Monday, August 31, 2015

Writing Implements

This is the second post in my Nerdy Martha Stewart series. 

I still write down certain kinds of things, both at work and at home. I've been using black Parker Jotters, with black ink, for over 20 years. They look great and have a very nice-feeling weight to them. It's a pleasure to hold these things. 

You can choose a ball point or a gel refill. The former writes smoother than any other ball point I've tried. Also, the ink smells very nice once it's on the page. I mostly use gel refills though. They produce a line that's similar to a fountain pen's or a quill's. If you ever wanted to feel like an 18th-century count jotting down some epigram before breakfast, a ball point's dumb, uniform, factory-made line will ruin the illusion. The Parker gel will not. And the process of writing feels nicer with it. A slightly gravelly, fun kind of feel. When people borrow this pen from me, they sometimes smile when it hits the page and then comment on it.

My favorite pencil is the Pentel 205. For no other reason than its look. It's an elegantly-designed thing. 

The best-looking notebooks I know of are made by the French company Clairefontaine. I bought the ones shown below a long time ago. Their current style is good, but not as good as this.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Poem

There is no happiness, just hope.
The rush of keen anticipation.
When we have climbed a long steep slope
We don't enjoy the destination.

However it turns out, I'll go
And face the morning without rancor.
My mind is set, my heart's aglow
And cool, clear reason is my anchor.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, 1940. Glossy's rating: 6 out of 10.

This book is about an American fighting on the leftist side in the Spanish Civil War. I ended up liking it in spite of its many stylistic problems. 

Hemingway presented a lot of the dialog as if it was translated from Spanish literally. For example his characters sometimes ask each other "what passes?" and urge each other to do things "for a favor". The correct translation of "por favor" is "please" and the correct translation of "que pasa" is "how are you?" The original meanings of these phrases are long gone in Spanish in the same way that the original meaning of good-bye (God be with you) is gone in English. I'm an atheist and I say good-bye all the time. Similarly, the people who tell you "por favor" aren't usually offering you any favors in exchange for anything. That phrase has long ago acquired a new, non-literal meaning which is perfectly translated by the English word "please". 

He even insisted on using "thou" for the Spanish "tu". "Thou dost", "thou speakest", "unprint thyself" - the latter a comic mix of prudishness and excessive literalness. 

There is a lot of repetition in Hemingway's internal monologues. In real life people repeat things to themselves all the time but that's not a reason to bore readers. 

The effect of all this was to make his prose unnecessarily cumbersome. 

On top of that he bowed to the modernist spirit of his time by occasionally throwing up stretches of absolute nonsense. "Warm, scalding coolness" stuck in my mind as an example, but there's lots more, nearly all of it in love scenes. 

And why did he almost always refer to his protagonist as "Robert Jordan"? Not Robert or Bob or Bobby or Jordan but "Robert Jordan"? First name last name. Was he payed by the word? Did he think it was an original, boldly non-conformist thing to do? 

And yet I liked this book. Jordan is competent, brave and unselfish - pretty much how I imagine Hemingway. The moral, human and organizational complexity of his task in the novel approaches that of real-life situations and is interesting on top of that. I always wanted to know how the book would end. The Spanish national character is described here realistically and in a mostly-attractive way.

Spaniards are more generous, braver, and more fond of danger than other Mediterranean peoples. Bullfighting, which Hemingway loved, is a big topic here. They're also elegantly insolent. So are Italians, but in a different way. The cursing in this book is a lot of fun in spite of the prudish substitutions.  

Here Jordan thinks about the differences between the Anglo and Spanish approaches to war, specifically about Spaniards' cruelty: "We do it coldly but they do not, nor ever have. It is their extra sacrament. Their old one that they had before the new religion came from the far end of the Mediterranean, the one they have never abandoned but only suppressed and hidden to bring it out again in wars and inquisitions. They are the people of the Auto de Fé; the act of faith. Killing is something one must do, but ours are different from theirs."

I'm sure that historically northern Europeans killed more people than Mediterraneans. This is because they're more disciplined and better able to work in teams. It's easier to organize them into effective armies. But Mediterraneans (of whom I'm one) are clearly more prone to cruelty. More likely to prefer torture chambers to firing squads. 

