Friday, October 8, 2010

Watching 90s Videos

Wasting time on YouTube, I came up on this series of videos, counting down about 160 "alternative songs of the 90s". I just had to look through them all. I began watching MTV just as the 90s were starting and abandoned it within sight of their conclusion, having gotten my first real job at the end of September of 1999. I really wish that this wasn't the sort of music I knew most about and had the greatest feel for, but unfortunately it is. The instrumental classical repertoire is a million times more beautiful, subtler and less childish, but the songs listed below elicit in me greater feelings of nostalgia and at one time even seemed somewhat cooler. I could have come up with at least a couple hundred 90s videos which the guy who made this list missed and which I would have graded higher than a 5, but that would have (pleasurably, but still) wasted even more of my time. In the list below, the number to the left of a song's name represents its place in the countdown that I found on YouTube. The numbers on the right are grades that I gave to these videos myself.

2    Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)    10
65    Song 2 (Blur)    9.95
7    Under the Bridge (Red Hot Chili Peppers)    9.9
122     Say It Ain't So (Weezer)    9.9
1    Losing My Religion (REM)    9.9
46    Glycerine (Bush)    9.9
21    Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins)    9.9
34    Tonight, Tonight (Smashing Pumpkins)    9.8
154     Sink to the Bottom (Fountains of Wayne)    9.8
78    Other Side (Red Hot Chili Peppers)    9.8
45    Cannonball (The Breeders)    9.8
71    Basket Case (Green Day)    9.8
24    Wonderwall (Oasis)    9.7
126     Today (Smashing Pumpkins)    9.7
113     Human Behavior (Bjork)    9.7
109     What's the Frequency, Kenneth? (REM)    9.6
20    Sex and Candy (Marcy Playground)    9.6
26    Scar Tissue (Red Hot Chili Peppers)    9.6
79    Low (Cracker)    9.6
44    Everlong (Foo Fighters)    9.6
117     Drive (REM)    9.6
6    Creep (Radiohead)    9.6
97     Swallowed (Bush)    9.5
153     Doll Parts (Hole)    9.5
9    Enjoy the Silence (Depeche Mode)    9.4
136     Sour Times (Portishead)    9.3
56    Santa Monica (Everclear)    9.3
22    Come Down (Bush)    9.3
87     Violet (Hole)    9.2
18    Come Out and Play (The Offspring)    9.1
14    1979 (Smashing Pumpkins)    9
104     Big Me (Foo Fighters)    9
102     Bullet with Butterfly Wings (Smashing Pumpkins)    9
63    Come as You Are (Nirvana)    9
132     Dreams (The Cranberries)    9
128     Everything Zen (Bush)    9
41    Fade into You (Mazzy Star)    9
94     Friday, I'm in Love (The Cure)    9
13    Good Riddance (Green Day)    9
105     Karma Police (Radiohead)    9
100     Lightning Crashes (Live)    9
70    Lump (The Presidents of the USA)    9
95     Never There (Cake)    9
3    One (U2)    9
147     Ruby Soho (Rancid)    9
92     Runaway Train (Soul Asylum)    9
146     Self-Esteem (the Offsping)    9
73    Semi-Charmed Life (Third Eye Blind)    9
59    Shine (Collective Soul)    9
139     The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get (Morrisey)    9
121     The Way (Fastball)    9
11    Zombie (The Cranberries)    9
31    All Apologies (Nirvana)    8
49    Epic (Faith No More)    8
141     Everything to Everyone (Everclear)    8
96     Heart-Shaped Box (Nirvana)    8
156     Hell (Squirrel Nut Zippers)    8
119     Hey Jealousy (Gin Blossoms)    8
43    Iris (Goo Goo Dolls)    8
74    Istanbul, not Constantinople (They Might Be Giants)    8
38    Jeremy (Pearl Jam)    8
134    Malibu (Hole)    8
23    Plush (Stone Temple Pilots)    8
118     Sick of Myself (Matthew Sweet)    8
37    The Impression That I Get    8
99     When I Come Around (Green Day)    8
16    Alive (Pearl Jam)    7
57    All the Small Things (Blink-182)    7
17    Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)    7
67    Brick (Ben Folds Five)    7
66    Closing Time (Semisonic)    7
137     Come On Eileen (cover by Save Ferris)    7
19    Don't Speak (No Doubt)    7
62    Even Flow (Pearl Jam)    7
36    Every Morning (Sugar Ray)    7
89     Far Behind (Candlebox)    7
82    Good (Better Than Ezra)    7
112     Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)    7
48    I Alone (Live)    7
29    Learn to Fly (Foo Fighters)    7
61    Lovefool (The Cardigans)    7
51    No Rain (Blind Melon)    7
157    Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth (The Dandy Warhols)    7
35    Paranoid Android (Radiohead)    7
131     Pepper (Butthole Surfers)    7
120     Radiation Vibe (Fountains of Wayne)    7
30    Sabotage (Beastie Boys)    7
81    Suedehead (Morrisey)    7
55    Buddy Holly (Weezer)    6
150     Fall Down (Toad the Wet Sprocket)    6
90     Found Out About You (Gin Blossoms)    6
25    Ironic (Alanis Morisette)    6
28    Jumper (Third Eye Blind)    6
32    Longview (Green Day)    6
123     Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm (Crash Test Dummies)    6
111     Mysterious Ways (U2)    6
60    The Distance (Cake)    6
106     The World I Know (Collective Soul)    6
12    You Oughta Know (Alanis Morissette)    6
40    All-Star (Smash Mouth)    5
93     Give It Away Now (Red Hot Chili Peppers)    5
148     Liar (Rollins Band)    5
110     Regret (New Order)    5
115     Shimmer (Fuel)    5
76    Stupid Girl (Garbage)    5
91     Tomorrow (Silverchair)    5
101     Alright (Supergrass)    4
151     Bound for the Floor (Local H)    4
152     Carnival (Natalie Merchant)    4
103     Name (Goo Goo Dolls)    4
75    Popular (Nada Surf)    4
124     The Freshmen (The Verve Pipe)    4
142     Unsung (Helmet)    4
108     Walking on the Sun (Smashmouth)    4
58    Would? (Alice in Chains)    4
138     Ball and Chain (Social Distortion)    3
116     Been Caught Stealing (Jane's Addiction)    3
27    Black (Pearl Jam)    3
53    Fly (Sugar Ray)    3
64    Head Like a Hole (Nine Inch Nails)    3
144     Infected (Bad Religion)    3
80    Intergalactic (Beastie Boys)     3
114     Interstate Love Song (Stone Temple Pilots)    3
5    Loser (Beck)    3
149     Mother, Mother (Tracy Bonham)    3
69    No Excuses (Alice in Chains)    3
85     Novocaine for the Soul (Eels)    3
107     One Week (Barenaked Ladies)    3
42    Pets (Porno for Pyros)    3
127     Sober (Tool)    3
50    Tubthumping (Chumbawamba)    3
77    What's It Like (Everlast)    3
155     Zoot Suit Riot (Cherry Popping Daddies)    3
10    Bittersweet Symphony (The Verve)    2
4    Closer (Nine Inch Nails)    2
54    Connection (Elastica)    2
140     Counting Blue Cars (Dishwalla)    2
33    Criminal (Fiona Apple)    2
130     Freak on a Leash (Korn)    2
47    Just a Girl (No Doubt)    2
133     Los Angeles (Frank Black)    2
145     My Own Worst Enemy (Lit)    2
86     One Headlight (The Wallflowers)    2
135     Push (Matchbox 20)    2
15    Santeria (Sublime)    2
125     Sell Out (Reel Big Fish)    2
84     Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand (Primitive Radio Gods)    2
72    Stop! (Jane's Addiction)    2
52    What's Up (4 Non-Blonds)    2
88     Where It's At (Beck)    2
129     All Mixed Up (311)    1
68    Blind (Korn)    1
8    Bulls on Parade (Rage Against the Machine)    1
39    Down (311)    1
143     Right Here, Right Now (Jesus Jones)    1
158     Rockafeller Skank (Fatboy Slim)    1
98     What I Got? (Sublime)    1

