An Ancient Photograph

My grandfather Georgiy Goder wrote these notes at the request of my uncle Alexey. They describe some of the history of the people pictured and their relationship to my grandfather’s life. I wanted to make the contents more accessible, so I have translated his notes into English and added some explanatory footnotes. You can see the original text in Russian here.

When I first looked at the people pictured in the photograph, all of whom have long since passed from this world, and started to think about what to write about each of them, I was struck with an immense worry as the melancholy remembrances came back to my mind. I really don’t know who would be interested in them; perhaps only those in whom flows the blood of our shared ancestors. Nevertheless, let me begin my tale.

The photograph was taken in the 19th century, in particular in the 1890s and in one of the most colorful cities in the world–Tbilisi1. Here is how I was able to date it. The leftmost girl is my mother Elena Vasilevna Pozoeva (22 February 1898–11 November 1977). My uncle Sergey Vasilevich Pozoev (18 February 1899–February 1985) is not in the photo, so clearly he had not yet been born. Therefore the photo was taken between 1893 and 1899. Moreover, my mother is no older than 5 or 6, and so I conclude that it was taken in 1897 or 1898.
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  1. Tbilisi, formerly known as Tiflis, is the ancient capital of Georgia. During most of the era described here it was part of either Russia or the Soviet Union. []

Harry Potter’s Return

Harry Potter had finally achieved his dream. He had become an Auror. Even several years into the job it hadn’t grown old. He still enjoyed unrooting evil wherever it lay. Even if that place happened to be in his office. But he had searched all over again and surprisingly hadn’t found any. Ugh. He’d have to return to the paperwork he hadn’t finished yet. Who knew that to stop one evil wizard meant at least a week’s worth of paperwork. It was almost enough to make him wish he had become a Hogwarts Professor instead. He started to think in more detail about what class he’d teach. Of course it’d have to be Defense Against the Dark Arts. Or maybe he could coach Quidditch. But certainly not Potions. Anything but Potions. He had started to plan out his first year’s curriculum when knock on the door interrupted his pleasant daydream.

“Hello, Mr. Potter. I’m sorry to disturb you but I have some unfortunate news. The Minister of Magic has issued new guidelines for all Aurors, and I’m afraid in your case there’s been a bit of a snag.”

“What do you mean? My record has been excellent. I’ve stopped four neo-Voldemort death cults in the past year alone.”

“Yes, your actions as an Auror have been nothing short of legendary. But the guidelines reflect your earlier qualifications. You see, the Minister is now requiring all Aurors to have passed their Potions O.W.L. with a grade of Outstanding. And our records show that you merely received an ‘Exceeds Expectations’ on your Potions O.W.L.”

““What! Potions?! But I don’t even ever use potions. Why is that suddenly a requirement?”

“Yes, I know it may seem somewhat arbitrary. But the Minister feels that knowledge of Potions is an integral part of every wizard’s life, and that an Auror must set an extremely high example in that regard. So unfortunately you will be put on suspension pending your successful completion of the Potions O.W.L.”

“This is preposterous.”

“Don’t worry too much. Although lately dark magic has been at an ebb, the Auror Office is aware that your skills are invaluable. Given that, we’ve seen fit to provide you with a tutor, one of the greatest Potions instructors in the history of magic. He’s currently teaching at Hogwarts, but he’s agreed to take you on for tutoring for the next month. He feels that should be sufficient time for you to learn enough to pass the O.W.L.”

What could Harry do but grudgingly agree to return. In any case, he thought, it would be good to visit the site of his greatest victory. He certainly loved to remember that epic battle. The glow had only recently started to wear off. When he arrived he found that little had changed from his days as a student. Griffindor was still clearly the best house, and Slytherin the evilest. Though he realized he had forgotten the names of the other two. Oh well, it didn’t really matter. After getting settled in he was anxious to meet the Potions professor that would be tutoring him. He certainly didn’t remember anything from that class. It was a wonder he had even achieved ‘Exceeds Expectations’. Presumably, since he was such a persona, it would all be a formality. He walked over to the Potions classroom and waited outside while the class finished. After all the students left, he stepped inside and walked over to the lectern. A dark figure in robes was leaning over it, scribbling fiercely on a scroll. The figure didn’t seem to notice Harry until he suddenly stepped on a loose alembic and toppled over. As he pull himself up he saw the feet of the professor approach him and looked up to find a familiar face. The surprise caused him to shoot straight up into the air.

“What!? Snape! I thought you were dead.”

