DERB'S SEPTEMBER DIARY: Moral Conundrum At The Tire Shop; Sacking Cities; Evergreen Nazis; etc. [12 ITEMS]
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The tire place. The Derbmobile had a slow leak on its right front tire, so Saturday morning I took it to the tire place.

My little town has a tire place everyone goes to. Perhaps yours does too. Our tire place is squinched in a short street between two bigger streets about to converge—like the bar of an upper-case "A"—in the low-commercial part of town (body shops, dry cleaners, chain drug stores, bodegas). The frontage is only about a hundred feet wide, twenty deep. There are four bays and a service-desk area.

Saturday morning they are super busy. There's a small army of guys directing you to a parking place on the street or the forecourt, or into a bay. Under their directions, I parked at one side of the forecourt. A guy came out from the building and asked me, in a heavy Spanish accent, what was up. I told him. He jacked up the car, span the wheel, and quickly located a tiny nail imbedded in it. I was not to worry, he assured me, he could feex it, no prob-lem!

He took off the wheel and disappeared with it into a bay. I waited by the car, admiring the wonderful skill with which the choreographers, by gestures and shouting, managed the inward and outward flow of cars and customers. Skill and precision—the tire place guys deserve a mention in Simon Winchester's book (below). Tolerance: 1 inch.

It seemed to me there must be endless possibilities for fender-benders with so many vehicles in such a small space. Does it ever happen? I asked one of the guys. "Not to my knowledge," he replied in regular Long Islandish, never taking his eyes off the corps de ballet.

My man came back with the wheel, wet from the puncture bath. He put it back on, dzz dzz dzz, let down the car, and walked me to the service desk. Twelve dollars.

I almost like coming here: everyone working hard but good-natured, everything done so efficiently in such a confined space, fair prices, no fuss. No chicanery, either: They've never tried to sell me a new tire when the existing one is feex-able. The tire place is a model of useful everyday commerce.

There's a serpent lurking in my paradise, though. A couple of streets over there's a stretch of road where illegal aliens hang out early in the morning, looking for a day's work. The probability that by having my tire fixed here I am participating in the cheap-labor racket I seethe and fume about on, is very high.

All sorts of questions arise. As a conscientious patriot, shouldn't I be lobbying ICE to raid the tire place?

Or: Suppose they did raid it while I was lounging there by my car watching the forecourt maneuvers. Suppose they went into the bay where cheerful, efficient José was fixing my tire and brought him out in cuffs. Would I be, like, "Hey, wait a minute, fellers …" If José looked at me, would I look right back at him? What if ICE shut down the tire place and frog-marched the proprietors off to the bridewell?

Damn these moral conundrums! Answers: I am lobbying, in my own way, trying to bring my own particular limited abilities to the issue, writing internet articles deploring our open borders.

And no, I wouldn't interfere with an ICE operation. You do the crime, you do the time—sorry, pal. It wasn't me left the border open. Yes, I could meet his eyes. What's right, is right. Scoffing at our laws is wrong. If ICE shuts down the tire place, there's one in the next town over. Fiat justitia ruat cælum.

I do think, though, that after watching José being driven away, I'd feel a strong urge to find the nearest politician and break his jaw on José's behalf.

Of course ICE didn't show up. After paying the lady at the service desk, my man was hovering outside expectantly. I gave him an extravagant tip.


Passing on stage. In my September 14th podcast I recorded the passing of Indian public intellectual Rita Jitendra, who died on September 10th while being interviewed on live TV. I commented that: "Somewhere on the internet, I'm sure, there is a list of people who have died in the middle of some public performance."

Several listeners did the due diligence I should have done, and pointed me to Wikipedia's "List of entertainers who died during a performance." There have been more such cases than you'd think. A general favorite with listeners was this one from 1971:

Longevity expert Jerome Rodale had been quoted as saying, "I'm going to live to be 100, unless I'm run over by a sugar-crazed taxi driver." Soon after, he was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show. After his interview was done, Pete Hamill was being interviewed by Cavett when Rodale slumped. Hamill, noticing something was wrong, said in a low voice to Cavett, "This looks bad." Rodale had died of a heart attack at age 72. The episode was never aired.

