Where Go the Scrapboats?

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May 29, 2017 by AK

Early on in Theophilus North, the last novel by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), the narrator sells his old car to a mechanic for $20. (The novel, published in 1973, is set in 1926, when $20 was roughly the average weekly wage of an unskilled worker.) The car has quite a history and a name, Hannah, taken from the 1924 song Hard Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah. Expecting the mechanic to dismantle the jalopy for spare parts, the narrator strokes Hannah’s hood and says goodbye to the car.

Then I whispered into her nearest headlight: “Old age and death come to all. Even the weariest river winds its way to sea. As Goethe said, ‘Balde ruhest du auch.’ “

The aging mechanic is perplexed at the young man’s feelings for the old car, so the protagonist explains himself and translates Goethe’s line, from Wanderers Nachtlied II (“Warte nur, balde // Ruhest du auch.” It’s also well known in Russia thanks to Lermontov’s inspired translation.) He adds apocryphal details… At the end of the novel, it turns out that Hannah was not taken apart but brought back to life:

In addition I had bought from him a jalopy at a price somewhat higher than I had paid for “Hard­-hearted Hannah” – who in the meantime had been restored to further usefulness and was watching this transaction.

The novel is something of an idyllic memoir. The sale happens in Newport, Rhode Island: Theophilus North reached it from Providence, having arrived there on a train from New York City. That is the place where he would rather stay but cannot yet at the moment:

I felt then that New York was the most wonderful city in the world and now, about fifty years later, I am of the same opinion.

Having seen and come to know – I should add, slightly paraphrasing North – Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, Berlin, and Vienna.

Ninety years later, the old cars on this barge on East River were less fortunate than Hannah. The pictures were taken from the East River Promenade. The brick building on the right is the Con Edison power station near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Vinegar Hill. New York City is still the most wonderful city in the world, all things considered – except for…


Bad journalism at its best

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May 27, 2017 by AK

Anne Applebaum wrote in her Washington Post column, right up in its title:

There is no one right way to react to terror. There is a wrong way.

I’m not sure who died and bequeathed the arbiter morum job to Anne Applebaum, but there you are:

Even before the biography of the killer was known or his links to outside groups confirmed, a singer attacked the officials who were supposedly too politically correct to call him an Islamic extremist: “In modern Britain everyone seems petrified to officially say what we all say in private. Politicians tell us they are unafraid, but they are never the victims. How easy to be unafraid when one is protected from the line of fire. The people have no such protections.”

It doesn’t take much to identify the author (whom Applebaum proceeds to call a drama queen) and the source: Morrissey on Facebook. Granted, Morrissey is a drama queen and a singer, but he is rather much more than that. For one, a born-and-bred Mancunian: Applebaum’s non-mention of his name concealed the fact that the quote came from a native son. It also masked the asymmetry in caliber between the parties: I’m still patiently waiting for a media discussion of Anne Applebaum’s nomination for National Treasure, whether in Poland or the United States.

The worst of it all, from the journalistic integrity angle, is Applebaum’s out-of-context quoting. If she wished to argue in good faith with Morrissey’s post, it deserved to be reprinted in its entirety. It begins with this:

Celebrating my birthday in Manchester as news of the Manchester Arena bomb broke. The anger is monumental.

For what reason will this ever stop?

For what reason indeed, as the author goes on to argue that the country’s top politicians are neither threatened by the acts of Islamist terror nor care about the people’s anger?

Theresa May says such attacks “will not break us”, but her own life is lived in a bullet-proof bubble, and she evidently does not need to identify any young people today in Manchester morgues. Also, “will not break us” means that the tragedy will not break her, or her policies on immigration. The young people of Manchester are already broken – thanks all the same, Theresa.

There’s not much to argue with in the passage above. The “us” business is laughable, whether invoked by Putin or May or Merkel or by another politician who has been, for years and decades, part of the select circle living under protection of special services? Even the richest bankers in London occasionally take the Tube or visit restaurants open to commoners. Cabinet members, not so much. It’s also pretty obvious that the politicians in this context are senior members of the executive with a long record of such membership, rather than recently elected backbenchers, so it’s pointless to bring up the murder of Jo Cox as a counterexample.

Sadiq Khan says “London is united with Manchester”, but he does not condemn Islamic State – who have claimed responsibility for the bomb.

Which means that by the time of Morrissey’s writing, there wasn’t much doubt about the attack being the work of Islamists, so Applebaum’s “before the biography of the killer was known or his links to outside groups confirmed” was a case of “this bloody uncertainty, again!” (The joke goes like this: A man suspects his wife of infidelity. Watching her from a house across the street, he sees another man enter the house. The wife and the stranger kiss, drink wine, and disappear into the bedroom. The curtains are drawn and the husband, unable to see anything, exclaims: “Oh, this goddamned uncertainty, again and again!”)

