February 27, 2005

Blogging Break

Posted by Ed

As anyone who's been to this blog lately has probably noticed, I haven't posted much of late. There are a number of reasons for this--ranging from a decline of interest, to a lack of internet time, to the growth of other priorities, and to some uncertainty about how and where I'd want to blog if I do keep this up. For now, though, I don't expect to blog much in the foreseeable future. It's possible that I'll feel inspired to post more while I'm in Russia (until October, that is), and it's possible that I'll return to my 2004 level of blogging when I come home this fall. Right now, though, I wouldn't count on it.

Posted by Ed at 04:36 AM | Comments (3)

February 24, 2005

Brief random post

Posted by Matt

To whomever found our site via an MSN search for "positive points about earthquakes": huh?

Posted by Matt at 10:51 PM | Comments (1)


Posted by Matt

We haven't been keeping enough entertaining material up here lately, so go and read Christian's blog. (He of prion song fame, and if you haven't listened to that, do so now!) Recently he sets up dueling musical commentary on social issues (vastly over-rating the Rolling Stones, but hey, who doesn't?), wherein he displays a disturbing familiarity with country lyrics about the Iraq war. More relevant to recent events, of course, is his railing against the overblown commercialism of President's Day. Hickory-Smoked Taft Rinds, indeed!

Last weekend I read Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice, a novel about a scientific project run by the government in response to the discovery of a regularly repeating neutrino signal assumed to be a signal from intelligent life somewhere in the universe. There are other, more recent and probably more well known novels along this line, like Carl Sagan's Contact or Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star. (DeLillo's book might be described as a sort of extended riff on the language of science, without much scientific content itself. It's zany and postmodern, but not as dense or scientifically literate as some seem to think.) Lem's take is very different. There are interesting parallels to the Manhattan Project, and a lot of attention paid to the tenuous relationship between science and the politicians who determine its funding and to some extent its direction. [See some of the real world version of that here.] But there's also a lot of amusing speculation about the scientific process itself, as the book raises the possibility that the "signal" is not a signal at all, and the discoveries made in it just a fluke. (Of course, one man's signal is another man's background, as the old saying goes....) How do we know to what extent we're being the impartial investigators we're supposed to be? Of course we never completely are, but I'd like to think that if a signal like that in the novel were discovered people would be a lot more cautious about leaping to conclusions about it. As an exercise, think about how feasible it is that a neutrino signal repeating on the order of days to a precision of at least microseconds could be (I thought not very, until I discussed it with the friend who recommended I read things by Lem).

Finally, though, one of the more interesting things in the novel was its look at the psychology of scientists who in the course of their investigations begin to fear that their work could have military applications. It wasn't so long ago that a generation of physicists faced such a dilemma, and it must have been terribly difficult to know that pursuing a better understanding of nature was intimately linked with pursuing new destructive capabilities. Luckily that's no longer much of an issue in physics, but the history of that era is very interesting and left a mark on the culture of the field that's mostly faded but still visible at times. (Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb was an interesting read.)

On a totally unrelated note, what's up with The Postal Service's We Will Become Silhouettes EP? It's, um, not so good. I'd even mostly agree with the Pitchfork review that gives it a 4.3 rating, except for the use of the phrase "more rockier," whatever that means. I think I wouldn't really mind if The Postal Service never again produces new material. Give Up is really good, and I prefer not to see it followed up with a bunch of crap.

And while I'm babbling about music, I keep listening to the Beta Band's Three EPs lately. I don't quite know what's going on in the lyrics. Did they just say "the lizard and the text"? Does that have something to do with "spooky little lizard girl where did you run to.... she wrote me a letter on the back of the road"? Is there some sort of continuity going on, do I mis-hear the lyrics, or do they just really like lizards? I don't know. Maybe I'll listen again.

Posted by Matt at 10:24 PM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2005

Books about magic

Posted by Matt

Once again I find our page empty, and so I'll ramble a bit. I know, this is what all my posts end up as, but for some reason the more carefully planned things I start are always abandoned or just don't seem very interesting once I come back to them. Better to get something up here, and then it can start looking uninteresting once it's posted.

