Великий и могучий

Russian writer I.S. Turgenev wrote the words to one of the greatest Russian romance songs, then wrote novels for a while, and towards the end of his life, started writing prose poems. One of his prose poems was about the Russian language, and contains this statement.

Во дни сомнений, во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины,- ты один мне поддержка и опора, о великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный русский язык!

Which in English would be:

In days of doubt, in days of painful contemplation of the fate of my homeland, you alone are my support, o great, powerful, truthful and free Russian language.

I also feel that the Russian language is Russia’s most redeeming feature. To the extent that I “feel Russian” and to the extent that I have pride in my Russian heritage, it is almost entirely about the Russian language. I certainly have nothing but hatred for the Russian imperial project, whether in Georgia, where Russia is slowly encroaching on more and more territory, in Eastern Ukraine, where prisoners become prisoners of war, or elsewhere.

But Russian humour being what it is, the Turgenev quote is usually invoked ironically to make a joke about Russian swearing and its incredible versatility. And this post is not going to be any different. Take a look at the Vice news story about prisoners in Eastern Ukraine above. It is a translation of the same story in Russian, here, from Mediazona. Mediazona censors swearing (“non-standard lexicon” in Russian euphemism), and the prisoner they interviewed used some. So they replaced the swearwords with synonyms. Here is the list of synonyms used in the Russian story:

все равно
непонятной штуковиной
интенсивно работали
вести обстрел
без разницы
в состоянии шока
черта с два

Or, in English:

don’t care
got fed up with
he hit
weird thingamajig
worked hard
to beat
fire artillery
no difference
in a state of shock
no place

I am no expert in Russian swearing, but as far as I can tell, these synonyms all come from variations on two words, and they are all direct synonyms. Many of them would make sense out of context (e.g. похуй always means “don’t care” and хуярить always means “to beat”). Compare this with the English translation. There are also variations on two swear words, but their expressive ability is nowhere close. Here are my attempts at finding synonyms for all the swear words:

bad situation
at all

And these do not make sense out of context (e.g. “fuck” means “care” only in the phrase “don’t give a fuck”). There you have it, the great and powerful Russian language.

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Iran Deal Post №3: Are Enemies Useful?

“Слава Богу, мой дружище, есть у нас враги…” -Yuri Vizbor

It’s true that one person seems happier here

The debate that is happening around the Iran deal right now is in some ways very stupid. People who are for the deal say: “this deal is better for nuclear nonproliferation than not having a deal and having the sanctions regime crumble” – this is true. Then people who are against the deal say: “this deal is not ideal at stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb” – this is also true. Then the people who are for the deal confidently say: “well, this is the best we were gonna get with Iran, and with having to ensure China and Russia don’t back out of sanctions”. And then the people against the deal confidently say: “No, you could have gotten much better”. The thing is, nobody actually knows whether this is the best possible deal, possibly apart from the negotiators (who face strong incentives to lie). Making this discussion even less grounded in reality is the fact that we (at least I) have very little idea how negotiations work.

So for example, VJ has suggested that threatening war would have been effective to get Iran to further concessions because then “saving face” for Iran would have been avoiding confrontation. Would that have worked? I must admit that I have no idea, and so I don’t know whether the Iran deal is as good as it could be. It’s definitely better than a lack of deal + lack of sanctions, and it’s definitely worse than an ideal deal. After that, I suspect everyone just goes with what politicians and analysts they trust are saying. Most round-ups of arms control experts I have seen are positive, but that probably has to do with my sources of information.

As I said, I have very little idea how negotiations work, but I have a guess as to how they almost certainly do not work: what probably doesn’t happen is that the parties come together and start by discussing who the good guy is between them and who the bad guy, and leave off all other negotiation until they come to an agreement on that topic. “Admitting that you’re the bad guy” is something no party to an actual negotiation, instead of a surrender after defeat in war, would do. So the complaints about the Iran deal that boil down to complaints about Iran still being Iran – e.g. this rather long-winded Leon Wieseltier number – are not reasonable complaints.

