China's second Cultural Revolution. In last month's diary I passed some remarks about the rise of xenophobia in China since I visited in 2019 and enjoyed such warm hospitality from the likes of college presidents.
I should have made it clear — I vaguely knew, and several Chinese friends have removed the vagueness for me — that late 2019 was actually the tail end of the "open" China of the early 21st century.
In September 2019 a short-stay visitor could be warmly welcomed, even by people in authority. However, the government had already made it difficult-to-impossible for foreigners to live in China, unless very well-connected and obediently enthusiastic about Xi Jinping's leadership.
We have witness to this from vloggers Winston Sterzel ("SerpentZA") and Matthew Tye ("Laowhy86"). Both lived for many years in China without much trouble: Sterzel for 14 years, Tye for 10. Both speak fluent Chinese and know the country very well. Both left earlier in 2019 — before my trip, I mean. Tye seems to have got out just in time, with the secret police on his heels. They tell their stories here (Sterzel) and here, here, and here (Tye).
The ice-sheets were already advancing well before I showed up two years ago. The early years of this century — up to Xi Jinping's re-election as General Secretary in 2017, as best I can judge — were an interglacial period.
The curse of crappy websites. I had the idea to buy some bitcoin using my PayPal account. I logged in to Coinbase and set up the buy. Coinbase obediently logged me into PayPal, which sent me this window … on which nothing worked. The controls were all utterly inert. When I clicked on them, nothing happened.
After ten minutes of fiddling, I got a PayPal employee on the phone. He took all my details. "Ah," he said, "yours is a business account." Yes, so what? "We don't allow crypto purchases from business accounts." Oh.
I'm sure that makes sense, although I can't be bothered to figure out why (and am not much interested in knowing); but why did I have to go to all the time-wasting trouble of getting a featherless biped on the phone in order to learn it?
I spent thirty years in programming and systems design back in the mainframe era. In the systems I coded and supervised, if a user did something he shouldn't have, the system let him know by means of an E-R-R-O-R M-E-S-S-A-G-E, pronounced ['erə 'mesɪʤ].
Apparently this is an unknown concept to the code jockeys of 2021, even those who can speak English.
Crappy websites are a constant minor irritant to me. Sure, there was bad code in the mainframe days, too, but proportionally much less. Why? Because we cut our teeth when most code was for batch processing. Bad code would crash the night cycle and get you an angry phone call from the data center at 3 a.m. We tried really hard to avoid that, and carried that discipline forward into the online era.
Some big-name companies have crappy websites. For our trip to Berkeley Springs last month we rented a car. The Derbmobile — we are a one-car family — is getting long in the tooth (camshaft, whatever) and we didn't want to depend on it for a six-hour drive. I left ordering the rental car too late, though, and Enterprise, the nearest and most convenient firm, had nothing available.
I went online and tried Hertz … and tried … and tried. I made selections and got something different from what I'd selected. I got stuck in loops, going round three or four windows and back to the one I'd started at. Buttons didn't work, or sent me somewhere unrelated to what was on the button.
The hell with it. I tried the Avis website: got a rental set up and booked in less than two minutes. They really do try harder.
Crappy websites: a 21st-century bane. I just hope the coders in charge of our national defense systems are better than those at PayPal and Hertz.
And Coinbase. Just a couple of days ago I got an email from Coinbase. The email told me joyfully that: "John Derbyshire has invited you to join Coinbase!" (their exclamation mark).
Well, isn't that special. I have had a Coinbase account since 2013. If I run into John Derbyshire I'll be sure to tell him that.
Nose tales. My nasal adventures brought in a surprising amount of email from readers. I didn't know people were that interested in noses. But hey, we've all got one … well, unless we've suffered some Tycho Brahe-type misfortune.
I have learned from one reader that Nikolai Gogol was not the only person to write a short story about a nose. The Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927, "Akutagawa" the family name) wrote one too. You can read the story in English translation here. With all proper respect to the grand literary tradition of Mother Russia, Akutagawa's story makes more sense than Gogol's … although that's a low bar.
And having mentioned Gogol again, I cannot forbear re-telling the awful, awfully nasal story of his death, told in the very first pages of the biography by Vladimir Nabokov. (Nabokov describes Gogol's birth in the last paragraph of the book's last page — Nabokov at his most Nabokovian.)
