Some Goldfinches

The snow is melting now and the weather is sunny and moderately warm. But when it was snowing and freezing, I had a bit of luck and a few goldfinches visited the feeder, which does not happen very often. Pretty pictures that illustrate a very, very grim story.

©Charly, all rithgs reserved. Click for full size.

I seem to have seen a lot fewer birds on the feeder this year than previously. Almost no greenfinches, no bramblings, no woodpeckers, just very few blackbirds and siskins. I am not alone in this observation, it is scientifically documented trend across the whole of Central Europe, so much so that it was even reported in evening news in TV.

Then I have read that bird populations across Europe are collapsing, following a collapse of insect populations due to overuse of pesticides that kill both the insects and the plants they feed on.

And nothing will be done about it until it is too late, because not overusing pesticides would mean lower corporate profits.

Youtube Video: Flat Earth OR Why Do People Reject Science? | Philosophy Tube

Phil O´Sofy Toobe is great leftist channel. I do not agree with everything in his videos, but that is not because I disagree with him on principle – I disagree with him on practicality. In short, I think we are fucked beyond hope, because human race as a whole is irredeemable and this prevents sensible implementation of leftist policies on greater scale.

In this video he tackles some of the whats and whys behind science denialism. I recommend many of his other videos – and there realy are many. I still haven’t seen them all.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 28 – Guns

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

Guns were not something one would see every day and in every household. They were indeed very, very rare. But they were not non-existent, there was some limited access to guns for the general populace and I got to see and even handle guns as a child. In fact, shooting was a skill that was positively encouraged, although gun ownership was not.

The most obvious case are hunting rifles and shotguns. I live in a small rural town, and there were plenty of gamekeepers around who were sometimes seen walking through the town with their guns slung on the shoulder whilst on the way to/from the forest. The safety requirement was for them to carry the guns unloaded and I do not remember anyone not observing this.

One gamekeeper was a leader of very small (5 people at most) local pionýr club which I attended, centered around nature and care for it. I learned a lot in that club, including how to shoot a varmint rifle. The gamekeeper took us one day far into the forest, to an inaccessible spot near a place where WW2 american aeroplane fell into bog, and he allowed us to take turns in shooting varmint rifle at a paper box hung from a tree. I still remember how my childhood bully (who was unfortunately also a member of the club) got dismayed that my shooting was better than his. But the best shot in the group was of course boy who had a gun at home.

A gun at home, you say? Impossible! Well, air guns were not illegal, although they were not cheap and easy to come by. Everybody got a chance to shoot them at some point. Shooting competitions were very common on fairs when the merry-go-rounds came into town, and they were also ubiquitous in summer camps for kids. Boys and girls were equally encouraged to learn shooting from the regime, although the general culture saw this more as a “boy’s” thing.

The regime wanted everyone to know at least the basic of how to shoot a gun, and since military service was compulsory for men, every man eventually learned how to handle firearms, including automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Not everybody got a chance to handle those weapons outside of military or People’s Militia, but in my town everybody got to see them. Because it is a border town near the iron curtain, and the border patrol was everywhere. Seeing an AK-47 was not something completely unusual, especially outside the town limits.

But getting your hands on one was more difficult. And getting your hands on ammunition even more so. The access to guns was very tightly regulated, and this had one positive outcome – no mass shootings whatsoever. When Olga Hepnarová, an infamous mass-murderer, has planned her deed, she initially wanted to either set off explosives or shoot a crowd from an automatic weapon. She learned how to shoot – which was easy – but was later forced to change her plan due to the difficulty of getting a gun and ammo So she decided to use a truck instead and managed to kill 8 and injure 12 people. American gun-nuts would no doubt use this as a proof of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, but to me it is a proof that gun regulations work, because there is no doubt that had she had easy access to guns, the damage she would do would be even greater.

Slavic Saturday

Last time we were talking about grammatical cases, and whilst Slavic languages are not lacking in those, they fall far behind the Finno-Ugric ones in this gregard. But what Slavic languages lack in cases, they more than make up in genders.

Lets talk a bit about gender then.

