»  VDARE.com Monthly Diary

  January 2024


Squatter story.     I love my country but I don't much like my state.

If I could start over, New York would, from what I know of the other forty-nine, rank very low in my preferences for a state to live in — down in the mid-forties, I'm pretty sure.

A criminal-coddling, corrupt Governor competing with Gavin Newsom in clueless pandering and fiscal irresponsibility; a white-hating communist Attorney General; the nation's third-highest personal tax rate and twelfth-highest property taxes; all of course supported and perpetuated by an electorate heavily loaded with lefty progressives … that's my state.

To add danger to disgust, New York City is presumably high up on the Russian and Chinese ICBM target lists, and my house is right under the fallout plume.

Yeah, yeah, I should move. However, Mrs Derbyshire has a job she likes with a local firm. We have a strong sentimental attachment to the little house we've lived in for thirty-two years and considerably improved, also to our quiet leafy suburb. We've raised two kids here; most of our friends, and theirs, are nearby. Past a certain age, big life changes just seem like too much trouble.

Still New York is an awful state. One feature of its awfulness is the contempt in which it holds common-sense property rights. There's been an example of this in the news recently.

It happened in nearby Bellport, which advertises itself as "A quaint, bucolic village located on the South Shore of Long Island."

Jean de Segonzac, 70, a longtime television director and screenwriter, bought a home in Bellport, New York that was ideal for his family.

The modest ranch had ground-floor access to several rooms and a backyard, making it perfect for his 32-year-old daughter, who uses a wheelchair.

However, there were some structural issues, so the family didn't move in right away and de Segonzac shut down all the utilities while he waited on permits to renovate the property.

But three weeks later, he received a bill from the water company.

He called to see why the services weren't turned off and the company said they couldn't because someone was living there.

De Segonzac went to his home and was surprised when a man opened the door and showed him an official-looking lease.

Inside were four adults, two children, and a dog. The home was filled with furniture, including a big-screen TV and a massive aquarium. [Squatter Nightmare; U.S. Sun, December 15th 2023.]

In New York State a squatter who's been living on your property for thirty days or more has tenant rights, and those rights are generous. In the minds of our progressive lawmakers and the fools who vote for them, tenants belong to the class of oppressed people while landlords are of course oppressors. Get it? Seen through the CultMarx who-whom prism it all makes perfect sense.

So you can't turn off the utilities or lock that squatter out. You can go to law to have him removed; but Mr De Segonzac was told it would probably take a year or two and cost at least $10,000. (The attorney who thus advised him suggested he solve the problem by just paying the squatters $10,000 to leave.)

However, I have a story about this issue that may be of help to any other New Yorkers who find themselves in Mr De Segonzac's situation. What happened to him last year happened to a former next-door neighbor of mine three or four years ago.

I'll call my neighbor Ramzi, which is not his name. A naturalized American, he was Maronite, an Arab Christian from Lebanon, and spoke with an accent.

Ramzi bought a house in our town for his daughter. She could not move immediately, though. While the house stood empty, a squatter family took it over. Ramzi went to the house and found the locks had been changed. The squatters let him in and, he told me, were not hostile; but they stood firm on their rights as tenants under the law.

Ramzi pondered for a day or two. Then he gathered together four or five fellow Arabs — young, tough-looking fellows. He took them with him on his next visit to the house.

The squatters admitted him and the others (whom Ramzi presented as volunteers to move out furniture, if the squatters could be brought to agreement). While Ramzi remonstrated with the squatters, his companions conversed among themselves in Arabic, using low tones and occasionally pointing or gesticulating suggestively.

The squatters were gone within forty-eight hours.

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Epileptic dwarf pilots?     Florida news station WPDE carried a story January 16th about the Federal Aviation Administration's "targeted disabilities" policy. The policy was, they told us, drawing criticism from public figures. They supplied examples from X, formerly Twitter: Elon Musk himself, posting on January 10th, and Sarah Palin — remember Sarah Palin? — posting on the 15th.

There was then a flurry of secondary posts from people worried that they might find themselves on a plane operated by a pilot or directed by an Air Traffic Controller who is afflicted with one of the disabilities listed in the FAA policy guidelines: "psychiatric and intellectual impairments, complete and partial paralysis, blindness, deafness, missing extremities, epilepsy and dwarfism."

