Monday, October 19, 2015

More Verse

A while ago I wrote a little poem about eternity and the fate of civilization, which was quite a departure from my usual poetic topic, puns. I have my pretentious moments, just like everyone else. It later occurred to me that this poem could become a part of a much larger work: a description and justification of all of my political and philosophical beliefs in verse. 'Cause why not? The chance that I will complete this project isn't huge, but here's a newly-minted second part of it, which, if I ever do finish the whole thing, will precede the "first" part by many pages.


Holy books are filled with fiction.
Wishful thinking, clumsy lies
And internal contradiction
Make their authors seem unwise.

Whether one God or eleven
Rule their model of the skies,
They treat fate, the Earth and heaven
As if they had ears and eyes.

As if they could understand them.
Answer pleas, forgive mistakes,
Pity, comfort and command them.
Mend their hearts and sooth their aches.

Our big brains evolved to give us
A leg up on other men,
So that they don't outlive us
And their genes don't spread again.

So we're good at understanding
Human minds and human acts,
But much worse at comprehending
Random chance and cold, hard facts.

When we scream at our devices,
Tell a keyboard to be damned
Or attribute human vices
To a printer that has jammed

We act much like those believers
Who beg fate, the Earth and sky
To deliver them from fevers
And to save them when they die.

I'm not as down on religion as these verses imply when taken by themselves. If I continue the poem, I will talk about faith's positive aspects in the next section.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Quick Impressions of the Dem Debate

I've seen suggestions over the last few years that Hillary's health has been failing, that "something happened to her" while she was Secretary of State. Based on the debate I'll note that very few people sound as sharp and energetic at her age as she does. At any age, actually. And I'm saying this as someone who sincerely wishes her to fail. Her tone, style and presentation were spectacular.

I know that Jim Webb wrote a book about being Scots-Irish. The emotional difference between him and Chafee is like a cheap caricature of the Rebel/Yankee difference drawn by a Southerner who's still bitter about the Confederate defeat. Chafee's personality seemed to have been designed with the express purpose of giving the word "harmless" negative connotations.

O'Malley looked phony, sinister and inept. Bernie looked kooky. The general amount of craziness wasn't higher than during the GOP debates though. It was just directed towards different issues. I have no idea what the betting markets say, but I'd put Hillary's chances of winning the presidency at about 60% now.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Look at One of Svetlana Alexievich's Books

I don't know enough about the hard sciences to judge if the people who get Nobels for them truly deserve them. But literature is usually written for the enjoyment of non-specialists, I speak the language of this year's winner natively and I love good writing, so I decided to check out one of her works.

Of course I know that she got this prize for hating Putin and Lukashenko. But there are lots of writers like this, and some of them are bound to have more talent than others. If in some alternate universe I got a place on the Nobel-giving committee, I'd promote my politics through it as hard as the current members promote theirs. People's lives and the future of civilization depend on the outcome of ideological struggles. But the Nobel is a great brand, and the height of the soap box that it provides partly depends on the quality of the winners. So of all the writers with whom I mostly agree I'd pick the ones with the awesomest style - people like Roissy/Heartiste, Jim Goad, Greg Cochran or the Derb. Is the Nobel organization well-run enough to do that now? That was one of the things I wanted to find out.

By the way, if you think that the authors I mentioned above shouldn't qualify because what they do isn't literature, you should know that the Derb has published novels, while Svetlana Alexievich, this year's winner, has not. She's a journalist instead.

The first book of hers that I found on the Internet for free was about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and is called Chernobyl Prayer (a Chronicle of the Future).

It starts with a vague epigraph: "we're air, we're not land...." That's followed by a quote from a Belorussian newspaper: "Belarus... for the world we are terra incognita, an unknown, unexplored land."

OK, so she aims her writing at the kind of people who need "terra incognita" translated to them. Interesting to know.

"White Russia - this is approximately how the name of our country sounds in the English language."

No, it's not. English speakers don't know that the Bel part of Belarus means "white". I've only read two sentences and there's already a factual inaccuracy.

A few lines down it says that the population of Belarus is still mostly rural. I thought "that can't be true". Checked the Wikipedia - yep, it hasn't been true since 1975. Both of these errors occur in quotes that Alexievich put at the start of her book under the heading "historical reference", so it's clear that she thought that this was accurate info.

"Among the causes of demographic decline [in Belarus] radiation takes the first place." Oh come on, even she can't possibly believe that. The quote is from 1996, when all of the non-Muslim parts of the former USSR, even the ones located 10 time zones away from Chernobyl, were suffering huge demographic declines due to the catastrophic impoverishment brought on by the liberal gangsters and thieves whom Alexievich supports. Chernobyl was child's play compared to the human toll of her benefactors' hatred and greed, and I say this as someone who lost his thyroid to Chernobyl-related cancer.

"In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from the Chernobyl accident, mortality was 20% higher than natality."

Specifically in 1996 deaths outnumbered births in Russia by 59%. 1,304,638 births and 2,082,249 deaths. Russia is huge and the wind after the accident wasn't blowing its way, so it wasn't affected by radiation much. I only got sick from it because 5 years later I, my mom and her sister spent 2 weeks in Chernigov, a Ukrainian city close to Chernobyl. It's where my mom's parents were from, and we still had relatives there. While in Chernigov we must have eaten something that was grown locally that had radiation in it because two of us (my aunt and I) lost our thyroids later.

"Over the last 10 years mortality increased by 23.5%" She's quoting a Belarusian newspaper about Belarus here. Well, in Russia from 1986 to 1994 the number of deaths per year increased by 53.6%. That's not radiation, that's liberalism. And this woman is a liberal.