I still haven't finished reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though I'm most of the way through it now. Mostly, I haven't finished it because I took a break to read the most recent three Harry Potter books for the first time. (I also read Procopius's Secret History for another fun little diversion, but that's less magical. Unless one takes seriously his claim that Justinian was a demon and that his reign caused earthquakes, or his accusations about Antonina.)

Anyhow, reading Harry Potter and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (I'll shorten it to "Strange" for the remainder of this post) within short succession is interesting, as they take a very different approach toward the subject of magic in England. Both of them construct vivid and believable worlds. I don't think I spoil too many plot details, but I'll put the rest of the post under the link below. (Also, since I still have about a quarter of Strange left to read and I might not get to it until the weekend, please don't disclose the ending to me.)

One thing that interests me about these books is the role of magic in the world. In the Harry Potter books, the world of wizards and witches exists in parallel to the Muggle world. They have minimal interaction, but they're remarkably similar. Wizards and witches have families and jobs and go to school much like the rest of us. What we accomplish through technological means, they accomplish through magic. And of course magic makes their lives different in a variety of other ways, but the parallel world of magic is comfortingly close to what we're used to. The wizards and witches know about the Muggle world, of course; some of them grew up in it. Very few Muggles seem to know about the existence of magic, though, and the Ministry of Magic even goes as far as altering the memories of those who find out. One wonders why this situation persists, and whether it is stable. (Of course, once Voldemort's power grows again, the Ministry will have a tougher time keeping his existence secret, but the Muggle world seems to have no lasting scars from his previous ascendancy.) Ultimately the answer for why Rowling chooses to set up this parallel secret world is simple: she wants us as readers to entertain the fun notion that such a parallel magical world could really exist. But as a story element, it's odd: do the wizards try to keep their existence secret to protect the Muggles, or to protect themselves? If the former, is it really worthwhile? Surely the psychology of us normal folks is not so fragile that knowing of the existence of wizards would be incredibly damaging. (Or would it? Maybe so. See my later thought below.) On the other hand, if it's to protect themselves, it suggests a curious fragility to the world of magic, if Muggles could pose such a terrible threat to it with their clumsy technology. Maybe it's just that the wizards and witches don't want to be bothered.

Not wanting to be bothered, of course, is the reason Mr. Norrell at the beginning of Strange has kept his practice of magic secret. He's a quiet recluse. All that changes early in the book, though, and the practice of magic becomes of enormous popular interest. The ordinary people in Clarke's world are delighted by magic, and the magicians conversely are fairly ordinary people. Of course, Clarke's world is very different from Rowling's: Rowling takes our own world as a backdrop, while Clarke proposes an alternate history in which the existence of magic is well-known, but in which it has faded into the past. For Clarke, magicians are closer to the rest of society than for Rowling, but on the other hand, the magical world is more sinister. We gradually become aware throughout the book that Norrell and Strange are delving into something they barely understand. Only one human ever truly did, John Uskglass, the Raven King, a character who grows in importance throughout the story. The realm of Faerie is fantastic and disturbing, but there are other lands beyond even that; Uskglass was said to lease land on the other side of Hell from Lucifer. Clarke's vision of magic is in many ways less mundane than Rowling's. It is less gimmicky, more mysterious. (Granted, Rowling has let us see magic mostly through Hogwarts, where it is made more safe, and the fight between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the end of Book Five suggests that what we have seen is only a fraction of what is possible.)

I have to admit that I've never been much of a reader of either fantasy or science fiction. Like every other nerdy child I read Tolkien, but only once or twice. I went through a science fiction phase, but not so much of one, and I haven't even read some of the 'canonical' books. I was a devoted fan of Star Wars until around the time the prequels started coming out (coincidence? hmm) and read all the literature of questionable quality that had sprung up by then. The usual notion that "genre fiction" is rarely good literature seems to me to be often true, at least to the extent that great literature is rarely pigeonholable. Rowling is certainly not "great literature" by any stretch, and while Clarke's book is probably more literary, I think it's worth pointing out that literariness is not the sole metric by which a book should be judged. What's interesting about these books is the same sort of thing that used to draw me to Star Wars years ago. It's an art, but a different one from that of good writing. It's the art of sculpting detailed and interesting worlds. That alone is, for my taste at least, insufficient, though. These interesting worlds have to be peopled with good characters. And in both cases this is true. Rowling has constructed very compelling characters, and they mature in interesting ways over the course of the books. Seeing how Harry, Ron, and Hermione progress toward adulthood is one of the more interesting parts of the series, and keeps me reading at least as much as finding out what happens to the magical world in the wake of Voldemort's return. Clarke's characters are also compelling, if rarely likable. Like Rowling, she has some memorable minor characters. Clarke's technique of writing in the style of the period in which she places her book, and also filling it with witty footnotes, add to the depth of the world she imagines.

