Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of The Golden Empire by Hugh Thomas

The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V and the Creation of America by Hugh Thomas, 2011. Glossy's rating: 8/10.

This is the second book of Hugh Thomas's trilogy about the early Spanish Empire. The most important conquest described here is that of Peru. I will quote extensively from Thomas's comparison of Mexico and Peru, pre-Columbian America's two most powerful states, which according to him knew nothing of each other at the time of European contact:

"Both had settled capital cities—in Tenochtitlan and in Cuzco—something that at that stage Spain had not.

The two monarchies were both absolute ones: The power of the ruler was unquestioned. Both rulers were in constant touch, it was said, with the sun. The popular adulation attached to the monarch was exorbitant, and protest or dissent unthinkable.

Both societies liked alcohol and some drugs: The Peruvians had chicha, a mild beer made from maize, while the Mexica had pulque, made from the agave cactus; the Incas enjoyed coca rather than the elaborate range of hallucinogenic drugs available to the Mexica from mushrooms.

There were, of course, differences between these two indigenous societies. The most important one was that ancient Peru had no commercial life, while Mexico enjoyed a lively one: Mexican merchants also played an important part in informing the rulers, the “Emperors,” about other places, as if they were secret agents. A related difference was that there was no private landholding in Peru. The peasants farmed elaborate, productive, and even beautiful terraces, but they were held in common. Never was there a more pervasive government than that of the Incas. Personal liberty was practically nonexistent. Blind obedience and unquestioning self-abnegation had forever to be accorded. But if much was demanded of the subject, much was done for him. Marxists have talked of “Inca communism,” and they may have been correct thus to designate the Peruvian social structure, in which almost everything was supervised by officials.

Aztec society was much less controlled. Montezuma’s remark about the necessity of dealing harshly with his people if they were going to be ruled effectively is well known.

Another difference was that the Peruvians had sails on their rafts and canoes, which the Mexica and Mesoamerican people, such as the Maya, do not seem to have had. The Peruvians used the sea as a means for trade more than the Mexica did."

This was really surprising to me because Mexico faces the Caribbean with its huge islands. Mesoamericans had places to go, yet didn't. In fact, Thomas mentioned in his first volume that they seem to have never visited Cuba, Hispañola, etc.

"The Inca built magnificent roads and suspension bridges, far superior to anything then found in ancient Mexico—or, thought the Sevillano chronicler Pedro de Cieza de León, in old Europe.
The Mexica had remarkable artistic achievements to their credit: for example, their painting, poetry, and sculpture, monumental and tiny, relief and in the round. In these matters, the Peruvians were more limited, and no pre-Hispanic poetry is known from Peru.

Both had a process for creating metals of quality out of ore. But the Peruvians created more elaborate gold ornaments than the Mexica did.

Based on a straightforward worship of the sun, Inca religion was simpler than that of Mexico. Human sacrifices occurred but on a much lesser level than in ancient Mexico—the victims in Peru being usually beautiful boys and girls, often prisoners of war. Still, the death or investiture of a ruler could inspire the sacrifice of hundreds."

If the Incas achieved more political control over their subjects with less violence than the Aztecs, then perhaps the people of pre-Columbian Peru were tamer than Mesoamericans by nature? And one would normally expect a tamer people to be less artistically gifted.

The Spaniards who went to the New World were the opposite of tame. The number and extent of conflicts among them was shocking. For example, when Cortés set out to conquer Mexico, he was in revolt against his superior, the governor of Cuba. Some time after capturing Mexico City he left it to punish a revolt by one of his subordinates, so guess what happened - the Spaniards he left in charge in the capital revolted against him. And this was typical.

Extremeños, a wild bunch, were the most overrepresented type of Spaniards among the conquistadors. Catalans, who seem to be the most core-European of Iberians, were the most underrepresented.

Of course Indians fought each other all the time too, but on the whole, from the big picture perspective, instinctive loyalties predictably tended to align with genetic distances:

“This was the most dreadful and cruel war … Between Christians and Moors, there is usually some fellow feeling and it is in the interests of both sides to spare those whom they take alive, because of the ransom. But in this Indian war there is no such fellow feeling. We give each other the most cruel deaths we can imagine.”

Except for one familiar pattern: the converso Bartolomé de las Casas consistently took the side of the Indians against the Spaniards. He persuaded Charles V to issue a new set of laws which prohibited the enslavement of Indians and abolished the encomienda system of feudal-like land holding in Spanish America.

It's important to note here that Las Casas was not motivated by humanitarianism. In fact he's quoted here saying that the Spaniards who opposed the new laws should have been hanged, drawn and quartered.

These laws produced a large-scale rebellion of Spanish colonists in Peru, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of the deceased conqueror Francisco. Some of Gonzalo's supporters advised him to declare independence from Spain, marry a woman from the Inca royal house and make himself king.