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Social Network

I saw The Social Network yesterday. A few of that movie's problems in order of increasing seriousness:

The Zuckerberg character was made to engage in a lot of fast-paced witty banter here. Nerds simply don't do that. There is a trade-off between quick-wittedness and the ability to focus deeply. Nerds are only really capable of the latter, while the people responsible for this film have persuasively shown themselves to be only capable of the former.

In the movie's first scene Zuckerberg's girlfriend, a saintly voice of conscience throughout, breaks up with him, thundering from on high that although he will go through life thinking that girls won't like him because he's a nerd, girls actually won't like him because he's an asshole. And that was right after the Zuckerberg character apologized to her for a perceived offense!

The sort of people who spread the meme that young nerds (think about this, nerds!) are striking out with women because they're not being nice enough to them deserve society's severest forms of punishment. There is no value in their lives. Did I mention that this script was written by a known coke head?

Finally, there is the demonization of preppies and of Harvard's student clubs. The fat, dim, drug-addicted slob who wrote this dreck really, really wanted us to know how much he envies athletic, clean-cut, well-spoken, gentlemanly individuals. No sense of self-worth whatsoever. The real Zuckerberg has said that he was never obsessed with any such clubs, and that this aspect of the story was invented from whole cloth by the screenwriter, and I believe him.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hamptons Quality, Newark Pricing

I was in Times Square a couple of days ago and I saw this billboard. No, that's not Ben Stiller. According to a web page I just found, any resemblance to Mr. Stiller is unintentional (right...), and that's actually someone named Wass Stevens, "a local actor and doorman." Of course there's the possibility that it is actually Ben Stiller furiously trying to "punk" passersby on Broadway. Regardless, it's the best-looking ad I've seen in some time. For those who don't know greater New York's geography well, Newark is a black ghetto and the Hamptons host the largest collection of billionaires' summer homes in the country, or maybe the world.

In spite of having grown up in Russia, though perhaps unsurprisingly in view of my family background, I've only tasted a couple of sips of vodka in my entire life. They were utterly disgusting. But then all alcohol turns me off. The most expensive booze I've ever tried was a bottle of Veuve Clicquot which the guy who sold me my current apartment left for me in the fridge as a parting gift before moving out. I did appreciate the gesture, but the champagne itself tasted like soap mixed with dust, bubbles and medicinal alcohol. Perhaps I'm simply missing something essential that allows others to enjoy the taste of these drinks.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What I Saw on 9/11

Today being 9/11, I decided to type up my experiences of the World Trade Center attacks. In 2001 I worked in Downtown Manhattan, in a building situated about 150 yards from the WTC's North Tower. The Trade Center itself was a familiar place - I used to regularly hang out at the huge bookstore located in building #5, and 3 months before the attacks I had even visited the observation deck on the roof of one of the Twin Towers.

On the morning of 9/11/01 I was doing paperwork in my cubicle when I suddenly heard an extremely violent sound and felt our building shake. The sound was similar to the kind you'd hear if a truck started unloading big metal pipes onto asphalt: more like loud banging than like explosions. This seemed to go on forever, though of course in such situations the sense of time becomes severely distorted. Everyone, including me, was shouting. My immediate sense was that something had gone wrong with our building, but within seconds a few of us were already in front of the nearest window, which happened to face the WTC. Metal cladding was coming off the North Tower and fluttering in the air like silver-colored confetti. I now know from TV footage that the initial hit had produced a fireball, but by the time I got to our window, it was already gone. Very quickly a theory of what had happened formed in my mind - I decided that this was a replay of the 1993 WTC attack. Someone must have taken a small bomb to one of the top floors in an elevator.

The damage didn't look serious, and so panic, in me at least, was quickly replaced by curiosity. I mentioned my theory to a middle-aged man standing next to me. He said that his wife worked in the WTC. This didn't sound nearly as dramatic as it does now because in those first few minutes the idea that those buildings would soon fall simply couldn't have ocurred to us. Weeks later, when I finally saw that guy again, he said that he couldn't find his wife for many hours after the collapse, but that she did end up escaping from the whole thing unhurt.

When our conversation naturally died, I looked back at the long rows of cubicles. Almost everyone was gone. I didn't feel like I HAD to go, but staying behind would have felt weird too, so I started slowly walking out of the office. There were a few people in the stairwell, including another guy who said that his wife worked in the WTC. Unlike the first one, he was crying hysterically.