One can build detailed and interesting worlds in all sorts of completely realistic ways, of course, and so it's not as if many works of literature don't do this or try to. But there's something distinctly interesting about literary worlds with magical elements. Why are books about magic so appealing? I think the notion that in the world around us there are all sorts of fantastic events bubbling beneath the surface reality is a compelling one. [1] But would you really want to live in such a world? In Clarke's book, at times it seems to me that living with the 19th century British social structure would be more difficult than living with the world of Faerie waiting beyond every tolling bell. And in Rowling's books, at times Hogwarts seems like it would be a wonderful place to have gone to school. At the same time, though, I think that to actually live in a world with magic would be quite frightening. There's a vertiginous sense that nothing is certain. All the logical rules about how the world works have been turned upside down. Two ideas come to mind that would be interesting to read. The first would be the story of a person or persons from a world like ours (a "scientific" world, let's call it) who find themselves in a magical world. How do they react? Putting aside the conventions of the genre, in which such things tend to be accepted surprisingly readily: they react with fright, I would think, no matter how amusing and appealing the world they find themselves in might seem, because of this magical vertigo. This isn't necessarily a shock one would get over, either, but more of a lasting malaise, maybe a sense that one can't be real in such a world. [2] The second idea: suppose the world were magical. How could it get to the point of Rowling's or Clarke's stories? Why would people have evolved as we have? I would expect being magical would be highly advantageous in evolution, so why would non-magical creatures still exist? (Yes, I'm caricaturing evolution, I know. Maybe a better formulation is, in a world where the laws of science can be subverted so readily, is it at all reasonable to posit that life is so recognizable?) How do the laws of science operate in a world of magic? (Conservation laws seem to have been thrown out the window, but maybe there's just some sort of horrible nonlocality. "The Physics of Harry Potter." I could do what Lawrence Krauss did with Star Trek and make some money, maybe.) It would be amusing to construct some stories along these lines, but I'm not feeling particularly creative. Maybe I could just write about what such a story would be like. It could be all Borgesian and stuff.

Ah well. Enough rambling for now.

Concluding unrelated postscript: the New Pornographers' song "The Body Says No" is really catchy. And the line "Am I repeating myself to tell you that dreaming is what's left of psychedelia" keeps getting stuck in my head.

Update: I wish I could say that I am surprised to find that a Google search for "physics of Harry Potter" already turns up a number of results.

[1] Of course, there are, and you can ask your favorite physicist or chemist or biologist to point some of them out to you. Arguably some of the things I spend my time studying are less mundane, more fantastic, and less superficially plausible than the worlds Rowling and Clarke have painted. But I digress.

[2] On further reading, I find the publisher Mr. Murray expresses a milder form of this sentiment in Strange: "I have never experienced magic at first hand before. I do not think that I shall be in any great hurry to do so again. It is most eerie and unpleasant. How in the world is a man to know what to do when nothing behaves as it should?"

Posted by Matt at 09:12 PM | Comments (0)

February 06, 2005

Where the Stars Come Out to Purr

Posted by Ed

I have a lot of things I hope to do before I leave Russia in October, most of them related to my dissertation work. As things stand now, for example, I'm planning a six-week trip to Saratov, the traditional home of the Volga Germans, to do research in the province's former party archive. Most of my time in Moscow is spent working in a handful of archives and in the State Historical Library.

I'd be remiss if I spent all my time in Russia working, however, and I have a new mission. Before I leave Russia, I will go to the world's only cat circus. Here's an excerpt from a 1999 Christian Science Monitor article on the circus:

Uncle Yura is famous among Russian children as the man with 120 of the most amazing cats ever. They jump through hoops, walk tightropes, dance to music, balance balls on their noses, and easily find their way through complicated mazes. The world's only cat theater, is located in a small and ordinary-looking building in downtown Moscow. Started 25 years ago by former circus clown Yuri Kuklachev, it has grown into one of the most popular weekend outings for Moscow kids.

