Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Another Chinese and Piano Update

Sometime last December I noticed that I had studied Chinese for more than an hour a day for several days. I like streaks, so I opened my hobby time spreadsheet and looked up when this period began. It was December 7th. 

It wasn’t really a streak at that time though. One week into it I missed a whole weekend. But I was still proud of myself, so I started to periodically check how long I’ve been maintaining the hour-per-day pace. Weeks turned into months, one Twitter firestorm succeeded another, the seasons changed.

I’ve only missed 2 days since December, but each time I studied for 2 hours the next day. So in an important sense the streak is still alive. I’m now up to my 45th Upper Intermediate ChinesePod lesson. I think I’ve spent about 580 hours on Mandarin listening comprehension in total. This includes a lot of hours before this streak. And I’ve spent a lot more hours than that on learning characters before that. And a lot of time on Chinese Anki cards on top of that.

I’m making progress, but it’s slow. I still read Chinese better than I understand spoken Mandarin, yet I don’t read it very well. It would take thousands of hours to reach a level where I could casually watch Youku videos, understanding everything. The only way to find out how many thousands is to do it. 

It feels very weird to me that I sometimes understand long sequences of words in a non-Indo-European language. And it’s weird how normal this language feels to me now. 

When I replay bits of dialogues again and again, trying to understand them, I rarely concentrate on tones. Sometimes I hear them clearly, but more often they sound indistinct. Is it because I’m not used to them enough, or because I’m doing it all wrong? I don’t know. The least distinct tone is definitely the second. 

My plan is to do 160 Upper Intermediate lessons, which is the number recommended by the ChinesePod company. Then 120 Advanced lessons. They also recommend 80 Media lessons. I’ll have to check out a few of those to see if they’re worth it. Then I should pick something to watch on Youku. News, political talk shows. 

If I ever get my listening comprehension to a high level, I plan to spend some weeks, maybe months, repeating phrases that I hear in videos, trying to get the pronunciation and the tones right. After that I want to sign up for private speaking lessons with Italki.

One of the ChinesePod lessons was about Tang poetry. The Chinese have a reputation for being unimaginative grinds. All stereotypes are true, yet some of their most celebrated poetry is about drunks lying on porches all day, contemplating the sky. 

I learned that the biggest Chinese-Western language dictionary is Chinese-French. I downloaded it to my Pleco app and use it every day. 

Western Sinology began with Italians during the Renaissance. This isn’t surprising because at that time most things of importance were done by them. In the 19th and early 20th centuries most of the big names in Sinology were French. That dictionary is a legacy of that.

I recently started reading the Cambridge History of Ancient China. I want to go through that whole series, 18 volumes, 2 yet unpublished, as well as the 2-volume Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. It’s very unlikely that I’ll ever learn classical Chinese, but it’s not because I’m not interested in it. Life is short and this stuff takes enormous amounts of time.

Speaking of time, I’ve been spending even more of it on piano practice than on Chinese. I’ve now learned all the exercises from this book for 5 out of the 24 scales. I play each of those scales with my right, then with my left hand up and down 4 octaves. Then I play them two-handed a 3rd, a 6th, an 8th and a 10th apart. Not in that order though. Octaves first. The 10ths sound the best. The 3rds sound horrible because they require my hands to be too close together, which trips them up. 

I also play with two hands in contrary motion. Then several chord exercises and finally arpeggios: the regular one with two inversions and the dominant 7th with three inversions.

I rarely get the C major arps right the first time. But after a few attempts I start playing them better than the scale exercises. 

The scales I know are called the C, G, D, A and E major, but I actually think of them as “all white keys”, “one black key”, “two blacks”, “three blacks” and “four blacks”. Which black key should be played in G major? The “first of three” of course, meaning the leftmost out of the group of three. E major is “two of two and first two of three”. I don’t actually say this in my mind, but it’s definitely how I understand what I’m doing. Of course the starting notes are important for each exercise. I sometimes look them up in the book. I should know them all by heart though. 

I understand the regular arpeggios as “three-note arps” and the dominant sevenths as “four-note arps”. In the first group the "gap" in notes moves down as you go through the inversions. In the second group the place where notes are bunched up together moves down instead.

Sometimes the arpeggios for two different keys are the same, except for being shifted along the keyboard. I’m a big language nerd, so to me that feels like the same endings being reused in different grammatical cases. 

If I ever get to a point where I can say to myself that I can play the piano or speak Chinese, I’ll buy myself a watch to celebrate. Specifically this one. In the unlikely case that I succeed at both, this would probably be the second watch. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Cultural Capital of the Caucasoid World

I’ve done this in Twitter, but this deserves a blog post.

Memphis, Egypt 3000 BC - 500 BC
Athens 500 BC - 300 BC
Alexandria 300 BC - 400 AD
Constantinople 400 AD -  800 AD
Baghdad 800 AD - 1150 AD
Paris 1150 AD - 1290 AD
Florence 1290 AD - 1500 AD
Paris 1500 AD - 1945 AD
New York 1945 AD - present

For the vast majority of the historical period the world didn’t have a cultural capital. China’s complex culture wasn’t affected by much of what was going on in Europe or the Middle East.

But in the Caucasoid region this concept does make sense. For most of the last 5,000 years most Caucasoids who weren’t illiterate savages were influenced by cultural developments in one of the cities listed above.

Phoenicians imitated Egyptian art and Egypt looms large in the Old Testament. The alphabets that spread through the Middle East and Europe in antiquity originated as a simplification of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Athenian lawgiver Solon traveled to Egypt to seek knowledge.

Etruscans borrowed from Greek mythology. In the Hellenistic period the Greek visual style travelled as far as India.

Medieval Europeans studied the works of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Alhazen (Ibn Al Haytham), etc. These people didn’t work in Baghdad, but that city was the center of the culture to which they belonged. The prestige language of India was Persian then, but it was heavily Arabized by that point. And all of the above thinkers were studied in India too.

When northern Italy’s importance began to rise, Lingua Franca, based on Italian, became the lingua franca of the Muslim Med. Italians established the Portuguese Navy, led Spanish and English voyages of discovery, built the Kremlin and influenced Shakespeare. Many of these people weren’t Florentines, but Florence was definitely the center of their culture.

As late as the 1930s, if you were a young man trying to make it in the arts, moving to Paris was a good idea. Picasso, Dali, Hemingway, Samuel Becket all worked there.

Not many individuals made the jump from one cultural capital to another exactly when the change happened. Leonardo died in France, while working for the French king, but not in Paris. Lully was a Florentine working in Paris, but he came there in 1646, long after the change.

The dates for Athens, Florence and Paris’s second stint are precise to within about a decade. The other dates are arguable. Some would say that Baghdad declined around 1000 AD, and that the center of gravity moved back to Constantinople then. Some would place Mesopotamian cities like Nippur, Akkad, Babylon and Nineveh on at least an equal footing with Memphis. I’d say to them that Egyptian art was many times more elegant than Mesopotamian art.

Finally, a note on the word Caucasoid. It’s a product of a misunderstanding. Some 18th-century writer thought that the Caucasus was the origin of this branch of humanity. I think stenorrhine would be a much better term. It means narrow-nosed in Greek. I see that 3 of the 5 Google results for that word go back to an old unz.com comment of mine. Conversationally, in hate speech and identitarian rallying cries, it would probably be shortened to steno.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 5

The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 5, The Islamic World in the Age of Western Dominance. Edited by Francis Robinson, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume covers the period from 1800 until the first few years of the 21st century.

