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December Diary
England's decline, the bullies of Beijing, Mesopotamian math, and more.


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John Derbyshire

Back to Gin Lane. “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, clean straw for nothing,” read the signs in London’s Gin Lane 250 years ago. Having now recovered from the spasm of morality and social order that came over them from the early 19th century to the late 20th, the Brits are reverting to Gin Lane mode. According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, 48 percent of British men and 31 percent of women aged 19 to 24 admit to having been blind drunk at least twice a month during the past year. Binge drinking is now epidemic, and 38 percent of Britons–the sampling here included both sexes–first got drunk before the age of 13.

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The horrors of Gin Lane were extinguished at last by the work of religious reformers such as John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and Hannah More. Alas, there is no sign of any such figures in today’s Britain, whose moral cratering–documented so ably by Theodore Dalrymple in the pages of National Review and elsewhere–is one of the most distressing tragedies of our time.

Is mass illegal immigration the lesser of two evils? My colleague David Frum has a great piece on illegal immigration in the current (12/31/04) issue of the magazine. He mentions one aspect of the matter that doesn’t get much attention: the fact that mass illegal immigration from Mexico is a safety valve for the rickety, corrupt, and unproductive Mexican economy.

In my more charitable moments, I wonder whether this isn’t the unspoken (because unspeakable) assumption behind the administration’s insouciance towards the issue. A serious economic or political collapse in Mexico would create horrible problems for the U.S.–not the least of them, a flood of refugees that would make current cross-border flows look inconsequential. Perhaps a million or so illiterate Mexican peasants coming over the border every year is a cheap price to pay for Mexican stability. Or perhaps it isn’t, but someone in the administration thinks it is. Look, I’m just trying to figure out why the administration is so deaf, dumb, and blind about illegal immigration.

The bullies of Beijing. I don’t understand why the Chinese bullying of Taiwan doesn’t generate more protests from that “international community” we hear so much about. As China gets richer and stronger, the behavior of her leaders gets more and more outrageous.

Most recently the ChiComs have put out a policy paper on national defense. Naturally, the aspect of “defense” they are most concerned with is defending their corrupt, unelected tyranny from the infections of democracy, liberty, and representative government that threaten them from across the Taiwan Strait. Hence: “Should the Taiwan authorities go so far as to make a reckless attempt that constitutes a major incident of ‘Taiwan independence,’ the Chinese people and armed forces will resolutely and thoroughly crush it at any cost.” The policy paper goes on to say that separatist activities on Taiwan have become the “biggest immediate threat” to China’s sovereignty and to peace and stability in the region.

Taiwan has been functioning as an independent nation for 55 years. In all its previous history, the place was governed by China as a Chinese province for just twelve years. Exactly why the open declaration of what everyone knows to be the case should be a “threat” to anyone at all is a mystery to me. The threat to peace and stability in the western Pacific is not posed by the Taiwanese, who just want to get on with building up their country in peace and independence. The real threat arises from the unrestrained aggressiveness of the Chinese Communists.

Why is no U.S. official saying this out loud? Where is all our bluster about “spreading democracy” when it comes to East Asia? It seems, to the contrary, we are meekly kowtowing to those who are determined to extinguish democracy and enlarge their own brutish, lawless despotism. How I long to see someone of importance verbally slap down these loathsome, arrogant bullies. Why will nobody do so?

Partying with eggheads. Had a fun evening at The New Criterion’s Christmas party. I’m not supposed to pimp for other magazines on NRO, but I think TNC can fairly be made an exception. The intersection set of their contributors and ours is large enough that we are in symbiosis. Mark Steyn? They got him, we got him. Jay Nordlinger? Regular music column. Yours truly? A lit-crit piece in the next issue.

Well, after the party at TNC’s lovely new offices at 900 Broadway, a crowd of us went off to dinner. We’d booked an upstairs room in a restaurant, but it was really too small for the company and we were jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder round the table. Once the first few bottles of wine had gone down this didn’t matter a bit, and there I was in a room full of conservative intellectuals all yammering away at the tops of their voices. Hog heaven!

