Saturday, December 21, 2013

Putin Never Quits

A while ago I read a comment on some blog suggesting the idea of a Puttin' on the Ritz remake about Putin. I immediately started thinking about all the words that rhyme with Ritz and that could be relevant to Vladimir Vladimirovich. I'm no Weird Al, so this is pretty clumsy, but here it goes:

Putin Never Quits

Have you seen this handsome man?
Are you yet another fan?
Then you know his name is Vlad
And that he makes sissies mad.
Hot chicks and judo fighting,
Swift kicks and horseback riding.
He's a former spy
And a really cool guy.
All the shady banksters' flacks
And all the sleazy newsroom hacks
Are having fits.
Putin never quits.
Have you seen how he reacted
When confronted with a bunch
Of Femen tits?
Putin never quits.
Soros talks of him with indignation.
That's 'cause he shows total dedication
To his nation.
From the Arctic to Black Sea
So many people want to see
Him land some hits.
Putin never quits.
His commitment's always total.
He'll fight every foreign foe till
He submits.
Putin never quits.
Here's a picture of him with his mama.
Here he's outmaneuvering Obama.
What a drama!
Every thieving oligarch
And terrorist, your future's dark,
Expect some hits.
Putin never quits
Putin never quits
Putin never quits.

Obviously, some of these lines call for pictures. For example, there IS a famous photograph of young Putin with his mom. And the "what a drama" line should be accompanied by a split screen of Putin, Assad and Obama, overlaid with pictures of beakers and chemical formulas. Ideally, this would be a YouTube video, but first I'd have to record some audio.

I've listened to a few karaoke versions of Puttin' on the Ritz and hated them all. I'm really bad on the piano myself, so learning the score would take some time. Plus I'm lazy. In case I never get to it, at least the lyrics will be online. You can do anything you like with them.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Poem

We could learn to live forever,
Reach the stars, begin afresh.
We could find a way to sever
Our connection to mere flesh.

We could one day figure out
All of Universe's laws
And then briskly set about
Fixing its most glaring flaws.

We could master all the powers
Men have long ascribed to Gods.
We'll become Gods. Fate is ours!
We can start to set the odds.


Man is ruled by thieves and liars.
Parasites control his thought.
Mankind's future has no buyers.
All these dreams will come to nought.

Gullibility will never
Be from altruism detached.
Such rich pickings for the clever!
The divine is overmatched.

If the Earth's civilization
Ends up gnawed to death by pests,
Suffers early cancellation,
Fades away without bequests,

There may never be another.
Not just like it, but at all.
Space would be a barren mother
Stricken dumb by our great fall.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, 2011. Glossy's rating: 5 out of 10.

I read this book with interest even though, like almost everyone else, I already knew a lot about Jobs. There were some interesting new details on the margins, yes, but Jobs's famous personal magnetism must have been the biggest draw. Even a bore like Walter Isaacson couldn't obscure it all that much. Throughout the book I kept wondering how decent, level-headed people could go to work for Jobs, invest money in his enterprises, trust him during negotiations. Everyone always knew he was a sociopath. Well, why did I keep reading this book? If humans could be very excited by honesty and altruism, the world would be a pretty different place.

Where did Jobs's sociopathy come from? He was very smart - his teachers asked him to skip two grades in school - but he didn't have a single bit of nerdiness in him. His interests and mental power were from the beginning mostly turned towards humans. He had an intuitive understanding of people's weaknesses, boundaries and motivations and a superior ability to manipulate them. And unlike a smart woman, he had all that machismo.

Are all non-nerdy smart people sociopaths? If the average guy was suddenly granted these particular talents by a miracle pill, would he instantly become an asshole? Perhaps. I can think of at least one other contributing factor though. Bill Clinton, the other super-famous, brilliant-but-not-nerdy American sociopath of our day, may well have been as much of a bastard as Jobs, since the identity of his bio-father is disputed.

Obviously, Jobs's manipulative alpha nature benefited him enormously. Did it benefit society? Not technologically. File management and a lot of other PC tasks were always easier to do on a command line than in a GUI. There's less latency, you have more choices, and the learning curve isn't as steep as most imagine. Hardware keyboards are easier to use than software alternatives. The relationship between the quality of an artist's output and the complexity of his tools can't be very strong. The technical innovations that Jobs thrust onto the market earlier than they would have gotten there without him tended to be superficial.

I do think that his overall impact on society was positive, but that this was mostly confined to aesthetics. The original iMac, the Power Mac G4, the iPad 4 on which I'm typing this review and many other Apple products were rays of beauty in our increasingly ugly world. As such they've raised millions of people's moods and consciousnesses. 

Of course he didn't bring back any classical forms - he never thought that different. But he did as much within the narrow confines of modernism as anybody I'm aware of. He didn't sketch - that's one of the things I learned from this book. Those who are able to easily push around others rarely enjoy doing anything else. So he just yelled at underlings until they made things that looked good to him. He did unquestionably have a great sense of style though.

When Pixar needed a new headquarters, Jobs became intimately involved in the building's design. He wanted it to have lots of open, public spaces where employees from different departments would be forced to bump into each other. He even pushed for the building to contain only two very large bathrooms for the same reason. 

"Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions." 

Nope. That's schmoozimg. Creativity comes from men concentrating on difficult problems alone for many hours in total silence. 

"You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” 

This is like a clown decreeing that fishing needs more makeup. He wasn't even curious about how his minions worked, how the stuff he sold came into being.

Naturally I was interested in the effects of Jobs's mixed parentage. Some aspects of his personality (verbal bombast, weepy, self-pitying sentimentality, the desire to be worshipped) were 100% Middle Eastern and others (an obsession with quality, an understated, stark, spare visual style) were 100% German. You'd expect people of mixed backgrounds to congregate around the 50/50 line on most traits, but for some reason it rarely works that way. 

Group photos of Apple's management team can look like pictures of Saddam's cabinet meetings once you realize that jeans and mock turtlenecks were playing the role of black moustaches. Everyone present felt the need to copy the leader. Phrases like "insanely great" and "make a dent in the Universe" clearly share a sensibility with "the mother of all wars". Yet in the visual sphere he always went for the unadorned, the elegantly understated.

