Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review of Eugénie Grandet

Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac, 1833. Read in French. Glossy's rating: 3.5/10.

To a large extent this is a novel about cheapness. The title character's father, an epically miserly wine grower, is at least as much a focus here as Eugénie herself. Having amassed enormous amounts of money through his business acumen, he stinges on heating, candles and food, wears old clothes and lives in a dilapidated house.

I'm a little less down on cheapness than Balzac was. Being a spendthrift is easy and common. Chasing after pleasure is foolish. There seems to be a finite amount of it that most people are able to experience. This limit is probably determined by our brain chemistry. In fact, drug addicts sometimes reach a condition called anhedonia, where their capacity to enjoy themselves becomes exhausted.

By buying a bit of pleasure now we seem to be only borrowing it from the future. For example, the only way to treat post-coital tristesse is by making sex less pleasurable with drugs like Zoloft. We quickly get used and desensitized to expensive and fun things. It's a mistake to imagine that monks enjoy themselves less than billionaire playboys, or that blind, deaf or wheelchair-bound people experience less pleasure than healthy ones.

The smart thing to do in life is to simply pursue one's goals, leaving the pursuit of happiness to idiots with low future time orientation. Because of how our brains are set up, you will end up enjoying yourself as much as those idiots, but unlike them you might also end up accomplishing a few things.

It's possible that the positive aspects of père Grandet's frugality weren't explored by Balzac because this family drama was aimed at female readers more than at male ones, and women do hate cheap men.

"A woman's mistakes almost always come from her belief in goodness or from her trust in the truth" - this assertion of Balzac's is false, but it's certainly something that women would like to believe about themselves. Truth is, in fact, too abstract and impersonal for them.

It's a genuinely sad story. I think that in general French literature is about as good at making one cry as English literature is at making one laugh. It does this by inviting the reader to pity poor, downtrodden and/or proudly lonely people.

Fortunately this didn't lead to any leftism in Balzac's case. In fact he explained père Grandet's avarice, and the general increase in avarice that he claimed to have noticed in French society of his time, by the advance of secularism, specifically by the decrease in people's fear of eternal damnation.

When Charles, Eugenie's Parisian cousin, visits his provincial relatives, he remarks that he did not think it possible for their level of wholesomeness to exist in France and that he had assumed that it could only be found in Germany.

Balzac calls Charles a "dandy" only a few years after Pushkin used that word to describe Onegin. You'd think that the French of that period would have felt themselves above any linguistic borrowing in that sphere, but in fact they did not.

Speaking of Brits, one of them was referred to here in passing as "l'insulaire", "the islander". I found that amusing.

Being a guy I would have preferred this novel to focus more on the history of père Grandet's business and less on his daughter's feelings. How does one make so much money? Niall Ferguson's history of the Rothschilds, who are mentioned in this book, and who were, by my calculations, about 7 to 8 times richer in the 1820s than Balzac's Grandet character, was an intensely interesting work, even though Ferguson had to stick to the documentary record. Novels can strive to depict a higher level of truth.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Für Elise

Another recording of me playing the keyboard:


I recorded the video on my Nexus phone, which I put up on a big tripod. I bought this tripod a few weeks ago at B & H on 34th Street, the largest and coolest electronics store I've ever been to, by a huge margin. Since it's largely staffed by Hasidim, I've memorized its name as Beards & Hats. They have tons of fascinating pro audio and video equipment, including objects that cost more than I make in a year.

There seemed to be hundreds of tripods there and it was fun to figure out how they all work and which one suited me better. I ended up buying this one as well as this phone grip to go with it.

I recorded the audio simultaneously with, but separately from the video by simply passing a cord from the keyboard's audio-out jack to my PC's mic jack and hitting the record button in Audacity. I then used Audacity to sync the low-quality audio file from the phone with the better audio that I recorded directly from the keyboard. Then I combined the audio and the video in MS Movie Maker. 

                                              ***

I've noticed that when I try to play better, with more feeling, less automatically, I make more mistakes and my muscles are more tensed up. They get tired more quickly in this mode.

This is a general pattern. I used to draw funny faces as a kid, some like the spinning head in the upper right corner of this page, some in different styles, and I noticed back then that it was physically more tiring to make interesting drawings than boring ones. My arm and my general posture were more tensed up while I was trying to draw well. The same is true with singing. Regardless of one's ability level, doing more aesthetically-valuable work requires one to literally burn more calories than just going through the paces.

