“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Phi Beta Kappa address, July 18th 1876, according to my 1955 Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2nd edition).
I’m a sucker for quotations, and I know why. Among my Dad‘s books was a biggish one-volume dictionary he’d bought from some doorstep salesman, or from some ad in his daily tabloid newspaper. It had a supplement, twenty pages or so, of quotations, mainly from Eng. Lit. That seemed to me, aged nine or ten, the most interesting part of the book. I browsed it happily for hours, and still sometimes regurgitate one of its gems.
Now today, here in my study, sixty-some years and three thousand miles away, I have the Oxford book, which is organized strictly by author, from Peter Abelard (“O quanta qualia sunt illa sabbata / Quae semper celebrat superna curia”) to Émile Zola (“J’accuse“). As is right and proper for a dictionary of quotations, the index is almost as long (414 pages) as the main text (587 pages), with a separate two-page index for Greek.
I also have W. Gurney Benham’s Book of Quotations, Proverbs, and Household Words (1934), organized on thoroughly different principles—”Epitaphs,” “Nursery Songs and Rhymes,” “Forensic,” “Toasts,” …—with separate sections for foreign languages and a somewhat lighter index-to-main-text ratio, 344 pages to 880.
Oh, and Norbert Guterman’s Anchor Book of French Quotations (1963): “L’amour est commes ces hôtels meublés dont tout le luxe est au vestibule” (“Love is like those second-rate hotels where all the luxury is in the lobby”)—Paul-Jean Toulet.
We quotations buffs all know that beyond the orderly, law-abiding, well-sourced ranks of quotations listed in these tomes, there is a wild gypsy tribe of quotations whose attribution is uncertain. Nobody is completely sure who was the first to say them.
Who first observed that “The Ten Commandments are like an examination paper: four only to be attempted”? Was it Bertrand Russell or Malcolm Muggeridge? There are fierce partisans for both claimants, and for all I know others as well. It’s a gypsy quotation.
Even gypsies have their preferred campgrounds, though. Gypsy quotations likewise. In the English language, the favorite rest areas for these outlaws are, in order I think: Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. At least half the quotes commonly attributed to those four gents have, in fact, no certain provenance.
Perhaps he was, but a friend sternly informed me that BrainyQuote is deeply unreliable as to the sourcing of quotes. Their claim, for example, that Shaw was the chap who said that dancing is “a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire,” is flagged by the Quote Investigator website thus:
Currently George Bernard Shaw is the leading candidate for originator of this expression because he was named in the earliest citation in 1962; however, this evidence was poor.
So, my bad. After all these years huddled in my study with the Oxford book and Benham’s, I’d naïvely supposed that an internet source like BrainyQuote would be just as authoritative as hard copy. I had momentarily forgotten that a lot of internet reference materials are shoddy crap.
Sorry about that.
The Derb family Purchase of the Month was a good big (48 inches diameter) metal fire pit.
Our property has a separate garage out back. Behind the garage is a 25-foot-deep empty zone until you reach the fence dividing us from our back neighbor. There are two trees in that zone, one of them containing the Derb family tree house. There’s also my wood pile, a chest full of kindling, Mrs Derb’s compost heap (she’s the family gardener), and the graves of Boris and Toby.
The only other noticeable feature back there was a rough scooped-out crater ringed with stones, which I had used a half-dozen times as a makeshift fire pit: sitting by it on a winter’s evening with a glass of bourbon and a cigar, burning old wood.
With another winter looming, I thought it was time for an upgrade, so I bought this thing.
I’m glad I did. I’ve already spent a couple of late evenings out there. For the first I added a book to the bourbon and cigar; there’s an exterior light on the back wall of the garage. Didn’t get much reading done: the paleolithic urge to sit watching wood burn with darkness all around easily trumps literary absorption.
Even Mrs Derb, who normally awards low grades to my impulse purchases, approves this one. On the second of those evenings she came out to join me. We sat together by the fire pit with wine and moon-cakes (October 1st was Mid-Autumn Festival), roasting s’mores and talking household matters. Life is good.
What kind of shape is the tree house in, coming up to its 17th birthday? Pretty good. I’ve had to do some cutting and adjusting here and there to allow for the tree’s growth, but the basic structure is sound.