His thought processes were extremely irrational. One only needs rationality (and humility) when dealing with facts and inanimate objects, and he, after all, dealt with people instead. For example, already during the design of the original Macintosh he became dogmatic about rounded edges. You can make a beautiful object with square edges (just look at old books) or sharp edges as easily as with rounded ones. True aesthetics are always much more complex than a choice between three options anyway. Intuitively he knew what was beautiful and what wasn't, but his consciously verbalized ideas about it were illogical.

Another example of this was his genius/bozo (I'm being PG-13) dichotomy in evaluating employees. In the real world talents are distributed as bell curves. You'd think that an erroneously binary view of people's capabilities would severely hurt a manager's effectiveness. But the human world doesn't work logically, so he was able to have great success in it regardless. 

This irrationality must be related to the shocking amount of hypocrisy in Jobs's work. In the 1984 commercial he presented Apple as a rebel fighting totalitarian control freaks at IBM. Yet it was he who always fought to take choices away from Apple's customers. You couldn't even open the original Macintosh with a screwdriver. The nerds who liked to modify their systems had to buy IBM compatibles instead. My iPad is glued shut and won't accept a USB drive. I lack access to its file system and it only runs apps approved by Apple. Hackers have justly named programs that remove Apple's software controls "jailbreaks".

Jobs's second most famous commercial introduced his "Think Different" slogan. 

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo." 

And on and on in that barf-inducing vein, while Picasso, Ghandi, MLK, Bob Dylan, etc. appear on the screen. Those guys weren't rebels. They always went with the flow. It's impossible to get that famous while doing anything else, certainly not in art or politics. And of course the "counterculture" was the flow of Jobs's youth. Now, if he cited someone like Evelyn Waugh...

Bono opines on the pages of this book:

"The people who invented the twenty-first century were pot-smoking, sandal-wearing hippies from the West Coast like Steve, because they saw differently. The hierarchical systems of the East Coast, England, Germany and Japan do not encourage this different thinking." 

It was deeply satisfying to see someone so full of himself being so hilariously wrong. The PC industry was created by nerds, not hippies. Nerds are the most rules-loving, routines-obsessed, regimented people on Earth. Also some of the most clean-living, if you disregard junk food. Nerds like Woz's father were ultimately gathered in the Bay Area by the Pentagon. Besides nerds, the most rules-loving entities in the known Universe are of course first-world militaries. If the Pentagon decided to invest in Alaska or the East Coast, that's where all those engineers would have settled and that's where the PC industry would have had to be born. And if Jobs grew up in a community obsessed with the aforementioned fishing, his business ventures would have had to revolve around that, since he was born to lead men, not to become an expert in any area of knowledge. Technology can, in principle, exist without hucksterism. But not without technologists. 

And why was Jobs so drawn to Indian and faux-Indian gurus? Because they were controlling lots of impressionable minds. They were successful manipulative alphas. It was natural for a guy like him to want to see the masters at work. Same for his obsession with Dylan.

Isaacson devotes a lot of space to Jobs's weird diets. Jobs sometimes ate nothing but one particlar kind of fruit for weeks on end and was a vegetarian for most of his life. There was also lots of fasting and purging. Before Woz came up with the Apple I, Jobs likely saw himself in the future as a patriarch of a hippie commune in the mold of one of his closest friends at Reed College:

"In order to raise some cash one day, Jobs decided to sell his IBM Selectric typewriter. He walked into the room of the student who had offered to buy it only to discover that he was having sex with his girlfriend. Jobs started to leave, but the student invited him to take a seat and wait while they finished. "I thought, 'This is kind of far out," Jobs later recalled. And thus began his relationship with Robert Friedland, one of the few people in Jobs's life who were able to mesmerize him."

You can't have a religion without fasts and weird diets, so I'm guessing that early on Jobs's dieting served to prepare him for that career path. Friedland's commune included an apple orchard where Jobs sometimes worked pruning trees during the period when Apple was founded. The company's name is not unrelated to this. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Friedland later became a billionaire gold miner. 

One humanizing aspect of Jobs's story was his love for his home town, Silicon Valley. He considered his California childhood to have been idyllic. That's not entirely how it sounded to me though. This book describes Jobs being bullied by "ethnic gangs" in a school situated in a "bad neighborhood". There was a gang rape there around the time he started attending. He gave an ultimatum to his parents to make them move to a better school district, where they had to buy a more expensive home. There were no bad neighborhoods or gangs, ethnic or otherwise, in my Soviet childhood.

Jobs once did a prank with his school buddies where they changed the codes on their classmates' bike locks. Everyone in my neighborhood had a bike when I was a kid, but no one had ever heard of bike locks. And no bikes were ever stolen.

A couple of random things I didn't know before I read this book:

1) Jobs went out with Chris-Ann Brennan in high school, but they later split up. She reconnected with him right when Apple started taking off. This is also when she became pregnant. Isaacson ignores the gold-digging implications of this entirely, but I bet Jobs didn't. Does this justify his subsequent abandonment of his first child? No. But it's a bit of context.

2) Xerox put out a GUI-based computer in 1981, more than a year after they showed the GUI technology to Jobs, 2 years before the Lisa and 3 years before the Macintosh. It was a failure. It cost $16,595 and sold 30,000 copies. The idea that Jobs simply stumbled upon a ready-to-use unexploited goldmine at PARC is not entirely correct. Without his business sense, marketing, without the numerous improvements to the GUI experience for which he pushed at Apple, this technology was not an automatic winner.

I'll end this review with predictions. It will be fun to read this 20 years from now, even if just to wonder how I could have been so wrong about something so obvious.

I'm guessing that without Jobs Apple will steadily decline. iOS will lose most of its market share to Android. At this point, before either Google Glass or the iWatch have gone on sale, the former seems more exciting than the latter. The phenomenon of other companies coming out with technologies that Apple would have pioneered if Jobs lived on will become a trend. The aesthetics of Apple's products will surely deteriorate. Unless Jobs's son Reed ever heads Apple, the company will from now on be run by hired hands, and those usually care far less than owners, founders or their families. Eventually Apple will be bought by a more successful firm, but its logo and brand may well live on for decades afterwards.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review of The Far Side of the World

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian, 1984. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10.

As I began reading this installment, I was afraid that it would cover the same ground as the wonderful Peter Weir movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. To my relief, this was not the case. The film was based on the series as a whole rather than on two of its parts, so it doesn't spoil any of this book's plot twists. I would still recommend watching the movie after you've finished all of the novels though. I would have preferred to have formed my own image of Jack, uninfluenced by Russel Crowe's voice or appearance. He could have just as easily been played by Axl Rose.

