DERB'S JULY DIARY: Law-enforcement Algorithms, The Knot Of Ethnomasochism, And Yet It Moves, Etc. [10 ITEMS!]
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Notes from underground.     Well, from the lockdown. I hope readers are bearing up OK under confinement.

The Derbs are keeping busy. Paid employment aside, she has her beloved flowers and innumerable contacts on WeChat, the ChiCom messaging app. I have home-improvement chores: this month, stripping out and rebuilding a bathroom closet for maximum accessible shelving—nearly 28 square feet of shelf in a closet 3′×2′4″×8′. This was the last interior space still untouched since we bought the house in 1992. It takes me a while to get round to things …

Husband and wife also collaborated on translating a Chinese poem: See Segment Four below.

And then of course there's been reading.


Supernaturally smart.     Through the middle days of July I read Cheryl Misak's biography of the English mathematician, logician, philosopher, and economist Frank Ramsey. It's an astonishing story. Ramsey must have been one of the smartest people that ever lived. He was staggeringly, breathtakingly, supernaturally smart.

Here he was translating Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which Misak, who is a Professor of Philosophy, describes correctly—I've tried it—as "immensely difficult."

Ramsey went to Miss Pate's secretarial agency in the winter of 1921-22 and translated the manuscript. He read it off an Annalen offprint to a shorthand writer who then typed it up … It is hard to adequately convey how astounding an accomplishment it was to more or less straight away translate this immensely difficult text from the German to English. Ramsey turned nineteen in the middle of the translation, in January 1922.

Those last italics are mine. Wittgenstein, who could read English, went over the translation carefully and was pleased with it. He and Ramsey became friends, to the degree it was possible for anyone to be friends with the pathologically prickly Wittgenstein.

For a few months in 1927-28, encouraged by John Maynard Keynes, another friend, Ramsey concentrated his thoughts on economics, producing two scholarly papers on that subject. Misak tells us that:

When the Economic Journal celebrated its 125th anniversary with a special edition in 2015, both of Ramsey's papers were included. That is, looking back over a century and a quarter, one of the world's best journals of economics decided that two of its thirteen most important papers were written by Frank Ramsey when he was twenty-five years old.

My italics again.

Having then had his fill of economics, Ramsey turned back to math and founded Ramsey Theory, which concerns the occurrence of order in situations of generalized dis-order. This is still an active field of inquiry, with obvious connections to Artificial Intelligence research.

So why isn't this tremendous genius world-famous? Because, as you know if you clicked those links, he died at age 26—January 19th, 1930—from an infection of the liver.

Should you ever be tempted to think of yourself as smart, Cheryl Misak's book is a wonderful corrective, a real humility check. Recall what you were capable of intellectually at ages 19 or 25. By comparison with the Frank Ramseys of the world, the rest of us are stumbling, mumbling dullards.

Ramsey was no spergery introvert, either. Big-built and active—swimming, hiking, tennis—he was also genial and gregarious, the far opposite of Wittgenstein. (Whose nephew Tommy described Ramsey as "the most natural, good-natured, kind-hearted person you could imagine.") He had a successful—although, by mutual agreement, "open"—marriage and was a loving father to two children, with sex affairs along the way.

Then he died, a month short of his twenty-seventh birthday.


My Ramsey connection.     I can claim some faint personal connection with Frank Ramsey.

At my English secondary school we specialized early, dropping most general subjects at age 15. For my senior three years, ages 15 to 18, the only academic subjects I took were Pure Maths, Applied Maths, and Physics*.

Our main textbook for Applied Maths was Dynamics by Arthur S. Ramsey, a math professor at Cambridge University in the early 20th century. Our class teacher, "Pug" Richmond**, referred to this book reverently as just "Ramsey," as in: "All right, gentlemen, open your Ramsey to page 97 …"

This Ramsey, I learned from Cheryl Misak's book, was Frank Ramsey's father. He wrote several other textbooks, including Statics, a companion of course to Dynamics. I think we engaged briefly with Statics***.

For a room full of dirty-minded adolescent boys, the favorite section in Ramsey was the one headed "Impulsive Motions of a Rigid Body." Prof. Misak tells us that Arthur Ramsey was a stiffly puritanical Congregationalist church deacon, so I imagine he would have been horrified to hear us sniggering**** over his text. Frank Ramsey himself was an atheist, although a cheerful one. His younger brother Michael became Archbishop of Canterbury.

