On my oath. Please note: None of the following was generated by ChatGPT or any other chatbot.
Painkiller addiction explained. The first thing that happened to me in February was getting discharged from hospital following the end-of-January medical minidrama related in last month's diary.
I went home February 1st after five days confinement. The surgeon who'd removed my gall bladder, bidding me farewell, warned that I might suffer some postoperative pains. I should treat them with over-the-counter painkillers — he actually recommended Motrin.
However, he added, in case the OTC stuff did not deliver sufficient relief, he'd called through a prescription for something stronger.
Sure enough, stopping off at the pharmacy on our way home we found a vial of twenty oxycodone pills waiting for me. On the cap was a bright red sticker saying Caution: OPIOID — Risk of overdose and addiction.
Back home I put the vial in the refrigerator bottom drawer and forgot about it. I had very little pain, not even a Motrin's-worth. Normal life resumed, except that the surgeon had forbidden me to work out for a month, or to lift anything heavier than twenty pounds. After a couple of weeks' inactivity I was getting restless.
Now, it happened that Mrs Derbyshire was late doing the annual prune-a-thon of her fruit trees last year. Normally she does it in October or November, but she put off the 2022 event until January this year, the week before my gall bladder detonated. As always, though, she'd gone at the job in earnest: three days working there with lopper and reciprocating saw. (For reasons of toxic masculinity the chainsaw is forbidden to female family members.)
So here I was in mid-February, hanging around the house listlessly postoperative, unable to avoid the view of a colossal pile of twigs and branches on the back lawn waiting to be fed through the woodchipper.
Reasoning that feeding branches through a woodchipper wouldn't involve any surgeon-defying heavy lifting, after lunch one day I pulled the beast out of the garage, topped up the oil and gas, and commenced chipping. It took me five hours to clear the pile.
It wasn't strenuous work, but it did involve a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, bending and straightening, some upper-body work with the lopper. After five days lounging in hospital on a clear-liquid diet followed by two weeks' inactivity, five hours of woodchipping left me seriously bushed. (No pun intended.) I took dinner and went to bed early.
That's when the muscle cramps hit. It was nothing abdominal, just the muscles of my legs going into spasm from all that bending and straightening. The pain was awful, though. I was howling. Mrs Derbyshire dosed me with Motrin, but it didn't help.
That's when I remembered the oxycodone in the refrigerator. I staggered down to the kitchen and dug out the vial. TAKE 1 TO 2 TABLETS BY MOUTH, said the label. I took two and crawled back to the bedroom …
… where I fell asleep at once. The night was painless and dreamless. Waking next morning, I felt about fifteen years old. No pain at all, postoperative or otherwise. The sun was bright, the air cool but windless. I took the family dog for a longer-than-usual walk, bestowing cheerful greetings on everyone I met. I may have been singing in the unpeopled stretches, I'm not sure.
Home from the walk, I skipped around the garden throwing things for the dog to catch and admiring my previous day's work: an empty lawn and six garden-waste bags full of wood chips.
My lady couldn't help but notice. "What's got into you?" she asked. Oxycodone, Honey, that's what.
Striving to keep up. In my January 13th podcast I snarked at NASA that:
We won't have attained true social justice until a disabled half-Cherokee transgender black lesbian is on the Moon.
A listener heard that and raised:
Mr Derb: Why not try for full Inclusion? Our lead astronaut should be a disabled half-Cherokee transgender black lesbian body-positive Muslim illegal alien, preferably one in a polyamorous relationship.
Of course xe should! Shame on me for being insufficiently Inclusive. It is so hard for us older citizens to keep up.
Rumors of war. The speculations about a coming World War Three seem to be heating up. Is there anything to it?
My guess is as good as yours. In hopes of improving my guess a tad, I read Ken Follett's 2021 novel Never, which is about a fictional near future. Follett sets the keynote in a brief preface.
When I was doing the research for Fall of Giants I was shocked to realize that the First World War was a war that nobody wanted. No European leader on either side intended it to happen. But the emperors and prime ministers, one by one, made decisions — logical, moderate decisions — each of which took us a small step closer to the most terrible conflict the world had ever known. I came to believe that it was all a tragic accident.
And I wondered: could that happen again?
Scanning my fiction shelves, I see that I purchased and — to judge by the condition of the paperback spines — read the first two of the Fall of Giants trilogy, but apparently not the third. I haven't retained much memory of those books, but they must have had sufficient narrative pull to carry me through 1,852 pages. (Page-wise, Follett gives you your money's worth.) Reading fiction, when I no longer care What Happens Next, I bail out.
I see I have Follett's 1989 novel The Pillars of the Earth, too. It's about medieval England and I vaguely remember thinking it rather good. It clocks in at 1,007 pages, and the paperback spine tells me I read it all through.
