Wednesday, August 31, 2016

YouTube Links

I waste a lot of time on YouTube, mostly watching music videos. I often search for covers of songs that I've loved for years - it's fun to hear a fresh take on something familiar and to think about all the ways in which it's better or worse than the original.

I love this cover of It's a Sin by a band called Metric. The piano line is elegantly simple and the vocals are as close to the original's coolness as one could probably get without the upscale British accent. I remember asking friends in the 1980s, back in school, where they really did teach me how to be "so pure in thought and word and deed", what the hell could the phrase "Pet Shop Boys" possibly mean. I assumed it was an idiomatic expression that I didn't know.

Of all the other Metric songs that YouTube suggested to me once it figured out that I liked their Pet Shop Boys cover, this one was the best.

I've loved Frente!'s cover of Bizarre Love Triangle ever since it came out more than 20 years ago. I wouldn't say that I love this Nouvelle Vague version of it, but it was enough to pique my interest in Nouvelle Vague. Here's a song by Mélanie Pain, one of their singers. Except for the cheap particle-board books and CDs case in the corner of the room, everything in that video is perfect: Mélanie's cute turtle-like face, her regal air and pose, the vocals, the piano, the editing. This guitar version, with the same guy, is only slightly worse.

The second singer in Nouvelle Vague's Bizarre Love Triangle video above is a Cuban-American woman named Liset Alea. This and this are pretty good.

Getting back to Frente!, I really enjoyed this song by Angie Hart. She's aged really well and the accent is adorable.

Here's a good cover of one of the coolest Weezer songs ever, The World Has Turned and Left Me Here. And here's the original.

I'm interested in nerdiness as a subject. Not all nerds are. The best lyrical evocation of nerdiness that I know of is contained in this Weezer song: "In the garage I feel safe, no one cares about my ways. In the garage, where I belong, no one hears me sing this song."

My favorite Weezer song is The Good Life though. And my favorite thing of theirs that I first heard on YouTube, as opposed to a cassette or CD that I bought, is this live version of Pork and Beans.

Switching gears completely, I love This I Love by G n' R. This is a weird thing to say, but those vocals made me think of captain Jack Aubrey. It's the combination of earnestness and a vague piratical quality.

Recently I stumbled on this Go-Go's concert video from 1981. Every MTV victim from the 1990s, and I presume the 1980s too, would recognize it as the source of the official We Got the Beat video, but I've never seen the whole show until YouTube.

My favorite part of it is the tiny snippet of a song called Fading Fast which starts a little after the 15:55 mark and then recurs twice after the 16:43 mark. "You can talk about old times (yesterday is gone), they don't mean a thing to me", but it's not the lyrics of course that make that great, but Belinda's and Jane's tones of voice, especially Jane's. It's a magical moment.

This makes me think of great snippets of songs in general. Throughout my adolescence my favorite such thing was the 0:38 to 0:49 part of the Beatles' When I'm Sixty-Four, which recurs from 1:34 to 1:46 with a variation. It's the cozy, sad and sober cuteness of it.

Later, and for many years, my favorite song snippet was the 2:01 to 2:22 portion of the Cranberries' Disappointment, the second half of it more than the first. As with all music, you have to hear it a handful of times to start appreciating it properly.

Moving back to the Go-Go's concert video, a song called Automatic is very good, as is Lust to Love and many others. All the Go-Go's were cute in their own ways, except for Charlotte, who was probably the best musician. Belinda was the most beautiful one though, and a great performer. I love the choruses in this post-Go-Go's song which Charlotte wrote for her.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Growing Up Outdoors

I'm thinking of writing an autobiography. Not because my life has been in any way remarkable, but because it would be fun to write it. Instead of describing events chronologically I want to write separate chapters about various aspects of my life: school, college, computers, languages, books, friends, work, etc. Here's the first one that I've finished:


A couple of years ago I purchased a pair of rollerblades on a whim. Some time later I was sitting in a conference room at work, with my right arm in a cast, when a co-worker asked me what happened. I explained. He looked at me in a surprised way and said "you don't seem like someone who'd ride rollerblades". And he was right: I really don't. Which makes it especially funny that, to a large extent, I grew up on the streets.

