»  National Review Online Diary

  November 2011

Midnight in Moscow.     Which, as I write, it very nearly is. We — Mr & Mrs — arrived here the evening of November 29th, so this should really be December Diary stuff. Readers have been emailing in to ask what the heck I'm doing here, though, so I'd better explain myself.

There is a Russian monthly magazine named Vokrug Sveta (Вокруг света, "Around the World"), a fairly precise equivalent of our own National Geographic. (There's a Hippie-pedia page on it here.) The magazine is celebrating its 150th anniversary this month, and they're holding a festival here in Moscow to commemorate the event.

Vokrug Sveta has always been a window on the outside world, though in the worst of Soviet times it was necessarily a narrow one. It has thus been a player, at least in a comprimario role, in the centuries-long tension that has shaped Russia's national life: the tension between, on the one hand, the introverted, autarkic Mother Russia of the birch forests and steppes and full-bearded priests in old wooden churches, and on the other, the desire of many Russians — by no means only educated urban types — to be a normal European country having normal relations with other peoples.

In that spirit, Vokrug Sveta invited some foreign pop-science writers to the anniversary bash. One of my math books has sold quite well here, thanks to a superb translation by Alexei Semikhatov. So here I am, enjoying a week of hospitality from the good people of Moscow, in return for three public lectures and some media interviews.


Nothing but nice.     What hospitality it is, too! Everyone has treated us like royalty: not only the Vokrug Sveta people, but waiters, chauffeurs, lecture-hall technicians, and random people on the Moscow streets when I have stopped them to ask directions in my rudimentary Russian.

If our experience is anything to go by, you can altogether forget the old Soviet stereotype of the surly, suspicious Russian. We have met nothing but courtesy and kindness here. Also a surprising level of English proficiency. Even those random street encounters will manage a few words of English at least one time in three; if you go into a store where there are a dozen customers waiting, you can be sure one of them will speak excellent English.

The downside of Russia was well advertised to us before we left. Over-advertised, perhaps: I have no doubt the Moscow police are to be avoided at all costs, and that con-men, muggers, and pick-pockets (categories that, we were told, intersect considerably with the gendarmerie) do lurk around every corner. We just haven't encountered any of that: whether by sheer luck or otherwise, I can't say.


Past and present.     The very first thing I saw in Moscow was the manufacturer's name on the plane's disembarkation tunnel: Thyssen Krupp.

Bearing in mind the relationship Krupp Industries were having with the people of Russia 70 years ago, it's hard even for a temperamental pessimist not to think the world has improved some.


Trade secrets.     I have now given all three of my lectures, and I'm proud to say they were well received. One of them is broadcast on the Vokrug Sveta website somewhere; the PowerPoint show for another is on the website of the Polytechnic Museum. In neither case is my Russian up to locating the exact link — sorry.

The secret of successful lecturing is rather easy to state, and is probably known to anyone who has done teaching of any kind. Here it is: an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of presentational skill.

I worked up all my lectures on PowerPoint a couple of weeks beforehand, and did dry runs through them to check timing. Then I emailed the PowerPoint files to the people doing simultaneous translation, so they could look up unfamiliar terms and get to know the general flow of the presentations.

Then, when time comes to step up to the lectern, you can pretty much just flip the "Autopilot" switch and enjoy yourself.

I should say that the translators were in all cases exceptionally diligent. One team (Alexandra and Victor, if you need some first-class translating/interpreting done in Moscow) actually printed up a complete Russian translation of my PowerPoint file, including a longish Kipling poem I'd included. Many thanks to all for their hard work.


Worth translating.     I should just add that Vokrug Sveta has published a commemorative book covering their 150 years of publication, full of lovely drawings and photographs from past issues. The text is all in Russian unfortunately, and I can't offer any guidance on the wisdom or otherwise of purchasing from Russian websites using a credit card, but the book is a fine curiosity piece, and beautifully produced.

At a breakfast encounter with Masha Gessen, the next editor of Vokrug Sveta (she starts January 1st), I urged her to try some marketing of the magazine outside Russia, in translation of course. Perhaps a translation of this splendid book would be a good first step?


Lt. Col. December.     Weather-wise, early December in Moscow isn't bad. The temperature hovers around freezing: today just above, tomorrow just below. This means that slush and puddles alternate with frozen slush and frozen puddles; but we've experienced no real difficulty getting around the city on foot.

We all know about General January and General February: December, so far at least, has risen no higher in rank than Lieutenant Colonel.

A pleasant by-product of even this mere run-up to Russian winter is girls in boots. Tights or close-fitting jeans with knee-length boots are pretty standard female wear, with furred jackets on the upper storeys. I have no problem with this — very much the contrary in fact. But this topic needs a section to itself.


Local distractions.     I know, it's a wicked stereotype; and I know, a major metropolis in a poor-ish country skews the relevant proportions; and I know, it's shamefully heteronormative and patriarchal-oppressive of me even to notice; but my goodness! what an amazing number of nontrivially attractive females there are in Moscow.