So I guess I count as a Follett fan, although not a very committed or retentive one. Chatting with a friend mid-month about all the WW3 talk, he recommended Never so I borrowed it from my local library.
And yes, from a strictly narrative point of view, it's nicely done. Those small steps closer that Follett refers to in his preface develop naturally and logically to … well, no spoiler. The story makes sense. I set the book down thinking: Yes, it could happen again. (Although you'll get an argument from some historians that "the First World War was a war that nobody wanted.")
There's some interesting scenery, too. Quite long stretches of the story take place in Chad and Libya. I'm pretty sure that's the first time Chad has shown up in my fiction reading.
The scenes set in China are mostly well drawn; although there are some minor inauthenticities ("bao buns"?) and the tension Follett describes between the dumb-but-dogged Maoist Old Guard — guys like my late father-in-law — and the more polished, more thoughtful younger technocrats is out of date. The Old Guard went to join their ancestors some years ago; nowadays it's technocrats all the way down.
On the other hand I enjoyed the sly little subplot about the intersection of China's popular culture with the backstabbing intrigue of the country's high politics. (Xi Jinping's wife is a popular singer.)
The book's main annoyance for me was the cloud of wokery hanging over it. The characters seem to be distributed by race and sex on some kind of equity principle: so many blacks, so many Indians (dot, not feather), so many females.
The POTUS is a fifty-year-old female. She is a "moderate Republican," we are told. She is being challenged for her party's nomination in the upcoming election by a coarse, boorish fellow plainly intended to remind us of you-know-who. Her national security advisor is a black male with whom … eh, no spoilers!
Follett's social outlook is in fact midwit-lefty. He even, with no irony at all, retails the standard anti-white flapdoodle about The Talk:
Gus was black. He had grandsons; one day they would have to be told that they were in special danger from the police and needed to obey strict rules to stay safe: no running in the street, no shouting, rules that did not apply to white kids. It made no difference that Gus held one of the highest offices in the land, and dedicated his intelligence and wisdom to his country; he was defined by his race just the same. [Chapter 17.]
Those wicked cops! Always itching for the opportunity to shoot some baby-faced black honor student!
Here's my final grading for Never on a scale of 0 to 10. Narrative skill: 8. Geographical interest: 6. Depth of characterization: 4. Grasp of current U.S. social reality: negative 5.
Was MacArthur right? In his 1963 book This Kind of War historian Theodore Fehrenbach describes the beginning of the Korean War's last two years, the period when a sort of stalemate prevailed.
The communists (China and North Korea, supported by the U.S.S.R.) had agreed to a cease-fire line beyond which neither army was supposed to advance; but they were stalling on an actual armistice agreement to stop the fighting. This is the end of 1951.
At the end of thirty days [i.e. from the cease-fire agreement] the enemy was no nearer signing the armistice than he had been in July. He now felt free to delay as long as he pleased, and it was soon apparent he intended to do so, reaping whatever propaganda coups he could.
In Korea the U.N. had granted a sort of cease-fire, but there was no peace.
It was now, not openly, but in mess tents and private gatherings along the brooding lines of entrenchments, that some men began to say, "MacArthur was right."
The reference there is of course to General Douglas MacArthur, who had been relieved of his command a few months previously by President Harry Truman. MacArthur had wanted to fight the war through to a clear victory, invading China if necessary and perhaps — there's some dispute here — using nukes.
China and the U.S.S.R. having signed a mutual-assistance treaty, Truman feared that a war against both, perhaps with the Soviets making a countermove in Europe (where they were well-placed to do so), would start off World War 3. And the horrors of a World War aside, Truman did not believe that Americans, with memories of the World War 2 sacrifices still raw, would support any expansion of the fighting in Korea.
Were those mess-tent grumblers correct? Was MacArthur right? Should the war have been taken to the ChiComs and their Soviet allies?
Discuss among yourselves; I'll give my answer in just a moment. The point I want to make here is that reading about those events of seventy years ago, you can't help noticing parallels. China and Russia in cahoots, daring the U.S.A. to get deeper involved in a small-country war than most Americans want to be just a few years after major military adventures.
That whole zone of Northeast Asia is today pretty much where it was in 1951. (I was going to write "frozen in time," but that doesn't work. The Sino-Soviet Split of 1961-1989 thawed out the situation for a spell before our brilliant global strategists in Washington, D.C. re-froze it.)
And the small country we were fighting over in 1951 — basically North Korea — is as much of a flashpoint today as it was seventy years ago. At least as much. Today the Norks have nuclear weapons of their own.
Ken Follett's Never poses the interesting question: What if North Korea were to fall into civil war, as authoritarian nations with failed economies are liable to do? What if some clique of generals were to challenge the Supreme Leader while the Supreme Leader maintained sole control of the nation's nukes? Will Mutual Assured Destruction work when one of the parties, besieged in his palace by rebels, thinks he has nothing to lose?