At the start of each performance, children gather around the theater entrance while Uncle Yura (Mr. Kuklachev) passes out balloons. Then they head into the 400-seat amphitheater where the "actors" - dozens of cats of all sizes and colors - are already warming up for the show.

"I like cats very much," said five-year-old Nikita, after watching "Cats From Outer Space." It's a play - starring cats, of course - about alien felines who come to Earth to save people from evil. "I liked the white cat best," Nikita said. That would be the show's hero, an alley cat named Manya.

Manya defeats the bad guys - played by people - by beaming rays of goodness at them from a big mirrored ball. The show is nonstop action, with cats jumping, rolling, and cavorting across the stage. The plot may be hard to follow, but the kids in the audience don't seem to mind.

I'll write a report on the circus once I've been there. What I'd really love, however, is to visit the school where Uncle Yura trains his cats. I'm sure that would be a site to see!

Posted by Ed at 05:04 AM | Comments (0)

A Milestone in Linguistic Acculturation

Posted by Ed

This weekend marked an occasion that I've been eagerly awaiting since I first arrived in Russia a month ago.

As a bit of background, whenever I'm in Boston or Chicago, I experience a weird thrill whenever I hear someone speaking Russian: my ears perk up and I often find myself eavesdropping, even before I pick up any actual Russian words. (You can often tell that someone is speaking Russian based on a combination of their intonation and their accent, even when it's hard to make out precisely what they've said.) Part of my reaction, I think, is related to my interest in the Russian language. If I had to put my thoughts in these situations into words, they'd go something like this: "Cool! That person is speaking Russian, and I can understand!" Then there's the more sinister part of me, which delights in thinking something like this: "Ha! That person is speaking Russian, and thinks that no one can understand! Little does he know..." In short, both my naive, childlike enthusiasm for the culture I'm studying and my more unpleasant, busy-bodyish side come into play whenever I overhear someone speaking Russian in America.

My problem is a simple one: I experience the same thing whenever I visit Russia, and it's kind of jarring when you automatically snap to attention every time you overhear someone speaking the local language. Luckily, however, this phenomenon decreases in intensity with time. Every week that I've been in Russia, I've found myself less and less surprised to hear people speaking Russian on the streets of Moscow. And every time I've come to Russia, I've eventually become sufficiently acculturated that I found it oddly thrilling each time I overheard someone speaking English.

Which brings me back to the occasion I'd been eagerly awaiting. On Friday evening, as some fellow grad students and I left a restaurant downtown, I overheard a group of preppy, rich-looking college kids speaking English--and I found it just as jarring as I find the use of Russia in America. I snapped to attention without thinking about it, a sure sign--I think--that my brain no longer thinks that English speech is the expected, completely typical background noise of my life. It's nice that I'm becoming more comfortable in my Russian surroundings, and that I no longer feel any close kinship with the more spoiled members of my country's expat community. With any luck, this linguistic acculturation will help make my Russian communication a little easier in the months ahead!

Posted by Ed at 04:57 AM | Comments (1)

February 05, 2005

History Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

If I have one regret about my sojourn so far in Russia, it's that my legions of adoring fans have had fewer chances to read hastily-thrown-together blog entries full of random links. Actually, I take that back: I also regret that RGASPI, the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, has been temporarily closed since I got here. And, even more, I regret that I've gone from a short-distance relationship to a long distance relationship to a really long distance relationship since last September. But, other than that...

I can't do much, say, about reopening RGASPI. I can, however, give you some new links:

  • The London Review of Books looks at Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, a book I'll have to read sometime.
  • The Weekly Standard hails Benjamin Disraeli as "the inventor of modern conservatism."
  • In The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum (not usually my favorite writer) reminds us of the fascist past of architect Philip Johnson.
  • Scott McLemee reviews Jared Diamond's new book on the decline of civilizations.
  • The Guardian reviews two new books on British colonial repression in Africa.
  • Common-Place looks at the Pacific voyage of George Forster, a radical intellectual who travelled with Captain Cook.
  • The Guardian reports on the opening of Communist-era files on collaboration in Poland.
  • Jack the Ripper wasn't really the painter Walter Sickert, it seems.
  • In The New York Review of Books, Simon Sebag Montefiore discusses the correspondence between Catherine the Great and her lover, Potemkin.

