March Diary
Gay marriage, tiger moms, and more.


John Derbyshire

“Nobody wants to pay for music anymore.” And pretty soon nobody will want to pay for TV shows, or movies, or journalism, and the content-provider business will be like professional sports: a handful of superstars making megabucks, the rest of us sleeping on ash heaps for the warmth.

I question Rob’s “millions” there, though. I think Steve Sailer is more likely correct:

Andy Warhol is still famous for saying 43 years ago that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. It’s more likely that in the future everyone will be famous to 15 people.

As the Turks say: İt ürür kervan geçer — “the dogs howl, the caravan moves on.”

Learning neuroscience     If you share my interest in the problem of consciousness, you will enjoy this ill-tempered review of two books on the topic. The reviewer, Raymond Tallis, is a retired neurosurgeon. There’s a good-spirited comment thread.

Meanwhile I am near the end of my latest purchase from the Teaching Company: “The Neuroscience of Everyday Life.” Mrs. Derb has been watching it with me: It’s good general-interest stuff.

That being the case, if you have a long-standing curiosity about this subject, you won’t learn a whole lot from the Teaching Company course that you didn’t already know, if only at a superficial level.

The course was still worthwhile, though, for occasional insights. Professor Wang is a better-than-average lecturer, with that diffident catch-it-as-it-flies-by Chinese sense of humor that I like. He’s structured the course well, and touched almost all the bases I’d wanted touched.

(One exception: Nothing so far — I’ve done 33 of the 36 lectures — on the very weird business of hydrocephalic normals. These are people whose head, instead of being full of brain, is mostly full of water. The brain is just a sort of thin rind lining the skull. Yet incredibly some of these people are quite normal — better than average, I believe, at mathematics. I’d love to have heard Professor Wang’s take on this.)

On those topics that verge on political correctness, Professor Wang cleaves strictly to the party line. And then some: The Marxist propagandist Stephen Jay Gould gets two mentions, with pictures — more than any other person not a neuroscientist. On nature and nurture in relation to IQ, Professor Wang offers us the dear old Eyferth study, which is such a favorite with nurturists that none of them, in the50 years since, has tried to replicate its results. A promise at the beginning of Lecture 25 (“Intelligence, Genes, and Environment”) to give us some facts about group differences delivers nothing but some bland remarks on males and females . . . and so on.

I suppose the Teaching Company has guidelines they impose, but the professor could still have been bolder. And two pictures of that con artist Gould? Really!

Math Corner     In last month’s Math Corner I passed some remarks of a general kind on Benford’s Law, which says that in almost any big list of numbers, around 30.1 percent will start with digit 1, around 17.6 percent with digit 2, and so on. For digit the proportion is log10(n+1) − log10n (so the percentage of course 100 times that).

Those remarks referred to real-world illustrations of the law. Benford’s Law has a pure-mathematical side, too, however. Fibonacci’s numbers, for example — 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 . . . ,each number being the sum of the two to its immediate left — follow Benford’s Law. So do powers of 2, or powers of any number not itself a power of ten. So do factorials.

Contrariwise, some important sequences do not follow Benford’s Law, notably the primes. Just checking the first 5.8 million primes, I get the following counts for leading digits 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9: 724593, 664277, 651085, 641594, 633932, 628206, 622882, 618610, and 614821. Instead of Benfordian percentages 30-18-12-10-8-7-6-5-4 I’ve got more like 13-12-11-11-11-11-11-10-10. An interesting slight decline, but definitely not Benford-compliant. (Because the log-type thinning-out of primes cancels out most of the log-type front-loading of a Benford-compliant sequence.)


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