When I walked out of our building, I went TOWARDS the WTC, not away from it. A sizable crowd had gathered in front of the North Tower. A lot of smoke was now coming off the damaged area. The whole thing looked more serious than a minute after the hit, but still not quite catastrophic. Someone was waving a white curtain from a window midway up the building.

After a few minutes of looking at this, I moved back to the sidewalk in front of the place where I worked. My boss was telling everyone who was gathered there that the North Tower was hit by a "white plane." In my head I immediately dismissed this as nonsense. She worked much further away from the windows than I did, so what could she have seen or known? She also told us that after a while we would have to go back into our building so that she could fill out the paperwork that would allow us to go home. I thought about who I was going to vote for once I got back to Brooklyn - 9/11/01 was an election day.

The sense of near-normalcy completely evaporated when a coworker of mine emerged from our building's doors, saying that she'd seen people jump from the top of the WTC. A friend of hers had forgotten her bag upstairs, so the two of them went back up into our office, and while there, they glanced out the windows and saw people jumping.

As if that wasn't enough, we soon heard a loud thump somewhere up close. I now suspect that this was actually one of the bodies, but at the time I imagined that it was a part of the North Tower's facade hitting the pavement. Our own office building was blocking our view of the Twin Towers, so I could now only guess what was going on there. A minute or two after the thump large numbers of people dressed in office clothes started quickly running past us, heading uptown. I now know that they had just seen the second plane approaching the South Tower. I was standing in the cavernous entrance to our building with a female coworker. Seconds before the second hit I shouted to her "this is a good wall", meaning that if parts of the North Tower started raining down from the sky, we'd have some cover.

Then we heard an incredibly loud sound, which seemed to go on and on, while the ground beneath us shook back and forth. The second plane had just hit the second tower, but since my view of this was blocked by our office building, I assumed (wrong word of course, because in moments like that you don't consciously think) that big chunks of the first tower were now coming down and that the whole building might fall on us at any moment. Later that day, when I had free time, I tried going back to those moments in my mind. For a split second I was definitely out of touch with reality out there. For example, I remember having a very strong feeling that I alone was witnessing something very important and that everyone else was unaware and urgently needed to be informed of it. In fact there were thousands of people around. Did I look up and see any debris in the air? For some reason this seemingly important question already became unanswerable two hours after the event.

I have no recollection of starting to run, just of running itself. If I had an opportinity to think anything through, I would have dropped my bag before taking off, but in fact on that day I ran for my life with a 10-pound bag containing a 1200-page CompTIA A+ test-prep book and a lot of other things.

If the 110-storey tower fell in my direction, how many blocks would it cover and am I out of its shadow yet? I definitely felt that question with my back for a while. A block north of where I started to run I ducked into an entrance of an office building. Someone else had already sought cover there. I stayed with him (or her) for only a couple of seconds. The entire street was running for its life, and it felt scary not to participate. Another block, and I saw lots of smoke and a commotion on the opposite side of the street. I later learned that one of the second plane's engines had fallen there seconds before, knocking a woman into a coma. At the time it was all a blur.

I ran for quite a while, as did everyone around me. Somewhere in Tribeca or Soho we gradually switched to walking. It was a long time before I saw anybody moving in the opposite direction though. I finally stopped when I saw a huge line in front of a phone booth. Cell phones weren't working because the transmission antennas on top of the WTC were knocked out. My parents knew that I worked Downtown, so I really wanted to tell them that I was OK. A man in front of me in line for the phone said that he heard about a plane going into the WTC. I immediately imagined a spoiled brat crashing his Cessna into one of the towers - JFK Jr. had recently killed himself in a roughly similar fashion and the news was still fresh in everyone's minds. When my turn to go into the booth finally came, the line went dead. I continued moving north, joined another such line, was disappointed again, then found a yet another line, and finally recorded a message on my parents' answering machine.

As I moved further uptown I saw a crowd of people gathered around a car whose owner opened all of its doors and turned up the volume of the radio to the max. This is how I learned about what actually happened. The news about the Pentagon shocked me the most. Coordinated attacks on multiple cities! The freaking PENTAGON!

I was very tired, so I ended up buying a bagel and a bottle of water and sat down on the ground. As I started to eat, I heard some shouting. All I could think of was "do I have to run AGAIN?" I went out into the crowd which stood in the middle of the street and was told that one of the towers had just gone down. Of course I imagined it falling sideways, not the way it actually fell. I learned about the second tower's fall in a similar fashion.

All of the bridges and tunnels leading out of Manhattan were closed, so I stayed in the city until early evening, seriously planning to spend the night there at one point. I talked to more strangers that day than at any other time in my life. Everyone wanted to describe what he saw, where he ran from and what he thought this meant politically. I remember a young guy shouting that because of what happened he wanted to go fight in Iraq. Yes, Iraq.

The subway started running at around 4 or 5 PM. There was a lot of confusion about which trains were going where. Eventually a passenger who used to work for the MTA said that she knew how to get to Brooklyn. I was a part of a large crowd that followed her. She told us that her husband worked on the 103rd floor of one of the towers, but that he had called in sick that day.

I was reassigned to Queens two weeks later, and then back to downtown Manhattan a few weeks after that. For several months afterwards there was a strong smell of burning in the air there. Eventually, after many months, the documents on which I worked on the morning of 9/11 were returned to me, all covered in soot. I worked in the area for a few more years before changing jobs and still visit it with some regularity.

Finally, a few thoughts about the conspiracy theories:

I think it's very likely that the official story is mostly true. The more people you involve in a conspiracy, the less likely it is to stay secret. Remember the guy, to take a random example, who told the media that he operated the school where the hijackers trained to fly? Was he in on the conspiracy too? What about the hijackers' grieving relatives interviewed by the media? And so on.

It seems to me that the number of folks that would have had to be involved in the hypothetical the-government-did-it scenario would be far too high for the conspiracy to hope to be effective.

At least in the official version the hijackers did not have to spend any effort on making it retroactively look as if some other organization had done it.

Did some highly-placed people wish for a casus belli all along? Sure. But did they have the actual ability to pull off not just the attacks, but also an elaborate operation redirecting the blame, all in a society as chaotic, disloyal, undisciplined and unpredictable as ours? I seriously doubt it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Greatest Vote Getters

In my last post I mentioned the fact that Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal's dictator from 1932 to 1968, was recently named the greatest Portuguese person ever by his homeland's TV viewers. These sorts of shows (The Greatest Belgian, Great Greeks, etc.) originated in Britain and have now run in more than two dozen countries. The Wikipedia provides a summary of the winners here.