*  The joke about this early narrow specialization, by contrast with the wider American system, was that we Brits, as we advanced through secondary and tertiary education, learned more and more about less and less, until eventually we knew practically everything about pretty much nothing. The Yanks, on the other hand, learned less and less about more and more, until at last they knew well-nigh nothing about approximately everything.

**  Pug, at center here, number 60 in my 1961 school photograph, signed his observations in my school reports as "CAR." He was a formidable character who had no trouble at all keeping his classes orderly. Before WW2 he had been a street cop in the slums of Glasgow. He would occasionally enliven his lessons with grisly cop stories.

***  Dynamics is the math of things moving under Newton's Laws. Statics concerns the math of stresses and strains where nothing is actually moving: dull stuff by comparison with the glamor and thrill of dynamics, but of compelling interest to architects, bridge builders, and such.

****  The verb "to snigger," which the OED tracks back to 1706, is nowadays very seriously out of favor with the editors at respectable books, newspapers, magazines, and webzines. I have been told that they increasingly, without consulting the author, replace "snigger" with "snicker." I beg editors to stand firm against this deplorable trend.


Conjugal collaboration.     I shall have a note on Ramsey Theory in my Math Corner at the end of this Diary. Meanwhile, I hope I may be forgiven just one more connection to the Ramsey biography.

This is another tenuous one. Mrs. Derbyshire and I have collaborated on the translation into English of a Chinese poem. To see my translation, hear my lady's reading, and understand the Ramsey connection, see here.

Yeah, yeah; but how are you filling your time under lockdown?


Mr Sai and Mr De.     Just 99 years ago as I write, in late July 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was founded. I imagine today's Party bosses already have plans for a big celebration one year from now.

One of the prime movers in the CCP's founding was Chen Duxiu. Although unable to attend that founding congress, he was none the less elected first General Secretary of the CCP in absentia. Chen was later booted out of the Party for Trotskyism; but he avoided the executioners somehow and died in obscurity in WW2 Chungking.

I was reminded of Chen when browsing some reference books for background on our poet in my previous segment. What reminded me was a passing mention of "Mr Sai and Mr De," which I have always thought one of the oddest, yet cutest expressions in modern Chinese.

Mr Sai and Mr De are not people but personifications. They were introduced into the Chinese language in a 1919 essay by Chen. Putting his hopes for the modernization of China in science and democracy, Chen anthropomorphized these two concepts by writing their first English syllables with Chinese characters having the same sound: 賽 (sài, "competition") and 德 (, "morality"). So: Mr Sai and Mr De, Sài Xiānsheng and Dé Xiānsheng.

Now here we are a hundred years later. Mr Sai seems to be doing pretty well in China, but Mr De never showed up. Sad!


Virus news    After a mild sore-throat'n'coughing episode, I yielded to Mrs Derbyshire's nagging and got tested for COVID-19.

This was just a test for the active virus. Testing for antibodies is harder to arrange, with a lot of paperwork and waiting around. The hell with that. Do I have the durn virus, or don't I?

Our local hospital has testing set up as a very brisk and efficient drive-through operation, thirty-five minutes from start to finish, no need to leave your car. May Heaven forgive me for any unkind words I have written about America's healthcare sytem.

As a bonus, I was attended at my driver-side car window by two very pretty and personable young nurses, both of whom chirruped happily over my British accent. (But neither of whom begged me to say: "My name is Bond, James Bond," as American girls used to back in the seventies. Sigh …)

I got my result a few hours later via the hospital website: negative. I guess that means either I got infected and came right through COVID-19 and out the other side without anything much in the way of symptoms, or have never been infected at all. I am sunk so deep in fatalism I don't care much either way, but at least this takes care of the nagging.

Thanks again to the hospital staff—especially Teresa and Colleen—for an exceptionally well-run operation, and for standing out there attending a line of cars in ninety-something heat.


And yet it moves    Steve Sailer has been getting some race-realism mileage out of the words Galileo is supposed to have murmured in 1633 after formally abjuring Copernicus' idea that the Earth moves around the stationary Sun: "and yet it [the earth] moves."

You can, Steve is telling us, blather and bluster all you like about "social constructs," poverty, redlining, and the legacy of Jim Crow. It still remains the case, after decades of effort and trillions in expenditure to close the race gaps, that blacks fill up the jails while East Asians fill up the AP classes, with whites intermediate on both scales—Rushton's Rule of Three. And yet it moves.

