»  VDARE.com Monthly Diary

   June 2023

Red Flag down.     Across the past four years I have been logging my frustrations with the Pistol Licensing Bureau of my county police department.

This June 7th — yes! a year and a half from filing my application — I finally got a new license.



Puzzle difficulty.     June 8th I finished the 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle I wrote about in last month's diary.

In that May Diary entry I wrote:

This second one is … 3,000 pieces and artfully difficult. "Skill level: Intermediate" says the Amazon page. I dunno; ceteris paribus it should be only one-third as difficult as the 9,000-piecers I've done, but it seems harder than that …

After all these decades in the public prints and pixels I am still surprised at what topics excite readers' interest. I got four emails just on that brief remark. My favorite:

You suggest the difficulty grows linearly with the size but I would suggest that a 3000-piece puzzle is harder than a 1000-piece puzzle by a factor of 3000!/1000! which is about 1.03×10^6473.

I replied that it was beginning to feel that way. My correspondent was only kidding, though. He came back with:

Seriously, it should be n*log(n) like other divide-and-conquer algorithms.

Since we are working in two dimensions here, other things being equal the degree of difficulty D should be a quadratic function of the number-of-pieces multiplier n. It might be a simple square law, a 2,000-piece puzzle four times harder than a 1,000-piecer.

As a jigsaw-puzzler from wa-a-a-ay back in the first Eisenhower administration, though, I can tell you that other things are not equal, the ceteris definitely non paribus. There is some kind of art to designing and making a puzzle, beginning with the choice of subject, that makes this so.

Even if you exclude trick puzzles — picture on both sides, no straight edge, repetitive abstract patterns, and so on — and just restrict the discussion to reproductions of naturalistic pictures, the functional relationship between D and n is not merely nonlinear, it is non-algebraic. So yeah, n*log(n) maybe ….


Worse than Big Pharma.     Mid-month a friend gifted me with a little carved wooden statuette of Shòuxīng (壽星), the Chinese God of Longevity.

The deity has now taken up permanent residence here on my desk by command of Mrs Derbyshire. In common with a great many — perhaps most — Chinese people, my lady has a mild obsession with longevity and the means of attaining it. Apparently having Shòuxīng as a companion all through one's working day is one of those means.

Just two points about this.

One: that Chinese obsession with longevity didn't always work out well. A quote here from Wikipedia:

In Chinese alchemy, elixir poisoning refers to the toxic effects from elixirs of immortality that contained metals and minerals such as mercury and arsenic. The official Twenty-Four Histories record numerous Chinese emperors, nobles, and officials who died from taking elixirs to prolong their lifespans.

And you thought Big Pharma is bad?

Second point, which I think I have mentioned before somewhere in my bloggings, was a thing that struck me when I first went to China — actually, to Taiwan — fifty-two years ago.

That character shòu in the name Shòuxīng means "long life" all by itself. It was one of the first Chinese characters I got acquainted with in Taiwan. I was a cigarette smoker, and the leading brand of cigarettes in 1971 Taiwan had the brand name Chángshòu (長壽). The character cháng means "long," so I guess chángshòu means "long long life."

That has to be the all-time best — or at any rate, most audacious — name for a brand of cigarettes.


Muggeridge, Sailer, and the Guardian.     In my June 16th podcast I had unkind things to say about the far-left British daily broadsheet newspaper The Guardian:

Back to the Guardian piece … although not until I have noted what dreck that newspaper is, and always has been. I can remember fifty years ago in England, me and my peers laughing at it as "the Grauniad" because of all the typos.

(Although later in the podcast I softened the blow somewhat by recalling that the Guardian used to have a really good crossword puzzle. But hey, Satan has the best tunes …)

I didn't think to add, because it didn't occur to me until a couple of days later, that the Guardian's wokery was being mocked long before I got acquainted with the paper — a decade and more before I was born, in fact. The mocker here was British writer Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), who wrote for The Guardian in the early 1930s.

Some of the most biting — and most humorous — passages in Muggeridge's writings are satirical reflections on his life as a journalist, notably when he worked for the Guardian newspaper, then the Manchester Guardian, in the 1930s. On his very first day, he was exposed to the casual predictability and stale indignation that he came to feel was part and parcel of a modern liberal newspaper. He was asked to write an editorial on corporal punishment, and not knowing what attitude he should take, he asked a fellow journalist: "What's our 'line' on corporal punishment?" The journalist replied: "The same as capital, only more so."