I seem to be constantly in company with tall, willowy young women with creamy complexions, full lips and soft-chiselled features, blue-eyed and with long flowing natural-blonde hair. Add in that boots-and-jeans/tights fashion — revealing, as it does, the fact that (as I used to hear the older generation of Englishmen say of long-limbed ladies) their legs go all the way up to their bottoms — and it's all very distracting.

There's another side to this, too, though.


How do you want your lard?     It is, I think, a fairly well-known fact that a Russian woman goes to bed on the night of her 32nd birthday looking like a supermodel, and wakes up the next morning a 300-pound babushka with a wart on her nose.

How does this sad transformation happen?

I think I have discovered the answer. Here, transcribed word for word, is item 003 in the "Appetizers" section of the English-language menu at Taras Bulba restaurant on Petrovka Street in central Moscow. (And yes, as Gogol fans will instantly be aware, this restaurant is Ukrainian: but I'm assured that Russians patronize it very enthusiastically.)

Salted lard with pepper, lard with paprika, smoked lard, lard with black pepper, salted lard with mustard on the side.


Putin the joke killer.     I was hoping to pick up some fresh strain of humor from the Russians on this trip. They are masters of dark humor. There were all those acrid Soviet-era jokes. Then in the 1990s there were the oligarch jokes:

"Hey, Sergei, you see this tie I'm wearing? Cost me a thousand rubles!"
"Ivan, Ivan, why didn't you ask me? I could have told you where to get it for two thousand!"

Etc., etc. However, the Putin era seems not to have brought forth its own distinctive style of humor. Perhaps the Russians are too busy … or too depressed.


On failing to be an ideologue.     Hanging around the main lecture hall to figure out technical stuff Wednesday, I caught the last half of a lecture by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Project, talking about data freedom.

Stallman made some good points about internet snooping and data mining, but kept raising my hackles with side remarks about politics. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a raving lefty. The phrase "the empire of the megacorporations" kept coming up; and at one point towards the end he prognosticated casually that "hundreds of millions of people are going to die as a result of climate change." Uh-huh.

He really pushed me into the red zone when, after an hour or so of defending our data liberties, he got on to file sharing. In his mind, that is one of the liberties. Books, music, movies — they should all be shared freely on the internet.

Stallman is smart enough to see that this raises issues of remuneration for us content providers. Why make a movie if people can watch it for free? He offered two solutions: (1) payment of content providers to be taken over by the government, (2) payment all voluntary, via a click-button on the computer screen.

That was it. Seething quietly, I got in line for the after-lecture questions. Did Stallman really imagine, I asked him when I reached the mike, that handing the payment of content providers over to some state Bureau of Culture would lead to an increase in creative freedom?

We got into what diplomats call "a full and frank exchange of views" (i.e. just short of a fist-fight) before the moderator cut us off, leaving me no time to point out the problem with Stallman's second proposal.

Problem: If running a bookstore on the voluntary-payment principle — "How much is this book?"   "Oh, whatever you feel like paying" — if that were a viable business model, how come no-one has ever implemented it successfully?

I left still seething. Liberals talk a nice game about freedom and the, yes, often malign machinations of big corporations; but if you listen carefully, in the background you can always hear the rumbling sound of ever-increasing state power. A liberal is always a totalitarian at heart, though half of them don't know it.

Then, the following day, I was sitting next to Stallman at an informal gathering. We got chatting. I found out that, those lefty hang-ups aside, he is a thoughtful and witty man, a good listener, and by no means a closed-minded ideologue.

This happens to me a lot. I meet someone who, on ideological grounds, I ought to hate, but end up getting the hate all charmed out of me.

As an ideologue, I'm a total failure. I bond too easily with people, even people whose ideas I find obnoxious. Career-wise, this is a weakness, but it's at least one I share with the founder of National Review, whose circle of friends included the likes of Ted Kennedy.

I won't be seeking out any more of Richard Stallman's lectures, and I very much doubt we'll ever see him on a National Review cruise, but it was a pleasure to meet him none the less.


The science of human nature.     Of the other lectures at this anniversary bash, the one I liked best was by Jonah Lehrer, a pop-science writer working the human nature beat.

We really need a word here, one ending in "-ology," for the emerging science of human nature, encompassing all its encroachments on psychology, neurophysiology, anthropology, ethology, sociology, genetics, economics, … As it happens, my reading matter for the plane ride to Moscow was Daniel Kahneman's new book. Kahneman is an academic psychologist who got the Nobel Prize for economics — see what I mean?

Kahneman's a hero of mine. I gave him a passing mention in We Are Doomed, in my chapter on human nature. He's a hero of Jonah Lehrer's too, I learned in the post-lecture question period.

The territory that researchers like Kahneman are opening up, and that writers like Lehrer (and, I like to think, in a much smaller way, me) are reporting on — the territory that needs that name ending in "-ology" — is the most interesting field of scientific enquiry in our time.

