Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review of Rousseau's Confessions

Les Confessions (Confessions) by Jean-Jacque Rousseau, 1765 - 1770. Read in French. Glossy's rating: 3 out of 10.

Rousseau's Confessions give a pretty good idea of the kind of person he was: a grumpy, wimpy nerd who enjoyed being humiliated. So why did I finish this book? At a far enough remove almost any work becomes mostly about its time, and I find history interesting. Les Confessions can give a modern reader an intuitive feel for relations between Protestants and Catholics, intellectuals and their benefactors, hookers and johns, Frenchmen and Italians and many other kinds of persons of its time.

For example, I was fascinated by the extent to which Rousseau, a French-speaking citizen of the city-state of Geneva, considered himself non-French. Whenever he wrote that the French had a way of making him feel this or that, I wanted to shout at him, Elaine Benes-like, "YOU'RE French!" While describing his sojourns in the Venetian Republic and in the southern portion of the Kingdom of Savoy he had no problem calling the locals Italians. This must have been partly because distance increases our desire to generalize, but also because the existence of a state called France made the popular 18th-century understanding of Frenchness more legalistic and bureaucratic than the popular understanding of Germanness or Italianness.

Unlike the bulk of the French, the Genevans of that time were Protestants. The Reformation arose as a Germanic reaction to typically Mediterranean political corruption and inequality. Scandinavia, the most Germanic region of all, accepted Luther's ideas so enthusiastically that hardly anyone there was killed over them. The most culturally Mediterranean regions of the West (Italy and Iberia) rejected these do-gooder reforms with no less zeal. Most of the violence occurred in the middle of the Med-Nord continuum, in the areas that could have conceivably gone either way. And it makes perfect sense that there was more enthusiasm for the Reformation among the Czechs than among the Poles - the Czechs are genetically and emotionally more like Germans than the Poles are.

With all of that in mind I expected Genevans, pillars of French-speaking protestantism, to sound somewhat Germanic. But Rousseau didn't. There was a typically French sensuality in his tendency to analyze the minutia of feeling. And he displayed the generally Mediterranean liking for hyperbole, invariably telling the reader that no one had ever felt as thankful, betrayed, lonely, in love, etc. as he did during whatever episode he happened to be describing at the moment.

The early portions of this book feature a lot of regret over missed chances with women. Why do men obsess over those much more than we do about missed chances to get rich or professionally successful, which, if realized, would have naturally led to, among other things, increased popularity with women? I guess men, even rich ones, don't like to admit to themselves how important money and power are in the romantic sphere. We'd rather be loved for ourselves than for our status or possessions.

The most aberrant feature of Rousseau's sexuality and of his psychological makeup in general was his need to be humiliated by women. He was normally too embarrassed to flat-out ask them to spank him, so that particular fetish of his was only satisfied by a couple of females early on in his life. In adulthood the usual outlets for his pathology were inviting women to boss him around and constantly asking them for forgiveness for various slights. He admitted that these were poor strategies for attracting female attention, but was simply unable to change himself.

There's no doubt in my mind that both the nature of this book (confessing to poor behavior is humiliating) and the wimpiness of Rousseau's philosophy had their roots in this aspect of his personality, which already began to express itself in his childhood.

He was't latently gay though:

"She was very thin, very fair and with a chest as flat as my hand. That defect alone would have been enough to freeze me; for neither my heart nor my sense have ever been able to think of one without breasts as a woman."

And he was utterly disgusted as well as morally outraged by the few homosexual advances he received in his youth. Two of those happened in Lyon, contributing to his judgement that that city was subject to "the most dreadful corruption in all of Europe". I wonder how true this actually was.

In general it's a lot of fun to quote giants of the Enlightenment being epically illiberal by modern standards. With regard to an organization that only accepted aristocrats ("gentilhommes") and doctors of the Sorbonne as members Rousseau wrote that "If there is one justifiable source of pride besides personal merit, it's that which is derived from birth." I fully agree.

Much of the pleasure of reading a book like this comes from things said in passing which only started to sound remarkable with time. For example at one point, while surreptitiously drinking his employer's wine, Rousseau realizes that it would probably go down a little better with food.

"But how could a fine gentleman with a sword at his side go to a baker's to buy a hunk of bread?"

Think about THAT next time you go to the store. And he was working as a tutor then, practically a domestic. And was a son of a watchmaker.

While describing his stint as a junior tax official he mentions in a very matter-of-fact way that he was working 8-hour days. Was that normal for office workers at the time? If so, where and in what period did that practice originate? When 19th-century industrial workers fought for an 8-hour day, were they simply demanding to be treated like bureaucrats?

I found it interesting that Rousseau called an acquaintance who was born in Surinam an "Américain". He also talked about an uncle of his who left Geneva for Carolina ("Caroline") to help build Charlestown, for which he drew up a plan. And given my background I can't resist mentioning Rousseau's passing reference to a Genevan of his acquaintance who had once been employed by Peter the Great ("Pierre le Grand") "at the court of Russia."

The number of clergy in ancien régime France was simply stunning. When Rousseau strikes up a conversation with a random stranger, half the time it turns out be a priest or an abbé. The proportion of clerics among his neighbors, another mostly random category, seems scarcely lower. Yet the society described wasn't exactly prudish. Adultery and prostitution flourished.

The most shocking to modern Western sensibilities episode involves the purchase by Rousseau and a friend of an 11 or 12-year-old girl from her mother. This happened in Venice. The two men planned to raise the girl for future use as their exclusive disease-free concubine. In the age of syphilis prostitution carried enormous risks, and this was one strategy for avoiding them. Rousseau left Venice before the plan produced results.

By the time he started working on his autobiography Rousseau's writings and music had already made him an international celebrity. Wealthy, aristocratic people competed with each other to become his benefactors. Yet Complaints would have been a much more apt title for this volume than Confessions. Sure, his books were occasionally burned and he was exiled from a few places. But that seems to have only raised his reputation in others. And you've got to expect some conflict if you're going to write about politics.

He described an endless stream of eye-glazingly boring squabbles and grudges in the most excruciating detail while regularly repeating that he was the most uncomplaining man who had ever lived and that he was constitutionally unable to remember any wrongs that anyone had ever done him.