He was eventually defeated by forces loyal to the Spanish crown. Before Gonzalo was executed, the royal governor reproached him for his ingratitude. The king of Spain sent the Pizarro brothers to Peru, gave them all these honors, etc., and what did they do in return?

Gonzalo answered that Francisco Pizarro and his followers conquered Peru on their own and that the king did not raise them up from dust because "the Pizarros have been noblemen and gentlemen with our own estates since the Goths came to Spain."

I found it very interesting that the Spanish gentry of the 16th century considered themselves to be descended from the Goths. What would have been the alternatives? The Romans or claims of being entirely autochthonous.

Back to Las Casas: he had a public debate with a scholar named Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda about the nature of the Indians.

"Sepúlveda’s arguments for the legality of the conquests were, first, on account of the gravity of the sins committed by the Indians, especially their idolatries and their sins against nature; second, on account of the rudeness of the Indians’ nature which obliged them to serve the Spaniards. Here Aristotle could be cited, recalling his observation that some people are inferior by nature. The Indians were as different from Spaniards as monkeys are from men.

Compare then those blessings enjoyed by Spaniards, of prudence, genius, magnanimity, temperance, humanity and religion, with those of the “hombrecillos” among whom you will scarcely find even a vestige of humanity, who not only possess no science but who also lack letters and preserve no monument of their history except certain vague and obscure reminiscences in some paintings. Neither do they have written laws, but barbaric institutions and customs. They do not even have private property."

It must be said that the Mayans did have a writing system, but its use went into decline before the Spaniards arrived. Thomas says that at the time of contact they did not use their characters for writing letters or contracts.

Fray Domingo de Betanzos, another opponent of Las Casas, wrote that Indians should not have been encouraged to study “since no benefit could be expected for a long time … Indians are not stable persons to whom one can entrust the preaching of the Holy Gospel. They do not have the ability to understand correctly and fully the Christian faith nor is their language sufficient and copious enough to be able to express our faith without great improprieties, which can easily result in great errors.” So no Indian should be ordained a priest"...

"He added that he, like Bishop Zumárraga, "longed to go to China, where apparently the “natives were so much more intelligent than those of New Spain.”

Las Casas countered this in a very modern leftist fashion by saying that the Indians were as smart as the ancient Greeks and Romans and more civilized than Spaniards. He even tried to justify their human sacrifices.

Thomas says that Las Casas ended up winning the intellectual argument in Spain but that the situation on the ground in the Indies remained largely unchanged.

The real audience of Las Casas's and Sepulveda's debate was the king-emperor Charles V, a very important figure in this book. I was surprised to learn that the name Carlos was almost unknown in Spain before his reign began. This reminded me of the fact that the Greek name Phillip, born by Charles's successor, was brought to Western Europe by a daughter of the Russian prince Yaroslav the Wise, who was married to the king of France and who gave it to one of her sons, who eventually became king.

Charles V is shown here as an earnest, well-meaning man. He twice challenged Francis I, the king of France, to single combat to settle their differences without war. Unfortunately these duels did not end up occurring.

Charles was by far the most powerful European ruler of his day. In 1522, in an apparent attempt to get into his good graces the cardinals elected his trusted advisor and former tutor Adrian pope. Being Dutch, he was the last non-Italian pope until John Paul II in the late 20th century.

"He caused consternation by refusing to countenance nepotism." A placard placed on a door in the Vatican "denounced the cardinals who had elected Adrian as “robbers, betrayers of Christ’s blood” and asked, “Do you not feel sorrow to have surrendered the Vatican to German fury?”...

Ludwig von Pastor, the historian of the popes, wrote that “Adrian’s single-hearted anxiety to live exclusively for duty was to Italians of that age like an apparition from another world, beyond the grasp of their comprehension.”

Thomas also informs us that Adrian was denounced by Romans for preferring beer to wine.

As always, I was fascinated by all the old ethnic stereotypes mentioned in this book. For example, Thomas says that Greeks were often employed as artillery specialists in Spanish armies, including in the Americas.

The following reads bizarrely today: "Black slaves were thought to work harder than Indians, something especially noticeable in the hot climate."

In contrast to the Indian situation, the question of the morality of enslaving Blacks seems to have never come up.

"If these monarchs gave the matter any thought at all, they would have supposed that a slave in Christian hands would be much better off than a free African in Africa."