Given that the guidelines date from March 2022 and have their origins in an Executive Order from the Clinton administration, these worriers are coming late to the party.

Their worries may, none the less, be well-founded. As a disabled person myself, albeit only temporarily, I risk no accusations of bias if I observe that well-intentioned efforts on behalf of us in the disabled community can be taken to absurd extremes.

I learned this long ago when working as a mainframe computer programmer in England.

I was actually working on a one-year contract to Lucas-CAV, a firm in Birmingham, England that manufactured parts for automobiles and planes. They had an inventory system run on a big old mainframe: punched cards in, printed reports on green-bar paper out.

One of the programmers in the shop — I can't remember his name; I'll call him Sam — was blind. No kidding. He wrote up code somehow — I never knew how — got it punched onto cards, had them input, then got his reports printed out via a special braille mode on the printer.

The main thing I remember was his core dumps. In those days you could work on difficult software problems by just printing out the computer's memory, or some big slab of it.

This was before computer memory routinely came in gigabytes, or even megabytes; in early-1970s commercial computing 64 kilobytes was normal, up to 96K in the grander establishments. You could print out the entire memory as hexadecimal on a few dozen sheets of green-bar. I tell ya, we coded down to the metal in those days.

When the printer was operating in braille mode, though, because the sheets were covered in zillions of teeny raised bumps they didn't stack well coming out of the printer. Without constant manual attention, in fact, they didn't stack at all.

If you went to the print room and found it a knee-deep snowdrift of loose paper with more still rattling out from the printer, you knew one of Sam's core dumps was being printed. Goodness only knows how Sam found his way around in them.

Perhaps he didn't. When my contract was up the permanent employees had a lunch for me. I was seated well out of earshot of Sam but next to a lady who I knew worked closely with him. I ventured to ask her if his work was good. "No," she replied frankly, "we have to do it over for him."

In that case, I asked, why did the firm employ him? "Oh, it's some initiative to help people with disabilities. I think there's a quota …"

(Reading that over after writing it, it looks preposterous. Did I perhaps just dream it? No, I'm sure it really happened. Never underestimate the degree to which preposterosity is a common feature of the human world.)

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Lessons in humility.     Yes, I'm on crutches. The ankle is mending, but slowly.

I think part of the reason it twisted so catastrophically is that I broke it once before — more precisely, had it broken for me.

That was back in 1996 or 1997. While driving across an intersection I was T-boned by a car coming from my left. I still don't know the precise circumstances. One minute I was coming up to a green light on my way to the railroad station; an infinitesimal instant later I was parked on someone's front lawn looking at an interesting star-shaped pattern of fractures on my windshield while a man's voice close by me was saying: "Ease him out slowly, there …"

I underwent some heroic ankle reconstruction by a brilliant orthopaedic surgeon — a fellow Brit! — with pins and posts and such that the same guy later took out. I was of course on crutches for a time. Once healed, the ankle gave me no trouble for twenty-some years, until last month.

An instructive incident from that earlier encrutchment has stuck in my mind.

I was living in Long Island but working in Manhattan. Unable to afford taking off more time than necessary, I commuted in and out by the Long Island Railroad as soon as I was able to, crutches and all.

Arriving in Manhattan one morning I took the escalator up from the LIRR concourse to 34th street. It happened that the guy ahead of me on the escalator was also on crutches. I could see he was an older guy, in his seventies maybe.

When we got up to the street I thought I'd greet him just to note the coincidence. Cheerily I asked: "Did you break your ankle, too?"

He gave me a wan little smile. "No. Childhood polio." Then he turned and hobbled away.

So the guy had been on crutches all his life, or most of it. Good grief!

Lessons in humility.

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Pronunciation problems.     As I've noted before (and yeah, yeah: it's getting to the point where there aren't many things I haven't noted before … but bear with me), one of the downsides of being bookish is that you know a lot of words by sight that you're not sure how to pronounce.

I crashed up against this the other day in conversation. Pontificating on some political issue or other — I forget the details — I wanted to use the word "simulacrum." Just as the phonemes were forming up in my vocal tract, however, I was struck by the sudden, awful realization that I didn't know which, nor even how many, of its four syllables I should stress.