But there’s something being hinted at here, and in a lot of anti-Iran deal commentary that I want to make explicit: the idea that maybe there’s an advantage to signalling that Iran’s the bad guy that outweighs the advantage of a deal. That is, in not agreeing to a deal, the US gets to clearly say “Iran is our enemy, and they are the bad guys, and so no deal for them”. This kind of strategy is called “moral clarity” to its supporters. In domestic politics, this is often called “the politics of resentment” – rather than concentrating on what is useful, do what would piss off people you don’t like. I don’t think anyone I respect thinks this is a good idea in domestic policy. But many more people think it’s a good idea in foreign policy, because a lot of foreign policy is about signalling, and what people think of you is potentially very important.

So is it useful to keep enemies just for the purpose of keeping enemies? Just from a pure utility perspective, it’s a really bad idea. Thus, for instance, Noah Millman pretty clearly disagrees with that way of looking at the Iran deal. But it seems to be, for example, what Kissinger and Shultz are saying. (Are you reading Anna? I am linking to your favourite war criminal!). Keeping Iran as an enemy is powerful signalling to our would-be friends and enemies. Whereas a deal with Iran gives “comfort to the enemy”. How true is this? My initial suspicion is to go with Millman and say that keeping enemies just for the sake of it is not good policy. My confidence in this statement is very low. But I do think that since the negatives of keeping enemies just for the sake of keeping enemies are very clear and obvious, the burden of proof should be on the people who claim that it’s a good idea.

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The CCGS Amundsen is sitting idle in Hudson Bay

Earlier this month, with abnormally icy conditions in the Eastern Hudson Bay, the research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen was diverted from its scientific mission to help escort ships providing fuel to remote Inuit communities in Northern Quebec. Highly idiotic reports crowed about how this debunks global warming, apparently unaware of what cherry picking means. (A check of the satellite data showed that the ice cover is over 500,000 sq. km lower than the recent thirty year average, but higher than normal in Eastern Hudson Bay.)


The leading scientists of the expedition wrote an op-ed in the Globe and Mail about the unfortunate impact on science that this event has caused. Scientists were preparing experiments for the trip for months, in some cases years. Experiments that have now been cancelled at great financial cost, among other things. But it’s also clear that we’re not going to abandon a village to survive or perish on its own without fuel. So, the solution seems to be that more ice-breakers are needed. This is the case that Dr. Philippe Tortell, Dr. Roger François and Dr. Jay Cullen make in the op-ed.


I am not well-informed on this subject, like the leaders of the expedition. But I think insufficient icebreakers isn’t the whole story. A highly informative report from David Murphy at Nunatsiaq News makes clear that there are other icebreakers that normally work in the area, but they were called off. For instance, the CCGS Terry Fox:

NEAS’s chief executive officer Suzanne Paquin said she’s pleased the Amundsen is now helping her supply vessels but she’s upset that the CCGS Terry Fox was suddenly yanked out of Hudson Bay.

“Honestly, the Terry Fox was pulled on Sunday night in what I call a very… in a manner in which I feel was unacceptable,” Paquin said.

“[The CCGS Terry Fox is] going on a federal mission to the North Pole. So she had to leave in order to do that mission,” she said.

The Terry Fox is the ship that usually provides sealift in the Eastern Hudson Bay, but it was called off to prepare for a UNCLOS conference, and then to map the seafloor for future oil exploration. The thing is, the information that there is more ice in the Eastern Hudson Bay than normal was clearly available: those satellite pictures I mentioned earlier are available to the Coast Guard to make that decision. Did the Coast Guard just not know that there was more ice in Eastern Hudson Bay than normal? I find that hard to believe. Here is another quote from the Nunatsiaq News article that I think provides a clue:

NSSI general manager Waguih Rayes also questioned the decision to pull the Terry Fox out of commission.

“I understand the priorities were set at the very high level at the federal government,” Rayes said.


