Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Another Chinese and Piano Update


Sometime last December I noticed that I had studied Chinese for more than an hour a day for several days. I like streaks, so I opened my hobby time spreadsheet and looked up when this period began. It was December 7th. 

It wasn’t really a streak at that time though. One week into it I missed a whole weekend. But I was still proud of myself, so I started to periodically check how long I’ve been maintaining the hour-per-day pace. Weeks turned into months, one Twitter firestorm succeeded another, the seasons changed.

I’ve only missed 2 days since December, but each time I studied for 2 hours the next day. So in an important sense the streak is still alive. I’m now up to my 45th Upper Intermediate ChinesePod lesson. I think I’ve spent about 580 hours on Mandarin listening comprehension in total. This includes a lot of hours before this streak. And I’ve spent a lot more hours than that on learning characters before that. And a lot of time on Chinese Anki cards on top of that.

I’m making progress, but it’s slow. I still read Chinese better than I understand spoken Mandarin, yet I don’t read it very well. It would take thousands of hours to reach a level where I could casually watch Youku videos, understanding everything. The only way to find out how many thousands is to do it. 

It feels very weird to me that I sometimes understand long sequences of words in a non-Indo-European language. And it’s weird how normal this language feels to me now. 

When I replay bits of dialogues again and again, trying to understand them, I rarely concentrate on tones. Sometimes I hear them clearly, but more often they sound indistinct. Is it because I’m not used to them enough, or because I’m doing it all wrong? I don’t know. The least distinct tone is definitely the second. 

My plan is to do 160 Upper Intermediate lessons, which is the number recommended by the ChinesePod company. Then 120 Advanced lessons. They also recommend 80 Media lessons. I’ll have to check out a few of those to see if they’re worth it. Then I should pick something to watch on Youku. News, political talk shows. 

If I ever get my listening comprehension to a high level, I plan to spend some weeks, maybe months, repeating phrases that I hear in videos, trying to get the pronunciation and the tones right. After that I want to sign up for private speaking lessons with Italki.

One of the ChinesePod lessons was about Tang poetry. The Chinese have a reputation for being unimaginative grinds. All stereotypes are true, yet some of their most celebrated poetry is about drunks lying on porches all day, contemplating the sky. 

I learned that the biggest Chinese-Western language dictionary is Chinese-French. I downloaded it to my Pleco app and use it every day. 

Western Sinology began with Italians during the Renaissance. This isn’t surprising because at that time most things of importance were done by them. In the 19th and early 20th centuries most of the big names in Sinology were French. That dictionary is a legacy of that.

I recently started reading the Cambridge History of Ancient China. I want to go through that whole series, 18 volumes, 2 yet unpublished, as well as the 2-volume Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. It’s very unlikely that I’ll ever learn classical Chinese, but it’s not because I’m not interested in it. Life is short and this stuff takes enormous amounts of time.

Speaking of time, I’ve been spending even more of it on piano practice than on Chinese. I’ve now learned all the exercises from this book for 5 out of the 24 scales. I play each of those scales with my right, then with my left hand up and down 4 octaves. Then I play them two-handed a 3rd, a 6th, an 8th and a 10th apart. Not in that order though. Octaves first. The 10ths sound the best. The 3rds sound horrible because they require my hands to be too close together, which trips them up. 

I also play with two hands in contrary motion. Then several chord exercises and finally arpeggios: the regular one with two inversions and the dominant 7th with three inversions.

I rarely get the C major arps right the first time. But after a few attempts I start playing them better than the scale exercises. 

The scales I know are called the C, G, D, A and E major, but I actually think of them as “all white keys”, “one black key”, “two blacks”, “three blacks” and “four blacks”. Which black key should be played in G major? The “first of three” of course, meaning the leftmost out of the group of three. E major is “two of two and first two of three”. I don’t actually say this in my mind, but it’s definitely how I understand what I’m doing. Of course the starting notes are important for each exercise. I sometimes look them up in the book. I should know them all by heart though. 

I understand the regular arpeggios as “three-note arps” and the dominant sevenths as “four-note arps”. In the first group the "gap" in notes moves down as you go through the inversions. In the second group the place where notes are bunched up together moves down instead.

Sometimes the arpeggios for two different keys are the same, except for being shifted along the keyboard. I’m a big language nerd, so to me that feels like the same endings being reused in different grammatical cases. 

If I ever get to a point where I can say to myself that I can play the piano or speak Chinese, I’ll buy myself a watch to celebrate. Specifically this one. In the unlikely case that I succeed at both, this would probably be the second watch. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Cultural Capital of the Caucasoid World

I’ve done this in Twitter, but this deserves a blog post.

Memphis, Egypt 3000 BC - 500 BC
Athens 500 BC - 300 BC
Alexandria 300 BC - 400 AD
Constantinople 400 AD -  800 AD
Baghdad 800 AD - 1150 AD
Paris 1150 AD - 1300 AD
Florence 1300 AD - 1500 AD
Paris 1500 AD - 1950 AD
New York 1950 AD - present

For the vast majority of the historical period the world didn’t have a cultural capital. China’s complex culture wasn’t affected by much of what was going on in Europe or the Middle East.

But in the Caucasoid region this concept does make sense. For most of the last 5,000 years most Caucasoids who weren’t illiterate savages were influenced by cultural developments in one of the cities listed above.

Phoenicians imitated Egyptian art and Egypt looms large in the Old Testament. The alphabets that spread through the Middle East and Europe in antiquity originated as a simplification of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Athenian lawgiver Solon traveled to Egypt to seek knowledge.

Etruscans borrowed from Greek mythology. In the Hellenistic period the Greek visual style travelled as far as India.

Medieval Europeans studied the works of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Alhazen (Ibn Al Haytham), etc. These people didn’t work in Baghdad, but that city was the center of the culture to which they belonged. The prestige language of India was Persian then, but it was heavily Arabized by that point. And all of the above thinkers were studied in India too.

When northern Italy’s importance began to rise, Lingua Franca, based on Italian, became the lingua franca of the Muslim Med. Italians established the Portuguese Navy, led Spanish and English voyages of discovery, built the Kremlin and influenced Shakespeare. Many of these people weren’t Florentines, but Florence was definitely the center of their culture.

As late as the 1930s, if you were a young man trying to make it in the arts, moving to Paris was a good idea. Picasso, Dali, Hemingway, Samuel Becket all worked there.

Not many individuals made the jump from one cultural capital to another exactly when the change happened. Leonardo died in France, while working for the French king, but not in Paris. Lully was a Florentine working in Paris, but he came there in 1646, long after the change.

The dates for Athens, Florence and Paris’s second stint are precise to within about a decade. The other dates are arguable. Some would say that Baghdad declined around 1000 AD, and that the center of gravity moved back to Constantinople then. Some would place Mesopotamian cities like Nippur, Akkad, Babylon and Nineveh on at least an equal footing with Memphis. I’d say to them that Egyptian art was many times more elegant than Mesopotamian art.

Finally, a note on the word Caucasoid. It’s a product of a misunderstanding. Some 18th-century writer thought that the Caucasus was the origin of this branch of humanity. I think stenorrhine would be a much better term. It means narrow-nosed in Greek. I see that 3 of the 5 Google results for that word go back to an old unz.com comment of mine. Conversationally, in hate speech and identitarian rallying cries, it would probably be shortened to steno.