"Si-MOO-la-crum,"  or perhaps "Si-MYOO-la-crum"?  "SEE-moo-LAH-crum?"  "See-muh-LAY-crum?" …  Whatever came out at last got a brief puzzled squint or two from my listeners, but they seemed to grasp my meaning.

Back in my study I looked it up in my reference books.

So the consensus is for just one stress there, on the third syllable, but with different opinions about the pronunciation of that syllable and the others.

Not to be caught out, I checked with Fowler's Modern English Usage, which occasionally deigns to mention pronunciation.

Alas, not here. Fowler's entire coverage of the word:

simulacrum.  Pl. -cra.

Hoo-kay.

For conclusive reinforcement I thought I should check with my limited collection of dictionaries for translating English into foreign languages. In their English-to-foreign halves (or in one case, whole) they often play closer attention to niceties of English pronunciation than do native speakers of English, even native lexicographers.

Neither of my two Collins Pocket dictionaries (Spanish, 1955; Russian, 1977) has an entry for "simulacrum," which I guess is fair enough for a pocket-size product.

None of those foreign-language dictionaries was as thorough — nor, to be fair again, anything like as big — as the 2,500-page Far East English-Chinese Dictionary (1977) out of Taipei, Taiwan. It gives two options for the English pronunciation: "sim-yoo-LAY-crum" and "sim-yuh-LAY-crum."

It also gives two slightly different meanings for the word, with illustrative sentences:

影 像 (yĭngxiàng), an image: "After the dog's death, a wax figure, his simulacrum, was laid out in the chamber."

偽 物 (wěiwù), a fake or false version of something: "The dictator permitted only a simulacrum of democracy."

The word they use for "dictator" is 獨 裁 者 (dúcáizhě), literally "lone decider."

That latter illustrating example, in a publication dated just two years after the death of Taiwan dictator Chiang Kai-shek, may have been testing some kind of boundary. Even further out in the same general zone of speculation, I note that this dictionary was a gift from my colleagues in mainland China six years after the death of communist dictator Mao Tse-tung.

So how shall I pronounce "simulacrum" going forward? I'm inclined to defer to my country-in-law and go with "sim-yuh-LAY-crum." I strongly suspect, though, that I shall forget I have written this and shall just avoid saying the damn word.

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January jigsaw.     If it's January I must have been doing a jigsaw puzzle, right?

Right. However, our grandson is here much of the time. He is now two years old — the Terrible Twos!

While little Michael is in fact well-behaved as two-year-olds go, he's not a person you'd want anywhere near a part-assembled jigsaw puzzle. I have therefore moved my base of puzzling operations up to the third-floor attic, which we keep locked.

So far, so good. However, navigating up two flights of stairs in a narrow old house while on crutches is not something I want to attempt often, so progress on this year's jigsaw puzzle is slower than usual.

Details of the puzzle, with pictures, are here. Thanks once again to the kind friend who gifted it to me.

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Salutes.     In conversation the other day with a neighbor, a retired New York City cop, the subject of the British Army's odd style of saluting came up. It is palm-out, and that is unusual. (The NYPD salute is palm-down, like well-nigh everyone else's.)

Here is my history with the topic.

My English secondary school, which was boys-only (though a day school, not a boarding school, and financed publicly, not privately) had a CCF contingent. I explained about CCF in an opinion column 23 years ago:

CCF stands for "Combined Cadet Force," the British equivalent of Junior ROTC. In my own schooldays every decent boys' school had a CCF contingent. In some schools it was compulsory. That was not the case at my own school, and there was no pressure to join. I think about one in five of us was in the CCF.

All three main military arms were represented: Army, Navy, and Air Force. First-year boys, mostly aged 11, couldn't enlist. In our second school year we could enlist, but only as Army cadets. Then, after one year of basic training, we could switch to Navy or Air Force if we chose to.

For complicated reasons I did two years as an Army cadet; then, in the fall of 1959 at age 14, I switched to Navy, attaining a Naval Proficiency Certificate three years later by helping to steer an MFV (which is to say, a motor fishing vessel) part-way round the Isle of Wight.

One of the things I had to get used to as a naval cadet was a different style of saluting. The British Army, as I have said, salutes with the palm outwards; the Navy salutes with the hand turned down, palm not visible. We were told a story about this, as follows:

Until some point in the middle nineteenth century sailors used to salute the same way as soldiers, palm out. Then one day Queen Victoria (who reigned 1837-1901) conducted a formal review of the crew of a Navy ship. The sailors saluted Her Majesty in good order.

