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December Diary


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John Derbyshire

Christmas. Things really do turn around sometimes. It’s impressionistic, but I believe I’ve heard far more “Merry Christmases” and far fewer “Happy Holidayses” this year than last. Perhaps the stupid and insipid “Happy Holidays” is being laughed out of existence at last. Let’s hope so; and let’s hope the utterly bogus Kwanzaa will soon follow it. Do any black Americans actually celebrate Kwanzaa, or has it just been set up as a guilt trip by white liberals? I suspect the latter.

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One pocket of bitter resistance to any backsliding from political correctness will be the public schools. Since my son and daughter attend different schools, and practice different styles of music (Nellie — orchestra; Danny — band), we have been to two Christmas school music concerts, both of which were billed by the schools as “Winter Concerts.” Both featured Kwanzaa songs in the chorus segments — direly terrible things, both musically and verbally, in both cases. (They were: “Kuna Karamu” by Sally K. Albrecht, and “Child of Kwanzaa” by Roger Emerson. In support of my thesis about the true nature of Kwanzaa, I note that Ms. Albrecht and Mr. Emerson have about as much blackness between the both of them as the cast of the Lawrence Welk show.)


Muddling Through. I opened my Christmas edition of Radio Derb with a clip of Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I noted with interest as I put the broadcast together that Judy sang the last verse as:

Someday soon we all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…

Nowadays you much more commonly hear the lines as:

Through the years we all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough…  

When and why was the change made, I wondered? The original lines were much superior as lyrics to the revised version. Were they just thought to be too downbeat? In the old USSR, Swan Lake used to be performed with a happy ending, the original (in which the Prince and Odette both perish) being thought too “negative.” Everything had to work out for the best in the People’s Paradise — no negativity! The Soviets never reported domestic plane crashes, on the same principle. Was there some similar political dynamic at work here, I wondered? Then I read Hugh Hewitt’s witty riff on exactly this topic, and all became clear. It was Frank Sinatra’s fault. Or possibly Judy’s.

What a pity. Apart from being lyrically superior, the “muddling through” version celebrates a fine old Anglo-Saxon tradition — the tradition of muddling through. As Hugh Hewitt says, in some of the most memorable words I’ve read this December:

LIFE IS ONE BIG MUDDLE. Sometimes you have to muddle more, sometimes you have to muddle less, but for all of us “muddling through” is the natural state of things. Luckily, while we muddle, we can surround ourselves with things we cherish. We can muddle nobly, happily and with a sense of purpose. We can choose to love and allow ourselves to be loved as we muddle. Ultimately, if you want it to be and let it be, it’s a beautiful muddle indeed.

Roger on that, Hugh.


The Market for Epic Poems.
Just one more point on that song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: Was the lyricist Ralph Blane a Latinist, at least to the degree of having studied Latin in school? I only ask because the line “If the Fates allow” is an exact translation from the 18th line of The Aeneid. Until about 30 years ago, every pupil at a decent secondary school had to “do” (in my school, memorize) the first couple of pages of The Aeneid, and the words si qua fata sinant would have been lying around in Blane’s head waiting to be put into a lyric, if he’d done school Latin.

Incidentally, there is a new translation of The Aeneid by Robert Fagles. I haven’t exactly read it, but I have looked into it, browsing in a bookstore, and it seems pretty good. To judge from the reception of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf a year or two back, the market for epic poetry is pretty healthy; though personally I’d want a parallel text for anything like that, just to satisfy occasional curiosity as to what the original said.


Bring Back… Here’s a truly conservative sentiment, from Richard Morrison in the London Times.

Take his [i.e. David Cameron’s, the squishy-liberal new Tory leader’s] pronouncement in The Times last week. “One of the things I’m trying to persuade my party of,” he declared, “is that not every policy should start with the words ‘bring back’.” Hmm. It’s a cute soundbite… But does it make electoral sense? It strikes me that there are millions of people who would be much more likely to vote for the Tories if all their policies began with the words “bring back”. A craving for the deeply unfashionable, for useful things that have disappeared without trace (or, worse still, been abolished by meddlesome modernisers inside and outside government), for the politically incorrect but emotionally right . . . these are quintessential elements in the British character.

Morrison then follows up with a list of “things I think any incoming government should promise to bring back.” Lists of that kind are of course irresistible. You’ve no sooner read the list than you start mentally adding to it.

Here, for example, is one thing I’d like to bring back: Date-stamped inserts pasted into the back inside covers of library books. When I check out a book at my town library nowadays, their computer prints off a wee slip of paper with the book’s name and author, my name, and the date the book is due. That slip is, of course, irretrievably lost before I get home. I have no clue when the book is due back. With the old pasted-in inserts you could just look.