On various occasions, Muggeridge lampooned the characteristic newspaper of our society. The writing of editorials, for example: how effortlessly, he recalled, the familiar phrases would drop on to the page — the use of loaded words as a substitute for thought, the glib expressions of hope and confidence ("there are solid grounds for believing that …"), the assertions of moral exhortation and complacency ("it is surely incumbent upon all of us …"). They constituted non-language, he later realised: "… drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed."  ["G.K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge: A balance of opposites" by Karl Schmude; The Chesterton Review, Fall/Winter, 2009.]

I just said that the Muggeridge-Guardian connection didn't occur to me until a couple of days later. The occasion of its occurring was that I was in conversation with Steve Sailer following VDARE.com's Summer Conference in mid-June.

During the conversation Muggeridge's name came up in some different context — I forget what — and Steve mentioned, to my astonishment, that he had met the man. Muggeridge was doing some kind of U.S. tour — promoting a book, perhaps — and one of his ports of call was the college that Steve was attending as an undergraduate.

Steve, a student journalist, got to interview Mugg. I didn't think to ask whether the interview has survived in some written form, but as a long-time Muggeridge fan, I would really like to know …

[Added when archiving:  It has indeed survived. VDARE.com's James Fulford, my editor for this Diary, located it.]


The hard problem.     Longtime readers of my stuff will know that I have a nagging curiosity about the nature of consciousness. I have attended two of the "Toward a Science of Consciousness" conferences at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I blogged the 2008 conference here and wrote it up for National Review here; then I wrote up the 2014 conference for The American Spectator here.

From that last write-up:

What is this inward, private state of awareness that flickers on with the sound of the morning alarm clock and fades away on the late-night pillow? Is it made of the same stuff as stars, rocks, and flesh — of atoms and molecules — or of some different stuff? Do chimps have it? Did our remote ancestors have it? Might a computer have it? Every thoughtful person has mused on these things. Probably most have felt guiltily, as I do, that there is something absurd about such musing, unless one can support one's family by being paid to do it.

This month saw a small milestone in Consciousness Studies. Scientific American covered it here.

In very brief: Those Tucson conferences began in 1994 (so that next year's will mark the 30th anniversary). Present at that first conference were two gents who were already, and have remained, bright stars in the Consciousness Studies constellation: American neuroscientist Christof Koch and Australian philosopher David Chalmers.

Koch and Chalmers memorably clashed at that conference, Koch arguing that consciousness can be explained in terms of physical processes, Chalmers that it can't. (I have greatly over-simplified there, but it can't be helped: Consciousness Studies is very knotty.)

That difference of opinion has continued down to the present day. Along the way I have seen both scholars arguing their cases in public at Tucson. Reflecting on it all I come away with a vague bias towards Chalmers' point of view — a bias which I hope nobody will ever ask me to justify using rigorous logic.

Well, four years after that first conference — so now we're in 1998 — Koch and Chalmers entered into a wager. The wager was, that within 25 years there would be clear scientific evidence for Koch's point of view.

1998 plus 25 gets you to 2023, so this year came time to settle the wager. Is there now clear scientific evidence to support Koch? On June 23rd at a conference in New York City Koch had to concede that there is not. In the words of John Horgan, writing this up for Scientific American:

Consciousness research, far from converging toward a unifying paradigm, has become more fractious and chaotic than ever.

Koch settled the wager by presenting Chalmers with a case of wine. Following which:

Koch then doubled down on his bet. Twenty-five years from now, he predicted, when he will be age 91 and Chalmers will be age 82, consciousness researchers will achieve the "clarity" that now eludes them. Chalmers, shaking Koch's hand, took the bet.

We shall see. Well … some of us will.


Hitting the wall.     Consciousness Studies is of course related to the topic of Artificial Intelligence, on which I had two segments in last month's Diary. The second of the two ended with my getting a notification from my local library that the interloan copy I'd ordered of Thurner et al.'s Introduction to the Theory of Complex Systems had arrived and was ready for pickup.

So how did I do with it? Not well. After thirty pages or so I hit the wall and bailed out. It's dense, difficult stuff with few "handles" to anything familiar that you can grasp and say: "Oh, that's the kind of thing they're talking about."

There's a lot of jargon to master: Kolmogorov complexity … rugged fitness landscapes … Shannon-Khinchin axioms … agglomerative clustering … self-organized criticality … Lotka-Volterra dynamics … stochastic block models … posterior information (stop giggling there in the back row!) … I began to develop a lurking suspicion that the entire field of Complex Systems Theory might be bull poop from border to border.