At one point Thomas writes that there is no evidence that anyone in pre-Colombian Mexico or Peru "had a sense of humor, whereas the Spaniards were always laughing." This must have seemed especially alien to a Brit like him. I can read Spanish, so I sometimes asked myself "why am I reading about Spanish and Latin American history in English?" Well, it's very hard to imagine anyone but a Brit writing about history with such great style and such subtle humor as Hugh Thomas. I recommend this volume highly.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Thoughts on the Election

First, I'd estimate Trump's IQ to be in the 105 to 110 range. That's below the IQ of the average congressman, governor or past president. Both of the Clintons are probably around 140. I'll be voting for Trump, but it would be silly to claim that he knows a lot of facts, has good taste or possesses a long attention span.

How could someone with a 105 to 110 IQ have become a billionaire? He's a natural alpha and his father's fortune must have given him a head start.

Most of his political opinions are typical of working-class, non-Jewish real New Yorkers - white ethnics whose ancestors came here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the popular imagination these people are Irish and Italian, but reality is, as always, more complicated, and I've known a few with German last names as well.

Why would a son of a multimillionaire be culturally working-class? The above-mentioned IQ issue. Also, his natural machismo.

If you ask an Italian-American elevator mechanic from Jersey or Staten Island about law and order, free trade or immigration, you'll hear the same things that are coming out of Trump. These people were pro-war in the aftermath of 9/11, but turned anti-war in the middle of the Iraq disaster. And they're still anti-war today.

Such people's opinions of Putin and Russia are much more negative than Trump's though. Does that mean that the TrumPutin conspiracy theory is correct? I don't know. It's fun to accuse Hillbots online of peddling a conspiracy theory, but I'll vote for Trump regardless of whether or not he's actually in touch with the Kremlin. Hillary is supported by lots of non-American forces and, what's more important, she'll be much worse for America and the world.

I'm not a pacifist because I sympathize with individuals and groups who defend themselves, but I don't think that America's current military involvements have anything to do with self-defense. In fact, I think that America will be safer if it withdrew from the Middle East.

I like both of the countries in which I've lived, so the idea of peaceful relations between them is very attractive to me.

I don't think that a nuclear exchange or a direct conventional war between Russia and the US is possible because if it was, it would have probably already happened. The USSR acquired nuclear weapons in 1949. Think of all the crises that have happened since then, of all the changes of personnel at the top. What does the absence of direct conflict tell us? That MAD works.

However, Hillary is likely to start new conventional proxy wars with Russia. The Korean, Vietnam, Central American and Afghanistan wars were the largest proxy wars of Cold War I. The Georgian, Donbass and Syrian wars have been the largest proxy wars of Cold War II. These conflicts kill enormous numbers of people, so any humanitarian should be opposed to those who promote them.

Trump is an erratic guy, and along with a large number of dovish statements he's made some not so dovish ones. How do I resolve this problem? First, I go by volume. His peaceful statements have been more numerous. Second, I look at the behavior of the people with the largest stake in this issue. Both the neocons and Putin are acting as if they think that Trump will be a non-interventionist. As I said above, I don't know if the Kremlin is helping Trump with his campaign, but I follow Russian media, and the pro-Kremlin parts of it are indeed pro-Trump.

Even though I'm an immigrant, I support Trump's immigration stance. I freely admit that this is hypocritical. What can I say, I'm comfortable here.

As should be evident from my blog, I'm fascinated by a wide variety of cultures, by their languages, histories, stereotypes and genetics. There are people who spend a lot of energy defending endangered species of frogs or butterflies, and I sympathize with them, but not as much as with the people who are trying to preserve human cultural and biological diversity. I see the prospect of the melting down of humanity into one big, undifferentiated grey mass as a tragedy that should be avoided.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution all of the world's rising powers have had manufacturing economies. England, Germany, America, the USSR, Japan, now China. Deindustrialization is historically linked with declining living standards and loss of international influence. I think that anyone who wishes this country well and who has a realistic, non-libertardian view of economics, would be a protectionist like Trump.

I'm with Trump on the issue of law and order. I think that the Ferguson Effect is real and that national stop & frisk would save a lot of lives.

Finally, and unfortunately, I've never expected Trump to win. Almost the entire power structure hates him, and it's foolish to bet against it. I'm guessing that soft methods will work for the powers that be this time, but if they don't, they'll resort to hard ones.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Italian names are famously euphonious. The book about Florentine history that I recently reviewed here contained thousands of them. Did I have a favorite? Of course. Clarice Orsini, the wife of Lorenzo the Magnificent. You have to pronounce it in the Italian way though.

Continuing with the theme of cool-sounding word combinations, I learned from Hugh Thomas's first book about the early Spanish empire that Ferdinand of Aragon, Isabella's husband, signed all his letters with the phrase "yo, el rey". That sounds great no matter what language I translate it to.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Anton van den Wyngaerde

I'm reading the second book of Hugh Thomas's trilogy about the early Spanish empire. He mentions a Flemish artist named Anton van den Wyngaerde who "sketched most of the towns of Castile - so carefully that in 1572 he retired to Madrid with his hands crippled."

