The blessings of insignificance. In my June 17th Radio Derb I indulged in one of my periodic gushes about Uruguay.
A few days before that I had heard from a friend in England who was himself gushing, but about a different country. He and his girlfriend had taken a vacation in Portugal and were now seriously thinking of moving there permanently, away from the expense, crowding, class and ethnic rancor of the U.K.
(Somewhat later in June I spotted a gushy tweet about Lisbon from a tweeter unknown to me: "such a gorgeous city!" I was in Lisbon myself very briefly in 2007—stopover on a cruise—and yes, for whatever such a short acquaintance is worth, it seemed like a very civilized and hospitable place with many elegant old buildings and cheerful, well-mannered inhabitants.)
Catching up later in the month I read Ed West's fine piece on Denmark. Talk about gushing! Ed makes you want to run out and buy plane tickets for wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen. He notes, however, that:
There is a sting in the tail for the country's many English-speaking admirers. Denmark's happiness, relative equality and sense of cohesion will never be imitated by Britain, let alone the United States. Denmark is like it is because it's full of Danes—and they're quite keen on keeping it that way.
The trade-off between diversity and solidarity is a long-established finding of social science, a fact of human behaviour visible in almost any setting. Yet it's a dilemma that politicians and social commentators across the western world hope can be overcome through good will and education, despite all evidence to the contrary. [On Danish Exceptionalism, by Ed West; Substack, June 8, 2022]
I closed out June reading Rod Dreher's American Conservative June 27th and 29th double-header about Hungary; more precisely about Andrew Marantz's ignorant and dishonest New Yorker story about that country.
I snuck into CPAC Hungary and all I got was this lousy article (and a heightened sense of foreboding about the fate of the American republic)https://t.co/hoovBMMqoq— Andrew Marantz (@andrewmarantz) June 27, 2022
Hmmm… Uruguay, Portugal, Denmark, Hungary. What do they have in common? Well, they're all small without being pointlessly small like Tonga or Brunei: in thousands of square miles 68, 37, 17, 36. (Florida to West Virginia, very roughly.) They are modestly well populated: in millions 3.4, 10.2, 5.9, 9.7. Population density is middling: in persons per square mile 51, 298, 346, 270. (Colorado to Florida.) Prosperity is likewise middling: per capita GDP in thousands of dollars 22, 32, 56, 31 (U.K. 42).
And they are all inconsequential, hardly ever in the news. These are countries blessed with unimportance, with insignificance.
Most to the point, as Ed West noted in respect of Denmark, they are all ethnically homogenous.
There are of course downsides to a nation being small and unimportant. Big aggressive neighbors can give them a lot of trouble; in the extreme, they can threaten their independence, although hardly ever their long-term national survival. Denmark was under German occupation 1940-1945; Hungary endured Russian domination 1945-89 (and Austrian earlier, and Turkish yet earlier…a Hungarian will tell you all about it). If some Brazilian despot decides he'd like to have Uruguay as part of his realm, there's nothing the Uruguayans could do to stop him.
Such are the fortunes of history. All in all, though, there is a lot to envy about life in small nations of middling prosperity where nothing much ever happens.
Some friends were visiting the Dominican Republic this month. Driving by the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, the capital city, they were shocked to see a twenty-foot rainbow banner on one of the street-facing walls of the huge, sprawling, modern embassy compound. They took a picture for me with the comment: "Old Glory can barely be seen, but this giant rainbow banner is impossible to miss."
They further commented:
The Chinese are everywhere here, with lots of stores, Chinese-made heavy equipment and vehicles, investment. Serious commercial investment and no dopey, decadent banners or pronouncements.
What a stupid country we've become.
We have indeed.
End of the nature-nurture Interglacial. Francis Galton (not yet Sir Francis) got the nature-versus-nurture argument going in earnest in the 1870s, but people had been pondering the issue for ever. Shakespeare took a passing swing at it in The Tempest (lines 1927-8 here).