Between the ages of roughly 4 and 13 I spent many hours a day away from home, without adult supervision, mostly playing with friends. What did we do?

I remember exploring dark, dank basements of apartment buildings when we were 5 or 6. We all had flashlights for this purpose. There was an abandoned construction site not far from where we lived, which we had thoroughly crawled over. We built fires from garbage that we collected, and melted plastic toys and lead radiator gratings in them.

In winter we built castles out of snow which we then proceeded to take and defend in a military fashion, running, pushing and throwing snow balls at each other. A direct hit to the head can be surprisingly painful.

There was a bridge nearby whose side was used as a slope. A bunch of kids would pour water on it, which turned to ice. Then everyone brought flattened cardboard boxes and took turns sliding down on them. The speed increased to an impossible, truly frightening level until, without any warning or transition, I would realize that I was lying face down in the snow. Up and back to the top of the bridge.

There was skiing and hockey, and everyone had aluminum sleighs. The only stereotypical winter activity which we never partook in was making snow men. I only know those from pics and cartoons.

The coldest it ever got in Moscow during my childhood was -40 C in 1979, which neatly corresponds to -40 F. Every year there were a few days when the temps reached below -30 C (-22 F). Over time such cold could induce anesthesia in exposed body parts, usually the nose and the cheeks. You had to rub them vigorously for any feeling to return. My father's ears were permanently redder than his face, and when questioned about it he always said that he "froze them off in childhood".

School was out on, if I remember correctly, below-30 days, but we went there anyway to run around the corridors and play our usual games.

When the snow melted we built dams in our neighborhood in order to break them, creating dramatic floods. This required long hours knee-deep, and sometimes waist-deep, in cold water.

In the summers we made bows from willow branches in order to shoot makeshift wooden arrows at each other. Once, at a construction site across the street, someone found a cache of welding rods. We sharpened them by rubbing their ends on asphalt and used them as arrows with our bows. As my father was coming home from work one evening he saw me running around with a bloodied face from a glancing shot. He took me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me home.

The branches for the bows had to be cut with knives, which we all had. I remember begging my mom, on our way to the hardware store, to buy me a fold-out knife. For some reason she did. I was probably 8 years old. A tiny sharpening stone soon became one of my most beloved possessions.

The main game we played with knives started with cutting a circle on the ground. Two kids stood within it, taking turns throwing knives so that they'd stick in the earth. The way the knives fell determined how the circle would be sectioned. If your opponent succeeded in making your slice smaller with his throws, standing became more and more difficult, with your last knife throw being performed while balancing precariously on the tip of one foot.

Ironically, one of the least dangerous games we played was called "war". It involved filling used detergent bottles with water, running around and spraying each other from their nozzles. A version played on bicycles simulated mounted warfare.

Our neighborhood formed a rectangle whose perimeter could be easily covered on a bike. There was a slope in the middle. I used to ride up to it as fast as I could, and then keep pedaling all the way down. Very soon after the end of the downward slope, when I was at the maximum speed that my musculature and the bike's design allowed, I had an option of entering a turn. These turns were the craziest, most bone-headed decisions I've ever made in my life. The fact that I survived all of them sometimes seems unfair.

There was a group of ponds about a 15 minute walk from where we lived, which were good for fishing. My love of equipment, gear and paraphernalia associated with various trades and hobbies was already in full bloom then. The bamboo fishing rods, the line, the tiny spherical lead weights which gave way a little when you bit into them, the multi-colored plastic floats, the hooks - so much to choose, cherish and arrange.