This is Moscow, 1852, when doctors were more likely to kill you than cure you. (A thing that remained true until well within living memory, according to Lewis Thomas.) They still practiced bloodletting, in this case using leeches for the purpose.
Nabokov, somewhat edited:
Dr Auvert (or Hovert) had his patient [i.e. Gogol] plunged into a warm bath where his head was soused with cold water after which he was put to bed with half-a-dozen plump leeches affixed to his nose. He had groaned and cried and weakly struggled while his wretched body … was carried to the deep wooden bath; he shivered as he lay naked in bed and kept pleading to have the leeches removed: they were dangling from his nose and getting into his mouth … and he tried to sweep them off so that his hands had to be held by stout Auvert's … hefty assistant.
Life today, for most, is better than it was in the 1850s; death, for most, is way better.
A different reader reminded me of something I had forgotten: Way back in 2000, when I was book-reviewing for The Washington Post, I reviewed a nonfiction nose book which I declared to be "great fun to read."
The author does not restrict himself to biology, but brings in witnesses from linguistics, anthropology, history and literature. Proust's famous cookie is a good data point, of course. Another is the "flow" of adjectives from one sense to another — the linguistic phenomenon that allows us to speak of a "dry" smell and "warm" colors. "Among chemical senses" reports Watson "the flow goes from touch to taste to smell, but never in the other direction."
Fascinating snuff stuff.
The best nose story remains the one about Gilded Age financier J.P Morgan (1837-1913). Morgan suffered from rhinophyma, with the result that from middle age on his nose was huge, bulbous, and purple. He was very sensitive about this.
Morgan's associates all knew of his sensitivity, of course. When he paid visits, they warned the hosts beforehand not to stare at or mention his nose.
The story, which I have seen told more than once with slight variations, goes that one day the great man was to call on a colleague and his wife at home. The couple had a child, a little girl. The usual protocol for this kind of brief call among people of their class was that after some conversation, children of the family would be brought in and introduced to the visitor. Then they would be dismissed back into the care of their governesses or tutors, and the visitor would be served with tea and cakes.
Duly warned, the couple impressed on their little girl that she must under no circumstances stare at Morgan's nose, or say anything about it. The child was very young, though, so they were in a state of high nervous tension all the time she was in Morgan's presence.
Their fears were unfounded; the little girl behaved perfectly. After some polite exchanges, she curtseyed and left as the tea-tray was brought in.
The lady of the house, dizzy with relief, turned to the mogul and asked: "Do you take nose in your tea, Mr Morgan?" Or, in some tellings: "Do you take sugar in your nose, Mr Morgan?"
Still the best nose story either way.
Did I coin this word? I'm listed first in the "References" section of the Wikipedia article; but some of the other references listed have earlier dates, so I guess not.
(And yes, I screenshotted that Wikipedia page. When the Wikipedia editors realise they've referenced a Thought Criminal, I'll be memory-holed. As I have been from National Review: If you click on the link at Wikipedia … "page not found." There's an archived copy of the column on my website here.)
Google Ngram shows occurrences of "minoritarianism" as far back as 1930, with a big peak through the 1970s, a trough through the early 1980s, a rise from the late 1980s to early 2000s, then a mighty peak around 2003. My article was posted in January 2002, so I doubt I had much to do with any of that.
Memory-holing needs attention. National Review's memory-holing is inconsistent in some way I have never been able to find a pattern for.
A few days ago the name David Hilbert came up in conversation. Hilbert was a first-rank mathematician — perhaps the greatest of his time — in the decades around 1900. He has a starring role in my 2003 book Prime Obsession.
In 2005, when I was still promoting that book, my daughter Nellie, then twelve years old, acquired a pet hamster. On a whim I named him Hilbert.
The following year I took my family on a trip to the mountain northwest, leaving Hilbert in care of a friend. Arriving in Missoula, Montana on August 14th I checked my email. Sad news from the pet-sitter: Hilbert had passed away the previous night.
I was recording our trip at National Review's blog The Corner. That particular blog, from August 15th, has somehow survived when full-dress articles like "Minoritarianism" fell under the scythe.