Hemingway on Jordan: "He hated injustice as he hated cruelty..." Injustice is a complicated topic. There are so many definitions of it. And I'm against cruelty at the big-picture ideological level. But at the personal, emotional level I definitely do not hate cruelty. In fact in certain moods I would very much like for it to be applied to certain people. Not all that many people. But enough to be sure that I'm not with Jordan/Hemingway on this issue. 

At one point Jordan regrets that the war in which he's fighting isn't the sort where anyone can surrender. That made me curious: was it possible for anyone to surrender in Spain's 18th and 19th century wars, or did they kill captives even then? 

On a lighter note, here's an ethnic stereotype I've never heard of before: "he thought how the word aburmiento which means boredom in Spanish was a word no peasant would use in any other language. Yet it is one of the most common words in the mouth of a Spaniard of any class."

Unfortunately the Spanish national character, which Hemingway clearly loved, is now in danger of disappearing. Right-wingers won the Spanish Civil War, but their work was undone after Franco's death and Spain is now as screwed up as the rest of Western Europe, i.e. as screwed up as it would have been had the leftists won in the 1930s. 

I hate the Republicans for whom Jordan is fighting in this book, but my attitude towards the rightist rebels isn't wholly positive either. Franco's Blue Division participated in the blockade of Leningrad and I'm glad that the USSR won WWII. 

But few would now be able to view either of these sides wholly positively. At one point in this novel Jordan thinks that the world is a fine place and "worth the fighting for". I immediately recognized that phrase as the title of a book by the neocon lapdog John McCain. Well, the neocons now pretend to be anti-Communist, but Jordan is fighting for commies when he thinks that. And the person he has the most regard for in Madrid is a correspondent for Pravda. 

The amount of Soviet involvement in Spain that Hemingway described was surprising to me. It was a full-blown proxy war with a fake native facade. 

"You had to have these peasant leaders quickly in this sort of war and a real peasant leader might be a little too much like Pablo. You couldn’t wait for the real Peasant Leader to arrive and he might have too many peasant characteristics when he did. So you had to manufacture one."

Pablo was a duplicitous, murderous, foul-smelling, hog-like guerrilla chief who gave Jordan a lot of trouble during his assignment. 

Hemingway was a smart and sincere guy. But everyone has blind spots. If he thought that peasant characteristics were bad, why did he support the people who promised to give peasants more power? 

He called the other side in the war fascists, but politics has moved at such a quick and steady pace since he published this novel that his views would now be called fascist too. 

"I’ve known a lot of gypsies and they are strange enough. But so are we. The difference is we have to make an honest living."

"It’s odd to see a gypsy in a war. They should be exempted like conscientious objectors. Or as the physically and mentally unfit. They are worthless."

Just to be clear, I'm sure that Gypsies really aren't suited for organized warfare. 

A while ago I saw someone online describing the Roissian view of gender relations as "For Whom the Belle Toils". And it's clear from this volume that Hemingway thought it natural for a beautiful woman to support a tough, fearless man in all his endeavors. 

I read this novel in a Kindle app. A large number of users highlighted the following passage close the start of the book:

"All the best ones, when you thought it over, were gay. It was much better to be gay and it was a sign of something too. It was like having immortality while you were still alive."

I think we can be reasonably sure that if Hemingway were resurrected and told what that means to modern readers, he'd promptly kill himself again. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cubicle Stuff

In this post I'll play the role of nerdy Martha Stewart. Specifically I'll toss out some ideas on decorating one's cubicle. 

I'll start with this alien janitor. I got it at a now-defunct SoHo store called KidRobot, but it's available online too. 

On to a different robot, Bender from Futurama. And yes, they also sell a Gender Bender for those who are into that. 

I got the thing pictured below at the store of the Museum of Modern Art. It's Japanese and made from one of the nicest-feeling materials I've ever touched. 

Dead Fred pen holder. This is the thing I've gotten the most comments on over the years from coworkers.

A toothpick dispenser. The picks are both his teeth and his hair.

Continuing with the theme of usefulness, an Easter Island-like tissue dispenser. I actually hesitated before putting it up in my cubicle. Could this conceivably be called politically incorrect? It's been there for at least 3 years now with no complaints though.

A couple of pics of my Smorkin Labbits

This calendar is from the MoMA store. Unfortunately they don't sell it in this color scheme anymore. The yellow ball is attached to the horizontal bar by a string. It's held up in this state by magnets hidden behind the names of the months. 