The end feels sad. I don't think old age necessarily has to be a swamp of defeat, depression, and extreme irritability, but if you suspect that it does, it would probably be a good idea to skip this book.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The War in the Ukraine

For the last few months I've been spending at least a couple of hours a day following events in the Ukraine. I'll start this post with a summary of the players and their motivations.

Putin is very much not a Russian nationalist. He started his political life as a Soviet patriot. It's easy to see why such a person would have been attracted to the KGB. He now governs as a patriot of the multiethnic Russian state. In comparison Western presidents and prime ministers are neither ethnonationalists nor patriots of their multiethnic states. The ideology now reigning in the West condemns both of those things.

The February coup in Kiev threatened the interests of both the Russian ethnos and of the Russian state. Predictably, Putin only reacted to the latter set of threats. The Russian ethnos was threatened with further Ukrainiazation. It was clear that the new government would redouble its efforts to reeducate ethnic Russians living in the Ukraine into identifying as Ukrainians, speaking Ukrainian, accepting West Ukrainian cultural heroes and hating Russians. Not being an ethnonationalist, Putin was not particularly concerned by that.

The military and therefore political clout of the Russian state was threatened by the possibility of the eviction of the Russian Black Sea Fleet from the Crimea and by the possibility of the entry of all of the Ukraine into NATO. Putin quickly sprung into action on the first of those fronts. He annexed the Crimea, saving the fleet. And he will do his best to prevent the Ukraine's entry into NATO.

The neocons hate Russians and Ukrainians equally, but they are supporting Ukrainians, more specifically West Ukrainian nationalists, in this fight. This is because both the Ukrainian ethnos and the Ukrainian state are smaller and weaker than their Russian counterparts. If you're aligned against many opponents, you'd rather see them fight each other than unite with each other to fight you. And if you're playing divide and rule, you have to support the weaker enemy against the stronger one. If the stronger one wins, the internecine fighting will stop. The neocons don't want that.

West Ukrainian nationalists would like to continue their Ukrainization campaign. Hitler famously wanted to change the human hardware in the Ukraine, i.e. the people themselves. Ukrainian nationalists mostly just want to change the software. Unlike Hitler, they consider Russians to be suitable raw material for their nationalist project. They just want to brainwash them into identifying as Ukrainians. This item on the West Ukrainian nationalist wishlist is quite compatible with the neocon program of divide and rule. Ukrainization decreases the size of the larger of the two ethni whom the neocons want to fight each other. Ceteris paribus a less lopsided fight can be expected to produce more fighting than a more lopsided one.

Like all nationalists, the West Ukrainian kind would like to improve the standard of living of their people. And again, like all nationalists, they favor cultural conservatism for their own. This is sharply at variance with the neocon program for the Ukraine. The economy will not improve while oligarchs continue to loot the country. The neocons want the oligarchs to have even more power. And of course the neocons are extremely inimical to social conservatism for anyone but themselves. Since West Ukrainian nationalists are weaker than the neocons, the things which they want but which the neocons do not want are not being achieved. In summary, West Ukrainian nationalists are a junior partner in the alliance, little more than dumb tools.

Russian ethnonationalists (as opposed to the patriots of the Russian multiethnic state) see Ukrainization as a major threat. Millions of their people are being reeducated into becoming their bitter enemies. A major goal of Russian nationalism is the gathering of all the lands which are primarily populated by ethnic Russians (a category into which they include Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Belorussians) into the Russian state. I think that Strelkov, the commander of the most prominent group of armed insurgents in eastern Ukraine, is primarily motivated by that goal.

Putin doesn't share that goal. On top of that he is actively hostile to Russian nationalists. He has jailed large numbers of them over the years because he thinks that they threaten interethnic peace in Russia. Nationalists have hated him for a long time because he has not stopped the influx of Muslim migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus into Russian cities, especially Moscow. They now also hate him for his relative lack of support for Russian Spring, the ongoing revolt in Eastern Ukraine.

His material support has so far been either non-existent or very tepid. I would not be surprised if it turned out that Strelkov's group came to Slavyansk on its own, without an authorization from anyone in the Russian government. It seems that their strategy was to start a fight and then wait for public opinion in Russia to force Putin to support them against Russophobe West Ukrainians and their oligarch and neocon sponsors.

How can this conflict develop and how would this affect the major players in it?

Scenario 1: A seemingly interminable, multi-year war in Eastern Ukraine. This will surely send a very large number of refugees into Russia. Perhaps millions. They will have to be housed and fed and they will be angry at Putin for not having defended their homes in Eastern Ukraine by intervening the way he did in the Crimea. So this is not a desirable direction for him. It is for the neocons though. Divide and rule, enemies fighting each other. West Ukrainian nationalists would lose some of the people whose children they were trying to convert into being enthusiastic Ukrainians, and the land itself would still be in dispute. So they wouldn't be happy with a prolonged war.

Scenario 2: A military defeat of the Novorossian insurgents. This will probably produce more corpses than the first scenario. There have been reports of organized massacres, mostly of adult men, in the couple of small towns that were taken by the Ukrainian side so far. It's scary to extrapolate that to the entire Donbass region. Plus there will be a very large number of refugees flowing into Russia.

A lot of people in Russia will blame Putin's lack of support for the massive death toll and for the indignity of defeat. The neocons have tried to organize a color revolution in Moscow before and they'll definitely try it again. If Novorossia is bloodily defeated, many Russians (a number exceeding that of conscious ethnonanationalists) will not see much difference between Putin and a neocon-sponsored alternative. I think Putin would still be better, but many, including people in uniform (I'm talking about the rank and file) would become indifferent to his fate. Without public support he could be overthrown like Yanukovich. So this is probably a very bad scenario for Putin.

Due to the violence perpetrated by the most hot-headed in their ranks and due to refugee flows West Urainian nationalists would lose some raw material for making new West Ukrainians. But they will have victory. That's always worth a lot. The neocons and the oligarchs will gloat from the owner's box.

