Archive for May, 2017

THE TWO WORLDS

May 30, 2017

Before I went to jog this morning I wrote down (not to forget) a couple of themes on a shred of paper to blog on somewhat later: the standardized external testing in Ukraine, Morgan Meistling (an American artist), Anna de Moscou (or, Putin the Historian). However, after my fifth lap round the nearby lake there cropped up a new theme which I immediately put on top of the list while the theme was still fresh in my mind.

2017-05-30fm-t-shirt-e1496155015232.jpgFrom what I could judge, they were a father and his daughter (the girl was about 9-10 years old). I was running and they were walking in my direction. The daughter had a T-shirt on with the print “Franklin and Marshall.” The three words spoke volumes for me. Our daughter had earned a BA degree at F&M College before she went to the George Washington University to study economics. For a few years my wife and I were getting the Franklin & Marshall magazine (along with our daughter’s phone bills, which, for some inexplicable reason, the administration decided to send to parents, rather than to students :-)), newsletters from the administration, etc. Shall I say, how thrilled I was when I saw the familiar words on the little girl’s T-shirt? To be candid, at some other time, I would pass those two without any word, but now, after five kilometers of jogging, I might have got more “hormones of joy” in my blood than usual, so I slowed down and, pointing to the girl’s T-shirt, addressed her father: “Franklin and Marshall College… My daughter was a student there…” The least of what I, probably, expected from the man was an understanding smile or a glint in his eye. No such luck! The man looked sullenly at me and paced on without a single word, his daughter following him.

I stood for a moment or two and resumed my jogging. Yes, I felt a little awkward and embarrassed. I tried to comfort myself thinking that I had grown in a less antagonistic society, or that the man had no idea about what F&M was and the T-shirt had been bought elsewhere at a market, or that an upside in this situation was that I might use the case to dwell on it in my blog.

And there was something to dwell on. Just one, seemingly unrelated event: I was buying some fruit in a supermarket. As usual, I filled a plastic bag with apples, tied the bag, put it on a scale, pushed all the required windows on the monitor, took a price tag that moved out of the slot and stuck it on to the bag. When, later, I was paying for the apples 2017-05-30scaleat the checkout I noticed that there was an innovation there: before scanning my bag, the operator weighed it also on HER scale that was just next to her (in the past there was no scale at the checkout). First I thought that the double-weighing was done to make sure that scales in the supermarket hall were right. When I came home with the apples my wife explained to me that some buyers could first weigh a smaller amount of fruit or vegetables, stick a price label corresponding to that amount, and afterwards add some more fruit/vegetables of the same sort into the same bag. To prevent the theft, the purchase was weighed at the checkout too.

It looks like I keep living in a different world. I work in my study-room filled to the very ceiling with good books written by intelligent people. When I read through the books, I cannot but think that the world cannot but become better due to the millennia-long effort of the great minds whose names are imprinted on the book spines. But when I go out into the street I see mostly suspicion and mistrust. What is sad about it is that people in the street have every reason to be suspicious and mistrustful.

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STRONGER THAN IRON BARS

May 14, 2017

2017-05-14-a_village_in_CaucasusIn the Georgian film “Svani” (Soso Dzhachviani, Badri Dzhachviani, 2007), two communities had a dispute over a plot of land in the mountains. As a proof that the plot was theirs, representatives of one of the communities swore on the icon that the plot had been owned by them since the times immemorial. In this regard, I remembered a modern story about an inmate who was preliminarily detained at a police station in a small Georgian settlement. The thief had been looked for, then caught and arrested and the following morning he had to be transported to a prison in Tbilisi.

However, that evening there was a wedding in the settlement, and the policemen were going to attend it. So they left one of their colleagues to guard the thief and went off. After some time the guard thought that it was unfair for him to stay with the inmate while the others were enjoying themselves, and he asked the thief to swear on the icon that he (the thief) would not escape while all the policemen were away. The guy swore on the icon and the last policemen left the station.

In a couple of hours there was a call on the landline phone from the central police office in Tbilisi. The thief picked up the receiver and explained that there were no guards, but only him, the inmate. Naturally, a team of policemen was immediately sent from Tbilisi to that settlement.

When they arrived, they saw the thief quietly lying on his cot in the cell.