That made me curious, so I looked him up. His are the best city panoramas I've ever seen. While reading about Florentine history I naturally wanted to see what old Florence looked like, and the best that I could find on the Internet was this. Wyngaerde's stuff is better. This is just beautiful, as are this and this.

Whenever I look at walled cities or castles, I immediately imagine them being taken by an army. The best cinematic portrayal of that I have seen is contained in Andrei Tarkovsky's movie Andrei Rublev.

There is an album of Wyngaerde's sketches on sale. I'm guessing that there's more stuff there than is available online, but I haven't yet decided if I want to splurge on it.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A New Quatrain for the Credo Poem

This past Saturday I wrote another quatrain for my big Credo poem:

Every modern recreation
Of morality from scratch,
On a rational foundation,
Has some flaw, some fatal catch.

The entire work in progress can be seen here. In this part I'm trying to make the point that I laid out in the 4th and 5th paragraphs of this book review. It will take a few more quatrains to do it fully. I'm sure that lots of people have thought of this stuff before me, but the goal of expressing it in verse as well as I can is attractive to me.

This quatrain, the 22nd that I wrote for this poem, took more time and effort than any of the others. I didn't expect that going in and I'm sure that someone looking at the poem wouldn't think that this was the hardest part to write. The reason is a mystery to me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review of A History of Florence, 1200 - 1575

A History of Florence, 1200 - 1575, by John Najemy, 2008. Glossy's rating: 4.5/10.

This is mostly a book about the politics of Florence's golden age, with some discussion of its economics and family life.

In 1115, after the death of Matilda, the margravine of Tuscany, the cities of the region successfully repulsed her successors' attempts to establish control over them, setting up independent republics instead. During the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries Florence gradually rose in importance among these cities, eventually conquering most of Tuscany.

Throughout this period Florence's politics was dominated by a conflict between powerful aristocratic families called the grandi on the one hand, and the commercial and artisanal middle class called the popolo on the other hand. The popolo was a misleading term because there were lots of people below it - free manual laborers, slaves, indigents and others.

The grandi started as a military and landowning aristocracy, but as the textile industry, international trade and banking took off in the later Middle Ages, they went into business, competing with the lower-born popolo.

The popolo criticized the grandi for being an extremely fractious bunch addicted to blood feuds, which sometimes snowballed into wars which occasionally destroyed large parts of the city. No duels were mentioned in this book, but like the dueling aristocracies of other places and periods, this was clearly a people bred for war. I loved the description of one of their leaders, Corso Donati, given by an enemy of his, a contemporary historian of middle class background named Dino Compagni:

"His mind was always set on evildoing"... [He] "lived dangerously and died reprehensibly. He was a knight of great spirit and renown, noble in blood and behavior, and very handsome in appearance even in his old age, of fine form with delicate features and white skin. He was a charming, wise, and elegant speaker, and always undertook great things. He was accustomed to dealing familiarly with great lords and noble men, and had many friends, and was famous throughout all Italy. He was the enemy of the popolo and of popolani, and was loved by his soldiers; he was full of malicious thoughts, cruel and astute...."

All Florentine historians of that period were popolani, meaning middle class. The literary genre preferred by the grandi was courtly love poetry.

Popolani writers looked to the ancient Roman republic for models of civic virtue, personal moderation and rule of law. In fact, the similarities between the two societies were numerous. The grandi/popolani conflict recalls the struggle between Roman patricians and plebeians. As Florence became more and more successful, it, like Rome, gradually morphed from a republic into a monarchy, with its rulers denying this for a long time, until finally admitting the obvious and donning a crown. In both cases the first monarchy sprang from the old aristocracy and not from the middle class.

With time the Florentine grandi got tamer, with civil courts replacing blood feuds and mercenaries replacing the native elite as the city's cavalry. I'm guessing that their martial nature was gradually diluted by intermarriage with rich popolani, though Najemy gives a different explanation.

While Najemy never mentions Marx, he consistently interprets Florentine politics through the framework of class struggle, sympathizing with the popolo (middle class) against the grandi and with laborers against the popolo.

I think that politics has always been mostly about tribalism, with people favoring those genetically closer to them. I think that Marxism is as wrong as libertarianism, though it doesn't trigger me like libertarianism does because Marxism has long been on the defensive. Lies and misconceptions are much more annoying when they're winning.

I would guess that the medieval Italian aristocracy was genetically more Lombard, Gothic, etc. than the middle and lower classes, and that their distinctive culture as well as their solidarity against the popolani had something to do with that.

From the late 13th till the early 16th centuries Florence was pretty much the intellectual and artistic capital of the world. Why? This book does not deal with this question, but I can't resist musing about it.

For much of this period Florence was the chief city of Tuscany. Maybe language wasn't the only highly unusual thing about the ancient Etruscans. Maybe they had some unusual talents too.