Scenario 3: With a lot of help from Putin the insurgents throw the Ukrainian army out of the Donbass. The refugees would go back. Putin would escape the stench of defeat. Russian ethnonationalists would be emboldened by the victory to go further into southeastern Ukraine, to start a reunification-with-Russia movement in Belarus and to kick Central Asians and Caucasus natives out of Moscow and other historically-Russian cities. As I said before, in spite of being ethnically Russian Putin has always been hostile to Russian nationalists. So there are negatives for him in this scenario. Of course he could change. Stalin made a turn in the nationalist direction and he wasn't even Russian.

Obvioulsy, scenario 3 would be quite bad for the neocons and especially for Ukrainian nationalists.

Scenario 4: A full-scale Russian intervention. Maybe I'm biased, but I think that this choice would produce the fewest deaths of all. The Ukrainian army would offer only token resistance. Many units will surrender. If the Russian army does not go into Western or Central Ukraine (and it shouldn't), there will be no lengthy terrorist campaign afterwards. Those need support from the population. Who would want to hide Right Sector guys in Donetsk or Kharkov? NATO wouldn't fight Russian troops directly because it's afraid of MAD. The Russian economy will be hurt by new sanctions, but public mood will shoot up to the stratosphere anyway due to victory. Europe will simply be hurt by sanctions, and it's already in bad shape. Some Euro governments might even flip to the Russian side due to economic unrest.

Neocons and Ukrainian nationalists would be reduced to impotent rage. Georgians sided with the neocons in the 08/08/08 war and are widely seen to have lost. If West Ukrainians end up being seen by the international community in the same light, the supply of groups that are willing to side with the neocons against Russia, China, Iran or any of their other rivals will decrease.

So why hasn't Putin pursued scenario 4? I could be wrong about some of my assumptions here. Obviously, he has thousands of times more info than I do. He might be unwilling to embolden Russian nationalists. Or maybe he thinks that Scenario 4 is the only one in which any part of the Ukraine could be admitted to NATO. I'm not hearing any noises about NATO admission at the moment. Maybe that's because the neocons know that if they do it, Putin will definitely intervene, simply to take away from NATO as much of the Ukraine as he can, in other words as much of the Ukraine as Russia can take without creating a long-term terrorist problem for itself. But if he makes the first move (intervention), NATO will swallow up the west and center of the Ukraine in response. Which will weaken the position of the Russian state, the thing that Putin cares about most.

Of course there could be other reasons that I'm not seeing.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


I live in NYC and am curious about its ongoing gentrification. Here's a theory about its causes:

It's widely known that the national murder rate has gradually fallen from 9.8 per 100,000 living in 1991 to 4.7 in 2012. Some common explanations for this are the decrease in atmospheric lead level, the increase in the incarceration rate, the delayed effect of the legalization of abortion, advances in medical science, and fraudulent crime reporting. I don't believe the last two because robbery and assault rates have fallen by roughly as much as the murder rate, and crime statistics are gathered by thousands of local police departments, making widespread coordination of reporting fraud highly implausible.

So for whatever reason, crime started falling nationwide after 1991. Millions of upscale Americans had always dreamed of living in NYC and two or three other prestigious cities, but in the 1970s and 1980s crime prevented them from realizing such dreams. The 1990s fall in crime made their New York fantasy easier to achieve. This quickly translated into rising real estate prices in NYC, which pushed a lot of downscale people out of the city, which decreased the local crime rate even further, which attracted even more upscale people to New York, which priced out even more downscale New Yorkers. A virtuous (for New York) circle was created. The NYC murder rate ended up falling not in half, like the national rate, but from 30.9 in 1990 to 4.0 in 2013.

I'm not saying that this theory is correct, just that I can't think of any better ones. This post was prompted by my attempts to visualize the racial aspect of NYC's gentrification. The decennial censuses and annual Census Bureau estimates are notoriously inexact, so I decided to go with birth registration stats instead. Lots of people don't mail back their census forms, forcing the government to do some guessing, yet almost all children are still registered at birth. I found NYC vital statistics data at the site of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has the most Orwellian name of any organization I've ever seen in real life. After entering the raw numbers into a spreadsheet, I came up with this graph:

Some notes:

1). The percentage of kids born to Black mothers peaked in 1986 at 31.99%. It has fallen in every single year since then, reaching 20.09% in 2012. 

2). The percentage of kids born to Hispanic mothers peaked in 1995 at 33.29%. It was 29.73% in 2012, lower than in 1987. This is a huge country, so one could probably find some other cities in it where the Hispanic population is lower now than it was in 1987. Not many though.

The nature of the local Hispanic population has changed drastically. The number of kids born to Puerto Rican mothers fell by more than half (from 19,327 in  1990 to 8,988 in 2011), while the number born to Mexican mothers has more than doubled (from 3,045 in 1990 to 7,704 in 2011). Where did all those Puerto Ricans go? Orlando and the Poconos.  

3). The stability of the percentage of kids born to White mothers is deceptive. Lower middle and middle middle class Whites have left the city in huge numbers while upper middle and upper class Whites have moved in. The Hasidic population has skyrocketed by natural means.

4). The "sun people" (Blacks, Hispanics and others) reached a peak in 1991 at 63.76%. They're now at 51.1%. Their decline accelerated during the last few years. Why did I include others among the sun people, you ask? Because their childhood mortality rate, as shown by vital statistics reports, is closer to those of Blacks and Hispanics than to those of Whites and Asians.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Putin Never Quits

A while ago I read a comment on some blog suggesting the idea of a Puttin' on the Ritz remake about Putin. I immediately started thinking about all the words that rhyme with Ritz and that could be relevant to Vladimir Vladimirovich. I'm no Weird Al, so this is pretty clumsy, but here it goes:

Putin Never Quits

Have you seen this handsome man?
Are you yet another fan?
Then you know his name is Vlad
And that he makes sissies mad.
Hot chicks and judo fighting,
Swift kicks and horseback riding.
He's a former spy
And a really cool guy.
All the shady banksters' flacks
And all the sleazy newsroom hacks
Are having fits.
Putin never quits.
Have you seen how he reacted
When confronted with a bunch
Of Femen tits?
Putin never quits.
Soros talks of him with indignation.
That's 'cause he shows total dedication
To his nation.
From the Arctic to Black Sea
So many people want to see
Him land some hits.
Putin never quits.
His commitment's always total.
He'll fight every foreign foe till
He submits.
Putin never quits.
Here's a picture of him with his mama.
Here he's outmaneuvering Obama.
What a drama!
Every thieving oligarch
And terrorist, your future's dark,
Expect some hits.
Putin never quits
Putin never quits
Putin never quits.