“You think that I would die so easily, Mr. Potter? This just further shows how foolish you really are. I have to say I’m not surprised you’ve been forced to return here for more schooling. I never thought that Aurors that hadn’t completed their seventh year were any good.”

“So it’s to be like old times, is it Snape? Come now, tell me how you survived.”

“A simple matter. That was not me that died; it was Neville Longbottom, who had taken a Polyjuice Potion to look like me.”

“That’s impossible. Neville was with me during the Battle of Hogwarts. I saw him kill Nagini and stand up to Voldemort.”

“Don’t be silly, Mr. Potter. You know as well as I do that Neville could never do any of those things. That was me, transformed to look like Neville with another Polyjuice Potion.”

“I can’t believe it. Just how much of that Polyjuice Potion is there? It seems to be causing all sorts of confusion.”

“No one said being a wizard was going to make life simple. Now, are you ready for your first lesson?”

It was going to be a long month.

My 13 Favorite Books of 2013

I only read 79 books this year, so I was hardly as successful as last year. Nevertheless, I still had enough to produce a list of my favorites.

  • Masters of Doom by David Kushner
    A really interesting look at the birth of id Software and the iconic games they created. I grew up around the time their games became popular, so it was really interesting to compare the events in the book with my own memories.
  • Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson
    Robert Charles Wilson has another great sci-fi book with mysterious happenings that the main characters struggle to understand. This time it’s a type of alien invasion. I also found the ending interesting, as it’s fairly ambiguous whether the main character made the right choice.
  • MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
    I liked this conclusion to the trilogy more than either of the previous two books.
  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
    This was a pretty creep thriller with some mystery elements. The twist conclusion was well done and totally surprised me.
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
    This is my favorite Dickens book now. The complicated and clever plot really drew me in, despite the depressing title. The criticism of the legal system’s interminable process is also right up my alley.
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
    This was a cute but slightly creepy fantasy book reminiscent of Coraline.
  • Drown by Junot Diaz
    Another great collection of short stories from Junot Diaz.
  • Summer by Edith Wharton
    This short novel is a sort of companion to Ethan Frome (which has a depressing winter setting). The writing is beautiful and the plot tragic.
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
    This was a clever and amusing novel about Victorian life. It was much different and more interesting than I expected.
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
    This year I read a dozen books by Agatha Christie. This one was her first and one of my favorites.
  • Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
    This was the only Agatha Christie book where I actually figured out the solution significantly in advance.
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
    This is more a thriller than a mystery book, and it’s both exciting and clever in its solution. This is my favorite of her books.
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
    I really enjoying this iconic book, with its great twist ending.

The Last Trip Home

This story was written by my dad, Dimitry.

“Welcome aboard!” says a flight attendant as I am crossing the gap between the jet-way and a plane taking a step inside. I lift my eyes and see a tall blond woman, welcoming me and smiling, in her blue uniform and bright yellow scarf, which contrasts with the dimmed interior lights of the Airbus. She greets me with a slight German accent as if to remind me of my destination – I am on a late night flight to Munich. I have just spent an hour wandering around an empty airport. Not many passengers had decided to fly on this dark and rainy Wednesday night. There was no line at the gate, and I am not surprised to find a half empty plane.

Passengers are slowly moving forward, taking their time storing their bags and settling in comfortably before a long flight. Waiting to pass them, I try to look outside through a small window; it is completely dark, and I can’t see even a glimpse of light through the glass covered with large rain drops. I suddenly feel that my world has collapsed and is limited to the inside of the airplane and that nothing exists beyond its walls. The weather, the lighting, and the quietness of the airport – they all fit my sense of nostalgia. I am on my way to sell my parents’ apartment, the place where I spent all of my childhood years. Twenty five years have passed since I lived there last, but my thoughts are still filled with vivid memories. I suddenly realize that this is the end to a chapter in my life.

I bought an economy ticket and with an almost empty plane I hoped to have an entire row to myself; instead, I find my seat next to an old Indian man with a long untrimmed white beard and his head covered with a traditional turban. I settle my bags, take a seat, and greet him, but he does not acknowledge me. Instead, he keeps glancing over my shoulder looking intensely at every passing passenger as if he is waiting for someone to board the plane and to tell him that last thing that he forgot to tell him before. It’s as if he has to see that someone once again for the last time before he leaves on his long return home.