UKRAINE’S “SPLIT PERSONALITY”

May 13, 2017

2017-05-13Victory Day

Having seen quite a few Ukrainian presidents and governments for the last twenty-two years, I cannot but arrive at the conclusion that all of them may be diagnosed with what the psychiatrists call a “multiple personality disorder.” Within the last quarter of a century our leaders and ruling bodies were positioning themselves both as socialists and capitalists, internationalists and nationalists, Euro-Asians and Europeans, conservatives and liberals, Soviets and anti-Soviets, etc. The holidays and events which are marked in this country and which conflict with each other are a consistent pattern of this attitude. There was a time when we celebrated the Day of (Ukrainian) Independence along with the Day of October (Russian) Revolution – the latter actually did away with the Ukrainian independence in 1917. Until recently the Ukrainians celebrated the Day of their own Armed Forces and the Defender of (Russian) Fatherland Day, the International Women’s Day (in March) and Mother’s Day (in May). It must be admitted, however, that this practice has its tradition: we have always had two Christmases, two New Years and, very often, two Easters.

It was crystal clear from the very beginning that Day of Memory/Reconciliation that is observed on May 8th, and Victory Day celebrated on May 9th are poles apart. One day, we are supposed to grieve over the victims and reconcile with our former adversaries, and the next day, we should be jubilant over the victory and, shaking our fists at the enemy, say: “We may repeat it, if need be.” Besides, those who were laying wreaths at memorials on May 9th, remembered not so much the World War as they were filled with malice, if not hatred, towards Ukraine. They were chanting anti-Ukrainian slogans, they identified with St. George’s ribbon in the lapel of Putin’s coat and with his “immortal battalions.”

There was at least one good point in what happened on May 9th: it helped draw a more distinct demarcation line between Russia and Ukraine and see more clearly who Ukraine’s enemy inside Ukraine is. Should we, then, observe Day of Reconciliation?

P.S. The cartoon introducing this blog was posted in the Int’l Herald Tribune 12 years ago. However, it looks quite modern. Alas!

FRIENDS WHO MAKE US TICK

May 12, 2017

revchounBoris is special. Nature has gifted him with a fine voice, a linguistic talent, an acumen in economics, a ironic mind, a power to discern right from wrong in this life and a skill to express himself in writing. I have known Boris from the time when we were students. We were in the same “translators’ ” group, and I remember our teacher (professor Sergey Linskiy) praising Boris for his know-how regarding consecutive translation notation. Had Boris opted to become a professional singer, I’m sure any opera theater would have been happy to get him. However, after graduating from the English language department, Boris earned a PhD in Economics and started lecturing at a university. Now he is a member of the National Union of Writers, which in this country is a high recognition of a person’s literary talent and achievements.

What is not unimportant for me now is that Boris keeps living in the city where (in the days of yore!) we were students. When things get kind of uncomfortable in this life, I often go to Boris’ website (http://library.kr.ua/elib/revchoun/index.html) and nostalgically read something from his book of reminiscences “And There I Stayed And Drank The Mead” (in Russian). One book – “Dictionary For Fun” – is in English. I read…I smile…I get younger…

Here, by way of example, are some quips from Boria’s “Dictionary” and aphorisms he coined on his FB page.

– Some people booze down their ability of thinking, others – their health, and only the luckiest –their money.

– Don’t cudgel your brains about your life insurance.

– How morally upright one must be to see moral uprightness in other people!

– To journalists: If you don’t want to lick hot frying pans in hell, do not lick the boots of moneybags.

– Useful advice: Learn to talk only after you learn to keep silent.

– If ill people speak ill of you, it means that you live healthy.

– One-eyed husbands watch their wives most closely.

– Repetition is the mother of a pain-in-the-neck

– TODAY = tomorrow’s yesterday

– HILTON = (a blend) Hilary Clinton

– INTELLECT = a faculty the absence of which can make perseverance, energy, enthusiasm or initiative rather negative and even dangerous

– VIRTUE = high moral standards; the fewer are witnesses, the greater is virtue

– YOUTH= the devil-may-care part of one’s life, when a person gets chronic diseases that will be carefully and reasonably treated for the remainder of his life

ROBERT FROST – AN ATTEMPT OF INTERPRETATION

May 11, 2017

2017-05-11Robert Frost

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

It’s of the most well-known poems by Robert Frost which is usually analyzed in high schools, but it certainly deserves to be given a second reading and undergo interpretation from the height (or from the depth J) of a person’s advanced age too.