After a few more paragraphs of history and statistics, all of it quoted from other publications, Alexievich starts her actual reporting with the story of the wife of a fireman who died after helping put out the fire on the day of the accident. The style is exactly like that of my grandma and her friends talking about their long-suffering lives on some park bench back in Moscow. This narrative is recorded as direct speech, so I still haven't encountered Alexievish's Nobel-calibre style at this point.

It's all very sad of course. Women love to hear and tell personal stories like this, but being a nerd I would have rather read interviews with engineers about what actually went wrong and how it could have been avoided.

Throughout this very feminine story I got occasional unintentional glimpses of the magnitude of the containment and evacuation operations that went on in the days after the accident. The organizational capacity of the late Soviet state on display here reminded me of those stories of hurricanes killing thousands in the Dominican Republic but leaving Cuba largely unscathed. A country looted out by Alexievich's liberal friends wouldn't just suffer more accidents than the late USSR, its response to them would also be dozens of times smaller and less efficient. Oh, why am I saying "would"? The modern Ukraine is exactly that kind of a country.

As I read more and more, I'm trying to remember April of 1986 myself. Even in Moscow there was some fear and anxiety. My parents tuned in to the BBC's Russian Service for info. I remember it being said that a particular type of mushroom, often sold at outdoor markets, absorbed radiation more than other kinds of foods.

The woman's story about the illness and death of her firefighter husband and of her infant daughter ends. It was insanely depressing, but all female stories about suffering and loss are like that. Shouldn't Nobel winners be at least unique?

At the start of the next section Alexievich tells us that the Chernobyl accident was "the main event of the 20th century, in spite of all the terrible wars and revolutions for which that century will be remembered". I'm chalking that up to chick logic. A certain quantity of pseudo-profound nonsense follows. I'm finally up against this year's Nobel prize winner's own voice. It's boring and pompous: "Chernobyl is a secret which we will still have to uncover. An unread sign. Perhaps a mystery for the twenty-first century. A challenge to it." Of course she's not talking about anything technical here - it's all hot air.

"The facts were simply not enough anymore, one was drawn to look beyond the facts, to get into the meaning of what was happening." Oh really? The carelessness she showed with the "facts" which she quoted at the start of this book suggests that she's simply bored by them instead.

She says that Chernobyl left everyone confused because throughout the ages the measure of horror was war. "We are in a new history, a history of catastrophes has begun." She is utterly devoid of any sense of historical perspective. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics - never happened. She goes on and on about the revolutionary newness of radiation's invisibility, but viruses have always been invisible too, and much more deadly.

After that there is another interview with a survivor, who compares Chernobyl to the horrors of WWII, which he had seen as a child.

By this time I got an idea of what this book is like - survivors' tales and the author's feelings about them. That's not terrible. I've skimmed through much worse books than that in my life, and lots of them. But it's not the kind of stuff I would have picked if I were a PC liberal on the Nobel Prize committee. There must be thousands of better liberal writers in the Russosphere.

I must say that the reminder that the bad guys are sometimes seriously inefficient offset some of the horror left in me by the book's vivid descriptions of radiation sickness.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What Are Smart People LIke? Part II

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about what smart people are like. Today I'll talk about some things that I missed in it.

It seems to me that happiness, energy level and athleticism are uncorrelated with intelligence.

There is a stereotype that very smart people are likelier to go crazy than most. It definitely predates the movie A Beautiful Mind. Normally I have a lot of respect for stereotypes but I doubt that this one is true. The smart people I've known haven't gone crazy at a higher rate than average or stupid ones. Also, a lot of typical smart-guy behavior will seem crazy to normals even when it's not. Unusual hobbies, weird ideas about politics. This has probably fed that stereotype.

Some faces definitely look smarter than others, but smart people are much easier to tell by their voices. Many always sound ironic, even when they're trying to sound serious. The intonation changes more frequently and imparts more non-verbal information per word and per sentence than that of an average person's voice. In other words it's more complex.

Not all very smart people have the kind of voice I'm talking about it, just most. Smart women are as likely to have it as smart men. Unfortunately for civilization the typical male smart-ironic voice sounds less masculine than the average male voice.

Does high IQ get one any chicks? Well, it's positively correlated with wealth, which women like, and with nerdiness, which they don't. If we control for both of those variables, the answer is "no". As I explained in my first post on this subject, all women, even smart ones, are bored by all the topics to which intelligence can be usefully applied. So talking to a smart guy isn't any more interesting to a smart woman than talking to an average guy.

Smart men on the other hand definitely have a preference for smart women. First I know this because I know myself. Second, because of what I've seen among my friends and acquaintances. Third, rich smart guys, who can have anyone, tend to marry smart women.

Mark Zuckerberg's wife was voted class genius in high school, then was accepted by Harvard, which is harder for Asians than for others. Bill Gates's wife was a valedictorian in high school and got comp sci, economics and business degrees from Duke. Sergey Brin's ex-wife is a daughter of a Stanford professor emeritus in physics. She graduated from Yale and co-founded a very successful company.

If women are bored by all the topics to which high intelligence can be usefully applied, why do smart men prefer them to average women? I don't know. Because they want smarter children? Then why doesn't this logic work with women?

In my first post on this topic I said that above 90 IQ attractiveness becomes uncorrelated with intelligence. I really meant visual attractiveness. The smartest woman I've ever known was not visually attractive, but her smarts compensated for that somewhat.

Back to voices: smart people are greatly annoyed by those that sound stupid. It's a fingernails-on-chalkboard kind of reaction. I can't listen to any rap or R&B vocals because of this. Most country and pop music sounds awful to me for the same reason. I'm always shocked that anyone would pay money to hear some of that stuff. Yet they do. The window that this opens on the average person's mind is frightening.