One of the most important themes in this book is Muslim "revival", or reform. I think in the West Wahhabism is its best-known manifestation. Quite a few features of this movement resemble Protestantism.

Modern Muslim reformers oppose the veneration of "saints'" graves. They don't want believers to appeal to famous dead clerics for help because that seems to undermine monotheism. They're opposed to Sufism, which is the closest thing Islam has to monasticism. Like Protestants they emphasize individual believers' personal study of holy scripture at the expense of professional mediation.

This aspect of their reform was obviously made possible by printing, which spread in Muslim lands several centuries after Europe. Perhaps other features of their movement were caused by this technological change too, in less direct ways. Of course many historians think that Gutenberg's invention set the Reformation in motion.

This book quotes a reformist Islamic cleric who made an explicit comparison between his movement and Protestantism, even casting himself as the Muslim Luther.

European colonialism might have reinforced some aspects of this movement:

"...in the absence of state power to support God’s guidance," Muslim clerics needed "to bring the individual human conscience more into play as the sanction of the law. Followers were reminded, for instance, of the horrors of the Day of Judgement, and encouraged to reflect on their actions daily. Thus a ‘protestant’ or willed form of Islam came to be developed."

Of course there must have been some copying of the colonialists' own ideology. People tend to imitate winners. The chapter on 19th-century India says that Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism also moved in a Protestant-like direction at this time.

However, the Muslim reform seems to have had its beginnings in the 18th century, before colonialism had much of an impact. The book tries to sum it up as a movement from otherworldly to thisworldly Islam, from a "contemplation of God's mysteries" to the urging of action here on Earth. It's easy to see how that would sour people's attitude to Sufism.

In the later 19th and for most of the 20th century secularism advanced in Muslim societies. The Young Turks, Ataturk, the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, Nasser and many other leaders in that part of the world were secular, sometimes in violent ways. If you asked the people of that time why Islam was retreating, they would have brought up scientific and technological progress. Religion in general seemed incompatible with it. Progress is still ongoing, yet starting in the 1970s, perhaps a little earlier, Islam has revived. Why?

Some say that the humiliation of the Six Day War of 1967 discredited Muslim leaders, who were then very secular, in the eyes of ordinary Muslims. According to this view, defeat at the hands of Israel made Muslim societies search for an alternative. Ironically, defeat at the hands of the European powers in the 19th century appeared to discredit the religious Muslim rulers of that time. Then the untried alternative was secularism.

I don’t know how much truth there is in this explanation. When Nasser and company overthrew the king of Egypt in 1952, they talked angrily about his toadying before the British. The king was secular, yet his perceived humiliation by the Brits did not lead to an Islamist backlash. Also, if Islamism is a reaction to Israeli successes, why didn’t it get going in 1948?

Jews, who were on the winning side of the Six Day War, started to turn away from secularism at roughly the same time as Muslims. Can the same phenomenon be blamed on both victory and defeat?

At some point the West’s own propaganda organs began to denigrate Western civilization. The contributions of other regions to progress, including of the Muslin world, were exaggerated. Jewish nationalism, disguised as other things, played a role in this.

The flight from Islam was obvioulsy caused by the feeling that it was backward. Yet here are academic tomes, published in the West itself, saying that it wasn’t so backward after all, that Westerners stole a large part of their knowledge from other peoples, including Muslims. 

The portrayal of Western political successes as a series of massacres must have contributed to the destruction of the mystique, of the desire to emulate. Of course there were massacres, but they were practiced by everyone since time immemorial. If anything, I would guess that in the historical period inner-Asian nomads set the most impressive records in that field. 

The presidents of Liberia always dressed in European suits until William Tolbert, who assumed office in 1971. I’m guessing that the revival of Islam was a part of a larger trend: the loss of prestige by the West, the return of other peoples to their native cultural traditions.

President Tubman of Liberia with Kennedy.
President Tolbert of Liberia with Nixon.
A popular theory says that the turn to Islamism was caused by urbanization. Proponents say that irreligion was mostly an urban phenomenon. When millions of rustics settled in cities, they drowned out secularism. Governments never cared much about the opinions of the countryside, but had to pay attention to urban mobs.

Well, urbanization was a long, gradual process. Islam continued to decline through the 1960s. And this theory’s logic doesn’t apply to other parts of the world. Why didn’t urbanization drown out European secularism in the 19th century? Because European peasants were smarter? Then why didn’t it drown out secularism in 20th-century Latin America? If urbanization caused Iran to veil its women, why didn’t it cause Brazil to close down Copacabana?

The oil embargo of 1973 raised oil prices enormously, suddenly enriching Arabia, the least secular part of the Muslim world at the time. Saudis and Emiratis have used some of this wealth to promote their fundamentalist view of Islam elsewhere. Some point to this as the cause of Islam’s revival.

However, the first big achievement of the Islamist trend was the 1979 revolution in Iran. I don’t think Saudi money would have had any effect in the global center of Shiism. And in Iran the benefits of the oil boom were initially reaped by the very secular shah. Why didn’t that boost secularism?

Some think that CIA and friends kick-started Islamism as a counter to Soviet influence in the Middle East. But if their efforts in this field could be so effective, why didn’t the Islamist trend start at the beginning of the Cold War? Why did it continue long after the Cold War ended? And why did Islamism attack America as early as 1979?

Islamism attained visibility in the mid-1970s, but the book first mentions it while describing the last years of Nasser’s rule in Egypt, in the late 1960s. It seems that this trend started among students, young intellectuals. Islam became cool to them the same way that socialism was cool to their predecessors. Subsequent events sometimes seem like ripples emanating from Al Azhar and similar places.


This book begins with a chapter on the Ottoman Empire. The author traces the start of that state’s decline to 1683, when Turkish troops retreated from Vienna without taking it. In the 18th and 19th centuries things got progressively worse, with large territorial losses to Russia, the Habsburgs and others.

Millions of Muslims fled these areas, resettling in the remaining parts of the empire. In the 19th century "non-Muslims slightly outnumbered Muslims in the European provinces". "In the Asian ones, Muslims outnumbered non-Muslims nearly three to one." It seems weird now, but around 1900 non-Muslims reproduced faster than Muslims in the Ottoman realm.

In the 19th century Britain seemed to be the chief promoter of economic and political liberalism in the world, playing a similar role to today's US. The chapter on the Ottoman Empire talks about British efforts to force the Turks to abolish their state monopolies and to allow free trade. I know from Niall Ferguson's history of the Rothschilds that that family and bankers in general had a huge influence on British foreign policy then.

"In the past, politics had revolved around personalities more than policies. Great men had formed household-based factions, competed for the sultan’s favour, and intrigued to overthrow their rivals."

The book says that after the introduction of newspapers this sort of politics was replaced with the modern, ideological kind in the Ottoman Empire. I think that globally newspapers did increase the amount of ideology in public life. But it existed before them in some countries and eras. Mazdakism in 6th-century Iran had many similarities with socialism. The politics of Greek city states revolved around class conflict and the role of government in the economy. The same was true in late-medieval Italy. Bartolome de las Casas promoted leftism in high places five centuries ago.

As we move through the 19th century, the global liberal trend rises. An Ottoman decree of 1856 asserted the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims and even forbade language that "held some communities lower than others". Public office was opened to subjects of all religions. The empire adopted a constitution in 1876.

