DERB’S SEPTEMBER DIARY: Are We Getting Smarter/ Dumber? Why Is Chin. Lit So Bad? My Maryland; Etc.
Quote of the month. “I’m fairly sure that in any but a very advanced society I would have been clubbed to death quite early in life, for the serious offence of not being one of the crowd.” — Peter Hitchens, Daily Mail, March 28th 2016.
All right, it’s not precisely a quote from this month; but I read it October 2nd, which is close enough for the September Diary — hey, it’s my Diary. Whatever, it returned a loud echo from my bosom.
Are we getting smarter, or dumber? A staple of old Progressive-era Social Darwinism — it was a favorite of my Dad, who formed most of his social philosophy around 1920 — was the notion that human beings in modern societies breed dysgenically. Those with undesirable traits like low intelligence or antisocial personalities have more children than smart and easily-socialized types, while people with inherited physical disabilities are free to pass them on to a new generation. Let’s call this the Dysgenic Hypothesis.
This kind of thinking was swept away after WW2, at any rate in the Western world (the Eastern world is a different matter …), by Hitler’s Revenge. As I pointed out a couple of years ago, that’s a bit unfair to Hitler:
Mein Kampf … has no index entries for “eugenics.” Certainly Hitler knew about eugenics; but so did every other educated person in the early twentieth century. He saw it as fitting comfortably into his world-view; but so did a great many other people of widely different — mostly Leftist — inclinations. [John Glad’s Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century by John Derbyshire; VDARE.com, April 13th 2014.]
It remains true, though, that intelligence and personality are considerably heritable, and that dimwitted and dysfunctional people on average do have more children than bright, well-behaved people, so that the Dysgenic Hypothesis is perfectly plausible.
And there is some evidence for it. Most people with any interest at all in the human sciences have heard of the Flynn Effect. Not many have yet heard of the Woodley Effect. This was named (by Charles Murray) for British psychologist Michael A. Woodley.
(Whose father is Michael Woodley of Balquhain and Menie, 28th Baron of Menie, with whom Donald Trump has recently had some business dealings. You can’t write about anything nowadays without The Donald climbing in through a side window. I am very reliably informed that “Balquhain” is pronounced “Bowel-wayne.”)
Woodley studied reaction times — how long it takes a person to respond to a sudden stimulus. It has been known for decades that reaction time correlates strongly with general intelligence, to the degree that it can be used as a quick’n’dirty proxy for IQ.
Well, Woodley found that reaction time has been slowing down since the first studies on it were done in the 1880s. He co-published (with two colleagues) a paper on this in 2013, title: Were the Victorians cleverer than us? The decline in general intelligence estimated from a meta-analysis of the slowing of simple reaction time.
Last month Woodley and colleagues published a new paper on the topic: Secular Slowing of Auditory Simple Reaction Time in Sweden (1959-1985). James Thompson has a brief write-up here, from which:
This is strongly suggestive of a slowing of reaction times in Sweden, itself suggesting a possible drop in mental alertness and intelligence in that country. If the Flynn effect were a deep-seated real improvement in functioning then one would expect faster reaction times, not slower. An alarming result, worthy of further testing and attention.
So what’s going on here? “We’re getting smarter” and “We’re getting dumber” can’t both be true, can they? If the Flynn Effect is real, the Woodley Effect can’t be, and vice versa — right?
Not necessarily. The structure of intelligence is complex, and our understanding of it imperfect. (Neither of those statements is synonymous with the Cultural Marxist dogma that there is no such thing as intelligence; or that if there is such a thing, it’s impossible to quantify it; and that if you believe anything to the contrary, you are an Enemy of the People.) A body of water with a surface current going this way may have an undertow going that way.
Woodley himself offered the following to an interviewer:
The Flynn effect might be hiding an underlying decline, a “psychometric dark matter” not visible on pen-and-paper intelligence tests, Woodley said.
“An analogy to use would be lower-quality seeds, but higher-quality fertilizers,” he said, referring to this idea that a high-quality environment may be masking the decline in “smart” genes.
There is nothing final here, and I’d like to see some replication of Woodley’s results; but this may be a case of us re-learning something our forebears — in my case, my dear old Dad — had already figured out a hundred years ago.