Republicanism in northern Italy seems to have peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries, gradually declining afterwards. At first city states were tiny and numerous, but they soon began to gobble each other up. The emergent small empires enriched leading families, which increased their role in government.

Booming trade and finance created private fortunes which acted in the same way. The Medici got enormously rich through their bank. They used that money to create the largest patronage network in Florence, which later helped them seize power. Lots of people owed them favors.

Also, the city had to pay for its constant wars, and the Medici skillfully leveraged their lending ability to gain power over the government.

It should be said though that in Florence republicanism declined slower than in most of its regional rivals. It survived longer in Venice, but Florence's politics was more turbulent, with more revolutions, coups and civil wars and with larger swings between the extremes of democracy and despotism.

Florence is an obstacle for anyone trying to argue that political stability is important for civilizational progress. In spite of their intense patriotism several Florentine politicians and writers are quoted in this book admitting that Venice's political system was preferable because it was more stable.

Florence isn't located on a coast, and its imperial endeavors were entirely land-based, directed towards other Tuscan cities. Venice and Genoa had far-flung overseas empires, but made a much smaller intellectual impact. There may not be any relationship between these facts, but if you want to think about the causes of the Florentine miracle, you have to start with listing the most important ways in which Florence differed from its neighbors and rivals.

"If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" is a question that's sometimes asked in life. Well, while prominent, Florence was never the most powerful Italian state. And Italy as a whole was often invaded by Germans, Spaniards and the French during this period.

The gap in civilizational progress, in innovation, between Florence and everywhere else was largest in the late 15th century. This was a time when the republican tradition was dying in the city, but when the ruling family, the Medici, still denied this, still feeling the need to pretend to be regular citizens.

Najemy says that by 1300 a large majority of Florence's men and a sizable minority of its women could read and write. In 1330, when the city's population was about 90,000, 68% to 75% of the children were in school. I don't know how this compared to other Italian cities of that time though.

Like most cities throughout history medieval and renaissance Florence was a population sink. Infections in the densely-packed town were common and the death rate was high. The birth rate was low, and to maintain its size the city needed a continuing flow of newcomers from the countryside.

The upper crust had more children than the lower and middle classes though. First, they could afford to feed as many kids as they wanted. Second, their women could be pregnant more often because they hired wet nurses.

Marriages within the elite were arranged in the most business-like way imaginable. Najemy quotes a letter in which one man asked someone belonging to a family with which he wanted to acquire connections to pick a bride for him from among his relatives. Dowries were negotiated for months.

Florentine women married around the age of 17, men around 30. This seems eugenic because the share of men who died before 30 must have been considerable in those centuries.

On sodomy:

"Long-term relationships were rare, occasional encounters the norm. Those who engaged in homosexual acts generally divided into two distinct age groups with different sexual roles. Young men between the ages of roughly eighteen and thirty took the dominant, or active, role in encounters in which they penetrated, but were not penetrated by, passive partners who were largely adolescents and teenaged boys. Among those accused of sodomy, 90% of passive partners were eighteen or younger and 83% of active partners nineteen or older.

As boys passed the threshold of their eighteenth or nineteenth year, most gave up the passive role and became active partners with younger boys. And as young men went past the age of thirty, and especially if they married, most abandoned the homosexual practices of their youth. Homosexual relations between adult men were less common, but not exactly rare.

Homosexual practices were not an alternative, and certainly not a permanent, sexual preference: the vast majority of those who engaged in them did not do so to the exclusion of sex with women or for their whole lives."

Sodomy was condemned by the church and sometimes punished by the state, but the penalties weren't heavy, so its practice continued. It's unclear to me how common it was. Najemy says that about 200 people a year were accused of it in Florence, but what percentage of the sodomites were ever accused?

The whole thing seems similar to the ancient Greco-Roman situation though. Richard Burton included Italy in his Sotadic Zone, but was pederasty really still common there in his time? It isn't now. When exactly did it stop being common in Italy?

In the Middle East and around the Mediterranean women have for a long time been less available for casual relationships than in most of Europe or in Africa. Families guarded them for arranged marriages instead. One might think that this was why men looked for casual sex with boys, and that 19th and 20th century women's lib, more than Christianity, put an end to widespread pederasty in southern Europe by freeing up young women.

However, there were lots of slave girls and prostitutes in ancient Rome. And according to this book, there were some in medieval Florence too. So causation is, as usual, unclear.

Both of Florence's most famous artists, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, are presumed to have been life-long homosexuals. By the way, they're barely mentioned in this book. Dante and Machiavelli get more space, but only because they had some involvement in the city's politics.