Czech language does not have a distinction between the words “sex” and “gender” the way English does. Our ID’s have a category “pohlaví” which means “sex” in the biological sense and is therefore sex assigned at birth. For trans people it is their chosen sex assigned after transition, but sex assigned at birth before transition (the legislative process has a lot to be desired, but since I am not trans, I leave the discussion about how to improve it to trans people).

This  property of my native language has caused me some trouble in understanding articles written in English, because I have seen words “sex” and “gender” as synonyms and it took me awhile to understand that this is not the case.

However what helped me finally in understanding is the fact that the only way Czech language has gender in it, it is very, very obviously a social construct, specifically a linguistic one. It translates as “rod” and means grammatical gender (in one context).

Czech has four genders, or three with one of them being split into two distinct categories, depending on the specific linguist’s opinion. I was taught in school that there are four:

masculine animate – refers to humans and some animals

masculine inanimate – refers to some inanimate objects and some plants

feminine – refers to humans, some animals, some inanimate objects and some plants

neuter – refers to some animals, some inanimate objects and some plants

The gender of a noun defines not only how the noun itself inflects depending on the case, it also defines conjugaton and declension of verbs and adjectives. For example a sentence “black bear climbed a tree”,  can be “černý medvěd vylezl na strom” for a male bear or “černá medvědice vylezla na strom” for a female one (word order in the CZ is identical to the EN version, only difference is “a” which does not translate – “na” means “on”). Each of the four genders has multiple groups defining said declensions and conjugations and learning it all is a nightmare for Czechs and literally impossible for any but the most dedicated foreigner.

Czech is also very strongly gendered with regard to people and there is no universal gender neutral way to refer to a person. The language is built around gender binary, even simplest sentences like “I woke up.” are mostly gendered – “Probudil jsem se” for masculine and “Probudila jsem se” for feminine. There are some simple phrases (mostly present tense) that can be expressed in gender neutral way, but to be honest I cannot imagine a whole story being written in a gender neutral way in Czech language. It might be possible, but likely not in a way that will seem natural and not forced, and definitively not easy to do.

This feature of our language has one unfortunate consequence – Czech transphobes, sexists and gender-essentialists (which includes unfortunately both most prominent czech sexologists) have much easier job defending status quo. Language very strongly influences how we think and because everyone is since childhood forced to choose from the binary for every single statement they make about what they have done or plan to do, everyone thinks that this linguistic binary reflects accurately the reality. And people who think that because we have only x words categorizing something that there are only x neatly distinct categories of said something are unfortunately everywhere.

On the other hand understanding that gender is a social construct and not something set in stone was made easy for me when I learned German, where the genders of different words do not allign with Czech at all and a thing that is masculine in Czech can easily be feminine or neuter in German. There is no logic or sense to it – why is “hrnec” (pot) masculine, but “konev” (kettle) feminine? Why is “klacek” (stick, staff) masculine, but “hůl” (cane, staff) feminine? Etc.  And there are languages that lack grammatical genders altogether.

To me this illustrates that languages are but very poor and imperfect tools for communicating about the infinitely rich reality surrounding us. They are not perfect or complete descriptions of said reality and  argumentum ad dictionarium is a very silly logical fallacy.

How I did not lose a finger (twice)

You probably noticed that I did not write much anything this last week, and you might not notice the why in TNET. Here it is.

Content warning – description of injuries and first help.

Since I was 10 years old, I was working with sharp instruments in the house and around the garden on nearly daily basis – knives, chisels, axes, shears, sickles and scythes. My father gave me a small pocket knife for birthday and he taught me how to take proper care of it and how to work safely.

I started wood carving that year and I never hurt myself with a knife in a manner worth to mention until a few years later. That one time I was slicing a piece of paper out of sheer boredom, I got overconfident, I misjudged the distance and sliced into the tip of my index finger by accident. I nearly cut the tip off on one side. My father went into full panic mode, but he nevertheless managed to compress the wound, stick a patch on it and haul me off into the town to my mother’s workplace (this was still behind the iron curtain, we had no car and no phone either). There we got a ride to the hospital where the wound was deemed not worth stitching up, just a tight enough patch will do. It turned out later that I actually have damaged a nerve, and the piece of flesh that was nearly cut off, although it grew back together nicely, was completely numb afterwards. But about three years later I got back the sensitivity, so it was only a temporary hindrance.