Later in life, we try to give a sense of order to our past. By doing so, we may nostalgically twist the events of bygone years, sincerely believing they were just as we want to see hem now. In the poem, the road the author took long ago was no different from the other road that forked, but he knows that in the future he will tell people he chose a “less travelled” road, and that made his life different. Thus he presents himself as a tough guy who wasn’t afraid of hardships of life. I feel, however, that Man is rather self-opinionated when he thinks that it’s he who CHOOSES the road. The road was charted for him by the Great Planner even before Man was born. Man’s job is to creatively co-operate with the Creator by working that Plan.

HOW GOOD IS “STRONG HEALTH”?

May 10, 2017

2017-05-10Good healthToday’s Financial Times (Wednesday, May 10, 2017, p.7) compares reactions of world leaders to Emmanuel Macron’s victory last Sunday. While there was no doubt, the papers says, about the sincerity of congratulations directed from Berlin and Brussels, for Moscow the election of Mr. Macron was a straightforward defeat. Of all the serious candidates running in the French election, Mr. Macron took the hardest line on Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A last minute release of hacked emails from the Macron campaign was widely blamed on Russia. Under the circumstances, some read a certain menace in Putin’s congratulatory message to Mr. Macron wishing the 39-year old “strong health.” Did Putin mean something that he didn’t write?

I think no conspiracy was implied. My guess is that the Russian message had a natural tinge of Russian mentality, whereby the wish of strong health is quite conventional in congratulations. This time we have a situation when a Russian learner of English might wish a “good appetite” to a native English speaker eating at the same table. That kind of wish may sound sort of strange to a Briton’s ear (“Is there anything wrong with my food?”). Though, you can never be sure about conspiracies in politics. Especially when you remember how the Polish government finished near Smolensk in April 2010.

In view of what has been said, I remember British students once visiting Kyiv University of Foreign Languages. During the joint Q and A session about some cross-cultural peculiarities a Ukrainian student asked the guests: “What would you say to a girl sitting in a restaurant at the next table if wanted to get acquainted with her?” — to which the British student answered: “I don’t think we get acquainted that way.”

LEO TOLSTOY, HIS PHILOSOPHY AND “POLUSHUBOK”

May 9, 2017

2017-05-09 DSC06611An advantage of keeping books on shelves in your room, and not having them digitalized in the computer, is that you can take any book from the shelf and start reading it whenever it strikes your eye and whenever you are free to open it –even if you open it casually, without any special purpose of “working through” the book. For me, this time it was volume 19 of Leo Tolstoy’s 22-volume edition in my library. It contained his letters written in the period from 1882 till 1910. Tolstoy’s letters and diaries are interesting to read. As regards the style, there’s no marked difference between his belles-lettres (“War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina”) on the one hand and his personal notes or correspondence on the other. In fact, Tolstoy never thought of “polishing” his style as a writer, he even didn’t consider himself a writer: he just was putting his thoughts on paper – that’s all. On December 6, 1908 he wrote in his diary: “Many people hate me though they don’t know me, while others like me for things I don’t deserve – for such trifles as “War and Peace”, etc., which they deem very important.” When in the summer of 1909, one of the visitors to Yasnaya Polyana told Tolstoy how much he was delighted by “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” and grateful for creating them, Tolstoy replied: “It’s as if someone came to Thomas Edison and said, ‘I really respect you for how well you dance the mazurka.” In the same year, Tolstoy described the role of those books, as he saw it: “They draw attention to my serious things.”

Tolstoy made his “soul and heart” (as Slavic people call it) work continuously. In his entries, when he listed what he had done during the day, he sometimes wrote, “TODAY I WAS THINKING.” Was thinking. Period. Not thinking “about”, “on”, “over”, but just “THINKING”. How many of us would be able to apply that phrase to ourselves? We “get ready”, “talk”, “phone”, “discuss”, “watch”, “argue”, etc., but we hardly ever consider “thinking” as a special kind of activity, as a way to improve our own selves.

One of the aspects of Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy was “oproshcheniye” (which, very approximately, may be described as “simple living”, “voluntary simplicity”, “living at a low gear”, “anti-consumerism” – viewed from religious positions). He kept up correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi, who highly appreciated the Russian writer, especially his non-resistance to evil by force.