Some day, probably not in our lifetimes but perhaps not long after, machines will be able to do most of the tasks that people can. At that point, a truly workless world should be possible. If everyone, not just the rich, had robots at their beck and call, then such powerful technology would free them from the need to submit to the realities of the market to put food on the table.
Uh-huh. In so far as I am concerned about this, which is not very far, I am less concerned now than I was a month ago. That’s because of a conversation I had with a friend who works as a contractor, fixing up houses and workplaces.
He: “There’s terrific demand. We can’t keep up. Not enough guys. That’s why you see so many illegals doing it.”
Me: “Come on. Does the U.S.A. need so many contractors?”
He: “You kidding? Take a look up and down your street.” [I live in an ordinary residential street in the outer-outer suburbs of New York City.] “How many houses?” [Answer: forty.] “They all need work some of the time. Next time you walk your dog, count how many contractor vehicles you see outside those houses.” [I did. There were five: a roofer, a plumber, two landscapers, and a team taking down a big old tree. Five out of forty — twelve and a half percent!] “That’s one street in one town …”
He’s right, of course. My whole view of the world shifted slightly. I know about contractors, of course, and use them when I have to; but I have rarely thought about them between times. Now I see my neighborhood as more like one of those colonies of social insects, kept orderly and functioning only by the tireless ministrations of contractor-ants.
And what they do is harder to automate than supermarket checkout. Right now I’m doing some work on my own house, putting up drywall and spackling it. Spackling is tricky. I’ve read handyman books and watched YouTube clips, and I still can’t get the hang of it. I bet a lot of college-grad middle-class occupations — lawyering, doctoring — are more vulnerable to automation than is drywall spackling.
Come on, Derb (you may say), who needs drywall spacklers? Nowadays we can print a house.
That’s great; but what about the houses we already have, like the forty in my street? People will go on living in them for a hundred years or so. They’ll need contractors. In fact, with population growth leveling off, what need is there to print houses? We have all we can use. It just wants contractors to keep ’em in shape.
My friend also told me about the absurdly low standards for getting a contractor license in our county. “You take a test, but it’s just ethical questions. ‘Should you insist on full payment before you start?’ That kind of thing. They never ask whether you know how to use a spirit level, nor even a tape measure — never mind power tools.”
I am wiser now. This is a contractor’s world; we just live in it.
The ch-word. This summer I have been a martyr to small biting creatures. It’s never happened before; I suppose I must have undergone some metabolic change that’s made my blood tastier to tiny predators. It can’t be geographical: I’m living in the same house I’ve lived in since 1992. It’s definitely not Global Warming: No-one else I know has been extraordinarily bitten.
Having no experience in this zone, I assumed the attackers were mosquitoes. Those insects were indeed implicated; but I felt and often saw them biting me, usually in time to splat them. Yet there were many more bites that I never felt happening. A painful red welt would come up out of nowhere, and linger for days.
I consulted a knowledgeable friend, and displayed a sample welt on my arm to him. He scrutinized it, asked me some questions, then delivered his diagnosis: “Chiggers.”
So far as I can recall this was only the second time in my life I’ve met that word. The first time was thirty years ago, when I was reading Tom Wolfe’s great novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.
In that book there is a character named Gene Lopwitz, super-rich head of a Wall Street trading firm. In his personal office, in a modern office tower in downtown Manhattan, Lopwitz has had a fireplace installed at immense cost and much regulatory wrangling, just because he can. He doesn’t actually use it, though.
The chiggers … Lopwitz had used the fireplace for just about two months and then never again. One day, while sitting at his desk, he had suffered an intense itching and burning sensation on the underside of his left buttock. Fiery red blisters he had … Chigger bites … The only plausible deduction was that somehow chiggers had found their way to the fiftieth floor, to the mighty bond trading floor of Pierce & Pierce, in a load of firewood for the hearth and had bitten the baron on the bottom.
I feel his pain. These are the nastiest little critters you should hope never to meet — not even honest insects, but “trombiculid mites,” a type of arachnid, barely visible to the naked eye.
How did I get through my whole life without ever encountering chiggers before? I don’t know; but I’ve made the acquaintance now, and I am bent on revenge.