If your conception of the cultural Right is a bunch of old dotards in celluloid collars brushing the snuff from their lapels while grumbling about modern art, well, let me tell you, this crowd seems to get younger every year. There was in fact a Woosterish element at the other end of the table getting quite rowdy. They went well beyond the throwing of bread rolls. I could swear I saw someone–a lady!–swigging Jack Daniels from the bottle.

The best thing, though, was the talk. Within my zone of hearing we covered immigration, education, rat-catching, Pushkin, Meredith, the New York art scene, music lessons for kids, the Last Times, and the decline of the handkerchief. And of course lots of politico-cultural gossip. That silly Oscar Wilde quip about how “third-rate people talk about things, second-rate people talk about people, first-rate people talk about ideas” is complete horse manure, like most of what Wilde said. I spent a happy evening with a room full of first-raters, and they talk about everything.

Hankie History. Speaking of handkerchiefs: A few weeks ago in NRODT I passed some comments on the decline of the handkerchief. Well, here is a historical data point, from Moritz Cantor’s biographical essay on the German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius (1790-1868): “Before going out for a walk, he would recite the German formula ‘3S und GUT,’ composed of the initial letters of the objects that he absolutely did not want to forget: Schlüssel (key), Schirm (umbrella), Sacktuch (handkerchief), Geld (money), Uhr (watch), Taschenbuch (notebook).”

Mary Renault. This new Alexander movie has been pretty decisively panned by the critics. Pity; there’s probably a good movie to be made about the man. I say this because there has certainly been at least one first-class historical novel about him: Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. I don’t know whether Mary Renault’s novels are still read, but they are beautifully written, and a classicist once told me they are historically impeccable.

Millions of British and American boomers must, like me, have got much of their basic knowledge of ancient Greece from reading Renault. How about a movie of The Last of the Wine? The trouble would be casting Socrates. No modern actor is ugly enough. Where are the really ugly actors of yesteryear–Edward G. Robinson, Charles Laughton? Well, there’s Joe Viterelli, I guess. I’m having trouble seeing him as Socrates, though.

Hanging out at the mall. Speaking of ugly: We did some last-minute Christmas shopping at the humongous Smith Haven Mall out here on suburban Long Island. What a depressing experience! I have heard about the teenage pastime known as “hanging out at the mall,” but I had never really witnessed it in all its full ugliness and pointlessness. The male teenagers were all trying to look like ghetto toughs; the female ones like whores. Neither effort was very convincing. Eavesdropping on their talk, I got a strong impression that this was the left-hand side of the Bell Curve that I was seeing. Even so, it’s hard to imagine why suburban kids from nice homes would disport themselves in these unsightly and degrading ways. What on earth is happening to us? Parents of America, please do not let your teenage kids hang out at the mall.

Inconceivably remote. Among my more esoteric reading these past few weeks has been the math-history classic Mathematical Cuneiform Texts, by Otto Neugebauer and Abraham Sachs. It’s a survey of some cuneiform tablets, mostly from around 1700 or 1800 B.C., dealing with surprisingly advanced mathematical topics. There are algorithms for solving some quadratic equations, and the ancient Mesopotamians even took a stab at the cubic equation.

Never mind why I am reading this stuff. I just want to note the odd, rather melancholy, sensation I get when I set down this book and put on the TV news. There is the same place, the place I am reading about, nearly four thousand years later. Humanity doesn’t seem to have learned much in the interval. So far as the inhabitants of Mesopotamia are concerned, in fact, things have gone backwards. Back in Hammurabi’s day they had an innovative code of laws and were wonderfully creative in mathematics. Nowadays lawlessness and cultural stagantion are the rule in Mesopotamia and throughout the Arab world. Four thousand years, to get from Hammurabi to Saddam Hussein! Why did they bother?

I note in passing, with surprise and pleasure, that cuneiform is not that difficult to read. Neugebauer and Sachs include a lot of photographs of the tablets they are working from, but they also reproduce the tablets as black and white line drawings, to make the symbols clear. Since this is mostly math, with just a few connecting phrases in Akkadian (or occasionally Sumerian, which was a sort of elite language at this point, like Greek among the Romans or Latin in 18th-century Europe), for which the authors provide a glossary, I find I can work out what they are saying, these writers who lived so impossibly long ago.