It's fun to see who got picked and who got dumped by whom, and it's even more fun to come up with one's own alternatives. What do those bums know about their own history, right? :-)

Let's start with Britain, whose TV viewers put Churchill up top. I'm generally biased against politicians, but at least the entire world has heard of him and in between his drinking binges he did sometimes seem like a serious person. In contrast, I had never heard of Isambard Brunel before he was named the second greatest Briton ever on that show, and the less is said about Princess Di (#3) in this context, the saner. My problem with putting Darwin (#4) so high on that list is that humanity has been acting as if it already knew most of what he had to say since at least the birth of agriculture. Verbalizing the default assumptions of every farmhand and amateur genealogist who's ever lived and then extending those to their logical conclusions doesn't seem like a historic feat to me. Glossy's pick for greatest Briton ever? Newton. Also my pick for greatest human.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the German version did not include the word "German" in its title, calling itself "Unsere Besten" instead. The Princess Di spot (#3) was occupied here by Karl Marx, with Adenauer substituting for Churchill. In general the German list turned out to be more political than most. Glossy's pick? Beethoven.

Just like their historical rivals, the French chose a WWII-era pol (de Gaulle) as their top man. It was fun to see Zinadine Zidane and Charlemagne back together again on this list (nos. 21 and 22). I'm guessing that the footballer is just as enthusiastic about being called a Frenchman as Charlemagne would have been about being called a Gaul. Other than that the list is remarkable for having more actors and singers on it than most others. My pick would have been Lavoisier.

The Italians chose Leonardo, which is pretty good, but I'm going to argue against it anyway. Renaissance painting advanced towards realism and expressiveness gradually, over several centuries, so it's impossible to assign the bulk of the credit for it to any one person. And outside of painting Leonardo's output was more remarkable for breadth than for depth. I would have picked Galileo, for his role in the advancement of the scientific method.

The Greek top 10 is evenly divided between towering figures of universal importance, every one of whom has been dead for more than two thousand years, and more recent personages of whom almost no one outside of Greece has ever heard of. Alexander the Great, who initiated Greece's decline by integrating it with the East, came in first place. I would have picked Archimedes instead.

The Spaniards put their current king in first place, his wife in 4th, their eldest son in 7th and the son's wife in 15th - monarchism and patriarchy! Franco placed 22nd, Columbus was 3rd here, but 12th in the Italian list.

Alexander Nevsky ended up winning the Russian vote. Disregarding what I said about political leaders at the start of this post, I would have gone with Peter the Great instead. He Westernized Russia before the West started rotting, so his reforms were overwhelmingly positive in nature. Russia had not contributed anything to science or technology before he came along and it has never ceased such contributions since him. Before Peter, Russian high art existed strictly for internal consumption, after him it was able to be appreciated by foreigners. Russia was never a major power on the European or world stages before him and it has never stopped being one of a handful of Great Powers since him. And none of that had to happen, at least not in the 18th century. The Russian government had been aware of the country's lag behind the West for a long time [ru], but nothing was done about that until Peter came along, probably because no ruler before him possessed that much natural energy. OK, so he personally beheaded a few loudmouths. Trifles. Alexey Tolstoy's big book about him is still the best historical novel I've ever read.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Nerds in Politics

I got peeved by a phrase in this morning's Steve Sailer post about education reform:

"A Democrat turned Republican turned Independent, Bloomberg struck the press as the perfect non-ideological technocrat..."

Bloomberg hasn't struck the press as a technocrat because he's changed parties or because he's non-ideological (he's actually quite ideological). He's mostly struck them that way because he's a big nerd. Pretty much everybody who's heard him speak knows that.

This got me thinking about the fascinating topic of nerdy politicians. You'd think there wouldn't be any - pols need social skills almost as badly as pimps - and yet for some reason there are. At least three obvious nerds - Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich - have made it much higher in post-WWII American politics than Bloomberg ever will.  

Further afield, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ran Portugal as a dictator from 1932 to 1968, and who was named the greatest Portuguese person ever by Portuguese TV viewers in 2007, beating his closest rival (an unreconstructed Commie) by a better than 2-to-1 margin, was a big, big nerd. 

John Major always struck me as nerdy, though I don't know enough about British politics to be sure of this. This guy is definitely a nerd though.

I could probably name a dozen or two less prominent examples. On average nerds definitely make for more conservative politicians than normals, though there have been exceptions.

Weirdly enough, I think I do know why nerds can become successful in politics in spite of being spectacularly unsuited for it: we tend to be more interested in policy than almost any other group of human beings. And in order to affect policy one usually has to go into politics.

Shaking hands, kissing babies, making morally-questionable deals, managing subordinates - all of this is distasteful to nerds ("This would be a great job if it weren’t for the people", Richard Nixon), but if those things are the price of getting a chance to change the course of history, some nerds are willing to work at it.

In contrast, hyper-social politicians like Bill Clinton tend to enjoy the political process as an end in itself and are blander than bland on policy.

As a Russian-born history nerd I couldn't resist the question of whether or not a geek has ever governed The Motherland. The likeliest candidates would probably be Peter III, Paul I, and Yuriy Andropov. None of these were terribly important though, so I could well be wrong about them.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ideology and Profit

A standard leftist critique of the world in which we live is that it's entirely run by money, that the powers that be only ever care about profits, etc.

But nothing could be further from the truth. I see ideology trump the profit motive every day, in both big things and small.

One of the clearest, though obviously not the most important, examples of this phenomenon can be observed in team sports.

What is the most obvious way for team owners and leagues to earn more money? The answer's simple: making teams monoethnic. Believe me, the Fighting Irish would be a lot more popular than they are now if all their players were actually Irish. It wouldn't even matter if they ever won anything. The Soviet Union never had a hope of winning the soccer World Cup when I was a kid, yet the streets literally went empty every time the national team played an important game. People will root for their own no matter how much they suck for the same reason that parents routinely sacrifice the world for their mediocre or imbecile kids instead of dutifully supporting other people's little geniuses.