It seems ludicrous to compare Jack's supervisory experiences with my own, but my mind constantly wonders in that direction regardless. Over the years I've drawn two general lessons about supervising in the real world: make sure that your staff sees you working harder than they do and keep a healthy emotional distance from them.

Jack doesn't have to work more than his subordinates because he faces greater risks. He's the first to board an enemy ship and the last to leave a sinking one. Snipers aim at HIM, and as a gentleman he can't duck.

In the office environment you do have to work harder though, even if the direct effect of this is a drop in the proverbial bucket. The psychological impact is more important. If your staff sees you relaxing while they're slaving away, they won't want to go an extra nanometer for you when that's needed.

Just as importantly, if work is assigned to them by an extremely formal, official presence, something barely animate, they're less likely to question it than if they see it coming from someone they can relate to. Familiarity is the enemy. Be coldly polite, try not to discuss anything personal, avoid stuff that's liable to humanize you in their eyes. Would you follow the orders of someone exactly like you, of someone who has all the faults and weaknesses that you, your friends and family know you to have? Well, that's the point. Be something else.

So Jack doesn't address his officers by their first names and is in no way a part of their social circle. The loneliness of command is a running theme in these books. Stephen is the only exception, partly because as a doctor he's so unimportant aboard. And as a consequence of his familiarity with Jack he's the only officer who ever argues with him, who openly holds grudges against him and defies his will. A ship full of Stephens wouldn't sail far.

I've written here before that Stephen's liberalism sounds too modern to me. Yet it's by no means identical with today's PC attitudes. For example, we're reminded in this volume that he is vehemently pro-life. His religious belief seems sincere, not just a piece of ethnic identification. In the following statement we see him allude to the very essence of gender relations:

"...even the most virtuous woman despises an impotent man; and surely all self-deprecation runs along the same unhappy road?"

And then there is this, during a discussion of possible ports of call in South America:

"I am far less sanguine about Buenos Aires and the River Plate, however. From the very beginning the region was colonized by the offscourings of the worst parts of Andalusia, slightly relieved by a few shiploads of criminals; and in recent years the mongrel descendants of these half-Moorish ruffians have been under the tyrannical rule of a series of low demagogues, disreputable even by South American standards."

I can never get tired of ethnic stereotypes. Here is Jack talking about a ship he's chasing:

"I believe she is as innocent as a babe unborn: takes us for a Spaniard. We put all that filth up there to encourage her to think so."

I have nothing whatsoever against Spaniards, by the way. But neither can I imagine how anybody could be bored by talk of ethnic peculiarities, their possible sources, their varying perceptions by friend and foe, by the evolution of these perceptions through time. The average Westerner of today believes that a freer discussion of these topics would encourage discord, but in my late-Soviet youth ethnic jokes were commonplace, yet ethnic conflict was much less frequent and less serious than in the modern West.

More anachronisms:

1) At one point Stephen observes a fellow doctor pull a tooth. The guy tugs at the patient's hair, pinches his cheek, shouts at him, has a drummer playing nearby, all to distract from the pain. No one does that anymore. The social standing of doctors is too high now for them to care that much about your feelings.

Yes, we have better anaesthetics, but there's still a lot of pain in medicine. In my experience distraction works at least as well as pain killers, that is to say not very well at all, but better than nothing. If you have a kidney stone on your right side, pinch your left flank. This will divide your attention. Talk to people, especially ones you don't know well. The mental effort will take away from the pain's share of your mind.

2) There is a pretty funny joke early in this novel that depends on the reader knowing the myth of Cadmus.

Starting with the Homeric period a large portion of the cultural references used by educated Europeans remained the same. When Christianity became Rome's state religion in the 4th century, Biblical references were added to the pile. Then in the 20th century 95% of this pile was thrown out. For the first time in more than a hundred generations a majority of Western writers don't know anything about Cadmus, Niobe, Danaë, etc.

The loss of continuity seems tragic to me. No one will want to look up references to the Sopranos or the Daily Show 80 years from now. Once you learn a bit about the Bible and Greek myth, two millenia of Western writing lose a lot of their obscurity. The movie-and-TV age will eventually seem like the Papuan highlands, in fractiousness almost as much as in the coarseness of its culture. Every 20-year section of it will have to be explained by a separate set of forgotten cultural references. Who will bother trying?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review of Treason's Harbour

Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian, 1983. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10

Obscurity battles accessibility in this series. On the one hand the plots are captivating in a fully traditional way, the protagonists are good people you want to root for and the jokes are very, very funny. On the other hand the books are full of obscure references and terminology, some of which cannot be clarified even by the OED. Nine volumes into the series I'm still regularly looking things up. A reference work called A Sea of Words by Dean King has been helpful, but it's nowhere near complete. And yes, a lot of the action and humor will be lost on those who refuse to make an effort.

One of the things you can get in return is an intuitive understanding of how the most successful organization of the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Royal Navy, really worked. Through that, one can glimpse insights into efficiency in general. You also get a feel for the mechanics of sailing and artillery, and for the relative roles of intelligence, fussiness, bravery, drudgery and brute force in military success in those times.

19th century intelligence gathering is also fully on display here. It seems that the spying outfits of the Napoleonic era were as likely as the modern ones to employ double agents. Why maintain a spying agency if it's almost guaranteed to contain enemy spies, if almost all of the information it possesses quickly gets turned over to the enemy? Well, if you don't have a spying agency, you end up having no intelligence on your rivals, but these rivals will still plant spies into your non-intelligence-gathering governmental structures, as actually happens in this book.

Some readers may wonder how a man as nerdy as Stephen Maturin can be any good as a liar and a manipulator, i.e. a spy. The answer is simple: he does it consciously. Women and non-nerdy men lie and manipulate intuitively. If nerds are to do it, we have to consciously think through every step, which is what Stephen is in fact shown doing here. Of course Stephen spies for purely altruistic reasons. If he wasn't highly altruistic, he wouldn't have had anything in common with Jack at all, and their close friendship would have been utterly implausible.

Early in this volume there is an enlightening scene of Jack wooing a lady.

"Since Jack Aubrey had never deliberately and with malice aforethought seduced a woman in his life, his was not a regular siege of her heart, with formal lines of approach, saps and covered ways; his only strategy (if anything so wholly instinctive and unpremeditated deserved such a name) was to smile very much, to be as agreeable as he could, and to move his chair closer and closer."