The following day, August 16th 2006, still wracked with grief, I composed an elegy for Hilbert, taking Tennyson's In Memoriam as my model. I gave my poem the title In Hilbertiam, and posted it on The Corner. Incredibly, that has also survived.
(My National Review colleague Rick Brookhiser grumbled that while I had correctly appropriated Tennyson's iambic tetrameter, I had changed the rhyme scheme from his abba to abab. I tell ya: in this game, everybody's a critic.)
As Tennyson reminds us:
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be …
That is certainly true of matter posted on the internet. For archival purposes therefore, lest it be lost, I reproduce In Hilbertiam below. You should try to imagine some soft funereal music in the background.
by John Derbyshire
(Hilbert Derbyshire, 2005-2006, r.i.p.)
No more the rattle of the wheel
Or scratching at the water-spout;
No more that microscopic squeal
Of pleasure, when the food's put out.
That living warmth my hands once held,
That gaze of slightly nervous trust,
Those squeaks of pleasure now are stilled;
All gone, as spirit ever must.
Where you now dwell the water's sweet
As honeyed wine to human lips;
There rodents all in friendship meet —
No scratching fights or envious nips.
The wooden shavings there are deep,
The sunflower seeds heaped high as hills;
No reason there to pine or weep,
As each his plump cheek-pouches fills.
Your life was brief, your needs were slight.
We kept you warm, and clean, and fed.
And now you dream through death's long night,
Laid safely in your garden bed.
Fiction fails. Fiction-wise, November was an unhappy month.
I came into it reading Somtow's The Shattered Horse, which Razib Khan had tweeted about approvingly. The novel's premise is ingenious and promising. It is narrated in the first person by Astyanax, son of the Trojan hero Hector.
According to Euripides, the infant Astyanax was thrown to his death from the walls of Troy after the Greeks captured the city. The novel's premise is that this was a case of mistaken identity. It was not Astyanax but his little playmate who was thrown; Astyanax survived the sack of Troy, grew to adulthood, and wandered around the eastern Mediterranean witnessing the great collapse of late Bronze Age civilization in the early 12th century B.C.
That collapse, described at length by archæologist Eric Cline in his nonfiction book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, was an astonishing event, or series of events. Not just the Trojans, but also the Mycenaeans who'd conquered them, along with the Hittites, the Babylonians, and some lesser polities, all fell. Not just Troy but many other great and prosperous cities were sacked all over what was then Western Civilization.
Somehow Somtow failed to make it all come alive for me. The pacing was wrong: Neoptolemos doesn't get his just deserts until Chapter 20. There's way too much of the supernatural: I like my historical fiction down to earth. I bailed out after 26 chapters. (There are 56 altogether.)
And then, Rachel Joyce. I had read Catharine Savage Brosman's enthusiastic review of Miss Benson's Beetle in the August Chronicles, and bought a copy. Before I could get around to reading it, I mentioned it in a phone conversation with my sister Judith in England. Judith has read everything in contemporary fiction, and can give a well-considered opinion. Miss Benson's Beetle? "Eh."
"Not as good as her last one."
"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Lovely book."
So I bought a copy of that, read it, and then read Miss Benson's Beetle.
Yes, I can see the appeal, and concur with some of Catharine Savage Brosman's points. Both books are carefully plotted and gracefully written. To a novel-reading lady of a certain age — Ms Brosman is 87, my sister 78 — a hardback copy of either would be an excellent Christmas gift. (I hope I have not violated rules of etiquette by mentioning ages there.) And yes, Judith is right: the earlier book is better.
Neither did it for me, though. The Unlikely Pilgrimage was too bleak, Miss Benson's Beetle too far-fetched.
In reaction I returned to male authors, actually to Ferdinand Mount's new novel Making Nice. I've been reading Mount (properly Sir Ferdinand) for ever in British conservative outlets — The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Spectator. His commentary was always witty and acute. He knows politics very well, having served at a high level in Margaret Thatcher's administration. No-one is better placed to write social-observation novels on Britain's ruling class, especially on the intersection of politics with journalism.
This one doesn't quite come off, though, I'm not sure why. The author has some good sharp social insights, but not much of a plot. The main character (aside from the narrator) is not very plausible. Perhaps the late Tom Wolfe set the social-fiction bar too high.