I don't blame the author for that - Florentine politics is very interesting - but his pomo-like writing style typical of modern social science clashes rudely with the beauty that most people associate with Florence. I'll give you an example:

"Artistic production reflected the social, economic, and contractual contexts of interactions between producers and consumers, who came from different classes, as well as the religious and aesthetic dimensions of consumer demand."

There's no good reason for history, not even for the economic kind, to be written like that.

Forget the Renaissance, the Middle Ages were beautiful too. The look of medieval cities with their narrow cobbled streets and shingled roofs, the cathedrals, the castles and towers, the weapons and armor, the guilds, the music - all of this is highly romantic to me and to millions of others. You get some glimpses of that world from reading this book, but only through a layer of colorless social-science gibberish.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Movie "Boyhood"

I saw Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood over the weekend. It's realistic, well-intentioned and boring. The depiction of childhood was done better in Terence Malick's Tree of Life.

Even though I'm closer in age to Linklater than to Malick, my own boyhood was more like Malick's. This is because the 1960s only came to the USSR in the 1990s. I spent more time outdoors playing more dangerous games than Linklater's protagonist, but everything to do with sex came into my and my friends' lives much later. For related reasons my parents didn't split and I've never had to see my mom arrange dates with men. Even typing that last phrase felt sacrilegious and ewwey. I owe you so much, fate, for sparing me that.

When this movie came out the biggest criticism wasn't that it was boring but that everyone was white in it. Actually the protagonist's sister, supposedly a daughter of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, looks Mexican. The Wikipedia reveals that she was born in Mexico and is a child of Linklater's - presumably adopted.

Linklater was obviously trying to do his own story here, so he needed to cast a 6-year old boy who'd later look realistic as an artsy teen. So he found a son of a musician, and 12 years later the plan totally worked. We are our parents.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Nerdy Martha Stewart, the Miscellaneous Edition

A few random consumer goods recommendations:

The Leatherman Squirt.


I've carried this thing on my keychain for about a decade. Every guy should have one. I've used its knife today to open an Amazon package. I've used its several screwdrivers many, many times, as well as its bottle opener, pliers and other tools. Obviously, the knife is the thing that you're going to use the most.

The quality is impressive. This thing has been in my pants pocket for all these years, bumping against my keys and change, with lint getting into its insides, yet it always opens smoothly.

This company is still run by its founder, Tim Leatherman, which probably helps explain why the product is so great. The only downside to carrying it is that if you're going for jury duty and the like, building security temporarily takes it away.

 Panasonic RP-HTX7 headphones.
I only use these because they look cool. I always have a black pair on my desktop and a white pair on my musical keyboard. All headphones sound good enough to me, so if I ever see a pair that looks better than this Panasonic model, I'll immediately buy it.

Edwin Jagger Gillette Mach 3 Razor

This is the best-looking razor I know of, but I'm not fully satisfied with it. The handle isn't heavy enough and too smooth, which makes it slippery when you're trying to hold it with a soapy hand. I'm willing to suffer a little for the aesthetics though. I use it with this stand.

Speaking of soap, this is where I put mine:
I love this sort of cutesiness. The guy who makes these is named Kelvin Chen. I have quite a few of his decorative kettles on windowsills and shelves around my apartment.

Speaking of cutesy stuff:

The Japanese are obsessed with it, so every time I see a Japanese novelty store in Manhattan, my hopes go up, only to be dashed 30 minutes later. They love the idea of cuteness, but something always goes wrong in the execution. I can't imagine them coming up with something as cute as this, for example.

Or this:

This guy looks even better in real life, but I'm feeling too lazy right not to get off my ass and take a proper picture of him. He's filled with sand and is quite heavy.

A while ago I wrote a post about the stuff that I have in my cubicle. Here's one of the things that I put there since then:

It's not as convenient to use as a normal staple remover, but it works. And here's my new stapler:
Continuing with the office theme, this is the chair I'm sitting on right now. Love it.
And finally, a letter opener I found on eBay. It came to me from Bulgaria, but there are no identifying signs on it, so I have no idea where and when it was made.  


Saturday, September 3, 2016

School, Part 1

A second installment in my autobiographical series:

The Soviet school year started on September 1st, unless that day fell on a Sunday. Our school had about a thousand students, all of whom stood grouped by class in front of the building on opening day, dressed in holiday uniforms and holding flowers.

Uplifting speeches were made out front, but instead of listening to them we told each other all the new jokes we'd heard over the summer. Before puberty these jokes, called anekdoty (anecdotes) in Russian, were the most exciting things in my life.

The joy of hearing others laugh when I got to a punchline was overwhelming, and the kids who most often told jokes that I hadn't heard before seemed like the coolest ones in school to me.

