Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Homogeneity of Russian

I have long wondered about my native tongue's mysterious homogeneity. 90% of the time it's completely impossible to tell a Russian's home town by his speech. Siberians talk exactly like St. Petersburgers who talk exactly like Moscovites, etc. There are two very provincial non-standard accents, but they're dying. This is pretty bizarre. Of all the large European languages Polish comes closest to this level of homogeneity, but unlike Russia Poland is a relatively small, compact country.

How did this situation come about? I've had a chance to ask a couple of professional linguists this question and they didn't have a clue. Some will tell you that this homogeneity was created by the strictness of the Soviet educational system, but they're most likely wrong. Early Communism had a much harsher impact on Ukraine than on Russia and Ukrainian is as heterogeneous linguistically as Russian is homogeneous. In fact a large part of Ukraine forms a dialect continuum from Russian to Polish with pronunciation and vocabulary typically changing every few miles as you go from east to west and from south to north.

Normally languages that have appeared in their current homes recently are more homogeneous than languages that have been developing in the same place forever. This is why North America hosts fewer English accents than England does. But Russian spread across the European part of the modern Russian Federation roughly 1,000 years ago, so this shouldn't be an issue either.

If anybody out there has any ideas on this, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Yesterday I won $45 on Intrade betting on a Republican win in the Massachusetts special election. A few weeks ago I won about $55, mostly on bets about where the unemployment rate would be at the end of 2009. This means that so far in my brief Intrade career I'm up by about $100.

I'm guessing that this is mostly dumb luck. Just like in the stock market, there must be people on Intrade who regularly trade on inside info. In the case of the special election these would be campaign workers who have access to inside polls, maybe even campaign operatives who know whether the election is being rigged in some way and if so, to what extent and in whose favor.

If someone collects a payout due to inside info, whose money has he won? The money of chumps like me, who trade solely based on publicly-available data. And yet I'm probably going to bet on Intrade again. It's fun. It reliably gives you an extra something to hope for throughout the day. I've never tried mood-enhancing drugs, nor will I, but I'd be shocked if they acted as effectively as small-time gambling does. Everyone who has enough self-control to not let it get out of hand should try it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Learning Languages

As you can see from this blog's title and from this post, I really like languages. A few pieces of advice for anyone considering learning a foreign tongue:

1. Do not, under any circumstances, spend any time learning a language's grammar. You either get grammar intuitively and subconsciously or you don't get it at all. When I was learning English as a kid in Russia I was told that it had 12 different tenses with names like future perfect continuous, past indefinite, etc. I read long, confusing descriptions of these tenses that I have now forgotten. I now use English tenses without ever thinking about them.

I know that the Russian word светленькому is a dative singular masculine diminutive adjective of "light", but that's only because the old Soviet educational system stressed such things and I'm a language nerd. I'm sure that in the 19th century illiterate Russian peasants used their language's 6 grammatical cases flawlessly without knowing what a grammatical case was, much less how many of them there were in Russian.

Trying to learn grammar consciously is like learning to ride a bike by memorizing which leg muscles have to be flexed at which exact points of the bike pedal's journey around its axis. Nature did not intend us to think about this kind of stuff consciously. Same thing with grammar.

If your goal is to learn to read a foreign language, get a book written in it (a children's book if you want to start slow), a dictionary and start reading. At first you'll be looking up almost every word (or half of them or less than that, depending on how close the language you're learning is to your own). If you don't give up early, you'll be using the dictionary less and less as you go along. The grammar will take care of itself.

Of course for learning to speak a language nothing beats talking to people.

2. Some langauges are objectively more complex and difficult to learn than others, even when you correct for the degree of relatedness to the learner's native tongue. There is a politically correct tendency to think otherwise because language is a good reflection of the mind and PC tells us that all of the world's nations are the same under their skins. This is BS. Here's a wiki about an Amerindian language spoken in the Amazon that lacks any terms for numbers (their closest things to them are words for "more" and "less"), for colors beyond "dark" and "light", lacks kinship terms for relations more distant than siblings (and doesn't even distinguish between "mother" and "father"), has no grammatical number even for pronouns (no difference between "I" and "we"), and only has 12 phonemes (if you've ever wondered, standard American English has about 45).

Obviously, there's nothing like that in Europe, but there are still genuine differences in language complexity there. French has been much closer to English historically than Spanish, lending it thousands more words than Spanish has, so you'd expect it to be easier to learn for English speakers than Spanish is. Yet everyone with a clue about this will tell you that the opposite is true. Even though French and Spanish are related to Russian to exactly the same (small) extent, I know from personal experience that it's easier for a Russian speaker to learn Spanish than French. French is simply more complex than its southern relative. For example, there are more than twice as many vowels in it that one needs to be able to tell apart. Many of them are hard to produce and therefore rarely occur in other languages. Spanish, on the other hand, gets by with the five basic, easy-to-pronounce vowels that almost every other language has.

