Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Random Thought

If America wasn't bizarrely and undeservedly named for Amerigo Vespucci, what could its current name be? Probably Columbia, but another very real possibility is Occidentalia, by analogy with how Australia got named some centuries later. Of course this word would have long ago been shortened to Oxy in English.

This would have probably led "oxymoron" to be so hopelessly politicized by now that another word would have had to be found to express its original meaning. Or maybe not - after an initial period of confusion Americans could have reclaimed "oxymoron" with pride. If you think about it, it can suggest that calling Oxies morons is oxymoronic, i.e. uncalled for.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sexiness and Nasality

It occured to me some time ago that French and Portuguese - unquestionably Europe's sexiest-sounding languages - are also the only ones on that continent that happen to be heavily nasal. The odds of that being a random coincidence can't be very high.

If James Cameron wanted his Avatar aliens to sound sexy, he should have told his linguist to make their fake language outlandishly, freakishly nasal - like French on viagra. Which reminds me: the Russian word for blue (goluboy) also means gay. Avatar must have produced so many chuckles in the former USSR.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Intrade Update

My bet on Yanukovych in the Ukrainian election was successful, but I still haven't gotten a payout from Intrade because Ms. Tymoshenko is acting like a sore loser, suing the victor and refusing to let the people finally forget her ridiculous hairstyle. In the meantime I noticed that I could bet on the Oscars in such a way that I'd win money regardless of whether Best Picture goes to Avatar or to Hurt Locker. If Avatar contracts are selling for $47 and Hurt Locker contracts for $44, the market is saying that the rest of the field has a 9% chance of winning. But that's obviously wrong - the real probability of any movie besides Avatar and Hurt Locker winning the Best Pic category is zilch. Oscar voting is like an election and this year all the movies besides Avatar and Hurt Locker are like the Libertarian, Socialist Workers', Green, etc. parties. So I went out and bought an equal number of Avatar and Hurt Locker contracts. Now I'll get around $30 no matter who wins.

In a riskier transaction, I bet on Tiger Woods coming back to golf before the middle of this year. My impression is that Tiger is a very disciplined, conscientious fellow. Why wouldn't he want to go back to work quickly? Unfortunately now that I actually bet some money on this, I can see lots of reasons - he could have gotten out of practice and could need months of training to regain his edge, the doping rumors may turn out to be true, etc. I really hope I haven't goofed here because if Tiger doesn't come back before July 1st, I'll lose more than $200 on him.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hoodlums and Pool

A friend and I occasionally play table tennis. Most of the clubs where we play also have pool tables. I've long ago noticed that the pool-playing demographic invariably looks more thuggish than the folks playing ping-pong. The latter group is mostly comprised of young Asians, white nerds and middle-aged, seemingly married couples of all races. The pool players look either like rap video extras or like the guys those extras will turn into if they age a lot and maybe get janitor jobs somewhere.

This reminded me that while I was growing up in Russia the criminal element there loved playing pool. Except for an oversupply of testosterone, those guys had nothing in common with the average American hoodlum. And it's not just race and culture - Russian crime tends to be well-organized, while American crime is often random. Everything is different except for this fondness for billiards.

Perhaps there is something intrinsic in that game that attracts dumb high-testosterone guys to it. The poses one takes, the languid pace, the shape of the cues. Or maybe it's something I'm missing entirely.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Origin of the Yin-Yang Symbol

Yesterday, while poking around the Wikipedia, I came up on this surprising fact: the well-known Yin-Yang symbol that you see to the right is attested in European sources seven hundred years before it appears in Asian ones!

The symbol's earliest documented occurrence is on Roman soldiers' shields. Apparently each Roman army unit decorated its shields with a distinctive pattern by which it could be identified. A book written around 400 AD called the Notitia Dignitatum shows many such patterns, some of which are pretty much identical to the modern Asian Yin-Yang symbol. The symbol first appears in Chinese records only in the 11th century.

China did not have anything like the European Dark Ages, so its ancient history is better known than the Western one. If an idea appears in the comparatively scant record of Western antiquity, but is absent from the more voluminous record of Chinese antiquity, then chances are high that this idea originated in the West.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Russian Surnames

This is a picture of Michael Chertoff, the former US secretary of Homeland Security. I posted it here because "chertoff" means "the devil's" in Russian. According to his Wikipedia article, Mr. Chertoff comes from a similar background to mine, so his last name really is Russian. The match between its meaning and his appearance should by no means be discarded as coincidental - most surnames originated as nicknames and facial features are to a large extent hereditary.
Some famous Russian last names and their meaning:

Tolstoy - fat man. 