Obviously, some of these lines call for pictures. For example, there IS a famous photograph of young Putin with his mom. And the "what a drama" line should be accompanied by a split screen of Putin, Assad and Obama, overlaid with pictures of beakers and chemical formulas. Ideally, this would be a YouTube video, but first I'd have to record some audio.

I've listened to a few karaoke versions of Puttin' on the Ritz and hated them all. I'm really bad on the piano myself, so learning the score would take some time. Plus I'm lazy. In case I never get to it, at least the lyrics will be online. You can do anything you like with them.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Poem

We could learn to live forever,
Reach the stars, begin afresh.
We could find a way to sever
Our connection to mere flesh.

We could one day figure out
All of Universe's laws
And then briskly set about
Fixing its most glaring flaws.

We could master all the powers
Men have long ascribed to Gods.
We'll become Gods. Fate is ours!
We can start to set the odds.


Man is ruled by thieves and liars.
Parasites control his thought.
Mankind's future has no buyers.
All these dreams will come to nought.

Gullibility will never
Be from altruism detached.
Such rich pickings for the clever!
The divine is overmatched.

If the Earth's civilization
Ends up gnawed to death by pests,
Suffers early cancellation,
Fades away without bequests,

There may never be another.
Not just like it, but at all.
Space would be a barren mother
Stricken dumb by our great fall.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, 2011. Glossy's rating: 5 out of 10.

I read this book with interest even though, like almost everyone else, I already knew a lot about Jobs. There were some interesting new details on the margins, yes, but Jobs's famous personal magnetism must have been the biggest draw. Even a bore like Walter Isaacson couldn't obscure it all that much. Throughout the book I kept wondering how decent, level-headed people could go to work for Jobs, invest money in his enterprises, trust him during negotiations. Everyone always knew he was a sociopath. Well, why did I keep reading this book? If humans could be very excited by honesty and altruism, the world would be a pretty different place.

Where did Jobs's sociopathy come from? He was very smart - his teachers asked him to skip two grades in school - but he didn't have a single bit of nerdiness in him. His interests and mental power were from the beginning mostly turned towards humans. He had an intuitive understanding of people's weaknesses, boundaries and motivations and a superior ability to manipulate them. And unlike a smart woman, he had all that machismo.

Are all non-nerdy smart people sociopaths? If the average guy was suddenly granted these particular talents by a miracle pill, would he instantly become an asshole? Perhaps. I can think of at least one other contributing factor though. Bill Clinton, the other super-famous, brilliant-but-not-nerdy American sociopath of our day, may well have been as much of a bastard as Jobs, since the identity of his bio-father is disputed.

Obviously, Jobs's manipulative alpha nature benefited him enormously. Did it benefit society? Not technologically. File management and a lot of other PC tasks were always easier to do on a command line than in a GUI. There's less latency, you have more choices, and the learning curve isn't as steep as most imagine. Hardware keyboards are easier to use than software alternatives. The relationship between the quality of an artist's output and the complexity of his tools can't be very strong. The technical innovations that Jobs thrust onto the market earlier than they would have gotten there without him tended to be superficial.

I do think that his overall impact on society was positive, but that this was mostly confined to aesthetics. The original iMac, the Power Mac G4, the iPad 4 on which I'm typing this review and many other Apple products were rays of beauty in our increasingly ugly world. As such they've raised millions of people's moods and consciousnesses. 

Of course he didn't bring back any classical forms - he never thought that different. But he did as much within the narrow confines of modernism as anybody I'm aware of. He didn't sketch - that's one of the things I learned from this book. Those who are able to easily push around others rarely enjoy doing anything else. So he just yelled at underlings until they made things that looked good to him. He did unquestionably have a great sense of style though.

When Pixar needed a new headquarters, Jobs became intimately involved in the building's design. He wanted it to have lots of open, public spaces where employees from different departments would be forced to bump into each other. He even pushed for the building to contain only two very large bathrooms for the same reason. 

"Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions." 

Nope. That's schmoozimg. Creativity comes from men concentrating on difficult problems alone for many hours in total silence. 

"You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” 

This is like a clown decreeing that fishing needs more makeup. He wasn't even curious about how his minions worked, how the stuff he sold came into being.

Naturally I was interested in the effects of Jobs's mixed parentage. Some aspects of his personality (verbal bombast, weepy, self-pitying sentimentality, the desire to be worshipped) were 100% Middle Eastern and others (an obsession with quality, an understated, stark, spare visual style) were 100% German. You'd expect people of mixed backgrounds to congregate around the 50/50 line on most traits, but for some reason it rarely works that way. 

Group photos of Apple's management team can look like pictures of Saddam's cabinet meetings once you realize that jeans and mock turtlenecks were playing the role of black moustaches. Everyone present felt the need to copy the leader. Phrases like "insanely great" and "make a dent in the Universe" clearly share a sensibility with "the mother of all wars". Yet in the visual sphere he always went for the unadorned, the elegantly understated.

His thought processes were extremely irrational. One only needs rationality (and humility) when dealing with facts and inanimate objects, and he, after all, dealt with people instead. For example, already during the design of the original Macintosh he became dogmatic about rounded edges. You can make a beautiful object with square edges (just look at old books) or sharp edges as easily as with rounded ones. True aesthetics are always much more complex than a choice between three options anyway. Intuitively he knew what was beautiful and what wasn't, but his consciously verbalized ideas about it were illogical.

Another example of this was his genius/bozo (I'm being PG-13) dichotomy in evaluating employees. In the real world talents are distributed as bell curves. You'd think that an erroneously binary view of people's capabilities would severely hurt a manager's effectiveness. But the human world doesn't work logically, so he was able to have great success in it regardless. 

