More fun with lexicography. My August 2019 Diary contained a segment titled "Fun with lexicography" in which I mentioned — in fact, I think, re-mentioned — my favorite page in the 1979 Xinhua Zidian Chinese-Chinese pocket dictionary. (For completeness I should also have mentioned every Second Amendment enthusiast's favorite page and every night-club cocktail hostess's favorite page.)
Then in my third podcast this month, I recounted my swastika story. Back in 2005 I had posted photographs of my study on the web. Visible on my bookshelves was the spine of Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1960 edition, which prominently featured a large swastika. Outrage ensued. "Derbyshire's a Nazi!" … etc, etc.
Recalling that brought to mind another page in a different dictionary, this one R.H. Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, mine the 1943 edition. I had better not say this is my favorite page in Mathews; to do so might trigger another spasm of nationwide anti-Derb hysteria. It does, though, win a slight smile from me on the rare occasions I land on it. The pronunciation, in case it's not clear from the page, is wàn.
(Other amateur dabblers in Sino-lexicography will want to know what the radical is. It's the "ten" radical, number 24 on the old system.)
(And yes, the swastika there is the ancient "counter-clockwise" one, so strictly not indictable for unsavory associations with 20th-century political parties.)
We Need to Talk About Kevin. I think I am fated eventually to read everything Lionel Shriver has written.
In my November 2019 Diary I mini-reviewed her 2017 novel The Mandibles. Now, after all the recent speculation about how we shall cope with the National Debt if the world switches to some other reserve currency, I want to read it again.
This month's Shriver was We Need to Talk About Kevin. Published in 2003, this novel won prizes and had a 2011 movie made out of it. I in fact came at it from the movie end, first renting the DVD from Netflix for our March 12th Saturday evening screening, then borrowing the book to see if it came up to the movie's high standard. It did. In fact the movie follows the book closely, both in mood and narrative — no mean achievement with an epistolary novel. Good job there, Lynne Ramsay.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is on the old theme of a Demon Child. Ray Bradbury took Demon Childhood to the extreme in his 1946 short story The Small Assassin, in which the psycho kid is a newborn baby. Shriver's Kevin is mean and nasty as a small child, but only takes to mass murder aged not-quite-sixteen.
We see it all through the eyes of his mother, who does her best to love and understand him, with zero co-operation from Kevin — ever, from her first attempts to breast-feed him. Not only would he not take her milk from her breast, he wouldn't take her milk from a bottle — only commercial formula milk.
Here she is apostrophizing Franklin, her dead husband, after visiting Kevin in jail, two years after the massacre:
Franklin, I have never met anyone — and you do meet your own children — who found his existence more of a burden or indignity. If you have any notion that I've brutalized our boy into low self-esteem, think again. I saw that same sullen expression in his eyes when he was one year old. If anything, he thinks very well of himself, especially since becoming such a celebrity. There is an enormous difference between disliking yourself and simply not wanting to be here.
There is no nonsense about nurture here; this Demon Child is all nature.
We Need to Talk About Kojo. I can't say I've ever met a Demon Child, but I missed one by just a few months.
This was in 1967-68, when I was teaching special-needs boys in a Liverpool slum school. I wrote up that job in one of my National Review "Straggler" columns back in 2008. From that column:
Forty years ago, not long out of college, with a bachelor's degree and a teacher's qualification to my name, I spent a year teaching special-needs children.
"Children" is not quite right. For one thing, this was a secondary school, ages twelve to sixteen. For another, they were all boys, this being England, and English secondary schools of all kinds being single-sex as often as not at that time. And for a third, this was a slum district in Liverpool, a rough port city where slum children grew up fast.
In England there was a system (now defunct) of special schools for students deemed to be in need of unusual attention. There were at least half a dozen official categories: schools for the severely retarded, emotionally disturbed, deaf, "delicate," and so on. Our boys were Educationally Sub-Normal. Without their having any known physical, mental, or emotional abnormality, they had finished their primary schooling still unable to read or do basic arithmetic.
In that column I made no mention of Kojo. I never actually met him, although he has stuck in my mind all these years.
Kojo was a pupil at the school, but not in my time. He had left the previous year, when he would have been thirteen or fourteen. He was black; it's a West African name. There was nothing remarkable about that. Like any other big old port city, Liverpool was multicultural before multicultural was cool.