Revolutionaries threatened. Sultan Abdulhamid, who reigned from 1876 to 1909 rarely left Istambul for fear of assassination. To compensate for this he amassed a large collection of photographs of his realm.

He lost all real power in 1908. There was a revolution in Iran in 1909 and one in China in 1911. In this context the Russian events of 1917 look like a part of a larger phenomenon which one is tempted to call the eastern empires spring.

The Ottoman military's performance finally improved in WWI, just before the state's demise.

"Effectively using artillery and aviation, the Ottomans besieged the British at Kut al Amara (1916), forcing an entire division and its general to surrender".

The Ottoman Empire "maintained large forces on four fronts, and at times a fifth - a feat matched by no other belligerent but Great Britain. In November 1918, ‘even after the collapse of Russia, Bulgaria, and Austria Hungary [and] the mutinies in the French Army and the German Navy...the Ottoman Army, although battered beyond recognition, was still on its feet and in the field".

All of the other large states involved in the war were run by governments which revolutionaries wanted to topple. The social and economic strain caused by the fighting gave them an opportunity. Leftist revolutionaries were already in charge of the Ottoman government, so they didn't foment any mutinies.

The war was lost nonetheless:

"The collapse of Bulgaria (September 1918) had severed overland contact with the Central Powers and brought Entente forces perilously close to Istanbul, without adequate forces available for its defence".

With its capital threatened, Turkey accepted an armistice. The winners quickly began to divide it:

"As if assuming that the Turkish people were as dead as the empire, Sevres gave away most of the future Turkish Republic. The Armenians were to have an independent state in north eastern Anatolia. The Kurds were entitled to autonomy or independence in south eastern Anatolia. The straits and Istanbul were to be internationalised. Greece got control of the zone around Izmir in western Anatolia. Another agreement recognised spheres of influence for Italy in south western Anatolia and for France in the south east. By default, part of central Anatolia and the Black Sea coast remained to the Turks."

"Syrian and Anatolian death rates approaching 20 per cent compare starkly with French and German war losses of under 5 per cent."

Unlike the Germans and Austrians, the Turks immediately rose up in arms against the post-war settlement. The terms were renegotiated in 1923, after they won what we now think of as Turkey. The only area which Turkish nationalists wanted, but failed to get, was Mosul.

After the massacres, expulsions and refugee flows of WWI and its aftermath Anatolia became 98% Muslim. It feels strange that a militantly secular, seemingly anti-Muslim government would expel almost all non-Muslims from the country. Maybe Ataturk really was a nationalist, in contrast to the earlier Young Turks, who seemed like stereotypical liberal lefties. I'm assuming that the Muslims of Anatolia and the Balkans considered themselves a nation in Ottoman times.

The book says that Turkey sided with the US in the Cold War at least partly because "Stalin had refused to renew the 1925 Treaty of Friendship and started to make belligerent comments concerning the Straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus."

After Turkey became dependent on America, the state's attitude to Islam became less hostile. When I read about the Cold War, I root for the Soviet side, so it's fun for me to cite instances of NATO's hypocrisy. This is about the 1980 coup, one of many:

"...the leaders of the 12 September coup were thorough in completely suppressing the democratic process in Turkey. The government was deposed, parliament was dissolved, political parties were closed down and their leaders were arrested, all political activity was banned, all mayors and municipal councils were fired and all labour unions and civil society organisations were outlawed. The constitutional protections for free speech, freedom of press and for the autonomy of universities were suspended. To say, write or even imply anything that was critical of the coup or the coup leaders was banned."...

"Within a year over 120,000 people were imprisoned for activities that were criminalised by the military regime."

Neoliberal propaganda associates political liberalization with the economic kind, but the leaders of the above coup were privatizers and free-marketeers, like Pinochet a few years earlier.

"Although he was responsible for liberalising significant parts of Turkey’s economy and society, O¨zal’s style of government also contributed to the development of widespread corruption". I like that "although".

Egypt turned towards market economics several years earlier, with predictable results:

Sadat “could not"..."erase pervasive popular images later parlayed into popular television soap operas and hit films of unrestrained fat cats and low class parvenus devouring public space and bulldozing public morality."

I shouldn’t let go of the topic of Egypt without mentioning the funniest thing in this volume. One of the authors called an Egyptian notable a “crusading Islamist lawyer”. Made me think of the word “crescenting”, perhaps for the first time ever. Turns out it’s a real word.

This book came out in 2010, so it shows Erdogan in a positive light. At some point, perhaps as far back as Ataturk, the Western powers that be soured on Turkey's secularists. Islamists like Erdogan were thought of as a welcome alternative. To his credit Erdogan has since alienated elite Western opinion.

In 1914 tsar Nicholas II “ruled over more Muslims than any Muslim sovereign”, so this book devotes a lot of space to Islam in Russia.

Perhaps the most interesting Muslim region of that country is Tatarstan.

"Since the eighteenth century, Muslims of the Volga Basin had conceived of their community as ‘Bulghar’, descended from the kingdom of that name that had first accepted Islam."

"The term ‘Tatar’ was seldom used by local Muslims themselves, while memories of descent from inner Asian nomads played no part in this identity. All this changed in the last decades of the nineteenth century."

However, the Bulgar language was Turkic. The original Turkic speakers were nomads from Mongolia.

Right after the Russian conquest of Kazan’, in the 16th century, the Muslim population was expelled from the city and mosques were destroyed. The authors take the Muslim side in most interfaith conflicts, so if you want balance, you have to provide it yourself. For example, while talking about the Crimean Khanate, this volume never mentions slave raids, which were kind of the basis of that state's economy.

Catherine II corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot, so during her reign the Russian state moved in a liberal direction. Among other things, she "made religious tolerance an official policy". This continued for the rest of the imperial period, though the book implies that the government's attitude towards Islam cooled a little after Catherine's death. Interestingly, Muslims were never drafted into the Russian army until WWI. Christians weren’t drafted into the Ottoman army either until the liberal reforms of the late 19th century.

"In many parts of the steppe, indeed, Islamisation accompanied the consolidation of Russian rule, and was at times even supported by the Russian state. For Catherine, Islam was a higher form of religion than shamanism, and she hoped that the Kazakhs would gradually be brought into the fold of Islam through the efforts of the Tatars."

In the late 18th century a Tatar man studying in far-away Bukhara caused controversy around the question of evening prayer. It's supposed to be performed when the sky is completely dark. Kazan’ is located as far north as Copenhagen, so for a few weeks in the summer there is some light there even in the dead of night. Islamic laws were written in, and for, much lower latitudes.

That student inquired whether evening prayers should even be performed in his homeland. This incident was deeply symbolic. It's hard to farm in a cold climate, so the mean IQ of farmers correlates with latitude. A student of HBD would expect the Tatars, the northernmost farming Muslims, to be the smartest representatives of their religion. And this does seem to be the case.

This book's Russian chapters often talk about Tatar leadership of the empire's Muslim community.

"...the all-Russian Muslim movement remained the work of Tatars, with some Azerbaijanis prominent in it. Central Asians, who accounted for half the empire’s Muslim population, were virtually absent from the Muslim congresses".

The Tatars were also the first in Russia to try to adapt Islam to modernity, to rationalize it.

With time Russia expanded into other Muslim territories, first in the Caucasus and later in Central Asia.