In my 2009 spacetime-sundering best-seller We Are Doomed I quoted William Hazlitt, writing half a century before Galton. Hazlitt was a naturist (although not, so far as I know, in the common British sense of the word):
No one ever changes his character from the time he is two years old; nay, I might say, from the time he is two hours old … the character, the internal, original bias, remains always the same, true to itself to the very last … [On Personal Character, March 1821]
Nowadays nature-nurture has been swallowed up in the larger, more properly scientific field called Behavioral Genetics; but Behavioral Genetics is in trouble.
So, at any rate, says sociologist Noah Carl, who was fired from a prestigious academic position at Cambridge University three years ago for wrong thinking.
At his account on Substack June 22nd Carl argued that for the past twenty-something years the human sciences have been in an interglacial period: the academic atmosphere warm enough that researchers could do useful and interesting work, so long as they steered clear of politically taboo topics. The publication of Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate in 2002 can be taken as an early milestone. Now that interglacial is drawing to a close.
What has brought the ice sheets grinding and crunching their way back, says Noah Carl, has been fear of punishment for contradicting the State Ideology of the Western world; specifically the cherished axiom that there are no innate, intractable differences between the human races in behavior, intelligence, and personality—that, in fact, there is no such thing as race at all.
Throughout this interglacial period human-sciences researchers have assumed that so long as they clearly and sternly deny any belief in—indeed, any interest in—group differences, they would be left alone to pursue research into individual differences.
That, says Noah Carl, is increasingly not the case.
Drawing a distinction between "good" research on individual differences and "bad" research [on] race differences hasn't worked. It's time to abandon the idea that scientific claims can be "racist," or that they're really claims about "inferiority," and just look at the data dispassionately.
[They're coming for Behaviour Genetics, by Noah Carl, Substack, June 22, 2022]
Lots of luck with that, Sir. When state-backed ideology meets dispassionate scientific inquiry, ideology wins every time. It always has.
The genetics of stupidity. This month I finally got around to reading neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell's 2018 book Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are.
It's not bad, but very dense and somewhat repetitive. You need some acquaintance with the underlying science to get much out of it. The author plods a bit; although when he breaks into full stride he can be quite memorable:
From that perspective we can say that the genetic architecture of intelligence is likely dominated by "minus" variants. These are not genes "for intelligence"—quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps what we're really talking about is the genetics of stupidity. [Page 170]
I like that. Intelligence researchers spend too much time on the right-hand side of the bell curve, where they and their colleagues all feel at home. We need some deeper studies of stupidity—perhaps a formal SQ test?
And confirming Noah Carl's description of researchers' behavior during the interglacial, Mitchell spends five and a half pages at the end of the book affirming his ideological orthodoxy, concluding with:
For all these reasons, none of the evidence for genetic effects on psychological traits presented in this book should be taken as supporting the case for a genetic contribution to differences in such traits between populations. [Page 264]
OK, Prof. When the lists of highest ranking individuals at the Putnam Mathematical Competition look much different than this, or a full-blood Australian Aborigine is awarded a Fields Medal, give me a call.
Epistemologist William Briggs, author of the recent book Everything You Believe Is Wrong, noted in a June 7th Substack post that Nature, a very prestigious journal of the rigorous sciences, ran an article grumbling about the lack of equity in math awards.
(In case you don't know, "equity" means that all Designated Victim Groups—women, homosexuals, blacks, etc., everyone other than white male normals—ought to be represented in every prestigious social category in precise proportion to their numbers in the general population. If thirteen percent of the population identifies as black, then thirteen percent of concert violinists ought to be black; if fifty percent of the population are women, then fifty percent of prison inmates should be women… No, wait a minute… Um… There are complications here I have no space to go into. Sorry!)
Well, Nature, this super-duper prestigious science journal, ran an article titled Mathematics prizes have a gender problem—can it be fixed? Subtitle: "Female representation among mathematicians is improving. But the field's most prestigious awards are still going almost exclusively to men."