How can he be popular with women without acting like a jerk? Extreme natural masculinity, plus his high status among men, which was mostly earned by his and his ancestors' honest, but extreme masculinity. In short, he's so macho that he doesn't even have to be bad to them.

But enough on personalities. I should really say something about O'Brian's style and what reading these novels generally feels like.

All the discouraging aspects of life are frequently acknowledged here - pain, waste, dishonesty, stupidity, the inevitability of decline and death, the possible meaninglessness of it all. Yet the tone isn't cranky or misanthropic. You never get the sense that the author felt cheated by life or wanted to get back at fate or humanity for anything. This contributes to the otherworldly feeling that the books are narrated by an entity that exists somewhere above man's passions and limitations.

And yet there is a great deal of humor here. Real life is rarely funny. Most people's attempts at humor end up in cartoonishness, i.e. a radical simplification of typical situations' facts, settings, personalities and motivations. It's notoriously difficult to come up with stories that are both humorous and realistic. O'Brian did something even harder than that - the reality in which all of his jokes work is just as complex as ours, yet completely unlike anything he could have experienced directly. It's an amazing achievement.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Review of Yanomamö

Yanomamö, 6th edition, 2013, by Napoleon Chagnon. Glossy's rating: 7.5 out of 10

This is a book about one of the last tribal groups to come in contact with civilization - the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil. A brave American anthropologist named Napoleon Chagnon lived among them for a total of 60 months over the course of 30 years, starting in 1964. Temperamentally similar to explorers of old, he has infused this volume with an infectious sense of adventure.

By the time Chagnon arrived in their part of the jungle, the Yanomamö had already left the stone age by acquiring a number of steel axes through trade with other Indians. They were also cultivating plantains, which came to the Americas after Columbus. Other than that Chagnon found them in a pretty pristine state:

"I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from from their nostrils - strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose."

He learned their language, became friends with many of them and collected an immense amount of data about their genealogy, history, demographics and nutrition.

They turned out to be one of the best-nourished populations ever described. For example, they were getting more animal protein per capita than their contemporaries in Germany and the UK. And they achieved that while only working (mostly hunting and gardening) 3 hours a day. How were they able to escape the Malthusian trap? Chagnon doesn't talk about that in this book, but I'm guessing that the relatively recent introduction of steel axes helped them do it by allowing them to clear more land for their gardens. Perhaps when Chagnon studied them, their population (about 20,000) hadn't yet caught up with the land's new, higher, axe-assisted carrying capacity.

It's unlikely that endemic warfare played a significant role in safeguarding them from Malthusian forces. The vast majority of the people killed in their wars are men, yet women are the limiting factor in population growth.

According to Chagnon's data, about a quarter of adult Yanomamö men die violently. They raid each other's villages for women and engage in blood feuds.

"A captured woman is raped by all the men in the raiding party and, later, by the men in the village who wish to do so but did not participate in the raid. She is then given to one of the men as a wife."

Marital infidelity also reliably leads to violence. And of course women goad men into fighting, calling them cowards if they don't prosecute their wars actively enough. The raids are ambushes of the unarmed, not battles. However, they do engage in several forms of duels which sometimes turn deadly. In one of those men take turns hitting each other's chests with fists. No defense is allowed. In another they hit each other over the heads with giant poles. Duels, combined with the preference for ambushes over battles, suggest a split verdict on these particular savages' nobility.

Chagnon determined that Yanomamö men who had killed fellow men had 2.6 times more wives and 3.1 times more children than Yanomamö men who had not killed. He got a lot of grief for this and similar findings. An anthropologist named Marvin Harris objected to them because as per Karl Marx, humans only ever fight for economic resources. Fighting for women was felt to be too Darwinian, and as all leftards know, Darwin's theories now only apply to frogs and butterflies, not humans. Harris had a lot of supporters, and collectively they got more space in this volume than malaria, dysentery, man-eating jaguars and every other source of annoyance that Chagnon had to encounter in his professional life.

The Yanomamö are clearly being selected for the quality they call waiteri (fierceness). Yet women of Old World backgrounds do not generally find Amerindian men attractive. Predictably, most of the Amerindian component in New World mestizo populations comes through the female line. This implies that Caucasoids and Negroids have had even more selection for machismo than these guys - a stunning thought to anyone who's read this book.

At least among some Caucasoids this machismo is now held in check by self-control, social trust and a long-term outlook. There's little evidence of any of that among the Yanomamö. They steal, exploit the weak and betray "allies" much more often than people in civilized societies. Every possible social advantage is exploited right now, with little thought given to the possibility of establishing long-term mutually beneficial relationships based on reciprocity.

Their pottery is shoddily made and quickly broken. Their boats are meant to be discarded after several uses. They walk the jungle barefoot and often get thorns in their feet, which in addition to causing pain, can stop an entire hunting or raiding party. Yet in spite of the abundance of natural sources of leather all around them, they never got around to inventing shoes.

Their mathematical vocabulary is limited to "one", "two" and "many". Their standard way of indicating the distance to a location is to point with a finger to the place in the sky where the sun will most likely be when they get there. They eat the ashes of their dead.

All of this makes their commonalities with us especially interesting since they hint at possible human universals. They believe in the afterlife, complete with heaven and hell. Every one of the 200 or so Yanomamö villages has its own patriotism, and they consider non-Yanomamö to be barely human. The idea of eating their pets (dogs, for example) seems deeply immoral to them. Yes, I know that East Asians eat dogs, but they aren't their pets. The favorite food of the Yanomamö is the most sugar-rich substance known to them - honey.

They show signs of sexual modesty. Men tie their stretched foreskins to a string around their waists. If the phallus accidentally becomes untied, they drop everything they were doing (even a duel) to quickly tie it back up. Why? Chagnon doesn't elaborate, but I would guess that the purpose of tying one's penis is to make it conspicuously inoperative, i.e. temporarily closed for business. Conspicuous availability is obscene. When the Yanomamö are given pants by missionaries, they don't tie their penises under them. Similarly women, even though naked except for feathers and the odd string, close their legs while standing up from a sitting position. Again, since the use is obscene, open availability for use is obscene too.