The Queen receives absurd praise for her ‘strong words’ against the attack, yet she does not cancel today’s garden party at Buckingham Palace – for which no criticism is allowed in the Britain of free press.

Not much to comment on here. Next, please:

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says the attack is the work of an “extremist”. An extreme what? An extreme rabbit?

And that’s why these reminders about the IRA narrowly missing Thatcher in 1984 are irrelevant. You might as well invoke Aldo Moro or Olof Palme or JFK. It’s all in the past: the principal terrorists of today are Islamist and, to the best of my knowledge, they have not attacked senior officials of Western states. Besides, the “bullet-proof bubble” protecting the Mays of the 2010s did not exist in the 1970s and the 1980s. The good thing – following Morrissey’s logic – is that Thatcher and her team were forced to actually care about the issue instead of waving it away while the victims were limited to rednecks and Papists. An old friend of Thatcher’s got blown up in 1979 right by Westminster so she had no choice but to take it personally, five years before Brighton actually. I bet not a single acquaintance of May’s has ever died by the hand of an Islamist.

It is only after the paragraph above – after the “extremist rabbit” – that the bit quoted by Applebaum comes in Morrissey’s original Facebook post, which is pretty sensible if read from start to finish. Applebaum’s criticism of it is based on a deliberate misreading via selective quoting: dishonest journalism, simply put.

To add to this, had the PIRA or IRA had its way during the Troubles, it wouldn’t have spelled the end to the West or Europe and even Britain. (The UK might have become the UK of England, Scotland, and Wales.) The six counties would be now part of the Irish Republic rather than the UK – two countries with the same language, similar legal systems and systems of government more generally. One could argue it would have proven that terror works – but terror always works, in some way, unless everybody ignores it completely. The Oklahoma bombing of 1994 led to the passage of AEDPA, which restricted state prisoners’ recourse to federal habeas corpus relief. Nine-eleven produced the much-disliked USA Patriot Act, followed by the NSA’s over-snooping. In comparison to these assaults on civil liberty, the hypothetical reunification of Ireland sounds innocuous. In contrast, if the Islamic bombers had their way, God forbid, the West would simply cease to be.


AI: breaking news

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May 26, 2017 by AK

As Interfax reports from Moscow, the Russian cabinet’s representative in the Duma has asked the chairman of its legislative committee if MPs could be replaced by robots:

“I am very much interested in your view on this. I’ve been to a lecture on artificial intelligence, and apologists for this theory are saying that soon, within five-ten years, it will become reality. My question is: can you teach a robot to write laws?”

I’m not sure why he felt like trolling the deputies in this slightly bizarre manner, but the previous Duma (2011-16) was often compared to a printer gone rabid for the poorly drafted but richly draconian laws it churned out.


The sentence that made my weekend

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May 24, 2017 by AK

Via Crooked Timber, this corpuscle of pure delight at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

This journal doesn’t even hit the top 115 journals in Gender Studies.

Here’s the list of the 115 top Gender Studies journals in the world referred to above. Granted, some of the publications on the list have a different primary focus. Taking them out still leaves a hundred, mostly in English, mostly from the West – the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. And, if these are the best, there must be others out there, right?


Outlaw anonymous messaging!

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May 24, 2017 by AK

The Moscow Times reports:

A new bill banning anonymous users from using online messenger apps has been submitted to the Russian parliament.

The plans would require users of apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram to identify themselves with their cell phone number.

Russian-language media are confirming this. It would be a waste of time to comment on the evils of the latest bill designed to make life harder for decent people, since the Russian parliament’s raison d’être seems to be precisely that – making decent folk miserable. However, technological innovation springs eternal, and the immortals have a weakness for black humor.


Poets as players 2

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May 24, 2017 by AK

More from Khodasevich’s 1924 memoir on Bryusov quoted in the previous post. Card players inadvertently reveal their deeper selves to discerning eyes:

I have played cards a lot in my day; I have seen many players, both occasional and professional. I believe that at the card table, one can learn a great deal about people – at any rate, no less than through handwriting. This is not at all a matter of money. The very manner of playing, even of dealing, of taking cards from the table, the whole style of playing – from this, an experienced observer can discern a great amount about his partner. I should only point out that the notions of the “good partner” and “good person” are not completely one and the same: on the contrary, they contradict each other in some respects, and certain traits of a good person are intolerable at cards. On the hand, watching a most excellent partner, one sometimes thinks that it’s worth keeping away from him in real life.