William Briggs observes, quoting Nature, that:
The Fields medal is "awarded every four years, has honoured only one woman [and no blacks at all—JD] since it was inaugurated in 1936." The medal is conferred by the International Mathematical Union which, says Nature, "is pushing for better representation of women." They are also taking "into account various geographic and gender-balance issues."
I believe this year another Fields is due to be awarded. The odds of it being a woman have just gone up considerably. I don't know if there's a betting market on winners, but if you can find one, consider today's article a hot tip.
If trends continue, it won't be too many years before awards in science are like those in the arts and architecture; that is, excellent indicators of lack of quality.
Yes: "excellence," even in disciplines as arcane as higher mathematics, is just one more rationalization for white male privilege. Equity! Social justice! Mediocrity!… No, wait, sorry, that just slipped in there…
When AI meets genomics. Discussing Kevin Mitchell's book with a friend who is an actual working genomicist and exceptionally well informed in the human sciences at large, he passed the following observation: "Twenty, twenty-five years from now, when AI (that is, Artificial Intelligence) engages with genomics in a serious way, the world will end."
Me, thinking of my kids and my little grandson: "What, you mean everyone will die?"
He: "No, no. But the world we know, that we've known all these centuries—all these millennia, really— everything familiar will be gone forever, swept away. Something radically new will replace it, something you or I can't imagine. Maybe better, maybe worse, nobody knows."
I've been thinking of little Michael ever since. He'll be a young adult when that happens, supposing my friend is right. What will happen to him? How can we prepare him for it—for the unguessable? Of course I have no idea.
"Maybe better, maybe worse." Please, God, let it be better.
I noted in my June 24th podcast the fact that more than half of young Africans have expressed their intention to emigrate in the coming years. Even as I was speaking those words a mob of thousands of black Africans was storming the Spanish enclave of Melilla in Morocco. Melilla and one other similar enclave have Europe's only land borders with Africa.
This was a real assault, although unarmed. Twenty-three of the Africans were killed by being trampled to death in the mob or falling from the high border fence. At least a hundred made it into Melilla and have been "processed," which probably means they are now European residents.
The Euros are starting, slowly and reluctantly, to wake up to the coming tsunami. In recent weeks, reading relevant news stories, I have several times noticed references to something called MED5. This is a group of five South European nations most directly in the line of invasion: Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Malta.
I'd like to tell you that the MED5 countries are working on plans to repel the invaders. As best I can judge from the communiqués, however, what they are mainly interested in is making it easier, by negotiations with other European countries, to shunt the invaders quickly through to the richer, stupider nations further north with their extravagant welfare systems: Germany, Britain, Sweden, Ireland. This is also, of course, what the invaders want. "Malta, feugh! Get me to Manchester!"
The other Euros are responding positively, with wordy proclamations affirming their "solidarity" with the MED5, together with blather about "the evolution of primary flows" and "target number of relocations."
If the nightmare of widespread African famine comes true and those "primary flows" evolve into tens, quite possibly hundreds of millions of desperate souls, all this bureaucratic babble will collapse in a cloud of dust, like Tutankhamen's shroud. But you read The Camp of the Saints, right? Right.
Mrs. Derb has a nephew in China who owns both a cat and a dog. He's been sending her winsome pictures on their social media of dog and cat playing together. Thus inspired, my lady has been prowling local pet stores. Mimi duly appeared.
She's a very pretty cat and seems to like us well enough, making due allowance for feline hauteur. Relations with Basil, the Hound of the Derbyshires, were somewhat fraught at first but have since settled into wary mutual acceptance, although so far Mimi has not deigned to play with Basil.
There was some debate about naming her. I first proposed the minimalist route as impressed on my generation by Holly Golightly's cat in the 1961 Audrey Hepburn movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, who was named Cat. Mrs. D, however, has no truck with minimalism. She wanted a real name.