Compare that to the typical advice that one gets on this topic from TV: "relax, get loose". All mass media life advice is wrong. Get tense! Drink some coffee beforehand. Be in good physical shape, 'cause you'll need it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Timing my Hobbies


A little less than three years ago I started recording how much time I spent practicing the musical keyboard. I put my iPad next to me when I played and opened it to Numbers, its spreadsheet app. I put the date in the first column, the time when I started playing in the second column (by pressing the app's "now" button), how far I got in a particular piece in the third column and the name of the piece that I played, in an abbreviated form, in the fourth column. Here's an example from a few days ago:
 
Mar 29, 2016
 12:22:01 AM
 
 
41m 59s
K
 
 12:27:05 AM
f
ms1
 
 
 
 12:30:07 AM
f
fe
 
 
 
 12:33:37 AM
f
tm
 
 
 
 12:39:25 AM
f
lf
 
 
 
 12:45:01 AM
f
lf
 
 
 
 12:46:59 AM
29
lf
 
 
 
 12:53:14 AM
f
lf
 
 
 
 12:59:05 AM
f
lf
 
 
 
 1:04:00 AM
6
hon
 
 
In the third column f means that I played the full piece, from start to finish. 29 and 6 mean that I stopped at the 29th and 6th bar, respectively. In the fourth column ms1 is the Moonligh Sonata, 1st movement, fe is Fuer Elise. tm is the Turkish March, lf is Bach's Little Fugue and hon is Billy Joel's Honesty, which I recently started learning.
 
The 5th column has the total amount of time that I played that day. That's calculated by subtracting the first cell of the 2nd column from its last cell. And K in the 6th column means keyboard practice.
 
Why keep that kind of statistics? Because seeing progress helps me motivate myself. And I simply like statistics in the stereotypically nerdy way.
 
Here's a chart of the average amount of time per day that I practiced in every month since May of 2013: 
 
 
The peak value (more than an hour a day) was reached in November of last year when I was finally able to play the Little Fugue from start to finish for the first time. That was pretty exciting. I still can't play it in tempo though. Pros play it in a little over 4 minutes. My record is almost exactly 5 minutes and I usually play it slower. Here's a graph:
 
 
There was a gradual improvement in playing time until recently. I'm now working on quality at the expense of speed. But speed at least can be measured and visualized. Performance over time can be compared, and that does motivate.
 
About five and a half months ago I started recording the time I spend on my other nerdy hobbies in the same format.
 
 
In the above graph blue represents the time per day that I spent doing Anki reps. I got that info from my Anki file in a similar way to the one I described here. Black represents keyboard practice. Various shades of light green show the time that I spent on language nerdery. Dark green is reading books in English that I intend to review on this blog. Other colors represent other things. Gathering this data is the sort of activity which will seem perverse to non-nerds but which seems cool to me.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Stats of Ice and Gunfire

A couple of years ago I wrote about NYC demographics. I got natality data from the city's Summaries of Vital Statistics and used it to create a graph of recent demographic change in the city. Population estimates are unreliable for this purpose. If I remember correctly, just before the 2010 census the official estimate of the city's population was more than 8.4 million. But the census only counted 8.175 million. And I don't know which one was closer to the truth.

I'm guessing that the vast majority of births are still being registered here. So if you want to know in what direction the city is going and how fast, birth data are key.

The Summary of Vital Statistics for 2014 came out this past Wednesday. I used it to update my old graph.
The pace of gentrification did not abate in either 2013 or 2014. The share of Black births reached a new modern-era low with 19.4% in 2014. It peaked at 32% in 1986 and declined in every single year since then. In 2014 the share of Hispanic births was the lowest since 1983. The share of White births reached a new modern-era high of 33.1%.

Like last time I lumped these categories into the Ice People group (Whites and Asians) and the Sun People group (Blacks, Hispanics and Others). I put Others into the Sun group because according to the Summary of Vital Statistics their childhood mortality rate is closer to those of Blacks and Hispanics than to those of Whites and Asians.

