What, me worry? I'm not as bothered by this coronavirus outbreak as, according to the public-service announcements, I ought to be.
I belong to two high-risk categories: over seventy and with a compromised immune system. I live in one of the worst-affected states. Shouldn't I be cowering in a basement room compulsively checking my temperature and lung function in between having my meals delivered in sterilized containers through a hatch in the wall?
Perhaps I should, but it all seems like too much trouble. My life history is all against it, anyway. I'm a 1940s English baby. The background wallpaper to my childhood was the Blitz (well, by close hearsay), polio, diphtheria, and the Bomb. We took in fatalism with our daily dose of cod liver oil, supplied free to kiddies by the then shiny-new National Health Service. Worry? Eh, if it's got your number on it …
There's sheer good luck in my circumstances, too. I live in a spacious outer suburb. There's nowhere I have to go, no-one I have to meet. My wife and son are at home; but her work and his studies have all been put online, so they are as self-quarantining as I am.
So here we huddle, mumbling repetitively at each other like characters in a Harold Pinter play, hoping the lockdown will be eased before we go stir-crazy.
We need to go shopping, of course; but we wear masks and gloves, carry hand sanitizers, and stay away from touch-screen services. I walk the dog, waving cheerily at neighbors across ten or fifteen feet of social distancing.
At this point I should be casting nervous glances over my shoulder in fear of having attracted the attention of those demons who punish mortals boasting of good luck. Nope: I've paid a price for my vacation. I've been ill.
The long URI. Bill Buckley had a conversational rule that no-one could talk about his own health issues for longer than 45 seconds. I like that rule so I'll keep this short. I would have left it out altogether, but kind people are asking.
Starting in mid-January and down to the present I've had some kind of persistent URI. Cold? Flu? I don't know. Hacking cough; stuffed-up head spaces; Nasenschleimheit; listless, dull-witted, and without appetite …
No fever, though, no trouble breathing, so I'm fairly sure it's not COVID-19. I'd be surer if I could get tested; but like the rest of you who aren't rich, famous, or exhibiting more clearly corona-ish symptoms, I can't.
It waxes and wanes, but this month has been particularly bad. These past few days my Eustacian tubes have been blocked, leaving me functionally deaf. (Yes, I got antibiotics for possible ear infection; and yes, I'm taking anti-inflammatory pills and aggressively chewing gum, as advised by Doctor Google.)
I've never had an ordinary URI last this long before. My colds have always conformed to the Old Wives' schedule: "Three days coming, three days with you, three days going."
I'll get over it, I'm sure. It seems odd, though, to be thus stricken, for so long, just as a really nasty, but different, viral outbreak is going on.
I nurse a longstanding superstition — it doesn't rate as anything higher — that peculiar weather, especially too-warm winters, has negative health effects. We have been 28 years in our present house this month; this has been the first winter in those 28 when I have not had to shovel snow from my driveway even once.
What time does the next ice floe leave? Lurking in the background are reflections on old age and death. I doubt there is anything to be said about them in generality that hasn't been said a hundred times over down through the ages, in prose, drama, verse, and song.
One of those things is the paradox that we become more protective of our precious hides as those hides become more wrinkled and useless. If you want a volunteer to charge hollering at an enemy machine-gun nest, your best bet is a healthy eighteen-year-old. Suggest it to a creaky septuagenarian, you'll most likely get: "Whoa, you kidding? That's dangerous." The British Army catch-phrase is that a man has no "bottle" (= reckless courage) after age thirty.
All that may be true in generality, and of course there are some things we can't know until put to the test. Still, I don't myself have much fear of death, although like you, him, and her I'd prefer it fast and painless.
I've had a good innings: been round the world a couple of times, enjoyed long spells of comfortable prosperity; also been broke, hungry, beaten-up, and friendless in places you can barely find on a map. I've experienced intense emotions of both the positive and negative sort. I've furnished a house, raised a family, made some friends, buried some friends, contributed thirty-odd years of (I hope) useful work to a couple of national economies, published some books. I've taken intellectual pleasure and instruction from the arts and sciences.
There are things I regret not having accomplished, but I don't fool myself I'm going to get round to any of them this late in the game. Life-wise, I'm done. The house is paid for, there's a good life-insurance policy, and the kids are self-supporting. I can't bear to think of parting from my sweet, incomparable wife; but she's sturdy Malthusian stock, she'd cope.
Supplementary factors are:
(1). Having been raised listening to medical talk, I took in some of that frank, unillusioned attitude that medical people have (unless they are unsuited to their work).
(2). Being a naturalized New Yorker. I lived several years in the Big Apple and absorbed some of the raw, devil-take-the-hindmost ethos of that city in the pre-Snowflake era. From The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, 1974 version:
Walter Matthau: "My only priority is saving the lives of these [subway] passengers."