Putin - the road's, the path's. I'm guessing that one of the Russian PM's ancestors lived next to a highway. By the way, most Russian surnames are in the genitive case, which means that you usually have to use an apostrophe followed by an s to translate them into English. 

Medvedev - bear's. The Russian word for bear (medved) literally means "honey eater". If you like words, you'll recognize the med- (honey) part in the related English word mead. The ancient population of northern Europe was so scared of bears that it thought that naming them directly was bad luck. People invented roundabout ways of talking about these beasts without mentioning them. "Honey eater" was one of those, "the brown one", from which the English word bear descends, is another. The original Indo-European word for bear looked something like *rkto. I once saw a discussion on sci.lang about the form it would take in modern English if it wasn't replaced by "bear" centuries ago. The consensus was that it would now be spelled "urrow". 

Gorbachov - humpback's. 

Pushkin - cannon's. 

Chekhov - Czech's. Perhaps one of his forefathers was a Czech or a serf on the estate of a Czech landlord. 

Brezhnev - this name comes from the Russian word for a river bank. From what I understand, he was born close to a village called Brezhnevka, "the river bank village". 

Kurnikova - chicken breeder's, as in "chicken breeder's daughter. 

I don't know why, but animal-themed surnames are more common in Russian than in any other major European language. Russia's relatively late entry into the industrial age does nothing to explain this because most Englishmen, Germans, Frenchmen, etc. got their surnames centuries before the Industrial Revolution.  Some of the animals in question seem pretty weird for surnames. One of my best friends in childhood was named Komarov (mosquito's). Muhin (fly's), Muraviov (ant's) and Korovin (cow's) are all quite common as well. 
The surname of Georgiy Zhukov, the winning general in several of human history's biggest battles, means "bug's". 

"Bunny's" (Zaitsev) is also a common Russian last name - here's a picture of a rabbit-like gay Russian fashion designer who bears it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Ukrainian Election

I recently placed a bet on Intrade on Viktor Yanukovych winning the upcoming presidential election in Ukraine. Since my recent Intrade successes were probably mostly brought on by dumb luck, I wouldn't be surprised if Yanukovych lost. Some thoughts on the election:

Yushchenko, the outgoing president, is lauded by Western media as a pro-Western, pro-market reform democrat, which in the Eastern European context invariably means having sold one's soul to George Soros, as well as, of course, thievery. He's also a Ukrainian nationalist. Why, you're asking, would guys like Soros and Berezovsky finance an Eastern European nationalist of any sort? Well, the biggest nationalism in the region happens to be the Russian kind. To counter it the liberal Soros, as well as the neocons, are temporarily willing to finance smaller nationalistic movements that are opposed to it. The enemy of one's enemy and all that.

This reminds me of a quote by Jozef Pilsudky, a socialist anti-czar revolutionary who turned into a conservative nationalist when he ran Poland between the world wars:

"I took the red tram of socialism to the stop called Independence, and that's where I got off."

I bet this is how Yushchenko felt about Soros's "democracy" too. He thought he'd pretend to be a multi-culti, pro-Western, pro-whatever "democrat" - the modern world's version of a communist - as long as the big guys helped him build an anti-Russian, Ukrainian-nationalistic state. But you've got to remember that the big guys got big primarily by stealing. And after they made him president, Yushchenko had to let them steal some more if he wanted to keep being their pal. And then some more on top of that. By the way, unlike Russia, Ukraine has no oil or gas reserves.

These guys ended up stealing such a large percentage of the country's wealth that at this point in time, in 2010, anyone who's associated with them, including Yushchenko, is politically dead. He only got 5% in the first round of this year's presidential election, which left his former ally and recent enemy Yulia Tymoshenko to hold the "pro-Western", "pro-democracy" flag all by herself. Since she wanted to get a lot more than 5%, she immediately threw this flag into the dumpster in which it belongs and went into overdrive cozying up to Putin.

About Putin: in spite of my ethnic background, I've been rooting for Putin for years and years now. Why? You're probably going to laugh, but I never got rid of a geeky sci-fi-type interest in The Future of Humanity. And if you're rooting for that, you might as well root for civilization, since that's our only distinctive trait as a species. Of course, rooting for civilization in no small part means rooting specifically for Western Civ. I think in the last 5 to 10 years one had to be blind not to see that Russia, despite its problems, is Western Civ's last big hope for meaningful survival. And right now rooting for Russia pretty much means rooting for Putin, so here I am.

The good news here is that the worldwide economic crisis has made Putin's enemies relatively weaker. Ms. Tymoshenko seems to have fled from them in the same spirit in which rats flee sinking ships. Of course this doesn't necessarily mean that she'll lose the upcoming election, so I could still lose money on my Intrade bet.