I know that blaming everything on the federal government leads to politicization, and politicization is the mind-killer. Or, as I talked about it earlier on the blog, the “culture war-ification of everything”. It would be a shame for scientific research to become a culture war issue filled with kneejerk reactions from the right and left. Governments of all kinds routinely make bad decisions since they can’t be knowledgeable about the intricacies of absolutely everything. Having said that, how can I avoid the conclusion that the federal government either didn’t bother looking at the necessary information before calling off the Terry Fox, or did look at it, decided that the Amundsen’s research program would probably have to be sacrificed – and didn’t bother to tell the scientists about it. For some reason, the justification for the other ice breakers not being there – “they were scheduled, so they went” – applied to the Louis St. Laurent and the Terry Fox, but not to the Amundsen, which also had a scheduled mission.


As I said, I am certainly not an expert on shipping logistics, in fact, I am as far from an expert on shipping logistics as one could possibly be. There could very well be a good reason why the Amundsen is there, rather than the Pierre Radisson or the Terry Fox. And even if you buy my argument, one icebreaker doesn’t prove any larger trend. But for everyone I know who is involved in some work that has to do with science or the expansion of knowledge more broadly, there are stories that mirror this one. My friends who are doing basic research are upset that the government has eliminated some science funding for basic research or redirected to be used exclusively on partnerships with industry. My friends who are librarians are upset that librarians are no longer free to speak in public and must evince loyalty to the government of Canada. I know that people working in atmospheric sciences are upset at cuts to monitoring programs. People working in environmental sciences are upset at the federal government routinely overriding or ignoring environmental review processes. The federal government seems to have an attitude that they already know everything. I think that attitude is very wrong. The best argument for small-c conservatism I can think of is that we don’t know everything, so radical actions will have unintended consequences. So it’s not only wrong, it’s fundamentally un-conservative.


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Twitter is Good

People often ask me, zolltan, what is your favourite social network? Actually they don’t ask me that, and thank G_d, because what kind of terrible bland promote-synergy-enterpreneurial-gobbledygook world would we be living in if this was a topic of frequent discourse. What kind? The kind you’re living in now, because I will tell you what my favourite social network is.

People who aren’t on twitter assume that twitter is all about sharing what you had for breakfast and reducing political debates to hashtags. And it’s reasonable to conclude that since hashtags are awful, so twitter, the fount of hashtags, must be awful. #hashtagsareruiningourdiscourse. To non-users, twitter is about the shallowness of modern life. Whereas to the people on it, it looks a little different. Here are two comments I’ve read about social networks on twitter: “No one is as happy as they appear on Facebook, as depressed as they appear on Twitter, or as employed as they appear on LinkedIn” and “Facebook: be the first of your friends to like this; Twitter: be the first of your friends to hate this.” Twitter is about expressing toxic rage, and a mob mentality on one hand and dead-eyed cynicism on the other.

And that’s true. Twitter is terrible. But it can also be good. For me, twitter is good for two things: jokes, and links to reading material. It’s true that every social network has its niche, and you wouldn’t use one to do what the other one does. One-liner jokes are a twitter niche. But aggregating news is something that facebook and reddit also try to do, for example, and twitter is way better at it from my perspective. I think it’s because twitter allows you to be more elite-centred with your choices, so it’s more likely to be good than “what’s upvoted on reddit” – even among some of the more esoteric subs. On the other hand, “sharing” things on facebook implies a certain commitment – that the article somehow corresponds to your identity. So what people want to share on facebook is very different – and worse – than what people actually want to see. But I don’t know if this explanation is actually reasonable. What I do know is that during the last three days, in addition to Iran deal analysis, op-eds about Canadian icebreaker fleet, etc., here’s what twitter has given me to read/see that I think is worthwhile:

1. A story of murder 
2. A drafting joke
3. An interesting map
4. Nassim Taleb’s rather crotchety-sounding paper about the precautionary principle (about which maybe more soon?)
5. A meditation on Soviet architecture
6. Statistics on the beliefs of tech moguls
7. An article about the ineffectiveness of anti-sweatshop activism and what can be done about it
8. Wells Tower (the non-dead man’s David Foster Wallace)’s essay about an elephant hunt

plus a bunch of funny one-liners.

