Mirror, Mirror


August 23, 2016 by AK

A few quick footnotes to Ed Caesar’s piece on Deutsche Bank’s Russian adventures in The New Yorker. A sensible article, unexpectedly since it deals with finance and modern Russia, both difficult subjects for a literary magazine.

Still it doesn’t mention the question that comes to mind first: “was Deutsche the biggest culprit, or merely the only one that got caught?” I think the answer is obvious; the UK FCA might come up with it one day.

Apart from that, one wonders why the rubles could not be converted into dollars in the forex market. According to the US Department of State:

While the ruble is the only legal tender in Russia, companies and individuals generally face no significant difficulty in obtaining foreign exchange… Russia has no capital controls…

Which is a rare case among emerging markets. On the other hand, there are certain reporting and anti-laundering requirements:

Currency controls exist on all transactions that require customs clearance, which, in Russia, applies to both import and export transactions and certain loans. A business must open a “deal passport” with the authorized Russian bank through which it will receive and service the transaction or loan. A “deal passport” is a set of documents that importers and exporters provide to an authorized bank which enables the bank to monitor payments with respect to the transaction or loan and to report the corporation’s compliance with currency control regulations to the Central Bank.

These currency controls are about transparency, not about getting permission to convert. In other words, if a Russian company or individual wants to buy dollars, it/she can do that but will have to disclose the purpose of the purchase to the regulator. It follows that the reason why Deutsche Bank’s Russian customer(s) chose the expensive (forex brokers don’t charge 0.5%) mirror-trade channel is not because they could not buy dollars otherwise but because they did not want to share this information. Share with whom exactly? Hiding from whom?

The rubber duck scam is nicely explained, although I would replace “tax” with “import duty,” ostensibly introduced to protect Russia’s nascent rubber-duck industry. Alas, hiding the purchase of dollars to pay for the 9,990 ducks from the forex regulator is not enough. The importer has to make the physical entry of the 9,990 items into Russia invisible to the customs. How does the customs’ fee for looking the other way compare with Deutsche’s?

The “Woman Thinker” and the “private habitat”


August 18, 2016 by AK

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Stephanie DeGooyer writes about Ada Ushpiz’s new documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. Before focusing on the 2016 film, the reviewer makes a critical mention of an earlier one, Hannah Arendt (2012) by Margarethe von Trotta:

In presenting Arendt as a philosopher who cannot think without kisses does von Trotta suggest that Hannah Arendt — the theorist and champion of active, public, political life — can only be viewed meaningfully in her private habitat?

The reviewer is suggesting von Trotta’s biopic is only a notch or two above trash, but that does not help answer her central question, how should “the life of a philosopher, particularly a female philosopher… be portrayed?”

DeGooyer may not be aware of a Russian precedent. Released from a Soviet labor camp in 1933, Alexei F. Losev, the prominent Russian philosopher, turned to fiction and wrote The Woman Thinker, a short novel, in 1934. Although I haven’t read it beyond the first two pages, at the very start the narrator tells of something extraordinary: he has discovered a “woman-thinker,” who is a pianist and “belongs among the great as a thinker. As a musician-thinker.” She “does not peer into the depth but pierces it.”

Later on in the text, Losev describe the pianists’s everyday life, including her complicated relationships with men. He could not publish the novel but read it to his friends, who saw it as a roman-à-clef. To the listeners, there was no doubt that the “woman thinker” was based on Maria V. Yudina, the great pianist. Other characters seemed unmistakably recognizable, too, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Yudina’s old friend and philosophic mentor.

Apparently, Yudina never spoke to Losev again. The reasons might have been more complex than just the novel: Losev’s disagreements with Bakhtin could have played a part. Still, The Woman Thinker was written not by a pop fiction author but by a major-league intellectual, and yet it was not quite a success at portraying “the life of a philosopher, particularly a female philosopher.”

The August blip/trough explained


August 18, 2016 by AK

OK, here’s the apparent reason for Russia’s daily oil output inching down by 2%+ this month from the average July rate. Actually, the shortfall has lately narrowed a little to about 30,000 tons per day or 220,000 bpd, less than 2% down from July. Prime, a Russian news agency, quotes Rosneft’s head of E&P saying some of the Sakhalin infrastructure has to be shut down for much of the month, apparently for planned maintenance. (Also see the transcript at Seeking Alpha. Registration required, or try Google cache.) That’s common practice globally, if not so much in Russia. and generally not a cause for concern. Sakhalin-1 produced at 170,000 bpd last year according to ExxonMobil, its operator, so assuming the same rate in 2016 and a 100% shutdown, it would account for most of the shortfall. The rest could be due to Rosneft’s own offshore output from Sakhalin, at about 50,000 bpd in January-June, going offline. No big deal here, no trend-breaker, business as usual.