As best I can judge my actuarial prospects, the thing may actually outlive me. I think I shall somehow arrange to have carved or set into the floor a neat circle made of the words Si monumentum requiris circumspice. Bids for the work can be submitted to me via VDARE.com.
Way down on my to-do list for some years has been a trip to the Harvard University Divinity School. The school, I’ve been told, has a really good library with masses of books, journals, and papers from all over the world relating to religion and critiques of religion.
Why would I want to go there? In hopes of locating the first article I ever wrote for publication, circa 1964. Also to lay claim to some slight—very slight—reputation as a seer.
I wrote that piece in my undergraduate days at University College, London. One of my classmates was a principal in the college Humanist Society. After a long undergraduate-style conversation one day—a conversation I would probably be embarrassed to hear replayed if that were possible, which fortunately it isn’t—he asked me to make a proper essay from the things I’d been saying, something he could publish in the society’s journal, whose name I dimly remember as Ethic. I did, and he did.
My copy of that journal issue was lost in my travels long ago. I have been told by a person who knows these things that the HDS library includes just that kind of stuff, so I might get lucky. If there’s a way to find out online, I haven’t been able to discover it.
I can recall almost nothing of what I wrote, but I do remember predicting, in some context or other, the arrival of AGI—Artificial General Intelligence—by the end of the century: that century, the 20th.
That was bold stuff for a college kid to be engaged with in the mid-1960s. AGI wasn’t a totally new idea, although at that point it hadn’t calved off from plain AI. It had been written about, but mostly by sci-fi authors. I don’t think it showed up in movies before 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968), though I’ll take and publish corrections on that if anyone has ’em.
So: my first-ever-in-print to add to my archives, and a teeny claim to seerdom. Gotta get over to Harvard. (Yes, I’ve tried getting in touch with UCL Humanist Society, which still exists, but with no success at all.)
I was of course over-optimistic with the date: AGI is decades away. Articles about it still catch my eye, though. Here’s one I particularly liked, from Matthew Hutson in Quanta magazine last November (I’m late spotting it). Title: Computers Evolve a New Path Toward Human Intelligence.
Computer scientist Kenneth Stanley at the University of Central Florida has worked up a nicely indirect way to have machines acquire new intelligent abilities.
Make them prioritize novelty or interestingness instead of the ability to walk or talk. They may discover an indirect path, a set of steppingstones, and wind up walking and talking better than if they’d sought those skills directly …
Completely ignoring an objective can get you there faster than pursuing it … The pursuit of objectives can be a hindrance to reaching those objectives.
That, I’d say, is something we all kind of know.
There’s a nifty touch of irony to the story:
[Stanley] originally pitched Picbreeder [a website he and his students had built encoding these indirect principles] to the National Science Foundation, which rejected his grant application, saying its objective wasn’t clear.
At the other end of the computer-science spectrum there are the old mainframe “legacy systems” that provided me with a living through the last third of the 20th century.
Whoa there, Derb (I hear you cry). “There are”? Don’t you mean “There were“? Surely it can’t be the case that those creaky, geriatric, COBOL-coded systems are still active anywhere? Didn’t the code all get rewritten in C++ and Python for the Year 2000 panic?
No, it didn’t. I file an occasional note on this in these diaries: in April this year, for instance, referring to New York State’s legacy system for processing unemployment-benefit claims, which the pandemic has put under serious stress.
A reader of that note has directed my attention to an article in the September 2020 issue of IEEE Spectrum, house magazine for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The author is Robert N. Charette, a Contributing Editor. Title: Inside the Hidden World of Legacy IT Systems. The article is mainly about failure and disaster, so I am sorry to say I enjoyed it very much.
Take COBOL, a programming language that dates to 1959. Computer science departments stopped teaching COBOL some decades ago. And yet the U.S. Social Security Administration reportedly still runs some 60 million lines of COBOL. The IRS has nearly as much COBOL programming, along with 20 million lines of assembly code. And, according to a 2016 GAO report, the departments of Commerce, Defense, Treasury, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs are still “using 1980s and 1990s Microsoft operating systems that stopped being supported by the vendor more than a decade ago.”
Wait, what? Assembly code? That’s even more archaic than COBOL. We used to call it “coding down to the metal.” In COBOL, for example, you perform addition by coding a single instruction:
ADD [first-variable] TO [second-variable] GIVING [third-variable].