Kojo had, as I said, left the previous year, but his legend lingered on. He was evil. The other masters, who had dealt with him, all said so.
It wasn't a thing they said lightly. They were seasoned veterans of this line of work, not easily shocked. They were, further, thoughtful and professional men — just the kind you would want to have teaching kids who needed a lot of help and understanding. At least two of them were devout Christians, who went at their work in that spirit.
That's what struck me about their Kojo talk. My colleagues had their differences about religion, politics, and professional issues like classroom discipline and dealing with parents: but about Kojo, they were unanimous. These sober, sensible, professional educators, who had seen every kind of male slum teen depravity, all agreed that Kojo was evil.
He was evil in a sly, quiet, manipulative way, they told me. He would commit quite shocking acts of vandalism or violence, but make other boys take the blame for it; which they would, for they were all terrified of him. "You could never get him to admit to anything. And none of the other boys would ever grass on him."
It had been an uncharacteristically open act of violence that had gotten Kojo taken away from the school, my colleagues told me. One evening he and a small gang of friends had tried to get into a movie for which they were under age. When the manager came to remonstrate with them, Kojo stabbed him. He was arrested and sent off to Juvenile Hall.
So yes, Demon Children are out there.
I often wonder what became of Kojo. Most likely he ended up in jail, or dead in some gang squabble. Or perhaps he emigrated to the U.S.A. and ended up with a seat in Congress …
When the penny drops. Sitting around with some other geezers recently, we got to playing "I'm old enough to remember when …" My contribution to this thread of the conversation was: "I'm old enough to remember when, if you wanted to use one of the cubicles in a public restroom in Britain, you had to pay a penny. The cubicle doors were kept locked, with a handle operated by a slot machine."
I no longer travel much nowadays, and hardly ever use a public restroom. The only ones I'm acquainted with are the one — there is just one, with just one cubicle — at my town's railroad station and the corresponding facility, with of course far more cubicles, at the other end, New York City's Penn Station. Neither location levies any charge for a cubicle.
So I was astonished to hear from one of my fellow geezers that the coin-operated public restroom cubicle is still a thing — at some airports, for example, he said.
Is this true? Am I really so far out of touch?
Footnote 1: That arrangement was obviously unfair to women. They sometimes grumbled about it; and the idiom "spend a penny," meaning to take a leak, was current, mostly among women.
Footnote 2: These were the big, heavy old British copper pennies I'm talking about, not to be compared with the flimsy Toytown zinc pennies of the 2022 U.S.A. Our pennies were were well-nigh indestructible. The obverse showed the head of whichever monarch was on the throne when the coin was minted. It was not uncommon in mid-20th-century Britain to find a Queen Victoria penny in your change. I once, circa 1960, got a George IV penny, though I'll allow it was pretty badly worn. The labor of a working-class Brit like my Dad earned about a penny a minute. At today's minimum wage of $15 an hour, one current U.S. penny is the reward for just 2.4 seconds of labor.
Footnote 3: Having paid your penny and taken your seat, you could peruse the literary endeavors of previous occupants scrawled on the cubicle wall. A common one was:
Here I sit
Paid a penny
And only farted.
Healthcare inefficiency. Off to Stony Brook for an outpatient procedure. It was nothing dramatic, just some final touching-up on my October nose work; but they did need to put me under general anesthetic for an hour.
I checked in at the front desk. A nurse wearing an outfit not far removed from ordinary street clothes took me to an examination room. She had a checklist of questions: My date of birth? … Did I have any allergies? … Tested for COVID? … Did I eat anything this morning? …
After I'd given satisfactory answers to these and some other questions, she checked my vital signs. Then she gave me a robe and cap and left me to undress and change into them.
Returned, she led me off to a different room in another part of the complex and left me there. A different nurse came in, wearing a different, very OR-looking outfit. We exchanged some conversational basics, then both sat down. Referring to a clipboard, she began asking me questions: Date of birth? … Allergies? … COVID? …
The questioning done, she said I should wait for the anesthetists, and left. I waited. The anesthetists came in, two of them. They went through all the same darn questions, but added some new ones. Had I experienced general anesthetic? Yes I had. Any issues? No. After-effects? No. …
Eventually the surgeon showed up. He took me to another room and got me suitably positioned on an operating table. The IV went in; there was some fussing with knobs and dials; the surgeon said some reassuring words … and I was lying on my back in a recovery room, feeling vaguely dizzy.
