Politics & Policy

January Diary

The gulag, the Long Island Railroad, Chinese lit, and more

Dark tourism     I kid around about Turkmenistan on Radio Derb, but perhaps I shouldn’t. It’s a pretty awful place: not as bad as North Korea, but bad enough to attract the practitioners of “dark tourism” — travelling to the most awful places you can think of, in the footsteps of Tony Daniels and P. J. O’Rourke.

Here’s one of those fearless adventurers reporting on Turkmenistan. I particularly enjoyed his description of the country’s governmental architecture:

Ashgabat already boasts a “Ministry of Fairness,” a “Ministry of Carpets,” as well as a “Ministry of Horses.” Many of the white-marble buildings are shaped to represent the purpose of the building. The one that houses the national library is shaped like a giant book. The “Ministry of Health” building resembles a giant cobra, while the “Ministry of Energy” building looks like a giant cigarette lighter.

Arthur Koestler got there first, though — 80 years ago, when the place was newly Sovietized:

The most out-of-the-world place to which I have ever been is a village near the Soviet-Afghan frontier, called Permetyab. It is inhabited by Afghani and Baluchi tribesmen, compared to whom the Turkomans are a nation of sophisticated intellectuals . . . Led by the Kultprop [Communist Party propaganda specialist], we all flocked to one of the tents. At the entrance of it squatted a huge, savage-looking, bearded figure in a striped caftan, with a large dirty turban on his head. He was smoking a hookah made out of a hollowed marrow. In the dim interior of the tent we could see the shape of a woman clad in rags . . .

The Invisible Writing, Chapter XI.

I wonder how things are today in Permetyab? (Which, like Koestler, I can’t find on any map.)

The Long Walk     A while back, in one of my “Straggler” columns, I made a passing mention of the 1956 book The Long Walk:

Later I discovered Slavomir Rawicz’s book The Long Walk, which describes how the author with six companions escaped from a Soviet labor camp in 1941 and walked across Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, and the Himalayas, down into British India and freedom. Current critical opinion is that Rawicz made most of it up, but it’s still a great story.

So it is. Now someone’s made a movie of it.

The following is from Steve Sailer’s review. Read it and weep.

Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History and a consultant on The Way Back, notes: “[Director Peter] Weir told me that many in Hollywood were surprised by the story: They’d never heard of Soviet concentration camps, only German ones.”

I don’t doubt it.

The most dangerous job in America     Speaking of the Gulag:

“Short of the gulag, I can’t imagine any work force that would have a so-to-speak 90 percent disability attrition rate,” said Glenn Scammel, long one of Capitol Hill’s top experts on railroads. “That defies both logic and experience.”

That refers to retirees from the Long Island Railroad. I took it from New York Times report of two years ago, which revealed that: “Virtually every career employee — as many as 97 percent in one recent year — applies for and gets disability payments soon after retirement.”

The Times story was decorated with pictures of “disabled” LIRR retirees out on the golf course — which is free for them, another perk. Oh, and they get tax breaks on their lavish disability benefits.

The LIRR is my commuter railroad. Every time they put up fares — they just did — I do a trawl of Google News to see if anything’s happened in the past two years to those retiree boondoggles. For a scam on that scale, someone should be going to jail, right? Ha ha ha ha! Look at the nothing-going-to-happen code words here (my italics):

. . . changes being considered . . . Among the changes that [Sen. Chuck] Schumer and [Rep. Tim] Bishop said they got the board members to tentatively agree upon . . . The board also agreed to consider . . . agreed that changing the “outdated” railroad pension system was vital . . . 

“Outdated”? These public-employee disability scams aren’t “outdated,” they’re criminally larcenous. Two years on, hasn’t anyone gone to jail? Has anyone even been charged? Well, sort of:

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued 108 subpoenas related to the case, yet only one person had been brought up on felony charges as of last March. . . . The person brought up on charges was a former manager of L.I.R.R.’s pension office, Frederick S. Kreuder, who charged $100 to coach workers on how to get disability benefits. The charges were dropped, however, since what he did was not criminal.

Why the hell not? And why aren’t these lying, scamming retirees being hustled off to jail in batches? Can New York afford these payouts? No, of course not. From that 2008 Times report:

Four years ago [i.e. in 2004], the transportation authority’s inspector general cautioned that occupational disabilities could have financial implications for the L.I.R.R.’s pension plan, which it found to be “extremely” underfunded.

Oh, I wouldn’t worry. Private-sector workers will pick up the tab.