And finally a Domo figurine. I put it inside an overhead shelf that's closed most of the time. Whenever I open it he looks like he's shouting "why did you shut me up in here?" Then I get the paper I was looking for and close the door again.  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Extremaduran Explorers

I'm reading Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. The protagonist is an American working with leftist guerrillas in Castile, around the town of Ávila, during the Spanish Civil War. He had spent some time doing the same in Extremadura. At one point his Castilian associates start talking about his accent in Spanish. He asks them what sort of accent it resembles the most. They say "Extremaduran".

Being a language nerd of course I had to run to the Wikipedia to read up on the Extremaduran accent. And that was very interesting. But while clicking around Extremadura-related wikis I noticed something even more interesting: a wildly disproportionate share of Spanish explorers and conquistadors hailed from there. The Notable People/Explorers subsection mentions Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Hernando de Soto, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Francisco de Orellana, Pedro de Valdivia and Sebastián Vizcaíno. The first two are figures of world-historical importance. Several of the others are also extremely notable. Yet modern Extremadura has about 2.3% of Spain's population. And it's land-locked. 

I thought "maybe I'm overestimating the importance of Pizarro, Cortes, De Soto and Balboa." So I did a quick little experiment by Googling for a "list of top explorers."

This site lists 30 explorers. 4 of them were Spaniards and 3 of those were from Extremadura. This site lists 21 people. 5 of them were Spaniards, 3 of those were Extremeños. This site lists 51 people 8 of whom were Spaniards. 3 of those were Extremeños.

Why Extremadura? Maybe because it borders Portugal. On the per capita basis Portugal did more than any other country during the Age of Discovery. It's easy to attribute that to its maritime location on the western edge of Europe. Yet other regions facing the same edge weren't prominent in the Age of Discovery at all - Gascogne, Brittany, Ireland. Maybe there was something in the Portuguese national character that made people more willing to risk their lives in this particular way. At least more than their neighbors. And maybe this sort of personality type extended some way into Spain. 

I'm just guessing here. I'm sure that Spaniards have lots of stereotypes about the typical personality types of the people of their various regions. I just don't know much about those. I guess Andalusians are considered somewhat more uncouth than the others? Catalans are probably more core-European, more like the French. I remember Gallegos being described as stubborn and independent-minded. Franco was a Gallego, as was Fidel Castro's father.   

More boring explanations are possible too. Some kind of royal tax incentive that disproportionately affected Extremadura? Climate change? The latter is now used to explain everything that's ever happened, the way class struggle was used under Communism. Even if 95% of that is BS, it's still got to explain some things. A drought for example could have forced Extremaduran hidalgos to seek employment in something other than the management of agrarian estates. That's 100% unfounded speculation though. And I'm more drawn towards the national character possibility. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015


The alarm I expressed in my last post turned out to be unfounded. The war has not entered a new hot phase [ru].  Several of the news that spread through the war zone and the Internet yesterday turned out to be fake [ru]. Novorossiyan armed forces were not brought to full battle readiness by a special order, OSCE observers did not flee Donetsk and there was no warning about air raids. Novorossiyan cities, Gorlovka especially, were subjected to an extraordinary amount of shelling overnight. But every other news foretelling doom turned out to be disinformation, most likely meant to sow panic in the wake of the shelling. Not the first and I'm sure not the last case of that in this war.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

War News

The intensity of the fighting in the Donbass War escalated over the last day. This could be the start of a new hot phase of the conflict. The last such phase ended in February. Hundreds of people have been killed since then, but that was still much fewer per day than during the war's hot phases. The front line has barely moved during this cold phase.

There is a possibility that the current escalation represents bluffing by one of the sides. I've recently seen rumors about international negotiations over Syria. People bluff during negotiations. There's also a possibility that this is the start of an enormous meat grinder that will change the map of the Ukraine for the foreseeable future. 

It's unclear to me which side is taking the initiative. Novorossiyan authorities have warned local civilians that the junta may attempt air strikes. I was surprised by that. The junta used aviation in the summer of last year, but then Russia supplied anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels. The junta's aircraft started dropping out of the sky and were eventually grounded. 