As Chagnon studied them, the Yanomamö became more and more integrated into civilization. Catholic and Protestant missionaries gave them modern tools and established schools for their children. Brazilian gold prospectors brought modern diseases. On the one hand, throughout this process the Yanomamö clearly wanted more, not fewer machetes, axes, guns, outboard motors, matches, aluminum pots, etc. On the other hand Chagnon is right to point out that the civilization that gave them all of those things is in the long run unlikely to afford them the kind of social status that many Yanomamö enjoyed before contact. What can they contribute in return for such status? Even Mexican Indians, who have had millenia of Malthusian agriculture to develop a capacity for hard work, are pretty low in their country's social hierarchy. Muscle work doesn't pay much. 

20th century decolonization produced the opposite dilemma. In the vast majority of cases it reduced the material standard of living of the decolonized peoples, as well as their life expectancy. Yet it gave them something to be proud of, has improved their perceived status, their self-conception. If we only look at it from their perspective, was one thing worth the other? I'm inclined to say yes. 

Since civilization itself doesn't appear to have gained anything from pulling the Yanomamö into its bosom (for example, there are no signs of oil in their jungle), it seems to me that, overall, civilizing them was probably a bad thing to do.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review of Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited, 1945, by Evelyn Waugh. Glossy's rating: 3 out of 10

Years ago I read four of Evelyn Waugh's comic novels: Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and Scoop. I loved them for their stunningly dry humor, utter lack of sentimentality, economical prose, reactionary worldview and other qualities.

This book was a great disappointment. Perhaps Waugh was at some point fooled by the notion that an author can't be serious and entertaining at the same time. Or maybe age drained him of the energy and mental flexibility needed to entertain at his former level. The worst thing of all was seeing him do a 180 on the issue of sentimentality.

"We fell silent; only the birds spoke in a multitude of small, clear voices in the lime trees; only the waters spoke among their carved stones."...

"How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love."

He tried to explain some of this in the preface, saying that he wrote the novel during WWII, a time of shortages, when he was starved for luxury of every sort. Well, maybe he shouldn't have published it then. There's no excuse for inflicting on readers things that one writes while drunk either. Or while drugged out of one's mind by doctors in the course of dying from an especially sad form of cancer - it's simply not the readers' fault.

At least he remained reactionary. In the following passage the protagonist talks about a lunatic asylum:

"We could watch the madmen, on clement days, sauntering and skipping among the trim gravel walks and pleasantly planted lawns; happy collaborationists who had given up the unequal struggle, all doubts resolved, all duty done, the undisputed heirs-at-law of a century of progress, enjoying the heritage at their ease."

While describing the interior of a modern luxury ship he notes that "...wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity." I used to work close to the new Goldman Sachs headquarters and this is absolutely true.

The following reads scarily now:

"The smoke from the cook-houses drifted away in the mist and the camp lay revealed as a planless maze of short-cuts, superimposed on the unfinished housing-scheme, as though disinterred at a much later date by a party of archaeologists. “The Pollock diggings provide a valuable link between the citizen-slave communities of the twentieth century and the tribal anarchy which succeeded them. Here you see a people of advanced culture, capable of an elaborate draining system and the construction of permanent highways, over-run by a race of the lowest type.” Thus, I thought, the pundits of the future might write".

And yet I still hated this book. As if sentimentality wasn't enough, Waugh insisted on presenting his most unlikable characters (Charles and Sebastian) as likable, and vice versa. Sebastian is a gay, alcoholic layabout, who sometimes finds time to look down on normal, purposeful, hardworking people. Charles, the narrator, isn't much better. Why do they both hate Mr. Samgrass, a modest, erudite scholar? Because he isn't cool. Why does Charles sever his ties with the scholarly Collins, why does he look down on the geeky Brideshead? Same reason. Even Rex, a nouveau riche politician, comes off better than the people we're supposed to like here - at least he tries to succeed at things.

Usually a writer is able to make his villains unlikeable. In the worst case scenario one thinks "I'd have rooted for that guy if only the author wasn't so biased against him, if he didn't pile so many negative qualities and bastardly deeds on him out of spite against that general type of person in real life." Not in this book. I was able to root for Mr. Samgrass, Collins and Brideshead even as they were written. And while I don't approve of the typical politician, I still thought Rex's scenes were more fun than most in this novel.

Sebastian is depicted as feeling suffocated by his large, very aristocratic family, especially by his mother. The European aristocracies are unusual in combining Germanic genetics with Middle Eastern notions of family life. In the past families that were unwilling to become extended and controlling must have dropped out of the elite. If a victorious chieftain wasn't ready to force his kids to marry advantageously, to work as a team, his legacy was quickly frittered away. It seems that the willingness to control one's relatives is bred more easily than the willingness to be controlled. East Asians may have the latter, but I don't think that most Middle Easterners and Mediterranean Euros do.

Sebastian chafes at his family's control. Being Jewish, I'm used to seeng these sorts of conflicts expressed through wildly emotional melodrama, energetic appeals to shame, tears, shouting. Being northern European, Sebastian starts to quietly drink himself to death instead.

I was bored and creeped out by Charles's love for Sebastian, saddened by the latter's decline, and then bored even more by Charles's love for Julia, Sebastian's sister. Because you see, when the two of them meet by chance after hardly having known one another before, they understand each other completely without speaking. And then they spend long evenings by a fountain, contemplating love, fate and God.

In the preface Waugh wrote that the novel's theme is the operation of divine grace on its characters. If there really is anything to this, it went over my head completely. Charles, initially an agnostic, seems to convert to Catholicism in the end, but why? Because he was moved so much by the scene of Lord Marchmain dying? Because Brideshead's chapel, and religion in general, seem to him a welcome contrast to the vulgarity of modernity? What sort of reason is that for believing in magic?

I would guess that Waugh himself converted because he was depressed by what he saw as life's absurdity and cruelty, by the hopelessly wrong direction in which he knew the world was heading. He probably couldn't take it anymore without imaginary help. Maybe this isn't the best parallel, but in many modern cultures old women make up the majority of believers. Few of them start out religious. Losing the attention that beauty brings must be very depressing.

Speaking of beauty, Waugh mourned the destruction of some of England's great country houses during the period covered by this book. He calls them here "our chief national artistic achievement". Granted, I only know them from pictures, but I disagree. I'd say England's chief artistic achievement is its literature. And that definitely includes some of Waugh's stuff. Just not this novel.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

What Are Smart People Like?

What qualifies me to write on this topic?

1) I once scored 800 on GRE Math and 730 on GRE Verbal. This was around the year 2000. More recently I got a score of 476 on the MAT. The mean (of MAT takers, presumably) is 400, the standard deviation is 25.
2) Like attracts like.