Tolstoy cannot be called a “man of letters” it the classical sense of this word. He insisted that Ethics should dominate Aesthetics in any piece of literary writing. Here’s one interesting example from my experience. When I was teaching Russian in a Sheffield comprehensive school (long time ago :-)), I came across a story in a Russian textbook (the textbook was an English edition). It was about an old man who sat down on a freshly painted bench in a park. The children standing nearby saw it and shouted: “Дедушка, вы сели на свежеокрашенную скамейку!” (“Grandpa, you are sitting on a bench, but it has just been painted!”). The old man couldn’t hear properly, he asked several times to repeat it louder, but the children only laughed at the old man. Having read that story, I couldn’t help giving my students a mini-story by Tolstoy, who wrote it once for the pupils he taught.: Старик лез на печку и не мог. Внук был в избе. Внуку стало смешно. Стыдно, внук. Не то дурно, что дед стар и слаб, а то дурно, что внук млад и глуп. (“An old man tried to climb the oven bench in his room, but he couldn’t. The grandson was in the room and found it amusing. Shame upon you, grandson! It’s not wrong that the granddad is old and weak, but it’s wrong that the grandson is young and silly”). For obvious reasons my English pupils found Leo Tolstoy’s story more interesting.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a bookshop. Having thumbed through one of the books there, I tried to place the book back onto the shelf, but as it turned out it was a wrong place – not the one I took the book from only some minutes before. The shop assistant, who jumped in from behind, was rather harsh, bluntly telling me where the book belonged. Being rather sensitive to such kind of address, I felt embarrassed (to say the least of it) at that moment. However, this time, I read Tolstoy’s letter dated December 8, 1884 to his wife Sophia, in which he writes that while traveling by train he was pushed in the back by the conductor, because, as Tolstoy says it, “I was wearing a short overcoat” – “полушубок” (“polushubok” was usually worn by poor peasants, richer people wore longer coats). Who am I, I thought, to have felt hurt by the harsh words of the shop assistant, if even the great Leo Tolstoy was once pushed in the back by the conductor? :-))

LANGUAGES SEE-SAW: FRENCH UP, ENGLISH DOWN…

May 8, 2017

While beginning his State of the Union address in Florence (Italy) last week, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, told those in attendance that he was hesitating between which language to use — English or French. “(However) I made my choice. I will express myself in French because slowly but surely English is losing its importance in Europe,” said Mr. Juncker.  His words were received by laughter and applause. Even though the President said them half-jokingly – as a usual kick-off  to establish an emotional link with the audience, the words made headlines in many media across the world (two other reasons for Mr. Juncker’s joke were, probably, the coming presidential elections in France and a recent war of words with Theresa May, when the British Premier promised Juncker that during the Brexit talks she will be a “bloody difficult woman” to deal with).

I don’t think that things will be that ill-fated for English. At least Malta and the Republic of Ireland, whose official language is English, remain EU members. But many a true word is spoken in jest: in view of the coming Brexit and the likely U.S.A. self-isolationism, the economically strong Germany and the linguistically narrow-minded France will dominate in the EU, which may entail a number of consequences, including linguistic ones. The re-shaping of the EU may generate a ripple effect that will impact the demand for English in Europe. I already know quite a number of young people here in Kyiv, who, having a decent command of English, dedicate more and more time to learning German, because they hope to link to better education and jobs through that language.

The change of the language fashion may sound the alarm for teachers of English as a Foreign Language: they may find themselves “not  required.” My advice for them would be to become “Jacks of a few trades” (while remaining masters of each trade). Why not add the today’s key-word “multitasking” to one’s teaching armory and start learning one more language (German, French or Spanish) – dedicating to it one or two hours daily? Polyglot Juncker, who fluently speaks a few European languages (including Luxembourgish), is an example to look up to.

Incidentally, as any living organism, a language may go through its own ups and downs. For one, on the territory of post-war Ukraine, English was practically non-existent, but German was comparatively popular. In the village where I grew, even uneducated peasants could exchange some German phrases (the result of a two-year German occupation). English started spreading more in the 1960s in the aftermath of Khrushchev’s “thaw”, remaining, however, rather exotic. It exploded in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR and with the market economy introduced. In the European Union, French yielded to English in the early 2000, when a group of East European countries became members or the EU.

What follows next? Let’s live and see. And learn languages.