Dick O'Neill: "Screw the goddam passengers. What the hell do they expect for their lousy thirty-five cents, to live for ever?"
There's an urban legend that among the Eskimos, when a member of the tribe gets old and burdensome, they put him on an ice floe and push him out into the ocean current. I don't know if it's true — it doesn't a priori seem very likely — but I'm on board (as it were) with the general principle. So … What time does the next ice floe leave?
Notes from our Cultural Revolution (1): Bo Winegard. Bo Winegard is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Marietta College, a private liberal-arts school in Ohio. Not for much longer, though: At the beginning of March he was told that his contract would not be renewed, i.e. he was being fired.
The reason? He holds heterodox opinions about human nature — opinions well-founded in biology, reasonable and thoughtfully-argued, but at odds with current state ideology. Among Winegard's thoughtcrimes was liking a tweet by our own Steve Sailer.
All things considered, the firing of an academic for legitimate research is a bigger threat to civilization than a coronavirus.
There is talk going around that among the economic consequences of our current disruptions may be the financial failure and closing of many private liberal-arts colleges, places like Marietta. I hope and pray this comes to pass.
Has there ever been a more parasitic class afflicting a civilized society than these college deans and administrators and their uniformly, lock-step "progressive" lackeys and enforcers? It would be sheer joy to see them expelled from their sinecures and put to some useful work … except that I doubt they are capable of any.
Notes from our Cultural Revolution (2): Lana Lokteff. This one I come to rather late; it's from last November. I'm obliged to my colleague Paul Nachman for bringing it to my attention.
It's also long, nearly eight thousand words. If that's too much for you, please at least read the last forty percent or so, the interview with Lana Lokteff, co-founder and co-host of Red Ice TV, which was dropped by YouTube on October 18th last. Sample, Ms Lokteff speaking:
I think it is probably too late for America. The damage has been done and we're in for hard times but if all leftist agitation disappeared, if immigration stopped, if forced diversification stopped, you would see freedom of association and you would see people self-segregating into their own pockets around the country. People are tribal and they will ultimately choose to live with others like them. Sure, there will be a few hipster multicultural pockets in the cities but that wouldn't be the norm if people had a choice.
More than anything else I have read recently, this piece gives a clear picture of the relentlessly creeping, corporate-driven totalitarianism — uniformity of thought, violent suppression of dissent — we have been undergoing this past quarter-century. Something awful is happening to us, and to what once were our taken-for-granted liberties.
Goodbye, Handshake Game. If we're going to give up the handshake as a style of greeting, that kills the Handshake Game.
The Handshake Game consists of bragging about famous people you have shaken hands with at one remove. There is not much to it if you are senior and have lived some kind of public life. I have shaken hands with Henry Kissinger, for example; so at one remove I have shaken hands with Mao Tse-tung, Leonid Brezhnev, Richard Nixon, and so on.
It's more fun if you can claim to have shaken hands at one remove with historically remote personages. My college Socialist Society, circa 1964, was addressed by an English fellow whose name I can't remember, who had been with Trotsky in Mexico. I shook the Englishman's hand, so I have Trotsky at one remove.
The young Bill Buckley was taken to meet Herbert Hoover in his suite at the Waldorf Hotel, where the Buckleys were also staying; so I can claim Hoover at one remove as my earliest President.
A elderly relative of mine, as his unit disembarked at London docks from a troopship at the end of WW1, found David Lloyd George waiting to greet them. I once shook hands with the relative, I'm sure; he shook hands with Lloyd George, who was born in 1863. That's a pretty fair span, though if I racked my brains I could probably do better.
Philippa Schuyler. My nonfiction reading this month has included the Joseph Mitchell anthology Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell (1908-87) was a writer for the New Yorker in the middle years of the last century. He specialized in magazine-length pieces about non-famous people in New York City, people who caught his attention for one reason or another.
One piece that particularly caught my attention, dated 1940, was about a nine-year-old prodigy named Philippa Schuyler.
Philippa reads Plutarch on train trips, eats steaks raw, writes poems in honor of her dolls, plays poker, and is the composer of more than sixty pieces for the piano.
At nine years old! Mitchell is a sober and credible reporter. It's plain that Philippa Schuyler is a very extraordinary child.
Even more so than you'd think. A few hundred words in we learn that:
Philippa's father, George S. Schuyler … is a Negro essayist and novelist … He wrote often for the American Mercury when H.L. Mencken edited it. Mr Schuyler's skin is jet black. He comes from one of the oldest Negro families in New York … Philippa's mother, Mrs Josephine Schuyler, is white. She is, in fact, a golden-haired blonde …
I was curious to know what became of Philippa Schuyler. She might well still be alive, I thought. I googled. Oh, dear.
Schuyler's personal life was frequently unhappy. She rejected many of her parents' values, increasingly becoming a vocal feminist, and made many attempts to pass herself off as a woman of Iberian (Spanish) descent named Filipa Monterro. Although she engaged in a number of affairs, and on one occasion endured a dangerous late-term abortion after a relationship with a Ghanaian diplomat, she never married.
