Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fall foliage

As some readers might have deduced from the previous posting and from the long absence, I was in the US for a couple of weeks.

There, standing on the local library's parking lot while my mother was returning some books, I finally realized why tourists come to New England just to see the fall foliage.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I am not exactly Miss Manners, and neither are my parents. Some of my friends are blessed with even less social grace than myself, and some of my relatives are blessed with none at all.

All of these people, however, generally understand human speech. They might lack tact, blurt out whatever is on their minds, fail to understand subtle clues, but if you tell them to shut the fuck up - well, they might start screaming even louder, but at least they acknowledge it.

My aunt, unfortunately, has not reached this stage of development.

Any visit to her place goes the following way:

"Would you like something to eat?"
"No, thanks, I just ate."
"Would you like something to eat?"
"No, thanks."
"No, thanks, I am not hungry."
"Would you like something to eat?"
"I said no three times."
"Chicken or shrimp? I also have some cabbage pie?"
"No, thanks."

Yes, there are cultures where food is supposed to be offered and possibly refused several times, but even in Russian culture after four iterations it is supposed to be entirely clear whether or not the host really wants to offer the food and whether or not the guest really wants to eat. Clear to everyone except my aunt, that is. On numerous occasions she has gone up to 40 iterations, and would have gone to fifty had I not escaped. Worst of all, at her place I am bound by hospitality rules not to order her to shove the chicken up her anus.

The only time I failed to abide by the hospitality rules was once eight years ago when she was at my place with my father and uncle, helping me to assemble six bookcases I'd just bought. I have no idea why they were there, really: I needed no help, my aunt considered it beneath her feminine dignity to actually help with the shelves but came anyway, and both my father and my uncle considered it beneath their masculine dignity to read the instructions. As the result I was sitting on the floor assembling the shelves, the men were arguing about the most optimal way of doing so and occasionally trying to steal my hammer, and the aunt decided to help out by taking a trash bag and putting there all the objects whose purpose she did not know, plus all the clothes she did not like. After confiscating the trash bag and telling her to leave my stuff in peace for the third time I led her to the kitchen, ordered her to make tea, and told her that if she leaves the kitchen without my permission, or throws out as much as a used teabag, she would be immediately disemboweled. This did catch her attention, and she remained in the kitchen for the rest of the day and kept all her bowels.

This time I decided not to visit her place (I did see her, but not one-on-one), and she called me on the phone instead. Big mistake. In addition, this time she suddenly decided to give me some advice on beauty and femininity. The last time she has done so was when I was 15; even then I realized that you probably shouldn't heed any advice on femininity coming from a woman who wears a beard due to the fact that shaving is very unfeminine.

"It's too bad that you did not have time to come to my place," she says. "We could have gone to see my hairdresser."
"She would have advised you on a new hairstyle."
"I am quite pleased with the current one, thanks."
"You don't have to do anything, just discuss it with her, to be ready for when you do want change."
"I am not interested in any change in foreseeable future, but if I ever do, I'll go to my own hairdresser, thanks."
"I would like you to go to my hairdresser."
"Not gonna happen. I am not interested in seeing your hairdresser, now or ever." And neither is anyone else who has ever seen you, I leave unsaid.
"But you need change!" For a second there I wonder whether she has seen to many Obama speeches, then decide that he is not to blame.
"You do realize you are being rude, right? Unsolicited advice on other people's appearance is quite rude in general, and I have told you three times that I am not interested."
"I just want you to be beautiful!"
"Our esthetic tastes are very different, so I don't think I can benefit from this advice, or any other esthetic advice of yours."
"No they are not!"
"I think we should change the topic."
"You have reached the age when women should wear short hair."
"And I am still not interested, and not interested in discussing it with you, either. This topic is now closed."

She iterated about ten times on length, then switching to color and informing me that my dye has peroxide (it doesn't, but she felt the need to argue) and to the conditioner, informing me that I should definitely use the one that comes in green bottles, and completely ignoring my protestations that a) lots of conditioners come in green bottles, b) there might be a different selection of conditioners in Boston and in Helsinki.

As the conversation (most times she is content to preach while I put the receiver on the table and surf the net, but this time she demanded responses) progressed, I found my mind wandering to the scene from Kill Bill 1 where O-Ren is holding a yakuza meeting and making a rather forceful point about what she does and does not wish to be discussed. In the end, after about thirty iterations of her wanting me to cut my hair, to use the conditioner in green bottles whose brand will forever remain a mystery, and telling me how my hair reacts to the dyes that I do not use, the rather limited reserve of my patience ran out, and I told her that she should look in the mirror and realize that she can ill afford to give hairdressing advice.

Of well, at least I haven't used the words "frightful bird nest".

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Our glorious warrior ancestors would have probably rather played EVE

Ran into a discussion on young men playing computer games. No link to protect the guilty, and also because I've run into the same topic elsewhere: how a lot of young men from the country X - the country varies - have forgotten all about their glorious warrior traditions and proud warrior ancestors and spend all their spare time playing computer games and trying to escape from reality.