Born on the … when? The fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 came and went. Our kids were small when the attack happened; ages eight and six. The eight-year-old has a friend in our street the same age, but whose birthday is … September 11th.
I’d forgotten that. My wife reminded me: “Poor little Louise! [Not her real name.] She took cookies to school that day; but they let the kids out early, she had to take them home.”
On a statistical basis, 0.2738 percent of the population — more than nine hundred thousand souls — share a birthday with Louise, and the atrocity. Are there any psychological effects, I wonder?
It’s rackets all the way down. The other day a friend remarked that to a fair first approximation, everything’s a racket.
I think he’s right. Health care? I am reliably informed that in Russia there are mansions with twelve bedrooms and gold-plated bath fixtures, sitting in a hundred acres and stuffed with expensive bling, all paid for by scamming Medicare. Welfare is a racket, eveyone knows that. The resettlement of “refugees” in the U.S.A. is a racket, as Ann Corcoran has documented in devastating detail.
Education is one vast racket. Our high schools have entire wings populated by Administrative Assistants to the Administrative Assistant. Municipal Departments of Education are infested with parasites like this one. Colleges? Fugeddaboutit.
High finance? I settled into my first job at an investment bank just as the Savings & Loan crisis was making landfall. I didn’t even know what a Savings & Loan was, had to have it explained to me. “It’s the 3-6-3 crowd,” my colleagues told me. “They borrow money at three percent, lend it out at six percent, and they’re on the golf course by three p.m.” So, a racket. And the racketeering didn’t stop when the S&Ls went under.
I’m hoping the military isn’t a racket, although recollections of Sergeant Bilko and Milo Minderbinder sometimes disturb my hope. Whatever the case is with the actual military, the Veterans Administration is looking like a racket:
Millions in equipment went missing over a five-year period from 2010 to 2015, according to an extensive investigation from KXAN News. The property included medial equipment, TVs, cellphones and a John Deere tractor, as just a few examples. [Millions Of Dollars Worth Of Equipment Has Vanished From Texas VA Facilities, by Jonah Bennett; Daily Caller, September 28th 2016.]
The biggest racket of all is of course politics, as the Clintons amply demonstrate. Disgust with this accounts for a lot of Donald Trump’s support.
There are many negative things you can say about Trump, some of them fairly, but you can’t say he’s in it for the money.
Too much stuff. I’ve been reading Göran Malmqvist’s biography of the great Swedish sinologist Bernhard Karlgren.
In 1905, when Bernhard was fifteen, his father died suddenly. He had been a high school teacher (Latin, Greek, and Swedish) in the modest Swedish city of Jönköping. Malmqvist gives us an inventory of his estate taken after his death: Cash 278 Crowns (about a fifth of his annual salary), his wardrobe (presumably including some clothes), a gravy-boat and a gravy-spoon of silver, a watch and a gold ring, and books valued at 200 Crowns. The Karlgrens lived in rented rooms.
What an explosion of stuff there has been since 1905! I’m at about the same social level as Karlgren, Sr. — there are a couple of high-school teachers in my neighborhood — but I own vastly more stuff: A house, two cars, a bicycle, furniture, appliances, tools, computers, TV, … And, of course, books up the Wazoo. (Where is the Wazoo?)
Malmqvist is a big wheel in sinology, and a member of the Swedish Academy, which means he has a vote on who gets the Nobel Prize in Literature. I met him when I was studying for my P.G. Dip. Chin. in London thirty-six years ago. His wife was the sister of Jingzu Chen, our chief instructress. Malmqvist favored us with a 45-minute lecture. It was about the use of the particle 其 in certain classical texts. The lecture was, to the best of my recollection, … definitive.
Chin. Lit. Another visiting speaker on that Chinese course was Brian Hook from the University of Leeds. He gave us a lecture on modern Chinese literature.
I remember his opening sentence for that lecture: “The main thing we have to ask about modern Chinese literature is: Why is none of it much good?”
I suppose that would be counted as some kind of racist microaggression nowadays. I am in no position to pass an opinion on the topic myself, having engaged as a reader with only one work of twentieth-century Chinese literature in the original Chinese. Prof. Hook made a case, though. Based on an English-language book I’ve been reading this month, unless a very great deal has been lost in translation, the case is not a bad one.