A dead man’s cakewalk


August 15, 2016 by AK

While we’re at it, the cakewalk – ragtime’s close relative – makes an appearance in a relatively well-known poem by Nikolai Zabolotsky, The Signs of the Zodiac Are Fading, first published in 1929:

Fat-bottomed mermaids
Are flying away straight into the sky,
Arms sturdy like sticks,
Breasts round like the turnip.
A witch, having mounted a triangle,
Is turning into a whiff of smoke.
A dead man with wood goblinesses
Are smoothly dancing the cakewalk.
In their wake, in a pale choir,
Sorcerers are hunting the Fly.
And over the hillside
The moon’s visage is motionless.

Rendered into Russian, the name of the dance grows an extra vowel and sounds like keck-oo-àwk, an ugly, croaking trisyllable to my ear, a welcome diversion at that carnival of the mind’s monsters.

Better noisy records than no records at all


August 13, 2016 by AK

Electrical sound recording, which relies on microphones and amplifiers, became the industry standard around 1925. From Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877 to the mid-1920s, sound was only recorded acoustically, the sonic vibrations transmitting themselves directly from the horn to the diaphragm and the needle, unamplified. The recording process was uncomfortable for the players and the resulting tracks on master disks or cylinders omitted or distorted much of the audio input.

Still that was better than nothing. Speech, unaccompanied singing, and the cello were sometimes recorded quite decently thanks to their modest frequency range when the speaker or performer refrained from drastic volume shifts. Uniformly loud was the best. Even so, there were several attempts to record full-size orchestras and choirs performing large-scale works. Played on the typical affordable gramophone of the 1910s, these records certainly left much to be desired. Sound restoration engineers such as Ward Marston and Mark Obert-Thorn have done great work bringing old tracks back to life, exposing a wealth of sonic data hidden within them.

In other words, there is hope for even the least intelligible ancient recordings, and the question lingers: why did not they record more? It’s great that Mahler left a few Welte-Mignon rolls but a sound recording of his conducting, however flawed, would have added to our knowledge of his musical thinking. There is a miraculously extant recording of Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya and their friends testing a cutting-edge phonograph and enjoying themselves. It was 1890. A great composer, a great pianist (and major composer) and one of the finest mezzos of her time shouting into a big brass horn- and that was it. No attempt to record any music. Tchaikovsky would die in 1893 and Rubinstein in 1894.

(In contrast, Brahms (who died in 1896) played a little for Edison’s agent in 1889. Those cylinders were once thought useless because of the overwhelming noise, but that was a premature opinion.)

Are we making the same mistake, perhaps, as the skeptics of the phonograph era? Are we under-capturing some important phenomenon for posterity on the pretext that the technology for that is still embryonic? It’s probably worth thinking in that direction, just in case.

Scott Joplin’s piano rolls


August 13, 2016 by AK

Scott Joplin left no recordings except several piano rolls. They were incapable of capturing changes in volume, and some appear to have been posthumously edited. One can hear them replayed on YouTube: they sound like bar room music. The Entertainer in particular has been overexploited as a background to saloon fights in comedy films. That’s definitely not what Joplin wanted, according to John McWhorter.

Even in Joplin’s time – his active years were approximately 1895 to 1915 – there existed a more sophisticated mechanical technology, developed by the famous Welte-Mignon company, that produced first-rate results. Gustav Mahler left us a precious twenty-five minues pf Welte-Mignon rolls. Peter Gutmann of Classical Notes wrote:

True, these are piano rolls, a medium with a deservedly bad reputation. The integrity of many rolls was compromised by extensive doctoring, both to correct wrong or mistimed notes and to “enhance” the original with new harmonies, runs and doublings. Even when uncorrupted, standard rolls had no quality, as all notes sounded at the same volume and with the same flat, staccato tone. Fine for a barroom, but hardly genuine art.

Mahler’s rolls, though, were made in the new Welte-Mignon system, perfected in Germany in 1903. How did it work? We really don’t know, since the proprietary process was a closely-guarded secret and the equipment was secured after each session…

Reproduction is achieved not through a player piano, but with a so-called “vorsetzer” unit, which actually plays a concert grand using felt-tipped “fingers” activated by varying degrees of pneumatic pressure triggered by the sets of holes. The result is uncannily realistic and far superior to the limited range of the acoustic disc in conveying the “touch” of an artist…

It must have cost a lot both to record and to reproduce, and Joplin probably had difficulty convincing New Yorkers the value of his work went beyond dance-hall and music-hall entertainment.

No acoustic recordings of Joplin’s piano playing are known – perhaps none was made – but that’s a subject for another post.