What strikes me as funny is that people who apparently can talk about "proud warrior ancestors" with a straight face have the nerve to criticize other people's grip on reality.

And while we are on the topic of bodily secretions...

People are advised not to do a number of things: pick their noses, remove wax from their ears, squeeze out acne, puncture blisters, scratch mosquito bites, scratch healing abrasions, pick dried blood off their surfaces, scratch all sorts of things, etc.

Some of these make more sense than others, but I am still wondering: it there some evolutionary purpose in the fact that most people want to do most of the above? For example, why does healing skin itch in the first place?


When I was a little kid, we were told not to pick our noses. And it was made quite clear that this didn't mean "don't pick your nose in public", but "don't pick your nose at all, even in private".

The funny thing was that nobody ever offered any viable alternatives to picking one's nose, or at least not any alternatives that didn't assume that the contents of the nose had to be liquid.

I am curious: did anyone's parents ever really say what to do instead of picking one's nose? Or did the parents in the civilized world just tell their kinds not to do it in public?

Sunday, October 04, 2009


Either I have horrible lesions of a previously unknown but surely fatal skin disease on my knee, or kneeling on a broken video card is really bad for your skin.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Not only do we own Hollywood...

...but it sure looks like we have taken over Iran!

Apparently Mahmoud "Mad Jad" Ahmadinejad comes from a Jewish family.

Note to ourselves: we really should stop marrying our cousins. Once or twice in a long family line is OK, but do that 10 generations in a row and look what you end up with.

"...and then we'll try to get the vote, too..."

When I was a kid in Russia people used to joke about guerrillas who were hiding in the forests since WWII without realizing that the war is over. Part of the reason for the jokes was, of course, that such people were occasionally found.

Some of the participants in the war of sexes remind me of those jokes. Times change, life changes, their arguments stay the same.

A high school teacher of mine used to say, in 1990: "you girls can be anything you want to be, anything your mothers couldn't even dream of: doctors, engineers...". "Damn," I thought, "just how old do you think my mother is?"

My mother is in fact an engineer. So was her mother before her. My other grandmother was a doctor. Her own mother was a dentist, and her aunt a doctor. And I knew that it wasn't just a Russian phenomenon either: there were thousands of female doctors in the US before my great-grandmother was even born.

A few days ago I ran into a conversation about girls and math. (No, no link, the guilty shall remain unnamed, but I have run into that conversation many times before.) It always goes the following way:

Person A: Girls don't want to study math because they don't believe in their mathematical abilities! Schools must do something to encourage them right now!
Person B: Girls don't want to study math because they don't have the ability to do so, and no amount of social engineering from the schools is gonna change it!

Have those people even bothered to look up the statistics lately? Or ever?

The Univeristy of Helsinki has admitted 208 freshmen as math majors last year: 107 men and 101 women. The Statistics Finland's database doesn't have a listing of degrees by major, but in the "sciences" group, which undoubtedly includes math, 5947 degrees were awarded last year: 2891 to men and 3056 to women (that's 51.4% women). In the US last year 6594 out of the 14954 bachelor degrees in math were awarded to women (that's 44.1%).

Yes, the schools can apply heroic efforts to encourage girls to study math, and in a few years we might have an incoming freshman class of 104 men and 104 women. Yes, there is an innate difference in men's and women's math abilities, enough to account for the fact that no woman has ever won a Fields Medal - but almost six thousand people graduate every year with a BA in math in the US and only 2-4 people in the world earn a Fields Medal every 4 years.

And yes, there are fields with much fewer girls than boys. I just don't think that any simple explanation, be it nature, nurture, discrimination or general stereotypes, could easily tell us why, for example, in the Helsinki University of Technology chemical engineering students have a 48-52 sex distribution, and mechanical engineers 10-90.

BTW, one really interesting number is the number of women getting degrees in computer science in the US: it fluctuates wildly up and down. So does men's, but to a much lesser degree.

One thing that came to my mind while looking that the Finnish higher education statistics: women get 64.8% of all university degrees in Finland. The only areas of study where men get more degrees than women are engineering (75.7%) and painting (52.8%). The field with the greatest gender imbalance is veterinary medicine, with 92.5% degrees earned by women. Considering all of the above, if we are talking about encouraging somebody to study, shouldn't we be talking about encouraging boys?

Another thought: the real gender issue nowadays is not whether some particular feature of men or women is caused ny nature or nurture, but rather why are we discussing this in some particular situations, but not when the sexes are reversed?

And another thought: in 1850s there was quite a lot of talk about whether women are fit to be doctors. Today, women get 66.2% of all medical degrees in Finland. How long will it take before somebody with a strong liking for the natural order of things and weak grasp of history claims that men can't be good doctors on account of insufficient nurturing instinct?