Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review of A History of Florence, 1200 - 1575


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On sodomy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Movie "Boyhood"

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Nerdy Martha Stewart, the Miscellaneous Edition

A few random consumer goods recommendations:

The Leatherman Squirt.


 



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

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

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

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

Edwin Jagger Gillette Mach 3 Razor


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

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

Speaking of cutesy stuff:

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

Or this:

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

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

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


 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

School, Part 1

A second installment in my autobiographical series:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bit about that sentence analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

YouTube Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Growing Up Outdoors

I'm thinking of writing an autobiography. Not because my life has been in any way remarkable, but because it would be fun to write it. Instead of describing events chronologically I want to write separate chapters about various aspects of my life: school, college, computers, languages, books, friends, work, etc. Here's the first one that I've finished:

***

A couple of years ago I purchased a pair of rollerblades on a whim. Some time later I was sitting in a conference room at work, with my right arm in a cast, when a co-worker asked me what happened. I explained. He looked at me in a surprised way and said "you don't seem like someone who'd ride rollerblades". And he was right: I really don't. Which makes it especially funny that, to a large extent, I grew up on the streets.

Between the ages of roughly 4 and 13 I spent many hours a day away from home, without adult supervision, mostly playing with friends. What did we do?

I remember exploring dark, dank basements of apartment buildings when we were 5 or 6. We all had flashlights for this purpose. There was an abandoned construction site not far from where we lived, which we had thoroughly crawled over. We built fires from garbage that we collected, and melted plastic toys and lead radiator gratings in them.

In winter we built castles out of snow which we then proceeded to take and defend in a military fashion, running, pushing and throwing snow balls at each other. A direct hit to the head can be surprisingly painful.

There was a bridge nearby whose side was used as a slope. A bunch of kids would pour water on it, which turned to ice. Then everyone brought flattened cardboard boxes and took turns sliding down on them. The speed increased to an impossible, truly frightening level until, without any warning or transition, I would realize that I was lying face down in the snow. Up and back to the top of the bridge.

There was skiing and hockey, and everyone had aluminum sleighs. The only stereotypical winter activity which we never partook in was making snow men. I only know those from pics and cartoons.

The coldest it ever got in Moscow during my childhood was -40 C in 1979, which neatly corresponds to -40 F. Every year there were a few days when the temps reached below -30 C (-22 F). Over time such cold could induce complete anesthesia in exposed body parts, usually the nose and the cheeks. You had to rub them vigorously for any feeling to return. My father's ears were permanently redder than his face, and when questioned about it he always said that he "froze them off in childhood".

School was out on, if I remember correctly, below-30 days, but we went there anyway to run around the corridors and play our usual games.

When the snow melted we built dams in our neighborhood in order to break them, creating dramatic floods. This required long hours knee-deep, and sometimes waste-deep, in cold water.

In the summers we made bows from willow branches in order to shoot makeshift wooden arrows at each other. Once, at a construction site across the street, someone found a cache of welding rods. We sharpened them by rubbing their ends on asphalt and used them as arrows with our bows. As my father was coming home from work one evening he saw me running around with a bloodied face from a glancing shot. He took me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me home.

The branches for the bows had to be cut with knives, which we all had. I remember begging my mom, on our way to the hardware store, to buy me a fold-out knife. For some reason she did. I was probably 8 years old. A tiny sharpening stone soon became one of my most beloved possessions.

The main game we played with knives started with cutting a circle on the ground. Two kids stood within it, taking turns throwing knives so that they'd stick in the earth. The way the knives fell determined how the circle would be sectioned. If your opponent succeeded in making your slice smaller with his throws, standing became more and more difficult, with your last knife throw being performed while balancing precariously on the tip of one foot.

Ironically, one of the least dangerous games we played was called "war". It involved filling used detergent bottles with water, running around and spraying each other from their nozzles. A version played on bicycles simulated mounted warfare.

Our neighborhood formed a rectangle whose perimeter could be easily covered on a bike. There was a slope in the middle. I used to ride up to it as fast as I could, and then keep pedaling all the way down. Very soon after the end of the downward slope, when I was at the maximum speed that my musculature and the bike's design allowed, I had an option of entering a turn. These turns were the craziest, most bone-headed decisions I've ever made in my life. The fact that I survived all of them sometimes seems unfair.

There was a group of ponds about a 15 minute walk from where we lived, which were good for fishing. My love of equipment, gear and paraphernalia associated with various trades and hobbies was already in full bloom then. The bamboo fishing rods, the line, the tiny spherical lead weights which gave way a little when you bit into them, the multi-colored plastic floats, the hooks - so much to choose, cherish and arrange.