One more bill to finish off Net privacy in Russia


August 12, 2016 by AK

The so-called Media and Communications Union, an association of Russia’s mobile and fixed telecom operators, has drafted a bill that would force all providers of “electronic messaging” services to require that users identify themselves and to block messages or posts with “information disseminated in violation” of the Russian law. Specifically, users would have to be “identified” by their existing records with telecoms providers, which means cell and landline phone numbers, all tied to personal IDs.

The cabinet is scheduled to review the draft in September before sending it to the Duma. While its technical details may change, the bill seems like an attempt to force services like Viber and Skype – but possibly Google Mail and Facebook as well – to effectively abandon their users’ privacy protections against government spying in Russia. Those who refuse would be blocked in Russia. As a consequence, only the tech-savviest users would be able to use these services, as is already the case in China and Iran.

One would think that the proposed bill is redundant after the passage of the notorious Yarovaya law, but the more restrictive bills are passed, the harder it is to repeal them all and clean out that legal cobweb.

John McWhorter on Scott Joplin


August 10, 2016 by AK

It all began with ragtime. With Scott Joplin, then. John McWhorter has a long piece on the composer in The American Interest. McWhorter is a generalist so every claim and conclusion in the article needs to be triple-checked. But even if his claims are all dubious, I trust the author to have gotten right his facts about the old master. McWhorter’s focus is on Joplin’s doomed enterprise, transforming ragtime into something not merely bigger but higher:

Certainly, his being black in an America most of whose citizens saw black people as barely human didn’t help. Yet a white Scott Joplin would have had little more success. Almost obsessed with fashioning ragtime as high art, Joplin was bested by two obstacles. First, high art is always a limited taste; second, even at its finest ragtime is an art of limited parameters, the musical equivalent of the miniature and the madeleine, incompatible with larger scale.

Incidentally, Charles Ives was only six years the junior of Scott Joplin.

A quiet August is too much to ask for


August 10, 2016 by AK

After days of confusing media reports from the ground, official statements were made today in Moscow and Kiev:

The FSB agency said one of its officers had been killed during a shootout with a “group of diversionaries” on Saturday night, when they were supposedly discovered just inside Crimea’s border with mainland Ukraine.

Saturday was August 6th. Moscow says more fighting followed on Monday, August 8th:

The FSB said that following the firefight on Saturday night there had been a further incident on Monday involving “massive firing” from the Ukrainian side of the border and attempts to enter the region by force, during which a Russian soldier died.

“On the night of 8 August 2016 special operations forces from the Ukrainian defence ministry carried out two more attempts to make a breakthrough by sabotage-terrorist groups,” it said.

“Ukraine dismissed the story as fake,” The Guardian reports. Whatever really happened, what’s troubling is what might happen now:

  • Nothing, more or less.
  • A “small” war: a rating booster for the September 18 Duma election.
  • A big war, and then, “what election? we’re at war” for months and years.

Needless to say, I would so much prefer nothing, but August has a reputation for inquietude.

Update 1 (August 11). Kommersant suggests a more sensible narrative on behalf of the Russians than yesterday’s confusing statements, but narrative is not a synonym of truth, by any stretch – unless to a journo.

Update 2 (August 11). Luke Harding believes in three scenarios of his own, not that different from mine. His first is the lifting of sanctions, which isn’t going to happen anyway so it nicely corresponds to my “nothing” scenario. His second is a “limited military incursion”; mine’s a “small war.” For the third, Harding says “something bigger,” and I say, a big war.

Which provides some relief. I’m an outsider and a dilettante, and Harding is a Russia pro. If we see things east of Minsk the same way, we’re probably both wrong.

Update 3. Harding writes, “Crimeans, most of whom still support Russia…” I don’t mean to say most of them don’t, but how do you know? How can you be so sure? What independent, reliable poll results are available to support this assessment?

Possibly a blip


August 10, 2016 by AK

According to the preliminary data by the Russian energy statistics agency, in July 2016 Russia produced 45.9 million tons of crude oil and condensate, which translates into 1.48 million tons per day (10.8 mmbpd assuming 7.3 barrels per ton). According to the latest daily data and a chart on the agency’s site (free registration required), daily output has been down this August from the end-July levels. On August 5-9, daily output rates were about 40,000 tons per day (290,000 bpd) below their July average, a decline of 2.7%. It is also a 1.2% decrease on the August 2015 average rate.

I have no idea why this is happening other than well repairs and workovers and possibly infrastructure maintenance. For the sake of comparison, ConocoPhillips’ Alpine field on the Alaska North Slope went into a maintenance shutdown in July and its output dwindled accordingly from more than 50,000 bpd to zero in two days. Last week, it was back in operation, output shooting from zero to 66,000 bpd also in two days. The extent of this swing was less than a quarter of Russia’s August-over-July decline, but the North Slope’s daily oil production is about 1/20th of Russia’s.

Observers with deeper pockets will probably have the answers outright: one can subscribe to an official daily production bulletin with a breakdown by company and subsidiary.


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