Alexander I "appointed a new commander in the Caucasus in 1802, Prince Tsitsianov, a Georgian by origin and a convert to the cause of Russian imperialism whose distaste for ‘Asiatics’ was proverbial..."

This is interesting because many have described Stalin as a convert to the cause of Russian imperialism. Or greatness, depending on the observer's attitude to Russia.

"Tsitsianov moved his forces southwards, occupying most of the Caucasus, and actively agitated for a seizure of Iran’s Caspian provinces including Gilan..."

Here’s a weird bit of Central Asian history that I didn’t know until I read this book: in 1921 the Bolsheviks sent Enver Pasha, the former Ottoman minister of war, to help them take over Central Asia. “Once he reached the area he switched sides.” He ended up dying “in a clash with Soviet forces” in 1922.

This is the book’s explanation of the switch from Latin to Cyrillic script in Central Asia in the late 1930s:

“Officials no longer saw the Russian language or Cyrillic alphabet as stigmatised by association with the tsarist empire; instead, Russian had become the language of the revolution. By 1939 the Turkic languages of the Soviet Union and Tajik had adopted Cyrillic alphabets.”

This misrepresents things. The early USSR was anti-Russian, so it hated Cyrillic. The later USSR was pro-Russian, so it promoted Russia’s traditional alphabet.

“Along with the change of alphabets came a heightened emphasis on the teaching of Russian in non-Russian schools.“

Stalin’s 1943 “concordate” with the Orthodox Church was not an isolated event:

“After the German invasion in 1941 the Soviet Union shifted to a policy of limited tolerance for Islam in the hope that that would bolster public support for the regime’s war effort. Moscow halted anti religious propaganda. In 1943 it established new Islamic bodies subject to the central government.”

This is only superficially related, but the book says that the Chinese state’s attitude to local Islam became more lenient under Deng Xiaoping. The idea that his reforms were only economic is false.

By 1985 there were 392 mosques existing legally in the USSR.

During WWII, in Iran, "Azerbaijani socialists under the auspices of the Soviet Union established an autonomous republic that lasted for nearly a year. However”...”the Soviet Union withdrew in May 1946 in the face of reported US threats to use nuclear force".

This was actually the second time that northern Iran failed to become Soviet:

"In Gilan the Communist Party formed a Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran and in 1920 prepared to march into Tehran with a guerrilla force of some 1,500."

The Iranian chapters of this book are fascinating.

“In the run up to the First World War, probably the most important development to affect Iran occurred in Britain with the transfer of the Royal Navy to oil and the subsequent decision by the British government to purchase a ‘golden share’ in the newly formed Anglo Persian Oil Company.”

Iran's government remained neutral in WWI, but that didn't spare the country:

"The Russians and Ottomans continued to use Iran as an extended battlefield. While no accurate figures remain as to the extent of the losses incurred by Iran in the First World War as a consequence of fighting, government mismanagement and poor harvests, some estimates suggest that the population may have decreased by as much as 25 percent."

After WWII prime minister Mossadegh nationalized Iran's oil, which had been controlled by Britain. The Brits reacted by asking president Truman to overthrow Mossadegh. He refused. Several days after Stalin's death Eisenhower approved the coup. The book says that the timing wasn't coincidental. Eisenhower decided that without Stalin the USSR was less likely to intervene.

"Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and a distant cousin of Franklin Roosevelt, was appointed ‘field commander’. Roosevelt recruited General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who had trained the Iranian Imperial Gendarmerie as well as a secret security squad."

I was 16 during the first Iraq War, so I remember the media coverage of Schwarzkopf’s son very well.

"The CIA had already assembled a clandestine network of politicians, military officers, clergy, newspaper editors and street gang leaders, paying them thousands of dollars per month to push the American agenda. A leading CIA propagandist, Richard Cottam, estimated that four fifths of Tehran’s newspapers were under CIA influence. Once the decision was made to oust Mosaddegh, the Americans and British attempted to promote instability and resentment against the prime minister. Articles in the Iranian press claimed that Mosaddegh’s ancestors were Jewish and that he might be homosexual. In the Western media he was portrayed at times as a communist and at other times as the cause of instability, which could benefit the communists. The British even arranged the kidnapping, torture and murder of Iran’s chief of the national police, General Muhammad Afshartu, in late April 1953, in the hope of provoking a coup.

To carry out the coup, Roosevelt arrived in Iran followed shortly by Schwarzkopf with millions of dollars to distribute among Iranian operatives. They recruited segments of the military, a few ulama, a group of well known thugs and some prostitutes from southern Tehran’s poor neighbourhood. The thugs, who worked closely with the CIA agents, had no political ideology and operated purely for economic gain. When two leading thugs expressed reluctance to continue the operation and a desire to with draw, Roosevelt offered the simple choice of cooperating for $50,000 or quitting and death. They decided to take the money and cooperate.  The Iranian operatives failed in their initial attempt at a coup on 16 August, and the shah, who had been very reluctant to remove Mosaddegh, fled the country. Despite Washington’s orders to leave Iran, Roosevelt improvised a new plan that succeeded three days later in ousting the prime minister and reinstalling the shah.”

Here's a description of the shah's regime:

"He controlled all the major centres of power in the country, including the army, government bureaucracy, the cabinet, parlia ment and political parties. He appointed all the top officials of the govern ment and approved all political candidates for office. Political parties were never able to operate independently. Furthermore, the shah personally made every important political and economic decision, including national planning. The government strictly controlled the press and other media. With the consolidation of exclusive rule, the shah relied increasingly on his coercive apparatus to maintain power."

Obviously, the umma-wide Islamist trend had a lot to do with the Iranian revolution of 1979. But this book implies that Jimmy Carter's Christian humanitarianism might have made a contribution as well:

"Amnesty International accused Iran of being one of the world’s ‘worst violators of human rights’. More importantly, Jimmy Carter singled out Iran in the 1976 US presidential campaign as a country where human rights had been violated. American congressmen began to question the wisdom of selling so much weaponry to a regime where power resided solely in one man. Although the Carter administration did not really press Iran to introduce major political changes, the shah, dependent on US support, initiated small policy changes in the government’s treatment of political opponents. In March 1977 the government released 256 political prisoners, and in May permitted the International Red Cross to visit political prisoners. The government also legalised civilian trials for political opponents who criticised the government. Prompted by the reduction of repression, leftist and secular moderate political groups were quick to mobilise for collective action."

The author of the chapter about 20th-century Iran is an economically left-wing secular liberal. He presents the revolution as a popular struggle for freedom, economic justice and liberal democracy.

Shortly before the shah's fall government workers' organizations declared that they would only obey a government appointed by Khomeini. This would come as a surprise to a reader of this book who doesn’t already know how the Iranian revolution ended. The author does mention Khomeini before that point, but not as a figure of much importance. Workers and students are fighting for liberal democracy against an authoritarian regime, and then, almost out of the blue, at the most decisive moment, they start demanding a holy man to lead the country.

Many people try to avoid talking about things they don't like, unless and until they really have to. But this guy is a freaking historian. On the job.

After 1979 Saudi Arabia was left as America’s principal vassal in the region. Its current importance would have seemed surprising to past generations. When the winners of WWI divided the Middle East among themselves, they left Arabia largely unclaimed. They didn’t yet know about its oil reserves.

Even in central Arabia most of the population were farmers then. Foreigners overestimated the share of nomads because they usually came to Arabia as pilgrims or traders - two groups often attacked by nomadic tribes.

