Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reading up on Russia

A commenter at Sublime Oblivion posted a link to a collection of biographies of the people who are currently running Russia. I haven't been following Russian politics closely at all, so that book has proven to be very interesting reading for me. 

The foreword has confirmed my previously vague impression that if Medvedev had ultimate power, he would move Russia in a "Westernizing", "liberalizing", defeatist, Yeltsin-like direction. Perhaps most damningly, Anatoly Chubais - one of the authors of Yeltsin's ruinous privatization - was named in this book as a supporter of Medvedev in internal administrative conflicts.

The book goes on to say that the faction opposing Medvedev, which is led by this guy, argues for a coalition with China against the West, for a more imperial Russian policy towards the former Soviet republics, for a more state-directed economic policy and for electing Putin to a third presidential term in 2012. Medvedev, of course, wants a second term for himself.

What can I say, I'm rooting against Medvedev here. Putin is called a virtual tsar in the foreword, though the powers ascribed to him seem to fall a little bit short of autocratic. Since Putin is from St. Petersburg, a large share of the people at the top, including Medvedev, are from St. Petersburg too. There is a pattern of powerful men elevating their former classmates from university or co-workers from the time before they had achieved real power. In a more clannish culture (the Middle East, India, etc.) nobody would ever care about former classmates. The extended family would always come first. But Russia's not like that.

The foreword says that "in the cultural-civilizational sense Putin is a Westerner", but that he harbors "disgust for Western democracy". I couldn't agree more. The people running Western countries now harbor disgust towards Western culture and civilization, so there's no reason why someone who hates those leaders shouldn't be called a Westerner.

A Second Post of YouTube Links

First, an appropriately epic cello cover of Final Countdown. If you've never seen any Latvians in your entire life, then not clicking on that link may turn out to be especially fateful because, let's face it, you may never come across a reason for looking at any of them ever again. 

This is pretty cool too. I especially like that guy's ferocity on the kazoo. And here's more of him, now with a partner.

Continuing with the theme of covers, here's a banjo version of The Phantom of the Opera.

Next, Suzanne Vega's Small Blue Thing. God, I love that song.

In my late teens and early 20s, quite unoriginally, I watched way too much MTV. This was always one of my favorite videos in that channel's repertoire, though I'd never known much about the band that made it until now. Every little fact that I just learned about them from the Wikipedia seems incredibly predictable. The Deal sisters who formed the Breeders had a laser physicist father, which is unsurprising because nothing that sounds that cool could ever come from anything but major brains. Both were addicted to hard drugs for large portions of their lives and of course both are now childless at 49. Moreover, a few YouTube searches have revealed that much of the rest of their musical output consisted of utterly unlistenable mess. I'm left to assume that the only reason why Cannonball sounds so great is that it was recorded during a rare window between heroin binges. Of course they toured with Nirvana and played in many other people's bands with many other drug-addicted "alternative" luminaries.

On a more cheerful note, here's the kazookeylele guy doing Bohemian Rhapsody.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More on Inception

Why was everyone in this movie so sure that Fischer would act on a thought that first occurred to him in his sleep? I'd put the probability of that happening at well below 50%. He could forget about his decision immediately after waking up or he could simply dismiss it later, the way most people dismiss all the variegated nonsense they dream about. Isn't sleep one of the worst possible states for implanting ideas into people anyway? I still have a pretty good grasp of the Communist ideology which my teachers endeavored to implant in me at school in the 1980s, but I honestly don't remember what I dreamt about last night.

Inception reminded me once again of how atypical nerdy instincts about everything are. Every nerd who's ever lived would find Ellen Page far superior to Marion Cotillard, yet in this movie the protagonist is made to obsess endlessly about Ms. Cotillard while ignoring the Ellen Page character as much as possible. From the point of view of the plot Ellen Page's lines might as well have been delivered by Michael Caine because except for a brief, inconsequential moment no one in this movie seemed to even notice that she was female.