So what are smart folks like?

1) Extremely conflict-prone. And we can't even use the excuse of being surrounded by idiots - smart people feud with each other like crazy. Of course, we don't do it exactly like morons. Physical aggression is very rare. But angry denunciations, finger-trembling hate, humorless spite, frivolous lawsuits - all of that is typical. It seems that the moderately smart - the 100 IQ to 130 IQ brigade - are less conflict-prone than either idiots or brainiacs.

2) It's typical of very smart people to hold political views that are very far out of the mainstream. Racial supremacism, religious fundamentalism, communism, anarchism, unusual conspiracy theories, extreme liberalism (not the kind of stuff you'd see on MSNBC, much worse), fundamentalist libertarianism, violent environmentalism, other stuff that's so far out that there aren't even any terms in the dictionary to describe it succinctly. The only thing that's rare in these circles is being a moderate Democrat or Republican, or some foreign equivalent.

Unlike the propensity for conflict, this feature of the high IQ world is easy to explain. The range of currently-respectable political positions is determined through violent political struggle. Opposing interests clash, striving to silence and, often, to eliminate each other. Their titanic efforts frequently move the front line of debate. At any particular time the "moderate" position is the one right along this front line. The map can provide an analogy: why does Germany end and France begin at some particular point? Because of how the last war ended. Wait a century (or maybe less) and the line will move. But to a person with limited information and understanding, to a person who has not read much history, the line will seem to have more meaning than that.

The current political front line, the current set of moderate positions, will seem to him not a result of a hastily-hashed-out, self-contradictory, uneasy truce between opposing forces bent on each other's annihilation, but an obvious outcome of the universal principles of common sense and decency. Or, if he is less secular, of divine revelation. Why? Because that's how political actors have to describe their gains to the public (and likely even to themselves) if they don't want to drown in cynicism. The full, sausage-making truth of the thing can be too demoralizing, even to politicians themselves. The motivations behind their activity appear to often be subconscious.

A person with a bit of historical perspective (in other words, a man who reads a fair amount) knows that the "moderate" line has been all over the place many times. All (not even most) of the things that are being used to define morality now were used to define evil not very long ago, and will be used so again. To a curious, informed observer the range of currently acceptable political positions is like the visible light section of the electro-magnetic spectrum - a tiny thing whose only remarkable feature is that it can be noticed with the naked eye.

So why don't most smart people congregate in some different, but similarly small part of the spectrum, one whose features can be shown to conform to the universal principles of common sense?

Well, first, humans are inherently tribal. Even if some political position could be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to make sense for tribe A, it probably wouldn't make sense for tribes B, C and D, for the same reason that no position on interspecies violence could simultaneously make sense for sheep, wolves and ticks.

But that doesn't come close to explaining all of the variance. People from identical backgrounds who have very similar and very high levels of intelligence are still likely to differ wildly on politics. Why? Politics is hard. You can't make controlled experiments in it. An uncountably large number of variables affects it. Ceteris is never paribus. It may well be that a satisfactory proof of what makes the best political sense for a single man, a family, a tribe or the world, is beyond the capacities of even the smartest man who's ever lived.

What about smart mainstream politicians? Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar. Chuck Shumer, the senior senator from my state of NY, scored 1600 on the old SAT. Eliot Spitzer, our former governor, got 1590 in the SAT and a perfect score on the LSAT. There are lots of other certifiably smart people in respectable politics. All of them, by definition, have to hold moderate political positions. Are they all simply lying about that? I doubt it. Their careers depend on them having internalized conventional beliefs. I suspect that conscious Machiavellianism is rare - human beings aren't set up to handle it. Normally we have to deceive ourselves before we can become effective at deceiving others.

But yes, these people's political stances are atypical for high-IQ folks who are not professionally involved with respectable politics. My own views aren't as far out as Ted Kaczynski's or Bobby Fisher's, but neither am I as intelligent as those two. Which brings me to my next point.

3) The IQ spectrum appears to be extremely fine-grained to the naked eye. What do I mean by that? Let's say I'm very sure that person A is smarter than I am. I always feel like a boring, childish mediocrity talking to him or reading what he's written - that's usually a sure sign. Well, in my experience there's almost always a person B who's just as obviously smarter than A. And then there's C who is obviously (not just to me, to everyone who knows them) smarter than B. And on and on. These ladders of ability can be very long. I remember reading about some early 20th century explorer who studied the IQ of a primitive tribe - these may have been Bushmen. The tribesmen told him which members were smarter than others, and then his tests independently confirmed that information. It's amazing when you think about it, but differences between IQ 65 and IQ 70 can be noticed with the naked eye. And so can differences between 150 and 155, between 155 and 160, 160 and 165, etc. Here's something on this topic by Eugene Wigner, a Nobel laureate in physics, as quoted on Steve Hsu's blog:

"I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Planck, von Laue and Heisenberg. Paul Dirac was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me."

4) Women are largely asymptomatic carriers of high IQ. This is because they're congenitally bored by every topic to which high intelligence can be usefully applied. I've known women who performed better on tests than I do, but whose biggest interests were gossip, shopping, celebrity news and touristy travel. There have been one or two (very!) partial exceptions. Sure, a woman can pretend to be interested in topic X if she thinks that's expected of her. But female physics professors typically don't like talking about physics off work - it bores them. Same for female literature professors, female software engineers, etc. Ability minus enthusiasm will rarely equal achievement. It's a bit like macromastia - I'm sure that men are perfectly capable of carrying the genes that lead to buxomness in the next generation. But one can't tell by looking at them which men exactly will do that.

5) The very smart are definitely more honest than idiots (let's define the latter as under-85s), but are we more honest than the 100 IQ - 130 IQ group? I don't think so. Same thing for objectivity. I'm sure there is a large ethno-racial component to both. If we corrected for it, if we made strictly within-ethnicity comparisons of honesty and objectivity, I still doubt that the smart would outscore the average. This has political implications. W.F. Buckley famously said that he'd rather be governed by people randomly selected from a Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. There's wisdom in that. There were political systems, both in ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, in which officials were selected by lots.

6) Addiction seems to be the one moral failing that the smart are less likely to display than people of average or moderately-above-average intelligence. Yes, I've heard about very smart addicts, but it's very rare. And I'm not just talking about drugs. Obesity is rare too. There seems to be a greater amount of self-control.