This irrationality must be related to the shocking amount of hypocrisy in Jobs's work. In the 1984 commercial he presented Apple as a rebel fighting totalitarian control freaks at IBM. Yet it was he who always fought to take choices away from Apple's customers. You couldn't even open the original Macintosh with a screwdriver. The nerds who liked to modify their systems had to buy IBM compatibles instead. My iPad is glued shut and won't accept a USB drive. I lack access to its file system and it only runs apps approved by Apple. Hackers have justly named programs that remove Apple's software controls "jailbreaks".

Jobs's second most famous commercial introduced his "Think Different" slogan. 

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo." 

And on and on in that barf-inducing vein, while Picasso, Ghandi, MLK, Bob Dylan, etc. appear on the screen. Those guys weren't rebels. They always went with the flow. It's impossible to get that famous while doing anything else, certainly not in art or politics. And of course the "counterculture" was the flow of Jobs's youth. Now, if he cited someone like Evelyn Waugh...

Bono opines on the pages of this book:

"The people who invented the twenty-first century were pot-smoking, sandal-wearing hippies from the West Coast like Steve, because they saw differently. The hierarchical systems of the East Coast, England, Germany and Japan do not encourage this different thinking." 

It was deeply satisfying to see someone so full of himself being so hilariously wrong. The PC industry was created by nerds, not hippies. Nerds are the most rules-loving, routines-obsessed, regimented people on Earth. Also some of the most clean-living, if you disregard junk food. Nerds like Woz's father were ultimately gathered in the Bay Area by the Pentagon. Besides nerds, the most rules-loving entities in the known Universe are of course first-world militaries. If the Pentagon decided to invest in Alaska or the East Coast, that's where all those engineers would have settled and that's where the PC industry would have had to be born. And if Jobs grew up in a community obsessed with the aforementioned fishing, his business ventures would have had to revolve around that, since he was born to lead men, not to become an expert in any area of knowledge. Technology can, in principle, exist without hucksterism. But not without technologists. 

And why was Jobs so drawn to Indian and faux-Indian gurus? Because they were controlling lots of impressionable minds. They were successful manipulative alphas. It was natural for a guy like him to want to see the masters at work. Same for his obsession with Dylan.

Isaacson devotes a lot of space to Jobs's weird diets. Jobs sometimes ate nothing but one particlar kind of fruit for weeks on end and was a vegetarian for most of his life. There was also lots of fasting and purging. Before Woz came up with the Apple I, Jobs likely saw himself in the future as a patriarch of a hippie commune in the mold of one of his closest friends at Reed College:

"In order to raise some cash one day, Jobs decided to sell his IBM Selectric typewriter. He walked into the room of the student who had offered to buy it only to discover that he was having sex with his girlfriend. Jobs started to leave, but the student invited him to take a seat and wait while they finished. "I thought, 'This is kind of far out," Jobs later recalled. And thus began his relationship with Robert Friedland, one of the few people in Jobs's life who were able to mesmerize him."

You can't have a religion without fasts and weird diets, so I'm guessing that early on Jobs's dieting served to prepare him for that career path. Friedland's commune included an apple orchard where Jobs sometimes worked pruning trees during the period when Apple was founded. The company's name is not unrelated to this. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Friedland later became a billionaire gold miner. 

One humanizing aspect of Jobs's story was his love for his home town, Silicon Valley. He considered his California childhood to have been idyllic. That's not entirely how it sounded to me though. This book describes Jobs being bullied by "ethnic gangs" in a school situated in a "bad neighborhood". There was a gang rape there around the time he started attending. He gave an ultimatum to his parents to make them move to a better school district, where they had to buy a more expensive home. There were no bad neighborhoods or gangs, ethnic or otherwise, in my Soviet childhood.

Jobs once did a prank with his school buddies where they changed the codes on their classmates' bike locks. Everyone in my neighborhood had a bike when I was a kid, but no one had ever heard of bike locks. And no bikes were ever stolen.

A couple of random things I didn't know before I read this book:

1) Jobs went out with Chris-Ann Brennan in high school, but they later split up. She reconnected with him right when Apple started taking off. This is also when she became pregnant. Isaacson ignores the gold-digging implications of this entirely, but I bet Jobs didn't. Does this justify his subsequent abandonment of his first child? No. But it's a bit of context.

2) Xerox put out a GUI-based computer in 1981, more than a year after they showed the GUI technology to Jobs, 2 years before the Lisa and 3 years before the Macintosh. It was a failure. It cost $16,595 and sold 30,000 copies. The idea that Jobs simply stumbled upon a ready-to-use unexploited goldmine at PARC is not entirely correct. Without his business sense, marketing, without the numerous improvements to the GUI experience for which he pushed at Apple, this technology was not an automatic winner.

I'll end this review with predictions. It will be fun to read this 20 years from now, even if just to wonder how I could have been so wrong about something so obvious.

I'm guessing that without Jobs Apple will steadily decline. iOS will lose most of its market share to Android. At this point, before either Google Glass or the iWatch have gone on sale, the former seems more exciting than the latter. The phenomenon of other companies coming out with technologies that Apple would have pioneered if Jobs lived on will become a trend. The aesthetics of Apple's products will surely deteriorate. Unless Jobs's son Reed ever heads Apple, the company will from now on be run by hired hands, and those usually care far less than owners, founders or their families. Eventually Apple will be bought by a more successful firm, but its logo and brand may well live on for decades afterwards.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review of The Far Side of the World

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian, 1984. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10.

As I began reading this installment, I was afraid that it would cover the same ground as the wonderful Peter Weir movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. To my relief, this was not the case. The film was based on the series as a whole rather than on two of its parts, so it doesn't spoil any of this book's plot twists. I would still recommend watching the movie after you've finished all of the novels though. I would have preferred to have formed my own image of Jack, uninfluenced by Russel Crowe's voice or appearance. He could have just as easily been played by Axl Rose.

It seems ludicrous to compare Jack's supervisory experiences with my own, but my mind constantly wonders in that direction regardless. Over the years I've drawn two general lessons about supervising in the real world: make sure that your staff sees you working harder than they do and keep a healthy emotional distance from them.

Jack doesn't have to work more than his subordinates because he faces greater risks. He's the first to board an enemy ship and the last to leave a sinking one. Snipers aim at HIM, and as a gentleman he can't duck.