A profit-maximizing setup for the NFL would have a Black team, a Mulatto team, an Irish team, an Italian team, a couple of southern White teams, a Midwestern White team, etc. Such a league would be so much more popular than the current one that it would actually take money away from most other leasure-oriented industries. Music, movies, travel, hiking - everything except for porn and hard drugs would suffer a severe downturn in popularity. If you know of any other types of entertainment that could reliably outcompete simulated race war in the public mind, I would like to hear of it.

And yet team owners are completely powerless to change the laws that ban the monoethnic setup, laws that are clearly depriving them of historic profits. So much for the power of money to influence policy.

Some would say that the reason why the reigning ideology effectively bans monoethnic professional teams is to minimize ethnic conflict. These people are idiots. The easiest way to minimize ethnic conflict is to have monoethnic countries, and the reigning ideology is obviously against that. Also, experience shows that tournaments involving ethnic teams don't have to lead to any violence at all. During my Soviet soccer-watching childhood Dynamo Tbilisi's roster was 100% Georgian, Ararat's was 100% Armenian, the Ukrainian teams were overwhelmingly Ukrainian, etc., and yet ethnic conflict across the old USSR couldn't be more dormant at that time. This was mostly due to the post-WWII Soviet state's discouragement of mass population movements. As a result, the average citizen still lived in the roughly monoethnic environemnt of his ancestors.

If the people who run things in the modern West want to discourage ethic strife, they're obviously tackling the wrong end of the problem.

By the way, I only picked sports to illustrate my point because it was the first example that occured to me. In pretty much every other industry ideology lords over the profit motive 9 times out of 10.

The easiest way to make money in Manhattan real estate would be to bribe local politicians to relocate housing projects to Whocaresville and to build luxury towers in their place. Yet this would make Manhattan even less NAM-mmy than it already is, so it's ideologically unacceptable.

Any US airline could increase its profits if, like Asian ones, it started hiring only young, attractive women as stewardesses. And yet they're powerless to change the rules that don't allow them to do that.

Thousands of firms could become more efficient if, when hiring, they relied on actual IQ tests instead of on imperfect proxies like what colleges applicants went to. But that's been declared illegal too.

And so on. The idea that money is the biggest motivating factor on the big stage is naive.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reasoning and Truth

Steve Sailer has posted about a subject that's fascinated me for years: why does reasoning lead to self-deception more often than to truth in most people, even when this reasoning is applied to the simplest of topics, topics in which the truth is practically lying on the surface? And I definitely include myself in "most people" here - over the years I've managed to reason myself into believing oodles of things that now seem utterly false to me. And if experience is any guide, a lot of what I believe now will seem false to me in the future, moreover, some of it will be definitely proven to be false. And of course the errors in my "reasoning" will turn out to have been idiotically simple. 

Did reasoning evolve in order to help us win arguments with people or in order to help us search for any sort of objective truth?

True rationality, though rare, does exist, and if the computer on which I'm typing this wasn't built on cold-bloodedly rational principles, I wouldn't be able to make this post. At the end Steve wondered where and when such true rationality originated.

I may well be wrong about what follows, but I have a hunch that a lot of it originated with farming in northern latitudes. We know from archeology and from written sources that in antiquity northern European farmers lived on isolated homesteads, not in villages. When combined with primitive farming technology, the harsh climate could only feed so many farmers per square mile, so they had to spread out. In isolation, the struggle with nature must have taken precedence over struggles with other people. Nature can't be bullshitted into anything, but people very much can be.

It's interesting to note here that the north of the temperate belt of the eastern side of Eurasia was always covered with steppe, not farmland. The Yellow River valley - the cradle of northern Chinese civilization - is located roughly at the latitude of central Spain. And the nomads who roamed north of there seem to have lived in groups.

Most conscious reasoning is rationalization in support of notions we would subconsciously like to be true and which we want others to believe, usually for our own, selfish, subconsciously-determined reasons. The two are obviously linked - the most effective BSers are the ones who sincerely believe in what they're spouting. You've got to convince yourself before you can hope to convince others. It seems that BSing skill would increase one's evolutionary fitness in most social setups, with relative isolation being the only setup that could work in the opposite direction. Hence, a search for the origins of rationality would be a search for historical conditions that favored relative isolation.

I'm sure that truly rational (i.e. unemotional, unselfish, completely conscious) thought is rare in all peoples and in all cultures. However, if in one society 1% of all the men have a tendency to consciously think rationally 1% of the time, while in another only 0.1% of all the men tend to think like that 1% of the time, then differences in scientific and technological achievement would probably arise under certain circumstances. Historically these circumstances have definitely included the urbanization of formerly farming populations, but I'm sure that there would be lots of other preconditions too.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

An Old Song

While I was in college and for a year or two afterwards, I occasionally played acoustic guitar. I mostly made up little melodies like these, but several times I unsuccessfully tried writing complete songs. Since I now have a blog, I decided to record one of those unsuccessful attempts and to post it on YouTube.

It took several runs through the song to finally remember all of its demented lyrics, but the guitar part came back to me almost instantly. For some reason human beings tend to remember movements better than words. The sound quality sucks, but since it's not a very good song to begin with, I doubt that better recording equipment would have improved it much. Of course one of the greatest things about music is that you don't need to be any good at it to enjoy playing it, so, as funny as it may seem, I had some fun recording this thing today.

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


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.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

World Cup

I saw both of today's World Cup matches and there were empty seats in the first one. This is astounding. The World Cup is the biggest athletic competition in the world - the confident, hetero brother of the Olympics. And there are empty seats in the knockout stage! Even the crazy, beer-loving, hooliganism-prone international soccer fanbase was too scared to travel to that hellhole to support their teams.

I once bought a little book called "101 Things To Do Before You Die". "Be present when your country wins the World Cup" is in that book next to things like "save someone's life", "write a best-seller" and "make the front page of a national newspaper". Well, this year if you're Argentinian or German, all you may need to do to check off that item on the list is conquer your fear of big black crowds - there seem to be lots of empty seats at these games. For the record, so far I've done 7 of the "101 things", most of them easy ones.

More stereotypes confirmed: like every black African team I've ever seen play, Ghana had a white coach. Before this match every commentator gushed about Ghaneans' sprinting ability, and once the game started, what do you know, the Ghaneans turned out to be great sprinters. The condition of the pitch in the Uruguay - South Korea game was not up to high school, let alone World Cup standards.