The old system had the additional advantage that you could see from the previous dates stamped on the insert how many people had borrowed the book before you. I always felt a thrill of pleasure at seeing that I was the first person in eight years to take some particular book out, and would weave romantic fantasies about who the previous borrower had been, and what peculiar affinity we shared, to both want a book that so few of our fellow human beings cared about.


Year of… I don’t know about Time magazine’s eccentric Person of the Year choice, but for me this has been the Year of Wikipedia. At the opening of 2006 I was barely aware of Wikipedia. Now I refer to it, oh, three or four dozen times a day. Yes, yes, I know all the caveats, but the thing is so handy.

Back in the late 1980s, when I’d been working with mainframe computers on and off for 20 years, someone asked me what the really big changes in the field had been. I said (1) the move from batch to online coding, and (2) the arrival of relational databases. That was two big changes in twenty years. Now they are coming thick and fast. Was it really only four years ago that I was gushing over the wonders of Google? Yes, it was. Four years, two years, one year; Google, Wiki, YouTube; pretty soon we’ll be finding some sensationally indispensable new application every month.


Threepenny Bits. The Health and Safety fascists over in the U.K. are trying to stamp out the old custom of hiding coins in the Christmas pudding. Unwary children might accidentally swallow the coins, you see. And then, I suppose, someone would get sued.

In my childhood we all looked forward to our Christmas pudding — a spherical black object dense and heavy enough to warp spacetime — and we all knew there were half a dozen threepenny bits in it. None of us would have been so foolish as to swallow a mouthful of Christmas pud without much careful probing to see if we’d got one of the precious coins. These, by the way, were the old silver threepenny bits (colloquially known as “joeys”), the last of which were minted in the year I was born, but which were in circulation well into the 1960s.


Speaking of Puddings… My clever wife has made a syllabub. From bean curd.


200 Years to Christmas. While I’m strolling down Memory Lane, I’ll put in a mention for J. T. McIntosh’s classic sci-fi story “200 Years to Christmas,” featured in the excellent Science Fantasy magazine, issue No. 35. The story actually has nothing to do with Christmas. It deals with life aboard a generational starship, plodding along at modest speed towards a distant solar system. The trip takes several centuries, so entire generations are born and die on board, on the way to “Christmas” — that is, arrival at the distant stellar destination.

In McIntosh’s tale, the shipboard society goes through wild pendulum swings from extreme theocratic Puritanism to complete dissipated licentiousness, all in a few years each. And then back again. And so on — somewhat like the Old Testament Jews, but on a compressed timescale. Why did I find myself thinking of this story all of a sudden, 47 years after reading it? I have no idea. One too many news stories about Britney Spears, perhaps.


Heaven on Earth. It isn’t all that unusual to read a travel piece that leaves you with the impression that whatever country or city it’s about must be heaven on earth, but this one on Estonia, by Tom Bissell in The New Republic, is more convincing than most. Economic (the place has a flat tax!), intellectual, and architectural delights aside, Bissell notes that: 

Tallinn [the Estonian capital] boasted what I can say were — without fear of hyperbole — the most jaw-droppingly beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. (One Estonia-boosting tract cheerfully explains: “The concentration of beautiful and interesting women in Estonia is apparently among the highest in the world.”) Perhaps relatedly, the one time I was approached by a young Estonian looking to unload some drugs, the narcotic in question turned out to be Viagra.

Time for me to tell my Estonian jokes.

Estonian joke 1 (Soviet era): A. Did you know that our Estonia is the biggest country in the world? B. Really? How’s that? A. The coastline’s on the Baltic; the capital is Moscow; and the population’s in Siberia!

Estonian joke 2 (Thatcher-era Britain): Tory prime ministers typically stock their cabinets with a high proportion of graduates from Eton, the super-tony boy’s boarding school. Margaret Thatcher, however, on becoming prime minister in 1979, picked an unusually large number of Jews for her cabinet — in part because she was member of Parliament for a heavily Jewish constituency, in part because she is anyway a natural philosemite, and in part because they were the smartest Tories around. Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, commenting on this, noted drily that: “Margaret’s got it all wrong. You’re supposed to stuff the cabinet with Etonians, not Estonians.”


Kitzmiller, One Year On. It was just a year ago this month, on December 20, 2005, that U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III delivered his opinion in the case Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, a crushing blow to the Intelligent Design movement. The ID-ers have not forgiven Judge Jones, and have been smearing and vilifying him ever since. These people can’t do science, but they sure can do ad hominem. Federal marshals actually had to place the judge and his family under guard for a while, so threatening were some of the emails sent to his office by the ID fanatics.