Leaving aside the fact that scholars doubt Galileo actually said the famous words, the parallel is not a good one. Heliocentrism went against observation and ordinary intuition. The notion that the Earth, with all its cargo of oceans, atmosphere, mountains, forests, cities, and us, is zipping through space at nineteen miles a second sounds preposterous. Nobody feels the Earth to be moving, other than when there's an earthquake, and … no, can't think of any other situations.

As I pointed out in that review, the balance of real scientific understanding did not swing decisively in favor of heliocentrism until the matter of stellar parallax was resolved in 1838. There are fringe groups clinging to geocentrism even today.

Race realism, by contrast, is hard to deny. The Rule of Three is in plain sight everywhere you look. It jumps out at you from all over. Presidents come and go; Republicans and Democrats rise and fall; mighty social programs are enacted; scads of money are spent; the Constitution is tied in knots; yet still, after it all—decades of it—the gaps remain.

Not just in the U.S.A., either. Haiti is a desperate slum after 200 years of self-government while South Korea, after a brutal colonization, a massively destructive war, then barely 70 years of independence, is stable and smugly prosperous, … and so on.

(Yes, yes, I know: North Korea is a crazy despotism. It's a high-IQ crazy despotism, though, with missiles and nukes. When Haiti has missiles and nukes, let me know.)

Might that all be an illusion, like the stationary Earth? Might it all be the work of invisible forces—systemic racism, white privilege?

I suppose it might, although I have yet to see the race denialists give a convincing account of East Asian success. "It's their culture," is their common response; to which an old friend of mine is wont to reply: "Culture? Culture? What are the upstream variables?"

And most of the world's large phenomena are what they seem to be. Your lying eyes don't actually lie much. The tides do rise and fall with the moon; thunder and lightning do happen together, cause and effect; living creatures do breed true, lions begetting lions, sparrows begetting sparrows. The stationary-Earth illusion is an exception, not the rule.

True, population genetics has not yet had a stellar-parallax moment to consign race denialism once and for all to the kooky fringes of scientific thinking. Still we understand enough that our understanding, together with daily evidence from our senses, make race realism, as a description of the world outside our skulls, a far, far better bet than socially contructed, no-such-thing-as-race, culture-culture-culturism.

So why isn't race realism the default belief for all educated people, as heliocentrism was even before 1838?

I guess the answer has to be: because thinking about our fellow human beings is, in some deep way, unlike thinking about celestial mechanics. The one engages our social emotions; the other does not—at any rate, not since the Inquisition shut up shop.

And yet it does move …


The logical knot of ethnomasochism.     In my July 17th Social Distancing exchange with Jesse Lee Peterson I mentioned the "logical knot" of ethnomasochism, but the conversation moved on before I had a chance to enlarge on the concept. Some viewers want to know what I meant.

Just this: That by grumbling about white ethnomasochism—about the way white Social Justice Warriors bemoan their own "white privilege" and hold nonwhites to be their moral superiors—I am myself practicing a style of ethnomasochism.

I once published a column titled "White People are Pussies."

On a call-in radio program recently, we had been airing my infamous assertion in Taki's Magazine column back in April that white people should avoid large concentrations of blacks as likely to be dangerous.

A caller-in asked me why I would not be similarly fearful of a large concentration of whites. I made the obvious reply — that the element of racial animus, of black hatred of whites, would be missing. Then I added, off the cuff: "Anyway, why would anyone be scared of a crowd of whites? Whites aren't going to do anything to you. Let's face it, white people are pussies."

That brought in a few irate emails from white people: "I was with the Marine Corps at Khe Sanh, three months under heavy fire. Who you calling 'pussy,' Pussy?" Etc., etc.

Well, yes. The question I always end up at in discussing the race issue—"What's the matter with white people?" — is implicitly ethnomasochistic, isn't it?

I can try to weasel out of the charge by arguing that ethnomasochistic whites—the SJWs — are only a subset of whites at large; so I'm not accusing the entire race of moral failure, as Robin DiAngelo and her imitators do.

To judge by that lady's book sales, though, ethnomasochistic whites are a mighty big subset of whites in general. As long as that's so, and I can't resist grumbling about it, I guess I have to confess to some degree of ethnomasochism myself.

So, yes: a logical-philosophical knot. I wonder what Wittgenstein would have said.


Math Corner.

(1) Boycotting law-enforcement algorithms.   Friends have sent me this link to a July 20th story in Popular Mechanics. Opening paragraphs:

Several prominent academic mathematicians want to sever ties with police departments across the U.S., according to a letter submitted to Notices of the American Mathematical Society on June 15. The letter arrived weeks after widespread protests against police brutality, and has inspired over 1,500 other researchers to join the boycott.