I think the case of Jim Fixx beats that for irony, though it doesn't really belong in the Wikipedia list. Fixx was a leading promoter of the mid-1970s jogging craze, and wrote a best-selling book advocating running for health. He died of a heart attack in 1984, aged 52 … while jogging.

If you consider college faculty meetings to be performances, which some of my academic acquaintances surely do, a borderline Wikipedia-worthy case is that of Franz Boas the anthropologist, godfather of the No Such Thing As Race dogma. Boas died of a stroke at a Columbia faculty dinner in the arms of Claude Levi-Strauss, another crank anthropologist (but a much better writer).

My colleague James Fulford remarked on the number of stage performers who have died attempting the Bullet Catch illusion. There is even a book about this giving the precise number: Twelve Have Died.

I'm surprised the number isn't bigger. Given the Pagliacci-style passions that swirl in the hothouse atmosphere of a troupe of healthy, highly-sexed young adult performers living and working in close quarters, especially on the road, the Bullet Catch illusion must offer irresistible temptations to jealous lovers and cuckolded husbands.

This whole business of dying while performing is fascinating. I'd write more, but I think I should go lie down. There's this sudden pain … I … can't breathe … I think … oh … ah …


Little acts of kindness. Just kidding there. I'm in fine shape, thanks to the miracle of modern pharmacy.

Thanks are due also to the many kind listeners and readers who've emailed in to ask about my health. I hope I didn't omit to acknowledge any; and, where there's a street address, to send out a thank-you card.

Not everybody is a fan of thank-you cards. Daniel Payne grumbled at length about them on Quillette, September 16th:

I think it is appropriate, at this late hour in human civilization, to make the case for abolishing the cult of thank you cards …

We should drop this silly convention. There is little point to it, and even less moral merit …

Well, snooks to you, Daniel Payne. You can have my stash of thank-you cards when you prise them from my cold dead fingers.

I was raised in the old English tradition of which Evelyn Waugh's father was an exemplar. That gentleman would, Waugh told an interviewer, "write and thank people who wrote to thank him for wedding presents and when he encountered anyone as punctilious as himself the correspondence ended only with death."

As children, if we were invited to little Timmy's birthday party, we would be sat down at the kitchen table the day after the party and watched over by stern adults while we scrawled, "Thank you very much, Timmy …" At the time we thought of it as a chore; but "habit becomes nature" and I am glad to have acquired this particular habit.

For Daniel Payne's benefit, here's another thing we learned as children.

Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.

Little acts of kindness,
Little words of love
Make the world so happy —
Just like Heaven above.


Wisdom of the Month. Or possibly "Twisdom." From Iowahawk:

The three possible states of human existence, ranked in descending level of happiness:
  1. Having better things to do than Twitter
  2. Not having better things to do than Twitter
  3. Having better things to do than Twitter, but going on Twitter anyway


Sad sacks. Sometimes, just by coincidence, a single topic you hardly ever think about comes to your attention from two different sources at the same time, and leaves you thinking about that topic all day.

That happened to me recently. I'll spread this story over two segments, one for each of the sources.

The topic here is: the sacking of cities.

This was a commonplace event down to modern times. A civilized city—merchants, scholars, priests, craftsmen, palaces, libraries—would be taken by an enemy, usually after a siege. The enemy would break in, or be let in by the city fathers as an alternative to mass starvation. Pillaging and looting would ensue. The works of the craftsmen would be smashed or carried off. The great library would go up in flames. Women would be raped. Young adults of both sexes, along with older children, would be taken as slaves; most of the rest would be killed. Persons of dignity—magistrates, priests, royalty, the wealthiest merchants—would be robbed, humiliated and tortured before execution.

These dreadful events have happened since the earliest times. I was actually reading about them in relation to the great collapse of the later Bronze Age, when it was happening all over, city after city. Many of the sacked cities were so thoroughly destroyed, they were never rebuilt. The Mycenaean sack of Troy likely belongs to this period.

So it went, down through history: Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, the Romans sacked Carthage, the Vandals under Gaiseric sacked Rome (the earlier sack by Alaric the Visigoth was comparatively respectful), the Crusaders sacked Jerusalem, the Mongols sacked Baghdad, the Ottomans sacked Constantinople, … These are just the ones everybody remembers.