This is The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Prof. Yunte Huang of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
There are a few gems here. I liked the sweaty sub-eroticism of Wang Anyi’s Love in a Small Town, for instance. There’s a lot of stuff that is tedious to read, though. The poetry is awful, even after making allowance for the old Italian quip about poems in translation being like women: “The faithful ones aren’t beautiful, and the beautiful ones aren’t faithful.” (I guess that’s a sexist microaggression. Don’t come here looking for political correctness.)
Prof. Huang redeemed himself somewhat in my eyes for including quite long extracts from Ba Jin’s 1931 novel Family, the one Chinese novel I’ve engaged with in the original. I say “engaged with” because I never actually finished the darn thing. Jingzu — we are back in my P.G. Dip. Chin. days — had me construe a chapter every week. Then we’d have a one-on-one seminar where I’d read out the Chinese, followed by my translation, and submit to her criticism.
Unfortunately this was a one-year course. The novel has forty chapters, and there are not forty weeks in an academic year. I didn’t get more than halfway through Family, and have only now learned from Prof. Huang’s extracts what happened to poor little Mingfeng (though I could see it coming).
The high point of my rather dismal career as a student of Chinese Lit. was my translation of the chapter in Family where, at a New Year’s banquet, the young adults are playing a literary word-game. Each quotes a line of classical verse; then the next in turn has to quote a line whose first character is the last character of the previous quote. (I’m working from memory here; I don’t guarantee accuracy; my translation is long lost, alas.) Now that’s a translation challenge.
You tou wu wei say the Chinese: “It has a head but no tail,” meaning you shouldn’t leave things unfinished. I guess I should finish reading Family in the original. I will, I will, … when I’m retired.
States of mind. We closed out the month with a long-weekend visit to friends on the Maryland shore. A very enjoyable time was had by all, including Toby, Hound of the Derbyshires.
I had never been to this region before. The topography is very striking to the eye. To someone raised in England, it looks like the Norfolk Broads, but not so reedy. “Very flat, Norfolk,” says one of Noël Coward’s characters. (And of course, that being England, there are poems about the place.)
One minor takeaway from our visit was that I now know the correct pronunciation of “Maryland.” I had naïvely been saying “Ma-ry-land,” with three distinct plonking syllables. Nope: it’s “MURRuh-lund” … except, I was told, in Baltimore, where the locals have trimmed it all the way down to one syllable: “Murln.”
Good to get these things right. You don’t want to sound like a rube.
A couple of people had told me that the movie is obnoxiously anti-white. I see their point: there are scenes of Ramanujan, who was dark-skinned, being openly insulted, and in one case beaten up, by leering white racists out of the CultMarx demonology.
These incidents are not in Robert Kanigel’s book, on which the movie is based. Kanigel allows that “Sometimes … Indians experienced downright racial prejudice.” However, he attributes Ramanujan’s social problems to his inability — shared by foreigners of all colors a hundred years ago — to penetrate the chronic “aloofness and reserve” of the English.
I suppose the movie producers thought that a movie about a dark-skinned man in early twentieth-century England needed spicing up with some anti-racism porn. “Thought” is in fact probably too strong a word: they just instinctively assumed this, the way you instinctively assume that if taken to see someone’s garden, you will find some flowers in evidence.
This is the cultural atmosphere we live in, and breathe. I’m so inured to it — and so happy to see a halfway-factual movie about a great mathematician — I wasn’t much bothered by it. Your mileage may vary.
Oh, you want a brainteaser? OK, here’s a fairly easy one.
The Ramanujan movie of course includes the famous taxicab incident.
Once, in the taxi from London, Hardy noticed its number, 1729. He must have thought about it a little because he entered the [hospital] room where Ramanujan lay in bed and, with scarcely a hello, blurted out his disappointment with it. It was, he declared, “rather a dull number,” adding that he hoped that wasn’t a bad omen.
“No, Hardy,” said Ramanujan, “it is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two [positive] cubes in two different ways.” [1³ + 12³ and 9³ + 10³.]
That number, 1729, has another interesting and rare property. What is it? Hint: Add up the digits.
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’s had two books published by VDARE.com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and From the Dissident Right II: Essays 2013. His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
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