It may be a while until I have another chance to browse the web again, but I'll try to post more often.

Posted by Ed at 05:01 AM | Comments (0)

February 04, 2005

Gypsy Curses and Moscow Crime

Posted by Ed

Living in Russia can be really fascinating, and one of the things that intrigues me most about the country is reading reports on crime. Just yesterday, for instance, I read a fascinating Moscow Times article on a problem that seems bizarre to most Westerners: every year, 300-400 people go to the Moscow police, claiming that gypsies hypnotized them into giving away hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The article fascinated me, since it touches on three things that really intrigue me about Russia: the country's ethnic diversity, its views of superstition, and its amusingly graphic crime stories. (Those stories wouldn't be nearly so amusing if I were involved in them, of course, but they're still fun to read.) I think the article probably says more about Russian views of the mystical than it does about the gypsy community, however. Here's an excerpt:

Across Moscow, a chestnut as old as crystal balls and gypsy curses makes regular appearances on the crime logs hundreds of victims a year who say they were seduced out of their money in seemingly chance encounters with strangers. Many claim they were hypnotized by intense stares, mesmerizing babble and warnings of curses on their loved ones.

To some of Moscow's cynical detectives, their desks heaped with Mafia assassination and billion-dollar business fraud cases, the idea of street hypnosis has the whiff of mumbo jumbo. Not so to many Russians who were reared on folk tales of vampires, witches and, in the modern era, the hidden powers of the mind.

Czarina Alexandra famously fell under the influence of the allegedly hypnotic powers of the "mad monk," Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, in the early 20th century. The late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev had a personal psychic healer. Former President Boris N. Yeltsin's staff included a security consultant hired to protect him from "external psychophysical influence" after a mysterious antenna was found in his private office...

For years, famous Russian chess masters have suggested that their games were impaired by hypnotists planted in the audience. Garry Kasparov has long credited Azerbaijani psychic Tofik Dadashev with helping him win the world chess championship in 1985 against fellow Russian Anatoly Karpov, who had his own psychologist trained in hypnotic techniques on hand.

That excerpt probably overstates the Russian love of the mystical--what would a Soviet newspaper think of Nancy Reagan's consultations with an astrologer, for instance? But it's still a fun read. Besides, if you ever go to a decent-sized Russian bookstore, you'll almost always find a huge selection of occult books--dwarfing the number of such volumes at your average Barnes and Noble.

My interest in Russian street crime extends beyond Gypsy curses, however. Soon after I arrived in Moscow, I received a U.S. embassy report describing a scam, often perpetrated on Westerners, called the "turkey drop." In this scam, one person "accidentally" drops a conspicuous wad of money on the ground and then walks away; the second perpetrator either waits for the unsuspecting Westerner to pick up the money, or he picks it up himself and offers to split it; then the first perpetrator returns and starts a confrontation. The embassy email I got was loaded with amusing details, in which perpetrator #2 looks around conspiratorially, whispers "ssh!" with a finger to his mouth, and starts nodding vigorously and saying "It's okay!" The whole story barely sounded believable to me--would anyone really fall for this?

There's a part of me, I'll admit, that's inclined to write this off as one of the many quirks of living in Russia. Perhaps, if the history thing doesn't work out, I'll write a sociological study of Moscow street scams! But then I remember my Chicago grad student orientation, when Barack Obama's wife, the head of campus security, and a bunch of other university officials briefed us on the many perils of living in Hyde Park. My favorite part was the discussion of the scams people would try to perpetrate on us--it's not uncommon, apparently, for suspicious people to claim to have gotten access to someone's bank account, and to offer to split the money for a fee, while other scams sound a lot like the turkey drop. Maybe Chicago and Moscow are more similar than I'd thought...

Update: The Moscow Times article mentioned above originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It was freely available on the web yesterday, when I started writing this post, but it's now behind registration. The article seems to have disappeared from the Moscow Times site, but it's available here.

Posted by Ed at 02:00 AM | Comments (7)