I have learned my lesson and for next 25 years I again did not hurt myself in a manner worth to mention. I did get a small nick with a knife or a chisel now and then, but nothing that won’t heal with a simple patch in a few days. And almost never when working, mostly during sharpening. I was always careful. The history repeated itself nevertheless.

The weekend before last I was splitting wood for starting fire. I have done this a thousand times before, and an axe is actually one of the instruments that never got to taste my blood so far at all, or at least I do not remember it (I definitively got a splinter under my skin more often). But a piece of wood had a knot in it, i did not notice it, and the axe instead of going through and slicing of a nice splinter went to the side and into my left middle finger. In nearly the same manner the knife did all those years ago.

One advantage of having really, really sharp tools was immediately apparent – I did not feel a thing. I immediately put a pressure on the wound with my thumb so no blood came out. I went up from the cellar, asked my dad to go and start the fire and my mom to prepare disinfectant, a bandage and a patch. Only after I disinfected the surrounding area, i have let go of the pressure and allowed some blood to flush out any debris the axe might have dragged into the wound. I also got a good look at the damage. Then I again applied pressure with my thumb, cleaned of the blood, applied pressure with a gauze and wrapped it tightly with an adhesive patch.

I have thought it to be prudent to not play a hero and get stitches, so I wanted a surgeon to get a look at it. Nowadays we have a phone and a car. For a wound like this I did not think to be necessary to call an ambulance. But since neither of my parents can drive, I had to drive myself to the emergency surgery at the hospital 40 km away, with my dad in the passenger seat in case it all went wahoonie shaped and it turned out I need an ambulance after all.

The nurse was a bit bad-tempered, but I am used to that. It is a difficult profession having to deal constantly with idiots like me, so I do not care for sour faces from medical staff that much. But I attached the band-aid very tightly and she got irate that she cannot find the end and unwrap it, so she said “Well, when you wrapped it so tightly, remove it yourself!”. What could I do but laugh “Taking it off was the least of my worries at the time”? I could not find the end either, so I asked whether they have scissors. “Not ones that would get in there!” which is a statement I very much know to be false but fuck it, I was not in a mood to argue. I took out my multitool, opened the blade and removed the bandage. It turns out there is an advantage to having a very sharp knife that can be opened with one hand only after all.

I got three stitches and a tight bandage on top of that. The surgeon was nicer than the nurse and when I said my goodbyes “Thank you and I wish you an uneventful and boring rest of the weekend” she laughed a bit (the nurse did not move a muscle).

For last ten days I was unable to write properly due to the thick bandage. I learned ten finger typing in high school and I am so used to it that writing without the use of my middle finger was very difficult – I could do it, but I kept tangling my left hand into a pretzel all the time. But that particular torture is hopefully over for now. I got no complications, the wound is healing nicely and I got the stitches out. I only have a small band-aid now and I have full use of my fingers – with care, of course. I will have second crescent-shaped scar and maybe partial numbness in the tip for a few years. That remains to be seen, so far it seems I might not have even that.

The lesson I learned from this is that I never ever should get too confident in my skill and lose vigilance. Shit can happen anytime. Second lesson, or perhaps experience, is that I still can keep a cool head in such situation, whether the injury happens to me or to someone else (at least that was luckily the case so far). That is somewhat comforting. Third lesson I knew already – a really, really sharp tool is better and safer. A blunt axe might cause shallower wound, but the edges would not be clean and easy to stitch, there would be some blunt trauma on top of it and a much bigger area for dirt and an infection to get a hold on. And it would probably hurt a lot more – I banged my thigh on a table edge the same day and it hurt a lot more than this cut ever did.

I hope this weekend to be able to do my share of writing again.

Some Bullfinches

On Tuesday I will get the stitches out, and hopefully I will be able to write again without constantly tripping over my fingers. But I had some luck at the feeder finally, maybe because we have plenty of snow and it stays on for a month by now. So here are some dapper pictures from this week.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Fearless Tit

Yesterday we had sun, but I did not have camera ready. Today I had camera ready, but there was no sun. I got lots of blurry or dark pictures of dinosaurs.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

At least some of the tits became accustomed to feeding directly at the windowsill. They flee when we move too suddenly behind the window, but as long as we are careful, they do not mind. They are the only birds who do, others are not as fearless. Tits are really forward.

