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, Eugénie'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.