God bless all those people for their kind professional attention to me, but why were there so many of them? It seems inefficient. Two nurses? Two anesthetists?
My first experience of general anesthetic was during my childhood in 1950s England: T&As, mastoidectomy, appendectomy. There was a nurse and a doctor. The nurse put a rubber mask over your mouth, said, "Deep breath!" and … zzzzzz. I can still summon up the rubbery smell of those masks.
It was all so much simpler. I once had general anesthetic from my dentist, right there in the dentist's chair. I'm pretty sure there was no anesthetist present. The dentist's assistant gave me the mask. "Deep breath!" … (On that occasion I disgraced myself while anesthetized. No-one had told me to empty my bladder beforehand. My relationship with that dentist was never the same.)
And why the same questions over and over? Couldn't they just ask me once and put the answers easy to hand on my database record?
I wasn't surprised to find myself responding positively a few days later to this piece by Sam Freedman at Substack, March 27th. The relevant material is about sixty percent of the way through the piece, starting at "Understanding the NHS." That's Britain's National Health Service, by whom Freedman was being treated; but his comments apply to the U.S. system, too. Sample:
The political/media obsession with cutting administrative costs to ensure money is spent on the "front line" is even more ridiculous that I'd realised. Clinical staff are hamstrung by a lack of administrative capacity that forces them to spend time on tasks well below their pay grade. The NHS spends less than half the OECD average on administration (as a proportion of total spend); a third of that in France and less than a fifth of the US (which is, to be fair, incredibly inefficient). From what I've seen so far, the kind of improvements necessary to manage the huge post-covid waiting lists, can only come from management and clinical staff working together to develop better processes, understand their data, and focus on opportunities for behaviour change. Any politician or newspaper demanding we cut management to fund "the front line" just isn't being serious.
Nonfiction of the month: AI Superpowers. There is a connection there, though I haven't yet figured out precisely what it is, with my nonfiction book of the month: Kai-fu Lee's AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order.
I'm a latecomer here. The book came out in 2018. It's sufficiently well-known by now to have its own Wikipedia page. It's just that the number of times I've heard people reference it crossed some psychological threshold this month, so I bought and read it at last.
Lee has been working in Artificial Intelligence since the early 1980s. He has a dazzling résumé: executive positions at Apple, Microsoft, and Google, president of Google China, venture capitalist, 50 million followers on Chinese social media.
In 2013, however, at age 51, after single-mindedly advancing his career for thirty years, Lee was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. It's now in remission, but the experience radically changed his thinking. From the book:
I've stopped viewing my life as an algorithm that optimizes for influence. Instead, I try to spend my energy doing the one thing I've found that truly brings meaning to a person's life: sharing love with those around us.
In the latter part of the book Lee applies these insights to the social issues that, he has been telling us, will inevitably arise from advancing AI: massive job losses and huge increases in inequality. His solution is a government-sponsored and government-funded shift to more work in people-centered jobs: caring, community service, and education.
Lee sounds to me sincere and well-intentioned, but I think he has descended into woo there. How many people want to do those kinds of work: looking after old or disabled folk, "environmental remediation," or teaching?
Thinking again of my colleagues at that Liverpool school fifty-plus years ago: yes, they were doing difficult, important, people-centered work with real dedication, for not much money. But then, thinking over the numerous other jobs I've had and people I've known, I don't think many human beings are suited to care-community-education lines of work. I'm pretty sure I'm not. Among those who are, women far outnumber men.
It's encouraging and praiseworthy that a man of Kai-fu Lee's intellect and accomplishments is applying himself to finding prescriptions to solve looming social problems. The track record of prescriptions that require a radical change to human nature is, however, not good.
We need to talk about Russia. We are, of course, thinking about Russia more than usual.
I opened my February Diary with a loose rumination on why the place is such a godawful mess. Why is it that, under rulers of different persuasions — monarchist, communist, post-communist — Russia always is, or soon becomes, a foul stew of lies, corruption, and lawlessness? Why is it that, when a nation has been under Russian rule then somehow gained independence, that nation's collective sigh of relief can be heard all the way across the Solar System?