The book says that in the 19th century “morals in Mecca were widely thought dubious”. I remember reading somewhere - Druon’s Cursed Kings series? - that Avignon was famous as a center of prostitution when the papacy was lodged there.

In those pre-Saudi times the religious culture of the Hijaz “was alien to Wahhabı creed, more akin to the Ottoman pluralism of legal schools and Sufi orders.”

Under pressure from Europeans, "the Ottoman government in 1855 outlawed importing slaves, provoking riots in Mecca."

It's funny that the world now associates slavery with Euro colonialism.

"...when an imamate was again launched in Oman, in 1913, the British were accused of permitting the forbidden (tobacco and alcohol) while forbidding licit transactions in slaves and arms."

The chapter on Afghanistan says that the holding of Hazara as slaves was only outlawed there in 1919.

Pearl diving was an important economic activity on the Gulf Coast. In the 1930s Japanese cultured pearls drove down the prices. The discovery of oil “could not have arrived at a more propitious moment”.

The arrival of modernity was sometimes met with violence:

“In 1975 King Faysal was assassinated by the relative of a prince killed while protesting against the introduction of television.”

The book says that Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was "Intended to pressurise the oil rich Gulf states into cancelling Iraq’s multi billion dollar debts and contributing to its reconstruction" after the Iran-Iraq war.”

People think of Saddam as a secular leader, but the Islamist trend affected nearly everyone:

"As the [Iran-Iraq] war dragged on, the Iraqi government tried to mobilise its own population. It launched a campaign of sustained public religiosity, including a programme of mosque building, restoration of the great Shıı shrines of Iraq and the honouring of religious scholars. Ayat Allah Khomeini and his fellow clerics were depicted as thinly disguised Iranian nationalists and ‘Magians’. By contrast, Saddam Hussein was portrayed not simply as a pious Muslim, but also as a direct descendant of the fourth caliph, Imam Alı."

Speaking of the Islamist trend, this book claims that Sudan offered Bin Laden to the US in 1996, but America declined to take him, being instead “satisfied” with Osama going to Afghanistan. This is a list of things he’s thought to have done up to that point:

“In Khartoum, Bin Laden allegedly planned the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, attacks in Somalia in 1994 and on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, various attacks on tourists in Egypt, and the attempted assassination of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in 1995.”

I’m not a “truther”, but stuff like this, not on a random web page, but in a Cambridge University publication, makes you wonder.

The coast of what's now Tanzania and Kenya is the only place I'm aware of where Muslims ever blocked the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. This was because "existing social and religious structures were connected with claims to cultural superiority: while the coastal populations regarded themselves as the harbingers of civilisation, as Waungwana, they saw outsiders, particularly those from the East African hinterlands, as Washenzi (barbarians) or, indiscriminately, as ‘coastals’ (Waswahili), devoid of proper cultural and religious roots. Washenzi and Waswahili were perceived as an additional threat to the established social order when they started to convert to Islam which was regarded, by the Waungwana, as a major feature of their own culture.”

In the same vein, prominent black families of that region stressed their “Shirazi” origin. Shiraz is a city in Iran.

On another fringe of the Muslim world, in Southeast Asia, Islam was often lax and heavily mixed with local beliefs. The Javanese version of this was called Javanism. The Dutch encouraged its evolution as "a self-consciously separate religious sensibility"...

"Whether Javanism was gradually becoming a ‘separate religion’"..." remains hotly contested."

Yet in their conflicts with European powers Southeast Asians sometimes appealed to the Ottoman sultan as the leader of the world's Muslims.

"In Sumatra, the sultan of Jambi declared his lands to be Turkish territory in 1855. The sultan of Aceh renewed his ancient vassalage to Istanbul in 1850, sent help for the Crimean War, and presented his domains to the Ottomans in 1868."

The Muslim part of the Philippines was never conquered by the Spaniards. Americans seized it in the first years of their occupation of the archipelago.

The Philippines are of course the birthplace of the MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

I've been a map nerd since my pre-teen years, so I'm always curious about where modern states and borders came from.

"One of the aims of the British separation of Transjordan from Palestine was to limit the area of the Jewish ‘national home’ promised in the Balfour Declaration. Transjordan was thereby closed to Jewish settlement."

Egypt and Sudan were governed together in many historical periods. The book says that the current separation stems from the 1952 Egyptian revolution, the one that brought Nasser to power. For some reason the new Egyptian government was favorable to Sudanese independence.

On the birth of Pakistan:

“In the end the Congress Party refused to accept Jinnah’s terms, which asked for the creation of a Pakistan within a federal India, and thus an independent India with a weak centre and strong provinces. By doing so, Congress forced the creation of Pakistan as a separate sovereign state.”

“The demand for Pakistan was never strong in Muslim majority areas of India.”

Political Islam was most popular in UP, where Delhi is, where the Mughal Empire was governed from. Immigrants from there had a large role in independent Pakistan.

On the birth of modern Lebanon:

"The arrival of the French army of occupation and the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920 caused deep disquiet among the Sunnı Muslim leaders. Having been part of the dominant architecture of the Ottoman state, with family and financial ties to Damascus, Latakiya, Aleppo and Homs, the Sunnı Muslim notables found themselves representing a minority within a state dominated by the Maronite Christian community, under the control of the French authorities, administratively separated from Syria. It was not surprising that in the first two decades of Lebanon’s existence the most vocal opposition, not simply to the French occupation but also to the very existence of a separate Lebanese state, should have come from the Sunnı Muslim community."

In 1976 Syria intervened in Lebanon to support the Christians there. This is interesting to me because I've seen people call Alawites crypto-Christians. In 1973 Hafez al Assad introduced  a new Syrian constitution, omitting any mention of the role of Islam. This caused some rioting, so he inserted an amendment requiring the president to be a Muslim.

When you study history you keep noticing that most social phenomena are older than popularly thought. For example, in the 19th century the government in Paris was better predisposed to Muslims than were the French colonists in Algeria. That made me think of the US government siding with blacks over southern whites in the 1960s and many similar situations. The book even says that in the 19th century, on China's Turkic frontier "local officials favoured Han settlers, despite Beijing’s pleas for impartiality."

Amusingly, the book states that the French invasion of Algeria "started as a quarrel over money, in which the dey slapped the French consul of Algiers and refused to apologise".

I was surprised to learn that in neighboring Libya right before WWII 12% of the population, 110,000 people, were Italian settlers.

Another case of the past being more like the present than everyone thinks: in 1835 Macaulay wished for a future in which East Indians would be “English in taste and in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. The denial of HBD here is almost modern in its stupidity.

The Brits even introduced elections to India, already in the colonial period.


The New Cambridge History of Islam is a 6-volume work, but it’s unlikely that I will read the 6th one. Its topic is more sociological than historical, and I have less interest in that. I did have fun reading the other 5 volumes, and I recommend them strongly to anyone fascinated by this subject.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Getting Smaller

Last May I was having lunch with someone I know. We were talking about random things: common acquaintances, work, the news. And for some reason I said “I’m gonna start losing weight”. I wasn’t planning to say this 5 seconds before I did. Or the day before. Of course I knew I was overweight, but it wasn’t a major problem. I’m fascinated by how people make decisions. Why am I learning Chinese, for example?


Anyway, this graph starts two days after I said that. I’m guessing I lost one or two pounds before I began logging my weight. I didn’t think my chances of losing so much and keeping it off for so long were high, but here I am.