Footnote: As with the Cities of the Plain, there are righteous persons even among LIRR retirees. That original Times story found one. Let him be known and his name celebrated:

Walter Kueffner is one manager who didn’t say he was disabled, even though many others around him did. . . . Mr. Kueffner said that while he’s not “a saint,” the thought of claiming disability never crossed his mind for one simple reason: “I didn’t have a disability,” he said. “I was doing a job that people do everywhere. I worked at a desk and I retired in good shape.”

Born to be wild     In We Are Doomed I quoted William Hazlitt’s 1821 essay “On Personal Character”:

No one ever changes his character from the time he is two years old; nay, I might say, from the time he is two hours old . . . the character, the internal, original bias, remains always the same, true to itself to the very last . . . 

Sure enough.

The dash for freedom     Here is a recurring fantasy of mine. Sometimes I fantasize it of just one state; sometimes of the U.S.A. as a whole: Delete as applicable.

Faced with a pincer of collapsing revenues and swelling entitlements, the government makes a bold dash for freedom. All taxes, both personal and corporate, are scrapped, replaced by a flat-rate purchase tax. All entitlements likewise, after citizens have been reimbursed what they put in, compounded at a modest rate of interest. Legal immigration is reduced to the annual 23,500 recommended here. Illegal immigration is made a felony, subject to a mandatory five years with hard labor. Public-sector unions are outlawed. Foreign aid is zeroed out. All troops stationed overseas are repatriated. The departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor are abolished. All K–12 educational facilities are sold to crammer firms. All private-discrimination laws are repealed. Firms may hire who they want and fire at will. Contingency-fee lawsuits are banned, and losers in civil actions must pay full costs. Employer-provided health benefits are at market rates. The legislature will meet for five days a year, and legislative positions are unpaid . . . 

You get the idea. A dash for freedom. The chief executive announces that the state/nation will be the Hong Kong of the 2010s.

Oh, look, I can fantasize, can’t I?

Chinese Lit.     Here’s a thing I get asked occasionally: “Mr. Derb: Should I read the Chinese classic novels?”

My stock reply is: No, not for pleasure. The cultural distance — the amount of background you need — is just too great. I don’t say there aren’t non-Chinese people who’ve read The Water Margin or Journey to the West for pleasure. The human race contains every kind of oddity and exception. Your chances are not good, though.

I’ll qualify that by admitting that it’s an ill-informed opinion. I have not, in point of fact, read any of the Chinese classic novels all the way through, not in the original text, nor even in a translation. I did get past the halfway mark in David Hawkes’s five-volume Penguin Classics translation of Red Chamber Dream (which goes by an alternative title) before losing the will to live. And I have read the entirety of the kiddies’ picture version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and have a marked-up copy to prove it. (No mean feat: It’s twelve volumes, with around 700 of these captioned pictures per volume. The pictures are lovely, though, and keep you going.) The rest has just been random browsing and a few short passages construed as classroom tasks.

What you should read, if you are interested enough to ask the question, and are not embarrassed about taking a CliffsNotes route, is C. T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel, which gives a good critical account of the six big titles.

And yes: Among the six is the pornographic classic Jin Ping Mei, concerning which Chinese people love to tell the following tale, which I’ve copied here from Hsia’s book:

Early Ch’ing [i.e. Ch’ing dynasty, 1644–1911] anecdotists have further reported that the book was written as an act of filial piety. According to this legend, which could have started soon after the publication of the novel and was not discredited until modern times, its author was none other than Wang Shih-chen (1526–90), the leading poet and essayist of his time, who wrote the work to avenge the death of his father for which the evil minister Yen Shih-fan was mainly responsible. Because Yen was addicted to pornography, Wang poisoned the lower corner of every page of his completed manuscript and submitted it to him. As Yen mechanically moistened his fingertip with his own saliva to turn the pages, he eventually swallowed enough poison to cause his death.

Hsia calls this story “preposterous,” and I wouldn’t gainsay so weighty a scholar.

Discrimination in Kentucky     Creationism as a live issue has pretty much quiesced since the Kitzmiller decision. It’s been ages since I was invited anywhere to defend ol’ Chuck.

Not that anybody much has changed their minds, of course. People just aren’t bothering with the issue, having more important things to bother about — like, for example, FOURTEEN TRILLION DOLLARS OF NATIONAL DEBT. Once in a while it still rises to the level of newsworthiness, just barely. Rep. Jack Kingston made a doofus of himself over it the other evening, as noted by my SecularRight colleague David Hume.