If one is looking for a reason to be skeptical of these observations, the reference to handwriting as a source of reliable information about the writer’s character should provide one. One can probably tell whether the person is left-handed, or is missing a finger, or has studied calligraphy – but it takes a charlatan to pass judgement on the author’s emotional instability or capacity for a crime of passion.

Bryusov gets rebuked for not taking enough risk in poem-making, for interpreting the “right words in the right order” maxim too literally:

In poetry, he was fond of the same “permutations and combinations.” With a remarkable perseverance and industry he worked for years on a book that was not – and probably could not be – finished: he wanted to produce a number of literary imitations, stylizations containing samples of “poetry of all times and all peoples”! The book was to supposed to include several thousand poems. Bryusov was willing to suffocate himself on the altar of his beloved Literature – for the sake of “exhausting the possibilities,” out of reference for the permutations and combinations.

Having written – for “All the Songs,” a book based on the same principle – a poem cycle on various means of suicide, he diligently inquired if his acquiantances were aware of methods “neglected” in his catalogue.

Following the same system of “exhausting possibilities,” he wrote a terrible book: “Essays” [or “Experiments”] – a collection of soulless examples of every meter and strophe. Not noticing his rhythmic pauperism, he took pride in an exterior, metric richness.

Formal sophistication is typical of Silver-Age Russian poetry. Bryusov was also an accomplished translator so his interest in “poetry of all times and all people” was understandable. Khodasevich’s attack on Bryusov as a risk-averse versifier is an indirect expression of his own view of chance and luck in poetry.

In Dactyls, an unpublished 1928 poem, Khodasevich – indistinguishable from the narrator – bluntly admits to staking his soul and fate on “a word” and “(a) sound,” “like a player on an unfaithful card.” However, most of his mature poems seem rather well thought out, sometimes even schematic. As the critic Georgy Adamovich remarked – unfairly – Khodasevich is “the favorite poet of those who don’t love poetry.” I think the risk Khodasevich wrote about is the chance that, no matter how well conceived, thought through and executed, a poem could still fail. It could be irreproachable yet dead. Khodasevich must have opposed the notion of risk-free creativity.


Poets as players

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May 21, 2017 by AK

Language Hat has a post on the card game played by Grandma Lausch and her Hungarian friend Mr. Kreindl in The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. It’s called klabyash in the book while clobyosh seems to be the more common spelling, and the present-day Russian names for similar games are deberts, klabor, and belot.

Which brings me to the old Russian, and probably pan-European, distinction between games of pure chance (азартные игры, les jeux de hasard pur) and “commercial” games, in which analysis, calculation and memorization play a role in addition to mere chance (les jeux de hasard raisonné). Dostoevsky despised the latter. In the milieu where I grew up, the former were despised as fools’ pastime, while there was a certain tolerance for games of chance that required a mental effort, as long as they did not involve large sums of money changing hands. However, I’ve heard of college students who developed an addiction to preferans (préférence) that got them expelled for failing grades.

Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) wrote in his memoir of the Russian Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov (1873-1924):

Bryusov played games of chance – how shall I say? – not timidly but dully, scantily – revealing the lack of fantasy, the inability to guess, the insensitivity to that irrational element which players of games of chance should learn to master, in order to command it like a magician commands spirits. Before the spirits of the game, Bryusov yielded. Its mysticism was barred to him, like all other mysticism. There was no inspiration in his playing. He would always lose and get angry – not because of the money lost but precisely because he was walking as if in a wood where other were actually able to see something. He envied the lucky players the way he once envied the worshipers of the Fair Lady:

“They can see Her! They can hear Her!”

And he neither heard nor saw.

I inserted a link above to a 1926 article by the (soon-to-be) prominent Slavicist Clarence Manning. (JStor allows non-paying users to store up to three articles from its database at once.) It was published about two years after Khodasevich wrote the first version of this memoir, prompted by Brusov’s death in 1924.

On the other hand, he was excellent at commercial games – preferans, vint – playing them boldly, inventively, originally. He could be inspired in the element of calculation. The process of computing gave him pleasure. In 1916 he confided in me that sometimes, “for entertainment,” he solved algebraic and trigonometric problems from an old gymnasium textbook. He liked the logarithmic table. He delivered a speech praising the chapter in an algebra textbook dealing with permutations and combinations.

In poetry, he was fond of the same “permutations and combinations.”

Brysov was a grandmaster of Symbolist poetry, the founding father of the movement in Moscow. Khodasevich knew him well and was a friend of Bryusov’s younger brother and brother-in-law. This memoir reads, at times, like a piece of cut-and-dry realism but it’s hardly an impartial account.