(And no, I didn't include the Muslim taking of Alexandria and the destruction of the great library there in A.D. 641 because I got this portion of my historical knowledge from Gibbon, who pooh-poohs the whole story. "The commander of the faithful rejected with firmness the idea of pillage, and directed his lieutenant to reserve the wealth and revenue of Alexandria for the public service and the propagation of the faith …")

Those famous sacks are the tip of a mighty historical iceberg. The sacking of cities was a commonplace thing. At random:

Several dozen people were herded like cattle or goats. Any who lagged were flogged or killed outright. The women were bound together at their necks with a heavy rope—strung one to another like pearls. Stumbling with each step, they were covered with mud. Babies lay everywhere on the ground. The organs of those trampled like turf under horses' hooves or people's feet were smeared in the dirt, and the crying of those still alive filled the whole outdoors. Every gutter or pond that we passed was stacked with corpses, pillowing each other's arms and legs. Their blood had flowed into the water, and the combination of green and red was producing a spectrum of colors. The canals, too, had been filled to level with dead bodies.

That's from Wang Xiuchu's eyewitness account of the sacking of Yangzhou by a Manchu army in May 1645, related in Lynn Struve's Voices from the Ming-Qing Cataclysm.

City-sacking has not been much of a feature of the modern world. Today's artillery and air power make sieges pointless: if the city won't surrender, you just bomb it to rubble, which is more or less what's happening right now in Syria and Yemen. With modern communications, in any case, people have clear notice of an advancing army, so noncombatants have time to flee, as multitudes of German city-dwellers did before the advancing Soviet army in WW2.

The last classical-style siege-and-sack I can think of was the Rape of Nanking, 1937; although the capture of Phnom Penh by Pol Pot's Social Justice Warriors in 1975 has some of the classic elements.

Well, as I said, I was reading about that in a history book when the same topic came at me from a completely different direction.


Poem of the Month. I got The Collected Poems of James Elroy Flecker at last in a suitably atmospheric (faded, pages yellow round the edges, flyleaf signed "R.P. Wright, Cambridge, Oct. 1923"—wonder what happened to him/her?) 1922 edition. Whence my Poem of the Month.


by James Elroy Flecker

They will trample our gardens to mire, they will bury our city in fire;
Our women await their desire, our children the clang of the chain.
Our grave-eyed judges and lords they will bind by the neck with cords,
And harry with whips and swords till they perish of shame or pain,
And the great lapis lazuli dome where the gods of our race had a home
Will break like a wave from the foam, and shred into fiery rain.

No more on the long summer days shall we walk in the meadow-sweet ways
With the teachers of music and phrase, and the masters of dance and design.
No more when the trumpeter calls shall we feast in the white-light halls;
For stayed are the soft footfalls of the moon-browed bearers of wine,
And lost are the statues of Kings and of Gods with great glorious wings,
And an empire of beautiful things, and the lips of the love who was mine.

We have vanished, but not into night, though our manhood we sold to delight,
Neglecting the chances of fight, unfit for the spear and the bow.
We are dead, but our living was great: we are dumb, but a song of our State
Will roam in the desert and wait, with its burden of long, long ago,
Till a scholar from sea-bright lands unearth from the years and the sands
Some image with beautiful hands, and know what we want him to know.


One more for Toby. A last farewell. The other bed belongs of course to Boris.


Book of the month. My Book of the Month for September was Simon Winchester's new offering, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World.

The title describes the book sufficiently well. It's about precision. The story is told chronologically, and under each chapter heading is a number indicating tolerance—"the clearance by which one part [of a manufactured object] was made to fit with or into another."

For Chapter One, where we meet "Iron-Mad" John Wilkinson boring cannon barrels in the 18th century, the tolerance is 0.1 inches. By Chapter Nine, 250 pages later, we are in the present day, with state-of-the-art computer chips, LIGO (the Laser-Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and the James Webb Space Telescope, currently scheduled for launch in 2021 (Winchester says 2019, but the date's been pushed back since his book went to press). Tolerance: 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01 inches.

Winchester's a good lively writer and scientifically literate; he trained as a geologist. I reviewed his 2009 book about Joseph Needham for The New Atlantis. Perfectionists is well worth your time if you are interested in science; especially if, like me, you believe that the average one engineer makes more of a contribution to the advance of civilization than the average 100 politicians, philosophers, lawyers, or entrepreneurs; and more, probably, than the average 10,000 economists, sociologists, Professors of Grievance Studies, or—yeah, sure, okay—internet opinionators.