For the equivalent result in Assembly (also called Assembler) you have to give careful attention to whether your addition is binary, decimal, or floating-point and with one eye always on the directives that tell your code which base CPU register to use for base-displacement addressing.
For the decimal equivalent of that ADD statement, Bill Qualls gives the basics in chapter seven of his Assembly primer:
The AP (add packed) instruction is used to add one packed number to another. For example, “AP A,B” adds B to A, with B unchanged and the sum in A. Both operands must be valid packed numbers. For example, given
A DC CL4’1234′
B DC CL3’567′
C DC PL4’0′
… to add A and B giving C, A and B must be packed. At least one work field will be required:
PK2 DC PL2’0′ …
and so on for two more pages. That’s just decimal addition: binary and floating-point addition are different stories.
If that sounds like breaking rocks with a claw hammer, it sometimes felt that way. Still, the minimalism and efficiency of Assembly—and, yes, the difficulty of it—had its own addictive charm. And for labor-saving purposes you could always code up a macro, if the Systems-Programming boss would let you. Good times.
If you find it alarming that organizations like, oh, for example, the U.S. Navy are running on computer systems more than 50 years old, Robert Charette has some good news for you.
Oh, that’s OK then. Yes, your government is on the job! Relax, everything will be fine.
Mrs Derbyshire’s birthday falls on the same day in mid-October as that of a friend in upstate New York whose Dissident Right sympathies match my own. We spent the weekend up there for a joint celebration. Another couple of similar sympathies joined us, for a weekend feast of political incorrectness.
Our friends live in a converted farmhouse in the open country north of Albany, looking across to the Adirondacks. They are terrifically knowledgeable about the region, so along with excellent food and Gemütlichkeit we got some bracing country walks with interesting lessons in history and geography.
Many thanks to them for their time and trouble, and for springing us from lockdown for a couple of days.
We broke the long drive home to call on new friends in Connecticut, whose house we had never visited before. They excited my paleolithic envy by having two fire pits on their property, though neither (I consoled myself) as grand as ours.
Hiking over that upstate terrain, which is liberally strewn with great ancient boulders, our host mentioned lichen in some context, I forget what. It was in plenty of evidence on those boulders.
The word “lichen” triggered some faint connotation deep down in my memory. I couldn’t place it at the time, but it came to me on the Sunday night drive back home. The memory was of mid-20th-century British science fiction, in which precincts I wasted much of my adolescence.
I checked online. Yep, there it was: John Wyndham’s 1960 novel Trouble with Lichen. Wyndham had made his name in the field with a series of disaster novels published through the 1950s, all of which I had read. Trouble with Lichen wasn’t really like that—no apocalypse—and I recall being disappointed by it.
Now, more worldly-wise, I find myself wondering if perhaps Wyndham wrote it to win a bet. “Hey, Jack, if you’re so smart, let’s see you write a scary novel about … lichen. Huh? Ha! …”
The only fiction I read this month was Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger, which is about today’s India.
The book’s won prizes and my Free Press paperback comes with lots of extravagant praise from reviewers: “A coruscating critique of contemporary rural India”; “Blazingly savage and brilliant”; “A book of both remarkable subtlety and extraordinary power”; etc.
I can’t say I was that dazzled by The White Tiger, but I found it an easy, entertaining read, and I’m pleased to have brought my acquaintance with India fiction forward another multi-decade leap from Kim (1890s India), A Passage to India (1920s), and The Raj Quartet (1940s).
A strong theme in the novel is the deep contrast between modern urban India and the rural hinterland. Balram Halwai, the first-person narrator of The White Tiger, refers to that hinterland as “the Darkness.” He himself is a native of the Darkness, addressed by street-smart urban acquaintances as “Country-Mouse.” By luck and guile he climbs up into the City-Mouse world of glittering hotels and call centers.
The rural-urban socio-psycho-cultural divide is of course one of the oldest in civilized society, distantly refracted in our own red-blue, nationalist-globalist cultural fissure today. In Adiga’s India the divide is a broad chasm, and supplies part of the answer to the question posed rhetorically by Lance Welton here at VDARE.com last year:
How can a country with an IQ only six points above that of Sub-Saharan Africa churn out scientists of such high calibre and even begin to take people into space? [Perhaps Surprisingly, Indians REALLY Aren’t That Intelligent (On Average) by Lance Welton; VDARE.com, February 16th 2019]
(Although, as Lance Welton’s article explains, there is much more going on than a rural-urban split.)