These mathematicians are urging fellow researchers to stop all work related to predictive policing software, which broadly includes any data analytics tools that use historical data to help forecast future crime, potential offenders, and victims. The technology is supposed to use probability to help police departments tailor their neighborhood coverage so it puts officers in the right place at the right time.

I am sure this letter will be given pride of place in the next issue of Notices. That journal is now so thoroughly woke, it is unusual to see a white male face in the photo boxes, other than in the Obituaries section.

(Picking up the June/July issue just to check that I am not misleading you there, I was momentarily embarrassed to see that the first two contributor photo boxes are in fact both of white males. Then, reading the accompanying byline text, I saw that they are "Alexander Hoover and Alexander Wiedermann, Board Members of Spectra, the Association for LGBT Mathematicians." Ah.)

There is a lot to be said, on both sides of the argument, about these "social algorithms." For my part, I can't think of anything to add to the remarks I passed in my review of Cathy O'Neil's book Weapons of Math Destruction which you can read—the review, I mean, not the book—here. Sample:

Programs for social justice, including O'Neil's, rather frequently display this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't, aspect. Here was Jesse Jackson complaining in 2012 about under-policing in poor Chicago neighborhoods: "More police have been dispatched to neighborhoods where the murders have spiked, but citizens there still aren't protected as well as our … uptown businesses are."

On the other hand, O'Neil grumbles that policing algorithms like New York's Comp-Stat and Los Angeles's PredPol send too many cops into poor, crime-prone neighborhoods. She writes:
How about crimes far removed from the boxes on the PredPol maps, the ones carried out by the rich? … We have every reason to believe that more such crimes [i.e., like those that led to the 2008 crash] are occurring in finance right now … Just imagine if police enforced their zero-tolerance strategy in finance.
How soon they forget! I refer Ms. O'Neil to Daniel Fischel's 1995 book, Payback: The Conspiracy to Destroy Michael Milken and His Financial Revolution, about the vengefully politicized arrests and prosecutions on Wall Street in the 1980s, when traders were led away from their desks in handcuffs.
Doesn't Add Up, Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2017  

(2) Back to Frank Ramsey.   Just one more time, I swear.

One of the gems of Ramsey Theory, although it emerged after Ramsey's time, is the stupendously colossal Graham's Number, which for a while in the 1980s was given in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest number ever to have been used in a published mathematical proof.

Graham's Number, which dwells far, far, unimaginably far beyond the realm of mere trillions and quadrillions, is the upper bound for the solution of a particular problem in Ramsey Theory. That is, we don't know the exact answer to the problem, but we have proved it can't be bigger than Graham's incredibly humongous Number.

For the longest time mathematicians thought the actual solution to this problem is 6. It's now been proved that it must be at least 11.

Ah, math!

(3) Brainteaser.   Speaking of big numbers …

You probably know the factorial function. For any positive whole number N, the factorial of N — commonly written N!, pronounced "N-shriek" — is 1×2×3×4×5× … ×N.

You may also know that the factorial function gets out of hand rather quickly. So while

3! = 6


6! = 720,

we soon get

10! = 3,628,800,

and then, just a bit further along,

100! = 93,326,215,443,944, 152,681,699,238, 856,266,700,490, 715,968,264,381, 621,468,592,963, 895,217,599,993, 229,915,608,941, 463,976,156,518, 286,253,697,920, 827,223,758,251, 185,210,916,864, 000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000. Which is to say, 93 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion and change.

That last one, although not even remotely as big as Graham's Number, is none the less quite impressive from just a three-digit argument. When non-mathematicians talk loosely about something-or-other increasing exponentially, it would actually be more forceful to say "factorially." The common exponential function of 100 is a trifling 26 million trillion trillion trillion and change.

OK, here's a factorial-related brainteaser from the July 26th "Mind-Benders for the Quarantined" out of the National Museum of Mathematics.

Consider this number, which you might call a super-factorial, or factorial-factorial:

1!×2!×3!×4!×5!× … ×100!

Now that's a big number, although still the merest speck of dust compared with Graham's Number.

Referring to the individual factorials that make it up as "terms," so that 2! is a term, 37! is a term, and so on, can you remove one term in such a way that what is left is a perfect square?




John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

For years he’s been podcasting at Radio Derb, now available at for no charge. His writings are archived at

Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire's writings at can do so here.


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