In 2014, for the first time during the period covered by this graph and, I would guess, for the first time in more than half a century, NYC's Ice People had more kids (50.12%) than NYC's Sun People (49.88%). You can see the border between beige and yellow dip below 50% at the right edge of the graph. This is pretty historic.

Modern-style murder stats have only been kept here since 1961. From what I understand, before that year the city only recorded solved murders. The murder rate in 2014 was the lowest since the change to the current reporting format in 1961. The rate fell from about 30 in 1990 to about 4 in 2014. The number of murders rose by 5.7% in 2015, which was very worrying in light of BLM, the ban on stop and frisk and De Blasio's wrong-headedness, but so far this year it's only been 1.7% above the 2014 pace.

The gentrification trend is an enormous thing that's affected every facet of life in this city. People did not notice it until a few years after it began. I remember it being said during Giuliani's 1997 re-election campaign that crime was coming back. It didn't. Nobody knew if New York's revival was going to continue under Bloomberg (it did) and nobody really knows if De Blasio or national trends like sentencing reform are going to succeed at killing it in the near future. So I always look at these sorts of statistics fearing a new inflection point. I'm happy to report that the 2014 Summary of Vital Statistics does not contain that.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Watch Update

I ended up buying the Orient Bambino that I blogged about here. I now alternate between it and my Sinn 556I, keeping whichever watch I'm not wearing in this watch winder.

The Sinn's band is classier and its logo is more elegant than the Bambino's. It's easier to tell the time with the Sinn because its dial is so clear and uncluttered. It's impossible to stop the Bambino's seconds hand while setting the time on it. That's easy to do with the Sinn. Unlike the Bambino, the Sinn has a window in the back through which you can see its beautiful movement. However, the Bambino's dial definitely looks better from a distance. I don't know which one looks better up close - depends on my mood. They're both good.

I've wasted a lot of time by now looking at pictures and videos of mechanical watches. Some highlights:

This is Universal Geneve tri-compax from the middle of the 20th century. It costs $5,000 to $8,000 on www.chrono24.com depending on the condition.

It feels wrong to criticize something so cool-looking, but I prefer to see the day of the month as a number in a window. That's easier to read than a dial with an arrow. I use the day-of-the-month function of my two watches all the time. I'm signing some paper, I want to put the date there, a quick glance at my wrist - oh it's the 24th. That would take more milliseconds with the dial-and-arrow setup at 12 o'clock in the picture below.



This is Zenith El Primero Chronomaster, which costs around $4,000. I like the existence of a number-in-a-window day-of-the-month indicator as well as its unusual size and position. The one unnecessary thing here is the tachymeter scale around the edge of the dial. Those are used to measure speed. I can only recall one time in my life when I wanted to measure speed in this way. Another one may never come up. One cool thing about the El Primero is that its seconds hands (the running one at 9 o'clock and the chronometer's hand in the center) advance 10 times a second. 8 Hz is much more common. For some reason I do want the movement of these hands to be smoother.


This is Longines Master Collection Triple Date Moonphase Chronograph. It costs about $2,400. I love that ripply finishing on the dial and the numbers representing the hours look cool, but the day-of-the-month problem is worse than usual on this watch. They have a central hand pointing to dates located around the edge of the dial. That makes the dial unnecessarily cluttered. It'll take more time than usual with it to tell the time. It's still a pretty cool-looking watch though.


I sometimes go to lunch to the World Financial Center (next to, but not the same thing as the World Trade Center). There's an Omega store there. The best-looking Omega watch is the Speedmaster Professional, which costs about $3,500. There's something cool about its black shininess. However, it doesn't have any calendar features at all. Omega makes Speedmasters that do, but they look terrible because these features are distributed around their dials in a clumsy way. Also there's a tachymeter scale here, which, as I said above, I don't need. I guess there would have been no sense in calling this watch the Speedmaster without it.



I posted some pics of Patek Philippe 5970 in my first post on this topic. I'll end this post with pictures of the platinum 2499 that used to belong to Eric Clapton and which he auctioned off for $3.6 million in 2012. It truly is a beautiful thing.






Sunday, March 20, 2016

A LIttle Music

My hairy paws torturing Beethoven earlier today:
 
 
I started playing in my thirties and I'm lazy, so I'll never be good at it. But it's fun even at this level.