Philippa Schuyler and her father, George Schuyler, were members of the John Birch Society.
In 1967 Schuyler traveled to Vietnam as a war correspondent. During a helicopter mission near Da Nang to evacuate a number of Vietnamese orphans, the helicopter crashed into the sea. While she initially survived the crash, her inability to swim caused her to drown …
Her mother was profoundly affected by her daughter's death and committed suicide a few days before its second anniversary.
Possibly Philippa Schuyler's story is well known among native Americans; I just encountered it for the first time via Joseph Mitchell. It's a strange, sad story.
(It also makes hash of an offhand remark in my May 2017 Diary that Philippa is "one of those names, like 'Nigel,' that only Brits use." Well, here was an American Philippa. May she rest in peace.)
Musical decadence. I didn't have a whole lot to say about modern music in the Culture chapter of We Are Doomed, mainly because I don't know much about it. My overall posture was of course reactionary:
We are now eighty years on from Webern's prediction that mailmen on their rounds would one day whistle his atonal, melody-free ditties. If my acquaintance with mailmen is representative, Webern's prediction has not yet come to pass.
Worse stuff than Webern has come out of 20th-century conservatories. If memory serves, one modernist composer (John Cage?) produced a piece with instructions to the conductor at one point in the score to open the window and let traffic noise in.
That came to mind when I was reading Jay Nordlinger's review of Australian modernist Brett Dean's cello concerto in the March New Criterion:
Here is one vignette from modern concert life — something that will not surprise you: in the final measures of the work, which are very quiet, someone's phone went off, playing the Nokia theme. For a second I was unsure whether it was part of the score or, indeed, a phone.
I'll stick with Mozart and Puccini, thanks all the same.
Can I get a ticket for my emotional support pangolin? In the news about China's wet market, where nasty viruses breed among exotic animals being sold for food, the humble pangolin has received a few mentions.
The thing I was told about the pangolin in my Southeast Asia days was, that he has his teeth inside his stomach. This may not be strictly true. Wikipedia:
While foraging, they ingest small stones (gastroliths) which accumulate in their stomachs to help to grind up ants. This part of their stomach is called the gizzard, and it is also covered in keratinous spines. These spines further aid in the grinding up and digestion of the pangolin's prey.
Eh; spines, teeth, close enough.
Why am I telling you this? To encourage you to read or listen to the definitive China-Tibet-Wall Street-Italian opera novel Fire from the Sun, in which the pangolin has a walk-on (waddle-on?) part, Chapter Two. Come on — What else d'you have to do under lockdown?
The third and subsequent chapters give a child's-eye view of Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution, which had many features in common with our current one, although with somewhat more state-approved violence.
The Chinese for "pangolin," should you ever need to know it, is 穿山甲, chuānshānjiă, "penetrate-mountain-shell," I have no idea why.
Math Corner. I have a friend who sends in brainteasers for my consideration, difficult ones. I chew over them, not always getting very far.
As in this case. This is not in fact the puzzle my friend sent, only some preliminary algebra for the setting-up of the puzzle. I keep bumping up against the same contradiction, though, and I'm hoping readers can help me resolve it.
(In my current mentally-depleted state, it may not really be a contradiction. Perhaps I've just muddled up the algebra. I'd still like to know.)
So: there are two teams, Team A and Team B, about to embark on a best-of-seven series of games. I happen to know that the probability of Team A winning any one game is p. That is of course some number between zero and one. If p is zero, there is no chance of their ever winning any game; if p is one, they are absolutely sure to win any game.
Since somebody must win every game — there are no tied games — the probability of Team B winning any one game is 1 − p.
The number of different ways to select four items out of seven is 7! divided by 4! × 3!, which works out to 35. Denoting a win for Team A by W and a loss by L, you can list all the 35 possible ways for Team A to win best-of-seven: LWWWLLW, WWWLW, and so on. Note that in the second case there is no point playing games six and seven; this is best-of-seven and Team A has nailed it by winning game five.
Now you can list off the probabilities for each of those 35 combinations. For LWWWLLW the probability is p4(1 − p)3; for WWWLW it's p4(1 − p), and so on.
For the probability of some one of those 35 independent things happening — that is, of Team A winning the best-of-seven one way or another — you just add up the individual probabilities. Doing this, I get:
p4[1 + 6(1 − p) + 10(1 − p)2 + 18(1 − p)3]
All very straightforward. However, if I run a check by putting p = ½, that thing works out to 35/64.
But if p = ½, then Team A has precisely a fifty-fifty chance of winning any one game, and likewise Team B. So shouldn't the probability of Team A winning the best-of-seven be ½? And the probability for Team B likewise?
Is there something I'm not seeing, or have I buggered up the algebra?