Forty years ago, when the U.S.S.R. was still intact, I read a book that, I thought at the time, came close to answering the question. I decided to check back with it to see how it's stood up, so the other day I bought a copy and re-read it.
The book is The Russian Dilemma by Stanford political scientist Robert Wesson (1920-1991). It was first published in 1974, and that was the version I read a few years later. The copy I just bought is a revised and updated edition Wesson brought out in 1986. The U.S.S.R. was of course alive and well — or at any rate, alive — on both dates.
The Russian Dilemma has stood up surprisingly well. With the rise of Putinism, Wesson's insights are as relevant as they were in Brezhnev's and Gorbachev's days.
The key insight concerns duality: a national soul divided between proud-but-stagnant Asiatic imperial despotism and the freer, more various, more creative nations that historically bordered Russia on the West, and are now all over. Wesson:
But the two bases of Russian greatness were and are profoundly contradictory. The anomalous and uncertain role they imply has caused the Russians endless political and psychological difficulty. It has resulted in a deep ambivalence … that writers have noted in various terms: Asian substance and European veneer, the mystical and the rational, the state (nowadays the party) and the people, the "black" masses and the modernized elite …
Russian foreign policy, political institutions and culture have likewise been permeated with this duality; the basic uncertainty whether Russia should be considered an indefinite empire (in Leninist terms, a world revolutionary movement) with a special destiny or a state among states, following in the stream of Western civilization …
The intellectuals [of 19th-century Russia] fully shared the ambivalence of their state toward the West, hating and fearing its threat to the Russian way while admiring if not loving it. Those who, like Chaadaev and Turgenev, viewed Russian relations with the West realistically were a small minority. Most seemed practically to suffer psychological trauma …
They felt consequent frustration, rage, and resentment against the West, which they felt compelled to imitate and admire … Eagerly deriving their ideas from the West, they saw it as perverted. Basically envious of its achievements, they believed it irrationally hostile to Russia. [Chapter 2.]
There is a deep well here for Russians to draw from. "Frustration, rage, and resentment against the West" is by no means limited to Russia. It's a sufficiently general phenomenon that it has been given at least two names: "Hesperophobia" by the late Robert Conquest and "Occidentalism," the name of a 2004 book by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit.
(I borrowed Conquest's word for an essay I published three days after 9/11. Occidentalism got some Putin-related coverage the other day by Ian Leslie at Substack. Is everyone on Substack now? Should I be on Substack?)
Whatever happened to Khrushchev? Reading The Russian Dilemma got me thinking about Khrushchev.
Which is not normal. In spite of his having been Stalin's successor (counting Malenkov and Bulganin as ciphers) and de facto ruler of the U.S.S.R. for eleven years, Khrushchev is pretty thoroughly forgotten. How often do you see his name in print or pixels nowadays?
That's something of an injustice. Khrushchev (very variously transcribed into the Latin alphabet, the most perfectly literal spelling being "Khrushchyov") was a man of substance, and a reformer.
Up to a point, in both cases. Khrushchev was no intellectual powerhouse. In accordance with the Law of Authoritarian Successor Decline, he was nothing like as smart as Stalin; and his reforms were not fundamental, only curbs on Leninist and Stalinist excesses.
Reading about the man, in fact — there is a very good biography by William Taubman — the overall impression is of a quite ordinary guy. He must have had drive, to raise himself from his desperately poor origins; and he must have had good skills at understanding and manipulating others, to rise so high in the snake-pit of Soviet politics. Those aside, though, he's that guy you met in a motel bar on your last sales trip.
Not that he failed to do what he had to do for self-preservation. During the great purges of the later 1930s, when Khrushchev was first secretary of Moscow Province, Taubman tells us that:
Khrushchev assisted in the arrest and liquidation of his own colleagues and friends. Of 38 top officials of Moscow city and province party organizations, only 3 survived. Of 146 party secretaries of other cities and districts in the Moscow region, 136 were, to use the post-Stalin euphemism, "repressed." Of 63 people elected to the Moscow city party committee in May 1937, 45 presumably perished. Of 64 on the province party committee, 46 disappeared.