The junta's front line positions are now being reinforced. People on the ground are reporting massive troop movements. And according to Alexander Zhuchkovsky Russia recently sent additional "military supply store workers" to the people's republics. He says that there are more of them there now than there were during the winter campaign. However they weren't used then. They were there simply as insurance against the possibility that the Novorossiyan Armed Forces would break. They were used last summer, but briefly and only as the last resort. 

Zhuchkovsky wrote that he expects the worst fighting to be in the south. If another round does happen, I don't know who'll win it. It's really a proxy war between Russia and NATO and both sides are using tiny fractions of their potential. What determines which side will use 0.05% and which will use 0.1%? Geopolitics and who knows what else? It's certainly not anything that I can predict. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Song Parodies

I was reading about the problems Bernie Sanders recently had in Seattle when I was struck with the idea of describing them using the meter and rhyming pattern of the old song Mr. Sandman.

Mr. Sanders, give me the mic.
Shut up, get lost and then take a hike.
I'm a big girl, my friend is fatter.
She'll tell you all that only Black lives matter. 

I'll follow this with a parody of Bowie's Changes that I put in an iSteve comment after the Boston marathon bombing:

(Wild and crazy guys)
White pointy shoes and big gold chains.
(Chicks idealize)
As legless men cry out in pain.

There was also Jebediah was a Bushman and Putin Never Quits, though the latter is hopelessly out of date now. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Quick Impressions

So I've watched the Republican debate. Jeb Bush looks kindly and decent. Don't get me wrong, I know he'll bomb playgrounds and maternity wards if he wins this thing. I'm just noting what he looks like. Kasich and Christie were even more likable than Jeb. The worst of the pack on that score: Cruz.

Trump wasn't as funny as Huckabee, but more fun than him or than anyone else. I'm sure he's got no chance though. Probability of a Bush-Clinton matchup: roughly 95%.

If I had sacks of money to donate, whom would I give them to? Paul. Not because of anything he said tonight, but because he's close to at least one person (his father) who's said important things that I agree with. When the average guy learns about non-mainstream views, it's usually through a media filter. Not so with Paul. Watching him I had a feeling (or was that just a hope?) that some of the platitudes he was spouting might not have been entirely sincere.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Review of Borges's Ficciones

Ficciones (Fictions) by Jorge Luis Borges, 1953. Read in Spanish. 3.5 out of 10.

Most of the short stories contained in this book are thought experiments. What if a group of people created an encyclopedia about an imaginary world? What if a middle-aged writer who read Don Quijote once in childhood succeeded at recreating parts of it word-for-word decades later? What if the lottery came to rule a country?

Unfortunately I found Borges's treatment of all of these questions seriously boring. The main thought provoked in me by Ficciones was "how could it have become so popular?" Well, it very loudly, though implicitly, claims to be profound. Yet it's all easy to understand. That's not a bad combination, marketing-wise. And Borges peppered his stuff with numerous learned and obscure references and even academic-looking bibliographies. You would expect an expert plumber of epic depths to constantly talk about how this or that reminded him of what Schopenhauer said about Kantian categories. It flatters people that they can understand the gist of arguments that are decorated in this way.

One of Borges's hypotheticals is simply a novel that describes different outcomes of the same event in different chapters. And these different outcomes later bifurcate in the same way. Lots of junior high school nerds must have come up with this breakthrough on their own in the 1980s while planning their first computer games.

The shocking thing is that this theme of a novel with bifurcating story lines then recurs in another story in the same book. As do a few others of Borges's themes. It's a tiny little short story collection, and he still had to be repetitive in it?

The story called The Sect of the Phoenix contains a Secret. It's natural for those who've read it to want to compare with each other how fast they figured it out. I reached the end without a clue, but then remembered that in the preface Borges wrote a few explanatory sentences about several of the stories. I went back, reread what he wrote about the Phoenix and immediately got the joke. But what did cork, wax and gum arabic have to do with it? A web search revealed that that was another joke. Unfortunately neither of them was funnier than his thought experiments were profound.

In the same preface Borges wrote that a story called The South was probably his best. I was surprised to agree with this. Unlike most of the others it deals with a realistic character who does plausible things in the real world. And the characterization, the setting, the emotions and the ending weren't even badly done. So he could have been an entertaining writer. He just had to have been born a little earlier or been a little less conformist and pretentious.