Not a stereotype, actually a mystery: in 3 out of its 4 games in this tournament the US team allowed a goal in the first few minutes. I've watched thousands of soccer games in my life and I have never seen any team habitually experience this particular problem before.

The networks were trying really hard to sell America on soccer this year, but one of the commentators assigned by them to the US - Ghana game was named Ian and talked with a British accent. For millions of Americans who never watch soccer, but tuned in today because they heard that the US team had been doing well lately, this would have been just another reminder of how foreign soccer is.

On the one hand I was disappointed that the US lost, on the other I was relieved that the game wasn't decided by penalty kicks. People who know nothing about soccer often complain about its low scoring and boredom. People who do know something about it are more likely to complain about diving and the random unfairness of penalty shootouts. Skipping extra time and deciding tied games by a series of corner kicks would be fairer, since scoring off a corner normally requires great skill.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

La Manche

In my review of War and Peace I commented on the extraordinary level of dominance that French enjoyed over other European languages during the period described by Tolstoy. The rise of English in the late 20th century would have seemed bizarre to anyone living just a few generations ago.

Britain became a political superpower right after its Industrial Revolution, but that had almost no effect on the prestige or popularity of its language outside of the British Empire's domains. A 100 years ago there seemed to be no reason to expect that America's rise was going to challenge French either. A language's prestige depended on its association with high culture, not with raw political power. This is why Latin could still be taught to millions of schoolchildren 1,500 years after the Roman Empire's fall. For centuries French was the premier European language not because France had a lot of power (sometimes it did and at other times it didn't), but because it had developed an extraordinarily refined culture which people wanted to emulate.

In the final analysis it wasn't England's or even America's political rise that made English prominent, but the precipitous decline of reverence for high culture after WWI. In the 20th century, perhaps for the first time ever, a culture no longer needed to be perceived as refined for foreigners to want to emulate it.

Anyway, to demonstrate just how marginal English seemed to everyone before the 20th century, I'm going to talk about the English Channel. As you probably know, the French call that body of water La Manche (the Sleeve). The Channel was always more important to the English (it connected them to the rest of the civilized world) than to the French, but it's shared by both countries and cultures equally and its naming by other nations can serve as a kind of test of linguistic influence.

If you bring up the English Channel in the Wikipedia and then click on the word "Languages" on the left, you'll see links to the corresponding articles in other tongues. It comes as no surprise that 13 of the 13 living Romance languages and dialects that have their own articles about the English Channel call it La Manche or something similar - after all, French is a Romance language itself. Why wouldn't its sister tongues take its side in this little linguistic dispute?

The fact that only 4 out of the 10 Germanic languages and dialects I looked at follow the English lead in naming the Channel English is far more telling. And one of those 4 is Scots! Germans call the Channel Ärmelkanal. Der Ärmel, just like La Manche, means "the sleeve". Icelandic does the same thing. The Dutch chose to screw their English relatives in a somewhat different manner - they just call it Het Kanaal (the Channel), strategically dropping the English part.
By now you wouldn't be surprised to learn that all 11 Slavic languages I looked at in the Wikipedia call the Channel "La Manche".

Most non-Indo-European languages agree: languages as diverse as Basque, Estonian. Mongolian, Swahili, Turkish, Kurdish, Hungarian, etc., use the name "La Manche" or, more precisely, its local manglings.

The ones that call the Channel English are few and far between, for some reason including Finnish, Malay and Chinese.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Review of War and Peace

Война и миръ (War and Peace), 1869, by count Leo Tolstoy, read in Russian. Glossy's rating: 6.5 out of 10.

This enormous novel is almost entirely devoid of humor or stylistic elegance - two qualities I love most in literature - and yet I can't honestly say I hated it.

It's a book written for and about a unique, fascinating people that, sadly, is now gone forever. I'm talking here about the Russian aristocracy, to whose upper reaches count Leo Tolstoy himself belonged, and about European aristocracy in general. Who were these people, whose destruction or assimilation in most countries, and removal from power in all others have coincided with the disappearance of duels, of the practice of noblesse oblige and of so much beauty? What did a thousand years of careful breeding accomplish in their case?

Let's start with the duels, one of which is memorably described in the book. These wealthy, powerful, overwhelmingly smart men were routinely willing to risk their lives for honor. A few disrespectful words were enough. Note that this behavior had nothing in common with that of modern goons after a "dis". In order to call themselves gentlemen, men had to give each other equal chances, fighting one-on-one, at a predetermined time and place, long after the initial rush of emotion had a chance to subside. Fairness, at least within the circle of those who were judged to be capable of it, was inseparable from honor.

This attitude was carried into battle and beyond. Here Tolstoy describes the French emperor talking to a Russian POW after Austerlitz:

"You are the commander of Emperor Alexander's regiment of Horse Guards?" asked Napoleon.
"I commanded a squadron," replied Repnin.
"Your regiment fulfilled its duty honorably," said Napoleon.
"The praise of a great commander is a soldier's highest reward," said Repnin.
"I bestow it with pleasure," said Napoleon.  

Try to imagine a conversation like that happening in a modern war. 
The old aristocracy's privileged lifestyle only amazes until one thinks of today's rich. I doubt that wealth in modern Russia or modern America is distributed any more evenly than it was in 19th century Europe. What has definitely decreased though is the elite's sense of responsibility towards the rest of society. In the novel the Rostov family owns numerous opulent homes and has thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of peasants working on its estates, and yet no one is surprised when Nikolay Rostov, who was modeled on Tolstoy's father, volunteers for active duty as a simple hussar. He eventually rises to the rank of officer, but in those days no matter how high you rose in the army, your chances of getting shot were always good. Kutuzov, the Russian army's overall commander during the decisive stages of its war with Napoleon, and an heir to an old aristocratic family, is missing an eye by the time we meet him in the novel - it was lost in an engagement with the Turks.

Sure, on occasion privileged kids still volunteer to serve in the wars their fathers help start. However, in the world described by this novel this wasn't just many times more common than now - it was expected of them.

There is a scene here where the tsar meets with the commercial class of Moscow, who end up volunteering large amounts of money for the war effort. So this altruism wasn't limited to the gentry.