Also, Cotillard's character was named Mal. There would have been nothing wrong with this in a novel, but since this was in fact a movie, I misheard Mal as "mom" several times, partly because the name first popped up in a conversation between DiCaprio and his screen father. I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking that in that scene they were talking about Leo's screen mom. The plot was confusing enough already, so adding to the potential for confusion by giving characters ambiguously-sounding names was a sloppy move.

Anyway, these are all minor quibbles. Overall it's a pretty remarkable movie.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Inception

Just saw Inception. Very impressed. The movie is mostly about the relationship between dreams and reality and I must say that after it was over, coming back out onto New York's very ordinary-looking streets, going down into the subway, etc. felt like a big, big letdown. How the hell did I get stuck in a reality in which no one ever looks as cool as Leo and Ellen Page did whenever they tried to figure out the baroque complexities of Christopher Nolan's plot? I can't claim to have understood everything in that plot, but I don't think one even needed to get most of it to like it.

One nitpick: in the beginning, when Leo DiCaprio's character is looking for someone with sufficient imagination to build his dreams, he visits what looks like a graduate-level architecture program run by Michael Caine. Hasn't Mr. Nolan heard that architecture's been dead for ages? No one who's involved in it now could possibly have any imagination at all. If art were money and Bramante was Buffett, then the best architect of modernity would be a surly, smelly, penniless bum with an untreatable addiction to the cheapest brand of glue in the Universe.

Good movie though.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Some Thoughts on "The Last Days of Disco"

I just watched "The Last Days of Disco" again.

I've always wondered if Whit Stillman's conversation was as full of long, grammatically correct, literary sentences as that of his movie characters. He provided some spontaneous-sounding commentary on the DVD I just watched, mostly reminiscing with Chloë Sevigny and Chris Eigeman about making the movie. I thought he was much wordier there (i.e. more bookish, less sloppy) than the average person, but still not as wordy as his characters. Not that that's problem or anything.

One realistic touch was casting the better-looking actress (Kate Beckinsale) as the bad girl and the plainer one (Ms. Sevigny) as the good girl. I'm guessing that this is rarely if ever a free choice for young women. They would all like to be bad girls, but only the pretty ones can reliably get away with it. When Beckinsale's character finally develops serious feelings for a guy, he abruptly dumps her. I bet that happens quite often. Only a saint can resist hurting the feelings of a woman who had acted like a calculating bitch for ages, but then suddenly turns sincere. Really sincere. How come that dynamic isn't portrayed in movies and novels more often? 

Another question: how can Chris Eigeman seem so sympathetic while playing such cynical, unprincipled smartasses? He's pretty much the best thing in this very good movie.

Finally, why are all three of Stillman's movies so good? Um...., well, there's a lot of subtlety in them, and so few cliches. Each one has some characters who are serious men and occasionally features serious conversations, but you get a very strong feeling from these films that the man who made them does not take himself seriously. That's a very appealing combination. Nothing in the dialog or the plot insults one's intelligence, which is astounding in a Hollywood movie. If anything in any of this guy's films has managed to insult your intelligence, you should seriously consider donating your brain to science after you pass on. Perhaps something new could be learned from it. The relationships portrayed are pretty realistic and yet the movies are funny and amusing. Real life isn't funny. Most mortals' attempts to be funny quickly devolve into cartoonishness. Combining realism with entertainment isn't a small accomplishment.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tolstoy on Management

I'm still occasionally thinking about War and Peace. One of Tolstoy's favorite points in it was that kings, generals and other leaders of men typically only pretend to lead them and that the further one gets from doing real work, the less effect one invariably has on historical events. That's a whale of a generalization and on seeing it I first suspected authorial bias. Tolstoy understandably hated Napoleon, and Napoleon just happened to have been described as a genius by everyone who wrote about him except for Tolstoy. The count's attack on the general idea of managerial (but, conveniently, not artistic) genius can seem like a retaliatory swipe against a single man who, among other things, had invaded Tolstoy's motherland.