Year numbers as book titles. Having mentioned Eric Cline's book there, I got to thinking about books whose titles are, or begin with, the number of a year.
Nineteen Eighty-Four comes first to mind, although the year-number is always given in words. Looking along my bookshelves I also see, in addition to 1177 B.C.:
- Sellar and Yeatman's spoof history
1066 and All That, a favorite
from my schooldays and still in print after 91 years.
- Richard West's more serious
1215 and All That: Magna Carta and King
John, very good readable popular history.
- Ray Huang's 1587, A Year of No Significance, about the beginning of the end of China's Ming dynasty.
Soon there will be one more on my shelves, Santa Claus willing. I have written to the genial old fellow asking for Admiral Stavridis' 2034: A Novel of the Next World War to be put in my Christmas stocking. David Goldman at Asia Times has mentioned the book a couple of times and I like the sound of it.
There must be dozens of year-number titles I don't know about. In fact, here's a Christmas party game for you: Who can come up with the most books, or the most obscure single book, whose title is, or begins with, a year number?
Book scammers. Public Service Announcement: If you have published books, especially I think if you have self-published books, there is a new breed of scammer who would like to prey on you.
One of these pests called me mid-month, promising to help me promote my books. She claimed to have connections with The New York Times weekly magazine. It sounded fishy, and her English was so bad I could barely understand her, so I told her to email me, gave her the e-address, and hung up.
She duly emailed, from a respectable-looking business address. I looked them up online: they have a very professional-looking website.
I'm just a content provider. Anything to do with the business side, I consult my literary agent. I consulted him. He: "It's a scam. Hang up on their calls and put that email address on auto-delete."
These scammers are exploiting a business opportunity opened up by the rise of self-publishing. It's easy, and surprisingly cheap, to self-publish a book nowadays. The problem is, how do you promote it? These people will promise to help, take a few hundred dollars from you, and then do … nothing much. My local Better Business Bureau "complaints" pages tell the tale.
How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice.
— Johnson, The Vanity of Human Woshes.
Yes indeed. A friend recently reminded me of the $1.10 problem, which an astonishing number of intelligent people flunk. We do much of our thinking by intuitive short-cuts that skip around the kind of dogged reasoning needed to solve problems like that.
Related to this is the concept of "cognitive decoupling," which dwells over there on the windswept borderland where philosophy meets neuroscience. Cognitive decoupling is defined as an "effortful mechanism" in which …
… problem solvers need to form in their working memory two closely related models of the problem situation — the so-called primary and secondary representations — and to keep the two models decoupled, that is, keep the first fixed while performing various transformations on the second, while constantly struggling to protect the primary representation from being "contaminated" by the secondary one. ["Proving as problem solving: The role of cognitive decoupling" by Boris Koichu and Uri Leron; The Journal of Mathematical Behavior Volume 40, Part B, December 2015, Pages 233-244.]
The ability to cognitively decouple ("cognitively to decouple," whatever) — to keep abstract mental models of reality "uncontaminated" by personal, emotional, and social "representations" — is unevenly distributed among us, like musical, athletic, linguistic, and other abilities. Some people can't do it at all; some are superbly good at it; most of us stumble along in the middle of the distribution. The connection to general intelligence is not clear to me. The two things may even be orthogonal, the one having no relation to the other.
A high level in that ability is surely a necessary condition for success in STEM fields. To get ahead as a builder of bridges you need to master a lot of abstract equations while not bothering about the feelings that you, or society at large, may have about those equations. Your bridge-builder may have personal and social "representations" just as many and just as strong as those of any poet or composer; but he needs to keep them out of his calculations.
I was ruminating vaguely along these lines when I came across the latest news story about California public schools revising their math teaching.
Every eight years, a group of educators comes together to update the state's math curriculum framework. This particular update has attracted extra attention, and controversy, because of perceived changes it makes to how "gifted" students progress — and because it pushes Algebra 1 back to 9th grade, de-emphasizes calculus, and applies social justice principles to math lessons.
San Francisco pioneered key aspects of the new approach, opting in 2014 to delay algebra instruction until 9th grade and to push advanced mathematics courses until at least after 10th grade as a means of promoting equity. ["Controversy Rages as California Follows SF's Lead With New Approach to Teaching Math" by Joe Hong; The San Francisco Standard, November 22nd 2021.]