I don't remember the vast majority of these "anecdotes" anymore, just their general types. There were ethnic ones, for which one would have probably been expelled from most Western schools of that time, but which everyone in the USSR told without fear and without anyone taking offense. There were jokes about Vasily Chapaev, a Civil War hero and the subject of a famous 1930s movie, jokes about Stierlitz, a Soviet spy from a 1970s TV series about the Great Patriotic War, jokes about Vovochka (little Vladdy), an extremely sexually precocious and inquisitive little boy, and many others.

Since there was no pornography anywhere, up until my late teens my entire stock of knowledge about sex came from these jokes. It was woefully hazy and incomplete.

When the speeches were over, we walked to our classroom, put the flowers in a great heap on the teacher's desk and took up our usual seats.

For the first three years all of our classes except for gym were taught by a single teacher - a tall, kindly, very proper middle-aged woman named Yevdokiya Gavrilovna. This name-patronymic combination sounds rustic and archaic to a Russian speaker's ear, but as I remember, there was nothing rustic about her as a person.

Starting in the fourth grade we got separate teachers for every subject, with the entire class walking to a new classroom during most breaks. The class itself, as well as the seating arrangement, tended to persist. Sometimes a kid left because his or her family moved to a different neighborhood and sometimes new pupils came in, but quite a few of the kids with whom I started first grade were still in my class in the eleventh.

The only kind of education with which I can really compare the Soviet school system of those years is the American one, in which I was briefly enrolled at the age of 17. The difference in quality was like the mirror image of US Cold War propaganda's picture of the difference between Soviet and Western consumer goods.

We studied quadratic equations at the age of 11, calculus at 15 and series at 16. Starting at age 13 we had to memorize dozens of Euclidean proofs and were often required to prove things on our own.

Rote memorization, which largely disappeared from Western education during the 1960s, was still very much alive in the USSR of my youth. We had to learn hundreds of classical 19th-century Russian poems by heart, some of them quite long. Pacing my room late in the evening, trying to learn a new poem, anxious that I wasn't going to finish it on time - this is a very familiar to me image of my younger self.

Ironically in view of the nature of my blog, the thing that I hated the most in school was writing literature papers. This often had to be done in class, in 45 minutes, or over the span of two periods. In spite of great efforts, I wrote some of the shortest papers of any of us, rarely more than a page and a half. I remember our literature teacher viciously showing a paper of mine to the entire class as an example of what not to do.

There was no corporal punishment, but teachers calling us idiots (which we often were) was OK, as was the summoning of parents to school for stern talks and, in the early grades, sending a kid to the corner of the room as punishment. And yes, I've stood in that corner.

The grading system was numeric. A 5 was equivalent to an American A, a 4 to a B, a 3 to a C and a 2 to an F. The grade of 1 (colloquially a pole, the kind on which criminals were impaled in the Middle Ages) was very rare and indicated a truly extraordinary level of stupidity. I was mostly a 4 student.

Grades were usually given in two ways: for tests and as a result of being called to answer in front of the class. A period usually started with the teacher looking at the roster and picking one kid to come up to the blackboard.

I grew up without God, but not without prayer. "Please don't pick me, no, please, not me, not today" - silently in my mind of course. Some teachers sadistically lingered with their pens hovering over certain portions of the roster. We all looked attentively, knowing how far up or down the alphabet each one of our last names was located.

When your name was called, you had to prove yesterday's theorem on the blackboard or recite the assigned poem by heart or analyze a sentence or answer questions about the historical period which we were then studying.

A bit about that sentence analysis:

Every part of speech - nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc. - had to be underlined in a specific way. For example, for some reason I still remember that adjectives required a wavy line. There were also ways to indicate the subject, the direct and indirect objects, modifiers and whatever else of that type that there might have been in a sentence chosen specifically for its ability to confuse an 11-year old. Even if you got all of that right, your grade might still have suffered because your handwriting wasn't good enough.

There was no multiple choice on tests. Math and science exams' problems were written in chalk by the teacher on the blackboard. Each desk seated two students, so to minimize cheating the teacher wrote two sets of questions, one for the right side of each desk and one for the left. We still sometimes managed to cheat by passing notes or looking over the shoulders of our smarter classmates.

One type of Russian language test was called a dictant. The teacher dictated a literary passage which we had to write down while trying to avoid spelling and punctuation mistakes.

Innumerable rules of punctuation were studied relentlessly. Sentences of immense complexity were invented to torture students and illustrate grammatical points. Of course now, as an adult, I punctuate entirely by feel both in Russian and English.

The only classes which boys attended separately from girls were shop and military preparedness. I know that girls were taught cooking and the like while we were in shop class, but where did they go when we were in military class? No idea.

Our military instructor, a retired officer and a very cool guy, explained the armed forces' command structure and equipment, taught us to assemble and disassemble an AK and supervised marksmanship tournaments. These involved airguns which looked like old hunting rifles and shot little lead pellets.