In the office environment you do have to work harder though, even if the direct effect of this is a drop in the proverbial bucket. The psychological impact is more important. If your staff sees you relaxing while they're slaving away, they won't want to go an extra nanometer for you when that's needed.

Just as importantly, if work is assigned to them by an extremely formal, official presence, something barely animate, they're less likely to question it than if they see it coming from someone they can relate to. Familiarity is the enemy. Be coldly polite, try not to discuss anything personal, avoid stuff that's liable to humanize you in their eyes. Would you follow the orders of someone exactly like you, of someone who has all the faults and weaknesses that you, your friends and family know you to have? Well, that's the point. Be something else.

So Jack doesn't address his officers by their first names and is in no way a part of their social circle. The loneliness of command is a running theme in these books. Stephen is the only exception, partly because as a doctor he's so unimportant aboard. And as a consequence of his familiarity with Jack he's the only officer who ever argues with him, who openly holds grudges against him and defies his will. A ship full of Stephens wouldn't sail far.

I've written here before that Stephen's liberalism sounds too modern to me. Yet it's by no means identical with today's PC attitudes. For example, we're reminded in this volume that he is vehemently pro-life. His religious belief seems sincere, not just a piece of ethnic identification. In the following statement we see him allude to the very essence of gender relations:

"...even the most virtuous woman despises an impotent man; and surely all self-deprecation runs along the same unhappy road?"

And then there is this, during a discussion of possible ports of call in South America:

"I am far less sanguine about Buenos Aires and the River Plate, however. From the very beginning the region was colonized by the offscourings of the worst parts of Andalusia, slightly relieved by a few shiploads of criminals; and in recent years the mongrel descendants of these half-Moorish ruffians have been under the tyrannical rule of a series of low demagogues, disreputable even by South American standards."

I can never get tired of ethnic stereotypes. Here is Jack talking about a ship he's chasing:

"I believe she is as innocent as a babe unborn: takes us for a Spaniard. We put all that filth up there to encourage her to think so."

I have nothing whatsoever against Spaniards, by the way. But neither can I imagine how anybody could be bored by talk of ethnic peculiarities, their possible sources, their varying perceptions by friend and foe, by the evolution of these perceptions through time. The average Westerner of today believes that a freer discussion of these topics would encourage discord, but in my late-Soviet youth ethnic jokes were commonplace, yet ethnic conflict was much less frequent and less serious than in the modern West.

More anachronisms:

1) At one point Stephen observes a fellow doctor pull a tooth. The guy tugs at the patient's hair, pinches his cheek, shouts at him, has a drummer playing nearby, all to distract from the pain. No one does that anymore. The social standing of doctors is too high now for them to care that much about your feelings.

Yes, we have better anaesthetics, but there's still a lot of pain in medicine. In my experience distraction works at least as well as pain killers, that is to say not very well at all, but better than nothing. If you have a kidney stone on your right side, pinch your left flank. This will divide your attention. Talk to people, especially ones you don't know well. The mental effort will take away from the pain's share of your mind.

2) There is a pretty funny joke early in this novel that depends on the reader knowing the myth of Cadmus.

Starting with the Homeric period a large portion of the cultural references used by educated Europeans remained the same. When Christianity became Rome's state religion in the 4th century, Biblical references were added to the pile. Then in the 20th century 95% of this pile was thrown out. For the first time in more than a hundred generations a majority of Western writers don't know anything about Cadmus, Niobe, Danaë, etc.

The loss of continuity seems tragic to me. No one will want to look up references to the Sopranos or the Daily Show 80 years from now. Once you learn a bit about the Bible and Greek myth, two millenia of Western writing lose a lot of their obscurity. The movie-and-TV age will eventually seem like the Papuan highlands, in fractiousness almost as much as in the coarseness of its culture. Every 20-year section of it will have to be explained by a separate set of forgotten cultural references. Who will bother trying?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review of Treason's Harbour

Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian, 1983. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10

Obscurity battles accessibility in this series. On the one hand the plots are captivating in a fully traditional way, the protagonists are good people you want to root for and the jokes are very, very funny. On the other hand the books are full of obscure references and terminology, some of which cannot be clarified even by the OED. Nine volumes into the series I'm still regularly looking things up. A reference work called A Sea of Words by Dean King has been helpful, but it's nowhere near complete. And yes, a lot of the action and humor will be lost on those who refuse to make an effort.

One of the things you can get in return is an intuitive understanding of how the most successful organization of the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Royal Navy, really worked. Through that, one can glimpse insights into efficiency in general. You also get a feel for the mechanics of sailing and artillery, and for the relative roles of intelligence, fussiness, bravery, drudgery and brute force in military success in those times.

19th century intelligence gathering is also fully on display here. It seems that the spying outfits of the Napoleonic era were as likely as the modern ones to employ double agents. Why maintain a spying agency if it's almost guaranteed to contain enemy spies, if almost all of the information it possesses quickly gets turned over to the enemy? Well, if you don't have a spying agency, you end up having no intelligence on your rivals, but these rivals will still plant spies into your non-intelligence-gathering governmental structures, as actually happens in this book.

Some readers may wonder how a man as nerdy as Stephen Maturin can be any good as a liar and a manipulator, i.e. a spy. The answer is simple: he does it consciously. Women and non-nerdy men lie and manipulate intuitively. If nerds are to do it, we have to consciously think through every step, which is what Stephen is in fact shown doing here. Of course Stephen spies for purely altruistic reasons. If he wasn't highly altruistic, he wouldn't have had anything in common with Jack at all, and their close friendship would have been utterly implausible.

Early in this volume there is an enlightening scene of Jack wooing a lady.

"Since Jack Aubrey had never deliberately and with malice aforethought seduced a woman in his life, his was not a regular siege of her heart, with formal lines of approach, saps and covered ways; his only strategy (if anything so wholly instinctive and unpremeditated deserved such a name) was to smile very much, to be as agreeable as he could, and to move his chair closer and closer."

How can he be popular with women without acting like a jerk? Extreme natural masculinity, plus his high status among men, which was mostly earned by his and his ancestors' honest, but extreme masculinity. In short, he's so macho that he doesn't even have to be bad to them.