P.S. To wrap up, here’s a link to a you-tubed nursery rhyme which is exploited for the title of this blog:

WHY WE ARE HERE

May 7, 2017

Physically, each of us is a part of the Universe. Our bodies are built of the same atoms as the bodies of the farthest stars currently rushing from us and being already at a distance of some 46 billion light years away. Those primeval atoms were formed when a few minutes after the Big Bang (14 billion years ago) the “quark soup” of the early Universe cooled down to below 2 trillion degrees. The Big Bang nucleosynthesis shut down after another twenty minutes due to the rapid drop of temperature and density of the expanding Universe. The result is approximately 300 sextillion stars grouped in galaxies, with our Milky Way being one of more than 100 billion such galaxies.

The contents of the cosmos is made of dark energy (72%), dark matter (23%) and the ordinary matter (“atoms”). The latter makes up only 5% of the cosmic contents. Visible stars account for less than 10% of the ordinary matter.

Distances are also mind-boggling. At the planetarium of an American town of Peoria (Illinois) a scale model of the solar system was built. The 10-cm model of the Earth was located at the distance of 119 meters from the Sun, which, in turn, was 12 meters across. Mars was seven blocks away from the Earth, and Pluto, as small as a ping pong ball, was 64 km (40 miles) away from Peoria. With that scale, the closest star Proxima Centauri should be placed as far as the Moon. If measured by how long it takes the light to reach celestial objects, the Earth is 1.3 light-seconds from the Moon, it is 8 light-minutes from the Sun and 4.24 light-years (l/y) away from Proxima Centauri. Compare it with the diameter of our Milky Way, which is 120,000 l/y (but that number may be even as large as 180,000 l/y if you take into account dark matter), or with the distance to our “neighbor”, the Andromeda Galaxy – 2.5 million l/y. At present, the Universe is estimated to be about 91 billion l/y across.

Do I believe in the Big Bang, in the invisible dark energy, or in the 20-minutes of the nucleosynthesis , during which the building elements of the Universe were made? My answer is: I do. But what is even more important for me is that the Universe is fine-tuned for Man to live in it. Quite a number of conditions that allow life in Universe lie within a very narrow range. For example, if gravitational force were only slightly larger, stars would be too hot and would burn too rapidly for life chemistry. If gravitation were a bit smaller, stars would be too cool to ignite nuclear fusion, and consequently, the elements needed for life chemistry would never form. The same is true with the expansion rate of the Universe: if the expansion were quicker, no galaxies would form, if it were slower, the Universe would collapse even before stars formed. There are a number of other fundamental parameters which are finely tuned for LIFE (as we understand it) to exist. For example, the maximum permissible deviation for the ratio “electrons::protons” (critical for building atoms) is 1: 1037. This degree of fine-tuning is difficult to imagine. Dr. Hugh Ross gives an example of this parameter in his book The Creator and the Cosmos:

One part in 1037 is such an incredibly sensitive balance that it is hard to visualize. The following analogy might help: Cover the entire North American continent in dimes all the way up to the moon, a height of about 239,000 miles (In comparison, the money to pay for the U.S. federal government debt would cover one square mile less than two feet deep with dimes). Next, pile dimes from here to the moon on a billion other continents the same size as North America. Paint one dime red and mix it into the billions of piles of dimes. Blindfold a friend and ask him to pick out one dime. The odds that he will pick the red dime are one in 1037. (p. 115)

Here are some more quotes taken from the following sources: http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/designun.html 

http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/quotes.html

http://www.finetuneduniverse.com/

Arno Penzias (Nobel prize in physics): “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”

Vera Kistiakowsky (MIT physicist): “The exquisite order displayed by our scientific understanding of the physical world calls for the divine.”

Robert Jastrow (self-proclaimed agnostic): “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Stephen Hawking (British astrophysicist): “Then we shall… be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.”

Werner von Braun (Pioneer rocket engineer) “I find it as difficult to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science.”

Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “From the perspective of the latest physical theories, Christianity is not a mere religion, but an experimentally testable science.”

I do not know the answer to the second part of Stephen Hawking’s question (see above) why the universe exists – at least on that scale of magnitude and massiveness we observe. As for the first part concerning the purpose of my existence, I think the following may be said:

I was brought into this world 1/ to know the Creator, 2/ to understand His design and feel the beauty of it, 3/ to be thankful for this opportunity of understanding, 4/ to grow in my knowledge of Him – spiritually and morally…


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