When I bought this keyboard I attached little diagrams to its edge and drew notes on them. When I'm learning a piece I look up at the score, then find each note through those diagrams. This is an ass-backwards way of doing it. I'm sure it would have been better to directly memorize which key corresponds to which note. But I got used to the diagrams, and it kind of works.

I certainly wouldn't say that I can play the piano. I can play four classical pieces the way that a trained parrot can say a few human phrases. To me really knowing how to play is being able to play back any melody one has heard the way that almost anyone can sing or whistle any melody that he's just heard. I wouldn't even know how to begin doing that.

But as I've said, it's fun even at this level. I can play with the tempo of the pieces that I know, emphasize different things in them and really get into their moods air-guitar style, but for real. The sound does change to my command.

Through the thick wall of my musical ignorance I got a few dim glimpses of an intuitive understanding of how these pieces were made. Nothing I'd be able to verbalize, but there are certainly patterns to these things. That's interesting in itself.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Calatrava's Bird

I work next to the World Trade Center reconstruction site, so for the past few years I've been watching the rise of Santiago Calatrava's new train station there.






 
 
 




 

 
 
It isn't finished yet, but it was opened to the public a few days ago. I went inside for the fist time this evening after work. 
 




I think it's the best thing built in New York since the 1930 Chrysler Building. The interior isn't as good as the exterior though. The columns feel too straight inside - the elegant curve that they make when they turn into the bird's wings cannot be seen there. The interior view begs to be unfavorably compared to Gothic cathedrals. The exterior holds its own against the best-looking representatives of the Aves class.

I've been following skyscraperpage.com (which is about architecture in general, not just skyscrapers) almost daily for at least a decade now, and Calatrava is the best living architect I'm aware of.  Here's a Google image result for his works.

I think that public Western architecture is finally seeing a recovery from the bottom that it reached in the 1940-2000 period. This is weird because people don't seem to be dressing any better than they did in the late 20th century. I haven't noticed any improvement in the aesthetics of furniture or household appliances either. Ugly public art was a part of the leftist political trend. Leftism is still on the rise - gay marriage, the erosion of the nation state, etc. But for some reason architecture is slowly sliding back to sanity.

Robert A.M. Stern's new buildings are downright traditional-looking. There's been a move away from the awful towers-in-the-park model (think public housing) back to the ancient street-wall model of city planning. You can actually see it in the new World Trade Center, among many other developments here in New York and elsewhere.

I don't have an explanation for this de-coupling of architecture from general societal trends. But it's an interesting phenomenon.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Predictions

I got the idea of doing this from the Slate Star Codex blog. Anatoly Karlin made some predictions in this style as well. I hope more bloggers do this. The little graph that Scott Alexander put at the end of this post is so simple and useful that it's a shame that I didn't think of it myself.

For the world's sake I hope I'm being too pessimistic with some of these predictions:

Hillary will not be prevented from appearing on the ballot in November by legal trouble stemming from her e-mail scandal or from anything else: 100%.

At a high enough level everything is political. It doesn't matter what she did with those e-mails. What matters is that the power structure strongly prefers her to Trump. It also prefers her to Cruz. So they're not going to let her be sidetracked.

Similarly, I'm sure that Nixon was forced to resign because the power structure hated his policies, not because of anything to do with Watergate. Kennedy was widely believed to have cheated in the 1960 election. I'm assuming that both sides cheated during the 2000 recount. But it didn't matter. At that level illegality is only a pretext. Politics and policies are everything.

Hillary will be the Democratic nominee in 2016: 99%.

Bernie was never going to win and Hillary is a very healthy person for her age.

Trump will be the GOP nominee in 2016: 80%.

Trump will not be assassinated or severely disabled by an assassination attempt before the end of 2016: 85%.

I sketched out this post in my mind yesterday, before today's attempted attack on Trump, and this item was already there.

Hillary will win the 2016 general election: 70%.

The number of illegal aliens in the US will not decline by more than a quarter during the 2017-2021 presidential term: 95%.

I think that the likelihood of Trump becoming president is quite a bit higher than 5%, but the likelihood of him winning, attempting to honor his promises and actually succeeding at it is pretty low.

More than 5,000 US soldiers and military contractors will be killed in action during the 2017-2021 presidential term: 80%.