But enough on personalities. I should really say something about O'Brian's style and what reading these novels generally feels like.

All the discouraging aspects of life are frequently acknowledged here - pain, waste, dishonesty, stupidity, the inevitability of decline and death, the possible meaninglessness of it all. Yet the tone isn't cranky or misanthropic. You never get the sense that the author felt cheated by life or wanted to get back at fate or humanity for anything. This contributes to the otherworldly feeling that the books are narrated by an entity that exists somewhere above man's passions and limitations.

And yet there is a great deal of humor here. Real life is rarely funny. Most people's attempts at humor end up in cartoonishness, i.e. a radical simplification of typical situations' facts, settings, personalities and motivations. It's notoriously difficult to come up with stories that are both humorous and realistic. O'Brian did something even harder than that - the reality in which all of his jokes work is just as complex as ours, yet completely unlike anything he could have experienced directly. It's an amazing achievement.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Review of Yanomamö

Yanomamö, 6th edition, 2013, by Napoleon Chagnon. Glossy's rating: 7.5 out of 10

This is a book about one of the last tribal groups to come in contact with civilization - the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil. A brave American anthropologist named Napoleon Chagnon lived among them for a total of 60 months over the course of 30 years, starting in 1964. Temperamentally similar to explorers of old, he has infused this volume with an infectious sense of adventure.

By the time Chagnon arrived in their part of the jungle, the Yanomamö had already left the stone age by acquiring a number of steel axes through trade with other Indians. They were also cultivating plantains, which came to the Americas after Columbus. Other than that Chagnon found them in a pretty pristine state:

"I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from from their nostrils - strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose."

He learned their language, became friends with many of them and collected an immense amount of data about their genealogy, history, demographics and nutrition.

They turned out to be one of the best-nourished populations ever described. For example, they were getting more animal protein per capita than their contemporaries in Germany and the UK. And they achieved that while only working (mostly hunting and gardening) 3 hours a day. How were they able to escape the Malthusian trap? Chagnon doesn't talk about that in this book, but I'm guessing that the relatively recent introduction of steel axes helped them do it by allowing them to clear more land for their gardens. Perhaps when Chagnon studied them, their population (about 20,000) hadn't yet caught up with the land's new, higher, axe-assisted carrying capacity.

It's unlikely that endemic warfare played a significant role in safeguarding them from Malthusian forces. The vast majority of the people killed in their wars are men, yet women are the limiting factor in population growth.

According to Chagnon's data, about a quarter of adult Yanomamö men die violently. They raid each other's villages for women and engage in blood feuds.

"A captured woman is raped by all the men in the raiding party and, later, by the men in the village who wish to do so but did not participate in the raid. She is then given to one of the men as a wife."

Marital infidelity also reliably leads to violence. And of course women goad men into fighting, calling them cowards if they don't prosecute their wars actively enough. The raids are ambushes of the unarmed, not battles. However, they do engage in several forms of duels which sometimes turn deadly. In one of those men take turns hitting each other's chests with fists. No defense is allowed. In another they hit each other over the heads with giant poles. Duels, combined with the preference for ambushes over battles, suggest a split verdict on these particular savages' nobility.

Chagnon determined that Yanomamö men who had killed fellow men had 2.6 times more wives and 3.1 times more children than Yanomamö men who had not killed. He got a lot of grief for this and similar findings. An anthropologist named Marvin Harris objected to them because as per Karl Marx, humans only ever fight for economic resources. Fighting for women was felt to be too Darwinian, and as all leftards know, Darwin's theories now only apply to frogs and butterflies, not humans. Harris had a lot of supporters, and collectively they got more space in this volume than malaria, dysentery, man-eating jaguars and every other source of annoyance that Chagnon had to encounter in his professional life.

The Yanomamö are clearly being selected for the quality they call waiteri (fierceness). Yet women of Old World backgrounds do not generally find Amerindian men attractive. Predictably, most of the Amerindian component in New World mestizo populations comes through the female line. This implies that Caucasoids and Negroids have had even more selection for machismo than these guys - a stunning thought to anyone who's read this book.

At least among some Caucasoids this machismo is now held in check by self-control, social trust and a long-term outlook. There's little evidence of any of that among the Yanomamö. They steal, exploit the weak and betray "allies" much more often than people in civilized societies. Every possible social advantage is exploited right now, with little thought given to the possibility of establishing long-term mutually beneficial relationships based on reciprocity.

Their pottery is shoddily made and quickly broken. Their boats are meant to be discarded after several uses. They walk the jungle barefoot and often get thorns in their feet, which in addition to causing pain, can stop an entire hunting or raiding party. Yet in spite of the abundance of natural sources of leather all around them, they never got around to inventing shoes.

Their mathematical vocabulary is limited to "one", "two" and "many". Their standard way of indicating the distance to a location is to point with a finger to the place in the sky where the sun will most likely be when they get there. They eat the ashes of their dead.

All of this makes their commonalities with us especially interesting since they hint at possible human universals. They believe in the afterlife, complete with heaven and hell. Every one of the 200 or so Yanomamö villages has its own patriotism, and they consider non-Yanomamö to be barely human. The idea of eating their pets (dogs, for example) seems deeply immoral to them. Yes, I know that East Asians eat dogs, but they aren't their pets. The favorite food of the Yanomamö is the most sugar-rich substance known to them - honey.

They show signs of sexual modesty. Men tie their stretched foreskins to a string around their waists. If the phallus accidentally becomes untied, they drop everything they were doing (even a duel) to quickly tie it back up. Why? Chagnon doesn't elaborate, but I would guess that the purpose of tying one's penis is to make it conspicuously inoperative, i.e. temporarily closed for business. Conspicuous availability is obscene. When the Yanomamö are given pants by missionaries, they don't tie their penises under them. Similarly women, even though naked except for feathers and the odd string, close their legs while standing up from a sitting position. Again, since the use is obscene, open availability for use is obscene too.