Slavic Saturday

I was not struck by inspiration this week, so today’s Slavic Saturday is going to be a bit silly. I am going to show you the various forms that one word can take in Czech within the various cases.

Our word will be the word for a dog, which in Czech is a noun of the masculine (animate) gender and in its singular form is universal to slavic languages. Btw, Czech has four genders – masculine (animate), masculine (inanimate), feminine and neutral. That means a lot of fun.

Lets start with singular grammatical cases:

pes – nominative
psa – genitive and accusative
psu/psovi – dative, locative
pse – vocative
psem – instrumental

That is not all, there is also plural:

psi/psové – nominative and vocative
psů – genitive and accusative
psům – dative, locative
psech – locative
psy – instrumental

Of course that still is not all, there is also singular diminutive:
pejsek – nominative
pejska – genitive and accusative
pejskovi/pejsku – dative, locative
pejsku – vocative
pejskem – instrumental

And plural diminutive:

pejsci/pejskové – nominative, vocative
pejsků – genitive
pejskům – dative
pejsky – accusative, instrumental

But that is not the only diminutive. There is also alternative diminutive “psík”. And “psíček”. And “pejsánek”. And “pejsáneček”. The “če” you can then add for further diminution in principle ad infinity. It would sound silly to say it more than once, but it is gramatically correct.

And there is also augmentative “psisko”.

And the adjective “psí”. Which has different forms depending on the gender of the noun it qualifies.

But I won’t torture you with all their forms, you are brave enough if you read so far. To learn this is a torture even for native speakers. No wonder foreigners have rather hard time when they try to learn this. But at least we are not the worst, there are languages with more cases even here in Europe (looking sideways at the finno-ugric family).

The Death of Handicraft

Today’s video is not the main meat of the article, but just an appetizer:

Joe van der Steeg is a blacksmith from Netherlands. I came across his videos a few years ago and I found them very informative, even though admittedly not very entertaining. I did not subscribe, because I do not intend to seriously go into forging at the moment, but I kept him at the back of my mind for future reference should I need plain and to-the-point info about forging techniques. What was clear from the few videos that I have watched was that he is very committed to the craft and that it is his life.

Previous year he announced that he is quitting the craft as a professional and will only continue with it as a hobbyist. When I have noticed that video, I was saddened, because I hate that old crafts are disappearing.

A few days ago I found out that Alec Steele, the youth YouTube blacksmithing star has afterwards invited him for a few days of collaborative work at his workshop, they had a lot of fun together and Alec’s enthusiasm and infectious personality have motivated Joe to continue to make videos. I shed a sentimental tear over that outcome, and I subscribed to Joe, although his videos are still on a back-burner for me, because day has only so many hours.

I know that to make knives for a living is for me just a pipe dream. There is a lot of people in that market, the competition is fierce and getting notorious enough to make a living would be difficult, even more so for a shy and introverted personality (I can pretend self-confident and strong, but not for long).

But overall I think that at a societal level a step back from automation would be desirable. With current state of technology, it is entirely conceivable having 5 hours working days somewhere at a factory/farm and the rest of the day having off to be a weaver, cobbler or whatevermaker to your heart’s desire.  The factories with their automation are perfect for delivering necessities for survival, but to my mind nothing beats handicraft for delivering the beautiful, unique and shiny. Further jobs at factories are soul-crushing and many people afterward have no energy for anything else than to sit in front of TV. Also most people whom I know who do have a creative hobby are mentally much better off than those who do not. There are reasons for arts therapy.

I am not entirely convinced that decline of handicraft is purely due to automation – there are a lot of people who would love to own handmade goods, but cannot afford them.

So why do we as a society insist on having most people do jobs they hate most of the time if that is not, strictly speaking, necessary for the survival of the species?