This, by the way, was a judge whose appointment to the case had been greeted with rapture by the ID-ers since he was, as one of them put it: “a good old boy brought up through the conservative ranks… appointed by GW hisself… Unless Judge Jones wants to cut his career off at the knees he isn’t going to rule against the wishes of his political allies.” As it turned out, Judge Jones is a conservative in the right way, the best way: he respects the law, and the plain rules of evidence.

All the depositions and court transcripts in the case are now on the Internet, and very devastating they are to the ID cause. And as devastating as what is there is what is not there — the court testimony of leading ID-er William Dembski, for example. After much pre-trial bluster about how, in an open forum, he would shred the arguments of the “Darwinists,” when he was actually presented with a wonderful public opportunity to do exactly that in the Dover courtroom, Dembski declined to show up! The whole sordid story is told by expert witness Barbara Forrest in the Jan./Feb. 2007 issue of Skeptical Inquirer (not yet online… and I took that quote in the previous paragraph from Ms. Forrest’s article).

I don’t see how anyone can read these transcripts, or Ms. Forrest’s account, without concluding that the whole ID business is riddled with dishonesty. Two of the [pro-ID] defendants in the case were actually discovered to have lied under oath when making their depositions, and were scolded by the judge for it. Lesser degrees of shiftiness, like Dembski’s as noted above, are all over the place. I daresay there are some honest and sincere people pushing the ID agenda; but taken as a whole, it is all a bit shabby and ignoble. Read those transcripts, or just Barbara Forrest’s article, and tell me I’m wrong.

None of that will make much difference to the ID-ers, of course. They will carry on merrily raising funds, organizing conferences, whizzing round the country on their junkets, preaching the True Word to receptive audiences, basking in the adoration of the faithful, collecting their book royalties, and disdaining to do anything as grubbily tedious as actual scientific research — behaving, in short, just as they have for the past several years. The Kitzmiller case does, though, at least advance the day when the rest of us will no longer need to pay any attention to the Intelligent Design buncombe and its shifty promoters.


Unpardonable. Outrage of the month is surely the refusal of George W. Bush to grant pardons to the two Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting at a Mexican drug smuggler. The agents — a five-year veteran and a ten-year veteran of the Patrol — will begin lengthy prison sentences on January 17 unless something is done, for what was in essence a minor procedural error. The drug smuggler was granted immunity by the U.S. court so that he could testify against the agents. Boy, he must be laughing himself to sleep every night at the thought of those damn fool Gringos.

This whole miserable case demonstrates that one of our president’s governing passions is a fierce, unbending, fanatical determination to do absolutely nothing about border control, to pack as many underclass Central Americans into the USA as this country will hold, and to bring all the apparatus of unbridled state power against those who oppose him in this project.

Why any patriotic person would harbor such an attitude is beyond my understanding. The president undoubtedly does harbor it, though, and he is a man famously resistant to changing his mind about anything. Certainly he will not change on this point. For some unfathomable psychological reason, open borders, and free access to U.S. schools and hospitals for anyone who crosses those borders, are the very heart and soul of Bush’s personal philosophy.

So long as Bush has any authority over the issue, the border wall approved by Congress will never be built; border control will never be enforced; the “guest worker” lunacy will be rammed down the nation’s resisting throat (along with the creation — already well under way — of a vast new criminal enterprise to supply phony versions of the required documents); and no U.S. employer will ever be penalized for employing illegals. Immigration-wise, we might as well have voted for John Kerry. Indeed, on the Nixon-to-China principle, we might have been better off.

(And on that point about employer sanctions: One thing we learned in the aftermath of those raids at the Swift & Co. meat-packing plants was that Swift had actually tried to inquire into the backgrounds of job applicants, to make sure they weren’t in the country illegally. When Swift did this, however, it was sued by the Justice Department for “discrimination”! As Mickey Kaus noted, writing about this: “Couldn’t President Bush — if he cares so much about workplace enforcement — have told the Justice Department to cut it out? If a conservative Republican president won’t rule out crying “discrimination” when immigration laws are applied, why do we think a liberal Democratic administration will?”)


Chinese Opera. No, not the traditional Chinese art form, but an opera, currently on stage at the New York Met, written by a Chinese composer, and produced by a Chinese producer, with a Chinese subject. The opera is called The First Emperor, and has Plácido Domingo singing the title role. Two different people, both very knowledgeable about music, have told me that this opera is simply awful. I think I’ll take their word for it.

The difference between Chinese and Western culture is more marked in music than anywhere else, I think. Technically, vocally, instrumentally, socially, the gulf is wide. Until recent times, for example (I mean, the mid-20th century) there were practically no famous Chinese composers. “Authorship in Chinese music is mostly anonymous.” (Liang Mingyue, Music of the Billion, Heinrichshofen, 1985.)