Reading passages like that, with Khrushchev already established in one's mind as a normal person with everyday sentiments and emotions, the reader naturally finds himself wondering how he himself would bear up under those extreme kinds of totalitarian pressure.
If the trends we see in today's U.S.A. persist through to maturity, we shall find out.
A poetess takes a silent "p." I have a pronunciation issue. It's been nagging at me — very, very faintly — for years, but I've never seen it raised anywhere.
It concerns the ancient Greek poetess Sappho. There are two "p"s there; but the second one belongs to the digraph "ph," pronounced like "f." So the pronunciation of "Sappho" should be "Sap-fo." Right?
Sure enough, the Greek spelling is Σαπφω, a "Sap" and a "fo." Sap-fo.
Yet everyone says "Saffo." Prof. Schenker, in his Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature lectures for Great Courses, says "Saffo." This is his professional territory, so he should know.
Why doesn't anyone say "Sap-fo"?
[Is this segment just me virtue signaling to the homosexualist lobbies? Certainly not. Sappho was indisputably a Lesbian; whether or not she was a lesbian, we don't really know. Prof. Schenker leaves the matter open. For a more definitive approach, see K.J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality, Section III.E.]
Remembering Game Theory. A few weeks ago I wrote a review of Ananyo Bhattacharya's new biography of polymath John von Neumann (1903-57) for Chronicles magazine. I don't know when the review will appear. The policy at Chronicles is that reviews are published no more than one year after the book's publication date, which in this case was 2/22/22. Reviewers propose, editors dispose.
In the early 1940s von Neumann divided his time between making key contributions to the design of the first nuclear weapons while jointly, with the economist Oskar Morgenstern, writing a book about the mathematics of games. That book became the foundational text of modern Game Theory.
Reading about that stirred distant memories. In my third year as a math undergraduate, 1965-66, we were permitted to choose particular topics we were interested in from a menu of electives. Game Theory was one of them. I thought it sounded nifty, so I enrolled. Von Neumann & Morgenstern was one of the set books.
I can't say I made much of a success of Game Theory. I passed the final exam, but with a low mark. True, I wasn't a very good student anyway; but with Game Theory I was at the additional disadvantage of finding the course material hard to take seriously.
All I can remember of that material today is a case study of a general given the task of attacking an enemy concentration. He could attack it directly across an open plain, where his troops would be able to move fast but the enemy would see them coming from early on; or he could move his men through some mountain country nearby, so that they would be concealed until the last moment but would move much more slowly, and with a nonzero probability of being spotted.
What should this general do? We were given relevant numbers: troop strengths, speed of movement, various probability estimates.
The solution, it turned out, was that the general should play a game that he has a 5/8 chance of winning. He might, for example, toss three fair coins — old-style British pennies for preference. If precisely two tails came up (probability 3/8), he lost; if zero, or one, or three tails came up (probability 5/8), he won.
If he won he should send his army across the plain; if he lost, through the mountains. (Or it may have been the other way round; the memory is dim.)
The logic seemed sound; my problem was imagining an actual general — George S. Patton, say — behaving that way.
I won't say that that was the point at which I realised I would never make my mark as a mathematician. That silly case study did, though, plant the seed of my longstanding suspicion that while Applied Math might be fine for dealing with subatomic, mechanical, or astronomical issues, human nature would present it with a much bigger challenge.
Math Corner. I can no longer engage with math above the brainteaser level, so I owe a general apology to mathematicians who send in long, closely-argued papers for my opinion. Sorry!
That doesn't stop me appreciating and enjoying shorter communications from the brotherhood. Earlier this month I heard from a mathematician who, together with a colleague, had computed the number of primes less than 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (which is to say, a hundred thousand trillion trillion). The number is 1,520,698,109,714,272,166,094,258,063.
Well done, gentlemen! And thank you for passing that on.
Brainteaser: Just a back-of-an-envelope quickie one. I've stolen this from the January 2021 College Mathematics Journal, which is currently the least woke of the MAA publications. They're getting a new editor this coming December, though, so who knows …
This brainteaser is credited to Andrew Simoson of King University in Bristol, Tennessee. I've simplified it a bit.
Let a and b be positive integers with a ≥ b. Prove that just one of the following things must be true.
Either a/(a+b) + (a+b)/a > √5
or a/b + b/a > √5.