Belated realizations

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May 18, 2017 by AK

An interesting discussion at Crooked Timber of the mutual loathing between the self-serving experts and the havoc-wreaking masses. Some quotes from the opening post and the comment thread:

But that unwillingness to believe the experts, even when they’re right, isn’t based on nothing, but rather in the repeated overpromising of those who know best together with the failure of anything like the radiant future to arrive. (Chris Bertram)

The essential problem of post-1960s mass democratic politics: the populists are right, even when they’re obviously, substantively, wrong, because they speak a language that at least gestures as participation, plebiscitarianism, people-power, and all the rest, and that resonates. (Russel Arben Fox)

If the choice is between experts who take science into account but leave things out that everyone can see, and left-behind people full of hate, it’s not clear what we’re going to get. (Bianca Steele)

Responding to Chris Bertram’s words quoted above, with an emphasis on “even when they’re right”:

I think you are identifying one of the most vexing point of the current socio-political system: competent professional élites increasingly form their own coherent political force, which increasingly rules with its own self-interest in mind. For the rest of the population, voting thus becomes an exercise in choosing between competent representatives that will actively worsen their relative situation within society or incompetent ones that promise to break everything and will in all likelihood accomplish precisely that. (“Z”, Olivier Fouquet.)

Some of the commentary might seem like restating the obvious in elegant yet learned cadences. Some, but not all, by far.


The contagion of example

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May 16, 2017 by AK

Denys Krasnikov reports in KyivPost:

Ukraine will block access to the Russian websites VKontakte, Yandex and Odnoklassniki — all hugely popular in the country — under new sanctions measures.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree on May 16 blocking access to the websites…

it’s probably worth noting that VKontakte and Odnoklassniki are social network portals while Yandex is above all a search engine popular with users in the Cyrillic segment of the Net. It also provides other Google-like services, including cloud storage, navigation maps, and an application for tracking public transport.

Yandex, VKontakrte and Odnoklassniki are the leading websites in Ukraine in numbers of daily users. VKontakte is the most popular social network in the country, and the Yandex web-search engine is second only to Google in use. More than 5 million Ukrainians log in to the Odnoklassniki social network every day.

Even Ukrainian President Poroshenko has official accounts on VKontakte and Odnoklassniki publishing his latest news — on VKontakte, he has 463,000 followers.

Five million out of Ukraine’s 45 is 11%.

I’ve written short bits about Russia’s continuing assault on Internet freedoms, which threatens to import the worst from China, Iran, and the Persian Gulf monarchies. Now Ukraine is blocking social networks, mail services, and a search engine. Next?


“Nothing I saw at Magadan… suggested slave labor.”

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May 15, 2017 by AK

Henry Wallace was a man of great talent and achievement. As a politician, however, was susceptible to selective blindness or conscience-soothing self-delusion. In May 1944, he visited the camps of the Kolyma basin – the vast, permafrost-covered northeasternmost island of the Gulag Arkhipelago. The title of Robert Conquest’s 1978 book, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, is not a rhetorical exaggeration. However, Wallace failed to detect anything amiss at the time of his journey.

In 1946, Wallace and Owen Lattimore wrote that the Kolyma camps were “a combination TVA and Hudson’s Bay Company.” The book attested one experienced torturer as “a very fine man, very efficient, gentle, and understanding with people.” Wallace also wrote of the concentration camp commander: “We want for a walk in the taiga… The larch were just putting out their first leaves, and Nikishov gamboled about, enjoying the wonderful air immensely…” And the workers? “The Kolyma gold miners are big, husky young men, who came out to the Far East from European Russia.” Wallace and Lattimore surely met a group of big, husky young men, only they weren’t gold miners, merely playing the part.

Vadim Birstein’s article has many more details of the infamous trip and the characters involved. Wallace, unlike Lattimore, owned up to his error in 1952, when Elinor Lipper, a former Kolyma prisoner, published an account of her 11 years in Soviet prisons and camps. Wallace’s retraction can be found at Brad DeLong’s. Some of the comments are loopy beyond belief and repair.

Going back to 1944, there is are good reasons to question Wallace’s critical thinking capabilities at the time, including the wisdom of his March 1944 article on Fascism. But Wallace was a successful plant breeder and an astute businessman. Did he give a brief thought to the extreme weather conditions in Northeastern Siberia and the possible reasons why no settlements larger than trading posts or small villages had ever existed there, despite the fact that Russian colonization started in the 18th century? Did he really think that Magadan’s climate was about the same as Juneau?


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