The White Tiger sure isn’t any kind of advertisement for modern India, which Adiga draws as hopelessly corrupt and squalid.
Just plain dirty, too. Two years ago in my Diary I recorded having read Rose George’s 2014 book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, which spans all major nations for its smelly, disgusting subject matter.
“I have never been to India,” I wrote. “After reading The Big Necessity, I hope I never shall.” Aravind Adiga’s novel has reinforced that hope.
I always get a smile reading curmudgeonly contrarianism. I feel an odd sort of fellowship with it, I don’t know why.
In my October 2nd podcast I remarked, concerning white supremacy:
It’s long gone … and about as likely to come back as barber-shop quartets or three-pack-a-day cigarette habits.
In by email came a gentle correction from a listener who is active in his local barber-shop quartet. That art form is by no means defunct, he told me; it’s going strong all over.
So in the October 16th podcast I mentioned that exchange, and gave quartetting a hearty Derb seal of approval, saying:
I’m glad to know it’s still a thing … a healthy, social, upbeat pastime giving pleasure to thousands.
Then I signed off the podcast with a clip of barbershop-quartet music.
That stirred a curmudgeonly contrarian. He growled back at me by email:
Your gentle reader of last week’s Radio Derb may indeed be an avid participant in the barber-shop art, but I find them an insufferable lot, myself. That he emerged from his hermitage to point out his stubborn adherence to an archaic art form only underscores the characteristic insecurities of this unhappy lot.
Barber-shop is the sole point of intersection shared between my beloved father and my mother’s current beau; which point I wish they did not share, and which only reflects my mother’s questionable judgment in companions.
“Why don’t you kids ever sing?” was a constant refrain growing up. “Well Dad, ‘Secondhand Rose’ went out with the pennyfarthing.”
It’s not the musical genre per se, or the Great American Songbook, it’s the cornball approach its adherents bring to the mix …
Maybe this is a Yank thing that doesn’t quite resonate (I could understand this) but Derb, please, I implore you not to encourage the barber-shoppers any more than you already have.
Well, well, de gustibus. It sounds to me like this particular curmudgeon has parent issues … but hey, who doesn’t? Anyway, I’m glad to know he’s out there venting his spleen on barber-shop quartets. In a world dominated by bland conformism, there can never be enough contrarian curmudgeons.
A friend sent me a link to this article from Inside Higher Ed.
What Happens Before College Matters
Experts agree higher education needs to do more to create equity for Black students. But more attention needs to be paid to barriers Black students face before they step foot on campus.
By Madeline St. Amour
October 20, 2020
I got a couple of hundred words into it—something about “opportunity gaps”—but then my eyes glazed over. I’m just really, deeply not interested in this stuff. It’s exactly as if my friend had sent me a 3,000-word article about the Kardashians, whoever they are.
Yes, I’ve come down with a bad case of Negro Fatigue.
Is it any wonder? I’m long in the tooth. I’ve been reading about the need to “create equity” (that is, equal outcomes) for blacks since the Lyndon Johnson administration; and I’ve been reading the same patent-medicine nostrums about how to create that equity for just as long. Nothing’s worked; nothing’s changed—except that the level of anti-white rancor has risen tenfold.
I wish no ill to anyone, and of course want the best for my nation. I don’t see how it helps anyone, though, or improves the nation, to pound the “create equity” treadmill through its forty-third rotation. We are different races, for crying out loud. Why would you expect equal outcomes?
Give us back our freedom of association. Let us live out our lives as best we can, and let blacks live out theirs as best they can. Good luck to everyone! After all these decades of futility, isn’t it time to face reality?
No, of course it isn’t. It’s never time to do that.
I may not be interested in blackety-blackety-blackness, but it’s interested in me. The Mathematical Association of America, at any rate, is determined to not let me be uninterested. Here through the mailbox comes my November issue of Focus, the MAA monthly newsletter.