How did I do it? I only eat two times a day now, on my lunch break from work, between noon and 1 PM, and soon after coming home at 7 PM. And during the initial, steeply falling part of this graph I didn’t eat much at lunch. Sometimes just a yogurt. After I get home I eat as much as I want, but in contrast to my pre-diet days I never go back to the kitchen after the initial meal. 

I didn’t change what I eat. And I didn’t do any exercise. New York is a famously walkable city. I’ve always walked a fair amount. And I prefer stairs to elevators and escalators. But that’s it. 

I was sometimes hungry, especially during the first month. But then I’d get a phone call and forget all about this hunger while talking. It was never a strong feeling. 

Do I feel different now? No. I was never so fat that it would cause any discomfort. My cholesterol level has fallen substantially though. A couple of blood indicators that have to do with the liver went from elevated to normal. There are obvious psychological advantages. I can’t help feeling superior to the fat people I see around me. 

My pants size went from 34 to 30. I had to buy lots of new pants and belts. To my surprise I also had to take out a link from the steel bracelet of my Sinn 556 I

I’m below average height, but not by much. And I now have the normal, recommended weight for this height. Yet I’m wearing pants of the smallest size that’s normally available in stores. Actually, with some pants 32 is the smallest size. You rarely see 29 or 28. This made me recall Paul Graham talking in one of his essays about two definitions of normalcy: the average and the optimal.

I do see thinner men on the streets than I am. Hipsters, Asian guys. I wonder where they buy pants. Online, in the kids’ sections?

Once you accomplish something, it’s tempting to develop it further. There were two avenues for that here: muscling up and buying lots of new clothes. ‘Cause you know, once you look a little better, you think “what can I do to look better still?”

I went for the clothes. What this proved once again is that it’s very easy for me to stop doing enjoyable things. I’ve never been addicted to anything, not even coffee. I’ll go even further than that: I could quit Twitter. I think. I don’t see a huge need for that now. But if I wanted to, I think I could. 

But it’s hard for me to force myself to do unpleasant things, like running or lifting weights. The title of this blog is true. 

I don’t think this is a very common combination of traits. Most lazy guys are easily addicted to things because they lack self-control. Fat people, for example, are addicted to food. 

I’ve sometimes thought about doing a blog post on clothes. I have about 100 dress shirts here, for example. And as I said, I‘ve bought a lot of stuff since I got thin. I have many opinions on how one should dress, on how to buy things, where. The people who’ve seen my Twitter feed know that I’m a pretty visual person. 

But to do this properly I’d have to learn something about photography again. Let’s say I went to Macy’s and looked through all the 500 types of shirts they had there, choosing the best 3. I then look at these 3 for several minutes, concentrating on the question of which one I like best. The answer reveals in some way who I am inside. This is almost as aesthetically-charged as writing poetry. Don’t laugh, folks, it really is.

If I then take a crappy picture of the shirt I end up buying with my phone camera, a lot of what I see in it would be lost. I’ve actually done this, and the result is horrible. I don’t know anything about proper lighting, I’ve probably used about 0.001% of Gimp’s features and I’ve never touched Photoshop.

So until I learn all that, which is likely never, here’s a professional, manufacturer-website pic of a shirt I recently bought at Bloomingdale’s:

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Chinese and Piano Update

I'm spending a lazy Sunday at home, so I decided to update my Hobby Time graph. To make it less confusing, I decreased the number of categories.
Here's a separate graph for my Pimsleur Mandarin and ChinesePod lessons.
I think I've now spent about 430 hours on Chinese listening comprehension. This includes the period before I started logging this info. The ChinesePod company recommends that you listen to 120 of their Intermediate lessons, then to 160 of their Upper Intermediate lessons, then to 120 Advanced and 80 "Media" lessons. I finished my 120th Intermediate lesson a few days ago. I'm now almost done with my first Upper Intermediate lesson. The jump in complexity between these two levels is pretty big. I've recently started a log on the Language Learner's Forum. If I have more free time, I may describe this process there in the sort of detail that only my fellow language nerds could ever find interesting.

As I progress, Mandarin sounds less and less weird to me. Not Cantonese though. I have two co-workers who speak with each other in it, and I don't understand a single word of their conversations. Which is kind of stunning. The Wikipedia, and paper encyclopedias before it, told me that these two languages are related. But I wouldn't have discovered this on my own, at least not yet. A woman from another department sometimes comes over to talk to these two co-workers of mine in Mandarin, and I now understand quite a lot of what she says.

This is a bit of a relief to me. I've read that almost no one speaks standard Mandarin, the kind I'm learning to understand, at home. Apparently there are many (dozens? hundreds?) regional, mutually-unintelligible varieties of Mandarin. So it feels good to know that I can understand some bits of real conversations in it. And yes, Mandarin sounds more pleasant to me than Cantonese.

I've been spending even more time on piano practice than on Chinese:

At the start of every session I play the 4 pieces that I know by heart. Then I move on to scales and arpeggios. The book that I'm using has the following exercises for each key: 

I've now learned these exercises for roughly 2.5 out of the 24 keys. But every time I think I've completed something I discover that I'm not really doing it right. For example, all of the above scales and arps are written for 2 octaves. But it turns out that you're supposed to play them in 4. They expect you to extrapolate. I do it now, but it wasn't easy at first.
You're also supposed to play all of this stuff like a metronome. An untrained person like me produces notes in clusters instead. The movements of my fingers aren't as independent as they should be. I'm working on this. People use actual metronomes to get better at it. I've tried that, but it seemed unnatural. Maybe I should force myself to get used to it.
After going through about 1.5 keys I decided that I should play these exercises without looking at the keyboard. If I can't do scales and arps blind, how can I ever expect to learn to sight-read? This also took some time.  
It's all good fun of course, especially Chinese. The jump you see in that graph of Mandarin practice above happened because I noticed getting better at it soon after I signed up with ChinesePod. Progress motivates.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Prediction Testing with Anki

I decided to test my powers of prediction using my Anki deck. Yesterday, and then again this morning, I expressed my level of certainty about my answers as a percentage. I did this for exactly 1,000 reps. Then I tabulated the results. 

The blue line represents perfection. The brown line is my actual performance.

I assigned the probability of 55% and 75% to very few answers, so the results for those two data points are basically noise. Here's how the graph looks without them:

I put the data that I used to calculate this here.

I'm sure there are ways to score one's performance more succinctly, as a single number, but right now I'm feeling too lazy to do that. I'd guess I'm average at this sort of thing. The few times in my life when I gambled a bit, I came out roughly even.

Monday, February 19, 2018

More Autobiography

A couple more chapters of my autobiography. The earlier ones can be found here, here and here.

Childhood Friends

I met M in kindergarten when we were 4 years old. Our fathers went to enroll us in school together, on the same day. His and my parents were quite friendly in general, which always surprised me because they had so little in common.

M's mom and dad met each other when they were students at Moscow State University, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the USSR. They were both biologists. His mom is the only person I've ever seen who earned a Gold Medal, the highest award given by the Soviet secondary school system. His dad is the only bearded man I remember from childhood.

Although M is a few months younger than I am, he always seemed more adult. He was not present for many of the crazier childhood adventures that I described in an earlier chapter. Most kids read the same books then, but he seemed to read them about a year earlier.

He had an amazing talent for drawing. By the age of 7 or 8 he got bored with realistic subjects and started to draw funny, fantastic animals, people with a larger than normal number of limbs, etc.