7) Real idiots are, without exception, ugly, but starting with the 90 IQ - 100 IQ group, attractiveness seems to become uncorrelated with intelligence, at least in within-ethnicity comparisons. I don't have any data on this, by the way. But impressions have value.

8) Not all smart people are nerds. This is actually painful for me to admit. I'm a nerd, so in many situations I've wanted to believe that nerdiness is the price of intelligence, that you can't get that particular piece of frosting without the fiber. But it's not true. Nerds are overrepresented among the smart, yes. Yet a lot of very smart people (a quarter? a third?) are even more outgoing than your average person. Obviously, these sorts of smart people are more likely to go into business or politics than into math, hard science or engineering.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


There are a lot of polyglots posting videos on the Internet. This guy is pretty remarkable, for example. As is this one. Here is a multilingual conversation between two more, Luca Lampariello and Richard Simcott. And here is Mr. Lampariello on his own, talking about grammar. It felt really, really nice to see someone who knows a lot more languages than I do making the same point about grammar that I've made in this blog post 3 years ago. Don't waste any time studying grammar while learning languages! You'll either get it gradually and subconsciously, while trying to make sense of large volumes of spoken and/or written material, or you won't get it at all. From Luca's video:

"I don't think we need to be aware of how it works. We just have to make it work. Once you're able to speak a language, make it flow, and once a language is accurately expressed, you have internalized grammar unconsciously."... "It is not a subject to study, it is an ability to learn."

One of the reasons why the conscious approach to grammar doesn't work is that the grammatical rules one encounters in mass market textbooks are gross simplifications. The system is always many times more complex than they let on. What about specialist linguistic literature then? Some of it may succeed in covering most of the complexity of a natural language, but only by exacerbating a different problem. You don't want to have to think about convoluted sets of rules and long lists of exceptions to them in the middle of conversations. This stuff has to be available to you immediately on the subconscious level, like the fine muscle movements that you'd use to keep your balance on a bike.

Why, then, is grammar taught and written about? Mr. Lampariello mentions one of the reasons in his video: to a scientifically-inclined mind grammar can be an interesting subject. Not because it can help such a mind learn a new language, of course. Complicated systems can be interesting to nerds by themselves, even if there's no hope of doing anything useful with them. And one can actually achieve useful results through the serious study of grammar. For example, it can shed light on the relationships between different languages, and through that, on the history of human migrations.

The second reason why grammar is taught and studied is much more prosaic than the first: there's a sucker born every minute. The most effective way to learn a foreign language is to immerse oneself in it - speak with natives, read with a dictionary, watch a lot of TV. Not much breathing space for teachers or textbook sellers here. But we can't have that. There's always going to be someone offering to teach you language X for a fee. Grammatical rules can help such people claim that they're teaching a proper subject, something akin to chemistry or accounting. They're not.

Spitting Image

The BGI study has been in the news recently.

"These are no ordinary DNA samples. Most come from some of America's brightest people—extreme outliers in the intelligence sweepstakes."

Only about average on the modesty scale, though. One can't have everything. It would be unfair if one could. 

The recipient name and address were whited out in the first picture to preserve privacy.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Review of A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980, by John Kennedy Toole. Glossy's rating: 2 out of 10

This novel's protagonist is a spoiled, arrogant, unbelievably horrible nerd named Ignatius Riley. I happen to be a nerd. Does this have anything to do with me absolutely hating this book? I honestly don't think so.

To me Toole's biggest problem was predictability. You learn early on that in response to any stimulus Ignatius will say something rude, selfish, dishonest, deluded, and touching on one of his several favorite themes. And then you see this repeated about a thousand times. If the reader can quickly guess where conversations and bits of action are heading and then has to sit through his hunches being confirmed at interminable length, then the writer is proven to have been a sad hack.

And yes, it is possible to write inventively about an absurd, limited man who lacks self-awareness - you just need to have P.G. Wodehouse's brains and work ethic to do it.

At first I thought that the repetitiveness of the scenes featuring Ignatius might have gone unnoticed by Toole because he was writing about an exaggerated version of himself, presumably a fascinating topic to him. But the scenes between Gus Levy (Ignatius' one-time employer) and his wife are just as boringly repetitive. We see Mrs. Levy being unpleasant to her husband (and to readers: it's chalk on glass land) again and again, dozens of times in a row. Her topics and tone never change. And the fact that this often happens in real life is not an excuse: Toole was trying to make it as a novelist, not a stenographer.

We're not just told that a character named Ms. Trixie is senile, nor are we just shown a few scenes where she acts that way: we're shown many dozens of them. And there's not enough variety in these scenes to set them apart from each other in a reader's mind, to explain why there needed to be so many of them.

He wrote about everything that way. Other problems:

I wouldn't say that fiction absolutely needs characters you can root for, just that those help. There are no such characters in this book. Even suspense, which is also mostly absent here, isn't always necessary - sometimes style can entertain by itself. But this only reminds me of the fact that, stylistically, the best part of this volume is the foreword written by Walker Percy.

Most of the above was clear to me quite early. Why did I still end up finishing the novel? There's value in the fact that this is a bad book. It's certainly not something I could have learned from the Wikipedia. But how can I share this fact with anyone without having read the whole thing? The mocking ghosts of all the guys with whom I've ever argued over the Internet about Freudianism, libertarianism, Scientology and other idiocies without having read the idiocies' foundational texts first, appeared before me, angrily shaming me into reading A Confederacy of Dunces to its end. I've got to stop listening to ghosts.

The most successful parts of this novel are letters to Ignatius from his "girlfriend" Myrna. She's even more horrible than Riley, but her letters are funny, the only passages here that can be described that way. One of the stories contained in them has acquired new relevance with the passage of time. To spite Ignatius Myrna mentions an apparent hookup with a Kenyan exchange student at NYU:

"Ongah is REAL and vital. He is virile and aggressive. He rips at reality and tears aside concealing veils."

The novel was written in the early 1960s. Myrna is very leftist and very unattractive.

It's clear from this book that homophilia was not yet associated with leftism in 1963. Myrna's worldview was likely built as a catalogue of contemporary liberalism, yet she sees gays as creepy degenerates. And there was a time long before this novel was written when leftists didn't think that blacks were in any way equal to whites. Why wouldn't pedophilia be next?

Other anachronisms: the word mongoloid is used here to mean something like troglodyte. And apparently in early 1960s America one could get arrested for possession of pornography.