I have never before read anything this old. These writers, whose minds are communicating with my own, were almost as far back in Julius Caesar’s past as he is in ours. What were their lives like when they weren’t solving quadratic equations? We can have very little idea. They were certainly ingenious, though. Here, in their base-60 number system, is their estimate of the square root of two: 1:24:51:10. In other words: 1 plus 24/60 plus 51/3600 plus 10/216000. That is accurate to about four parts in ten million.

David Hilbert’s Königsberg address. In Prime Obsession I make a reference to a radio address given by the great German mathematician David Hilbert in 1930. This is the speech that ends with the words: Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen–”We must know, we shall know.” I add, of this address: “It can be found on the Internet.” Where? several readers have asked. Well, here. The German text, with an English translation, is here, though the sound link on that page doesn’t work any more.

Listening to Hilbert’s fine, precise German brings to mind what a tremendously great civilization he belonged to. Nineteenth-century Germany (which means the Germany that ended in 1914) was one of the highest points ever reached by civilization in the history of the world. Modern Germany is a feeble thing by comparison; and of course the Nazi era doesn’t bear thinking about. Not that Wilhelmine Germany didn’t have its faults.

There were some warning signs, to be sure, and a few very percipient observers picked them up: the coarse philistinism of university student associations, and the uncritical worship of state power taught by too many of the professors; the shallow militaristic bumptiousness of Kaiser Wilhelm II; the odd disengagement of writers and artists from the society that sustained them; the crude suppression of leftist social movements and the severely restricted power of parliaments; the extraordinary determination to keep women in their place. But those things are much easier to see in hindsight. Taken all in all, Germany viewed from the perspective of a century ago offered more grounds for hope than for fear. That everything went so horribly wrong needs much explaining, much understanding.

(From here.)

The Nazis hated it all, of course. Coming up out of the bunker in his last days and seeing Berlin in flames all around, Goebbels exulted: “Thus perishes bourgeois civilization!” Yet another warning, as if humanity needed another one, not to judge a society by its shortcomings, or to believe that a revolution–brown, red, or any other color–will improve matters.

Blowing own trumpet. I can’t let the year pass, in fact, without offering a heartfelt thanks to the readers of Prime Obsession. The book was published back in April 2003, yet sales are still going strong, apparently by word of mouth. Even more incredibly, sales of the hardcover are as strong as for the paperback, an unusual state of affairs (according to my publisher). At one point shortly before Christmas, in fact, the Amazon.com sales ranking for the hardcover was 215 points higher than for the paperback: 1,240 vs. 1,425. I don’t understand too much of this stuff, but I am told the numbers are extraordinary for a book of this kind. Many, many thanks to all, and apologies to the numerous readers who have taken the trouble to write to me–I am working my way through the mailbag, but several months behind.

Math Corner. Last month’s was a bit of a bust. I had a dim recollection of having been told, ages ago, that after some small number of iterations you always end up with a Desargues figure. Since I couldn’t find a proof, and it is, as several readers grumbled, wellnigh impossible to draw more than two generations of the triangle-pairs with pencil and paper, I had never been able to confirm this. Anyway, it’s not so, a fact I learned from a couple of hours fiddling with the free trial version of The Geometer’s Sketchpad, a truly bodacious piece of math software. With careful concentration and some judicious jiggling, you can easily get six or seven generations on-screen. No Desargues figure showed up, and there was nothing else obviously interesting about the sequence of triangle-pairs. If any reader can come up with something, though, I’d be glad to hear about it.

Here is your task for this month. It is an “open-ended” one, like those tests educationists give in the hope of being able to measure creativity. (“How many uses can you think of for a brick?” etc.)

The number 2005 does not appear in David Wells’s Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers. I am at a loss to find anything interesting to say about it myself. If you write the “2″ and the “5″ in a certain way the number is symmetrical about a vertical axis; that’s about it.

Now, it is possible to prove mathematically, or at least pseudo-mathematically, that there is no number that is not interesting. (Proof: Any non-empty subset of the natural numbers 1, 2, 3, 4,… has a least member. Consider the subset consisting of all uninteresting numbers. If not empty, it has a least member, say N. This number N is then the smallest uninteresting number. That’s interesting! Reductio ad absurdum, therefore the set is empty.) It follows that 2005 must have something interesting to be said about it. What? Can anyone find something to say about this number?



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