I suspect that the Obama administration will be remembered as a window of relative peace. The fun that many had over Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize will probably seem idiotic to future generations.

No part of Syria will be controlled by any member of the Assad family by 1/20/2021: 90%.

At least one town or city with a pre-war population of more than 10,000 will change hands in the Ukraine-Novorossiya conflict before 1/20/2021: 70%.

Kharkov, Odessa and Donetsk will not change hands before 1/20/2021: 90%.

The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict will again erupt into open warfare with more than 1,000 dead before 1/20/2021: 50%.

The UK will not leave the EU as a result of the 2016 referendum: 95%.

It's my impression that the EU is non-negotiable to the Euro powers that be. So even if Brits vote for leaving, it's hard for me to imagine them actually leaving. The results of the referendum could simply be ignored.

The Front National candidate will not win the French presidency in 2017: 95%.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Nerdy Martha Stewart: Into the Kitchen

This part of my Nerdy Martha Stewart series comes uncomfortably close to just being plane Martha Stewart. A few years ago, while walking through Bloomingdale's on 59th Street I saw this china set:



 


I thought that I'd look a little ridiculous buying fine china. But it didn't feel wrong to me on the inside.

I do like women, and not for their personalities. Yet I also care about how my apartment looks. If I'm going to eat off something, why not the best? So I bought all of that.

 Here's some of it on my "wall", which is a very Soviet thing to have in one's home:



As you can see, the set includes a teapot and teacups. I hadn't drunk much tea since childhood, so I took that as an opportunity to acquaint myself with the tea world. There's Steepster, Teaviews, and other places where people talk about teas using the same style and vocabulary ("notes of bergamot", "nutty, autumnal flavors") that one usually sees in fancy wine reviews.  

I ordered a few of their teas. They were all horrible. Some tasted like you'd imagine lawn grass to taste if it was doused with hot water. These people's teaware preferences should have served me as a warning - they're all into squat, low, ugly Chinese-style pots. If none of them have any aesthetic taste, why should I have expected them to have any actual taste?

I tried buying teas in stores and ordering them in diners. All in all I probably tasted around 50 varieties. The best ones were like regular black tea from childhood, which is an OK kind of taste if you drown it in enough sugar, but not something I wanted to experience regularly.

So I eventually gave up. I continued to eat from Wedgwood plates, but left the teaware as a cupboard ornament. Some months later I was dining with a friend at a restaurant. The stuff he ordered was delayed. Eventually a waiter appeared, offering wine, coffee or tea on the house as compensation. For some reason I said "tea".

I was surprised by how much I liked it. I'm not going to imitate wine/tea/coffee connoisseur talk here. They say that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, but I disagree. I love talking about music. But I really have no idea if tea connoisseur talk is made up and I don't know how to talk about tastes intelligently. It was certainly the best tea I've ever tried.

The label on the bag said Kousmi St. Petersburg. Kousmi turned out to be the manufacturer's name and St. Petersburg the flavor. The company was started in Russia in the 19th century but has been based in Paris since the Revolution. I've tried about a dozen of their teas by now. St. Petersburg was by far the best.


During this period I was surprised to discover a practical, non-aesthetic reason to use fine china. My regular, cheap mug at work is easily stained by tea. The only way to clean it afterwards is by rubbing it with soda. Those Wedgwood cups never stain that way.

It felt wrong to eat off beautiful Wedgwood plates with regular spoons and forks, so I started looking for something that fit them better. I got into my nerdy-obsessive mode and looked through many hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, flatware sets online and in stores. Nothing looked good until I noticed an old fork in the back of one of my own kitchen drawers.



How did it get there? I certainly didn't buy it. I'm guessing that it was one of the things my mom and I took from my father's apartment after he passed away years ago. He must have bought it at a garage sale. He had an eye for beautiful things.

The fork had the manufacturer's name in tiny letters on the back: Rogers Bros. I looked it up online and quickly discovered that it was in the Ambassador pattern, which was in production from 1919 to 1973. Sets weren't all that expensive on eBay, so I bought a large one.
 










 
I use the ladle when I make pancakes.
 
 




 
I took all of the above pics off the Internet. Here's a less professional-looking picture of some of my actual flatware, the pieces I always keep on the countertop, in front of some of the plates I talked about earlier.
 