And then there was the much more interesting — because ethically knotty — business of astronomer C. Martin Gaskell, who in 2007 was not hired for the directorship of the observatory at the University of Kentucky because, he claimed, of his religious views. In mid-January the university settled out of court, paying Gaskell $125,000 in order, they said, “to avoid the headache and expense of a trial.”

The ethical conundrum here is nontrivial. Great scientific or mathematical ability can certainly cohabit in the same brain with odd religious notions, Isaac Newton being the star exhibit here. The chair of the UK search committee (though none of the other four members) thought Gaskell’s qualifications “stand far above those of any other applicant.”

Richard Dawkins chimed in with a long, thoughtful piece arguing inter alia that wacky beliefs could be legitimate grounds for not hiring a candidate, and that wacky religious beliefs (e.g. Young Earth Creationism) should not be privileged over wacky non-religious beliefs (e.g. the stork theory of human reproduction).

A law that encourages you to say, “If a candidate’s private beliefs are based on religion I shall ignore them, otherwise I shall take them into account,” is a bad law.

It is a bad law because, while purporting to oppose discrimination, it is actually highly discriminatory: it discriminates in favour of religious foolishness and against non-religious foolishness.

I prefer to discriminate against both.

Dawkins’s piece comes with a saner-than-average comment thread.

Glenn Reynolds then took a swing at Dawkins . . . and no doubt there are many other comments around the web.

What to make of all this? In the first place, Gaskell’s notions don’t seem all that nutty. Certainly they are nothing like as weird as Newton’s — though to be sure, and quite properly, standards of nuttiness have tightened considerably since 1700. Gaskell is certainly not a Young Earth Creationist, as Dawkins comes close to implying.

But then, observatory director is not a cloistered research position. It has a considerable P.R. component to it. UK might reasonably feel they don’t want to be represented by a director who mutters peculiar things, even if only on his personal website.

And the libertarian voice pipes up: What’s with discrimination laws anyway? Why shouldn’t UK hire who they please, for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reasons? The counter to that is, I guess, that UK is a public university, in one of the more religious states of the Union.

And so on, pro and con. On balance I’m with UK here. I think they might reasonably expect some downside from having Gaskell as director of their observatory, and in any case the man seems like a crybaby, and in any-any case I think discrimination laws stink, even allowing for the public factor here. Ethically, though, the case is, as I said, nontrivial.

Jane Austen blooper     I have only ever read two of Jane Austen’s novels — the obvious two — so I thought I’d get cracking on the other four while I still have my faculties. I therefore borrowed Emma from my daughter.

Whoa! Chapter 1, second paragraph, first sentence:

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father . . . 

“Youngest of the two”? Should be “younger,” surely. Had my daughter got a dud copy somehow? It’s one of the Family Classics Library set given away by the New York Post (America’s Newspaper of Record) a few years ago. I checked with Gutenberg.org: same thing. I went to the downstairs study and pulled down the Modern Library edition: “She was the youngest of the two . . .”

I consulted a friend who was an English-literature major. She: “Fussiness about grammar was a Victorian thing. Before that people didn’t bother so much. Look at what Shakespeare got away with.”

Yeah, all right, but . . . Jane Austen?

Ruthless meritocracy     I will maintain, against anyone willing to be maintained against, that Michael Young’s Rise of the Meritocracy was one of the most significant books of the last century. The question implicit in it is: Can a meritocratic society can be stable?

Young was a socialist. He thought that meritocracy was all right in a limited sphere, but that if it were to be scaled up too far beyond that sphere, an arrogant elite would result.

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

Meritocracy is what we have ended up with 53 years later, though. Is it really so bad? What’s the alternative, anyway — a leveling socialism? Has that actually worked anywhere? The meritocracy in Michael Young’s book collapses in the year 2033, falling to a revolt by the great unwashed and meritless. Could this happen, on something close to that timescale?

Discuss among yourselves. I said what I have to say about our meritocratic elite some years ago:

Still, it could be worse. I wish these upcoming elites had a little more color and dash. I wish they were not so academic. I wish there were some sign of a Churchill among them, or a Roosevelt (Teddy for preference) or an Andy Jackson. I wish they had stronger opinions. I wish they showed more evidence of having courage. I wish, above all, there were fewer of them. But do I have an alternative to meritocracy? Do I think these kids are unspeakably awful, and will drag western civilization down to perdition? Would I prefer my own kids not have a shot at joining them, if they decide they want to? No, and no, and no.