I draw by approximation: the first line is always bad, so I put a correcting line next to it, then a third, a fourth. I think that's normal.

Already in childhood M didn't need that. His first stroke was always right and elegant.

When we were still in kindergarten we used to walk together behind his apartment building and look for caterpillars. He knew all of their names and what sort of butterflies each kind would make. When we found them we put them in match boxes to be later transferred to glass bottles together with leaves for them to eat. Over the ensuing weeks and months M observed the cocooning process in his apartment.

When we were 10 M's grandfather, whom I remember quite well, passed away. My parents told me that since their family was mourning I should stop calling M every day. These phone calls usually consisted of me saying "wanna go out and play?" and him saying "sure." AmazingIy, I still remember their 1980s phone number.

My parents forgot to tell me when it was OK to resume calling M, and for some reason I never asked.

There was a deeper cause of us growing apart though: social anxiety. I already knew enough to feel ashamed of my and my parents’ manners, of our boring ordinariness compared to M.

We were friendly up until I left Russia a couple of weeks before my 17th birthday. Actually I can't imagine M ever being unfriendly with anyone - he seemed well above such trifles as human conflict. But after the age of 10 we were never again best friends.

The last time I heard of him he had gotten a Ph.D. in biology and was a cancer researcher in a Western country. He did exactly what he had to do, fulfilling his enormous potential in a precise and beneficial way. I'm quite amazed by that.


B came to our school in second grade, but we became best friends a couple of years later. He was one of only two kids in our class who didn't live in a two-parent household. His father died and his mom decamped somewhere, so he lived with his grandma instead. Even though we were close for years, I never talked to him about any of that. First, I'm nerdy, and nerds are bored by the personal. Second, I guess I didn't want to remind him of anything negative.

B was interested in astronomy. He made telescopes from cardboard and his grandma's old glasses. I've looked through them, and they really worked. He subscribed to academic astronomy journals and could talk about that topic at length.

Our biggest common interest was photography though. I had two cameras: a modern one (for those days), bought by my parents for one of my birthdays and a beautiful Zenit made in 1956 which was given to me by my uncle.

We started by reading a detailed manual written in the 1950s, thinking through every step many times, preparing for them meticulously. We developed film in the bathroom of my apartment, after blocking the space under the door with towels. I still remember the smell of the chemicals - you never forget smells. My parents bought me an enlarger, the biggest piece of equipment you needed for all of this. We made prints in my room, with a special red lamp as the only illumination. This lamp burned out one day, causing me to experience my first electrical shock when I tried to change the bulb in the resulting darkness.

Shutter speed, aperture, film sensitivity, filters: memories, memories. At some point we realized that we could unscrew the Zenit's lens kit and put a special tube behind it, lengthening the distance to film. This allowed the camera to focus on closer objects. We made detailed photographic studies of toy soldiers, our irises, and then of dead flies' eyes.

When a 22-storey building, our neighborhood's tallest, was finished, of course we had to  try to take pictures from the top. The middle-aged man we met in the elevator was suspicious. "What are you doing here, boys? Do you live here?" He escorted us out. We waited outside for half an hour before going back in. The hallway on the top floor led to a balcony. This was the day when I learned that B was much braver than I was - while taking pictures from every possible angle he leaned out over the balcony's rail further and with a more casual air.

The game of badminton was very popular in Russia then. The main problem with it was the wind. There was a school in our neighborhood which was shaped like the letter H. Two areas were protected from the wind on three sides. This is where B and I usually played. We ran around with our rackets until complete exhaustion, then sat on the steps leading to one of the school's back entrances, talking about school, our futures, anything that came to mind.

As an adult I love debating politics online. Well, my first arguments of approximately this kind were with B. As perestroika was gradually destroying civilization in our part of the world, reason suffered many reverses. Faith healers and astrologers appeared on TV, as well as guys who charged bottles of water with "positive energy" by looking at them intently. None of that existed before Gorbachev.

I was a mindless liberal in my youth, but for some reason I took the rationalist position on this topic. B, in spite of his interest in astronomy, always said that I shouldn't be so dogmatic, that there might be a grain of truth in some of these claims, etc.

The events one remembers best often seem random. I have a very vivid picture of a part of one of our trips to a photo chemicals shop. We had just gotten off a bus and started a longish walk. It's fall and the neighborhood, little-known to me, looks cozy in the specific 1970s-built Soviet way. It must be the beginning of the autumn break. The stress of school is behind me and I finally feel relaxed - with my best friend, pursuing an interest we both love. It's quiet all around us, and when we start to talk, it's quietly.


S. appeared in our class in 6th or 7th grade. A few days later he showed us an issue of a literary magazine which he wrote entirely by himself, by hand. It had funny illustrations, also done by him. Even taking into account the less consumerist, more do-it-yourself spirit of the time, it seemed unusual.

Very quickly he became the informal leader of the male portion of our class. He was brilliant, but not nerdy. His attitude to everyone was like that of an amused parent to a bunch of mischief-making but lovable kids.

He used to come to school in army boots made from a material called kirza. This was probably the coolest-looking piece of military garb of that time from anywhere in the world. His father, whom we never saw, was an army officer.

S also often wore a kind of rough jacket called a telogreyka (bodywarmer). An alternative name for that garment has the same meaning in modern Russian as the word "redneck" in English. This wasn't true then yet, but it was funny to see that thing on someone as smart as S. Which was of course the point. He used to top this off by donning a fur ear-flap hat asymmetrically and talking in a hick accent, which I think he mostly invented as he went.

Almost everything I remember S saying was funny, yet he was the most serious person I knew then. Outside of school most of us read sci-fi and adventure stories. He read classical Russian literature instead. I remember telling him that my favorite historical period was the European Middle Ages, which is still true. You know, knights, castles. S looked at me like I had just come from space. Of course HIS favorite sort of history was Russian.

He wrote up his impressions of every book he read in a special journal. Why did it take me almost 20 years after I learned this to start doing something like that myself?

His summer vacations were not like those of the others. One year he signed up for a 150-km trek across the Caucasus. Another time he went on an archeological dig.

S was the most verbally inventive person I've known in real life. Funny nicknames for teachers, hilarious terminology for various aspects of our games, pithy summaries of the main events of the day - all of that seemed to come out of him effortlessly. Any acerbity that accompanied this was obviously a put-on for fun's sake. There was no anger in him.

Whenever I think of S now I feel guilty for not having been brave, good and kind, for often forgetting that those should even be my goals. When people talk about their mentors I want to barf, yet more than 25 years ago I seriously looked up to a real-life person as a moral example.

It's hard to escape superlatives when writing an autobiography. Life is filled with the ordinary. That's boring to talk about, so instead you end up describing the people and things that impressed you the most. And while doing that you run the danger of appearing easily-excited.

I have a weird view of Russia and the USSR for someone of my background. I can think of many theories about its origins: instinctive contrariness, geeky literal-mindedness offended by certain bits of hypocrisy, geeky detachment from social and political norms, etc. I don't really know the reason, but one of the theories that seem plausible to me is that at my most impressionable age I subconsciously absorbed from S a feeling that rooting for Russia is cool.

Does that mean that if he was passionate about sports I would now be a hockey fan? No, someone like S could have never loved anything so trivial.