The only consideration that prevented me from dismissing Tolstoy's voluminous rants on this topic as mindless pettiness was that these rants agreed with all of my actual, personal observations of and experiences with management. Of course the level at which I made these observations is laughable compared to Tolstoy's. He personally knew and was related to almost everyone who ran one of the world's biggest empires. I spent the first few years of my working life filing paperwork and making copies. And yet improbably, most of the things that Tolstoy wrote about leadership have parallels with what I've seen.

The typical manager I've known not only didn't direct any work, he didn't even know what exactly most of the work consisted of. Often half of the orders given physically could not be followed. The easiest way to understand what physically can and cannot be done is, of course, to attempt to do it, and that disqualifies most managers. Half of the orders that can be followed aren't followed either - some because they're counterproductive, others through laziness. My 11 years in the workforce, 4 of them as a supervisor, have convinced me that the amount, nature and quality of the work that typically ends up being done almost exclusively depend on the nature of the workforce, especially on its work ethic. Every employee seems to have a rough, unspoken understanding of how much he is willing to work and care. There is pretty much nothing that a boss can do to change that understanding. The forces that appear to shape it most - ethnicity, age, personality - are well outside of the boss's control. The typical boss has long ago made peace with the fact that his orders aren't being followed. Those who are liable to be infuriated by this remove themselves from the system long before they can achieve positions of any prominence. In both government and large public companies employees are fired much more often because of personal conflicts arising from clashes of wills unrelated to any actual work than because of laziness or of any work-related mistakes. No one cares about work enough to want to fire anyone for not doing it or for doing it badly. And weirdly enough, there are usually some people about who are willing to work even if they know that they won't be fired for sitting on their asses all day. It is undoubtedly these people who keep civilization from collapsing.

If management doesn't direct any actual work, what does it do? It orders statistical reports about the work, conducts meetings and at the higher levels attends meaningless ceremonies. Having done about a million statistical reports I am quite sure that, at least at the places where I have worked so far, they are rarely read. Some of the data requested at meetings simply cannot be gathered. A lot of the data that can be gathered is obviously incorrect, yet this is rarely noticed.

I've been close to falling asleep at almost every managerial meeting I've attended. This is especially telling because I never fall asleep on the subway or in front of the TV and I had never, ever slept during classes at school. What can be more boring than a bunch of people talking about things they do not understand?

I'm guessing that private companies and the few public companies which, like Apple, are still run by their founders, are better at all of this than is the typical workplace. How much better though? The tsars certainly thought of themselves as rightful owners of their governments. Same with Napoleon. And yet Tolstoy was still able to write all of the stuff he'd written about the meaninglessness and futility of power everywhere he looked.

By the way, I'm not trying to denigrate most managers' worth as people here. Tragically, they tend to be smarter and more conscientious than the poor sods doing most of the actual work in this society. A more efficient system would work to redirect high quality people from management to productive activities. Same with hipsters, humanities professors, Wall Street rats and the rest of them. I realize that I'm starting to sound like Chairman Mao now, but yeah, perhaps some of his stuff made sense.

If I ran a large organization and was personally invested in its success, I would first get rid of 95% of its management. I would use the savings to attract a better class of actual workers by offering them higher salaries. This seems like a no-brainer.

When my boss told me years ago that I was going to supervise a couple of employees, I never thought of changing my attitude towards them. Occasionally I say things like "shouldn't we be doing X now?" and sometimes 10 or 20 minutes later my supposed subordinates actually get up and go join me in doing X. An outside observer might assume that at those moments I exercise my supervisory powers, but he would be wrong. Just as often one of my subordinates says to the other and to me "shouldn't we be doing Y now?" and guess what, in those cases I often eventually get up and go join him in doing Y. I never try to actually supervise not simply because it would be futile, but also to avoid looking ridiculous to myself and others.