Every fishing trip started with digging for worms. At the current stage in my life I would never touch a worm, much less pierce one with a steel hook, but all the other kids did it then, so it seemed natural. When the fish bit, you felt a complex, almost human-like pull on the line. Afterwards we either released them back into the pond or gave them to a kid who had a cat at home.

When we saw playground swings, our first instinct was to see who could jump out of them the farthest. We drew lines on the ground marking where each of us fell after flying off the seat. Some kids could do 360 degree turns around the axis of the swing, both sitting and standing, but this was above my abilities.

I think that the reason that none of us maimed ourselves doing any of this stuff was that humans, well, only the men really, evolved to have precisely those kinds of childhoods. People have had access to flint knives for hundreds of thousands of years and biking is kind of like horse riding. Through most of history parents didn't have time to constantly look over their kids.

But if I could play things back in a way that would have allowed me to have children of my own, would I have let them grow up that way? Absolutely not. I'm naturally neurotic, so the fear and anxiety for them would have simply killed me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review of The Brothers Karamazov

Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880. Read in Russian. Glossy's rating: 4/10.

This book is a soap opera interspersed with earnest discussions about morals and God. The amount of scandal, drama and heartbreak per hour of narrative in it is highly unrealistic. The characters overact wildly, scowling, blushing and crying hysterically at every opportunity. The style is plain and functional, the prose easy to follow but artless.

I didn't see anything in Dostoyevsky's moral and theological speculations that most readers wouldn't have thought of by themselves, but he obviously meant well with it all. I'm sure that lots of people have improved their behavior after reading this book, not because the author gave them any new intellectual reasons to be better men, but simply by following the example of his characters, the same way that kids who listen to gangster rap act like brats to their parents afterwards.

Alyosha, the protagonist, is almost saintly, and nearly everyone in the book, even the villains, treats him with affection. I don't think that's unrealistic. People despise weakness, but revere kindness. These two things are sometimes hard to tell apart even in one's own motivations, but some people really are kind, and even the most rotten souls feel bad about taking advantage of genuine kindness.

Why isn't everyone kind then? Well, obviously, humans have always competed with each other for limited resources. I've known some pretty unselfish people, but none as kind as Alyosha Karamazov.

Father Zosima, Alyosha's spiritual guide, talks at length here about his vision of an ideal society. I was surprised to learn that there were no masters, servants or kulaks in it. The latter were specifically condemned. Dostoyevsky hated socialists, atheists and revolutionaries, but apparently shared their ideal of a classless, non-exploitative society, which almost was achieved for a while in the USSR, after the original revolutionaries were shot and jailed in the late 1930s.

Speaking of social class, the language of the peasants and servants in this book sounds more rural and downscale to a modern Russian speaker's ear than any kind of Russian that exists today. That's to be expected. What's surprising is that even the language of the narrator and of the gentry sounds a bit rustic by modern standards. Not as bad as modern low-end accents, but slightly shifted in their direction from current proper Russian.

At one point Dmitry Karamazov, a retired officer of noble (i.e. landowning) class asks a provincial government official if he had ever stolen anything in his life "from someone else's pocket. I'm not talking about government funds, everyone steals that, and you of course too". Real theft, the kind that's abhorrent to Dmitry, is from real people.

Another observation: it's implied here that Odessa is in southern Russia. It's now one of the Ukraine's largest cities. Yet Siberia wasn't Russia to Dostoyevsky at all. He describes a man returning from there as coming back to Russia.

Through father Zosima Dostoyevsky predicted that the atheist revolutionaries would be defeated, though there's no sign here that he imagined that they would win at first.

At one point Zosima, a monk, says that the most important thing for a man to do is to refuse to lie to himself. It's ironic that this is exactly why I can't believe in God - my ancestors' version, Zosima's version or any other. I know that faith is good for individuals and society, but I can't convince myself that it's not a lie, that it's not a bunch of wishful thinking. The people who wrote the Genesis story about forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil could not have known any atheists, but atheism does act a lot like their fruit. One can't unknow its terrible truth, and one is forever less innocent for knowing it.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Turkish March

Another video of me being mean to the piano:
 


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Taxi Driver

Out of curiosity saw the movie Taxi Driver today. Not impressed.

There were some striking visuals - Sybil Shepherd looked breathtakingly beautiful in 1976 and the first shot of De Niro with a mohawk wearing sunglasses was cool. The gloomy-disturbing music was a plus.

But it was boring to follow an idiot around for two hours. I've seen De Niro interviewed on TV a few times and if there are any brains in his head, he hides it well. So I don't even know if there was much acting going on here on his part. I mean, he's unlikely to be violent, but the rest of it...

Scorsese is definitely smart, but most scenes here lasted too long and the whole thing just wasn't very interesting to me.