I’ve drifted somewhat from that position, though not far, mainly from taking in a lot of evolutionary psychology from books and friends. We, Homo sap., have gone through considerable changes these past few millennia; but the bedrock contours of the human personality, laid down in those long paleolithic eons, can still be discerned. They are egalitarian, not meritocratic. One way or another, the leveling impulse will reassert itself, though I believe and hope in some harmless, decorative way — some way, at least, less drastic than Khmer Rouge–style shoot-anyone-who-wears-glasses.

The current meritocratic elite of Britain seems to be trying to do some closing of the gap by mimicking the speech and manners of the proles. So claims Charles Moore of the London Daily Telegraph.

Even members of the royal family say things like “Go, guys, go”, and some of the younger ones marry people who look like bouncers in Geordie [i.e. northeast-England prole] nightclubs.

It sounds cosmetic to me, but it at least shows awareness of the issues Michael Young’s book raised.

Moore’s piece also had me lamenting one of the casualties of meritocracy in Britain: the upper-class twit.

The public schools [that is, exclusive private boarding schools] themselves have become far more meritocratic. When I was at Eton [the premier boys’ boarding school] in the 1970s, a very large proportion of the boys came from landed families. Many were not, to put it mildly, ambitious. Some read only The Sporting Life, and that with difficulty. Today, their numbers at Eton have dwindled dramatically.

A sad loss to Western Civ.

Math Corner     Comments on last month’s Math Corner are here.

For this month, since Egypt is in the news, consider the humble pyramid: a square base with four sides all equilateral triangles.

That makes the pyramid a polyhedron — a solid figure with plane faces. Each face is a polygon — a plane figure with straight-line sides. For the Egyptian-style pyramid the polygons are four equilateral triangles and a square.

(The sides of the Egyptian pyramids are not in fact equilateral triangles: the base angles are a tad more than 58 degrees, not 60 degrees. I’m going to ignore this inconvenient fact. This is math. The heck with reality.)

I’m only going to talk about solids whose faces are regular polygons: equilateral triangles, perfect squares, perfect pentagons, perfect hexagons, and so on. Furthermore, all the faces are convex: no star-shapes.

The best-known polyhedra are the five Platonic solids: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron. These obey the very strict conditions that not only are all faces regular convex polygons, they are all the same polygon, with the same number meeting at every vertex.

By loosening those conditions a little, you get interesting new families of polyhedra. If you drop that “same number meeting at every vertex” condition, for example, you get the deltahedra. If you drop the “convex” condition, you get various kinds of stellated polyhedra.

The first condition dropped by the ancients was in fact the one insisting that all the faces have to be the same regular polygon. What if you allow a mix — some triangles, some squares, for instance — while holding on to the condition that all the vertices must be the same (same numbers of each polygon meeting at each vertex, in the same order)?

Well, you then get the so-called Archimedean polyhedra, the simplest of which is the truncated tetrahedron, which has as its faces four equilateral triangles and four regular hexagons.

Here’s a formal definition:

Archimedean polyhedron:  All faces are convex regular polygons, though not all the same polygon; all vertices are congruent; prisms and antiprisms don’t count (because they’re boring).

If you now additionally drop the condition that all the vertices must be the same, you get the Johnson polyhedra. That gets us back to the Egyptian-style square-based pyramid, which is the simplest Johnson polyhedron. The four base vertices are the same (square meets two triangles) but the summit vertex is different (four triangles).

There are 92 Johnson polyhedra, a fact not proved until 1969 — incredibly, it seems to me, when you consider that polyhedra have interested mathematicians since antiquity.

Here’s something even more incredible. The number of Archimedean polyhedra as defined above was given as 13 by Archimedes himself (according to Pappus), and this number was repeated down through the succeeding 22 centuries into my own schooldays. Cundy and Rollett’s classic Mathematical Models, for example (my edition 1961), repeats it on page 100. Yet it is wrong! And in all those centuries nobody (with the possible exception of Kepler) noticed!

The whole amazing story is told by Branko Grünbaum in an essay titled “An Enduring Error,” which you can find in this splendid anthology.

Okay, okay, a brainteaser. The true number of Archimedean polyhedra, on the definition above, is 14, not 13. The 14th one, though none of the other 13, is included among Johnson’s 92. Can you spot it in the Mathworld list? What is its Johnson number?

Oh, and those boys in the back row sniggering over “Johnson number” can report to the principal directly after class. You know who you are.


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