I close my eyes. How do we choose to keep certain memories of what passed long, long ago? Some events are forgotten but some are kept as if they happened yesterday. I try to remember my life in my parents’ house, recall events that happened over the course of two dozen years. But the facts keep slipping away, only leaving me with light sadness and a sense of something lost and forgotten. I imagine myself in that small apartment on the third floor of a residential high rise, standing in front of a window overlooking a tiny park below. Small children are playing in the playground and I can see myself there on the swings passing time with friends. I am standing in the kitchen, at no particular moment in time, and the apartment feels empty. But I can sense my memories and experiences pass around me, and I can feel the shadows of the people who once lived there. All the exact details escape me.

“Excuse me, sir, I think you might be in my seat.” Somebody is touching my shoulder.
I look up and see a woman handing me her boarding pass. Trying to return to the present, I slowly focus my sight on the piece of paper in her hand, then look at the seat number, and then, for some reason, at the old man sitting next to me as if asking for his confirmation and approval. He keeps staring into the aisle and does not turn his head. I can’t believe my eyes, but indeed I am sitting in a wrong seat. I suddenly realize I have been so completely overtaken with my thoughts of the past and future that I didn’t know what I was doing in the present.

I get up and move across the aisle. In the new seat next to me there is a woman looking through the window watching bags being loaded into the open belly of the plane. She is in her late 30s, with dark hair and brown eyes. I greet her and she replies politely, without turning her head, her thoughts buried deep inside. I glance over her shoulder trying to spot the object of her stare, but all I can see is the brightly lit terminal of San Francisco International. With the plane doors still open I pull out my Android. I put on the headphones and start listening to music.

My parents’ house was always filled with books. A thing out of this time that could have only existed in previous centuries. Fiction books, professional reference books, history studies, and original historical documents. Bookshelves, bookcases and bookshelves again occupied all available space. When I was growing up they were a part of my life, they were my toys. The books always attracted me, and every spare moment I had I would grab a book from a shelf and read about countries and cities and people that had disappeared thousands of years before. The books I read were always precisely relaying information and facts, but never attempted to describe what people were like then or what were their dreams and hopes. I often dreamt about living among them, imagining what my life would be in that distant time.

Another tap on my shoulder brings me back to the present. I lift my eyes: this time there is a man trying to talk to me. I can’t hear a word so I pause the playback and take off the headphones. Now I can hear the man but it doesn’t help to understand what he is saying. I suddenly realize that the stranger is talking to me in German. He notices my confusion and switches to English.

“I am wondering if you could switch your seat with me,” he says.

They must be traveling together, and I am ready to help as long as I will not be cramped into a middle seat in the back of the airplane. I turn my head and glance at the woman next to me but she keeps staring outside. She only turns her head a little, trying to catch our conversation and I can’t see if the expression in her eyes is changing.

“Sure, where are you sitting?” I ask.

The man hands over his boarding pass with a word “business” written in big bold letters right in the middle of it. “I have checked with the crew and they are ok if we switch seats,” he adds.

I look again at the woman. By now she has turned her head and is following our conversation. I look into her eyes trying to see if she is happy with her new companion, but the only thing I can sense is her confusion.

For me this is an easy decision. I unbuckle, get up, take my bags out of the overhead bin, put on my jacket, and start moving towards the front of the plane. Before stepping out of the economy section I turn my head and quickly glance at the man and the woman I left behind. They are chatting and smiling. All seems to be good in their world.

I take my seat for the third time and immediately a flight attendant comes offering me drinks. I look at the tray, grab a glass of champagne, take a sip, and close my eyes.

When I was in high school I decided to write a novel. In those days I was under a spell of Ray Bradbury’s stories about time and space travel, and it was no surprise that the plot took a science fiction turn. My protagonist, a brilliant physics student, conducts experiments attempting to create a worm hole. Having made errors in his calculations he gets thrown through time into a medieval period. As a credit to my fascination with the Renaissance I placed him in Florence, where, hundreds of years before his own time and with no means to return home, he has to adjust to life there. He is obsessed with changing the future and comes up with a plan to reverse his fate. He decides to correct his original calculations, figure out the answer, and encode it as a message in several famous paintings for his future self to find. The time travel acted only as glue between the historical part of the book and a modern day suspense novel where another character goes on a quest to find mysterious clues left in paintings by various Tuscan artists.