Everyone, including our teachers, was sure that S would accomplish great things. Unfortunately that didn't happen. Unlike many, maybe most, certifiable geniuses of that time and place, he stayed in Russia. That's not surprising because he was always intensely patriotic. And of course he was never going to cheat anyone in business or lie to anyone about politics.

I don't want to end this chapter on a negative note.

The only party of my youth that approached the "you gotta fight for your right to party" sense of that word by less than a couple of light years was held at the apartment of our German language teacher. She had a cool son of our age, who was an unofficial member of our class, of our little "gang".

I traveled there with S. Of course he never sat down in public transport - that would have been ungentlemanly with women around. And of course there was no drinking or drugs (what's that?) at the party. The closest thing to that was a cigarette tucked behind S's ear all through the trip, which he hid away before we rang the buzzer.

But it was fun. There were about 20 people there. Music, party games, lots of shouting and laughter. Not a bad way to remember that time.

First Love

Sometime around 6th or 7th grade, when we were all 13 or 14, a girl named N appeared in our class. She had a face similar to that of the young Angela Lansbury, but prettier. Whenever I see old Go-Go's videos, Belinda Carlisle makes me think of her as well. There was a great sense of healthy fun about her.

It wasn't love from first sight, because I would have definitely remembered such a moment. After a while it turned out that I couldn't stop looking at her during classes.

I can see her face with amazing clarity to this day. But the way she made me feel then is like a museum exhibit under glass, something I can only marvel at from outside. I'll never have such strong emotions about anything again. Where would I find the energy?

I tried to help her any way I could - with homework, spare pens and erasers, info about upcoming tests, etc. It was only many years later that I learned that women hate helpful subservience.

We were sometimes shown educational films in school. One of those made a particular impression on me. It was about the greatness of the Universe, the billions of galaxies, the enormousness of space. The narration was accompanied by stunning organ music - either Bach's Toccata and Fugue or something similar.

When the movie ended and the lights came back on, I searched for her face, and saw a completely different, but even more moving kind of beauty.

Until I left school and for quite a few years afterwards N was the center of my world in a way that would seem pathetic to most, but which I cherish regardless.

In the end nothing happened of course. It was an innocent world, plus we were good kids, plus I'm an awful wimp.

People sometimes talk about what they'd do on a desert island, what books or records they'd bring there, etc. This will always remain a silly and contrived hypothetical, yet we will all have to die one day. What will you think about when the time comes? I doubt I'll recall any of the physical relationships I've had with women later or, God forbid, anything that ever happened to me at work. Instead I will think back on what I wrote about in this chapter. It is the best memory.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Chinese Learning Update

Here's a graph of the number of hours I've spent per month listening to Chinese lessons. I started with Pimsleur quite a few months before I began tracking this info, so this is an incomplete record. Including the missing period, I think I've spent about 360 hours on Chinese listening comprehension. So far in February I've maintained the January pace, about 1.5 hours per day. 

I've noticed that when I hear something falling off my desk or when I turn on the water in the kitchen and the tap "coughs", for a second I interpret these sounds as Chinese words. This never happened to me while I was learning to understand spoken English, Spanish or French.

One of the most accomplished polyglots living today is a Slovak man named Vladimir Stultety. This is from his blog:

"I honestly have to say that I have never had to learn anything more difficult than Chinese and that maybe it is the only real foreign language I have ever learned." 

I concur.

Did I learn anything new about China itself during this period? Well, one of the lessons was about bicycles, and they mentioned that their theft is a problem there. I was surprised because if your bike is stolen in New York, the probability of the thief being Chinese is roughly 0%. Of course that made me recall that there were no bike locks in the USSR, and that bikes were never stolen there.

I guess in a multiracial society the Chinese always end up filling higher economic niches than petty theft. I remember seeing white American cleaning ladies in far, deep upstate New York. That felt so weird, but it makes sense. There's nobody else around there, and that niche has to be filled by someone.  

While watching a talk by Victor Mair on YouTube I learned that English-speaking Sinologists pronounce the first part of the name of their profession like "sign", and not like "sin".  

I also learned that Sinology has a Bible, and that it was written by an eccentric Englishman named Endymion Wilkinson. I downloaded this work through my Pleco app and browsed it a little. I think one should know something about Chinese history before trying to read it all the way through. Maybe after I read a few volumes of the Cambridge History of China.

I remember arguing with a guy on IRC, perhaps around the year 2000, about whether or not Chinese will ever replace English as the world's lingua franca. I was saying that it will, but in the back of my mind I thought "maybe that guy is right, maybe the Chinese aren't really capable of that kind of cultural pull on Westerners, no matter how much money they make."

Well, when Trump visited China, Ivanka's daughter Arabella became a sensation there for speaking Chinese to president Xi. I'm assuming she attends one of those schools with a heavy emphasis on Mandarin.

Does Ivanka have any motivations in life besides being fashionable? And she has more resources to throw at her desires than 99.9% of women with the same psychological makeup.

Doesn't mean it will happen. Technology may intervene. But it's not impossible.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Year in Nerdiness

Last year I continued to track the time I spend on my hobbies.

Most of my language nerdery during 2017 had to do with Chinese. I listened to Pimsleur lessons 104 through 150, finishing the 5th and last level sometime in the fall. Then I listened to 27 ChinesePod lessons, most of them from the Intermediate level.

I like ChinesePod more. I think it's because of the personalities of the hosts. They use lots of voice actors, but the lessons I'm listening to now are hosted by John Pasden and Dilu. They sound like they're having fun. If I was just starting to learn Chinese, I'd probably begin with Newbie ChinesePod lessons. I should also recommend the Pleco app as a dictionary and Anki for flashcards.

One other advantage of ChinesePod over Pimsleur is that it has many times more lessons and they go up to more advanced levels.

These lessons are less than 15 minutes each, but it takes me almost 3 hours to listen to one. Each lesson starts with an introduction. Then there's a short dialogue, whose transcript is provided by the ChinesePod company. Then the hosts discuss this dialogue in detail. In the Intermediate level a lot of the discussion is in Chinese. I understand 80% to 90% of it, but of course I have to be obsessive about the other 10% to 20%. I spend a lot of time trying to figure it out by myself. If I fail, I look at one of the transcripts made by ChinesePod users. I think there are only about 150 such transcripts. There's more than a thousand ChinesePod lessons at the Intermediate level and above, so if I stick with this system, at some point I'll have to start flying without the transcript safety net.

Here's a graph of my piano practice over the last few years:

My experiences with language learning made me pretty disdainful of formal education. I didn't learn most of what I know about Chinese, French, German, etc. from lessons. So when I started playing piano and guitar, I assumed that I would be able to learn them myself, simply by playing pieces.

But I eventually hit a wall. In spite of daily practice the speed with which I learn new pieces hasn't improved in years. And this speed is very low. So I started looking around the Internet for suggestions.

Many people think that learning scales and arpeggios is crucial. A lot of music is made up of them, so if you can play them automatically, without thinking, you learn pieces faster. Or so the story goes. Last year I decided to give this theory a try.

After some research I chose this scale book. So far I've learned almost all the exercises for one key, C major. But there are 24 keys in total (by one count), and it's not at all certain that I'll stick with this to the end.

The red segments on the above hobby time graph represent me studying calculus and other STEM subjects. Again, I don't know how far I'll go with this. It's not that I can't plan ahead and follow through, but most of my desire and ability to do that is used up by my job. Off work I'm only really willing to do what I want to do at any given moment. And that varies unpredictably.