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.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Poem

I'm not the kind of person who,
I'm not even quite sure what.
And anyway, what's that to you?
Are you, perhaps, some kind of nut?

A friend keeps visiting my mind
Who is a person of your kind.
He argues fiercely for a lot
Of what I am quite sure is not

And could have never even been.
But I'll ignore that with a grin
Because I'm not the person who,
And anyway, what's that to you?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Look at Top YouTube Channels

I spend a lot of time watching YouTube videos, mostly musical ones. Usually I wander around the site aimlessly, jumping from one recommendation to another, but today I got curious about what the great mass of the population is watching there. I got a list of the most popular YouTube channels from the Wikipedia and browsed through the top dozen of them, typing up my impressions.

1. PewDiePie

A Swedish guy plays computer games and tries to seem funny by making himself look pathetic. Sometimes he assumes an egomaniacal rapper-like persona, where the joke is supposed to be "look at this skinny White dude trying to be hardcore". That could be made to work, but doesn't in his case. I realize that he's very popular and I'm a random loser, but I can only report my own reactions, and I simply didn't find him funny.

2. HolaSoyGerman

I did not expect the second most popular YouTube channel in the world to be in Spanish, but I AM a language nerd and I do understand my Castellano. German (a first name) is a Chilean who tries to be funny in a more old-fashioned, less vulgar way than PewDiePie. He's better at it too, but not by very much.

3. YouTube Spotlight

Boring stuff like Top Uploads, Top Trending Videos of the Week, Animal Odd Couples, Life in 4K, The World's Most Dangerous Places and New Music This Week.

4. Smosh

American sketch comedy. If SNL is 1 and The Kids in the Hall were 10, then Smosh's Part Timers series is 0.5 and its Best [Blank] Ever series is 2. Snappy is the word that comes to mind in reference to the latter.

5. Justin Bieber VEVO

I've never seen a Bieber video before today. He seems like a nice guy. Frank Sinatra and the Beatles started their careers appealing to teenage girls, and they were great musically, both then and when they got older. Bieber isn't.

6. Rihanna VEVO

The only Rihanna song I've ever liked is the first one I ever heard of hers, SOS. There's a tiny sample there from Tainted Love, which is great itself. I've learned to hate most of Rihanna's repertoire while trying to work through the sound of co-workers' radios in the office.

7. One Direction VEVO

Feels creepy to say this, but I'm actually surprised by the quality. Almost no traces of R&B in the songs that I clicked on randomly - how did that happen? Melodies. I heard Auto-Tune in some of them though - that's never good.

8. Taylor Swift VEVO

In the words of the great Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "neither my heart nor my sense have ever been able to think of one without breasts as a woman." And look at all those bones. I used to think that most models and movie stars looked like that because they were picked by queers who fantasized about teenage boys. I've since learned that there are normal men who find that attractive too.

Her face is far above average, but still kind of goofy. For that kind of money they certainly could have found something better. The music and videos are blandly corporate.

9. Katy Perry VEVO

OK, old Jean-Jacques would probably have been satisfied here. And she's kind of smart, and the songs are a little better, but it's still not anything I'm likely to want to hear again.

10. Eminem VEVO

As bad as I thought it would be.

11. elrubiusOMG

More Español. Ruben Gundersen is a half-Spanish, half-Norwegian guy who films himself playing computer games. I'm not a gamer, but in contrast with PewDiePie, I at least understand why this guy became popular. He's funny and personable. The humor is entirely of the Mediterranean variety. Nordics like absurdity and laughing at pretentiousness. El Rubius is more into playful, winking machismo.

12. VanossGaming

Several guys joke and laugh while playing computer games. Most of the time I didn't understand what was supposed to be so funny.

And that concludes today's look into popular online tastes.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review of Eugénie Grandet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Für Elise

Another recording of me playing the keyboard:

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Timing my Hobbies

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

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Stats of Ice and Gunfire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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