Writing took tremendous amount of time, and I could never complete the book. I finished high school and had to leave home to go to university. Without a clear inspiration about which career to choose I decided to follow my sister’s lead and picked a major without any relation to either literature or history. My unfinished book was left behind but was never forgotten. Over the years I often imagined that I would have led a happier life if I had chosen a different path in it. Today, on my last trip back home I know exactly where to find the old manuscript – it is still there where I left it twenty five years ago, a thick stack of yellowish pages hidden in a bottom drawer of my old desk. I start to recall the details of my unsophisticated and naive novel and I can’t stop smiling. Yes, I can recognize the lack of experience of my own younger self, but I can also remember the passion and the satisfaction I felt from the process of writing. I suddenly get a clear sensation I have missed something in my life, and I feel an urge to try doing it again. And just like the protagonist from my youth is focused on changing his future from the past, I start to wonder if I can maybe change my past from the future.

I wake up after the airplane has already parked at the gate. The man who gave up his seat 10 hours earlier is standing beside me pulling his suitcase from the overhead bin above my head. His eyes look tired as if he hasn’t slept a single minute.

“How was your flight?” he asks.

“Great! How was yours?” I reply.

“The best!” he says. “You know, I met a girl that I haven’t seen for 20 years.“

He turns back and hugs the woman standing right behind him. She is smiling.

“She was my high school sweetheart.” He looks at me again and continues. “Can you imagine? Accidentally meeting each other five thousand miles away from our homes. She was my first love; we broke up when I moved away after finishing school. And later I was too proud to start looking for her. Yesterday she was right in front of me sitting in the boarding area. Giving up my seat was the best decision I have made in years.”

“Well, I am glad I’ve helped and I am ready to do it again,” I reply.

He smiles, grabs his suitcase, takes the woman’s hand and they start moving towards the exit together.

Complicated Trees

I spend my Sunday sitting under an elm tree
And wonder what the world would be
If trees were people and people trees
And bees were birds and birds were bees
Would we still have the same complications 
Or would we have no need for conversations
Or would it be the same but in reverse 
A complicated life and then a hearse

Top Five Dickens Quotes

He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favor of two.

Nicholas Nickleby

He’d make a lovely corpse.

Martin Chuzzlewit

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

David Copperfield

This is a London particular… a fog, miss.

Bleak House

Take nothing on its looks; take everything on its evidence. There’s no better rule.

Great Expectations

Work, Hobbies, and Games

I’ve been thinking about the difference between work, hobbies, and games. Of course there is some overlap between them, but I think the distinction is interesting and useful in understanding people’s motivations. It’s illustrative to think of them on two scales: fulfillment and fun.

Games are typically the least fulfilling and most fun activities. These include video games, board and card games, and sports. I also include most social activity and watching TV and movies. You would not pursue these activities were they not very fun. Indeed often a small amount of boredom is enough to turn someone away from a game or TV show. There’s minimal fulfillment to be had here: you’re not going to grow as person because you played Bioshock. You aren’t going to think back fondly later in life to that one time you watched a Doctor Who marathon.

Hobbies are less fun than games but more fulfilling. Typically hobbies involve personal fulfillment (either yourself or those close to you) and they involve some degree of work that makes them less fun than games. Cooking, for instance, can be fun but involves a fair amount of drudgery. Hobbies typically involve some creation (e.g., carpentry, knitting, model airplanes, ships in bottles, writing) that gives you something lasting for your effort. Although I call them “hobbies”, some types of paid employment might fall into this category. Any job you love enough to do for free counts, even if you are getting paid.

Work is the least fun and most fulfilling activity. This doesn’t have to be paid employment–most types of volunteering would fall into this category. Work doesn’t involve zero fun, but usually that’s not the reason you are doing it. It’s to get a sense of fulfillment in life, to feel like you are doing something meaningful. This could be very direct (e.g., if you job involves helping others directly) or indirect (e.g., you produce a good that people buy and enjoy).

Most people are looking to lead balanced lives. So most people pick some balance of things in this category. Of course everyone is different, and one person might prefer more fulfillment while another prefer more fun. But in general someone with an unfulfilling job is going to lean towards more fulfilling hobbies, and vice versa. I think that’s why it’s considered somewhat strange when someone leans heavily in one direction, whether working 80 hours a week or playing video games all day.

Robot Pickup Lines

I’ve been thinking of pickup lines for robots to use on other robots. I feel this is a grossly underappreciated topic.

Is your fan in working order? Because you sure look hot to me.

You look so hot you could be steam powered.

Is your battery inserted the right way? Because I sure felt a spark when I came up to you.

Quotes of the Day

The Germans may take Paris, but that will not prevent me from going on with the war. We will fight on the Loire, we will fight on the Garronne, we will fight even in the Pyrenees. And if at last we are driven off the Pyrenees, we will continue the war at sea.

– Georges Clemenceau

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

– Winston Churchill

Quotes of the Day

Two quotes today from Francis Bacon:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.