As Chagnon studied them, the Yanomamö became more and more integrated into civilization. Catholic and Protestant missionaries gave them modern tools and established schools for their children. Brazilian gold prospectors brought modern diseases. On the one hand, throughout this process the Yanomamö clearly wanted more, not fewer machetes, axes, guns, outboard motors, matches, aluminum pots, etc. On the other hand Chagnon is right to point out that the civilization that gave them all of those things is in the long run unlikely to afford them the kind of social status that many Yanomamö enjoyed before contact. What can they contribute in return for such status? Even Mexican Indians, who have had millenia of Malthusian agriculture to develop a capacity for hard work, are pretty low in their country's social hierarchy. Muscle work doesn't pay much. 

20th century decolonization produced the opposite dilemma. In the vast majority of cases it reduced the material standard of living of the decolonized peoples, as well as their life expectancy. Yet it gave them something to be proud of, has improved their perceived status, their self-conception. If we only look at it from their perspective, was one thing worth the other? I'm inclined to say yes. 

Since civilization itself doesn't appear to have gained anything from pulling the Yanomamö into its bosom (for example, there are no signs of oil in their jungle), it seems to me that, overall, civilizing them was probably a bad thing to do.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review of Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited, 1945, by Evelyn Waugh. Glossy's rating: 3 out of 10

Years ago I read four of Evelyn Waugh's comic novels: Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and Scoop. I loved them for their stunningly dry humor, utter lack of sentimentality, economical prose, reactionary worldview and other qualities.

This book was a great disappointment. Perhaps Waugh was at some point fooled by the notion that an author can't be serious and entertaining at the same time. Or maybe age drained him of the energy and mental flexibility needed to entertain at his former level. The worst thing of all was seeing him do a 180 on the issue of sentimentality.

"We fell silent; only the birds spoke in a multitude of small, clear voices in the lime trees; only the waters spoke among their carved stones."...

"How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love."

He tried to explain some of this in the preface, saying that he wrote the novel during WWII, a time of shortages, when he was starved for luxury of every sort. Well, maybe he shouldn't have published it then. There's no excuse for inflicting on readers things that one writes while drunk either. Or while drugged out of one's mind by doctors in the course of dying from an especially sad form of cancer - it's simply not the readers' fault.

At least he remained reactionary. In the following passage the protagonist talks about a lunatic asylum:

"We could watch the madmen, on clement days, sauntering and skipping among the trim gravel walks and pleasantly planted lawns; happy collaborationists who had given up the unequal struggle, all doubts resolved, all duty done, the undisputed heirs-at-law of a century of progress, enjoying the heritage at their ease."

While describing the interior of a modern luxury ship he notes that "...wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity." I used to work close to the new Goldman Sachs headquarters and this is absolutely true.

The following reads scarily now:

"The smoke from the cook-houses drifted away in the mist and the camp lay revealed as a planless maze of short-cuts, superimposed on the unfinished housing-scheme, as though disinterred at a much later date by a party of archaeologists. “The Pollock diggings provide a valuable link between the citizen-slave communities of the twentieth century and the tribal anarchy which succeeded them. Here you see a people of advanced culture, capable of an elaborate draining system and the construction of permanent highways, over-run by a race of the lowest type.” Thus, I thought, the pundits of the future might write".

And yet I still hated this book. As if sentimentality wasn't enough, Waugh insisted on presenting his most unlikable characters (Charles and Sebastian) as likable, and vice versa. Sebastian is a gay, alcoholic layabout, who sometimes finds time to look down on normal, purposeful, hardworking people. Charles, the narrator, isn't much better. Why do they both hate Mr. Samgrass, a modest, erudite scholar? Because he isn't cool. Why does Charles sever his ties with the scholarly Collins, why does he look down on the geeky Brideshead? Same reason. Even Rex, a nouveau riche politician, comes off better than the people we're supposed to like here - at least he tries to succeed at things.

Usually a writer is able to make his villains unlikeable. In the worst case scenario one thinks "I'd have rooted for that guy if only the author wasn't so biased against him, if he didn't pile so many negative qualities and bastardly deeds on him out of spite against that general type of person in real life." Not in this book. I was able to root for Mr. Samgrass, Collins and Brideshead even as they were written. And while I don't approve of the typical politician, I still thought Rex's scenes were more fun than most in this novel.

Sebastian is depicted as feeling suffocated by his large, very aristocratic family, especially by his mother. The European aristocracies are unusual in combining Germanic genetics with Middle Eastern notions of family life. In the past families that were unwilling to become extended and controlling must have dropped out of the elite. If a victorious chieftain wasn't ready to force his kids to marry advantageously, to work as a team, his legacy was quickly frittered away. It seems that the willingness to control one's relatives is bred more easily than the willingness to be controlled. East Asians may have the latter, but I don't think that most Middle Easterners and Mediterranean Euros do.

Sebastian chafes at his family's control. Being Jewish, I'm used to seeng these sorts of conflicts expressed through wildly emotional melodrama, energetic appeals to shame, tears, shouting. Being northern European, Sebastian starts to quietly drink himself to death instead.

I was bored and creeped out by Charles's love for Sebastian, saddened by the latter's decline, and then bored even more by Charles's love for Julia, Sebastian's sister. Because you see, when the two of them meet by chance after hardly having known one another before, they understand each other completely without speaking. And then they spend long evenings by a fountain, contemplating love, fate and God.

In the preface Waugh wrote that the novel's theme is the operation of divine grace on its characters. If there really is anything to this, it went over my head completely. Charles, initially an agnostic, seems to convert to Catholicism in the end, but why? Because he was moved so much by the scene of Lord Marchmain dying? Because Brideshead's chapel, and religion in general, seem to him a welcome contrast to the vulgarity of modernity? What sort of reason is that for believing in magic?

I would guess that Waugh himself converted because he was depressed by what he saw as life's absurdity and cruelty, by the hopelessly wrong direction in which he knew the world was heading. He probably couldn't take it anymore without imaginary help. Maybe this isn't the best parallel, but in many modern cultures old women make up the majority of believers. Few of them start out religious. Losing the attention that beauty brings must be very depressing.

Speaking of beauty, Waugh mourned the destruction of some of England's great country houses during the period covered by this book. He calls them here "our chief national artistic achievement". Granted, I only know them from pictures, but I disagree. I'd say England's chief artistic achievement is its literature. And that definitely includes some of Waugh's stuff. Just not this novel.