Ever heard of MAD? No, not the adolescent-humor magazine; this is a website, Mathematicians of the African Diaspora. Focus, which is 48 pages in total, has a four-page article about it. Opening words:
2/23. 3/13. 5/25. 10/9. We as mathematicians see these quantities as numbers, but they are so much more: they are the dates when Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Benjamin Banneker died. During the summer of 2020, many woke up to the concept that #BlackLivesMatter …
How about the MSED Coalition? MSED is the Mathematics and Science Education Doctoral program. The Coalition, nested within MSED, “was initiated, organized, and led by graduate students of color to address issues of systemic racism and white supremacy within our educational environment.” There’s a four-page article on that. Opening words:
Racial injustices against the Black community, including the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Aleah Jenkins, Muna Kuri, and countless others, exposed how social and political institutions continue to fail Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
Pages 10 and 11—so this one’s a mere two-pager, if I have the math right—are given over to an article headed, “Sisters, how y’all feel? Brothers, y’all alright?” by Anisah Nu’Man of Spelman College, which is a historically black college for women. The article’s subject is mental health care for black women. Sample:
Intersectionality theory provides a useful theoretical framework for reflecting on the experiences of women of color in mathematics. I know from personal experience that having these layered identities, of being a Black woman mathematician, can add stress in what can already be a stressful profession.
(In all fairness to Prof. Nu’man, I should say that she at least got through all 1,500 words of that article without once mentioning her hair.)
Is there any push-back from readers against all this blackety-black whingeing? Let’s check the Letters to the Editor page. There are two published letters.
The first is titled (i.e. by the editor) “About Privilege.” It’s from Alfinio Flores at the University of Arizona.
After an introductory whinge about the slights he and his sons have suffered on account of being Mexican (for which I can offer a ready solution, if Mr Flores would care to get in touch with me), the writer allows:
I realize that my family’s experience does not compare to what many African American families have to deal with on a daily basis. For example, I have never been stopped by the police to see if I am driving my own car.
Second Letter to the Editor, title: “Aspiring to Inclusivity.” This is from “Michael Maltenfort (he/him/his)” at Northwestern University.
When I read “Resources For Learning How To Be An Anti-Racist” (MAA Focus, August/September 2020), I was struck both by how far we have travelled and by how far we have to go …
But yes, Prof. Maltenfort’s letter does later strike a critical note. At last! Was the above-mentioned article too anti-white for him?
No, his beef is that it wasn’t anti-white enough:
Without ever acknowledging that is it doing so, the article is written only for white colleagues like me. Until we take to heart that the readers of MAA Focus are not all white, we will never achieve the inclusivity to which we aspire.
So here’s my question. Mathematical talent and political inclination are independent variables. There have been some great mathematicians with very reactionary views. Cauchy may have been the last person of any real intellectual eminence who believed in the Divine Right of Kings.
Plenty of mathematicians active today in the U.S.A. are conservatives or legacy liberals who deplore the anti-white fanaticism that has taken over the pages of journals like Focus and the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Many are Trump voters. Some are race realists who do not believe that the phrases “systemic racism” and “white supremacy” name significant phenomena in the real world. Many are readers of my commentary; I get emails from them; occasionally one of them blogs about my stuff.
My question: Why do their views have no representation whatsoever in the publications of the MAA and AMS?
Looking at that in print, in fact, it could usefully be prefaced by a different question: Why are the publications of the MAA and AMS giving over so much space—pages and pages and pages—to social and political topics? Don’t those topics have their own scholarly journals?
OK, a brainteaser. ABC is an equilateral triangle. Somewhere inside the triangle is a point distant exactly 3 inches from A, 4 inches from B, and 5 inches from C. What is the area of the triangle?
Supplementary: Can such a point be outside the triangle? If it can, what then is the triangle’s area?
Not a brainteaser: As I write this on October 31st, tonight sees a full moon, Halloween, and, in the wee hours of tomorrow morning, the end of Daylight Savings Time.
My original thought for a brainteaser was to ask: How often does this trifecta happen?
When I tried working the problem, though, I realised that
- the time of moonrise is different in different time zones, affecting the date assigned to full moon;
- not all states and territories observe Daylight Savings Time; and
- Daylight Savings Time is in any case on the skids, so the brainteaser would likely have a short shelf life.
I therefore abandoned the idea as too annoyingly knotty. Forget the trifecta; go concentrate on that equilateral triangle.