As you can see, I'm somewhat in awe of engineers. I wasn't always. At university I studied math. This was under the old English system, with no nonsense about majors or minors, just three years of math, math, math, and math. It was intellectually grueling, especially for easily-distracted types like me, and it made terrible intellectual snobs of us. The English Department? What, they're giving you a degree just for reading novels? Hoo hoo hoo hoo! (Rather unfair, actually. In those days you couldn't get a degree in English just by reading Virginia Woolf and Maya Angelou. Our English undergraduates had to parse Anglo-Saxon poetry in the original.)

So from the lofty heights of Math-Department arrogance we looked down on the lesser disciplines, mentally grading them as more or less worthy of some crumbs of our grudging respect. Engineers were pretty low down in the grading.

They used math, sure, but it was applied math, not the real thing. Even as applied math, engineers' math was unimpressive—just brute calculus, really: ODEs, PDEs, zzzz. We doubted any member of the Engineering Department knew his Lagrangian from his Hamiltonian.

Engineering undergraduates didn't help their image. They were of course all male. They cultivated an oafish, beery kind of camaraderie. Their conversation, if you could find one sober out of class, was limited to sport, girls, and the merits of neighborhood pubs. In oafish-beeriness they ranked even lower than medical students, who at least had interestingly gross stories to tell about shenanigans in the dissection rooms.

That was my undergraduate experience. With age and maturity came wisdom. I mixed with working engineers, read about their lives, and watched the contraptions they'd devised go out exploring space. I developed respect. Now, in a roomful of engineers, I stand humble and quiet, listening to their talk, from which I always learn something new.


The evergreen browns. If books about engineers aren't your thing, perhaps you'd prefer something about Nazis?

Sam Leith, literary editor of the London Spectator, let loose with what he admits was a "peevish tweet" the other day:

Can we all stop publishing, for good and all, nonfiction books about the future, books about how to change your life, books about what it means to be/how we came to be human, and books about f—ing Nazis? For a start?

I was surprised to see books about Nazis in that list. People are still writing books about Nazis? Is there really anything left to say? Are they really that interesting?

Sixteen weary years ago, in my monthly diary for June 2002, I dropped the following literary anecdote.

The comic writer Alan Coren was sitting around one day with his literary agent, complaining that none of his books sold very well. What kind of thing could he write about to be guaranteed good sales? he asked. The agent replied that there were only three categories that were sure-fire sellers: books about golf, books about cats, and books about the Nazis.

Coren thereupon wrote a book titled Golfing for Cats, and put a big black swastika on the cover. It sold well.

Publication date on the Amazon hardcover of Golfing for Cats is October 1975. Here we are 43 years later and apparently the reading public still wants books about Nazis. (Golf and cats, I couldn't say.)

What's so darn fascinating about the Nazis? Their entire span of historical significance was twelve years. They left no significant political legacy: actual neo-Nazis, as opposed to the ones that populate Goodwhite fever dreams (next segment), are a tiny lunatic fringe. The main lesson the Nazis have to teach us is that even a highly civilized nation can descend into political lunacy; but we've known that since 1789, it's not news.

None of Nazism's major figures had an interesting personality, certainly not Hitler, who never said or wrote anything that was both memorable and original. Stalin, who was a player on the world stage for twice as long as Hitler, and who murdered far more of his own people than Hitler did of his, is surely more worthy of readers' attention. And personality-wise, Napoleon beats both of them by a mile. Boney even has a math theorem named after him—how interesting is that?

Is there really still a big readership for books about these mediocrities of eighty years ago in their comic-opera uniforms? If Sam Leith says so, I suppose there must be. He's a literary editor: he's on all the publishers' rolodexes. It's just baffling to me.


The freelance life. Regarding both literary editors and Goodwhite fever dreams about neo-Nazis, here's an anecdote from the daily life of a struggling, ink-stained freelance writer, videlicet me.

I just wrote a piece for a print outlet in which I needed to include the most hysterical review I could find of Murray and Herrnstein's book The Bell Curve.