In my opinion the thing that is killing handicrafts is the same thing that drives the world inexorably towards global warming – insatiable greed of the upper 1% who are sucking money out of the economy only to put it on their bank accounts so they can engage in pointless dick-measuring contests with their fellow parasites. More and more people have to spend 8 or more hours a day in a factory to produce cheap goods, because fewer and fewer people have the means to purchase the more expensive handmade goods. It is a self-reinforcing cycle.

Bonsai Tree – First Leaves

My little persimmon stopped stretching upwards and is now for a few days staying at more or less the same height. It has sprouted four leaves and stayed there. And it will probably stay there for a while now, nothing much outwardly visible will happen, while the seedling will be concentrating on building a hard wooden stem and nice strong roots instead of the mushy soft ones that consist of 90% of water. That is what allows for the quick growth at the beginning, by bloating cells with water – and it is visible now that the stem got actually a lot thinner than it was a week ago, as it lost its water content.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Since I want the tree to grow nice and straight upwards for a while, I turn it about 10-30° counterclockwise every evening. Also I am taking care to not over water it – it is colder on the windowsill than it is in the rest of the room, and I do not want the roots to rot. I will have to try to find information in my library about how much water persimmon actually wants to have – there are plants that need a lot and plants that need very little, and I have lost bonsai trees (sometimes quite valuable) to both under- and over-watering. So far it seems to prosper.


Behind the Iron Curtain part 27 – Propaganda

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

Marcus has shown old propaganda posters on his blog from time to time, and they are interesting to see, but that is not actually how the main bulk of the propaganda was done during my lifetime. In fact, that is not how it was done in my lifetime at all.

Of course I lived after Stalin has been dead and rotten for a while and the regime has mellowed a bit. But I got to see a lot of propaganda from earlier times nevertheless. And I – and most of my countrymen – do occasionally see it to this very day, and enjoy it. How come?

Because it was in the movies. Czech cinematography during the regime was quite well-off. The regime has recognized the importance of a good story for persuading people, especially children, and they capitalized on this. They shot a lot, and I mean a lot, of fairy-tales and movies for children and young people. The quality was often very high, which is why they are still popular until today – and quite frankly, Hollywood flicks cannot hold a candle to many of them in terms of historical(ish) accuracy and detail regarding the costumes and settings. If this -click- is accessible to you click through a few scenes of the movie and see for yourself. What has helped of course is that medieval architecture of whole streets and even towns is not hard to come by here and need not be built from scratch.

The movie that I linked to is first in a two-movie series about Prague during the reign of Rudolf II, the last Habsburg who made Prague the capital city of the Austrian empire and elected to live there permanently. It is a story of a young baker, who is the emperor’s doppelgänger and gets coincidentally swapped for the emperor at a time when the emperor has drunk a youth potion. The movie was very succesful and according to Wikipedia it was even distributed in USA with english subtitles -click-.

I am not going to relate the whole story to you, but in short the whole movie is about exposing the corruption of a feudal system, the shallowness of people who are always out there for themselves. And the importance of us all just getting along and pulling together in one direction. The selfish and greedy are to be ostracised and punished, and there is no greater achievement than to work for the good of the collective. The good ol’ communism in a nutshell.

And that theme was common in movie production of that time, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, but it was always there. As a child I of course did not see anything wrong with that message. As an adult I see plenty wrong with that message.

I agree with the principle in theory, but not in praxis. Because, in the words of Terry Pratchett, it approaches societal problems instead with “this is how people are, what can we do about it?” with “this is how people should be, how can we make them?”. Trying to build a society that depends on most people being an ideal that said society requires to work properly is just as silly as trying to build a society depending on ideal environmental/economic conditions*. The world contains neither ideal conditions, nor ideal people. All people are a complex mixture of selfishness and altruism, bigotry and acceptance, wisdom and stupidity and a lot more in the mix. Similarly all societies contain hierarchies and barriers that are outside of an individual’s control, and a plenty of built-in inequalities and unfairness. And it all changes continuously.

I admit that even today I watch these movies with a pang of nostalgia. I wish the message in them were applicable in real world. It isn’t. It only works in fairy tales.

*I summed it up for myself a few years ago thus: Communism can only work with perfectly round people and libertarianism can only work in perfect vacuum.