So was MacArthur right? I'm sure that if I'd been around at the time … Oh wait, I was. I mean, if I'd been around and of an adult sensibility at the time, I'd have agreed with Truman. World War 3, to unite Korea as a U.S. ally? Uh, no thanks.
And yet if by chance MacArthur could have pulled the thing off — put the fear of God into the ChiComs and eliminated the possibility of a North Korea — the world today would be far more secure than it is with the ChiComs determined at any cost to preserve their horrible, cruel, unstable buffer state.
Suicide: last words. A follow-up to last month's Diary, wherein I wrote:
The first two suicides in Western literature (I think) were King Saul, through shame at having lost the battle of Mount Gilboa and grief at seeing his sons killed (1 Samuel, 31) and Ajax, through shame at having lost a contest of wits with Odysseus (the Little Iliad).
For the record, the Bible says that Saul's concern was not humiliation or depression but the fear that he would be captured and humiliated; humiliation of a king of course translates to national humiliation as well.
(Later on, someone claims to David that Saul was unable to finish the job and that he himself had done so at his request; it's unclear if he's telling the truth or lying while trying — unsuccessfully, as it turns out — to curry favor with David.)
The rabbis, who strongly disapprove of suicide, try to walk the line between justifying Saul's act (and that of the rebels at Masada over a millennium later, and other similar acts) while also making it clear that these are exceptions to the general firm rule against it …
I do have to thank you for adding to my general knowledge; I had never heard of the Little Iliad before.
You are welcome, Sir. To the first part, concerning Saul: Shame, dishonor, and humiliation all occupy approximately the same region of the human psyche with much overlap. We really need an encompassing name for that whole region.
As for the Little Iliad: I confess I'd never heard of it either until last December. I'm not much of a classical scholar.
I've read the Iliad (in Lattimore's translation), of course: You're not an educated person if you haven't. It was a duty read, though, and several decades ago, and my memory of the details is unreliable. Much later, around twenty years ago, I listened to Prof. Vandiver's excellent lectures with interest and enjoyment, sharpening up my knowledge … some.
Elsewhere along life's path I heard the story of Ajax's suicide. At the time I was writing my December Diary I thought I remembered it being in the Iliad, at the very end. Just to make sure I got the book number right, I checked with Lattimore, starting at Book 24 and scanning backwards. No Ajax suicide … wha?
At that point I remembered what I should have remembered ten minutes earlier. In the classical period B.C. there were many Trojan War epics. Only the Iliad and the Odyssey have survived through the centuries in something like their original forms; the others we know mainly at second hand from classical writers who had access to them: Greek dramatists like Sophocles and Euripides, Roman poets like Virgil and Ovid.
The story of the Trojan Horse, for example, isn't from the Iliad, the action of which all precedes the fall of Troy. It gets a couple of brief mentions in the Odyssey, but the story as it's know to us today comes from Virgil's Aeneid, written seven hundred years after Homer, twelve hundred after the Trojan War (give or take a century). Virgil took the story from one of those lost epics, perhaps the one they called the Little Iliad.
Similarly with the story of Ajax's suicide, transmitted to us via Ovid's Metamorphoses. Among its other legacies to us, the story has, via a 17th-century English playwright, given us the saying that "there is no armor against fate." Which is true.
Linguistically challenged (cont.). Here's a curious little map: "The Percentage of the Adult Population in 2022 That Does Not Speak Any Foreign Language." Unfortunately it only covers Europe. I'd like to see a worldwide equivalent.
There are problems of definition, too. I think "foreign language" in that title should properly be "second language." In Ireland, for example (50 percent), well-nigh everyone speaks English, but Irish is a compulsory subject in all schools. Presumably all Irish adults speak Irish at some level. So which is the foreign language, English or Irish? The Irish people I've known would not thank you for saying "Irish."
There are similar issues all over, with the Kurds in Turkey for instance or the Hungarians in Romania. (Turkey is Number One with 78 percent of the population not speaking any foreign language. Romania, its plethora of national minorities — Hungarians, Ruthenians, Saxons, Turks, Szeklers, Gypsies, Slovaks, … — notwithstanding, is Number Three at 64 percent.)
That aside, there aren't many surprises. Britain placing second at 65 percent? George Orwell:
The peculiarities of the English language make it almost impossible for anyone who has left school at fourteen to learn a foreign language after he has grown up. In the French Foreign Legion, for instance, the British and American legionaries seldom rise out of the ranks, because they cannot learn French, whereas a German learns French in a few months. English working people, as a rule, think it effeminate even to pronounce a foreign word correctly. ["The English People," 1944.]
Having long since confessed my failure to master any foreign language, I am proudly in that tradition.