No modern Western politician can inspire these sorts of feelings, not even among the young:

Stopping in front of the Pavlograds, the Tsar said something in French to the Austrian Emperor and smiled.
Seeing that smile, Rostov involuntarily smiled himself and felt a still stronger flow of love for his sovereign. He longed to show that love in some way and knowing that this was impossible, wanted to cry. The Tsar called the colonel of the regiment and said a few words to him.
"Oh God, what would happen to me if the Emperor spoke to me?" thought Rostov. "I would die of happiness!"
The Tsar addressed the officers also: "I thank you all, gentlemen, I thank you with my whole heart." To Rostov every word sounded like a voice from heaven. How happy he would be if he could now die for his Tsar!
"You have earned the St. George's standards and will be worthy of them."
"Only to die, to die for him!" thought Rostov.

Any impulse to smile at this now should be tempered with the realization that these sorts of feelings win wars. And you can't write any of it off on brainwashing - neither TV nor government-run educational systems were yet on the horizon in 1805. In fact, Russians of Rostov's class were largely educated by private tutors imported by their families from France. Most of the written material they consumed was also in French.

France's dominance of the cultural scene of that time is astounding. Many of the Russian nobles portrayed in the novel were more comfortable speaking French than Russian. It's also made clear that Pierre and Andrey, who are the focus of much of the book, know German, and there are dozens of German characters here. In contrast, the novel has only one English character, he appears in only one scene, has no importance of any sort and doesn't even get a name.

Tolstoy includes a lot of French and a few German passages without translation, assuming that an upscale Russian audience would have had no trouble understanding them. He couldn't have done that with English. Although the British Empire was the most powerful state of that time, its cultural impact outside of its domains was scarcely detectable.

At one point Tolstoy takes time to describe the long-dead Russian upper class accent. That passage reminded me of nothing so much as old phonograph recordings of Lenin's speeches. It's sad, but modern Russians' mental image of how the aristocracy spoke comes, to a large extent, from the recordings of the guy who led the effort to exterminate it.

I'm sure that a big reason why I'm fascinated by literary descriptions of the aristocracy is that they're so far removed from anything I've known in real life. It's impossible to idealize anything one knows well, and yet most people have an inborn desire to idealize something. Unfortunately Tolstoy succumbed to one of the more negative manifestations of this impulse. He ended up turning the ordinary Russian peasant into a sort of internal noble savage, endowing him with qualities that no human has ever possessed. The picture of count Tolstoy - a rich man and a direct descendant of Russia's original royal family - in a peasant shirt, familiar to every Russian schoolboy, is one of the most ridiculous images to ever become associated with literature. At least I idealize people who are smarter than I am.

Rousseau, the leading European promoter of the noble savage idea, could be enthusiastic about savages precisely because he'd never met them. Tolstoy did know some peasants, but only as chattel on his estate, and later as his employees.

In War and Peace the internal noble savage is most prominently personified by Platon Karatayev, a peasant soldier whom count Pierre Bezuhov meets while in French captivity. I found Tolstoy's breathless descriptions of Karatayev cringe-worthy. He took every sign of that man's stupidity - his unreflective nature, his inability to repeat what he'd just said, the childish simplicity of all the stories he tells - as something profound, mysterious and other-worldly.

Pacifism was another trendy idea to which Tolstoy fell victim. Seeing him try to square it with his obvious pride over Russia's beating of the French was amusing. The two opposing sentiments, one abstract and most likely taken from books, the other intuitive and obviously experienced first-hand, remained unreconciled till the end.

It would be grossly unfair to depict Tolstoy as a 19th century hippy though. His views on women, for example, were realistic. Here's a part of his description of Anatole, the novel's biggest playboy: his behavior to women Anatole had a manner which particularly inspires in them curiosity, awe, and even love--a supercilious consciousness of his own superiority. It was as if he said to them: "I know you, I know you, but why should I bother about you? You'd be only too glad, of course." Perhaps he did not really think this when he met women- even probably he did not, for in general he thought very little--but his looks and manner gave that impression.

Here Tolstoy comments on women's inability to handle abstract ideas while describing Countess Rostova's response to her son's desire to serve his country:

She realized that if she said a word about his not going to the battle (she knew he enjoyed the thought of the impending engagement) he would say something about men, honor, and the fatherland--something senseless, masculine, and obstinate which there would be no contradicting, and her plans would be spoiled.

Here's Dolohov talking to the young Rostov:

Yes, dear boy," he continued, "I have met loving, noble, high-minded men, but I have not yet met any women--countesses or cooks--who were not venal.

And here is prince Andrey, one of the noblest souls ever to be realistically described in print, summing it all up for young Pierre:

If you only knew what those society women are, and women in general! My father is right. Selfish, vain, stupid, trivial in everything--that's what women are when you see them in their true colors!

This reminds me that War and Peace abounds with ethnic stereotypes that only a boring PC prude could pretend not to enjoy:

All Moscow repeated ...the words of Rostopchin, that French soldiers have to be incited to battle by highfalutin words, and Germans by logical arguments to show them that it is more dangerous to run away than to advance, but that Russian soldiers only need to be restrained and held back! (...)

...all of Ramballe's love stories had the disgusting quality which Frenchmen regard as the special charm and poetry of love...

 ...L'amour which the Frenchman worshiped consisted principally in the unnaturalness of his relation to the woman and in a combination of incongruities giving the chief charm to the feeling. (...) 

Pfuel was one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion--science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. (...)

A combination of Austrian precision and Russian courage - what more could be wished for?" (...) 

Prince Andrey's father talking about Napoleon:

"Buonaparte was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He has got splendid soldiers. Besides he began by attacking Germans. And only idlers have failed to beat the Germans. Since the world began everybody has beaten the Germans. They beat no one--except one another. He made his reputation fighting them."

And this was written only a few years before France's decisive defeat by Bismarck in 1871. Tolstoy's hostility to Germans came from two easily-identifiable sources, the first of which might well have been biological. Russians love living large, not caring about the consequences of every minor thing they do, having noisy fun and being overly generous with everyone. This has always clashed with the more cautious and disciplined German national character. An American parallel would be a southerner's disdain for old Yankee fussiness and perceived joylessness.