I suggested that since we are an Anglo-Chinese household, and our dog already has a very English name, we might go for something Chinese. Mrs. D observed that when trying to get a cat's attention Chinese people squeak: "Mi-mi-mi-mi…"
I counter-observed that Mimi is a perfectly acceptable given name in the West. "There is, for example, …" But having said those words I discovered that I don't know of any famous person named Mimi. (The internet lists 25, but I never heard of any of them. So how did I know it's a name people have? I guess I must have encountered a Mimi at some point in my peregrinations. Hi there, Mimi!)
The Chinese word for "cat," by the way, is 猫, pronounced māo. Is that an onomatopoeia, like Cantonese ngáap for "duck"? I don't know, but the Thai word for "cat" surely is: แมว, pronounced mee-oo. Google Translate gives a very nice rendering.
Against the fall of night. Apologies to anyone who's been depending on my RSS feed. It stopped working for some reason. When I tried to access it I got a mess of XML code with the message: "This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it."
Perhaps I'll find out what that means and fix the problem; or perhaps not. For one thing, everyone tells me that RSS is dying on the vine and will soon be extinct. True, they've been telling me that for several years, but I am now more receptive to it than formerly.
That's because I have succumbed to the calm acceptance of oblivion that comes with increasing age. What will survive of us when we're gone? For the great majority—among whom I count myself—not much, and it's an empty vanity to think otherwise.
I have two healthy, capable adult children and a beautiful grandchild; I'll settle for those as my bequests to the human race. My internet scratchings satisfy the impulses of an opinionated bookworm and help support my expanding (see above) household, but I have no illusions about their permanence, with or without the help of RSS.
Reading the Z-man's blog the other day, I smiled at this:
Nancy Pelosi has been in Washington for eighty years and there is no single physical thing she can point to, other than her ten-thousand-dollar freezer, as a product of her political career. When she is dead, the next wave will wash away her footprints in the sand and she will be forgotten.
That metaphor of waves washing away markings left in the beach sand must be centuries old. For sure it's decades old: the lyrics of Pat Boone's 1957 hit "Love Letters in the Sand" go back to 1931, according to Wikipedia.
The canonical expression of that metaphor in high art is A.E. Housman's poem of unknown date, "Smooth between sea and land." WARNING: Do not read this poem when half-drunk and alone at night, or after completing some grand project you've been absorbed with for months and are mightily proud of.
Smooth between sea and land
Is laid the yellow sand,
And here through summer days
The seed of Adam plays.
Here the child comes to found
His unremaining mound,
And the grown lad to score
Two names upon the shore.
Here, on the level sand,
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?
Tell me of runes to grave
That hold the bursting wave,
Or bastions to design
For longer date than mine.
Shall it be Troy or Rome
I fence against the foam,
Or my own name, to stay
When I depart for aye?
Nothing: too near at hand,
Planing the figured sand,
Effacing clean and fast
Cities not built to last
And charms devised in vain,
Pours the confounding main.
Math Corner. Last month's brainteaser was kinda tough, I'll allow. (Worked solution here.) To compensate, here's a little light wordplay.
Below are twenty pairs of syllables, each pair separated by a space. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to insert into each space a new syllable that makes a word out of the syllable to its left, and another word out of the syllable to its right.
So for the first pair, find a syllable xxx (not necessarily three letters) so that "Backxxx" is a word and "Xxxrobe" is also a word. It's harder than you'd think…but nowhere near as hard as last month's cake-cutting exercise.
1. Back ________ Robe
2. Bar ________ Der
3. Bor ________ Ive
4. Com ________ Ey
5. Cur ________ Ted
6. Door ________ Stone
7. Ex ________ Tive
8. Fire ________ Ways
9. Foot ________ Son
10. Fret ________ Mill
11. Ham ________ Tuce
12. Hand ________ Body
13. House ________ Man
14. Mis ________ Tain
15. Pre ________ Ence
16. Prow ________ Ence
17. Pur ________ Able
18. Sun ________ Tee
19. Tas ________ Rant
20. War ________ Well