I think there's more to it than Orwell says, though. "The peculiarities of the English language"? I've dabbled enough to know that every language has peculiarities, many of them wa-a-a-ay more peculiar than nuisances like "though / enough / bough / cough."
Probably it has been the historical accident of English becoming, in the modern period, as close to a World Language as there has ever been. That, and the great number of talented writers England has produced …
In October 2010, a desperate and hurting Robert Azopardi made the short trip from Long Island to Manhattan's Upper East Side. At age sixty, Azopardi had an appointment with Richard Furman, an oncologist who ran the chronic lymphocytic leukemia research center at Weill Cornell Medicine. The appointment was Azopardi's last hope. After several rounds of chemotherapy, his doctor had run out of ways to keep his CLL at bay. Azopardi had been told he had three months to live and advised to prepare for hospice care.
That is from Chapter 8 of a book just published last month: For Blood and Money by Nathan Vardi. The synopsis at the Amazon website gives a sufficient description of the book.
I bought the book as soon as I heard about it and read it with keen interest. That interest was personal: I had taken the same short trip Robert Azopardi took, the trip from Long Island to Dr Furman's office, although my trip was two years later than his.
I'd been diagnosed with CLL myself in 2011. Early in 2012 I submitted to five months of chemotherapy, embarking on that same road that ends at hospice care, although way behind Mr Azopardi. The chemo worked, the CLL went into remission; but my oncologist assured me it would come back, so I went looking for researchers doing clinical trials on new drugs. That led me to Dr Furman.
By the time I saw him the clinical trials of a new drug had been under way for two years and they didn't need any new guinea pigs. The results had been sensational. Robert Azopardi was out of his wheelchair after one month of trial.
[Biotech researcher] Raquel Izumi heard about one patient who had started receiving hospice care prior to taking the drug. He felt so good he went out and bought himself a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. [Chapter 8.]
The new drug was approved by the FDA for treatment of CLL in February 2014 under the name Imbruvica. When my CLL returned in 2017 we were ready for it. I've been taking one Imbruvica pill every day since — no more chemo!
You hear about miracle drugs but being the beneficiary of one puts the whole pharmaceuticals business in a new light.
Big Pharma doesn't hold any awards for popularity, we all know that. Nathan Vardi is frank about the mutual back-scratching that goes on between the drug companies and their regulators.
Some at [small biotech company] Pharmacyclics sensed the power of Johnson & Johnson when, at the tail end of an earlier meeting, an FDA official had casually asked a J&J person if the company could lobby Congress to increase the FDA's staffing levels. [Chapter 14.]
Nor are the rewards of pharma success fairly distributed. Imbruvica is one of those very high-priced drugs you may have read about in the news outlets. A year's supply will set you back $131,000. (I have full-coverage insurance through my wife's employer.) The numbers thrown about in the pages of For Blood and Money are … impressive.
Felix and Julian Baker, who had bought heavily into [Pharmacyclics] via their Baker Brothers hedge fund, now held stock worth $2.4 billion …
Johnson & Johnson's Janssen unit had purchased half of Imbruvica for $1 billion, and now the Pharmacyclics acquisition had conferred a value of some $21 billion on their stake in the drug …
When the deal [with Big Pharma firm AbbeVie] was complete, [Bob] Duggan had made seventy times his initial investment [of $50 million]. His $3.5 billion payday made his bet on Pharmacyclics one of the greatest Wall Street trades ever — in any industry. [Chapter 16. The chapter title is "Billions."]
Yet those who actually invented the drug and conducted early trials generally made nothing out of it. Imbruvica's molecular structure was originally designed in 2005 on a computer, then generated in a lab, by Zhengying Pan, a brilliant young chemist working for Celera, a genomics firm.
Celera saw no future in the drug, though. They closed down that line of research and laid off Zhengying Pan. He went back to China and became a researcher at Peking University. He didn't make a cent from Imbruvica. You think you missed out on a deal? Hoo-ee!
For all that, I can't join in the chorus of negativity about Big Pharma. God bless those researchers! — and, yes, those investors. Without them I should now be well along the road Robert Azopardi was traveling, with hospice care looming on the near horizon.
Thank you, Zhengying Pan and Raquel Izumi. Thank you, Bob Duggan and the Baker brothers. Thank you, Johnson & Johnson and the FDA. You spared me a lot of misery and gave me years I would not otherwise have had. Thank you, thank you.
Math Corner. I apologize for not having posted a full worked solution to last month's brainteaser in my Solutions pages. February was a demanding month.
In any case, as I said when posing the problem, it's an old chestnut with good coverage on the internet. This covers the problem as stated and leads off in some interesting other directions.
Here's an easier one that I have lifted shamelessly from the Twitter feed of puzzler Catriona Agg.
What is the area of this semicircle?