Same thing with grammar - for example, all Slavic languages except for Bulgarian have grammars that are objectively more complex than the ones used in Western Europe.

3. It's possible to be able to read a language without being able to speak it or understand it when it's spoken. Understanding the spoken language and reading without speaking is possible too. These are really very different skills that you learn separately even when you learn them concurrently.

4. There are studies that show that it's impossible to learn to speak a foreign language without an accent after the age of 13. Being an immigrant who knows a lot of immigrants, I think I can confirm this. I've never known anyone who learned to speak a foreign language without an accent after that age. Learning to write in a foreign tongue flawlessly in adulthood is possible, though not terribly common.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Favorite Manhattan Buildings

I think most New Yorkers would agree with me that the Chrysler Building is the best-looking one in the city. The number of non-traditional, post-WWI (in both chronology and spirit) public buildings that can be described as beautiful is very small. The Chrysler is the most elegant of them that I've seen.

I would put downtown's Municipal Building next. It was finished in 1912 and may or may not have served as the inspiration for Stalin's Seven Sisters in Moscow. One weird thing about this building is that it's more impressive up close than from a distance and not at all impressive from the inside.

The NY Public Library's main branch, number three on my list, looks much better from the inside than from the outside, though the exterior isn't ugly either. Of course Europe is full of such buildings, which you can't say about the Chrysler, hence Chrysler's place up top.

The Woolworth is fourth on my list. It's hard to go wrong by imitating Gothic cathedrals, so you can't give it too many points for originality either. However, it looks a thousand times better than the Sears Tower and about a million times better than anything Wal-Mart would have come up with if it ever entered the field of monumental architecture.

The Empire State. Like almost all skyscrapers it looks better from afar than when you're standing right under it.

The Met Life complex on 23rd Street. The bell tower was built in 1909. The main building was supposed to be 100 stories tall, but was cut down to 30 in the middle of the Great Depression. Amazingly, it doesn't look stubby as a result. I was once rejected for a very good job inside the old Met Life complex, and yet I still love it.

The New York Life Building. Same idea as with the Woolworth, but with a more solid and reassuring feel, because it was built by an insurance company.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Roissy in DC

Roissy is back! Some thoughts about him:

I think that his blog's most important contribution to society is to disabuse large numbers of nerds of highly debilitating delusions about women. These delusions are fed to all of us by the media and the educational system, but most men and almost all women are immune to their effects because in the social sphere most people act subconsciously, on instinct, rarely asking themselves if their actions conform to any received ideas. The average human's instincts about relations between the sexes are healthy and realistic.

We nerds, however, do tend to think about human relationships consciously, and have a terrible habit of taking others' suggestions literally. A man who takes feminism literally might as well be a eunuch.

When I was growing up, the advice I got from my dad about women wasn't very different from the kind of thing that Roissy made his specialty, but of course I was too stupid to believe it. My father wasn't as cool or articulate or persistent as the people pushing PC crap. His message didn't form a complicated ideological framework. Feminism does, and nerds tend to like complexity for its own sake.

Over the years life gradually taught me that the PC view of gender relations is in many ways orthogonal to the truth. For me Roissy simply fleshed out some of the details and, through his gift for good writing, provided some entertainment. But if I read someone like him in my teens or early twenties, he would have probably made a real difference, making my PC delusions disappear earlier and less painfully than they ended up doing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Celebtrity Sightings

In spite of the fact that I've been commuting to Manhattan for more than 15 years now, I don't have too many celebrity sightings to report. I've once seen Carson Kressley, dressed up like a parrot in heat (or like whatever it is that parrots are when they're desperate for mating), on a downtown 5 train. I also once saw someone who may or may not have been Yoko Ono walking alone down 40th Street where it borders Bryant Park. Once, while sitting at a salad place downtown, I saw CNN's legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin lunching with a female friend in the aisle across from me. He looked fatter in person than he does on TV.

The most memorable sighting of all, however, happened at a pizzeria on Park Place, next to City Hall. While eating lunch there one day, I saw a commotion upfront - a group of tall men in dark suits were making their way inside. Soon a very short, older man walked in and slowly approached the counter. This was the billionaire and politician Michael Bloomberg, who was then, as he is now, our city's mayor. The guys in identical suits were his bodyguards. I'd already heard by then that for PR purposes he had taken to riding the subway to work, but I couldn't have imagined until I saw it with my own eyes that his initiative to seem like a man of the people could have also extended to eating pizza. He and another guy eventually settled down with their slices on two little stools by the wall. I'd seen his companion on TV before - he was a political consultant. They talked about the city charter revision, which was in the news at the time. I already forgot whether Bloomberg was for or against this revision, but I will always remember a piece of advice his consultant gave him while I was listening to them in that pizzeria. He advised Bloomberg to paint his opponents on the question of charter revision as "elitists".