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Novella Matveyeva

For a while I’ve wanted to write something about Novella Matveeva, but I couldn’t figure out what to say other than that I think she is a fantastic poet and bard who deserves love and acclaim. Well, I still don’t have much more to say, but I did find some people singing a Czech translation of my favourite Matveeva song, and figured that maybe that’s good enough. Incidentally, that’s not even the only translation of that Novella Matveeva song into Czech. Here’s another one. While I can’t speak to the word choices of the two versions, I greatly prefer the version that keeps the original music (Dvořák and Slunéčková’s). Novella Matveeva may play the fifth string on her seven string guitar with her thumb in a way that looks positively painful, but even in terms of writing melodies, she seems underrated.

She has never been at the forefront of the list of bards in Russia. I don’t know if it’s because she has always been aloof, and more specifically avoided the KSP type scene and so the people who are in the Russian singer-songwriter subculture could tell she wasn’t one of “them”. Or maybe it’s because so many of her songs are (seemingly) for children. Especially combined with her childlike voice, there may be a tendency to dismiss her as not on the same level as the more “adult” bards. Or maybe it’s something else.

For me, in her understanding of human nature, the parallel in English songwriting is the Kinks’ Ray Davies. Early Kinks lyrics are a similarly sympathetic but skeptical look at human interaction. Except that rather than being about a variety of minor human foibles, many of Matveeva’s songs are variations on one big theme. Of course, she has wonderful songs on many topics. And many people are first struck by seeing that unlike most russian bards, her songs take place in a exotic or even imaginary locales. They take Matveeva’s theme to be escapism or flights of the imagination. Yet at the centre of her best songs is a very real-world concern: the fight between belonging and independence. A childlike, insouciant independence on one end, a burning desire to be needed yourself on the other – and sometimes both at once. The immense pride we feel as kids when we are first able to do something without mom and dad’s help and the huge fear that nobody really needs us are two of the biggest, most primal feelings of childhood. As a writer of songs that are kind-of for children, and about childhood, it makes sense as a theme for Matveeva. We have the carefree little boat that sailed itself – “сам свой боцман, сам свой лоцман, сам свой капитан”. We have the fireman who is sad because there are no fires, “не то, чтобы ему хотелось бедствия, но он грустил, так, просто, вообще” (“it’s not that he wanted a disaster, it’s just that he was sad, just in general”) and the kid in “Delfinia” who is startled to learn his imaginary country is doing well even though he’s not there “птицы без меня не молкнут, как же это без меня?” “without me, the birds haven’t stopped singing, how could it be, without me?”. We even have the “woman from the inn” who doesn’t particularly need the object of her love at all.  We all love to be loved, want to be wanted, and need to be needed. But that puts us in a very vulnerable place, where people can hurt us simply by doing fine by themselves. And nobody sings about it better than Novella Matveeva.

Posted in music, translation | 2 Comments


The song I’ve listened to most in my life is probably Berimbau. At least, last fm seems to think so. I remember a time in 2006 where I would basically listen to it non-stop. One of the proudest moments in my life was hearing Nikita and Anna sing the song with my onomatopoeia-based English lyrics. Here are those lyrics:

Who in homage to man won’t try
To be kind and to care and then
He is constantly asking why
Without knowing the where and when
He will enter and see no sight
He is blind to the morning gem
All his life is regret and doubt
And the trouble that follows them
Capoeira won’t lose a fight
But some things you cannot defend

Capoeira let me know
And I know I should go
Should go so very far

Berimbau made me go
Why take it any more?
New days will come around

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Iran Nuclear Deal Non-thoughts

As I said earlier, since I wasn’t that afraid of a nuclear Iran, the Iran nuclear deal’s main effect for me seems to be a richer Iran. That has its positives (better for Iranians) and its negatives (better for Assad and Hezbollah). But instead of trying to figure out how I should think about the deal, I have decided to outsource my thinking to others. Here is a discussion between three American Jews about the Iran nuclear deal that I thought was very good. I basically agree with Jeffrey Goldberg’s take.

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