As Jonah said in his lecture: The more we can know about how the human mind works, and how human groups work, the better chance we have of making it all work better.


Inflating away pathos.     I am sorry to record that the kopek is close to extinction. The smallest coin I have yet received, after considerable Russian-currency shopping, is worth ten kopeks (around a third of a cent at current rates of exchange).

"Our lives are not worth a kopek," whispered Russians to each other at the time of Stalin's terror (according to Solzhenitsyn). What will they whisper if — heaven forbid! — such dire times return? "Not worth a ruble" just doesn't have the same note of pathos.


An Oldies Identification Gap?     The Moscow traffic is unbelievably awful. You have to wonder why anyone bothers to drive. There is, after all, an extensive (and in a few places, architecturally very striking) subway system.

Vokrug Sveta has laid on cars to drive us to various events. Even to go quite short distances, though, you need to plan for at least half an hour sitting motionless in the traffic jams.

This has at least given us intimate familiarity with the interior of Russian automobiles. One feature that has caught my eye is on the car radio. There's a little screen showing which channel you're tuned to, just as there is on my wife's late-model Camry back home. Our drivers mostly seem to favor oldie stations (which, by the way, have an interesting Soviet-era-residue twist: lots of 1940s/1950s American jazz): and as we are listening to a song, the names of song and performer marquee-scroll across the screen!

Technologically I'm always behind the curve, so possibly this is a thing you can get in the States too; but I have never seen it before.

Or is it perhaps a Russian innovation? When I was a kid, people worried about the Missile Gap. Should we start worrying about an Oldies Identification Gap?


All shall have prizes.     Perhaps in obedience to one of those biases Kahneman discovered, this month's diary has ended up being all about our Russia trip. To redress the balance a little, here's an item from before we left, nothing to do with Russia at all.

My modest middle-middle-class suburb has a high school, and the high school has a student newspaper. The front page headline story in the November issue concerns a new "floor grade policy" the school has just adopted. The story explains:

Starting this year, 50 is the lowest score a teacher can put on a student's report card, even if no homework is completed during the semester and every test result is a zero. Advocates of the more generous policy that makes 50 the minimum failing grade a student can receive say it is intended to give weaker students a better chance of passing.

So a student can now do absolutely no work whatsoever and his report-card grade cannot be lower than 50 percent. (50 percent of … what?)

After researching the education chapter for We Are Doomed, I am familiar with the fact that for sheer gibbering, grass-eating, banana-in-the-ear lunacy, there is no area of public policy better stocked than education; but this "floor grade policy" (I thought) beats all.

Then I met a friend who teaches high school in New York City. Indignantly, I told him about our floor grade policy.

"Oh, sure," he said. "In the city it's 55 percent."

And — bananas in both ears, here, guys, and prepare to do a Viennese waltz slowly along Main Street in your underwear while reciting "The Wreck of the Hesperus" in a Donald Duck voice — my friend was even understating the situation. At The Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences, their student handbook informs us, "The floor grade in Humanities is 70; the floor grade in Math/Science is 75."

Cue Lou Costello to grab the rim of his hat and howl "Eeeeee-aaaaarrrrrgh!"

(In fairness to my fellow-townspeople, I should note that, according to that same article in the high school student newspaper, the students themselves by and large seem to think the "floor grade policy" is nuts.

Quote from a senior:

They're giving out free points for doing nothing, punishing kids who are working hard. It just isn't fair.

A junior:

It's pretty dumb, because you can't have a 50 average if you don't know anything. If you work and miss a month, you don't get 50 percent of your pay.

So the kids, at least, are still sane; it's only the adults who have lost their marbles. What a world!)


Thanatopsis.     Finally, a thought for the day (month, whatever). I've been having some intimations of mortality lately — premature, in all probability, I'm glad to say, but intrusive none the less. I found some comfort from this quote, which is from William Hazlitt's Table Talk.

We do not leave so great a void in society as we are inclined to imagine, partly to magnify our own importance and partly to console ourselves by sympathy. Even in the same family the gap is not so great. The wound closes up sooner than we should expect … People walk along the streets the day after our deaths just as they did before and the crowd is not diminished. While we were living, the world seemed in a manner to exist only for us for our delight and amusement, because it contributed to them. But our hearts cease to beat and it goes on as usual and thinks no more about us than it did in our lifetime. The million are devoid of sentiment and care as little for you or me as if we belonged to the moon.


Math Corner.     I buggered up last month's puzzle, not for the first time. It should have asked you to find a "… fractional part .ABCDEFGH where n.ABCDEFGH degrees = n degrees AB minutes CD.EFGH seconds.

If you did find one, you're smarter than I am.

Having been thus humiliated last month, I'm going to pass on setting a November puzzle, and for math class just urge you to read the aforementioned Masha Gessen's book on the strange and brilliant Grigori Perelman. Do svidaniya!