I believe that this comment needs to be put into proper perspective to be understood fully. There is a 54-story skyscraper in this city, on 59th St and 3rd Avenue, called the Bloomberg Tower. He pilots his own helicopters and owns multiple mansions in the US, Europe, the Caribbean, and who knows where else. During a now-legendary interview a reporter once asked him how his sex life was going. "I'm a single billionaire living in Manhattan, how do you think it's going?" was his reported reply. So it is this man that was being advised, within my earshot, to portray his political opponents as "elitists". What can one even say to this? And yet it happened.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Park Slope Cafés

I had to do something in Park Slope recently, which reminded me of a great sociological mystery that I was never able to solve. Park Slope is a stereotypically swipple part of Brooklyn, which, among other things, means a predictable oversupply of "quirky" French-themed cafés.

Someone once told me that most Chinese restaurants in America get their menus, decor and many of their raw ingredients from the same supply company, ensuring a homogenized feel across the whole Chinese take-out place marker sector. It would surprise me if the same thing didn't apply to "quirky" cafés in gentrified neighborhoods all over the country. Actually, it wouldn't even surprise me if the same company was doing both.

This post isn't about decor though. It's about these cafés' workforce. In Park Slope their cash registers and coffee machines are exclusively manned by sensitive, 20-something swipples who seem as though they could have come directly from the neighboring brownstones. These brownstones are genuinely beautiful and cost millions. Everyone I know assumes that the hipsters of Park Slope, DUMBO, Williamburg and other such places, to a man, are spoiled, ridiculous, do-nothing children of wealthy, but definitely to-be-pitied parents from places like Ohio or Michigan. Then why are some of them working in cafés? You certainly can't live in Park Slope on the money they'd pay you for serving coffee. I have a middle class office job and I wouldn't be able to afford living there. Neither would my boss, his boss, his boss's boss and so on.

Their silly left-wing affectations aside, swipples tend to be smart, attractive, healthy people in the very prime of their lives. If they actually needed money, couldn't they have gotten better-paying jobs than serving coffee? I mostly tinker with Excel and Access for a living and I've never seen a swipple sitting in one of our cubicles. In fact, it's unthinkable. Not only would they have better options, but they would also consider such work too boring for words. As if serving coffee wasn't boring.

They pride themselves on being independent-minded, and yet the amount of brainwashing needed to convince someone that working the cash register, no matter where, is more exciting than tinkering with Access queries to produce financial reports seems astounding to me.

I really don't know how to explain this. Perhaps these particular swipples lack the rich parents of most of their brethren. Perhaps they don't even live in Park Slope, but commute to it daily. Or maybe they live in those brownstones 12 to a room, like Salvadoran construction workers, happy just to have reached their own demented version of the promised land. If anyone has better ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Some Music

These are some guitar melodies I wrote and recorded years ago.

Melody 1

Sound File


PowerTab File


Melody 2

Sound File


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Melody 3

Sound File


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Melody 4

Sound File


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Melody 5

Sound File


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As you can probably hear, I'm not much of a guitarist. Besides these I have a couple of songs, complete with lyrics, which I'll upload as soon as I get around to recording them properly.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Review of Candide

I recently read Voltaire's Candide and wrote up a little review:

Candide ou l'optimisme (Candide, or Optimism), 1759, by Voltaire, read in French. Glossy's rating: 4 out of 10. Voltaire's rating in Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment: 47 out of 100 (7th place overall in Western lit.)

This book's eponymous protagonist is a naive young man who was taught by his teacher, the philosopher Pangloss, that ours is the best possible world and that everything in it always happens for the best. According to Pangloss, misfortunes only ever visit us because they contribute in some way to the general good and "the more private misfortunes there are, the more general good" there is.

Pangloss also dusts off the old chestnuts that all men were created equal and that all property should belong to everyone. Voltaire wrote this novella mainly to refute these ideas, which he attributed to Gottfried Leibniz.

It was hard for me to get excited about this book-length refutation because I don't know anyone who believes that everything in our world always occurs "for the best". Most of us are aware of people who think that private property is evil and that all men were created equal, but unfortunately, those are not the parts of Pangloss's thought that Voltaire spends most of his time refuting. He simply has Candide go through a long series of fantastically cruel misadventures, all just to prove to him that life isn't a piece of cake after all.

At one point in the novella a character named "the wise man of taste" (oh, the subtlety!) holds forth on literature. Among other things he says that a good writer should always strive for newness without being bizarre. Voltaire clearly failed his own test here - all of "Candide" is bizarre.