Not difficult. I quickly settled on the review by sociologist Steven Rosenthal at a website belonging to Montclair State University. Sample:

The Bell Curve is a vehicle of Nazi propaganda wrapped in a cover of pseudo-scientific respectability. It is an academic version of Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf. The voices of millions should be raised in condemnation of the authors of The Bell Curve and their circle of Nazi-admiring friends. [Academic Nazism by Steven J. Rosenthal, 1994]

In the pre-publication to-and-fro with the literary editor—checking facts, correcting typos, arguing points of style—I suggested we add a "[sic]" after "Adolph."

Wikipedia says that Hitler was christened "Adolphus," but I can't recall ever seeing the forename spelled as anything other than "Adolf." Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is the only book about the Nazis I own (I already told you, I don't find them interesting, okay?) uses "Adolf" throughout.

So while "Adolf" would be fine, and even "Adolphus" might pass, Rosenthal's "Adolph" is eccentric and needs a "[sic]." So, at any rate, I suggested to the literary editor.

Whether or not he agrees, I shall find out when the piece appears; he seems to think we've to-ed and fro-ed enough.


Now hear this. Speaking of literary endeavors: With the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising on the horizon (not to mention the centenary of the May Fourth Movement), I've been nursing the vague idea of making an audiobook from my novel about it, if I can acquire the necessary audio skills.

CoverAs a dry run for that, I have just read the book into sound files, one per chapter, and put them on my website.** Advice and instruction will be gratefully received. Heck, give me a street address, I'll send you a thank-you note.

(After "advice and instruction" I'd like to have added "… and movie contracts." Movies nowadays are all politically neutered for the ChiCom market, though, so there's not a chance. An audiobook would be neat, though.)

**No, it's not Flash, it's native HTML5 <audio>; I've purged my site of Flash.

I'm also adding <… target="_blank"> to my hyperlinks so that clicking on them opens a separate new window instead of just replacing the current window and making you use the "back" button. I haven't done much of this yet, and people have different opinions about it, but I'll see how it goes.



Math corner. The solution to last month's brainteaser is here. Note please that, as explained in the solution, I screwed up, assuming that the sequences are ascending. This gives 700 as a solution.

The problem doesn't specify that the sequences are ascending, though. With de-scending sequences the solution is 10.

Thus chastened, I'll forgo the brainteaser this month, and just offer some random notes.

1. Has Sir Michael Atiyah proved the Riemann Hypothesis?

I don't know, and nor does anyone else, since Sir Michael hasn't offered a detailed proof.

Atiyah [sic] gave a lecture in Germany on September 25 in which he presented an outline of his approach to verify the Riemann hypothesis. This outline is often the first announcement of the solution but should not be taken that the problem has been solved—far from it. [Riemann Hypothesis: Michael Atiyah Claims to Have Solved One of Math's Greatest Mysteries by William Ross; Newsweek, October 1st 2018.]

There seems to be a general atmosphere of guarded skepticism. Guarded, because Sir Michael is a brilliant mathematician. Skepticism because

  • he has not circulated a detailed proof, see above; and
  • he is 89 years old; and
  • "Atiyah [sic] has produced a number of papers in recent years making remarkable claims which have so far failed to convince his peers." [Riemann hypothesis likely remains unsolved despite claimed proof by Gilead Amit; New Scientist, September 29,2018.]

2. What's up with Ted Hill's paper on the evolutionary biology of higher male variability, which I reported on in the September 14th Radio Derb?

I'm sorry to say I have lost track. There have been lengthy debates online: Ted Hill's Quillette piece now has 559 comments; Sir Timothy Gowers' original September 9th blog post has 359, and Sir Timothy posted a follow-up on September 13thsomewhat less critical of Ted Hill's paper. That follow-up has a mere 144 comments, for a total of over a thousand just on those two websites.

That's a lot to read, too much for my poor addled brain when I don't personally know any of the principals. But by all means, help yourself!

3. Take a dry uncooked pasta noodle, grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks. Into how many pieces does it break?

Richard Feynman, world-class physicist, bongo player, and writer of letters, once spent an evening trying to break spaghetti into two pieces by bending it at both ends. After hours spent in the kitchen and a great deal of pasta having been wasted, he and his friend Danny Hillis admitted defeat. Even worse, they had no solution for why the spaghetti always broke into at least three pieces. [Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman's famed physics puzzle by Scotty Hendricks; Big Think, August 18, 2018.]

As the headline tells you, two researchers at MIT have devised an apparatus that will break a noodle into just two pieces.

Science marches on.



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