I found myself wondering whether perhaps the current efforts to woke-ify the STEM fields may not actually be part of a larger war on cognitive decoupling.
Progressives don't approve of cognitive decoupling. They don't want kids trained to ponder in the abstract, decoupled style without any "contamination" from the personal or the social.
Mark, however, is a No Such Thing As Race (NOSTAR) guy. The reality of race is a biological and statistical reality; so the key to keeping NOSTAR alive is to suppress understanding of biology and statistics, starting with their more general scientific and mathematical underpinnings.
In that segment I wrote this:
Again: I love Mark Steyn as a man and a brother. I'll buy him a dinner any time; and if he ever needs to crash in Long Island, though I don't know why he would, the door is open.
However, there is a great black yawning crevasse between people who know science, math, and statistics and people who don't. You simply can't talk across that gap — I know, I've spent decades trying.
The unfortunate thing is that many of the great, important truths about the world — including the human world — are on the sci-math-stats side of the crevasse.
The Social Justice Warriors rewriting our STEM curriculums want to keep that crevasse good and wide, and to raise a new generation firmly on their side of it.
High cognitive-decoupling ability may be necessary for a soundly-based view of reality, but it is not sufficient. STEM high-achievers can be very unworldly: I don't think that's news.
Pursuing stories about the wokification of math curriculums, I eventually landed on one at American Greatness. The writer is a black mathematician with very impressive credentials:
I won Oxford University's top math awards for graduate students and I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in mathematics from Harvard University with the second-highest GPA in my graduating class. ["It's Time to Cancel 'Woke' Math" by Jonathan David Farley; American Greatness, November 27th.]
The main thrust of Dr Farley's piece is mockery of Bill and Melinda Gates "anti-racist math" project, to which the Gateses have so far donated $140 million.
Mocking Gates-style lunacy is of course a good thing to do. I was cheering along with Dr Farley until, 200 words into the piece, I crashed into a wall.
Gates' authors also say the idea that someone could be "good" at math is "white supremacy." Tell that to the Egyptian mathematician Euclid!
The implication is, I suppose, that because Euclid lived in Egypt, he could not have been white.
Dr Farley goes downhill from there. He's a NOSTAR loyalist. The piece finishes up with:
We know what it takes to improve math education and to get more black students to excel in math.
We do? Don't hold back on us there, Doc. What does it take?
And that thing about Euclid being nonwhite: Hadn't I read that before somewhere?
I sure had. Shortly after I was dropped from National Review for race realism in April 2012, Dr Farley wrote a piece for the crazy-left, antiwhite London Guardian, from which:
The second story involves one of the few black mathematicians whom white mathematicians acknowledge as great — or, I should say, "black American mathematicians", since obviously Euclid, Eratosthenes and other African mathematicians outshone Europe's brightest stars for millennia. ["Black mathematicians: the kind of problems they wish didn't need solving" by Jonathan Farley; The Guardian, April 12th 2012.]
Yo, Doc. Euclid lived from about 325 B.C. to about 265 B.C. His birthplace is not known with any certainty, but he did his major mathematical work and teaching in Alexandria.
That city was founded in 331 B.C., a few years before our best guess as to Euclid's birthdate. It was founded by, duh, Alexander the Great, who was Greek. (All right, Macedonian; but a Greek culture hero, not an Egyptian, and certainly not black African.)
Alexandria was a major centre of Hellenic civilisation in Euclid's lifetime, and for long after. It went on being a considerably Greek city, although not of course under Greek rule, down to the middle 20th century when, as I have noted elsewhere: "Greeks were the largest European nationality in residence."
Following Alexander's death in 323 B.C., and after a short spell of disorder, his empire was divided among his three most powerful surviving companions, none of whom was black. Egypt went to Ptolemy, a Macedonian general; and Ptolemy's line then ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries, to the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C. And yes, Cleopatra may just possibly, after three hundred years of Greek rule in Egypt, have had a touch of the tar-brush; but that's not relevant to Euclid's time.
We learned this stuff in high school, Doc. That you apparently don't know it throws a shadow over your impressive academic credentials.
Those credentials far outshine my puny B.Sc. Still I shall make bold to say that in matters of common sense and general knowledge, Dr Farley is an idiot.