After mature reflection, I wouldn't be so uncharitable. Of course there are complex systems — the brain, if you're doing Consciousness Studies, and the entire human organism, and our societies, other ecologies, the Earth's climate, … — and we haven't gotten very far with good general theories about them. Thurner and his pals are at least trying.

This is a proper textbook, too. A textbook is proper, in the opinion of this old math major, when it has lots of problems for you to work through. You read a textbook in order to acquire a new skill set; and the only way to do that is practice, practice, practice. The Thurner book has problems for practice at the end of every chapter. Here are some from the end of Chapter 6.

And then there's the geezer factor: old dog, new tricks. At my age I should no more think of taking on a dense new field of intellection (assuming that's what Complex Systems Theory is) than I should go into training to scale El Capitan. Everything to its season; I'm in late Fall.


The perils of decline.     No, I have no plans to take up rock climbing. In my youth, however, I did a great deal of hill walking, up and down what pass for mountains in England, Scotland, and Wales — nothing much above 3,500 ft. I still enjoy tackling a hill now and then, most recently in Texas.

The golden rule of hill walking is: Going up is hard but safe, going down is easy but dangerous.

Hiking uphill you just have to plant your feet firmly and work your leg muscles. It's strenuous but nothing bad is going to happen to you unless your heart gives out.

Going downhill needs much less effort. Gravity's on your side. You can hop, skip, and jump while whistling a merry tune. It is, though, easy to move faster than you ought, to lose your footing and sprain an ankle or take a fall. If someone tells you they injured themselves on a hill walk it's ten to one they were going downhill at the time.

This keeps coming to mind, I don't know why.


Nonfiction of the month.     I finished Philip Snow's new book China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord. I found it a very good read that left me with much food for thought.

For example: The image of wild hordes pouring in from the east seems to be deep-rooted and permanent in the Russian imagination.

[H]e and his … colleagues are said to have been 'driven almost frantic' by the vision of millions of Chinese invaders pouring over their Far Eastern border at this maniac's command.

The "he" at the beginning of that sentence is Leonid Brezhnev; "this maniac" is Mao. We are in the early 1970s, Batu Khan seven centuries in his tomb.

It wasn't just the Chinese who inspired (inspire?) that atavistic terror. Back in 1904-5 it had been inflamed by Japan's crushing defeat of the Tsar's forces and the destruction of his fleet. Japan remained the Yellow Peril for Russians well into Stalin's reign, until General Zhukov smacked down Japan's advance into Mongolia in 1939 — one of the least-known but most consequential battles of the last century.

Communist brotherhood doesn't feature much in Philip Snow's account of midcentury Russia-China relations. Once Stalin had purged Trotskyite internationalism from his Party it was geostrategy all the way down. Stalin actually favored Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists over Mao as a more credible buffer against Japan. He seems not to have lost any sleep over Chiang's occasional massacres of Chinese communists.

Even after Japan's 1945 surrender Stalin had trouble taking Mao seriously. When Chiang, defeated in the Civil War with Mao, left the Chinese mainland for Taiwan, the last person to shake his hand as he departed was Stalin's ambassador, Nikolai Roshchin. When the Chinese People's Republic was established later that year Stalin, to Mao's furious displeasure, appointed that same Roshchin as ambassador to the communist regime.

When Roshchin threw his first dinner for the CCP Politburo Mao is said to have sat in silence throughout the whole meal, displaying a 'mocking-indifferent' attitude.

The book is nicely produced, with a 16-page "well" of pictures in the middle. My favorite there is a photograph of various communist leaders celebrating Stalin's seventieth birthday in December 1949, Mao seated at Stalin's right, scowling. Says the caption:

Mao was in a deep sulk, which neither Stalin nor Rakosi, the Hungarian Party boss on Mao's right, were able to penetrate.

The text is well-paced and thoroughly-sourced, with only an occasional typo. The original Chinese name of Vladivostok transliterates as Haishenwai (海參崴), not Haishenwei. (The fiercer sort of Chinese patriot still uses the original name, through gritted teeth. Unequal treaties!) I didn't see anything much worse than that, though. China and Russia is an excellent read.


Math Corner.     I have been remiss in posting worked solutions to the March and May Diary brainteasers. (There was no April brainteaser. I was too vexed at not having solved the March one.)

Those two months' solutions have now been posted: see the solutions page.

For this month, another quickie. Shortly after writing up a solution to the May brainteaser, with the switching of lights on and off still in my thoughts, I spotted this on Twitter and it made me smile. It's cute!

Brainteaser:  Change one pixel to make this statement true. Just one single pixel, either black to white or white to black.