Instead of whatever it was that the filmmakers wanted me to think about I started noticing stuff like office furniture. I got my first full-time job in 1999 and for the first month I worked at the kind of ugly metallic desk that Sybil Shepherd and Albert Brooks use in this movie. But then we moved to a new office which had modern plastic-topped desks and cloth-bound cubicle walls. I think there was a general improvement in the look of offices around the turn of the millennium, with that particular type of ugliness gradually fading away.

The robbery in the bodega looked realistic from the ethno-cultural point of view, which made me question whether Scorsese has any liberal illusions about contemporary American society. I thought back on his other movies that I've seen - Raging Bull and Casino - and the possibility of him and his screenwriters understanding some bits of what's going on remained intact. It helps to be cynical to get that right. Which reminds me that the ending of this movie is likely a drop-your-hands-in-resignation type joke about the randomness and unfairness of life.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Watching the Spanish Debate

I recently became fascinated by the fact that in many international public opinion polls the leftiest, cuckiest answers are given by Spaniards. Spain is also one of the few European countries without any "far right" parties of note. Why?

In a few days there will be a parliamentary election in Spain, and to satisfy my curiosity, as well as to keep my ability to understand spoken Spanish from getting rusty, I watched a recent 2-hour debate between the leaders of that country's four main parties.


The current prime minister is the center-right Popular Party chief Mariano Rajoy, a man who looks like an aging, bookish hidalgo. Not a don Quijote type - too tame for that - but noble. Next to him on stage stood Pedro Sanchez, the leader of Spain's socialists, who is visually a Latin lover/soap opera hunk type of guy. On the left end of the podium was Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the leftist United We Can party. In crumpled jeans, without a jacket and sporting a ponytail he looked like a radical Hispanic student activist from a high-end US university. He may be the smartest one of the bunch though. The group was rounded out by the centrist Citizens Party's candidate Albert Rivera, who looks like a low-testosterone guido. He is the only one of the four whom I ended up disliking as a person by the end of the debate.

After brief homages to the Ell Ehheh Beh Teh victims of the Orrrlando massacre the men quickly dug into each other's public records and electoral promises.

Spain has a 21.4% unemployment rate, and its center-right government has been trying to lower it by decreasing labor protections. The lefty parties are of course opposed to this, calling the new jobs, many of them temporary, garbage. This is a classic left vs. right, quality vs. quantity of jobs debate in which I sympathize with the left.

The international economic downturn that started in 2008 hit Spain very hard and is simply called The Crisis by Spaniards. The candidates lamented that a lot of young people have left the country because of it. A web search implied that they've mostly gone to wealthier European nations, not Latin America.

When the debate inevitably turned to the subject of refugees, Sanchez and Iglesias (the left) attacked Rajoy (the center-right) for not being welcoming to them enough. I got a feeling however that if Rajoy is less pro-immigration than the others, it's not by much. I don't want to look up how many immigrants there are in Spain right now because such numbers are always extremely unreliable. Anecdotally there are a lot, from Sub-Saharia, Latin America, the Middle East and everywhere else.

The main issue on which the two leftist candidates disagreed with each other was separatism. Iglesias says that he would like Spain to remain united, but supports a referendum in Catalonia and calls the Basque country Euskadi. Sanchez calls the latter by its Spanish name "Pais Vasco" and is against any referendums. The center-right Rajoy is even more anti-separatist than Sanchez, saying that any referendum about Catalonia would have to be conducted in all of Spain. Rivera, who described himself as a Catalan, is anti-separatist.

The pony-tailed Iglesias boasted that his very lefty United We Can was the only non-separatist party that has won any recent local elections in Catalonia and the Basque region. This is similar to the Scottish situation - Scots vote either for Labor or Scottish nationalists, never for Tories, who are perceived as implicitly English in the same way that the GOP is perceived as implicitly White in the US. So I guess PP is implicitly Spanish Spanish.

At one point, while stressing the desirability of developing Spain's ties with Latin America, Rivera said "we are Europe's Latinos", using that last word in its US meaning.

The only social issues mentioned were equal pay for women and violence against women, but since no one argued over them, the cultural side of politics was basically ignored.

The only allusion to Spain's historical heritage came when Rajoy, on the defensive over his lenient handling of members of his party involved in corruption scandals, said that he doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the past by starting a new inquisition.

The polls are showing the center-right party with a lead, but the lefty parties could form a government if they agree to enter into a coalition with each other, which they failed to do the last time, apparently because of disagreements over how to deal with separatism.

While I saw a lot of leftism in this debate, this experience did not move me any closer to understanding why there's more of it in Spain than pretty much anywhere else in Europe.