The second reason had to do with the proliferation of Germans in Imperial Russian service. When Tsar Peter the Great embarked on his project to Westernize Russia at the end of the 17th century, he needed technical expertise, so he invited thousands of foreigners, mostly Germans, to the country. Many stayed permanently, making up a large percentage of the army's officer corps. Russian aristocracy, like the Tolstoy family, understandably felt threatened by this. Over the course of the 18th century through repeated marriages with German princesses the Russian royal family itself became mostly German. Tolstoy was too respectful of monarchy as an institution to just come out and say it, but his descriptions of Alexander I as a reserved, duty-bound, extremely formal man fit the German stereotype, which is repeatedly made fun of elsewhere in the novel.

To many modern readers the war in War and Peace is most remarkable not for anything that actually happened in it, but for the bizarre way in which much of it reoccurred more than a century later.

An ideologically-driven conquest of the European continent by a man of unremarkable origins, that man's obsession with and then abandonment of a plan to conquer England, his late invasion of Russia, easy progress up till Moscow, a fierce fight for the city leading to a turnaround in fortunes, and later his vast army's annihilation on its long journey back to Europe, ending with the Russian occupation of his capital - how could every one of those things have happened twice, and in exactly that order?

At one point in the novel Tolstoy says that every historian of the Napoleonic Wars agreed that Bonaparte started his Russian campaign too late in the summer to be successful, and that he didn't adequately prepare for the Russian winter.

What were the chances that that would happen again? Both seemed to have overestimated Britain and underestimated Russia. Here Tolstoy has Napoleon talk with a Russian ambassador:

How many churches are there in Moscow?" he asked.
And receiving the reply that there were more than two hundred churches, he remarked:
"Why such a quantity of churches?"
"The Russians are very devout," replied Balashev.
"But a large number of monasteries and churches is always a sign of the backwardness of a people," said Napoleon, turning to Caulaincourt for appreciation of this remark.
Balashev respectfully ventured to disagree with the French Emperor.
"Every country has its own character," said he.
"But nowhere in Europe is there anything like that," said Napoleon.
"I beg your Majesty's pardon," returned Balashev, "besides Russia there is Spain, where there are also many churches and monasteries."
This reply of Balashev's, which hinted at the recent defeats of the French in Spain, was much appreciated when he related it at Alexander's court, but it was not much appreciated at Napoleon's dinner, where it passed unnoticed.

It's clear to me from this and from other things I've read that a big reason why Napoleon overestimated the Brits and underestimated the Russians was his erroneous assumption that modernity must always be good and that backwardness must always be bad. In times of general moral decline backwardness easily becomes an advantage, and what was the French Revolution if not a giant step downwards for Western Civ? Of course, Hitler also loved going on about the backwardness of Russia's "Asiatic hordes".

It would have been too much to expect this 1,600-page novel to be a paragon of literary style, and it's not. Reading War and Peace is more like listening to a very smart man talk than like reading something that a very smart man has written. He repeats himself a lot. The sentences are inelegant and overlong. He sometimes goes on for pages expressing an idea that with more effort could have been condensed into a couple of lines. What keeps you from doubting the man's intelligence is his ability to get deep into the minds of dozens of very different kinds of people in order to describe their motivations realistically.

Tolstoy's extremely common-sensical takes on dozens of topics that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot are in themselves reason enough to read this book. To give a small example, here he describes a minor character singing:

Uncle sang as peasants sing, with full and naive conviction that the whole meaning of a song lies in the words and that the tune comes of itself, and that apart from the words there is no tune, which exists only to give measure to the words. As a result of this the unconsidered tune, like the song of a bird, was extraordinarily good.

When thinking about opera's ridiculousness, it's tempting to imagine that the 19th century was so soaked in artificiality that it didn't even notice it. And yet here Tolstoy shows that he clearly understood the appeal of the kind of singing that is diametrically opposed to all opera, of the kind of singing that in the world of 20th century popular music would be associated with 1960s folkies and 1970s singer-songwriters.

My least favorite part of War and Peace was its first, philosophical after-word. I found its ideas to be mostly self-evident and its style too boring for words. What is philosophy if not empty talk for smart men, their equivalent of feminine chatter? One almost never learns anything new from reading it and I certainly didn't learn anything new from that afterword.

Do I think that War and Peace deserves to be the most famous novel ever written? Not for a second. However it's not at all a bad book. It's so ambitious that at its end the author denies, not without justification, that it's even a novel. I found it to be a clear window on a fascinating place and time and I think it contains more than enough wisdom and insight to outweigh its faults.

Last edited on 12/20/18.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Robin Hood

I often enjoy historical movies, so today I saw Robin Hood with Russel Crowe. I've only seen one Ridley Scott film before - Blackhawk Down - and Robin Hood turned out to be much worse. The villains were too evil, the heroes too lovable, the battle scenes too similar to the ones in all the other Hollywood movies with swords in them - in fact all of the ways in which this movie was bad turned out to be as cliched as its plot.

No, I didn't expect this to be an English equivalent to Andrey Rubliov, but if Scott throttled down his bad guys' scowling even just a little, his film would have benefited from it.

The man who played King John looked like a younger and much, much less talented version of Rowan Atkinson. Cate Blanchette became too old to play a major movie star's romantic interest so long ago that it really made me question Scott's judgement. He presumably made the plot idiotic in order to attract the largest possible audience, but it didn't occur to him that making lady Marian pretty would have advanced the same exact goal without forcing him to look like a fool himself?

Russel Crowe was OK, but the actor who played sir Walter was spectacular and clearly the only one in the cast who looked comfortable impersonating a nobleman. I just looked him up, and it turns out that his mother was a baroness. Wow. 

The scene where the king of France tries to invade England was deliberately made to remind the viewer of old photographs of D-Day. I have no idea what the point of that was. 

There was a mild anti-government message in the movie. I pay taxes too, so I was all for it, but as a history nerd I know that the sentiments depicted were pretty ahistorical, at least for the medieval common man. The feudal system encouraged constant warfare between petty landlords. The average guy usually ended up rooting for a strong centralized state because only it could reign in the nobles, the knights and the bandits.

The modern state has gone far beyond its original function of securing law and order and now redistributes wealth from the productive elements of society to unproductive ones. This has given these productive elements a reason for hating the state that in the Middle Ages would have simply been unknown. In the actual, historical Middle Ages the only people who wanted to limit the power of kings were usually their nobles.