you, Sir, and a belated Happy New Year!