Together with our textbooks and notebooks each one of us carried a "diary" in his school bag. This was a thick booklet where we wrote each week's schedule of classes. Next to each class was a space where a teacher could put a grade if there was a test that day or if she had just called you to the blackboard.

Some kids altered these grades after the fact to fool their parents. There were kids crying after particularly hard tests. School mattered a lot to many. I never tried to alter a grade because my parents never asked to look at my diary. Of course they had a general idea of how well I was doing - neither badly nor very well. I take the fact that they didn't push me to study harder as evidence that my own lifelong lack of ambition was directly inherited from them.

Besides the diary, grades were entered into a "journal" - a tall, thin, classily-bound book which remained in the teacher's possession during a class. When we all walked to a new classroom, our journal was carried by a teacher's pet, almost always a girl.

The school year was divided into quarters. At the end of each one a teacher summed up your overall performance in his or her subject with a single grade. The same thing was done at the end of the year. There was one quarter sometime around 9th or 10th grade when I achieved an absolutely perfect level of mediocrity, getting a 4 in every one of 15 or so subjects.

Yet in spite of my inborn laziness and the famously demanding nature of Soviet education, I never hated going to school. In fact, I missed it all through the summers. I'll try to explain why in the next chapter.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

YouTube Links

I waste a lot of time on YouTube, mostly watching music videos. I often search for covers of songs that I've loved for years - it's fun to hear a fresh take on something familiar and to think about all the ways in which it's better or worse than the original.

I love this cover of It's a Sin by a band called Metric. The piano line is elegantly simple and the vocals are as close to the original's coolness as one could probably get without the upscale British accent. I remember asking friends in the 1980s, back in school, where they really did teach me how to be "so pure in thought and word and deed", what the hell could the phrase "Pet Shop Boys" possibly mean. I assumed it was an idiomatic expression that I didn't know.

Of all the other Metric songs that YouTube suggested to me once it figured out that I liked their Pet Shop Boys cover, this one was the best.

I've loved Frente!'s cover of Bizarre Love Triangle ever since it came out more than 20 years ago. I wouldn't say that I love this Nouvelle Vague version of it, but it was enough to pique my interest in Nouvelle Vague. Here's a song by Mélanie Pain, one of their singers. Except for the cheap particle-board books and CDs case in the corner of the room, everything in that video is perfect: Mélanie's cute turtle-like face, her regal air and pose, the vocals, the piano, the editing. This guitar version, with the same guy, is only slightly worse.

The second singer in Nouvelle Vague's Bizarre Love Triangle video above is a Cuban-American woman named Liset Alea. This and this are pretty good.

Getting back to Frente!, I really enjoyed this song by Angie Hart. She's aged really well and the accent is adorable.

Here's a good cover of one of the coolest Weezer songs ever, The World Has Turned and Left Me Here. And here's the original.

I'm interested in nerdiness as a subject. Not all nerds are. The best lyrical evocation of nerdiness that I know of is contained in this Weezer song: "In the garage I feel safe, no one cares about my ways. In the garage, where I belong, no one hears me sing this song."

My favorite Weezer song is The Good Life though. And my favorite thing of theirs that I first heard on YouTube, as opposed to a cassette or CD that I bought, is this live version of Pork and Beans.

Switching gears completely, I love This I Love by G n' R. This is a weird thing to say, but those vocals made me think of captain Jack Aubrey. It's the combination of earnestness and a vague piratical quality.

Recently I stumbled on this Go-Go's concert video from 1981. Every MTV victim from the 1990s, and I presume the 1980s too, would recognize it as the source of the official We Got the Beat video, but I've never seen the whole show until YouTube.

My favorite part of it is the tiny snippet of a song called Fading Fast which starts a little after the 15:55 mark and then recurs twice after the 16:43 mark. "You can talk about old times (yesterday is gone), they don't mean a thing to me", but it's not the lyrics of course that make that great, but Belinda's and Jane's tones of voice, especially Jane's. It's a magical moment.

This makes me think of great snippets of songs in general. Throughout my adolescence my favorite such thing was the 0:38 to 0:49 part of the Beatles' When I'm Sixty-Four, which recurs from 1:34 to 1:46 with a variation. It's the cozy, sad and sober cuteness of it.

Later, and for many years, my favorite song snippet was the 2:01 to 2:22 portion of the Cranberries' Disappointment, the second half of it more than the first. As with all music, you have to hear it a handful of times to start appreciating it properly.

Moving back to the Go-Go's concert video, a song called Automatic is very good, as is Lust to Love and many others. All the Go-Go's were cute in their own ways, except for Charlotte, who was probably the best musician. Belinda was the most beautiful one though, and a great performer. I love the choruses in this post-Go-Go's song which Charlotte wrote for her.