While pretty violent, this book is not at all depressing. This is mostly because Voltaire seems completely uninterested in his characters' inner lives. I can't imagine what a movie based on “Candide” would look like, in large part because a cartoon would be far more appropriate for it. After being hanged, raped and pierced with swords, the characters invariably dust themselves off to cheerfully continue their arguments about Leibniz's ideas. Their emotional responses to being hanged and raped aren't any more realistic or thought-provoking than the physical ones.

Voltaire made his naive, honest, idealistic protagonist German. After two and a half centuries that stereotype hasn't really changed. Another one has though: in Voltaire's imagination Germany seems to have been a wild, provincial country situated on the far outskirts of civilization. In the 18th century his native France was still the cool kid of nations - a dynamic trend-setter, envied by everybody with a clue. Northern Italy had held that place during the Renaissance, but by Voltaire's time it was already considered a decadent has-been. Voltaire dramatized that feeling here through the character of the Venetian aristocrat Pococurante, who has seen everything and is tired of everything. The cycle that takes some societies from provincialism to leadership and then, almost invariably, to decline is, of course, fascinating. A century after Voltaire's death it was France's turn to become a symbol of decadence in the world's imagination, and Germany's turn to start setting the trends. Then, in the late 20th century, Germany itself joined the rest of Western Europe in the declinist camp, while America and Russia tried their hands at leading.

In his time Voltaire was a notorious liberal, and consequently a very fashionable guy to know. But times change - so much so that some of the stuff in this book would probably get him thrown in jail as a Nazi in modern France. For example: "The northern nations have not that heat in their blood, nor that raging lust for women, so common in Africa." Or this, from one female character's description of how she was raped by a pirate: "He was an abominable negro, and yet believed that he did me a great deal of honor". And this is how the same woman explains the pirates' attraction to her and to her European companions: "...our maids of honor, and even our waiting women, had more charms than are to be found in all Africa..." In a different chapter he describes women from an Indian tribe in Paraguay being amorous with apes, incorrectly stating that such unions are capable of producing offspring.

Through the character of Pococurante Voltaire dismisses all scientists and their work as utterly useless: "...if only one of those rakers of rubbish had shown how to make pins; but in all these volumes there is nothing but chimerical systems, and not a single useful thing." It’s fun to note here that Voltaire belonged to the last generation of Europeans who could have honestly made that claim. He died in 1778, just as the Industrial Revolution was starting up in England.

Another interesting thing in the Pococurante episode is that it contains a short review of what people of Voltaire’s age considered great literature. Most of the authors mentioned were unsurprisingly Greek and Roman. Only one English writer is discussed and it is Milton, not Shakespeare. In 1759, when “Candide” was first published, Shakespeare hadn't become super-important yet.

Voltaire spends a lot of time decrying the horrors of war here. Actually, I've never thought of the first three quarters of the 18th century as having been particularly violent. It is only with the French Revolution, many of whose leaders were inspired by Voltaire, that the quaint little wars and cartoonish despotisms of his age gave way to the megawars and megadespotisms of the Jacobin and Napoleonic types.

Voltaire, a staunch enemy of organized religion, included an auto-da-fe scene here as an example of how violent his clerical foes could be. Of course, the Revolution and its copycats across Europe ended up killing a lot more people than the Inquisition ever could, with most of the Revolutionaries being as anti-clerical as Voltaire. It's important to state here, however, that unlike many modern European critics of Christianity, Voltaire was a consistent secularist - his attitudes towards Islam and Judaism were often negative as well.

As a contrast to the crumminess of the real world, Voltaire included in this book a description of a utopia called Eldorado. Like everything else in "Candide", this utopia is painted in pretty broad, cartoonish brushstrokes, but I'd like to single out one of its aspects nevertheless.

Eldorado is apparently devoid of war, crime and all other forms of human conflict. Let's disregard for a moment the fact that no such society has ever existed. Let's just ask if such a society COULD ever arise, and if it could, what would be the long-term consequences?

I believe that man, like all other animals, is a product of evolution. The competition for survival, essential to evolution, takes many forms, most of them involving conflict in some way. Regardless of whether or not they want to admit it, most people enjoy conflict. I know that Voltaire did because I've just finished a book of his that joyfully attacks the church, Leibniz, a bunch of now-obscure Parisian writers who happened to be his professional rivals and lots of other people besides. If a society was somehow forced, against its will, to abandon all forms of conflict, what would become of that society long-term? Voltaire died long before the rise of political correctness, so he must have been aware of the correct answer to that question, yet he described his utopia as being devoid of conflict anyway. It is no excuse at all to say here that he couldn't have been aware of the theory of evolution as such. The 18th century was obsessed with the idea of breeding, both human and animal, so he must have known how that system worked even if he wouldn't have used modern terms to describe it.

To me the most likely explanation for the Eldorado episode, as for much else in “Candide”, is simple intellectual sloppiness.