The celebrity Ignatius reminded me most of is Newt Gingrich. Newt is more high-functioning of course, but he's also fat, nerdy, socially conservative, very well-read, extremely conflict-prone, a history buff and was spoiled as a child. When he first became speaker I saw an interview with his mother on TV. She gave off the same sort of vibe as Riley's mother, very working class.

Ignatius is shown in a very, very bad light here. Toole depicted him as, among other things, a terrible worker. But of course Ignatius himself thinks that he's just misunderstood by idiots, that his work is actually great. This particular piece of work, this novel, was rejected for publication during its author's lifetime, no doubt at least partly because it is so awful. But tragedy and random chance have since associated the "misunderstood by idiots" excuse with Toole himself. I wouldn't say that this is very funny, but believe me, it's funnier than most of Toole's numerous attempts at humor in this book.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Review of The Ionian Mission

The Ionian Mission, 1981, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.4 out of 10

At the beginning of this installment the reader is again reminded of Jack Aubrey's fecklessness ashore. Like many captains he is much too gullible for civilian life, and the reason is easy to see. In the Navy most of an officer's social circle consisted of other officers. Most men who volunteered for such dangerous and difficult work must have been overflowing with gentlemanliness. The pay wasn't very good, so the main motivating factors would have been martial spirit and the desire to serve one's country. So they must have been a pretty trustworthy, trusting bunch, an easy mark for shore-based crooks.

Nobility is a topic of conversation in this novel:

"...the common people instinctively recognized blood and accepted its superiority – they knew that a man of ancient lineage was as it were of another essence, and they could distinguish him at once, almost as though he wore a halo."

O'Brian put this speech in the mouth of a negative character, a spoiled, incompetent drunk. He wrote long after such sentiments ceased to be tolerated in cultural circles. Yet when it came time to give Jack - a fearless, honorable natural leader and a born fighter - a background, he made him the scion of an ancient landed military family with a Norman surname. Why? Obviously, it aided plausibility.

How plausible are these novels generally? The number of close escapes in them bothers me. It's not excessive in any one book by itself, but taken cumulatively they've made Jack's and Stephen's continued survival ludicrous some time ago. At first O'Brian didn't plan on writing so many installments, but when the series was extended, he obviously chose not to alter the original close escapes per volume rate.

Stephen's liberalism seems too modern to me, though I could be wrong about this.

The closeness of Jack's and Stephen's friendship seems unusual by today's standards. I have a feeling though that it wouldn't have stood out in the 1810s. I've certainly come across male friendships this close in 19th century literature before: Pierre Bezuhov and Prince Andrey immediately come to mind. If such friendships were an exclusively aristocratic phenomenon, then it would make sense for them to have disappeared together with the rest of aristocratic culture, at about the same time as duels. But were they?

I've always been curious about the fine points, the exact boundaries of pre-modern gentlemanly behavior. Here Stephen talks about these as they relate to naval warfare:

"To the nautical mind some false signals are falser than other false signals. At sea there are clearly-understood degrees of iniquity. An otherwise perfectly honourable sea-officer may state by symbol that he is a Frenchman, but he must not state that his ship has struck upon a rock, nor must he lower his colours and then start to fight again, upon pain of universal reprehension. He would have the hiss of the world against him – of the maritime world."

To what extent did that world include the Ottoman Empire? Was it held to and did it abide by the same standards? There are hints of answers to this throughout this novel, which features Turks prominently. At one point professor Graham, an expert on the Middle East, warns Jack "of the slowness of Oriental negotiation, and of the different standards of acceptable duplicity". During talks with a Turkish potentate "one of Jack’s few certainties was that the Bey’s notion of urgency and even of time itself was quite unlike his own." After a heated argument between Jack and Graham Jack admonishes Stephen for not backing him up. Stephen replies:

"You were both calling names, which is the end of all discourse. Earlier, when you were conversing like Christians, rather than roaring like Turks, I did not intervene because I thought there was substance in Graham's contention."

O'Brian had stated novels ago that Stephen's liberalism did not extend to his view of the Turks. This book made me think that this was actually the author's attitude too. The only Turkish ship described here is half-piratical by nature, but its state is still shocking: the surface of the deck cannot be seen under the accumulated dirt and there are piles of human excrement between the guns.

The Royal Navy's almost psychotic concern with cleanliness is a big theme in these books. I first read about the Russian navy's mania for cleaning about a quarter century ago. In The Surgeon's Mate, during his stay at a dirty military prison in France, Stephen muses about the difference between the world's armies and navies:

"...nor, he reflected, would any navy, even the French navy, tolerate the unwashed glass, the fetid smell, the general seediness."

I'm thinking that naval warfare has traditionally required more attention to detail, more fussiness, than either land warfare or most civilian walks of life. An obsession with cleanliness could have just been a side effect of this. However, the extreme nature of this obsession, as described by O'Brian, makes me question this theory without bringing to mind any others.

Continuing with the theme of ethnic generalization, here is Jack musing about how a long hoped-for fleet action against the French might go:

"Yes. The frigates tell us that the enemy is there under our lee"..."preferably straggling over a couple of miles of sea in two or three untidy heaps, as foreigners do"

And here he is commenting on a Lithuanian character loosing his cool:

‘Excitable foreigners,’ said Jack. ‘Jagiello is such a fine fellow that sometimes you almost forget it, but at bottom he is only a foreigner, poor soul.'

Not all of the stereotyping done by the British characters here is self-flattering though. Here is Pullings explaining to Stephen why their ship leaks in bad weather: 

"She is British-built, sir, and most of what we have sailed in, you and I, have been Spanish or French. They may not be very clever at fighting or sailing ’em, but God love us, they do know how to build."

This is a recurring topic in the series. I suspect that one of the chief factors influencing the quality of a nation's craftsmanship and manufacturing is the quality of the bottom end of its population. Everyone who can avoid working with his hands does, so it's usually the bottom that ends up making most things. It's sad of course, and one of the functions of truly good government would be to try to steer quality people towards real work. Both pre-immigration Germany and modern Japan are examples of societies with relatively high bottoms. I would think that Britain's lower classes have always been lower than Germany's and that the Celtic fringe isn't really the same thing as the Western Slavic lands. By this logic the difference in ship quality mentioned above may have meant that Britain's bottom was lower than France's and Spain's, at least during the period described in these books.

The books themselves, of course, are a testament to the extremely high quality of the top of the British ability pyramid, since that is what mostly determines the level of a society's artistic output.