Every fishing trip started with digging for worms. At the current stage in my life I would never touch a worm, much less pierce one with a steel hook, but all the other kids did it then, so it seemed natural. When the fish bit, you felt a complex, almost human-like pull on the line. Afterwards we either released them back into the pond or gave them to a kid who had a cat at home.

When we saw playground swings, our first instinct was to see who could jump out of them the farthest. We drew lines on the ground marking where each of us fell after flying off the seat. Some kids could do 360 degree turns around the axis of the swing, both sitting and standing, but this was above my abilities.

I think that the reason that none of us maimed ourselves doing any of this stuff was that humans, well, only the men really, evolved to have precisely those kinds of childhoods. People have had access to flint knives for hundreds of thousands of years and biking is kind of like horse riding. Through most of history parents didn't have time to constantly look over their kids.

But if I could play things back in a way that would have allowed me to have children of my own, would I have let them grow up that way? Absolutely not. I'm naturally neurotic, so the fear and anxiety for them would have simply killed me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review of The Brothers Karamazov

Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880. Read in Russian. Glossy's rating: 4/10.

This book is a soap opera interspersed with earnest discussions about morals and God. The amount of scandal, drama and heartbreak per hour of narrative in it is highly unrealistic. The characters overact wildly, scowling, blushing and crying hysterically at every opportunity. The style is plain and functional, the prose easy to follow but artless.

I didn't see anything in Dostoyevsky's moral and theological speculations that most readers wouldn't have thought of by themselves, but he obviously meant well with it all. I'm sure that lots of people have improved their behavior after reading this book, not because the author gave them any new intellectual reasons to be better men, but simply by following the example of his characters, the same way that kids who listen to gangster rap act like brats to their parents afterwards.

Alyosha, the protagonist, is almost saintly, and nearly everyone in the book, even the villains, treats him with affection. I don't think that's unrealistic. People despise weakness, but revere kindness. These two things are sometimes hard to tell apart even in one's own motivations, but some people really are kind, and even the most rotten souls feel bad about taking advantage of genuine kindness.

Why isn't everyone kind then? Well, obviously, humans have always competed with each other for limited resources. I've known some pretty unselfish people, but none as kind as Alyosha Karamazov.

Father Zosima, Alyosha's spiritual guide, talks at length here about his vision of an ideal society. I was surprised to learn that there were no masters, servants or kulaks in it. The latter were specifically condemned. Dostoyevsky hated socialists, atheists and revolutionaries, but apparently shared their ideal of a classless, non-exploitative society, which almost was achieved for a while in the USSR, after the original revolutionaries were shot and jailed in the late 1930s.

Speaking of social class, the language of the peasants and servants in this book sounds more rural and downscale to a modern Russian speaker's ear than any kind of Russian that exists today. That's to be expected. What's surprising is that even the language of the narrator and of the gentry sounds a bit rustic by modern standards. Not as bad as modern low-end accents, but slightly shifted in their direction from current proper Russian.

At one point Dmitry Karamazov, a retired officer of noble (i.e. landowning) class asks a provincial government official if he had ever stolen anything in his life "from someone else's pocket. I'm not talking about government funds, everyone steals that, and you of course too". Real theft, the kind that's abhorrent to Dmitry, is from real people.

Another observation: it's implied here that Odessa is in southern Russia. It's now one of the Ukraine's largest cities. Yet Siberia wasn't Russia to Dostoyevsky at all. He describes a man returning from there as coming back to Russia.

Through father Zosima Dostoyevsky predicted that the atheist revolutionaries would be defeated, though there's no sign here that he imagined that they would win at first.

At one point Zosima, a monk, says that the most important thing for a man to do is to refuse to lie to himself. It's ironic that this is exactly why I can't believe in God - my ancestors' version, Zosima's version or any other. I know that faith is good for individuals and society, but I can't convince myself that it's not a lie, that it's not a bunch of wishful thinking. The people who wrote the Genesis story about forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil could not have known any atheists, but atheism does act a lot like their fruit. One can't unknow its terrible truth, and one is forever less innocent for knowing it.