Try for yourself: Find a well-educated, culturally-sensitive Chinese person and ask him to name a great composer from the imperial period (i.e. prior to 1911). Or better yet, don’t — you’ll embarrass the guy. Traditional Chinese music is really folk music, at one or two removes. I have sat through several Chinese operas — the traditional kind, not this new Met variety — but nobody could ever tell me who composed them.

(Jan Morris, in one of her travel pieces, tells of a long and eventful trip around China. At the very end of the piece, she summarizes the high points of the trip, congratulating herself on its overall success, adding at the end: “…and I successfully avoided Chinese opera.”)

Another point on The First Emperor: Why this fixation with the hoodlum Qin Shi Huang? With nearly 3,000 years of recorded history (and a couple of millennia of myth preceding that), China has plenty of stories much more engaging that Qin’s brutish stomp to power. I suspect that the real reason for the fascination with Qin is that Chinese people know, in their hearts, that the unification Qin carried out was a ghastly mistake.

In the “contending states” of pre-Qin China, there was great creativity and cultural variety. Real civilizational progress comes in such conditions — compare pre-Sargon Mesopotamia, the Greek city-states before Alexander, Renaissance Italy, or 19th-century Europe. From a great bureaucratic-despotic system like the one Qin established comes nothing but stasis, complacency, blind cultural arrogance, and civilizational stagnation. The ancient unification project, like the modern one, is a horrid blunder, from which nothing good will come. China is a civilization, not a country.


Where Does This Piece Go? What did Santa bring me? A jigsaw puzzle. I love to do jigsaw puzzles. I find it wonderfully relaxing. It is also, however, very time-consuming. Not having that much free time, I indulge my passion only at Christmas. Santa knows this, of course, and that’s why he brought me this lovely 2,000-piece (I sneer at anything less) picture of the Neuschwanstein folly.

I have already done the castle, and the sky down to the skyline, and some of the mountainscape. Last of all I shall do the foliage, which is the puzzler’s real challenge. Should Satan ever go into the jigsaw-puzzle business, His productions will be all foliage. (Capitalization there is deliberate — you can never be too careful.)

Yes, yes, I know, you are green with envy. Just turn that envy into motivation! If you lay off the naughty and work harder on the nice, Santa may bring you a jigsaw puzzle next Christmas.


Math Corner. The cheering thing about these puzzles is seeing the pains readers take with them. I am obviously supplying harmless relaxation and amusement to many — though probably not as much as the makers of jigsaw puzzles do. Here is my favorite reader response to last month’s brainteaser:

Dear Mr. Derbyshire — I calculate the cross-sectional area of your postulated globe-encircling silver band to be 470.71 square centimeters. If in the form of a torus, the cross-sectional diameter would be 24.48 centimeters, or about the size of a person’s leg. Astonishing, isn’t it?

However: on a per-capita basis, we are each only responsible for 13.3 cm (or about 5 linear inches) of the overall circumference, assuming 300 million Americans. I think my grandma’s sterling tea service had nearly that much silver.

If you repeat the calculation with the density and current dollar value of gold, you get a torus of cross sectional area of 5.39 sq. cm, or 2.62 centimeters diameter, or about an inch in diameter. Per capita, we are each responsible for the same five inches of the circumference.

In both cases, the national debt denominated in dollars is about $28,766.04 per capita. That’s a fair chunk of change, but if we consider it to be the payment due to our ancestors for the nation they bequeathed upon us, it’s not so bad.

Among the many tangible assets are highways, ports, laboratories, courts, hospitals, universities, sewers, airports, parks, observatories, reservoirs, forests, fish and game, oil and minerals, and adequate social insurance. To protect it all, we have an exceptionally strong national defense establishment, with far-flung military bases and first-rate hardware, making us invulnerable to any conventional attack.

In addition, there are some extremely valuable intangible assets, namely the rule of Law and the blessings of Liberty. These are so desirable that people have risked their very lives to obtain them for themselves and their posterity, and continue to do so. Yet as Americans, these are freely handed to us as our birthright, in exchange for the assumption of a measly $28,766 of debt.

If it took me my entire working life of 50 years to pay off this debt, with interest, it would cost me a couple of thousand a year. An excellent bargain by any measure, certainly trifling next to my current taxes, and much less than my family’s per-capita household debt for mortgage, cars, and student loans.

Which leaves me nothing to say.

David Wells’s Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers has no entry between 1980 and 2025. As is traditional, therefore, for this month’s year-end brainteaser I challenge you to find something curious or interesting to say about the number 2007.

 


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