 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Review of Houellebecq's Submission

Soumission (Submission) by Michel Houellebecq, 2015. Read in French. Glossy's rating: 3.5/10. 

In this novel Houellebecq tries to imagine how France's conversion to Islam might go down. He has an Islamic party battling the Front National in the second tour of the 2022 presidential election. Both the Socialists and the center-right see French nationalism as a bigger enemy than Islam, so they strike a deal with the Muslim party, which gives them cabinet posts in return for Muslim control of the educational system. The Muslim party wins, a large share of France's schools and universities switch to an Islamic curriculum and large numbers of native French begin to convert.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so Islam will likely replace unbelief in Europe the way Christianity replaced it in late Roman times. I don't think it will happen that soon though.

Even though the protagonist can't bring himself to believe in Catholicism, he seems to be vaguely saddened by its passing into irrelevance. Unfortunately there's no hint of him feeling the same way about his people. In the book the Muslim president of France works to incorporate North Africa and the Middle East into the EU, but there's no mention of the inevitable increase in immigration that this would cause, of the native French being drowned out. The idea that the reproduction of people resembling Houellebecq might cease much earlier than the reproduction of other sorts of people doesn't come up.

The unique characteristics of the French, like hyper-sensuality, are not mourned here either. This could be self-censorship - Houellebecq savages feminism and irreligion in this book, so perhaps he thought that coming out for ethno-nationalism would have tipped the scales for his ostracism from the mainstream. But the fact remains: it's not a thorough, realistic evaluation of what's coming.

Most of the food eaten by the French characters here is Middle Eastern. This might have been meant to illustrate the cultural change after the election, but the disturbing thing is that Houellebecq doesn't have to explain to modern French readers what moussakas, sambouseks, tabboulehs, briouats, etc. are. Apparently they already know.

For a modern Western bestseller Submission has an absolutely shocking amount of gender realism. Houllebecq's protagonist acknowledges that women crave submission to rich and powerful men (the title doesn't only refer to Islam), that their looks fade much earlier than men's, that their entry into the workforce destroyed the family, and that giving them the vote may not have been a very wise decision.

He did get one obvious thing wrong though. After the Muslims win political power in his world, society moves in the conservative direction and women start wearing more modest clothes. This causes Houellebecq's protagonist to stop constantly thinking about sex.

Unlike Houellebecq I spent most of my formative years in a socially-conservative environment. In the old USSR a chance glimpse of an attractive woman's knee could produce the kind of physiological effects that, from what I hear, could only be matched in later generations by videographic approximations of what Islamic suicide bombers expect to be able to accomplish in paradise. Contrary to Houellebecq, the male libido is increased by scarcity, kind of like hunger.

In this book's version of the future France's Mulsim rulers pay intellectuals, even French literature professors, very well, so that they could afford multiple wives. This is presented as being eugenic. But all of the professors' wives that were mentioned here were Arab. In the real world the mixing of France's best brains with those of North African rustics is going to create an intellectual desert. And the last time that a Middle Eastern religion overtook a complex, decadent European culture, 99.9% of the latter's literature was lost forever. We can perhaps expect Muslims to try to preserve Europe's great architecture, but infidel literature? Houellebecq is delusional.

François, this book's protagonist, is the world's chief authority on the 19th-century French writer J-K Huysmans, yet he's bored by all non-literary intellectual topics. He's never finished a history book and has never had much interest in politics. I think that's pretty uncommon. People who are smart enough to be interested in one cerebral subject are usually at least curious about most of the others.

In spite of all the quibbles I described above, I sympathize with Houellebecq's message much more than with the messages of the vast majority of modern Western mainstream writers. If only he was good at presenting it.

Most of the exposition feels contrived. François keeps accidentally meeting people who just happen to be in a perfect position to tell him some bit of info that helps Houellebecq advance his next political argument. I did not feel at any point that this book should have been a novel. You want to explore some political possibilities? Write a blog post or a magazine article instead.

François is shown to be selfish, whiney, cowardly, lazy and hedonistic. It is possible to write entertainingly about uninspiring people, but that requires a lot of skill and hard work, and Houellebecq failed at it here. Which makes you think: a lazy, unmotivated guy like François would have failed at it too. Perhaps that's not a coincidence.