This was still the age of wooden ships powered by sail, however; and those ships used a lot of rope for their rigging. To keep the rope from rotting, it was steeped in tar. From constant handling of this tar-soaked rope, sailors' hands were stained black.

So Queen Victoria, at the salute, found herself looking at ranks and files of palms stained black. Disgusted by the sight, she told the mens' officers to change to a style of salute that hid the palms. The whole navy accordingly did so.

I have no idea whether that story is true. It might very well be; that reaction would not have been out of character for Victoria.

The Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force salute army style, palm out. Beyond Britain's shores, however, palm-down is strongly dominant. Wikipedia lists a few exceptions and oddities, mostly from former British Imperial posessions — Pakistan, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and:

The Indian Air Force salute involves the right arm being sharply raised from the front by the shortest possible way, with the plane of the palm at 45-degree angle to the forehead.

I assume that some sociologist somewhere has written a Ph.D. thesis explaining all these variations. I am stuck for life with the first preference I acquired in the yard of Northampton School for Boys back when Supermac was Prime Minister: arm up by the longest route, palm out, two … three …, arm down by the shortest route.

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Late remorse.     I feel a little ashamed of having retailed back there my colleague's negative remark about Sam the blind programmer. In a spirit of contrition I shall confess a professional delinquency of my own.

In 1974 I was hired as an employee by Savin Business Machines of Valhalla, New York. They wanted a computerized General Ledger and Budgeting system; I assured them I could build one.

I duly did so, although it took most of two years. (Causing a colleague to quip: "Derb's known General Ledger since he was just a Colonel!") Savin gave me a promotion and a raise and kept me on to supervise all their financial reporting systems.

I stayed with the firm another two and a half years. Then, in October 1978, family matters called me back to the U.K.

Seven years later I was back in New York, hired in by a Wall Street firm. In my free time I made contact with some colleagues from the Savin days. I had, they told me, caused them a world of trouble.

How? Well, with only mere kilobytes to work with, in both core memory and external storage, the art of mainframe programming involved saving on space wherever possible. In my GL&B system I had done this by using just one digit for the year when dating ledger entries: 5 for 1975, 6 for 1976, and so on. When time came to post entries for 1980 (by which time I was nicely settled back in Britain) of course the system crashed.

What on earth was I thinking? I honestly don't remember. I hope I was assuming I'd still be on site when the new decade rolled round, with plenty of time to make the necessary enhancement; or else that the analyst who inherited the system when I left would have the wit to do so.

Whatever. I am sorry, guys.

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Math Corner.     A friend recently sent me a PDF of his forthcoming book and asked me for a blurb to go on the dust jacket. I was flattered to be asked. I read the book and supplied a complimentary blurb.

While doing so, however, I could not push away the question that always comes to mind in this context: What percentage of blurbers have actually read the book they've blurbed?

For sure the percentage is not a hundred. I can prove that mathematically, with a counterexample.

Preparing my pop-math book Prime Obsession for the printers in 2002 I was casting around for possible blurbers. Since childhood I had been a great fan of math popularizer Martin Gardner; had exchanged letters and phone calls with him across the decades — he was a punctilious correspondent — and reviewed or praised several of his innumerable books. I think I can fairly be counted a twig on Gardner's Mathematical Grapevine.

So I wrote asking if I might send him the proofs of Prime Obsession and get a blurb. Gardner was almost ninety at this point; we had been out of contact for some time. I did not know that he had been sunk in a profound depression since his wife's death two years before.

A letter came back from him, postmarked "19 Nov 2002."

Dear Mr. Derbyshire:

Now is a bad time for me to actually read a book because I'm battling a clinical depression. But in your case I can write a blurb without actually reading your book. Feel free to use the enclosed, modified as you like.

                best

                    Martin Gardner

The enclosed blurb:

The Riemann Hypothesis is one of the deepest of all unsolved problems in Mathematics. Unfortunately it is difficult to state exactly what the hypothesis is. It is high time that someone would write a book explaining the hypothesis in ways understandable by ordinary mathematicians and even by laymen. Three cheers to John Derbyshire for having finally done it.

                    Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner died May 22nd 2010 at age 95, turning out books to the end. I am sorry I never met him in person.

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